P-40 Kittyhawk in WW II

The P-40 Curtiss Kittyhawk

The P-40 Kittyhawk – goes well, downhill.

p-40The aircraft type flown by Nicky Barr in RAAF 3 Squadron had a long and colourful history that commenced with its original contract. Worth $12.9 million in 1939, it was the largest American aircraft manufacturing order since 1918. Competitors cried foul, citing better aircraft and bigger production facilities, all to no avail.

This Curtiss Model 87A, was known variously as the P-40, Hawk-75/81, Warhawk, Tomahawk and Kittyhawk. Others called it the Kittybomber, Gosshawk and even Mohawk. In the RAAF it was the A-29.

Cost $55,000 (US)

The P-40 had an average selling price of only $55,000 (US) and served throughout WW II in every major theatre. Curtiss exported the P-40 in large numbers to 28 nations. It fought notably in the Western Desert, New Guinea, Russia and with the “Flying Tigers” American Volunteer Group in China and Burma.

Minor production modifications and export orders resulted in at least ten version suffixes and more than four nicknames. It was designed as a land-based fighter but employed extensively as a fighter-bomber. Some say there was no P-40A. Others claim the P-40A was either an early version destined for France or a photo-reconnaissance version shipped mainly to Russia. The P-40J version was proposed but never built. A P-40H version seems never to have been either proposed or built. All this was compounded by the very large number of P-40s built between 1939 and 1944 (Angellucci p. 226 says 13,753; Jackson p 99 and the Curtiss Wright website say 13,738). Unfortunately, there are less than perfect records detailing exactly how many of what version were despatched and received where. For instance, it is fairly clear that about 2430 P-40s were built for the Soviet Union but maybe only 2097 arrived (Jackson p. 99).

Allison V12 engine

Curtiss’s Don Berlin developed this P-40 fighter from the mid-1930s vintage Curtiss P-36 Hawk. He simply replaced the Hawk’s radial 1200 hp Pratt and Whitney R-1830-17 Twin Wasp engine with an inline Allison V-1710-33 Vee 12. The new engine produced much the same power, but the P-40 was slightly faster because it had a reduced frontal area.

One perennial problem was that the Allison engine was never quite powerful enough for the heavy P-40 airframe. Curtiss claims this was because the engine had a poor supercharger, which severely restricted its performance, particularly at high altitude.

The late-1930s US practice was to employ an exhaust-driven turbo-supercharger, but these devices required tungsten, a metal that was in short supply. Although other manufacturers in the UK and Germany developed highly successful gear-driven centrifugal superchargers, the Allison version never quite matched their performance. On the other hand, when a turbo-supercharger was fitted to the Allison-engined P-38 Lightning it enabled that heavy fighter to perform brilliantly at high altitude.

The Curtiss-Wright website admits the Allison engine could be tricky:The engine could be a chore to start. The pilot primed the engine using a hand pump on the instrument panel, then depressed a floor pedal with his heel to energize an electric motor, spinning up the inertial starter’s flywheel. After thirty seconds the same pedal, pushed forward, coupled the flywheel to the engine. This procedure rotated the big Allison through one or two turns. If everything was just right, the engine started. Too little or too much prime and the engine would stop; too much prime might start an exhaust manifold fire as well. At any rate the procedure would have to be repeated until the engine started. With the engine running, takeoff had to be expeditious or the cooling system would soon boil over, cancelling the flight.

(Ed. note: the Hurricane and Spitfire also had coolant boiling problems. Pilots learned to cope with these idiosyncrasies.)

The first 140 P-40s, designated Hawk 81-A1 by the manufacturer, were earmarked for the French Armee de l’Air but were diverted to the RAF in September 1940 following France’s capitulation. Called the Tomahawk I by the RAF, these aircraft had French instrumentation, cockpit labelling and even “French-fashion” throttles that operated in a reverse manner. They retained the two 0.5-inch machine guns in the nose, but these were supplemented by four wing-mounted 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in place of the 7.5 mm FN-Brownings originally specified by the French.

The P-40 “Mack truck” could absorb an amazing amount of damage.

Lacking armour protection and self-sealing tanks, the RAF reserved these early Tomahawks mainly for training roles in the UK. Tomahawk IIs (P-40B, C and D), with better armour and other self protection, were active in the Middle East from October 1941 onward.

Curtiss say they optimised the P-40 for low and medium levels. This led to claims that it was marginally better than the Hurricane and even contemporary German Me 109s at low level. As a fighter it could never match the Spitfire at any altitude or the Me109 above 14,000 feet.

Indeed, one German ace in North Africa, Hans-Joachim Marseille (in a Bf109F-4/Trop), claimed no less than 15 P-40s (and two Spitfires) shot down in three sorties on one busy day, 1 September 1941 (The Luftwaffe p. 125).

The Kittyhawk was no match for this Bf109F-4/Trop flown by a capable pilot.

The P-40N of 1943 was the final Kittyhawk version to be constructed in large numbers (Angelucci p 226 says the total was 5219; others claim 5520). This version had a 1360 hp Allison V1710-81 engine and incorporated a number of weight-saving and other modifications. All the later P-40Ns had six 0.5-inch wing-mounted guns, three bomb racks and an optional 52-gallon external centreline fuel tank.


Other Commonwealth nations to fly the P-40 included Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Allison engines powered most P-40s, but a Packard-built 1300 hp Rolls Royce Merlin engine was installed in some machines, most of which seem to have been exported either to Russia or Britain. The Packard-Merlin engine was in short supply because most of that production line was earmarked for the highly successful private venture North American P-51 Mustang. The USN had better fighters, like the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Vought F4U Corsair, so the P-40 was never fitted with an arrestor hook for carrier work. However, it was not unusual for USAAC P-40s to be ferried to an operational area and flown ashore from an aircraft carrier.

The ability of the Tomahawk/Kittyhawk to absorb an incredible amount of punishment and repeated high G forces became almost legendary, but its carburettor air filter in the desert and its electrical system in the wet tropics presented some problems. Australia used the P-40 as its chief light ground attack aircraft in the Western Desert with Numbers 3 and 450 RAAF Squadrons operating the P-40E (Kittyhawk II A29-1 to A29-163) alongside RAF and South African Air Force P-40s.

RAAF additional purchases

The RAAF acquired another 838 P-40M and P-40N Kittyhawks for the Pacific Theatre, but it was chiefly the P-40E fighter-bombers in RAAF 75 and 76 Squadrons that, for the first time in history, contributed to defeating a 2000-strong Japanese invasion in August-September 1942 at Milne Bay. Flying in atrocious conditions that included low ceilings, heavy rain, mountainous terrain and boggy airfields under direct enemy fire, the rugged RAAF P-40Es performed brilliantly. Sometimes their pilots opened fire on Japanese targets before fully retracting their wheels after takeoff.

RAAF 75 Squadron Kittyhawk pilots B. Watson (left) C. Norman, R. Ridell, B. Hall and Nat Gould return from a Milne Bay sortie.

The P-40 had its limitations as a fighter in the Pacific, particularly against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. LCDR Kofukuda, Flight Commander of the Japanese 6th Air Corps at Guadalcanal, accurately recorded at the time that the manoeuvrability of the American P-40 was markedly inferior to the Zero:

While the Tomahawk (sic) possessed the same maximum speed as the (Zero), it lacked the rate of climb of our fighter and could not hope to match it in close combat. The Tomahawk pilots therefore took advantage of their superior diving speed, and almost invariably resorted to ‘shoot and retreat’ tactics. Thus, they usually refused combat unless they possessed the advantage of altitude, which enabled them to dive into the (Zero) formations with blazing guns and race away at a diving speed beyond that possible with a (Zero). (Okumiya and Horikoshi pp 181-82).

Bruce Brown, an ex-75 Squadron pilot, whose beautifully restored P-40 “Polly” sits in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, agrees:

Well, it was not as manoeuvrable as a Zero or any of the Japanese aircraft. It was not as manoeuvrable as a Spitfire either. It was a much heavier aircraft than a Spitfire (and) a Zero. It was really slightly underpowered in my opinion for its weight! But its one attribute was being so heavy and being so strongly constructed that provided you had height and, say, as an example, 15,000 feet and enemy Zeros got onto your tail, if you pushed everything onto one corner as we used to say, rudder and control column, and headed straight for the deck, you would get away from them because being heavier than they were and going down hill, you’d pick up speed much quicker and consequently you could get away. So, the other attribute was its firepower. It was a beautiful firepower both from the point of view of combat “aerial combat” and also ground support work where you were operating against the enemy with the army (www.ww2australia.gov.au).

Another seven RAAF squadrons, including 120 Squadron, an RAAF unit recruited from Dutch pilots, flew the P-40. RAAF Kittyhawks were employed right to the last day of the war, in the Borneo campaign.

Nat Gould

Naval Officers Club member Nat Gould flew both RAF Hurricanes in Russia and RAAF Kittyhawks in Milne Bay. After his first Kittyhawk flight, he wrote, “Don’t like them: too heavy, no climb, no manoeuvrability.” He changed his mind after Milne Bay when he found this “bulldozer with wings” took and delivered more punishment than even his rugged Hurricane. “One Kittyhawk returned to Milne Bay with a hole just forward of the tail big enough to put your head through. That would have destroyed a Hurricane,” Nat said.

Milne Bay
RAAF Kittyhawks at Milne Bay (William Dargie painting, 1969).

His log book records Milne Bay sorties ranging from 2¼ hours to 10 minutes. He might fly standing CAP patrols up to 28,000 feet, Anti-shipping Strikes or Army Close Support. Typically, his Kittyhawk carried two 500 lb bombs on Anti-shipping and some Army Support sorties.

The Coastwatchers were the “radar” for 75 and 76 Squadrons. Alerted early enough, the Kittyhawks clawed for a height advantage over the Zeros, Val (Aichi D3A) dive bombers and twin-engined Bettys (Mitsubishi GM4) that routinely raided Milne Bay.

Learning from the failure of the Spitfires over Darwin, they typically avoided dogfighting with Zeros, but on 22 August there was “a dogfight between 22 Kittyhawks and seven Zeros all over the bloody place above the airfield,” Nat recalls. RAAF Log p. 29 says two Zeros were destroyed and three others probably destroyed in this action, with two each Kittyhawks lost from both 75 and 76 Squadrons.

On 25 August, the day before the Japanese landed at Milne Bay, Nat’s 75 Squadron attacked a convoy of two transports escorted by two cruisers and other warships. The cruisers made life hard by firing salvoes deliberately short. Attacking aircraft not only had to contend with torrential rain and low cloud but also the geysers thrown up by the shells. They failed to stop the transports, but Nat and another pilot sank one of the escorting flak ships.

type 95 ha-go
Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tank.

Two Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks landed in support of the 2000 Japanese Marines who invaded Milne Bay. RAAF Kittyhawks isolated another 300+ marines by destroying their barges on Goodenough Island.

Nat agrees that it was essential to learn the “downhill” evasion tactic when sparring with Zeros. He eventually learned an interesting modification, to put the Kittyhawk into a screaming dive and take his hands and feet off the controls. “The aircraft would roll one way and yaw the other, making it a very difficult target.”

Electrics and the Tropics

As may be expected, the mainly electrical-driven ancillary equipment did not take lightly to the humid tropical climate. “It was a great aircraft but one problem was that all the ancillaries, like aileron trim, were electric and in the wet tropics this all-electric machine could produce surprises,” Nat recalled. “Bluey Truscott’s guns fired once when he turned on his nav lights.”

After the dirt, filth, mud, malaria and dysentery of Milne Bay, it is perhaps little wonder that Nat opted to finish the war with the RN, and then join the RAN.

The P-40Q model Kittyhawk had a bigger engine, a four-bladed propeller and a tear-drop canopy. It was never put into production.

The P-40 was a unique aircraft. It could never match the F6F Hellcat, Spitfire, Me 109 or Zero, especially above 15,000 feet as a fighter, but it was rugged, honest and it performed brilliantly as a fighter-bomber. It operated, sometimes with difficulty, in temperate climes, the tropics, the jungle, the desert and in Arctic conditions. Given an altitude advantage, it could take on any contemporary bomber or fighter. Like all aircraft, it had its idiosyncrasies, but these were mastered and readily forgiven by most of the pilots who flew it in war.


Angelucci, E. Rand McNally encyclopedia of military aircraft. Crescent Books: New York. 1990.
Bowers, P.M. Curtiss aircraft. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 1979.
Guttman, R. Hawk with shark’s teeth. Aviation History Magazine. Nov. 2000.
Jackson R. The encyclopedia of military aircraft. Paragon Books: Bath. 2002.
Okumiya, M. and J. Horikoshi. Zero: The story of the Japanese Navy Air Force. Cassell and Company: London. 1957.
RAAF Log. Australian War Memorial: Canberra. 1943.
The Luftwaffe. Time-Life Books: Alexandria 1982.


Bonne, F. http://www.xs4all.nl/~fbonne/warbirds/ww2htmls/curtp40.html.
http://www.ww2australia.gov. au/asfaras/polly.html.


Liberty Ships

Liberty Ships

Disaster loomed. The RAF had blunted Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring’s blitz, but by September 1941 VADM Karl Dönitz’s Type VII U-Boats were regularly decimating Atlantic convoys. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the German submarine offensive was maintaining its horrifying 1940 record and even increasing the rate at which it sank the merchant ships that were so essential to Britain’s war effort. Local shipyards could not keep pace. It was decided that UK ship builders would concentrate on warship construction. Meanwhile, America would be asked to help with the construction of new merchant ships.

The museum Liberty Ship John W. Brown, is based in Baltimore, MD.

In 1940 the British Government ordered 60 tramp steamers from the USA and the first of these, the Ocean Vanguard, was launched 16 August 1941.

This basic design evolved into the highly successful Liberty and Victory classes. One Liberty ship even fought back and sank a German Armed Merchant Cruiser.

The original design, by J.L. Thompson and Sons of Sunderland, UK, dated back to 1879. It was a simple tramp, cheap to build and operate, and therefore popular with the shipowners. It had an obsolete but reliable 2,500 hp triple expansion reciprocating engine fed by two coal-fired boilers. In a 135 x 17.3 x 8.5 metres, 7,200 tons hull. The ships carried a good-sized cargo of 9,000 tons at a steady 11 knots. The American order specified a displacement boost of 800 tons and 18 inches (457 mm) more draught. The design was further modified by the United States Maritime Commission to include oil-fired boilers, welding instead of rivets and prefabricated modules to speed construction.


The ships were expendable in that they had a planned life of only five years. Even so, some were still plodding their salt-caked smoke stacks around the ocean 20 years later. They sailed chiefly under British and American flags but also under many others, including Canada’s, during World War II. Two have been preserved as museum ships. One is based in Baltimore MD, the other in San Francisco, CA. Another survives as a floating cannery in Alaska.

A conglomerate of six shipbuilders responded to the original work order. These were headed by Henry J. Kaiser, who had a great reputation for building infrastructure such as roads and massive dams on time and under budget, but he had no shipbuilding experience. Under his general direction, early ships spent nearly 230 days on the stocks, but he steadily reduced this to 42 days. By 1943, three Liberty ships were being launched every day. One ship, the Robert E. Peary, was constructed and launched as a publicity stunt only four days and 15.5 hours after its keel was laid. Concomitantly, Australian shipyards required 12 to 18 months to build an 800-ton Bathurst class corvette.

liberty sectioned
Liberty Ship, sectioned.

 The first 14 Liberty ships were launched on what President Roosevelt decreed “Liberty Fleet Day”, 27 September, 1941. Roosevelt himself launched the Patrick Henry, named in honour of the eloquent “give me liberty or give me death” Virginian attorney and Declaration of Independence signatory. Between 1941 and 1945, a largely unskilled workforce numbering 7000,000 (including 30 per cent women), produced 2,751 of these ships in 18 American shipyards. This made the Liberty easily the most prolific of any major ship class ever built.

steam engine
This obsolete but reliable 2500 hp triple expansion steam engine, originally designed by the North Eastern Marine Engineering Company, Sunderland, powered most of the Liberty Ships.

Although any ship can be damaged through stormy weather or bad load distribution, nearly 1500 Liberty ships reported significant brittle hull fractures. A total of 19 ships broke in half without warning, some after grounding or being subjected to similar mistreatment. Inexperienced shipyard welders were blamed, but Cambridge University research suggested the cold weather experienced in the North Atlantic was more likely, in that it enabled an “embrittlement” process of the particular grade of steel plate used in construction. This was akin to the then little understood metal fatigue problem associated with the January 1954 Comet jet airliner disaster over the Mediterranean.


Nevertheless, the welding process did contribute to the problem, in that it permitted cracks to pass unimpeded from one plate to the next. The ship’s stiff frame also contributed to cyclic stress building up in critical areas, such as sharp cargo hatch corners. Various modifications were incorporated during construction and the succeeding Victory class was built stronger and less stiff. Hull frames, for instance, were spaced at 914 mm in the follow-on Victory class versus 762 mm for the Liberty class.

In early 1942, plans were commenced for a 15-knot Victory class ship and the first of this 534-strong class, the United Victory, was launched on 28 February 1944. Based on the general layout of the Liberty ship, it was a little larger (139 x 19 x 7.6 metres), it had a steam turbine engine that developed 6,000 hp (AP2 version) or 8,500 hp (AP3) and its cargo capacity was 10,850 tons. Variations included one with diesel propulsion and others built as tankers, attack transports and aircraft transports.

American Liberty ships carried a crew of about 44 plus 12 to 25 “Naval Armed Guard”. The size of the naval party depended chiefly on the armament fitted, which might comprise a single three- four- or five-inch gun aft with sometimes a similar weapon forward. These might be supplemented by six to ten 20 mm cannon plus two 37 mm anti-aircraft weapons. About 200 Liberty ships were lost due to enemy action during World War II, and this included the Luckenbach Steamship Company of New York’s Stephen Hopkins, Liberty Hull number 247, launched by the Permente Metal Corporation, Richmond, CA, on 14 April 1942.

Surprise encounter

Under the command of CAPT Paul Buck, 13 days out of Cape Town, at about 0900, Sunday 27 September 1942, in ballast for Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, Hopkins stumbled upon the 7800-ton tender Tannenfels replenishing the 4778-ton German auxiliary cruiser Stier in the South Atlantic.

The smart German trader Cairo (left) was converted into the armed commerce raider Stier in 1941.
Launched in 1936 as MV Cairo of the Deutche Levante Line, Stier (aka HSK VI, Schiff 23, and Raider J) had been converted into a commerce raider and fitted with six concealed 5.9-inch (150 mm) guns, a central fire control system, two 37 mm and four 20 mm cannon, as well as two 21-inch torpedo tubes. Stier was commissioned on 9 November 1941. Her hangar deck sheltered two very rare Arado 231 reconnaissance seaplanes.
Stier probably carried two of only six Arado 231 seaplanes ever built. They had a six-cylinder 160 hp engine and measured 10.16 x 7.8 x 3.12 metres. Designed for submarines, the Ar231 folded into a tidy package (left) but it had limited utility. It required calm seas to operate, it had a maximum speed of only 91 knots and could barely fly 270 miles without refuelling.

Stier measured 134 x 17.3 x 7.2 metres and her seven-cylinder 3750 hp two stroke MAN diesel drove her at 14.5 knots. Her 325 well-trained crew worked well together and since fighting their way clear of the British blockade around her home waters in May, Stier‘s crew had sunk four British and American merchant ships.

Jammed RRR

All three ships were equally surprised when Hopkins suddenly emerged from a heavy rain shower less than one mile away. Third Mate Walter Nyberg, on Hopkins‘s bridge, ordered the helm hard over to port and called the Captain who sounded the general alarm and steadied with his stern to the enemy. His radio officer broadcast the RRR alarm, but this was jammed by Tannenfels. Within six minutes, Hopkins was receiving well-directed and systematic 150 mm broadsides from about 1000 yards range, while Stier‘s 37 mm and both Stier‘s and Tannenfels‘s 20 mm cannon kept peppering away.

Ensign Kenneth Willett had been severely wounded on his way to his action station, but he responded gallantly with Hopkins‘s single four-inch gun. He stuck to his post, firing over open sights in gale force winds, driving rain and rising seas. Others swung Hopkins‘s twin 37 mm and six 20 mm cannon into action.

Boiler room hit

It was not long, however, before a 155 mm shell exploded in Hopkins‘s boiler room, smashing major steam pipes and killing men. MIDN Edwin O’Hara, driven from his engine room by fire, joined Ensign Willett at the stern gun. As she lost speed, another shell destroyed Hopkins‘s steering gear.

Helpless before a vessel with vastly superior firepower, Willett and O’Hara were rewarded by seeing, through the driving rain, their shells smash home. They destroyed Stier‘s generators, which led to total engine, steering, fire pump and armament direction failure. As Hopkins was being reduced to a blazing wreck, Willett and his crew scored a total of about 35 hits on the equally aflame Stier, 15 of them below the waterline. Meanwhile, Stier‘s guns maintained rapid fire in local control.

About 0950 a shell hit Hopkins‘s after magazine, killing most of the gun’s crew. However, the gun still functioned, so MIDN O’Hara single-handedly loaded and fired the last five shells he found in the ready use locker. By now, Hopkins‘s forward 37 mm guns had also been destroyed. CAPT Buck, with his ship sinking and aflame from stem to stern, ordered abandon ship around 1000.

Landfall Brazil

One lifeboat carrying 19 men cleared the wreckage. They eventually sailed 1860 miles due west until they made landfall in Brazil, 31 days later. By that stage there were only 15 emaciated survivors left of the original 56 aboard Hopkins. They did not include CAPT Buck, Ensign Willett or MIDN O’Hara.

Stier fared a little better, but not much. About four hours after the action her captain ordered abandon ship before scuttling.  The tender Tannenfels rescued all but three of her crew.


Edwards, B.E. Salvo! Classic naval gun actions. Brockhampton Press: London, 1999.
Lane, F.C. A history of shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2001.
Morison, S.E. History of the United States Naval operations in World War II. Vol 1. The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943. Little Brown and Company: Boston, 1950.
Sawyer, L.A. and W.H. Mitchell. The history of the “emergency” type cargo ships constructed by the United States during World War II. Cornell Maritime Press: Cambridge, 1970.

Operation Jaywick and HMAS Krait: 1943

 Operation Jaywick and HMAS Krait

 A remarkable raid, called Operation Jaywick, culminated on the night of 26/27 September 1943, 64 years ago, when six men in three folboat canoes attacked ships in Keppel Harbour, Singapore. They attached limpet mines to seven Japanese ships, sinking two and damaging five others. Facing certain destruction in the event of discovery, the humble Krait dropped the canoeists within paddling distance of their target and brought them safely home.

The Krait, in her secret Refuge Bay (off Broken Bay) training site.

A larger force of 23 attempted to replicate the raid a year later, in Operation Rimau, using the submarine HMS Porpoise as transport. The entire commando force, including five Jaywick veterans, was either killed or captured. Then the Japanese beheaded all ten survivors on 7 July 1945, a few weeks before the war ended.

Krait started her life about 1934 as the Kofuko Maru (aka Koh Fuku Maru), a Japanese fishing vessel. HMAS Goulburn captured her off Singapore on 11 December 1941 and the boat was used initially to rescue survivors from ships sunk off Sumatra. Later, she evacuated refugees to India. Brought to Australia as deck cargo in December 1942, she was earmarked for the Singapore raid but the whole project was cancelled when her German engine repeatedly broke down. Undaunted, LEUT Emmerson-Elliot, who had been involved in the Krait‘s original capture and evacuation in 1941, commandeered a diesel engine from a Tasmanian sawmill and, after a hurried refit, the Services Reconnaissance Department (Z Special Unit) reactivated the project.

Z Special Unit personnel launch a training kayak at Refuge Bay.

A 20 June 1943 dummy run on Townsville Harbour’s “tightly guarded” shipping incurred the wrathful displeasure of the authorities when they found limpets on ten ships the next day. Then, under LEUT H.E. Carse RANVR, Krait departed Cairns on 8 August 1943 for Exmouth, WA, to embark the special folboat canoes that had been shipped out from the UK. Carrying a total of 14 men, including the British Jaywick commander, Maj Ivan Lyon, Krait sailed from Exmouth 2 September 1943, bound for the Lombok Strait and Singapore.

The track of the raiders from Cairns.

Dodging active Japanese patrols, the canoeists penetrated Keppel Harbour, then paddled back more than 50 miles to join up again with Krait on 2/3 October. All returned safely to Exmouth on 19 October 1943. Krait’s valorous band comprised:

LEUT H.E. Carse RANVR (CO, Krait) Maj I. Lyon (Operation Commander), LEUT D.M.N. Davidson RNVR, Capt R. Page (AIF),
LSEA K.P. Cain, LTEL H. Young, Cpl R.G. Morris, Cpl A. Crilley,
ME J. P. McDowell, ABSEA M.M. Berryman, ABSEA W.G. Falls, ABSEA A.W Huston, ABSEA A.M.W. Jones and ABSEA F.W. Marsh.

Commissioned “HMAS Krait” (tender to Moreton) 4 April 1944, the vessel is 21.33 x 3.35 x 1.5 metres and displaces 35 tons. Her 150 hp Gardner 6L3 diesel engine could drive her at 6.5 knots for more than 7000 miles. In Operation Jaywick, Krait sailed 5000 miles in 48 days, including 33 days deep inside hostile enemy waters.

Krait is presently preserved as a floating exhibit in the Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, Sydney.

Udvar Hazy Museum

National Air and Space, Dulles

udvar2Out near Dulles Airport, Virginia, about 40 minutes by car from Washington, DC, is an important new Smithsonian aerospace facility, the huge Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (left).

A shuttle bus ($5 to $7 per person) runs between the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Udvar-Hazy.

One of its more interesting exhibits is the specially modified B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, perhaps the world’s most famous aircraft (and most infamous for some). Enola Gay, named after pilot Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr’s mother, was the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped by Maj. Charles W. Sweeney from the B-29 Bockscar on Nagasaki.

The Japanese surrendered on 14 August 1945, ending a long and bloody war that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and untold suffering. It may be strongly argued that it had the potential to cost many hundreds of thousands more, Japanese and American, if the slated invasion of the Japanese home islands had ever been executed.

Enola GayBockscar USAF Museum
Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy (left). Bockscar (right) rests in the USAF Museum, Wright Patterson AFB.

The US government donated Enola Gay to the Smithsonian in July 1949 but it was by far the largest exhibit in the museum’s inventory at the time and when they came to display it, no room could be found in the downtown Washington building. There was also considerable controversy whether the aircraft should ever be exhibited or preserved at all. The historic B-29 languished in the open at Air Force bases in Texas and Maryland until 1960 when museum staff, noting considerable airframe deterioration, disassembled the aircraft for preservation and storage in the Smithsonian’s nearby Garber Center in Suitland, Maryland.

Massive restoration task

The hard restoration work on the B-29 did not begin until December 1984 when it was found to require 300,000 hours of highly skilled effort. The task evolved into the largest single restoration project ever undertaken by the Smithsonian. Museum staff, volunteers and interns removed decades of corrosion then inhibited the bare metal and polished the aluminium skin to its original brilliance.

B-29 Specifications and early historyThe Boeing B-29 Superfortress had an interesting gestation period, all under the pressures and immediacy of war. The (then) US Army Air Corps issued a specification in February 1940 for a bomber that could carry a 909 kg bombload at a speed of 348 knots a distance of 4,350 nautical miles. (Interestingly, RAN Skyhawks, with buddy-tanker aerial refuelling, could do better than that.)

Boeing, Consolidated, Douglas and Lockheed all responded to the bid, but Boeing won the contract to produce two prototypes and a second contract followed in April 1941 for 250 aircraft. In contrast to contemporary designs, including the British Lancaster that also carried bigger bombloads further and faster, the B-29 crew were housed in three pressurised compartments. However, the B-29 also carried advanced navigation and bomb-aiming radar, together with a fire control system for coupled .5 inch machine guns and 20 mm cannon carried for self defence.

In April 1944, the first B-29 operational squadron landed in India. The results of its first high altitude missions were mediocre but by December 1944, using lower altitude night delivery tactics from the newly-captured Marianas, the B-29s’ incendiary bombs soon destroyed much of Japan’s industrial might.

Late in 1944, a batch of B-29s, codenamed “Silverplate”, were modified to carry either of the two planned operational atomic bombs, “Fat Boy” or “Little Man”. They discarded most of the armour and armament, installed optimised propellers and modified the bomb bay doors. B-29-45-MO, serial number 44-86292, delivered by the Glenn L Martin Aircraft Company on 15 June 1944, was one of these, becoming “Enola Gay”.

NASM exhibited parts of the aircraft, including the forward fuselage, two engines and vertical stabiliser, between 1995 and 1998 in its main Washington display hall. This exhibition attracted no less than four million visitors but it sparked off a heated, highly polarised and ongoing debate. One group claims the Enola Gay glorifies nuclear war and should never be displayed. They said the shameful aircraft should be either left to rot or placed alongside the equally politically insensitive B-29 Bockscar in a remote Air Force Museum. Others insist that, nuclear politics notwithstanding, this aircraft is an important piece of history. It must be preserved at all costs, they assert. They register horror at the museum’s attempts at compromise by watering down text that accompanies the Enola Gay display.

An F4-U Corsair in full deck landing mode greets visitors on arrival.

The Udvar-Hazy Center is handy to Dulles Airport and passengers passing through that airport might consider putting aside at least half a day to examine its contents. The building is a large hangar-like structure, 300 yards (274 meters) long and the equivalent of 10 stories high. In addition to Enola Gay, it houses a host of other important and invaluable aircraft, like a British Hawker Hurricane, a German Focke-Wolfe FW 190A-8, a Japanese submarine-borne Aichi Seiran and a rare American Lockheed P-38J Lightning. A total of 200 aircraft, some 80 per cent of NASM’s collection, are destined for the Center, and 80 had been installed when the facility opened last December.

Aiichi M6A-1German giuded bombs
Exhibits from WW II include the very rare Japanese Aichi M6A-1 Seiran, a submarine-borne bomber (left),
and an interesting selection of German anti-shipping and anti-aircraft missiles (right).

Also on display at the Udvar-Hazy are aircraft such as a French Concorde and even an F-35, well before the latter aircraft even entered squadron service. In a specially dedicated area is the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Titanic followup letters

Titanic followup letters

Titanic cutaway
Cutaway sketch of Titanic. Note the “smoke” from number four funnel.

Tom Fisher writes of the Last Log of the Titanic: book review (Newsletter 54 September 2003):

The stated fuel consumption of 650 tons of coal an hour must be in error. Southhampton to New York is some 3000 miles. At 22.5 knots the ship would have to consume some 86,000 tons of coal. She displaced only 46,000 tons. I would suggest that the ship would have consumed less than 850 tons of coal a day and even this figure would have kept the 270 or so stokers very busy.

Of poignant interest is that not one of the engineer officers survived the collision. The electric lights, however, were still burning as the ship plunged to her doom. This was possible because at least some of the 17 massive Merchant Navy Scotch boilers, each of which held probably 20 to 30 tons of water, had enough stored energy to keep up steam as the ship slowly flooded.

(Ed. Note:Tom is correct and reviewer John Ellis agrees. The “per hour” figure was an egregious typo. It should have read “650 tons … per day.”)

Ron Robb contributes to the Titanic discussion:

Browsing over Tom Fisher’s comments re John Ellis’ review of David Brown’s The Last Log of the Titanic stirred some half-forgotten observations about the seemingly never-ending fascination with that ill-fated liner and brought to mind a few other stories, both mythical and real, about other maritime disasters. It’s also worth noting that horrific disasters at sea still occur today. It may also come as a surprise to know that the “golden age” of liner travel was less in the 1920s than it is today so the opportunities for disasters are as present as ever. A few comments follow.

Photo showing smoke from Number three, but not number four funnel.

The first thing I noticed about the cutaway illustration of the legendary ship at the top of Tom’s letter was that it has a very common error in non-photo pics of Titanic: smoke coming from the after smokestack. In fact, that structure was there mainly for show but was used as a ventilating trunk, as John mentioned.
The public of the day equated power and speed with multiple funnels so the White Star line went along with the fad. The Last Log of the Titanic has a painting on the front cover actually showing smoke coming from No 4 stack (p 10 Newsletter No. 54 and here). John picked up a few errors and contradictions in David Brown’s book and this one appears even before one opens the cover.

The Riddle of the Titanic (Gardiner and Van der Vat, Orion: London, 1995) has good photos of both Titanic and Olympic (first of the class) with a big head of steam and plenty of exhaust smoke, but with No. 4 stack showing none; that book also notes that No. 4 was for ventilation only .

Fitting-out photo

Titanic (Leo Marriot, PRC Books: London, 1997) specifically describes the three boiler rooms exhausting into funnels 1, 2 and 3. It also shows a photo of her fitting-out with only the three active funnels in place at that stage and specifically draws attention to the fact that the dummy fourth was to be fitted later. Moreover, it shows a number of famous paintings of Titanic, all correctly showing smoke from the first three stacks only (and also a painting of Brittanic, the third and last of the class, likewise showing no smoke).

Perhaps the most famous artist’s painting of the ill-fated vessel is Simon Fisher’s The Last Sunset, viewed from the port quarter and depicting Titanic sailing west after leaving Queenstown, having worked-up to to full speed to meet Lord Ismay’s determination to break all records, with voluminous smoke belching from the first three stacks, but nothing from the fourth.

Titanic contemporary RMS Lusitania did have a number four funnel chimney.

Tom Fisher was right about the coal usage, as was John Ellis’ subsequent correction: The Last Log of the Titanic does indeed state that she was fed 650 tons of coal per day, and that was by human muscle and shovels. Each stoker shifted five tons of coal per watch, of which there were two of four hours per twenty-four.

Also confirmed is Tom’s note that not one of the engineer officers survived. According to Brown there were 35 of them under Chief Engineer Joseph Bell. Gardiner and Van der Vat list 32, though if deck engineers, electricians, carpenters and boilermakers are included then the number is greater than either. Whatever, the main two investigative enquiries did not manage to elicit much about the last hours of the Marine Engineering/Electrical Department but what evidence there was indicated that those who survived the first engulfment stuck to their posts right to the end.

No doubt most of them would have eventually been overwhelmed in the flood as it began to overtake the lower regions, with menacing inexorability once No. 5 bulkhead at boiler room No. 6 gave way, having been weakened to the point of red heat by the just recently extinguished ten-day old bulk coal fire.

Bunker fires were common in those days, due to the unstable coal dust atmosphere and, rather than the bulk explosives cargo claimed by the German Government, a likely reason for the mysterious second explosion after the single torpedo that went into the Lusitania. (However, that point is still to this day being hotly argued).

Press on regardless?

The whole confluence of events was all the while being rapidly exacerbated by Ismay’s insane determination to press on regardless and CAPT Smith’s reckless disregard for caution after the impact.

Of Bell’s enlisted engineering department, comprising 271 firemen, trimmers and greasers, only 47 survived. Probably only NOC members of a bygone age, such as those who worked in boiler/engine rooms of the big warships like the County class cruisers, the carriers and other such big steamers, can imagine what the last hour or so down there in Titanic must have been like.

As an ex-birdie I sometimes used to go down into those spaces and to me they seemed like a precursor of Hell. At least ships soon after Titanic were oil-fired but even then life in the bowels was no picnic. When one considers conditions where 650 tons of coal per day had to be shovelled by hand I must confess I have a mental picture something akin to those terrifying orcs working in that ghastly middle earth in the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies – an erie half light, punctuated by blazes of angry firelight from roaring furnaces, suffocating heat, black dust everywhere, sweaty bodies covered in grime.

Why no engineer survivors?

I sometimes wonder why at least some of the Titanic engineers didn’t survive, as there would have been plenty of time for them to climb the ladders out of the partitioned compartments (which were open at the top but with the watertight doors now closed). Marriot in Titanic actually draws a comparison between Titanic‘s uncapped compartments and the contemporary Cunarders Lusitania and Mauretania with their independently compartmentalised watertight integrity (warship style). Tom Fisher and John Ellis were both steam plumbers so they may care to elucidate.

Tom also noted that the ship’s electrics continued right to the end. People often remark on that and sometimes assume that it was artist’s or film director’s licence. We know that in fact there was a good head of steam available right to the end because launching of the lifeboats quite some time after the accident was made all the more difficult by the deafening roar of venting steam.

The sudden extinguishing of all that light and hideous grinding-and-shearing noise as the vessel finally broke up and plunged must have left a dramatic contrasting silence and a terrifying switch into starlit darkness. At that point the horror of their position would have become starkly obvious to the survivors, many more of whom were yet to perish.

Notwithstanding the errors by Brown in The Last Log of the Titanic as pointed out by John Ellis, in my opinion the book does make a good case for what happened during those few critical moments and suggests that the vessel grounded rather than collided with the iceberg. The initial damage was not all that great. Many passengers and crew were unaware of the impact and Brown goes to some length to explain what a grounding feels like, as opposed to a collision, and how different a vessel behaves in each case. He convincingly reconstructs the technical aspects of the accident to show that the first damage probably amounted to just a few metres of opening-up and that not more than a few centimetres wide.

The damage, he claims, was more a gentle crushing and rupturing of the rivet integrity rather than the than ice acting as a can-opener.

Near success

First Officer Murdock attempted to “port” the ship around the iceberg and came within a whisker of pulling it off. He had successfully executed a similar manoeuvre in another ship and he understood the dynamics of multiple screw/single rudder ship handling. Brown seems confident that no “full astern” order had been given and that is consistent with Murdock’s skill.

If Brown’s reconstruction of events is right, a “full astern” order would have been counterproductive. I would be very interested to read a fish-head’s review of Brown’s book and would be happy to lend both that book and my Gardiner and Van der Vat’s The Riddle of the Titanic, which gives a scathing review of Lord Ismay and CAPT Smith for that purpose. Brown examined two aspects of the Titanic disaster in great detail: the technical aspects of ship design (including the current state of metallurgy) and the seamanship attitudes and actions of CAPT Smith and his duty bridge officers.

If Ismay had not been so obsessed with getting under way again, and CAPT Smith had exercised his better, and legally obligatory, judgement, the ship might well have survived what was almost certainly a manageable situation for which, after all, she had been designed. Murdock achieved a fair salvaging of the situation but his superiors squandered the chance to recover.

The Riddle of the Titanic is a damning review of the cavalier attitude within the whole of the White Star top management. A disaster by Titanic or some other White Star liner, seems inevitable. There had been plenty before, including CAPT Smith’s collision in Olympic with an RN cruiser, HMS Hawke, for which he was found culpable. He had grounded another liner at least once before and one wonders how he rose to be Commodore of the White Star line.

Even as Titanic departed Southampton, Smith’s gung-ho attitude nearly caused a collision with the New York. The British Board of Trade was uneasy about White Star’s record, even though safety-at-sea regulations were appalling by today’s standards. White Star must have been a right slap-dash outfit.

To give them some due, White Star never claimed Titanic was “unsinkable”. The company quite reasonably trumpeted her superior construction but the “unsinkable” adjective was a media beat-up that took wing. In fact, the “unsinkable” description had virtually no currency until after the fact.

Why the fascination?The Titanic seems to cast a never-ending fascination over the lore of the sea and various theories have been put forward why, since it was by no means unique in terms of circumstances or numbers of fatalities.

It had, in fact, nearly faded from the scene until the 1953 movie A Night To Remember came out and then, more recently, Dr Robert Ballard finally found her so it leapt back into the public’s imagination. After the 1953 movie there was a rush of Titanic movies, the most fanciful being Raise the Titanic, of which one critic remarked that the movie was so expensive and such a flop that it would have been cheaper to drain the Atlantic.

One theory on the saga’s fascination is that it signified the end of the era of innocence and brought everybody up with a round turn to the realisation that mankind was not as smart and invincible as had been imagined towards the end of the golden Victorian age. My own guess is that, because many of the professionally qualified-to-comment officers perished and the log was lost, little evidence of what really happened was available to the two Boards. Additionally, uncorroborated stories by terrified and confused survivors who were unskilled in maritime affairs were accepted at face value.

The enquiries thus generated more heat than light and mystery still surrounds much of the case. The loss of the log raises some interesting questions since its impounding and preservation should not have been difficult, given the time available and the number of bridge officers who survived.

Suffice to say that Lord Bruce Ismay emerged from the enquiries with a less-than-glowing reputation and went into seclusion (he died in 1937 bearing the shameful epithet ‘Brute’ Ismay).

The pathos of survivors’ stories add an overtone of fascinated horror. All of these things are ingredients for a gripping yarn, as indeed A Night to Remember and the more recent Titanic were.

Titanic trivia

One positive effect of the heightened interest in the sinking of the Titanic is some very interesting research. For instance, Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian, who was the only convenient scapegoat that the British Board of Enquiry could dredge up, is now being steadily exonerated and reinstated as a sensible officer who acted in a professional manner after all.

Closer to home, a local researcher in the Morling College Archives discovered a postcard reference from a Rev. John Harper, who declined a Sydney ecclesiastical post. Instead of sailing to a new job in Australia, he became a Titanic passenger headed for America. He perished after heroically giving his lifeboat place to a young mother and child.

The last purported Australian survivor from the Titanic, William Hall, lived in Sydney, perhaps Castle Hill, but he died in 1997 and some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of his claims.

Australia is the only place known to have monuments to the band that played as the Titanic went down. The three bands of Broken Hill erected a pillar in December 1913 and people of the silver city claim it is the world’s only such monument.

However, it is not so well known that a bandstand memorial to the Titanic band was built at the lower end of Sturt St, Ballarat, in October 1915 The funds were raised by the Victorian Bands Association and the people of Ballarat but the plaque engraver got it wrong and listed the sinking date as 1913.

Music played?

Speaking of bands, popular legend has it that the ship’s band played the hymn Nearer My God to Thee as she went down. It’s doubtful that they did and while some survivors claim to have heard the hymn being played, reliable eyewitnesses such as Second Officer Lightoller, passenger A.H. Barkworth and retired U.S. Army Colonel Archibald Gracie all aver that the band was playing cheerful ragtime music. Moreover, the band had long since abandoned their instruments before the ship began her final plunge.

However, the band did achieve a later record that takes its place amongst the “biggest” in the Titanic corpus. The body of band leader Thomas Hartley, of Colne, Lancashire, was recovered and returned to his home town. His funeral, a symbol for all the ordinary working class people lost in the sinking, was held on the 18th May. Colne’s population was only 26,000 but some 40,000 people lined the procession route and packed around the Methodist Chapel. It was therefore the biggest single event, by far, then or since, that commemorated the tragedy.

One Titanic coincidence was a Morgan Robertson 1898 story, The Wreck of the Titan, published originally as Futility. Although a good fiction yarn, some precognition and similar psychic believers find it startlingly prescient in its detail for the Titanic. Robertson was a former Merchant Navy officer responding to a perceived disregard of the danger posed by icebergs to the new steamships, with their rapidly growing size and speed. A similar story is claimed to have been published by an even earlier author, W.T. Stead in 1892.

There are poignant stories aplenty arising from the Titanic. One concerns stewardess Violet Jessop, who survived both the Titanic and Britannic disasters. However, the most determined survivor would have to be Fireman John Priest, who served in all three Olympic class ships and who also outlived the loss of both the Titanic and Britannic.

There are also amusing anecdotes. An American naval historian, Kit Bonner, recounted in a recent USNI Proceedings how he had been engaged as a technical adviser by the producers of the recent Titanic movie (starring Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio, directed by James Cameron).

Titanic movie

The producers painted some rocks black to simulate coal. It was heavy stuff and was really tiring out the burly extras who had been hired. Bonner suggested that they use real coal because it was much lighter, but the company declined on the grounds that painted rocks looked more realistic.

John Ellis (Newsletter September 2003, p 10) drew attention to the gap between reality and life aboard Titanic as depicted in that movie. One example given by Bonner was his advice that having a “scantily clad” Kate Winslett at the prow of the ship enjoying a gentle breeze was silly. “My remark that the windchill factor in the North Atlantic at that time of the year was probably 15 degrees (F) went ignored,” he said.

On the other hand, his young granddaughter solved one vexatious problem. “My contribution to this film pales in comparison to my seven-year-old granddaughter Sarah’s,” Bonner proudly reports. “She accompanied me one day to Skywalker Sound Studios, where she suggested that we use the dinosaur foot stomps from Jurassic Park to emulate the rhythmic thump of the Titanic’s engines.” So next time you watch machinery space scenes in a Titanic re-run, think Jurassic Park.

The rest of the class

Titanic‘s two sister ships went on for some years. Britannic was the last of the three Olympics and on completion was requisitioned as a hospital ship for WW I. A German mine sank her on her sixth voyage in the Mediterranean on 21 November 1916.

Interestingly, she received almost identical damage to Titanic and her Captain Bartlett made the same mistake as Titanic‘s Smith. He attempted to move on again although, in fairness, he aimed to beach her on a nearby island. However, as with Titanic, the forward surge was too much for the damaged plates and rivets. They gave way so she, too, went down by the head. Only 21 lives were lost in the Britannic sinking, and those mostly by lifeboats tangling with the still-turning propellers. The warm Mediterranean water was also much more forgiving than the Atlantic’s icy grip around Titanic.

Robert Ballard has dived on Britannic and regards her as one of the best preserved wrecks he has ever seen. Underwater pictures show her lying on her starboard side with the bow and stern sections generally in good shape.

RMS Olympic served at Gallipoli and as a passenger ship until broken up in 1936.

The Olympic actually completed a full service life until eventually broken up in 1936. Of interest to Australians is that she took part in the 1915 Gallipoli landings.

The class were actually well-designed ships and the two that were lost could almost certainly have withstood their damage if they hadn’t been driven so hard immediately after the disasters.

Brown makes a good case in Last log of the Titanic for her being not terribly wounded and he concludes that she should have survived if Ismay and Smith had not been so impatient. The ships were the epitome of their day for sound design and excellent workmanship. In fact, some marine engineers have remarked on the White Star line’s ships being sleek and “right-looking” compared with Cunard’s propensity to build bulky “top-heavy-looking” liners.

A really big myth

Titanic by no means holds the record for number of fatalities, at an estimated 1523 or so. There have been a number of ships, both merchant and naval, that lost as many and in some cases far more souls, some in recent years, even with safety standards and navigational equipment far superior to that in 1912. The Lusitania disaster (some 1,198 fatalities) just a couple of years after Titanic was just as spectacular and to this day is surrounded by many unanswered questions.

Empress of IrelandNorstad
The Empress of Ireland (left) sank after colliding with the Norwegian collier Norstad (right, showing her damaged bows.)

On the 29th May, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was struck by a collier in the mouth of the St Lawrence. She was especially designed for superior watertight integrity and boasted 24 watertight bulkheads. Nevertheless, she sank in 14 minutes within close sight of land and 1,014 people went down with her. In December 1987 the super-ferry Donna Paz (mentioned by John Ellis) collided with a small tanker in the Philippines and somewhere between 4,341 and 4,500 lives were lost, well eclipsing Titanic.

However, the greatest sea disaster of all time, in terms of loss of life, could be the Wilhelm Gustloff, 25,484 tons, sunk in the Baltic by a Russian submarine on 30 January 1945, evacuating German civilians from Gdansk (Danzig) towards the end of WW II. The actual number of people who perished remains in doubt because of an unsubstantiated number of refugees aboard, but Robert McAuley conservatively records a loss of 5,200, Irwin Kappes says 5,348 and Mark Weber reports 5,400. A more recent work by Gunter Grass claims 9,000 lives lost, mostly women and children, but all agree that only about 1,239 survived.

The ship was one of Hitler’s “Strength through Joy” workers’ cruise ships built in the late 1930s but requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 as a hospital ship. She was designed to carry fewer than 2,000 passengers and crew but was grossly overloaded, maybe by a factor of more than five, in a desperate attempt to evacuate civilians from the advancing Russian Army. Heaven only knows how close her metacentric height was to the C of G.

Near-freezing Baltic

At that time of the year the Baltic temperatures were even worse than Titanic‘s Atlantic. Many people were lost after skidding across the ice-covered sloping deck, while a number of lifeboats could not be lowered because they were frozen to their davits.

Wilhelm GustloffCape Arcona
The German ships Wilhelm Gustloff (left) and Cap Arcona sank with great loss of life in WW II.

Other German ships to sink with great loss of life about that time include the 14,666-ton General von Steuben on 10 February 1945, with the loss of 3,500 refugees and the 5,230-ton Goya on 16 April with perhaps 7,000 refugees and soldiers killed. The 27,000-ton Cap Ancona sank on 3 May with perhaps 5,000 concentration camp prisoners perishing in Lubeck Harbour after a British aircraft attack. The 2,800-ton Thielbeck was also sunk in the same 3 May raid, killing another 2,800 prisoners. Only 200 survived.

Grass is a well respected German-Polish writer. His work appears to be well researched, particularly on the Wilhelm Gustloff topic. He was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, in 1927 and was a member of the Hitler Youth. The Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy was kept quiet by the Germans for a long time and only recently are the circumstances being slowly rediscovered.

The Pacific War also saw its share of tragedy. The Toyama Maru, 5,400 tons, was torpedoed by USS Sturgeon on 29 June 1944, with the loss of 5,400 troops and POWs. On 18 September 1944, HMS Tradewind torpedoed the Junyo Maru, 5,065 tons, killing 5,620 POWs and slave labourers.

The new Golden Age

Finally, we tend to think of the 1900s to the late 1930s as the golden era of great liner travel. In fact, more people are travelling by ocean liner and recording more ocean liner passenger miles right now, in 2004, than ever before in history. In 1999 some five and a half million people travelled by sea but by 2002 this figure had increased to more than seven million. About 250 large liners are in operation, filled to 90 per cent or beyond capacity. More than 40 others are building or on order from mainly European yards and orders stretch out for some years ahead. (The Finns, French, Italians and Germans have the game sewn up. The British have evidently lost their manufacturing, marketing or government support skills.) It is sobering to realise that Great Britain, once the world’s leader in mega-liner construction, now has its flagships built by others.

The P & O Star Princess was a big ship but the new Queen Mary 2, launched at St Nazaire in March 2003 and commissioned in January 2004 is now in service. She weighs in at 150,000 tons and carries over 3,000 cruise passengers.

However, even larger vessels are on the drawing boards with tonnages of a quarter of a million under consideration. That equates to a large town with all its infrastructure.

The ocean cruise is the main reason for this shipbuilding surge and evidence of this may be found in any recent photo of any of the bigger Caribbean ports. There will be several giant liners alongside. The Mediterranean and Alaskan cruises are also big business and many Australian ports are used to cruise ships coming and going.

Harland and Wolff

The Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast that employed 30,000 in its heyday is still building big tankers and freighters, but it is hardly a household name today. Wistful reminders are the twin slipways where the Olympics were built. They’re still there, unused and derelict alongside an equally unused and derelict car park.
With these new behemoths regularly plying the oceans in large numbers it may be confidently forecast that it will be only a matter of time before one of them faces a disaster. That won’t happen in this age of sophisticated technology? Think again of Andrea Doria and recall Queen Elizabeth 2 ripping her bottom open in December 1975 on a Nassau reef. Technology is no guarantee. Consider the latest super-technology in aircraft where sometimes the technology itself was actually the cause of disaster. Never mind the destruction of the mighty New York World Trade Centre by terrorists wielding nothing more lethal than Stanley knife box cutters.

A Cunard spokesman at the 2003 launching of Queen Mary 2 was asked if he saw any similarities between Titanic and the first voyage of the new luxury monster setting out on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The Cunard man grandly asserted that no such thing could happen these days. Queen Mary 2 is double hulled, with the latest in construction methods and metallurgy, 21st century navigation gear, Iceberg Watch, and so on. He actually declared the new Cunarder “unsinkable”. There are also plenty of lifeboats, that are well fitted-out, self righting, seaworthy and enclosed.
But pay close attention to the life jacket and abandon ship drills as you leave harbour.


Brown, David G. The last log of the Titanic. Maine International Marine: Camden 2001.
Bonner, Kit. Behind the Titanic – way behind. USNI Proceedings 124/4/34 April 1998.
Ellis, John E. The last log of the Titanic. Book review, Naval Officers Club Newsletter 54/10 September 2003.
Grass, Gunter. Crabwalk. Tr. K. Winston. Harcourt: San Diego. 2003.
Kappes, Irwin J. The greatest marine disaster in history. www://MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.
Miller, William H. and Rob McAuley. The liners: A voyage of discovery. Boxtree: London. 1997.
Robertson, Morgan. The wreck of the Titan (alt. title: Futility). Virtual Books: Los Angeles. 1898. (Reprinted 1912). Also http://www.titanic-titanic.com/titanic_e-books/wreck_of_ the_titanic_1.shtml.
Weber, Mark. History’s little-known naval disasters. The Journal for Historical Research. 17/2/22, March 1998.

More on the Titanic here


Titanic (Book)

Titanic book cover

The sinking of Titanic

Book review by John Ellis
Brown, D.G. (2001) The Last Log of the Titanic. Maine International Marine: Camden. 234pp $36 (used).

The many closet Titanic aficionados out there will be fascinated with David Brown’s re-creation of the ship’s deck log for the first watch of 14 April 1912. Brown holds a US Coast Guard master’s licence and teaches professional level USCG licensing courses. He also writes monthly columns for Boating World and Offshore magazines and is a regular contributor to many other marine-related publications.

Brown leapt to his keyboard following the Hollywood spectacle that he saw more concerned with period costume and a fictional romance than fact. He seeks to debunk many of the myths from that and other feature films, documentaries and stories and to establish just what did occur on the bridge and record these events in his “deck log”. He has used the reports of the British and American investigations into the tragedy, 30 books and several websites as references as well as discussions with the Titanic Historical Society.

One of his website references argues, though not convincingly, a quite different sequence of conning orders associated with the collision. Indeed, the websites visited by this reviewer seemed to be a jumble of “facts” submitted by self-proclaimed experts, often in such appalling prose that it led to questioning the value of any of the information.

OOW watchbill

Bridge watchkeepers will be interested in the anchor clankers’ watchbill. After the master there was a chief officer and six officers. The chief, 1st and 2nd officer kept one in three while the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th officers were watch about, ensuring three officers on watch at any one time. The junior officers kept conventional watch hours, but the senior officers changed half way through a watch so that 2nd Officer Lightoller, the senior survivor, went on watch at 1800 and was relieved by 1st Officer Murdoch at 2200. Lookouts stood two hours on and four off and quartermasters were watch about with two hours at the helm and two hours as OOW’s runner when on watch.

Three propellers, 17 kettles

The description of the propulsion system is minimal, not quite correct and will disappoint engineers. Titanic had three screws and one rudder. The outer screws, 7.2 m diameter with three blades, were driven by triple expansion reversible steam engines that had one high pressure, one intermediate pressure and two low pressure cylinders. The centre screw, 5 m diameter with four blades, was driven by a steam turbine fed from the exhaust of the two reciprocating engines. It had no astern capability. All were coupled directly to the propeller shafts so that 75 rpm achieved 22.25 knots, the speed reported at the time of the grounding.

Full power delivered 80 rpm. There were four 400 kW generators and two refrigeration compressors. Saturated steam at 200 psi came from 12 double-ended and five single-ended fire tube cylindrical boilers that together consumed 650 tons of coal per hour. There were six boiler rooms, an engine room for the reciprocating engines, another for the turbine and another for the auxiliary machinery. All this required 30 officers and 271 men.

Brown is critical of the findings of both the American and British investigations. The American report, chaired by Senator W.A. Smith, demonstrated his panel’s lack of seafaring experience and Lord Mersey, the British Wreck Commissioner, was mindful of current rivalry between Great Britain and Germany on the Atlantic passenger run and tension leading up to World War I.


Neither report found Mr J.B. Ismay or Captain E.J. Smith to blame but found a live scapegoat in Captain Lord of Californian for failing to react to distress signals. Brown lays the blame with Ismay and Smith.

Ismay was the general manager of both International Mercantile Marine and its subsidiary, the White Star Line. He was aboard Titanic. He sought to attract passengers to his ships and indeed had secured finance for the three super liners, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, to be built at Harland & Wolff. He also saw to Smith’s appointment as master, seeing him as compliant to business-oriented outlooks that sometimes overrode good seamanship. This led to Titanic sailing with a smouldering bunker fire and maintaining near top speed into seas reported to contain field ice and icebergs. Brown maintains that because of First Officer Murdoch’s skilful conning of the ship on sighting the iceberg, the ship could have remained afloat until assistance arrived, even though the bottom was holed. Ismay’s desire to proceed to Halifax after the grounding aggravated the flooding beyond the capability of damage control facilities, and the rest is history.

For an account that seeks to correct others, a few errors seem to remain. He refers to ships in the current politically correct neuter although his contemporary quotations use feminine participles. For one who gives an excellent appendix of nautical terms and is at pains to explain the nuances of terms less familiar to landlubbers, Brown seems to be one who is on, not in, a ship. This reviewer’s divisional officer would squirm.

The cover depicts the ship going down with smoke coming from all four funnels. In fact, only the first three exhausted boiler flue gas while the fourth improved symmetry and ducted ventilation exhaust. The cover also portrays Captain Smith with an “unknown” officer. One of Brown’s references identifies the officer as Purser McElroy.

Prop blades?

When discussing engine vibration, Brown states that all three propellers had four blades. In fact, from photographs and descriptions of machinery in his references, the arrangement was as described above. Brown gives output from the three engines at about 45,000 hp. One of his references clearly states there was 15,000 hp available from each of the reciprocating engines and 16,000 hp from the turbine. He also suggests that Murdoch did not order full astern for fear of snapping propeller shafts, yet another of his references states that during builder’s trials, Titanic did apply full astern from 20 knots ahead, stopping in just over 780 m.

Titanic props
The Titanic propellers

 Interestingly, Brown calculates that the iceberg was 835 metres ahead when the lookouts rang down the warning to the bridge and then compliments Murdoch’s ship handling to avoid a head-on collision. In a summary of key survivors, Murdoch is ranked second officer instead of first and fifth Officer Lowe is recorded as dying in 1964 aged 61. This suggests that Lowe was aged nine when Titanic went down. In fact, Lowe died in 1944 aged 61.

Harland & Wolff

Brown describes Thomas Andrews, travelling aboard, as a representative of Harland & Wolff. His other references all have Andrews listed more specifically as managing director of the shipbuilding company.

Nevertheless, anchor clankers who are Titanic buffs will find much of interest and value. Of course, the loss of Titanic would be named by most people as the worst peacetime maritime disaster of all time, with over 1500 of the 2200 souls on board lost. Yet in 1987 a ferry went down off the Philippines with a loss of over 4,000 pilgrims. Would Hollywood see box office potential in that story?

Read more in Titanic follow-up letters

HMS Rattler

HMS Rattler

by John Ellis

The development of the steam engine for locomotion was a challenge taken up by engineers in the late 18th century. Richard Trevithick demonstrated his steam carriage at Cambourne in Cornwall in 1801 and three years later his locomotive, on an existing tramway in Wales, hauled ten tons of iron ore and 70 men at eight kph.

Many other engineers entered into steam locomotion, but it was the Rocket built by George Stephenson that conclusively won the Rainhill trials in 1829, heralding the age of the railway. During these trials the Rocket averaged 22 kph and reached 46 kph.

William Symington

William Symington built the first successful steam-propelled vessel that he demonstrated in 1802 in Scotland. Two years later, Robert Fulton, an American, demonstrated his steamer in France. From those early trials, my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty also saw the potential for steam propulsion. Initially the concept was to develop tugs to get ships of the line in and out of harbour and the Admiralty put their toe into the pool of this new technology in 1815 with the order for a sloop named Congo. Something went amiss in the project office because the engine proved too heavy for the vessel and the engine was eventually commissioned for use ashore. The Navy’s first steam propelled vessel, then, was the Comet, built in 1819. Comet was a tug with a length of 35 metres a beam of 6.4 metres and a draught of 2.7 metres. Each of her twin engines was rated at 40 NHP(1). The Monkey and the Active, with two engines of similar output, followed in 1820 and 1822.

HMS Lightning, 1823

The first steam-powered vessel in the Navy List was HMS Lightning. She was built in 1823 but did not appear in the Navy List for another five years.

The first armed vessel propelled by steam was HMS Dee, completed in 1832. Dee was 51 metres long with a beam of 9.3 metres with two engines developing 200 NHP. One officer of the period who championed the use of steam was RADM J. Ross, who made his name as a polar explorer and also wrote a steam navigation treatise in 1828, setting out tactics for sea warfare using auxiliary steam propulsion.

The admirals began to stroke their beards following the success of steam packets, introduced from 1830 for external mail services operated by the Navy. Now, side-mounted paddlewheels propelled all these early steam vessels and for warships there were two main limitations. The wheel box on a ship’s side reduced space for mounting guns and the boxes and paddles were extremely vulnerable to enemy gunfire. Nevertheless many years of experimentation and debate passed before the Admiralty eventually cast aside the paddlewheel.

propellor evolution

Evolutionary designs for the propeller.

Some early screws were just that, with the appearance of a short auger. Others were more recognisable as a screw propeller. In 1837 Ericsson used his screw steamer, Francis B. Ogden, to tow an Admiralty barge up and down the Thames.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Great Britain

The big leap forward for the screw propeller came in 1839. Ten months after Brunel laid down the Great Britain, the Archimedes visited Bristol where Great Britain was being built with paddlewheels. Archimedes was propelled by Francis Smith’s screw propeller and her performance was convincing. Even though Smith’s patent was similar to an Archimedean screw, Brunel converted the propulsion system of Great Britain to utilise a six-bladed screw propeller. This decision was vindicated in 1843 when Great Britain clearly demonstrated the advantages of screw propulsion during her crossing of the Atlantic.

The Admiralty, possibly motivated by Brunel’s courage, moved in 1842. The sloop Ardent was then under construction in Sheerness and the Admiralty directed the propulsion system be converted to screw propulsion. She was commissioned as HMS Rattler in 1843 and displaced 1078 tons. Rattler tested six different propeller designs, with six modifications being made to three propellers. The propellers ranged from 2.5 – 3.0 metres in diameter with a mean pitch around 3.4 metres. From these trials a propeller was selected. It was 3.01 metres in diameter with a pitch of 3.4 metres.

The famous trials with HMS Alecto were conducted in March – April 1845 over the 78 nautical miles between the Nore and Yarmouth Roads. Alecto was a paddlewheeler sloop of the same engine power as Rattler although she was 3.8 metres shorter. Rattler completed the course in 8 hours and 34 minutes. Alecto took a further 20 minutes.

(Ed note: There are persistent minor variations in the data reported arising from these trials, e.g. 78 versus 80 miles, 23½  versus 20 minutes, etc. See “Screw versus paddle” note, below.)

Rattler propellor


Where it all began. HMS Rattler‘s propeller, as displayed in the RN Museum, Portsmouth.

The plate on the display (above ) of HMS Rattler‘s screw propeller, displayed at the RN Museum, Portsmouth, says:

Screw versus paddle. Here displayed is the screw or propeller of the former sloop HMS Rattler, a vessel of around 800 tons (2) and 200 HP. This sloop in 1845 decided the future of propulsion of British warships in a series of experiments against another sloop, HMS Alecto, of similar displacement and horsepower but propelled by paddlewheels. On an 80-mile course in calm weather the Rattler defeated the Alecto by 23½ minutes. Later over a 60-mile course against a head sea, the Rattler again defeated the Alecto, this time by 40 minutes.
Finally, in the most conclusive experiment of all when the two vessels being fastened stern to stern and both steaming at their best, the Rattler towed the Alecto away at a rate of 2½ knots. In consequence from 1845 onwards new warships were driven by propellers.


rattler vs alecto


The screw-driven HMS Rattler (left) wins the 1845 tug-o-war with the paddlewheeler Alecto.

Over a 52 nautical mile course in heavy seas and strong headwinds, Rattler averaged 7½ knots whilst Alecto averaged seven knots. The tests culminated with the two sloops secured stern to stern. Alecto worked up to full power with Rattler‘s engines stopped. Once Rattler started her engines ahead, she gradually overcame Alecto and eventually towed her astern at 2½ knots.

HMS Niger trials

Although the Admiralty declared the superiority of screw propellers in 1845, further tests were conducted in 1846 between the paddle-driven HMS Basilisk and the screw-propelled HMS Niger. The outcome was the same.

Despite the tests, some ships were equipped with paddlewheels for some time; the last major ship built for the Navy with paddlewheels was the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert II, launched in 1855. By the end of that decade the Navy List included 463 steam-powered ships of which 351 were propelled by screw.

Much of this information has been drawn from The Naval Steam Reciprocating Engine, by Norman Rivett, and he includes a copy of Admiralty Circular No 347/58:

Precautions to be taken against accidents when men are in them. Accidents of a serious and even fatal character having sometimes occurred on board Her Majesty’s Steam Ships and Vessels, by the Paddle Wheels being turned when men are in them. My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are pleased to issue directions, with the view of effectually guarding against such accidents in future, that men are on no account to be permitted to go into, or remain in, the Paddle Wheels, except when they are effectually secured by a bar being passed through them, by a secure lashing, or by some other simple mode, the efficiency of which can be judged of by any Seaman.

Main engine

HMS Rattler was fitted with two Maudslay and Field Siamese engines, that is, four cylinders of 1019 mm diameter and a stroke of 1234 mm. The nominal horsepower was 200 and the engine developed 437 IHP (3) at 26 rpm on a single shaft. This output was geared up to 104 rpm with a belt drive that was replaced with a spur gear drive. The boiler pressure is not known, however many boilers operated at five psi with some as high as 14 psi. HMS Alecto was fitted with a Seaward and Capel Gorgon engine of 200 NHP. The output of the engine was connected directly to the paddlewheels.



A proposed super cavitating propeller design.


1. NHP (nominal horsepower) was an 1840s standard adopted by the Royal Agricultural Society, comparing the power of a steam engine with that of a horse. There has been, and still is, a great deal of confusion about NHP and its relationship to actual horsepower. NHP is related to the size of the cylinder bore and the speed of the piston. Horsepower (HP) is a measure of the power produced. One HP is equivalent to 550 foot-pounds per second or 745.7 watts. It is not possible to convert NHP to HP or vice versa.
One measure of NHP is found by dividing the square of the cylinder diameter in inches by ten. So for a nine-inch bore engine: NHP = 9 x 9 / 10 = 8.
Another NHP formula is to multiply the square of the diameter of the cylinder in inches by the cube root of the stroke in feet, and divide the product by 47.

2. This 800 tons figure is a builder’s measure, based on hull volume, independent of weight. It is a lesser figure than displacement tonnage. In the Middle Ages, most cargo, dry or liquid, was carried in casks, the largest being the tun. A ship’s carrying capacity, or burthen, was given by the number of tuns she could carry and was known as her tunnage. Until iron allowed major changes to hull shapes and design, the tunnage (tonnage) was calculated for taxation purposes by multiplying length by breadth by depth below the main deck in feet, then dividing by 100.
The wooden ships tonnage formula varied from the above in the 18th century, but with iron and steel ships the tonnage was once more established by calculating the volume of the hull in cubic feet. One gross register ton equalled 100 cubic feet. Nett register tonnage, based on the volume of a ship’s cargo carrying capacity, is the figure used for determining fees for harbour dues, insurance, salvage and towing. To ensure confusion, bulk carriers nowadays use deadweight tonnage, or the tons weight of cargo, that takes them down to their Plimsoll mark.

3. IHP (indicated horsepower) is a theoretical power assuming complete efficiency. Actual power output may be only 70 to 90 per cent of this figure.


Rivett, Norman. The Naval Steam Reciprocating Engine. Naval Historical Society: Garden Island, ISBN 0 9587456 0 9.
Ross, J. A treatise on navigation by steam. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green: London. 1828.