Friday 29 March 2013

Submarine Designer Lost and Found

Sir Arthur W Johns, a lost British genius rediscovered.

Sir Arthur W. Johns, K.C.B., C.B.E. (1873-1937), was the Royal Navy’s Sixth DNC (Director of Naval Construction). He was responsible for the majority of Royal Navy submarine classes in the Great War, and the designer of the giant submarine cruiser X.1 (the subject of one of my books).

Born in 1873 at Torpoint, Cornwall, Arthur William Johns entered Devonport Dockyard as a Shipwright Apprentice at the age of 14. After heading the list of all apprentices in his examination year, he moved to Greenwich Royal Naval College as a probationary Assistant Constructor.  In 1895 he qualified with the coveted First Class Professional Certificate.

After several minor assignments, he worked on the design of Captain Scott's Antarctic research vessel, the Discovery, as well as the King Edward VII Class pre-dreadnoughts and the Royal Yacht Alexandra.

Promoted to the rank of Constructor in 1911, in the following year he began his long association with Royal Navy submarine design, becoming responsible for the later 'E' Class vessels, and the succeeding 'F', 'G', 'H', 'J', 'K', 'L', 'M' and 'R' Classes.

In 1916 he was asked to investigating rigid airship construction, and designed the successful R 33 and R 34, the latter airship being the first machine to make a two-way air crossing of the Atlantic (in July 1919).

In November 1920 A W Johns was confirmed as Assistant Director of Naval Construction, and it was in this capacity that he was responsible for the design of X.1.

Made a C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) in 1920 as a reward for his War service, he was made a C.B. (Companion of the Bath) in 1929, and in 1933 he was created a K.C.B (Knight Commander of the Bath).  A lifelong scholar, Sir Arthur became a member of the Institute of Naval Architects in 1904, presenting many thought-provoking papers to that august body, and was elected a Vice President of the Institute in 1931.

Promoted to Director of Naval Construction in January 1930, the last major vessel for which Sir Arthur was responsible was the new aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.  Her first Captain was full of praise for her aircraft handling arrangements, stating that in the first 400 hours' flying, not one single airman had been injured taking off and landing.  In the same period, he sagely concluded, if the same young men had been ashore driving their motorcars and riding their motorbikes, quite a few of them would have ended up in hospital.

Sadly, early in 1936 illness forced Sir Arthur to retire, and he died on January 13th 1937.

With such an illustrious career, one might think that Sir Arthur would feature in at least one of the UK’s naval archives, or perhaps even the National Portrait Gallery in London?   When I began my research into the submarine cruiser X.1, I was fascinated by the gifted and famous individuals concerned with her specifications, design, construction and working up.  But of her designer, Sir Arthur, I could find no biographical details at all, not even a photograph.

He had been lost to history, a sad fate for such a multi-skilled engineering genius.

Then one Monday afternoon I called at the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport, and met the volunteer librarian, Alan Ferris, who only worked in the library on Monday afternoons.  I asked Alan if he had come across any details of Sir Arthur, and he sadly shook his head.  Then as I turned to leave, he called out, “But yesterday afternoon I was at a boot sale in the local park, and a man sold me a cardboard box containing books he said covered naval subjects.”

Alan disappeared and shortly returned carrying a large box, filled with books.  “I’ve not had time to go through them yet” he said.

I picked up the first book in the box, and opened the first page.

And there, staring out at me, was a photograph of Sir Arthur W Johns, followed by his obituary, from which I have taken the above details of his career!

And if you ever think that there is no such thing in life as a “coincidence”, just read page 25 of explorer Tim Severin’s book “The Brendan Voyage”.

Admiral James Somerville


From beyond the grave?
Life is stranger than fiction…
What was my link with the life of Admiral James Somerville?
Clue: Look up my birth date

Having set the scene, I wondered how Admiral Somerville might have found an alternative way out of the dilemma he faced at Mers el-K├ębir. I knew that after he had ordered his men to fire on our late allies in the French fleet, Somerville had written to his Wife, and to his fellow admirals, bitterly regretting that he had allowed himself to be bullied by Churchill into taking such a disastrous course of action. To his dying day, Somerville must have gone over and over in his mind what he should have done.

After all, if Somerville never had any viable alternative, there would be no alternative history narrative for me to pursue.

Then one day the obvious answer came to me, the alternative course of action Somerville could have taken, which might have altered the course of the history of the whole world.

So I typed it out, just as if I had always known it. And all the blocked alternative courses of action were suddenly opened up, for both Axis and Allies to follow.

Real life is far stranger than fiction. In a world full of startling coincidences, here is one more to ponder on.

After I had finished the book, I was astounded to discover that Admiral James Somerville died the very same day I was born………

Perhaps now, Admiral James Somerville, your ghost can rest in peace.

So, how can you explain this startling “coincidence”?

The Second Edition of "Moment of Destiny", the Alternative History of the Second World War, is available from as an e-book, for downloading on your reader or PC.

Friday 1 March 2013

Battleship Bismarck

Bismarck, the Fatally Flawed Battleship

All too often, one reads or hears the description of the Bismarck as “the most powerful battleship in the world”.

This assessment by the uninitiated must refer to the encounter in the Denmark Strait, when HMS Hood, herself a badly flawed design, blew up and sank early in the action, presumably following a hit by a single shell from Bismarck.  On that basis Derfflinger, which sank HMS Queen Mary at Jutland with a well-placed shell, would also qualify as “the most powerful capital ship in the world”!

For the Bismarck herself was far from “the most powerful battleship”.  For one thing, this statement completely ignores the existence of her sister ship, the Tirpitz, which therefore must also have been “the most powerful battleship in the world”.  And Tirpitz even had torpedo tubes, which Bismarck lacked.

Enough of this superlative over-description.

Bismarck was a large, well-armoured and powerful ship, but she suffered from several major flaws, some of which actually threatened her survivability in a capital ship action.

Firstly, as an updated version of the old Baden Class of the Great War, she carried her main armament of 15-inch guns in four twin turrets, a major waste of tonnage and an unnecessary elongation of the ship’s structure and armour protection, compared with two quadruple turrets of her major rivals, the French Richelieu Class ships.

This waste of tonnage was compounded by fitting a single purpose secondary armament, which in turn required a tertiary anti-aircraft armament, all wasteful in space and tonnage compared to contemporary dual-purpose secondary armament being fitted by the Royal Navy and the US Navy.

Finally, the fitting of two twin turrets forward and two twin turrets aft meant that to deploy her full main armament she would have to turn broadside on, thus exposing her full hull length as a target, when facing ships armed with quadruple turrets forward, which would engage her head-on, with a much reduced silhouette.

Because the Kriegsmarine designers had not been able to profit from post-war live firing experiences, such as the British had used against the captured Baden, they had not taken on two crucial lessons:
- firstly, it was essential to provide one single main armour deck of considerable thickness, in place of the previous multiple layer of thin decks;
- secondly, it was paramount to ensure that all control and power lines ran below and were thus protected by the thick main armour deck.  On Bismarck too many of these crucial control systems ran above the main armour deck and were thus susceptible to being knocked out by medium-calibre shell hits.

Finally, the Bismarck shared one common design weakness with contemporary German armoured ships of the Kriegsmarine: the weak stern section.  On 11th April 1940 the submarine Spearfish hit the pocket battleship / panzerschiffe Lutzow with a torpedo which caused the stern to practically break away from the ship.  On 23rd February 1942 the submarine Trident hit the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen with a torpedo which so severely damaged the stern that it had to be completely removed in order to enable the ship to return to Germany for repairs.  The single hit by an 18-inch aerial torpedo which crippled Bismarck’s steering gear was probably also the cause of the complete damaged stern breaking away from the ship as she capsized.

Bir Hakeim 1942

Bir Hakeim, the Debt the Free World Owes to the Free French

Bir Hakeim, the Well of the Sage, where Koenig and his men saved Egypt, and India, and a lot more besides…

Between 26th May and 11th June 1942, a handful of Free French drawn from all over the French Empire resisted ferocious attacks by the Afrika Corps led by Rommel.

Their aim, to hold the fortified position of Bir Hakeim long enough to allow the defeated British Eighth Army to withdraw to the ridge at El Alamein, the very last defensive position before Egypt and the Suez Canal.

For his part, Rommel tried to destroy the French defenders in order to allow his armoured divisions to sweep around to the North and cut off the fugitives’ escape route.

Koenig did all that was asked of him, and more.  The Eighth Army pulled back to El Alamein where it first repulsed Rommel’s attacks and then went over to the offensive, in the operation that would lead to the liberation of North Africa.

If Koenig and his men had failed, if Rommel had captured virtually all of the retreating Eighth Army, the history of the Second World War could have taken a dramatic turn.

Rommel the conqueror of Egypt, astride the Suez Canal, able to turn northward into Syria and Iraq to cut off the Allies’ oil supplies, and go on to attack the underbelly of the Soviet Union.

Rommel continuing to the East, welcomed in Afghanistan as the new Alexander, Panzer Divisions debouching from the Khyber Pass, falling on the rear of British India while the Japanese pressed in from the East.

These are uncomfortable scenarios, but Koenig’s Free French Brigade stopped Rommel in his tracks, and helped save the Free World from many more months of painful conflict, and perhaps a complete disaster.
U-Boat Warfare

Given Winston Churchill’s fear that the U-Boat menace was the one threat which he feared the most during the Second World War, his allowing “Bomber” Harris to divert Bomber Command into sending thousand bomber raids over Germany instead of first concentrating on winning the Battle of the Atlantic is incomprehensible.

One of the stalwarts of Coastal Command, the Short Sunderland four-engined long-range flying boat, was itself a victim of this kind of muddled thinking and misallocation of resources.

Inspired by the commercial Short flying boats which linked the far-flung parts of the British Empire, the Sunderland was originally designed to carry a powerful 37mm calibre automatic cannon in the nose, for an anti-shipping role.  Using armour-piercing or semi-armour-piercing rounds this cannon, the C.O.W. Gun, so named after its originators, the Coventry Ordnance Works, could have been a devastating weapon against surfaced U-Boats.

When the Air Ministry, in its wisdom, decided to drop the C.O.W. Gun and instead install a powered tail turret with four short-range .303 Browning machine guns, the design characteristics of the Sunderland were completely upset.

To maintain the correct centre of gravity, the wings had to be set back in a swept configuration.  As a quick fix the original motor mounts were left unchanged, meaning that each motor exerted its thrust at a slight angle to the line of flight, thereby wasting a fraction of its power.

Even worse, the forward-firing armament was reduced to just a single .303 calibre Vickers K Gas-Operated machine gun in a nose turret.  This puny armament was supposed to clear the decks of a surfaced U-Boat firing back with 20mm and later 37mm automatic cannon, which far outranged the small calibre .303 round.

As for the 37mm C.O.W. Gun, the design was purchased by Vickers, who continued to produce it as the Vickers ‘S’ in 40mm calibre, used during the Second World War as an anti-tank weapon fitted under the wings of Hawker Hurricane Mk IID aircraft in North Africa, with mixed success.

Ironically, the best anti-submarine gun turned out to be the automatic 6-pounder (57mm) Molins Gun, fitted in only a handful of Mosquitos.  Its use in Sunderlands was never considered.

Finally, the heroic Sunderland crews, flying 12-hour patrols over the sea, were expected to come home on the power of second-hand motors, which had already seen action in Bomber Command aircraft over Germany.  After reconditioning, the Bristol motors were passed as fit for future service, but many parts must have been subject to metal fatigue.  Again, being an earlier design of motor, their propeller feathering system contained not enough oil to correctly carry out this function, leading sometimes to the loss of an entire motor or at best a non-feathered dead prop causing extra drag on an aircraft hundreds of miles out at sea.