On October 31st, 1941, the USS Reuben James was escorting an eastbound convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia and was sunk by a torpedo from a German Type IX U Boat U-552 off the coast of Iceland. Although the German declaration of war and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were still more than a month away, she was the first American ship sunk by enemy fire during World War II. The Reuben James was part of the “Undeclared War” fought against the German Navy while protecting convoys supplying Lend Lease material to Great Britain in 1941.
Unlike Lower Manhattan, where the Continental Army scattered at the sight of the British Navy’s guns, LTG George Washington skillfully parried the Howe brothers’ landing attempts to the north of Harlem Heights for two weeks in October 1776. But with complete command of the sea, it was only a matter of time before the British found an uncovered beach. They did so on the night of 18 October on a narrow spit of land known as Throgg’s Neck.
The landing at Throgg’s Neck rendered the fortifications at Harlem Heights untenable, but was far enough away to allow Washington time enough to organize an escape. He didn’t completely abandon Manhattan as he left 2000 men under BG Nathaniel Greene at Fort Washington which blocked access of the river to the British Navy and allowed supplies to cross. He planned for Fort Washington to withstand a siege just long enough for the Continental Army to win a victory on ground of his choosing to the north: White Plains, New York.
Washington had a small supply depot there, and the terrain was perfect for a Bunker Hill style battle. The main position was a high ridge with good fields of fire anchored by a swamp on the left. On the right was the strongest position, a steep hill that overlooked the narrow but swift and deep Bronx River, which anchored the right. Any attack would have to cross the river under fire, or advance into the teeth of the main position on the ridge. Washington thought that Howe not risk the river crossing against the formidable hill, and attack the ridge, so he placed militia on the hill (which did an amazing job in the same kind of position at Bunker Hill) and his best troops on the ridge. He was wrong.
After pushing back a skillful delaying action by a Connecticut Regt, Howe saw the hill was occupied by militia, and decided to deliberately attack it. Howe almost lazily arrayed his army (Without know where he was going to attack, Washington could do nothing but watch). Only when Howe brought up his cannon did Washington know that he was going to attack the hill. Washington hastily reinforced it, but the Hessian cannon swept the militia from the crest and the British Army crossed before they could arrive. The rest of the Brits fixed the Continentals on the ridge, while the Hessians under Col Johann Rall (we will see his name again) systematically cleared the hill, unhinging Washington’s line.
The Continental Army retreated north in various states of panic, but a thunderstorm that night and the next day prevented Howe from pursuing. Washington reorganized and crossed the Hudson a few days later, completely abandoning New York except for Fort Washington.
When Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, Britain occupied Iceland, a nominally independent state that Denmark was in union with. As part of FDR’s Lend-Lease Act in early 1941, US Marines occupied Reykjavik in order to free British troops for operations in North Africa.
In the latter half of 1941, the US Navy in the Atlantic was taking an increasingly active role in defending convoys against U-Boats despite no declaration of war between the US and Germany. After the “Greer Incident” in early September (the first time a U Boat fired on a US ship and vice versa) FDR issued a “shoot on sight” order for all German ships in the Atlantic. By October, it was common practice for the US Navy to escort convoys as far as Iceland before turning them over to the Royal Navy.
On 16 October 1941, a German wolfpack attacked a British convoy SC-42 (from Sydney, Canada to Liverpool, England) off of Iceland and overwhelmed the Canadian escorts. After losing nine merchantmen, the convoy commander requested the assistance of the USS Kearny and three other American destroyers docked at Reykjavik. All evening the four destroyers dropped depth charges on the German U-boats, possibly sinking one, and saved the remainder of the convoy.
But the Germans weren’t finished. Just after midnight on the 17th, U-568 fired a spread of torpedoes and one hit the Kearny killing ten sailors and wounding more than twenty. The Kearny managed to control the damage and make it back to Iceland and eventually Boston. The casualties in the Kearney Incident were the first American deaths in the undeclared war against Germany, more than six weeks before Pearl Harbor.
On 16 October 1916, BB-39, the USS Arizona, named for the newest state in the Union, was commissioned at Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York City. She was the second and last of the Pennsylvania class “super dreadnoughts”.
Battleship technology was rapidly improving in the decade of the First World War, but the US Navy wanted a “standard type battleship” with similar characteristics to simplify operations. The first class of these super dreadnoughts, the Nevada, set the template for battleships as we think of them today: four turrets split by a central superstructure, moderate speed, oil fueled, long cruising range, extreme gunnery ranges, and an “All or Nothing” armor concept. From 1912-1918, five classes of thirteen ships were constructed and they formed the backbone of the US Navy for twenty years. The Arizona was the second ship of the second class, number four of thirteen.
The biggest flaw of the old ironclads and eventually the Dreadnought class of battleships was the relatively uniform armor across the ship. As the ships got larger, the armor got thinner, but heavier. Something had to give. Battle experience had shown that ships could survive being hit in non-critical areas such as berths, administration, galleys etc, but a hit to the fire control, engine, ammunition, propellant etc greatly degraded if not destroyed the ship. The All or Nothing concept put these essential, and very vulnerable, areas in a central heavily armored “citadel” (the “All”) and minimal armor on everything else (the “nothing”). This saved weight and subsequently increased the armor of the citadel. The compact citadel and turrets had the vast majority of the armor which made the Standard type battleships very survivable. The enemy armor piercing shells that didn’t hit the citadel or turrets flew through the ship’s non battle essential areas usually without exploding. The Nevada class was the first class of battleship to incorporate the All or Nothing concept and the Pennsylvania class improved on it. The concept was confirmed at the recent Battle of Jutland. When the Arizona was launched, her citadel was impervious to the 14” shells of the largest guns in that engagement.
The Arizona and her sisters didn’t see action during the First World War due to an oil crisis, but because of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, they were essential to the US foreign policy in the inter war years. The Arizona was the flagship of Battleship Division One and represented American interests in the Mediterranean and Caribbean in the 1920s. In 1928, she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and became the centerpiece of War Plan Orange, the on-the-shelf US Pacific campaign against a potentially belligerent Japan.
In mid-October 1941, almost exactly 25 years after her commission, the Arizona led the Pacific fleet to sea from its peacetime headquarters at San Diego. Due to a breakdown in the negotiations with an increasingly aggressive and militaristic Japan, the American Pacific Fleet sailed as a show of force to its new anchorage on the big island of Oahu, Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor.
At the bottom of Senlac Hill, the Norman army advanced in three divisions or “battles”. On the left were the long time Norman allies, the Bretons under Alan the Red. In the center were the Normans, led directly by William and his half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Rouen. And on the right the Flemish barons related to William’s wife Matilda, and the troops of that renegade of the French court Eustace of Boulogne. The battles were formed into three great lines, with archers to the front, followed by the infantry, and cavalry behind.
William began his assault on Senlac Hill at 8am with a rain of arrows, which had little effect on the shield wall proper. However it did kill any levy troops that did not have shields and any horses of the Anglo Saxon nobles who brought them to fight on. Next, William sent in his men at arms, and the battle devolved into a two hour long shield wall press, the kind of fight at which the huscarls excelled. But before the Norman infantry broke, William sent in his knights to support. With no weak point to charge, the Norman knights fought atop their steeds in the line with the men at arms. In places there was the shield wall press, in others, a chaotic melee, and still others, local charges. This panel of the Bayeux Tapestry shows a huscarl beheading a Norman horse with his Viking great ax, a Norman knight skewering a huscarl with his spear, and the shield wall holding firm.
This grinding attritional fight continued for another two hours, until around 3 pm when a rumor spread that Duke William was killed. The Bretons on the left thought all was lost, broke and retreated down the hill. William of course was not dead, and galloped over from the center, and pulled off his helmet to prove so. But the English were pursuing down the hill, which turned into a blessing for the Normans, as the pursuit temporarily broke the shield wall. Odo, the archetypical battle cleric, rallied the Bretons, and wielding his mace (lest he spill Christian blood) led the charge of the reformed left, just as William’s Norman bodyguards charged into the gap created by the pursuit. The English took serious casualties, but many managed to make their way back up the hill. Only Norman exhaustion prevented the complete destruction of the English right.
William by this point was becoming desperate: All Harold had to do was still stand on the hill at nightfall to win while William had to utterly rout the English. With the Breton example, William had what he thought was the template to win the battle: charges and feigned retreats which would hopefully cause the shield wall to unhinge as it did with the Bretons. For the next three hours, a typical pattern emerged: the Norman infantry would charge, then fall back. The Norman knights would charge, but the horses refused to impale themselves on the English spears so both sides just poked at and wailed on each other for a bit, then they too would fall back. Then the archers would fire a few volleys. Rinse and repeat.
The English didn’t fall for the feigned retreat and break ranks, but the sustained losses thinned out the shieldwall considerably. From time immemorial, whether Greek phalanxes, Roman legions, or English shieldwalls, formations of men with shields drift right when they sustain casualties or move, if only to get in the shadow on the man’s shield next to him. And this is what seemed to happen at Hastings: the English battle line shortened due to exhaustion and casualties, and the Norman knights got around the flanks, particularly on the English left. The was almost certainly no “All is lost!” moment for the English. Harold is depicted as shot through the eye on the Bayeux Tapestry, but that’s the only evidence of that happening until accounts of the battle from years later. Contemporary accounts all mention that the English fought on until they were overwhelmed and only broke when it was clear that if they stayed they would be surrounded and massacred. Harold, and his brothers Gyrth and Leofine, all died anonymously on the battlefield.
The bottom line is the English went toe to toe with the Normans for over ten bloody and exhausting hours, and the Normans were simply the last ones standing.
The next day, the Norman cavalry hunted down any survivors. Harold’s body was recovered but his head was so mangled that William sent for Harold’s mistress in London to identify the body. With the majority of the Anglo Saxon nobility dead on Senlac Hill, the Norman victory was complete.
The remaining English contingents from the farther reaches of Harold’s realm that couldn’t reach Hastings in time rallied around the 13 year old Edgar the Aetheling, but William made short work of them. On Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy was crowned King William the Conqueror of England.
When William’s scouts and spies reported Harold was at London, he regathered his army at Hastings, from where he would strike north. William’s army differed significantly from Harold’s. On continental Europe, the most common invaders in recent memory were cavalry based, whether the Huns, Avars, or Magyars from the eastern steppe, or more influentially, the Arabs, Berbers, and Moors from North Africa and Islamic Iberia. Frankish and Anglo-Saxon infantry developed along similar lines until the Franks had no response to the raiding from the Umayyed Caliphate and Charles Martel nearly lost the Battle of Tours in 732 due to a lack of cavalry. The Franks from that point on made heavy cavalry a priority. His grandson Charlemagne’s Paladins, and his heavily armored knights, were a direct result of the need for mounted soldiers.
Warhorses required special breeding, a dedicated support structure, and were expensive to maintain. Only the manor lords and his dedicated henchmen could afford it, and as such the mounted soldier gained a status. Additionally, this also allowed a high degree of training as the riders had no other duties. The difference could be summed up in a common scenario: if a huscarl walked into town, demanded the lord’s taxes, and the village didn’t want to pay, the fight would be relatively even: the huscarl’s training and armor would be offset by the fyrdmens’ numbers. If a knight did the same there would be no question who the victor would be: the knight could ride circles around the shieldwall or fix them in position with a threatened charge while his companions took what they wanted anyway. (They could also demand more from the villages) Feudalism as a result developed more quickly and to a much greater degree on Continental Europe.
This was directly reflected in the composition of William’s 8000 strong army at Hastings: almost evenly split between infantry, cavalry, and archers. The cavalry looked strikingly similar to Harold’s huscarls, albeit on horse, and sans great axe. The infantry were comprised of the men of the cavalry’s support structure: the liverymen, blacksmiths, squires, saddlers, etc just “at arms” hence “men at arms”. They were armed similarly to the fyrdmen but wore mail hauberks and metal caps. Their advantage in armor however was offset by their short martial training, particularly in formation: as artisans they were usually tied to a knight not a unit, and lacked the training time afforded to fyrdmen by the growing season. Which begs the question, “Why didn’t Frankish peasants develop into fyrdmen?” The increased demands of the knights led to better agricultural practices which unfortunately caused more year round work for the peasants. Furthermore, to deal with Muslim raiders, mounted bandits, and robber knights, the peasants became nominally proficient in the common hunter’s bow or shepherd’s sling, their only options to stay out of melee distance, and afforded a small counterbalance against these otherwise unassailable opponents.
Thus, on 14 October, 1066, William the Bastard of Normandy approached Senlac Hill with his army in three great lines. The first were the archers who would rain arrows down on the shield wall, killing or wounding as many as possible. They were followed by the men at arms who would hopefully disrupt Harold’s line enough for the real force of the Norman army: the knights, whose thunderous charge at an Anglo-Saxon weak point would break the shield wall
The razing of Harold and Leofine’s lands had the intended effect: the English army raced south from the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold stopped briefly in London to gather his army and collect stragglers, but every day he waited dozens of villages burned, and their inhabitants slaughtered or carried off. On 13 October 1066, Harold and his footsore and much reduced army moved south to Senlac Hill.
Harold led 15,000 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but for the upcoming battle he had less than seven, most of whom forced marched nearly 500 miles in the last month, and the rest were hastily armed locals because he dared not wait for other contingents of fyrdmen and huscarls from the distant parts of his realm. But Senlac Hill was a strong position, nearly impossible to flank, with a steep, but not too steep, slope to the south. It was a perfect position for Harold’s infantry based army. A huscarl shield wall at the top would be difficult to break.
In England the most common invaders were footbound i.e. the Romans, Germanics, Vikings etc and usually nearby on the relatively small island, so there was little reason to engage in the expensive horse breeding and logistics support required for the warhorses needed to carry heavily armored knights. So feudalism (such as it was) developed differently in England and this reflected in Harold’s army: the money saved on cavalry was used for the training and equipping of professional heavy infantry, huscarls, and semi-professional medium infantry, fyrdmen.
The fyrdmen were trained militia, though most likely unarmored, but disciplined and proficient in the use of round shield, long stabbing knife, and spear. They were the foundation upon which the huscarls won the battles. Harold’s huscarls were the exact sort of composite heavy infantry that Western Civilization has depended upon since the Greeks threw the Persians back into the sea at Marathon: stalwart and deadly in any defense, and unstoppable in the attack under deliberately prepared circumstances. The huscarls were trained and influenced by the best standards and practices of their day: they carried the long Norman kite shield that protected the legs and prevented the Viking penchant for thrusting under the shield wall. They wore Frankish chainmail, a Frankish steel cap with distinctive noseguard, and carried a bearded Frankish throwing axe to break up charges and formations (and you know, chop wood). From their Saxon, Angle, and Jute forefathers they had the seax, a long stabbing knife, perfect for gutting a fish… or an adversary in the press of a shield wall. Furthermore, they were trained in that one constant of warfare since the Stone Age: the venerable and versatile 7 ft spear, whether thrown, braced for a charge or a boar, or overhand in a way familiar to the Greeks and Romans in ancient past. Finally, they carried the deadly Viking great axe, for the general melee after their adversaries’ shield wall broke, or more commonly for individual combat.
These professional soldiers and militia made an imposing sight on Senlac Hill, and an even more formidable shieldwall. On 13 October 1066, they were just seven miles from the Norman army gathered around Duke William the Bastard’s wooden castle at Hastings.
1966 was the Year of LSD in Rock and Roll. The Byrds released “8 Miles High” earlier in the year heralding the Age of Psychedelia, and John Lennon one upped them with “Tomorrow Never Knows” just after. The Beatles joined in and followed it up with their album “Revolver”. They were so whacked out Ringo doesn’t remember recording “Eleanor Rigby” (probably for the best), and they literally phoned in their parts to the animated movie Yellow Submarine (not the origin of the phrase, but probably the first actual use in filming). The Beach Boys also took up John Lennon’s psychedelic gauntlet. But the Beach Boys were far from the fresh faced bubble gum surfers they were a few years earlier and were themselves deep into drugs. Lead singer and song writer Brian Wilson, easily the heart and soul of the band, knew the end was near: like the Beatles, the individual Beach Boys rarely spent time in the studio together and relied on session musicians for recording.
Wilson knew this would be the last opportunity for the Beach Boys to release a great album, and used the drug fueled challenge to explore some musical avenues he couldn’t convince anyone to get on board with earlier. With legendary producer Phil Specter and an army of session artists, he wrote, produced, and recorded the album “Pet Sounds” over four months. The other members of the band, his two brothers, cousin and childhood friend, only came in to record their singing parts (for all their failings, the Beach Boys are unequaled vocally). From the greatest opening song on an album ever, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to Wilson’s first solo hit, “Caroline, No”, Pet Sounds, the first concept album, is Wilson’s magnum opus, and duly earned its rightful place as #2 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums.
And this despite leaving his best song off the album.
Brian Wilson took another four months and an unheard $70,000 to perfect his greatest creation, “Good Vibes”, which he was eventually convinced to change to “Good Vibrations” late in recording. The final 3:37 minute song was edited/mixed over nine laborious days from 3 ½ hours of finished recorded music. Good Vibrations was released on 10 October 1966 and would earn the Beach Boys an instant Emmy, bring Psychedelic Rock mainstream, give the burgeoning antiwar counterculture its anthem, and launch the sub-genre of Progressive Rock. Finally, it convinced the Beatles to forego the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival and that the future of music was not in live performance but increasing complexity in the studio. They started to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (the first pop album and #1 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums) less than two weeks later.
Admit it: you’re singing “Good Goood Good, Good Vib…” right now.
While Washington was struggling around New York City, the failed invasion of Canada was coming to its inevitable conclusion: the invasion of the United States from the north. Since the American high water mark on New Year’s Eve, the death of BG Richard Montgomery on the walls of Quebec (Ontario and Quebec were one disciplined soldier’s action away from being the 14th and 15th States), the campaign in Canada went badly for the Americans. Parliament recognized how perilously close was Canada’s loss that they sent Maj Gen John Burgoyne and 10,000 British regulars and Hessian mercenaries to reinforce Gov Guy Carleton. Faced with this overwhelming response, the remnants of Montgomery’s army, led by newly promoted BG Benedict Arnold, quickly retreated back to Lake Champlain in the late winter of 1776, burning all the boas and ships on the lake, Fort St Jean and destroying anything that they couldn’t carry or the British could use to builds ships on the lake. Without ships, Burgoyne could not proceed south.
Carleton anticipated this situationand requested prefabricated ships from Europe which could be transported overland and assembled on Lake Champlain. While those ships were enroute, MG Horatio Gates and nascent shipbuilding team from the brand new US Navy built ships as quickly as possible on the southern end of the lake. But the efforts were inadequate. An outbreak of smallpox slowed work down considerably, and furthermore there were too few American shipbuilders and sailors that could be lured away from the lucrative Atlantic seaboard to the wilderness of upstate New York. With great difficulty, the Americans built 15 ships (including two galleys, and the sloop USS Enterprise). The British managed to assemble 25 ships, the two largest with more firepower than the entirety of the American fleet.
Through sheer force of personality Arnold, an experienced sea captain, took command of the fleet. (The fight for command was the first glimpse at the problems with joint operations. Arnold didn’t accept that CDRE Esek Hopkins had command over him, and Hopkin’s choice didn’t accept Gates’ authority. Arnold won because of his rapport with the men.) Accepting that he couldn’t stand the British firepower on the open lake, Arnold moved the fleet to the narrows between Valcour Island and the shore (Plattsburg NY today). The next morning 11 October 1776, Carleton’s Navy attacked Arnold. The battle was fought all day and Arnold was correct that most of the British ships couldn’t engage, but it didn’t matter. Even though only a third of Carleton’s ships could enter the narrows, the British thrashed the inexperienced Americans, despite Arnold’s flagship, the galley USS Congress, fighting three different and larger ships simultaneously. Almost one year to the day after its establishment, the US Navy lost its first real battle.
That night Arnold’s fleet stealthily escaped sure destruction the next morning, and Carleton chased him down the lake. At Crown Point, Arnold burned his fleet, burned the fort and made his way overland to Ticonderoga. With a battered fleet, no places to winter, restless Indian allies, a strongly defended Fort Ticonderoga, and the smell of snowfall in the air, Carleton withdrew north. Though Benedict Arnold and the US Navy lost the battle, they did enough damage to delay the British invasion of the Hudson Valley until the next year.
In the north near the island, the numbers were relatively matched, but it was the Venetians who were at a disadvantage: the smaller Turkish galleys and galliots of Mehmet Scirroco’s corsairs could traverse the shallower water closer to shore and get around the Ventian left flank. Only brilliant seamanship prevented a Turkish attack into the vulnerable galley sides. Like Chamberlain at Little Round Top, Agostino Barbarigo refused his line, and when that wasn’t enough he counterattacked with his own galley. Barbarigo was killed when he opened his visor to call out a command in the din battle, and was shot through the eye with an arrow. Only the timely arrival of Alvar de Bazan with galleys from the reserve prevented the destruction of the Christian left.
In the center, Ali Pasha on the Sultana rowed directly at Don Juan on the Real. The two ships were easily discernable to both sides. The Sultana flew the great green banner of the Caliph, inscribed Allah Akbar 28,000 times in gold, while the Real flew the great blue banner of the Crucifix presented to Don Juan by Pope Pius V. The two ships crashed into each other. Legend has it that the only woman of the battle, “Maria the Dancer” disguised in armor to accompany her Spanish lover, was the first Christian to board the Sultana. The two ships locked in a death struggle and became the focus of the battle as galleys on both sides poured troops onto them for the next three hours. Makeshift fortifications appeared on both decks as Christian knights and Turkish Janissaries charged, held, and countercharged in what was essentially a land battle, as more and more ships lashed on.
In the south and furthest away, the galleasses never got into position, leaving Uluch Ali at full strength. Furthermore, he outnumbered Andrea Doria’s squadron significantly and used the open sea to try and outflank the Christian line. This led to a series of maneuvers by Doria to the west that opened a gap between his division and the center division. Uluch Ali, seizing the moment reversed his southern and westward push to outflank Doria and charged into the gap. In it were some Venetian ships that thought Doria was retreating from battle, and were making their way to the center division, and the ships of Maltese Knights whom correctly anticipated Ali’s maneuver. All were overwhelmed and destroyed. The melee in the Center lay exposed to a flank attack.
Despite the severe disadvantages and greater losses than the Christians, the Turks were a hair’s breadth away from victory.
This however was not to be the case, as events in the north would directly affect those in the south, which allowed Don Juan’s advantages discussed previously, his weight of numbers (his rowers could fight unlike the slaves of the Turkish galleys), his firepower and better armor decide the center.
After the arrival of de Bazar to stabilize the north, the fight devolved into a melee as it did in the center. But two factors quickly decided it in the Christians’ favor. First, three separate slave revolts sent confusion into the Turkish line, which led to the second – the shore. The failed flanking maneuver by the lighter Turkish galliots and galleys along the shallows eventually caused the Turkish line to be pinned against the shore, which isn’t in itself bad. But it does confer a psychological disadvantage: there is now a way to escape the battle. Every Turk from that point on had a choice: continue fighting among chained but restless slaves and against heavily armed and armored adversaries in what was increasingly a losing battle, or swim the short distance to safety. The Turkish line collapsed.
This freed Alvar de Bazan and his Spanish reserve to sail south to engage Uluch Ali in the gap opened by Andrea Doria’s maneuvers. His 25 galleys slowed Ali long enough for Don Juan to finally overwhelm Ali Pasha, who simply ran out of men to throw onto the Sultana. Once Uluch Ali was informed that Ali Pasha’s head was seen on a pike, he disengaged and escaped. His 33 galleys were the only Turkish ships to survive the battle.
The ships could be replaced, and were, but the loss of tens of thousands of elite Janissaries, bowmen, and sailors, each of whom took years of training to reach proficiency, much less mastery, meant that never again would the Ottoman Turks seriously threaten maritime invasion in the Mediterranean.
After a 3500 year run, the Battle of Lepanto was the last major navel battle in which galleys played a significant role. The loss of the rams, the success of the galleasses, in particular the broadsides and high decks, were the future. The galleons that ruled the Atlantic were soon adapted to the Mediterranean.