Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Oct. 24, Operation Torch Convoys depart

On this date 70 years ago the American forces taking part in the invasion of North Africa, called Operation Torch, left their various anchorages, including Maine and Virginia.

Operation Torch was a remarkable endeavor. It was the first major offensive taken by the United States since the beginning of the war, almost a year earlier. It involved an amphibious invasion across the entire Atlantic Ocean, making it among the longest direct invasion voyages ever undertaken. And it did this while most of the amphibious techniques and equipment that would later make over-water operations almost routine for US forces were still being developed. The lessons from Operation Torch would pay dividends for the rest of the war.

By a few days, the USS Massachusetts beat out her sister ship the USS South Dakota and near sister USS Washington for the first shots fired by the 16-inch gun in action and the first battleship duel in US Naval history.

The entire force was organized as Task Force 34, otherwise known as the Western Task Force.

The sub groups were:

Task Group 34.1 Covering Group with the new battleship USS Massachusetts, heavy cruisers Wichita and Tuscaloosa, four destroyers and an oiler,
TG 34.8 Northern Attack Group with the old battleship USS Texas, the light cruiser Savannah, two escort carriers, nine DD, eight transports, five support ships and a submarine.
TG 34.9 Center Attack Group with the heavy cruiser Augusta and light cruiser Brooklyn, 10 DD, 15 transports and six minecraft.
TG 34.2 Air Group with the fleet carrier USS Ranger and the escort carrier Suwannee, the light cruiser Cleveland, five DD, an oiler and two submarines,
TG 34.10 Southern Attack Group with the old battleship USS New York, light cruiser Philadelphia, escort carrier Santee, eight DD, six transports, three minecraft, two oilers, a tug and a submarine.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Covering Group at Casco Bay

The Covering Group of the Western Task Force, comprised of the Battleship USS Massachusetts, the heavy cruisers USS Tuscaloosa and USS Wichita and four escorting destroyers is at Casco Bay, Maine. They will depart on Oct. 24 to rendezvous with the rest of the invasion fleet.

Meanwhile the Air Group, comprised of escort carriers Sangamon and Chenango (then known as Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier ACV) went to Bermuda for training until Oct. 11.

Friday, September 28, 2012

French battleships in North Africa

The Jean Bart, foreground, and Richelieu, as depicted by A&A War at Sea

One of the side effects of the Washington Naval treaties in the 1920s and 1930s was to introduce  a discontinuity in capital ship design. With the exception of Britain's Nelson-class battleships, none of the multitude of post-World War I battleship/battlecruiser designs were realized as actual warships.

Instead the oldest of the World War I designs were generally scrapped and the battlelines of the major powers comprised the newest ships designed during the Great War -- which meant they didn't always take full advantage of the lessons of combat during that war.

Some navies modernized the older ships extensively, most modernized them somewhat and a few ships, like the HMS Hood, ended up missing out on scheduled modifications.

The key attribute of the Great War-era ships was that technology forced severe tradeoff between firepower, protection and speed.  Different navies tended to make different judgements about the relative importance of the three attributes, but technology forced a choice to be made. The British and Americans tended to prize firepower and protection most of all and therefore their battle lines tended to be slow, with few battlecruisers in support providing a fast wing, albeit with less protection. The Japanese and Italians, in contrast, tended to value speed above all, and their ships tended to be somewhat lighter in protection than comparable Anglo-American designs. French dreadnoughts were generally not very well designed and didn't seem to have any particularly strong points.

As war clouds gathered in the 1930 and the various powers renounced the treaties or left them as they expired there was a new burst of battleship design. While some choices between firepower, protection and speed still had to be made, advances in naval technology had  lessened the stark nature of those choices and it was possible to design battleships that were speedy, packed  a punch and also had extensive protection.

Every major combatant naval power in World War II manged to have at least some of this new generation of battleships completed in time to see action, although all had their plans cut short to some degree by the outbreak of the war and the need to prioritize shipbuilding resources.

There were remarkable similarities between the designs, with at least navies (US, Italy, Japan) settling on a nine-gun, three-turret layout of heavy guns with speeds in excess of 28 knots. The other three major navies made some departures from that model. While speedy and well-protected the German Bismarck-class ships kept the conservative four twin-turret design of the late World War I classes. The German Scharnhorst-class battlecruisers went with the three triple turret design, but with lighter guns. The British and French tried layout involving quadruple turrets on their newest battleship classes, although weight problems eventually forced the British King George V-class ships to revert to a twin-gun design for the turret in the "B" position. But the A and C turrets were quadruple mounts, as were the two turrets in the French Strasbourg-class battlecruisers and the Richelieu-class battelships.

The motivation for the quadruple turrets, however, varied between the two designs. For the British, the quadruples were just a way to maintain the throw weight of the broadside when they decided not to go with triple-gun 16-inch turrets as originally designed. This design strategy ultimately failed, as it proved impossible to have three quadruple 14-inch guns and for a total of 12 rifles and instead the ships ended up with just 10. This didn't compare well with the nine 15-inch or 16-inch guns of other navies.

The design strategy behind the French quadruple mount was to make it possible to fire the ship's entire main battery over a wide range of angles by concentrating all 8 guns in two turrets.  Every dreadnought design after the first few classes allowed a battleship to fire all its weapons in a broadside, but fore and aft  ship could only fire somewhere between one quarter and one-half it guns. The French design allowed it to fire all its guns forward, although at the cost of allowing no fire to the rear. This was considered to be an acceptable tradeoff. The layout was tired on the Strasbourg-class battle cruisers and deemed a success to be repeated on the new class of battleships under construction as the war started.

As it turned out, only the Richelieu was finished before the French defeat, Both it, and its unfinished sister Jean Bart were sent to African ports and remained there under Vichy control.  Richelieu was at Dakar in Senegal while Jean Bart was at Casablanca. Both were significant threats that the invasion plans had to take into consideration.

Jean Bart was moored at Casablanca, which was one of the invasion sites, but her power plant was incomplete and she therefore didn't have adequate mobility to either confront or escape from Allied naval forces in the open ocean.  Jean Bart's armament was even less complete, and in fact it had just one of its two turrets mounted and none of its secondary battery of 6-inch guns. On the other hand, the one turret that was mounted was fully operational, including its fire control system. In effect, the Jean Bart was a shore battery.

Richelieu was fully operational, in contrast. Although located at Dakar, which was far from the invasion sites, its possible appearance at the invasion beaches has to be considered in the operational plans. In the actual event the Richelieu did not intervene and even ended up joining the Allies later in the war after being updated in an American shipyard. The Jean Bart was completed after the war.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

French submarines at Casablanca

Redoutable-class sub from A&A War at Sea

Today we think of submarines as primarily used for the disruption of trade and useful for clandestine missions. Modern nuclear submarines are large and can remain at sea for months on end. Even in World War II large "fleet" submarines ranged over vast distance sin support of fleet operations and  ravaging enemy trade across the ocean.

But the very first submarines, limited in size and endurance, were primarily coast and harbor defense vessels. They were designed to prevent the close blockade of harbors by an enemy fleet. While most of the major navies such a s Japan, the United States, Britain and Germany concentrated their efforts on larger, ocean-going subs, the French Navy still had  a very substantial number of these smaller subs on hand Casablanca was a major naval base for them.  At Casablanca in 1942 there were eight of them, comprising the 16th and 18th submarine squadrons. All were of the so-called 630-ton class, which give some idea of their diminutive nature. They actually displaced a little more, some 800 tons, but were nonetheless very small with a crew of under 50 men. The clearest manifestation of their defensive role was the arrangement of their torpedo tubes. Five 550 millimeter torpedoes and two 400 millimeter torpedoes were carried in external tubes that could not be reloaded at sea.  There was just one internal torpedo tube which carried just a single reload weapon.

The external weapons undoubtedly helped keep the cost, complexity and size of the boats down from what internal tubes would have, but just as obviously meant the boats were not useful for long-range cruises or raids.

In addition to the eight coastal boats, the French and their 4th Submarine Squadron present at Casablanca, with three larger Redoutable-class subs. These were true ocean-going subs more than twice the displacement of the coastal boats and carrying four forward-firing torpedo tubes with 550 mm torpedoes. Like the smaller boats these also increased their firepower with externally mounted tubes carrying a  total of three 400 mm torpedoes and five 550 mm weapons. As in the smaller boats the larger external tubes could not be reloaded at sea, although the 400 mm tubes could.

Altogether the French submarine force at Casablanca was substantial and well-suited to defend the harbor and coast.

Monday, September 17, 2012

French destroyers at Casablanca

The French in the interwar years departed from the usual destroyer design philosophy of most of the other powers. While most navies had destroyers that were relatively small and expendable evolved upgrades from earlier designs, the French produced a series of classes of larger, more powerful destroyer-type vessels they termed contre-torpilleur, which were significantly larger than the norm. Indeed, they were much more like the larger, late-war classes of destroyers than the typical inter-war type.

The Milan, as depicted in Axis & Allies War at Sea
At Casablanca there were two of these ships, the Milan and the Albatros, both of the Aigle class. They were 2,500 ton ships, 423 feet long and armed with five 5.5-inch guns and four torpedoes. Like all French destroyer designs they were very fast, rated at 36 knots. Unlike foreign practice, which used ships of this size as "Destroyer Leaders' which acted as squadron flagships for smaller ships, these were used in their own Contre-Torpilleur squadrons, in this case the 11th.

 There were also five more typical 1,400 ton destroyers, 331-feet, four 5.1-inch guns, six torpedoes. Like the larger ships they were capable of 36 knots. All five were the L'Adroit Class. The L'Alcyon, Fougueux and Frondeur comprised the 2nd Destroyer Squadron while Brestois and Boulonnais comprised Destroyer Squadron 5.

Together these represented a dangerous force to be reckoned with for the U.S. forces approaching Casablanca in November.

One serious deficiency in the French destroyer classes was a lack of radar, as the armistice cut off the French from developments in that sphere among the Allies and the Germans didn't see fit to share any of their radar sets either.

There were also two Bourrasque class destroyers in the harbor that were there for overhaul and repair.  These were older and smaller (1,300-ton) ships similar to the L'Adroits. They don't seem to have been under effective command of the French fleet commander and did not, in the event, act in concert with the other light ships.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The D.520 fighter

D.520 French fighters from Axis & Allies War at Sea

The battle for France happened a little too early to suit the French air arm, which was in the middle of a much-needed upgrade.

The D.520 was a good, state-of-the art single-seat fighter that macthed up well with the German Bf 109 but was only starting to enter service in 1940.

The Germans allowed production of the plane to continue, however, and several squadrons equipped the Vichy French forces that garrisoned North Africa and in Syria. In both places the D.520 saw action against Allied planes, often P-40s and Wildcats. The planes were pretty evenly matched, although the French seemed to have a slight disadvantage compared to the Allies in pilot quality.

In any case, the D520 was an effective, first-line aircraft that Operation Torch planners would have to take into consideration.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Vichy France

The Vichy regime was an odd duck. Uniquely among the countries defeated by Germany, France was neither fully occupied nor completely turned over to a collaborationist allied regime.

France can probably credit its navy for that unusual result. The existence of its powerful navy game France, even in the face of utter defeat, some leverage. Too harsh an approach by the Germans and the French would simply fight on, in exile, supported by a powerful navy and drawing on a worldwide colonial empire. While nowhere near as much of an economic asset as the British empire and dominions, the overseas possessions of France and its fourth-in-the-world Navy were not insubstantial.
The flip side of this was the danger that getting control of the French Navy would pose to i interests. The 5-5-3-1.75-1.75 ratio of the Washington Naval treaty suggests the extent of that danger -- France and Italy/s portions add up to 3.5. When you add in Germany the margin of British superiority becomes slim, indeed, and actually disappears when one considers factors of geography, the advantage of the offense and the Pacific.

The Vichy deal allowed Germany to neutralize the French and take them out of the war, for at least long enough to resolve Hitler's British problem and deal with Stalin as well. Or so it seemed it should.  Of course, two years later neither Britain nor Russia were defeated and the United States was now added to the mix. The Vichy regime had, in the meantime, been frustratingly uncooperative  to Hitler's schemes in many ways. Although the French did have their share of Nazi sympathizers and collaborators, it was clear in the summer of 1942 that any cooperation from the French would be limited and grudging and would not involve giving up  the fleet or any colonies to the Axis.

On the other hand, the Vichy situation presented ticklish problems for the Allies as well. The British, of course, were sponsors of the Free French, which was, strictly speaking, an illegal and illegitimate faction. Meanwhile the Americans kept up relations with Vichy, even while at war with Japan and Germany, which gave their officials some access to Vichy territory and contacts among Vichy elements that might aid the Allies.

How, exactly, the complex interaction might play out was hard to discern. The Americans, at least, held out some hope that the Vichy French would not fight at all, but prudence dictated that the invasion had to be planned and equipped as though they would fight most bitterly. As it turned out, we will see, things played out in a middle ground.