Archive for June, 2018

the X-Craft and D-Day

Last week marked the 74th anniversary of Operation Overlord. Also known as D-Day, Codenamed Operation Overlord saw 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces land on the northern beaches of France. The invasion, which began on June 6, 1944 and lasted until late August, saw the liberation of Northern France. The landing at Normandy has come to mark the “beginning of the end” of the war in Europe. Many facts about the fateful day are widely known. The Higgins landing craft has become synonymous with the invasion as the boat that won the war. But first-hand reports from the day recount so many different boats waiting to take the beaches. However, one type of vessel that is often forgotten from the narrative is the British midget submarines that played a key role in the landing efforts.

Figure 1 Credit: Imperial War Museum

Preparation for D-day had been extensive. Operation Neptune, the codename for cross-channel portion of the invasion, was pushed back 24 hours due to bad weather. But by June 6th, paratroopers and glider troopers were already in position behind enemy lines. U.S. Forces would go in at Utah and Omaha Beach. The British and Canadian forces were to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Under Neptune was Operation Gambit, the use of two X -class British submarines that would mark the ends of the British and Canadian invasion beaches. The X-craft submarines were built at a secret submarine training base at Lock Erisort on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. By 1943, the Royal Navy had developed a 52-foot midget submarine they called X-craft. The submarine could carry a four-man crew and remain at sea for days. She could dive up to 300 feet. Due to her small size, the X-craft had only one access hatch and a small periscope that was mostly unreliable. Navigation was done through a Browns A Gyro Compass and Auto Helmsman. The X-craft could either be towed by a conventional submarine or launched from the deck of a submarine to reach its intended target. Two 3,570-lb mines were attached to its sides. A hand crank could release them when they were positioned below the hull of an enemy ship. The small crew consisted of one commanding officer, a first lieutenant, an engineer, and a diver.


Figure 2 Figure 3 Inside an X-craft submarine

In the months leading up to Operation Overlord, it was up to the x-20 to gain as much recognizance as possible to prepare for the mission. During the day the submarine would monitor the beaches using its periscope and at night divers would swim to shore. Echo sounding measurements were taken to find distance and landing positions. Over two nights, the divers surveyed the beaches at Vierville, Moulins, St. Laurent and Colleville- the beaches that made up “Omaha” beach. Plans were to have the divers make a third trip. However, bad weather and lack of food forced the commander to return to the HMS Dolphin where she would be towed to Scotland. Two X-class submarines would return to the beaches of Normandy leading up to the invasion to help aid in what would become the eventual downfall of the German troops. HMS X-23 and HMS X-20 would be the first vessels off the shores of Normandy leading up to the attack. Arriving on June 4, the X-crafts fixed their positions and waited for nightfall to surface to begin their mission. It wasn’t until they surfaced that they received the message that the operation had been postponed due to bad weather. According to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, “On 6 June at 0445 the submarines surfaced in rough seas. They set up the 18 feet high navigation beacons that each were carrying and switched them on. These shone a green light indicating their position away from the coast, visible up to 5 miles away although undetectable to anyone on land. They used the radio beacon and echo sounder to tap out a message for the minelayers approaching Sword and Juno beaches. The incoming fleet appeared on time and roared past them.” Sailing out of Hayling Island in Hampshire, the two submarines were nervous hearing that the mission had been delayed. The conditions inside were cramped and there was not even enough room to stand. There was fear that their oxygen levels wouldn’t last them another day. The men survived on rations of tea and baked beans as they waited for word. The crew would sleep in four-hour rotations in the battery compartment. Each evening they would surface to receive the secret code worded message on the BBC broadcast that would tell them when it was time. At the darkest of night, they would surface so the men could walk on the deck to get some air. Leading up to June 6th, the crews watched the German troops play football on the shore through the periscope. And then the message came to be ready to surface at 4am on June 6th.
Operation Gambit was a success, the British and Canadian forces were able to land on their respective shores without falling off course or hitting any rocks, thanks to the beacons from the X-crafts. In 2011, the small crews of X-23 and X-20 were honored with a granite memorial donated by Prince Charles on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Today, only one X-craft vessel remains- the X-24 which can be seen at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. While the X-20 and X-23, served only a minor role in the D-Day invasion, it shows the vital role a submarine can play in a nation’s arsenal.

Figure 4 X-24

PT Boats

When it comes to U.S. Navy boats, you often think of aircraft carriers and destroyers. Here in Groton we automatically bring up the large list of Submarines. But throughout the Navy’s long and proud history, there have been an array of different types of vessels used to help support war efforts. One such type of boat are the PT boats of WWII. Nicknamed “Devil Boats” by the Japanese, these small torpedo boats helped the U.S. Navy in its war in the Pacific.

In 1938, the U.S. Navy realized its need for a mobile attack boat. PT’s or Patrol Torpedo Boats were small, fast vessels that could be used for scouting. They were armed with torpedoes and machine guns to cut off enemy tankers and transports. Their effectiveness at targeting Japanese armored barges that were used for inter-island transport gave them the “Devil Boat” nickname. During the war, there were forty-three squadrons with 12 boats each. The work was dangerous, and the squadrons suffered a high loss rate during the war. On board each boat were four Mark 8 torpedoes. Two M2 .50cal machine guns were mounted for anti-aircraft defense. Throughout the war, Elco (Elco Moto Yachts) in Bayonne, New Jersey and Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana would become the dominant builders of the PT boat.

The Elco boat was 80 feet long and the Higgins came in slightly smaller at 78 feet long.   Elco’s design was based off a purchase of a Scott-Paine motor torpedo boat. They shipped the boat to Electric Boat in Groton and began working with the prototype that would be dubbed PT-9. Over two years the PT-9 would go through numerous sea trials in order to improve the design, eventually meeting Navy standards. To keep up with the production demand, Elco would employ more than 3,000 men and women during the height of the war. The Elco company would build 399 PT boats and Higgins Industries would end up producing 199 PT boats by war’s end. Andrew Jackson Higgins is said to be the man who built the boat that won the war. The famous Higgins Boats were used during the storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The use of his LCVP’s (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) are what allowed the allied troops direct access to the beach on D-Day. But before this, Higgins’ PT boats were used against the Japanese in the Battle of Aleutian Islands and in the Mediterranean against the Nazis. For most of the war, PT boats would provide fire support for landing troops and carry out rescue missions.

Today very few PT boats survive. Most were destroyed shortly after the war’s end. Stories about their missions and crews can be hard to find. One of the best-known PT boats was the PT-109, skippered by the late President John F. Kennedy. According to,”PT-109 was operating in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and joined 14 other PT boats for a nighttime ambush of 4 enemy destroyers and supply ships of Japan’s “Tokyo express”.   Most of the PT boat attack force fired their compliment of torpedoes and headed for home, but three boats stayed behind including the 109.  In the confusion and darkness at sea, Lieutenant Kennedy noted a vague shape approaching him.  He assumed it was a sister PT boat, but soon discovered it was a Japanese destroyer.   Kennedy attempted to swing his boat into position to fire a torpedo, but was not fast enough.  The much larger destroyer hit the 109 broadside at full speed nearly splitting the much smaller wooden boat in half.   Kennedy and the survivors swam nearly 3 miles to a small island.   After a week of surviving on small islands with the help of natives, Kennedy and the 109’s surviving crew were rescued by PT-157.”[1]

While stories about PT boats are less common than larger vessels, the number of physical PT boats around today are even fewer. The PT-658 which was built but never saw action is housed in Portland, Oregon at the P-658 Heritage Museum.  She was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

PT-658 Heritage Museum located at the Swan Island Industrial Park in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office/National Park Service

She is fully functional and up until recently was the only restored and operational US Navy PT boat.  At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, you can take a ride on the PT-305, a Higgins PT boat that has been fully restored after being in dry dock in Texas for a number of years.

The December 8, 1944, commissioning photograph of PT-305’s first crew. Top row: Leonard Martyr, James Nerison, Benedict Bronder, Joseph Cirlot, Percy Wallace, William Minnick, William Borsdorff. Second Row: George Miles, Frank Crane, Donald Weamer, Fernando Ferrini. Bottom: William Schoonover. Gift of Mitchell Cirlo

The PT-305 served in European waters from 1944 to 1945. According to the National WWII Museum website the “PT-305, along with PT-302 through PT-313, was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 22 (Ron 22). Ron 22 was commissioned on November 10, 1943 under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling and was assigned to the Mediterranean. MTB RON 22 operated in the Mediterranean along the coast of Southern France and Northern Italy. Boats from Ron 22 participated in the Invasion of Elba on June 18, 1944, where PT-305 sank a German Flak lighter. The squadron acted as a diversionary force in Gulf Juan, and as an anti-E-boat screen in the Nice-Cannes area. Ron 22 was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. They landed French Commandos on the coast of France in preparation for the invasion. The squadron was also involved in action around Leghorn, Italy. To harass the enemy Ron 22 fired torpedoes into harbors between Genoa, Italy and the French-Italian border. On the night of April 24, 1945, PT-305 sank an Italian MAS boat. In late April 1945, the squadron was returned to the United States to be overhauled in preparation for deployment to the Pacific. The war however ended while the squadron was still in New York Harbor. The Squadron was decommissioned November 15, 1945 still under the command of LCDR Richard J. Dressling. On June 18, 1948, PT-305 was sold along with the rest of the squadron.”[2] After the war, PT-305 was used as an oyster boat until 2001. Transferred to the museum in 2007, she is now fully restored.

Ensign Bleeker Morse (left) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Allan Purdy on the bridge of PT-305 in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, on March 16, 1945. The “kill plaques” on the chart house signify the two enemy craft sunk by PT-305 prior to that date. Gift of Joseph Brannan.





Torpedo Junction

America has seen little war fought on its shores. For the most part, the major battles have been brought to the enemy leaving little destruction in the U.S. While many times our forces have gone overseas, this does not mean that America was left unscathed in the World Wars. Besides Pearl Harbor, there were U-boat sightings off the Atlantic Coast for much of World War II. In fact, German U-boats were so common in areas of the Atlantic that the area became known as Torpedo Junction (Torpedo Alley).

World War II was not the first time that German U-boats creeped along the Atlantic shores. During World War I, a U-boat came dangerously close to the coast of Cape Cod. Three U-boats sank ten ships off the coast of North Carolina and navigated along the coast asserting German power. The Outer Banks of North Carolina would become a hot spot for German U-boats, leading to the nickname of “Torpedo Junction” in World War II.  The name U-boat comes from the German word “unterseeboot” meaning submarine. Despite being categorized as submarines, u-boats were technically warships that spent most of their time on the surface. They could only submerge for limited periods of time which was usually to avoid enemy detection. When they would attack, U-boats were usually above the surface and used deck mounted guns. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Germany came up with a plan they called Operation Paukenschlag. The plan called for a submarine assault on the American seaboard. The operation was the brainchild of German rear-Admiral Karl Donitz. He believed that the Germans could take advantage of an unsuspecting American coastline. The plan focused on the North Carolina coast line near Cape Hatteras due to its large merchant ship sea lanes. Without wasting any time, the Germans took advantage of America’s vulnerability after the attack on Pearl Harbor and sent five submarines to begin the operation in late December 1941.

Why pick the Carolina coastline? The Atlantic Coast was unprepared for a U-boat assault. Merchant ships had no training in defensive maneuvers, and onshore no preventions such as blackout restrictions were put in place. Coastal lights provided easy targeting for the German Navy. U.S. Naval patrols in the Atlantic were few due to the needs in the Pacific. Only one vessel, the Dione, patrolled the area. Designed to catch rum-runners, she would be no match for the might of the U-boat. The German crews had already been at war for two years by 1941, leaving them highly trained compared to the few defenses left on the Atlantic coast. Between January and June of 1942, 397 merchant ships were sunk. It was said that the attacks off the Outer Banks were so frequent that “Flaming tankers burned so brightly…one could read a newspaper by the glow at night, while the grim flotsam of war-oil, wreckage, and corpses- was strewn across local beaches.” Authorities kept reports of the attacks classified in order to not strike fear with the rest of the American public. Even after the war, many people had no idea how close the war had come to them. In a report by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, it was said that “The losses by submarines off our Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean now threaten our entire war effort….I am fearful that another month or two of this will so cripple our means of transport that we will be unable to bring sufficient men and planes to bear against the enemy in critical theaters to exercise a determining influence on the war.” The U.S Navy was in a difficult position. It could not afford to take men away from the frontlines in Europe and the Pacific. However, after months of assaults on the merchant lanes off the Atlantic Coast, it was clear that if something wasn’t done, the rest of the war effort would mean nothing.

Marshall’s plea would not go unnoticed. As time passed, little could be done to keep news of the attacks from circulating. One attack that struck the fear of those along the coast line was that of the Canadian Steamship “Lady Hawkins.” Because of the U-boats’ aggressive attacks, the steamship stayed close to the coast throughout its trip from Canada to Bermuda. It was around Cape Hatteras that she would make the turn towards Bermuda.  On January 19, 1942, U-66’s searchlight briefly lit up the Canadian Steamship. Within moments two torpedoes were bringing down the vessel carrying some 300 civilians. Only 130 miles from land, six of her life boats were destroyed and only 76 survivors were able to make it to the remaining life boat. It would be five days before the S.S. Coamo would rescue the survivors.  The same day that news broke of the steamship, a Coast Guard ship arrived in Virginia with the survivors of the American merchant ship ‘Francis E. Powell.”  The Powell had been headed to Providence, Rhode Island from Texas when it had been attacked on January 27. Something needed to be done about the U-boats before mass panic spread across the country. The U.S. Navy (along with British assistance), sent long-range aircraft patrols to the area along with a deployment of anti-submarine vessels. The defenses would quickly come in handy.

On January 28, 1942, Donald Francis Mason, a pilot with Patrol Squadron Eight-Two, and his crew took off for a continuing series of patrols over “Torpedo Junction.” At first the mission took on its quiet scanning of the waters with nothing much to see. But shortly after 1:00pm, Mason spotted a flash of light. The crew saw a periscope appear above the surface of the water. Mason, without thought or hesitation, began his attack on the U-boat. Here is an excerpt from a report filed on the attack:

 Plane turned and attacked at once.  Submarine was apparently completely surprised, as periscope was visible throughout entire attack.  Approach was made from astern submarine on a course about 20 degrees across submarine’s course.  Bombs were released at estimated altitude of 25 feet, indicated air speed 165 knots.  Two bombs were dropped with a spread of about 25 feet.

Plumes of the explosions were seen to spread, one on either side of periscope, estimated distance 10 feet from wake line and nearly abreast the periscope.  The submarine was lifted bodily in the water until most of the conning tower could be seen.  Headway of submarine seemed to be killed at once and she was observed to sink from sight vertically.  Five minutes later, oil began to bubble to the surface and continued for ten minutes.  At this time it was necessary to leave area in order to return to base by dark.  Plane landed at 1628.

Detailed employment of crew during bombing attack was as follows:
(1) Pilot at the controls:
(2) Co-pilot in the cockpit alongside the pilot, armed bombs, stood by manual release.
(3) Plane Captain attempted to take photographs of target with F-48 camera during glide approach and after attack. Pictures of this attack were poor because of greatly reduced lighting conditions.
(4) Radioman in bow at the Navigator’s Desk, acting as lookout with binoculars.[1]

While an official report of the incident was not released publicly until April 1, 1942, A Time’s article in February about the sinking of “Lady Hawkins” alludes to the attack. In the closing of the article, it was quoted that a report radioed by Mason saying “Sighting sub, sank same” [2]

By the summer of 1942, the anti-submarine patrols had done their job. While merchant ships were periodically lost throughout the rest of the war, it never compared with what had occurred in the early days of 1942. By the end, more than eighty ships had been lost with hundreds of innocent lives lost off the coast of North Carolina. In most discussions of WWII, the U-boat attacks of the Atlantic coast are often forgotten. While history is quick to focus on the larger battles that were waged, these few months in early 1942 kept the people along the Atlantic coast, and especially in North Carolina, in constant fear. For them the war was at their doorsteps, giving these citizens a much different way of remembering the war.


[2] In post-war records it was discovered that Mason had not sunk the U-boat on January 28, 1942. He would go on to sink a German U-boat on March 5th, which he would receive a Flying Cross for. Despite the records correction, his quote of Sighting sub, sank same has lived on and is no in the list of famous naval quotes.