Tag Archives: war

Russia: the West will need to totally seal the border with its neighbour from Hell

Vladimir Putin recently decreed that the Russian assault on the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the city of Mariupol – the enormous Azovstal iron and steel works – should be blockaded, rather than have Russian soldiers put in danger by having to fight through the warren of tunnels and basements that underlie the works. He told his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to “Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot not pass through”.

The Iron Curtain, 1945-91

Ultimately, that’s how the West will have to treat Russia. It will need to be as tightly sealed as possible at its western flank so that only absolutely essential visits from, and trade with, the West can take place. The current sanctions regime is a first step in the building of a new Iron Curtain.

This unstable, militaristic state which can suddenly turn on its immediate neighbours, commit the most barbaric, genocidal atrocities, human rights abuses and war crimes against many thousands of defenceless civilians – and threaten the use of nuclear weapons – is one that will have to be kept quarantined from the civilised world, treated like a lethal virus.

The land that produced Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Chagal and Kandinsky, has a proud history, which includes eras when it boasted an empire covering even more territory than the USSR. It sent the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space on 12th April, 1961. And it lost some 25,000,000 people in World War II, compared to 8.8 million in Germany and 3.1 million in Japan. Its history has been turbulent, politically and economically … and wars and invasions have been an ongoing aspect of Russia’s development.

Let’s be clear: all wars are the result of a breakdown in the rule of law. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”1 I’m old enough to well remember the dreadful scenes which were reported nightly on TV during the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to admit it, but the twenty-year conflict in Vietnam sometimes seemed far away and disconnected from our own cosy world. But weapons and media technology have both moved on massively since those days. Grainy film of B52 bombing runs and flame throwers, whilst just as horrific in reality, had nowhere near the immediacy and impact of what we now witness nightly in our living rooms via real time satellite broadcasts which deliver images of death and destruction – in a European country – in crystal clear digital definition. Whilst Putin may sit in his luxurious command centre doling out dispassionate orders with no concern for the human misery he creates, no-one watching news reports can fail to be deeply moved, often to the point of tears. This media coverage is unprecedented, bringing home to us the plight of hundreds of individual civilians, children, women, men, the old and the young, caught up in this savage, unprovoked assault by a nuclear power, with its rockets, rapes, bombs, tanks, cowardly shootings, sieges, looting and so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ which turn out to be death traps.

So whenever the end-point of the current invasion is reached, be it short-, medium- or long-term, Russia’s relationship with the West will have undergone a fundamental mutation. The idea that any meaningful reconciliation can take place in the foreseeable future, with political, trade, cultural and social links re-established in a return to normality, is absurd. The geo-political and geo-cultural landscapes will have been utterly changed. Having transformed itself into a market economy in the 1990, albeit rife with corruption, Russia will find itself increasingly isolated, perhaps returning to the days of centralised planning. For reconciliation to happen, Western states would need to see proof that Russia had not only rid itself of the Putin regime but cleansed the social brainwashing inflicted on the Russian people for over a century – and that it had established a system of governance that rests on the predictable and verifiable application of internationally-agreed rules of law. And that isn’t going to happen. More to the point, the watching publics of the outside world will not look kindly on governments or commercial organisations which contemplate resuming ‘business as usual’ with Russia.

It’s certainly the case that Putin soft-sells his autocratic governmental style to the Russian public so that it reflects their long-held and deep-seated distrust of western countries, as neatly personified by NATO. But for all his manic war-mongering and heartless brutality, he is in power primarily because of a Russian culture which has a deeply ingrained paranoia about perceived threats from the West which stretch back hundreds of years, coupled with a well-spring of anger about the break-up of the USSR. Many Russians hanker for a return to the days of Joseph Stalin, who held eastern Europe in an iron grip, defeated Hitler and placed the USSR firmly in position as a leading nuclear superpower.

One of the safety valves for this paranoia in the Russian populace is their cavalier attitude to the use of nuclear weapons – amply exemplified by current TV discussions …

“The goal is for the sake of the peace of future generations of Ukrainians themselves, and the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia – from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, said Dimitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, recently. This ambiguous statement is quite typical of the veiled threats in rhetoric coming out of Moscow.

Putin justified the Russian attacks in his address to the people of Russia on the day the invasion of Ukraine was launched, 24th February, 2022, using selective facts and paying little or no attention to context. He began by citing what he called NATO’s eastward expansion, commenting first on NATO’s bombing campaign (“bloody military operation”) in Yugoslavia in 1999. “First a bloody military operation was waged against Belgrade, without the UN Security Council’s sanction but with combat aircraft and missiles used in the heart of Europe”. What he omitted to mention was that, although Russia and China vetoed it at the UN, the campaign in the Kosovo War was undertaken on humanitarian grounds, to stop the wholesale deportations of Albanians, described by Tim Judah in his 1999 book, The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia: ” … the Serbian police began clearing … people [who] were marched down to the station and deported … the UNCHR registered 848,000 people who had either been forcibly expelled or had fled”2 The break-up of Yugoslavia was a complex process and the bombing of Yugoslavia had numerous ramifications. But the fact of the matter was that NATO’s actions were undertaken with a primary goal of saving lives, not empire-building.

” … the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine”, Putin continued, in his 24th February address, “those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia”. This “freely-made choice” of the people of the Crimean peninsula involved an invasion of Russian troops without insignia, the capturing of the Crimean parliament, the putting in position of a network of checkpoints, the securing of airports, cyber attacks and the closing down of websites and the besieging of Ukrainian military bases.

Clearly the practicalities of excising Russia from the financial and trading structures of the west and its allies will pose immense challenges. It will be a series of processes, not sudden events, involving maximising resources devoted to replacing dependence on their hydrocarbons, growing more corn and wheat and replacing other inputs such as minerals and microprocessors. Russia is a major market for western goods and services and again this will need to be factored in. This may all sound wildly impractical. But wait … what’s the alternative? Continue to feed a war machine which seems intent on rebuilding an empire which is long gone by using utterly inhumane military strikes? Await the day when either Putin or another unhinged populist leader decides to risk launching a “Mutually Assured Destruction” (M.A.D.) strike against European and US targets, ignoring the inevitable deadly response?

In his relationship with the outside world, Putin thrives on appearing unpredictable and slightly unhinged. The Putin brand is such that world leaders are often on the back foot when it comes to negotiation. Take the situation with Sweden and Finland, who are currently considering joining NATO.

If they don’t joint NATO, there’s no guarantee that Russia won’t attempt invasion anyway, under the guise of removing the potential for them to do so. Putin aide Medvedev has already said that Russia will strengthen all its forces in the Baltic if Sweden and Finland join NATO. He stated that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in nearby Kaliningrad, an “exclave” between Poland and Lithuania. If ever my next door neighbour buys a machine gun and starts threatening me over the garden fence – which seems pretty unlikely – I’d not only contact the police; I’d also move house. Countries are not in a position to do that. That’s why Sweden and Finland – two peaceful sovereign states which have the bad luck to be living next to a neighbour from hell – are rushing to join NATO, having maintained a position of neutrality for many years.

Mass deaths in war, genocides and other atrocities – all terms subject to varying interpretations – took place throughout the twentieth century, in places such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and, of course, Germany, and in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were many others. But in most cases these events were part of conflicts which eventually resolved themselves – and were not initiated by a nuclear state whose actions were sudden and unpredictable. There is no knowing how far Russia is prepared to go in pursuit of Putin’s stated desire to … do what?

The only way to deal with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour is to erect a notional but impenetrable barrier along its western edge. This new Iron Curtain will need to be far more than a simple matter of customs posts and sanctions; by which I mean that it will mean working towards the goal of excluding Russia from any international commercial, financial and cultural activity which may feed its militaristic appetites, including stronger defences against cyber attacks and even terminating its participation in the Olympic Games, which it routinely weaponises via a state-sponsored drugs program.

And yet, having said that, some commentators suggest that in looking forward to a post-Putin era, we should be careful what we wish for. The ensuing power vacuum could provoke a struggle for dominance amongst regional leaders which could catapult the country – and its nuclear arsenal – into an even more unstable state …

Credits

Map of the Iron Curtain: © Sémhur/Wikimedia Commons; licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kaliningrad: Location Map of Kaliningrad and the surrounding area; source – modified version of original in CIA Factbook, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Notes

1 Hemingway, Ernest, Introduction to Treasury for the Free World, 1946

2 Judah, Tim (1997). The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (2009, 3rd ed.). New Haven, ConnecticutYale University Press. p. 150.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Politics

The sinking of the Yorkmoor

May 27th, 1942, about 9.00pm, position 29.54.5° N., 72.25.5° W.; very deep water

German submarine U-506, under the command of twenty-eight-year-old Kapitänleutnant Erich Würdemann, is knifing through the North Atlantic on her way back to base at Lorient on the north-west coast of occupied France, accompanied by another, smaller U-boat. This is her second patrol. She left port on 6th April. After crossing the ocean she registered her first kill, sinking the small Nicaraguan merchant ship Sana off the southern coast of Florida. By the end of the patrol she will sink five more ships, render another a total loss and damage three others, before arriving back at Lorient on 15th June.

U-506, 251 feet long, with her twenty-two torpedoes and a complement of forty-eight, is a Type IXC vessel, assigned to the 10th U-boat Flotilla (emblem on right), which consists of eighty submarines. Würdemann was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, on 16th April, 1940; he’ll progress to a First Class Iron Cross on return from this, the most successful of his five patrols.

The boat may be going home, but its crew must stay vigilant, not only to be ready to attack any Allied shipping they encounter but also to remain invisible to enemy planes and warships. The sea is calm, no whitecaps, the wind Force 1, from the north-east. Visibility is good. There are no currents, no clouds, with a full moon.

“Periskop nach oben”, says Würdemann, quietly. When raised, the periscope leaves a barely perceptible wake on the flat calm surface, certainly unseen by any of the three lookouts on the ship on whose silhouette he now homes in. He notes its British flag. He’s already made eight successful attacks during this patrol but this is the first time he’s encountered a potential British target.

On board the S/S Yorkmoor, in a complete blackout, eighteen-year-old apprentice Able Seaman George Barringer, from the fishing town of Whitby on the east coast of Yorkshire, has just put the kettle on to make a cup of tea for the Master of the ship, Captain Thomas Mathew Harris (whom I believe is pictured below, with young George on the left).

George (destined to be my father-in-law), went to sea around a month before his sixteenth birthday. Although he’d been happy exploring the cliffs around Whitby with his mates, cycling around the town and messing about in rowing boats in the harbour – sometimes with his friend Jeanne Crooke (later to be my mother-in-law) – he yearned to get away from the stifling home life he led in the company of his three older sisters. He took the decision to join the merchant navy “just for something to do”, though he did get his mother’s blessing.

Relatives and friends would line quaysides around UK ports to see off the crews in emotional farewells to vessels, like the Yorkmoor pictured below, about to cross the treacherous, sub-infested waters of the Atlantic.

This is George’s second transatlantic journey on the Yorkmoor, a Moor Line Ltd cargo ship (registered tonnage 2,768 tonnes). His first voyage was to Toronto, where the vessel, chartered by the British Ministry of War Transport, picked up a mixed haul of mostly minerals, together with other essential supplies for the war effort. The trip took the boat through ice fields and treacherous currents, not to mention the unseen menace of any lurking U-boats.

Fortunately, on that first crossing, in convoy, there was at least the reassuring presence of escorting corvettes.

Yorkmoor left St Thomas in the Virgin Islands four days ago, bound for New York City, with a cargo of 6,700 tons of bauxite loaded in four hatches. But this time the ship is unescorted, on instruction from the Naval Control Officer on St Thomas. “Madness”, thinks George.

She is steering 337 degrees to true north (ie north northwest), at a speed of 7.5 knots. The three lookouts have a difficult task at this time of night. There’s a trained Able Seaman on watch on the forecastle head, twenty feet above water, but with no binoculars. He’s been in position for fifteen minutes. The Third Officer, on watch since 8:00pm, is on the bridge thirty-five feet above water and is using binoculars and a telescope, though both are in very poor condition. A gunner is also on the lookout on the gun platform. He’s one of four Navy gunners aboard and is furnished with binoculars.

Now, just below the waves, Würdemann retracts the periscope and orders the submarine to break surface about a mile from the Yorkmoor, on the port side. The moment U-506 surfaces, his gunners rush swiftly and silently to their stations and arm the wet-mounted 10.5 cm (4 inch) C/32 Schnelladekanone (quick loading cannon – see example right) and their 3.7cm (1.5 inch) SK C/30 gun.

At 9.15pm, without warning, U-506 opens fire on the Yorkmoor, in co-ordination with the smaller sub, which soon also appears on the port beam. All hell breaks loose aboard the ship, as single shots at first, followed by bursts of rapid fire come in, interspersed with the sending up of star shells, which illuminate the whole scene. The Third Officer immediately sounds a general alarm and the Captain begins giving orders from the bridge. Despite the full moon, the fact that the submarine is a mile away on a dark night means that she is never visible to the Yorkmoor’s gunners.

The ship is turned hard to starboard to put the submarine astern; but because of damage to the steering apparatus by initial shellfire the rudder remains fixed. “Bloody hell, we’re going to get torpedoed!”, thinks George. The more likely truth is that Würdemann has used all his torpedoes in other attacks, or is holding back from using the remainder, as he calculates that his guns are powerful enough to sink the Yorkmoor.

The submarine’s gunners are expert – hardly any of their fifty or sixty shells miss the target. The first shot hits the aft and midship deck on the port side. The second smashes into the base of the funnel. The third hits the foc’sle head. Firing becomes continuous and George sees many of the shells penetrating the ship’s hull below the water line.

“There was a right shamozzle on deck”, George remembered.

Yorkmoor’s gunners start returning fire within five minutes of the first shot from U-506. At about the same time, her radio operator manages to begin sending out a distress message: “SSSS YORKMOOR 29.54.5 N, 72.25.5 W”. The “SSSS” is probably a version of the newly-adopted distress call “SSS”, which signifies that a ship is being attacked by a submarine. But no sooner has the positional information been transmitted than the aerial is torn apart by shellfire, preventing both further transmission and receipt of any replies. The vessel’s gunners are unable to see the submarines themselves, so they aim at the flashes from their guns. The Yorkmoor has a very mobile 4″ gun on the stern, on a special mounting which allows depression and elevation, as well as two Marlins and two Hotchkiss machine guns and other defensive equipment in the locker. But besides its superior fire power, U-506 has had surprise on its side. And when ammunition on the Yorkmoor’s gun platform runs out, it has to be replenished from magazines below deck. The Yorkmoor’s rate of fire is no more than two shells every three minutes.

The ship begins to list to port, while sinking at the bow end. It’s clear that it will soon be necessary to take to the lifeboats. The submarines stop firing.

As the situation deteriorates, confidential documents – British radio codes, for instance – are put into a perforated metal box, which is weighted and thrown overboard by the Third Officer, A. Clark, at 9.30pm.

The Navy gunners perform brilliantly. They have been undertaking regular gun drills. They remain at their posts until the end, later receiving Special Commendations for “behaving with gallantry, obeying instructions implicitly and staying by the gun during the heavy gunfire “. Indeed, there was also a commendation for all officers and men of the crew who stood by the ship under continuous shellfire and abandoned her only when all hope of defensive and offensive action was gone. Perhaps even more to the point, it seems nothing short of miraculous that none of the crew received any injuries, let alone that none were killed.

Captain Harris orders “Abandon Ship!” at about 10:00pm. Here again crew members are well-drilled, their last practice at abandoning ship having been performed at Halifax. With the two submarines still on the surface, Yorkmoor’s crew take to the lifeboats. The ship’s list doesn’t make this easy, but eventually they get them into the water. The Captain assumes charge of the starboard boat, along with twenty-two men. The port lifeboat is in the charge of the Chief Officer, and this is the one that George gets into, together with the twenty-two others. Fortunately the weather is warm. At around 10:15pm, an hour after the start of the attack, Yorkmoor slips, bow first, beneath the waves.

What a terrifying experience all this must be for an eighteen-year-old, clambering into a small lifeboat in the pitch black Atlantic Ocean, knowing that his ship is sinking and in the intimidating presence of a huge, powerful German submarine and its smaller companion, both watching every move – so different from the days not so long ago when he messed about in rowing boats in Whitby harbour!

The time is 10:25pm. In the starboard boat, Captain Harris is being questioned by loud-hailer by Würdemann. He wants to know the name of the ship, where it’s from, where it was headed, its tonnage and its cargo. It is noted that the submarine commander speaks English well but with a definite German accent, using excellent grammar. At around 10:30pm, Würdemann decides to leave, submerging U-506 and turning the vessel to an easterly direction. The other submarine also disappears.

No sooner have George and his shipmates got into the port lifeboat than it becomes clear that it’s not seaworthy, having been badly damaged by shell splinters. So the port boat is abandoned for a while and everyone transfers to the starboard boat. After some discussion, the Chief Officer, carpenter and a salvage squad get back into the port boat to attempt to effect repairs. This is easier said than done: not only is water gushing in, but numerous sharks are circling, their dorsal fins tracing menacing patterns through the starlit waters. One man stands on the bow and does his best to chase away the sharks with an oar. There is a pump, but bailers also use tin helmets to remove water – they don’t hold as much water as buckets but are easier to hold and don’t tire the men out so quickly. There is about six inches of water in the boat most of the time. Replacements take over from tired bailers, whilst keeping a watchful eye out for the sharks as they shift across.

Two rafts are spotted nearby – food and water tanks are taken off them. The Captain’s boat stays alongside the port boat for the entire night while bailing and repairs continue apace. Work has to be done from the inside to avoid being attacked by sharks. Eventually the port lifeboat is repaired, with sterling work being done by ship’s carpenter, James Cairns, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. All equipment is replaced by food and water. Some sleep becomes possible, under the lifeboats’ protective covers. For a time the weather takes a turn for the worse, the sea becoming rougher. Twelve men in the port boat are joined by a further five. But the water becomes too rough for any more to transfer. The motor in the port boat has been damaged by salt water and fails to operate. There is no motor in the Captain’s boat, but it can proceed under sail, making around 1.5 knots. It takes the port boat in tow. By the evening of May 28th, with the wind picking up and water ingress in the port boat under control, the boats increase speed to four or five knots and they travel some thirty-five miles over the next twenty-four hours.

George is put in charge of rationing.

Food and water is rationed from the start. No medical treatment is required but two severe cases of diarrhea occur. The first meal was eaten at noon on May 28th, some twenty-six hours after the sinking, each man having one slice of bread and about two ounces of water. Five hours later the menu is three biscuits and a small quantity of beef – just enough to cover a biscuit, with the same amount of water. Other meals follow the same basic pattern at 08:00, noon and 17:00 each day.

May 29th sees the boats making even faster progress, covering some seventy miles.

At about 7:00am on May 30th, Captain Harris determines that the boats can split up, as the weather quickly improves and the temperature rises to 80 degrees. The port boat, now fully repaired, is likely to make faster progress and hopefully bring help. Its mainsail is set and with a force 3 northeast wind in a moderate to heavy swell, they manage a speed of around five knots, travelling an estimated forty-three miles that day.

At 08:00am on May 30th, having just parted company with the Captain’s boat, George and the others celebrate the Mate’s birthday. To mark this special occasion, each man has five biscuits, one with corned beef spread over it and one with beef paste, with the usual amount of water. The last meal is taken at 17:00pm on May 30th, consisting of four biscuits each, with beef paste spread over one, together with the standard ration of water.

For, unknown to the men aboard both boats, according to the report of the sinking produced by Headquarters Sixth Naval District United States Navy Yard, S.C, the short message which the radio operator on board the Yorkmoor managed to send out has been picked up by M.V. Laguna while at anchor in Bermuda. At 4:00am on the morning of May 31st, the crew of the port boat spot an approaching vessel and use flares to attract its attention. By 4:30am they are alongside the Laguna, having reached latitude 32.00 North, longitude 75.46 West. The assumed position of the Captain’s boat is latitude 31.14 North, longitude 75.28 West. The men have been in the lifeboat for three days and six hours.

George and his fellow crew-members in the port boat are brought to land at Charleston in South Carolina, The Charleston Evening Post headlining the story of their amazing survival and journey to safety.

Meanwhile Captain Harris and his compatriots in the starboard boat have to wait another three days to be rescued. But it was largely thanks to his clear thinking under immense pressure, together with the skills of other key individuals, that all forty-five crew members survive largely unscathed, except for sunburn.

U-506 went on to sink another eight ships, six of which were British, one Swedish and one Norwegian. In total, she sank fourteen ships and was involved in the notorious Laconia incident. Würdemann and his men met their end during their fifth patrol, just over a year after the Yorkmoor was sunk. They were attacked with seven depth charges by a US Liberator aircraft, off the Spanish coast, west of Vigo. The U-boat broke in two. About fifteen men were seen in the water by the plane’s pilot, who dropped a liferaft and a smoke flare, though only six survived, rescued by a British destroyer three days later.

On his return to England, George continued to serve in the Merchant Navy, voyaging to most corners of the world, including ports in Australia, India, South Africa, Canada and the USA. After the war, he served for many years in the Metropolitan Police, being awarded a medal for his exemplary service. He always maintained his love of sailing, an activity only rivalled in his affections by his huge love of golf. I never detected any long-term effects of the horrors of that dreadful night on the ocean.

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of George’s passing away, at the grand old age of ninety-four. He remains in our hearts, sadly missed by the whole family and his many friends.

Appendices

U-506’s sister boat, the U-505 (above), on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL. October 2005.

Credit: Jeremy Atherton. Link to license – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en

10.5 cm SK C/32 – source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/falcon_33/38818115524/

Credit: Erik Ritterbach. Link to license – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, History