Friday, January 31, 2014

When Cavalry and Submarines Collide (Part 1)

The Western Front Association, Pacific Coast Branch's annual general meeting and conference is scheduled for the Bay Street Armoury in Victoria. It will run from March 7th to 9th this year. President Peter Broznisky will welcome attendees to the festivities which will include speakers, a mess dinner, and a welcome on the evening of the 7th. Details can be found here.
I first joined the WFA because of my interest in WW I's Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which resulted in my first novel, Soldier of the Horse. Since that book was published, I have been working on my second, which is set in a Cold War Canadian submarine. The research for the submarine novel has included WW I material, and at this year's WFA conference I will be presenting on "British Submarine Operations in the Great War". So this "collision" between horsemen and boats will not involve flying shells and ricocheting bullets.
But--stay tuned for Part 2.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Submarines from early days to modern (5)

It's amazing how, in the world of submarines, the basics haven't changed. In World War I days, the most advanced submarines, and their predecessors, had many common attributes: a cylindrical shape, ballast tanks to allow the boat to dive, and periscopes. Fifty years later, I served in a Royal Navy A-boat.
Here is a photo of HMS Andrew, typical of her class. The crewmen visible are standing on the free-flooding casing, a shell that allowed safe if often precarious footing when surfaced. The blister-like long shape at the waterline outlines the port ballast tank, and the periscopes are housed in the fin, ready to be raised for use when dived. (The radar mast is raised in the photo.) Her basic design, though, is a sixteen-foot diameter steel pipe. The casing and ballast tanks are external to the steel pressure hull.
Andrew boasted an atypical feature: she was the last RN boat with a deck gun.
The A-boat featured in my upcoming novel set  during the Cold War will also carry a 4" gun.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Upcoming 96th anniversary--Moreuil Wood

Below is a blog post that many enjoyed when first posted some months ago. The occasion for the repeat is the upcoming observance in the modern "Black Hat" (ie armoured) community of the Battle of Moreuil Wood. The 96th anniversary of that seminal event is March 30th this year. 

"It has been some time since I posted a blog that relates to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, so I am indebted to a correspondent who lives on the Isle of Wight for this item.

Readers of "Galloper Jack" will know that Brigadier-General J. E. B. Seely commanded the CCB for most of the Great War, succeeded in April 1918 by Colonel R. W. Paterson of the Fort Garry Horse. In the photo at left, Seely is in the left foreground, a slim, upright man.

For a brief film clip of Galloper Jack recorded in 1933, click here. After the Canadian cavalry, Seely valued his neighbours and fellow lifeboatmen of the Isle of Wight. In the clip, Lord Mottistone, as he had become, is the tall figure in the white hat. At the centre of the action, as always.

Galloper Jack is a big part of my prizewinning novel, "Soldier of the Horse".  Check it out on Amazon here."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Submarines from early days to modern (4)

The British and French missed an opportunity to get into the very early days of submarines. In the early 1800's American engineer Robert Fulton built and demonstrated the Nautilus, a 21-foot-long copper-sheathed submersible. He submerged it in the Seine, and blew up a surface vessel in front of none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Later, he accomplished the same feat in Kent for the British.
Rejected, Fulton returned to the U.S. The torch was passed to others to continue his work.
The name Nautilus was immortalized by Jules Verne in his remarkable story "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea", and surfaced again as USS Nautilus, the world's first true submarine.

My novel set in a Cold War submarine will be launched in late summer/fall 2014.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Submarine Forces are Expanding

Many of the nations of Southeast Asia are developing or expanding their submarine fleets. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia already possess submarines.
Vietnam has taken possession of the first of six Russian-built Kilo class boats, with Myanmar determined to have a submarine force by 2015. Thailand has naval officers training abroad in Germany and South Korea.
The New York Times sees this expansion as a direct result of recent aggressive Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. For more, see the article here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Where have all the sailors gone?

I was astounded to hear on CTV's national news channel last night that some 260-odd Canadian "soldiers" were in action in middle-eastern waters. Apparently they have taken over as crew of HMCS Toronto, and have distinguished themselves at sea, stopping and boarding a drug-smuggling vessel.
Shades of Paul Hellyer! The Royal Canadian Navy has, in the eyes of writers and readers of news broadcasts who should know better, disappeared into the "military". So, naturally, their men and women are "soldiers".

Friday, January 17, 2014

Submarines from early days to modern (3)

This rather odd-looking device was the first vessel to attempt an underwater attack. Built by David Bushnell during the US War of Independence, it had room for one occupant and was appropriately called Turtle.
Propelled by handcranks but needing the cooperation of the tide, Turtle boasted an auger designed to attach an explosive charge to the bottom of a wooden ship. Ezra Lee was the brave soldier who attacked HMS Eagle. Fortunately for the Eagle and all who sailed in her, the auger broke. Lee also survived the attempt.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New Russian Super Submarine is on its way

The Sunday Times has quoted naval intelligence sources saying Russia's newest submarine, the K-329, will give traditional naval superpowers cause for concern.
The SSGN Severodvinsk is huge, designed to carry 24 cruise missiles with 200 kiloton warheads, anti-ship missiles, mines and torpedoes. It is 390 feet long, its hull is coated in sound-absorbing material, and has a top speed of 30-35 knots. If that is the case it will be able to outrun many antisubmarine weapons.

Iain Ballantyne, author of Hunter Killers, has noted that spending billions from oil and gas revenues on new nuclear-powered submarines is in line with Russia's naval philosophy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Western Front Association Seminar March 7-9

The annual WFA seminar and AGM is scheduled for Victoria on March 7-9 2014 at the Bay Street Armoury. For the program, click here. There are a couple of naval topics to be covered this year: one on WWI naval aviation, and one (presented by myself) on British submarine operations in the Great War.
My research is going well, and I am sure the program will live up to previous excellent events.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Submarines From Early Days to Modern (2)

In World War I, British submariners referred to themselves as being in "the Trade". I recently read an explanation: Hidebound, spic and span surface navy officers thought their brethren in the submarine business sloppy and scruffily dressed. In fact, indistinguishable from plumber's apprentices in appearance. Hence "the trade".

I doubt if Max Horton, one of the earliest and most successful WW I submarine commanders, would have liked the comparison. Here he is in later life as Sir Max Horton, Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, the man most responsible for Atlantic convoys and the eventual triumph over the U-boats in WW II.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Submarines From Early Days to Modern (1)

Submariners have always been risktakers, from those who manned the H L Hunley during the American Civil War all the way through to today’s sailors in HMCS Victoria. The risks are always there, given the inherent danger posed by the underwater environment and the complicated machinery in which submariners operate.

The Hunley was built by the Confederacy in a futile effort to break the Union blockade of Charleston. She was propelled by eight men with a hand crank, and her “torpedo” was an explosive device on the end of a long pole attached to her bow. Her first crew drowned while training. Her second crew drowned while training. Her third crew was successful, if just as unfortunate. They drowned, but succeeded in sinking their target, the sloop USS Housatonic.

From the time of the Hunley to today’s Victoria, submariners are a breed apart, as they accept the inherent risks in their profession while serving their nations’ interests.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Attack on Rifle Wood (Part 3)

A rare lighter moment was recorded by Sam Williams in his account of the action at Rifle Wood. He recounts how Lieutenant Bennett of the Fort Garry Horse was hit by shrapnel in the area of the crotch. Williams had this to say:

'He was saying to Captain Hutchison between sobs, "Hutch," sob, sob, "The dirty bastards," sob, sob, "Have shot my balls off." There was not a happier man in the whole hospital the following day than Bennett, when a more careful and complete examination showed him to be still a complete man.'

The Fort Garry Horse Nominal Roll records a W.O.1/Lieutenant George Henry Ritson Bennett. I hope Lt. Bennett's wound was enough to keep him out of the front lines for the rest of the war, and that he went on to live a happy and prosperous life.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Attack on Rifle Wood (Part 2)

A newspaper of the day boasted of mounted riders attacking with sabres, putting German batteries out of action. To see the quote, click here.

The reality was far different. There were certainly no "sabres flashing in the sunlight." Lieutenant Sam Williams was one of only four Strathcona officers available, and the only one not a casualty after the battle at Rifle Wood.
Sam Williams and fellow Strath officers
In his meticulous and detailed book, Stand to Your Horses, he recounts how the members of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade who had survived Moreuil Wood took Rifle Wood. They advanced not in the saddle but on foot, under heavy machine gun fire, against a determined enemy supported by artillery. Williams took the precaution of borrowing a bandolier so he would not be so easily spotted as an officer and sniped. During the advance the man to his left went down, as did the man to his right.
The Fort Garry's were ahead of Williams and the Strathconas,and they paid a heavy price.
Even before reaching the wood the senior Strathcona officer in the party had been wounded, leaving Williams in command. Of the two remaining Strath officers, one was killed and the other wounded.
Of the 165 other ranks and four officers of the Strathconas that took part with the Garry's and the Dragoons at Rifle Wood, three officers and 79 men were killed or wounded.
Sam Williams was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts that day.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Another Salty HMCS Grilse Story

Here is another tale about life on board HMCS Grilse, Canada's first submarine in many years. It would have taken place in th 1960's, and is courtesy of retired Chief ERA Hal Zerbin. The daily rum issue was then a fact of life in Canadian navy ships and submarines. The "tot", as it was known, was highly prized by the seamen, some of whom would go to great lengths to get a little extra. 

“TOT” time on HMCS Grilse_-
It was a beautiful Sunday morning and the crew was enjoying a break from their demanding schedule, in their home port of Esquimalt. With only a reduced crew on board, and the rum now packaged in clean glass bottles, un-adulterated with the old wax and camel hair of Royal Navy days, it was not really much of a task to bring up a couple of bottles, with their measures and a little water for dilution purposes. This last being hardly necessary as the crew was now allowed to bring their mug  to the table already pre-filled with coke to enable them to enjoy their “Tot” in a much more civilized manner than in the past.
“Up-spirits" had been piped and myself, as the Duty Chief, and Lt. (Later Admiral), Jim Wood were guarding the rum, ready for issue. As luck would have it, the crew-member approaching the issue table was a well-known “shit-disturber” in navalese, who was always planning and preparing for another try at squeezing some additional rum from the issuing officer. He was never nasty about his efforts, but it was easy enough to see he ‘had a plan’ as his body language was a dead give-a-way.
*A word here about the construction of the Grilse. Built as the USS BURRFISH, one of the many USN ‘Fleet’ boats of the last war, she carried a large amount of diesel fuel when fully loaded, and her external Fuel Ballast tanks were the main storage place. To enable a closer watch on fuel consumption, these Fuel Ballast tanks had been fitted with pads of  small square-spindled valves, arranged in groups of 10, I believe, on the inboard side of the pressure hull, at approximately the centre point of each of the fuel tanks, both port and st’b’d. On the outboard side, inside each tank, small-gauge copper lines were fitted to each valve and led off to a different vertical location in the tank and fastened in place. Thus, if the tank was half full you could open the appropriate  valve inboard and if the tank was indeed at that level, fuel would come out, and, if not, water would come out, giving you a pretty accurate estimate of how much fuel was in that tank. It worked! Now every submariner knows how hard it is to stop diesel fuel from ‘weeping’ from any valve stems, and these little valves were no different and a constant source of diesel drips regardless of how tight you kept the little packing nuts. All submariners also know how short of storage space every submarine is, and the Grilse was no exception. The crew had found that if they kept their rum mugs stored close to the pressure hull they were quite conveniently situated, but, they had not counted on the diesel fuel weeping thru the valve stem packing and dripping into their carefully stowed rum mugs, thereby contaminating the mug, and making any contents, even rum, almost unfit to drink!
Back to the rum table-
Dan approached the issue table, fairly quivering with the thought that he was about to put one over on us, but we were ready for him. I poured him a good tot and poured it into his coke-ready mug and waited. Dan stepped back with his mug, then raised it for a tentative sip, then another, and another as a look of disgust appeared on his face. "It’s contaminated, Chief," he proclaimed loudly, "you try it and see," as he offered me his mug. I took his mug and managed to turn my back on Dan while I caught Lt. Woods’ eye and winked at him, then I raised the mug and had a good sip. Then I tuned to Dan and said, “Tastes all right to me, Dan”. Then I turned to Lt. Wood and passed the mug to him as I said, "You try it, sir!” Which he did, and had a second sip for good measure, then passed it back to me saying, "Tastes fine to me too Chief! You better try it again”. As I reached for the mug, Dan realized he had been caught out and  tore his mug out of my hand, saying “Gimme the G—Da—thing!” as he retired to a safe place to enjoy his contaminated and depleted tot, to the utter enjoyment of  the few onboard duty watch.
A little later , while I was enjoying my own tot in the Goat locker, I sent for Dan and poured him a drink in compensation for his loss! He was, after all, a good shipmate!!