What about Torpedoes?
Mark C. Jones
I very much enjoyed reading Alan Zimm’s assessment of the Royal Navy’s performance against the Kriegsmarine’s Admiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate (“A Battle Badly Fought,” August, pp. 14–19). Zimm makes a good argument that the Royal Navy did not perform as well as it should have, given the multiple advantages it possessed in this engagement.
What could make Zimm’s argument even better is to account for the presence of torpedoes on all three Royal Navy ships. Torpedoes were seen as a vital component of a cruiser’s armament by all major naval powers between the world wars. Torpedoes fired by screening cruisers against an enemy’s capital ships in a fleet engagement were vital to knocking out heavily armored vessels. The three Royal Navy cruisers carried 21-inch torpedoes. The Exeter had two triple mountings, while the two Leander-class ships each had two quadruple mountings.
So aside from the advantages in number of ships, ship displacement, weight of shell, and rate of fire, the British cruiser squadron had 22 torpedoes, which could have immobilized or sunk the Graf Spee. In turn, the Graf Spee possessed eight 50-cm (roughly 19.7-inch) torpedoes in two quadruple tubes.
While the light cruiser Achilles was largely manned by New Zealanders during the Battle of the River Plate, she was still technically a Royal Navy ship with the prefix HMS and not HMNZS, as stated in the article. The Achilles belonged to the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, with a British captain, officers, and men loaned to complete the ship’s crew. The Royal New Zealand Navy did not come into existence until 1 October 1941.
Admiral Byng’s Predecessor
Captain Sam J. Tangredi, USN (Ret.)
In his otherwise excellent article, “The Sad Fate of Admiral Byng” (August, pp. 42–45), Chris Durban misses an important backstory that partly explains why Byng was shot to quell popular anger at the political coalition in Parliament.
About 20 years before, a young Royal Navy lieutenant, Baker Phillips, had been court-martialed for surrendering his ship to the French. Phillips was not actually the commanding officer; the captain had been killed in an early broadside. There was great evidence that the captain had not prepared his ship for battle. The vessel subsequently was decimated and, as the surviving senior-most officer, Phillips determined that she could not continue to be defended without the slaughter of the remaining crew. Found guilty by senior naval officers of failure to do his utmost in the face of the enemy, Phillips was shot despite widespread pleas for clemency.
Many “backbenchers” in Parliament and members of the public believed he would have been spared if he had been a more senior officer, and that he had literally taken the fall for his superiors. Subsequently, the law was tightened to include officers of all ranks, which is why Byng became the symbol of the accountability of the senior commanders—not just those lower in rank without political patrons and powerful contacts.
If not for the fact that the political and naval leadership was willing to have a lieutenant shot for a lamentable and embarrassing act, but a reasonable action that more senior officers had taken in the past, it is doubtful there would have been a public outcry in favor of shooting Admiral Byng for the failure at Minorca.
The June “In Contact” letter (p. 5) referring to the April 2019 article “Long Lances and Kaitens” refers to the successful use of Kaiten manned suicide torpedoes. However, it fails to mention the sinking of the USS Underhill (DE-682) with the loss of half of her crew.
On 24 July 1945, the day of the sinking, the Underhill was a flagship escorting a group of tank landing ships (LSTs) under way from Okinawa to Leyte. I was a radioman second class assigned to USS LST-991, which was the original target of the Kaiten. Its pilot misjudged the draft of an unloaded LST, drove right under our hull, and proceeded to hit the Underhill, which was sailing close by. The 991 had been at Okinawa for D-day (1 April) and subsequent milk runs. We spent the remainder of our trip burying the Underhill’s dead at sea.
On our return to the Leyte staging area, we started beaching practices on a rocky beachhead, which some said was similar to the coast of Japan, probably the next of our invasion operations. About two weeks later, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Although our crew lived to go home, LST-991 did not. After VJ Day, she was transferred to the Nationalist Chinese Navy and reportedly was sunk in 1958 by Communist Chinese Navy torpedo boats in the Taiwan Strait.
Stories from the Veterans
Commander Lane Napoli, USNR (Ret.)
Thanks to Barrett Tillman for his article “The Tale of Eleven” (August, pp. 34–41) and its sidebar, “Verg’s War” (pp. 38–39). The sidebar was especially interesting to me, since my father’s story is similar to Vergil Bloomquist’s. My dad joined the U.S. Navy in July 1941, became an aviation radioman (ARM), and was involved throughout the war in air ops, from PBYs to operations on board the USS Hancock (CV-19). He was assigned to Fighter-Bomber Squadron 6 (Corsairs), but he flew in Avengers and Helldivers.
It is always interesting to listen to these World War II veterans. My dad is probably one of the few still-living vets who watched the USS Franklin (CV-13) get hit on 19 March 1945 (see “Acts of Valor,” April, pp. 54–57). He was on the flight deck of the Hancock and saw the Japanese aircraft come in and bomb the Franklin. To this day, he talks about that attack and the Franklin not being at general quarters.
This is nitpicking, but in “The Tale of Eleven,” Mr. Tillman states that VA-12A became the VA-115 “Eagles” in 1948. I can find no reference to that name until 1978, when the VA-115 “Arabs” (the squadron’s name taken in 1960) was changed to “Eagles.” At the time, VA-115 was flying A-6 Intruders; it was the last active squadron to transition from the A-6A/A-6B to the A-6E in 1977, flying from the USS Midway (CV-41), homeported in Yokosuka Japan.