World war


Senior member
Dec 3, 2017
On 24 Feb 1944, USN Patrol Squadron VP-63 scored its 1st victory against a German U-boat with a unique weapon, the retro bomb mated to a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). 2 x PBY Catalina drove U-761 to the surface and forced its abandonment off Gibraltar.


Senior member
Dec 3, 2017
Death by P-38
Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, was the Harvard-educated, poker-playing mastermind of the December 7, 1941, attack.

That Saturday afternoon the “Opium Den”—the smoky, sweltering, ramshackle command bunker at Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal—was packed with Navy and Marine brass hats. Lowly flyboys Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr. and Major John W. Mitchell, commanding officer of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 339th Fighter Squadron, arrived last, but were treated like guests of honor. Mitchell was handed a teletyped radio message marked “Top Secret”: a flight schedule for an inspection tour by Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

“Who’s Yamamoto?” Mitchell asked.

Lanphier just said, “Pearl Harbor.”

Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, was the Harvard-educated, poker-playing mastermind of the December 7, 1941, attack. Navy code-breakers had intercepted Japanese radio traffic indicating that the admiral, known for his fanatical punctuality, would fly over Bougainville Island early the next morning, April 18, 1943—coincidentally the first anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. The newly appointed air commander in the Solomons, Rear Adm. Marc A. Mitscher, who had captained the carrier Hornet on the Doolittle mission, now saw the chance for another long-range surprise attack, this time with the 339th’s Lockheed P-38G Lightning fighters.

“We’re going to get this bird,” the Navy planners told Mitchell and Lanphier. “We mean for you to nail him if you have to ram him in the air. But he’ll be taking off more than 635 miles away from here, and only good long-range flying will intercept him. Major Mitchell, that means Lightnings.”

At almost that very moment, Yamamoto was dining with Lt. Gen. Hotoshi Imamura, Japanese army commander at Rabaul. Imamura had narrowly escaped being shot down over Bougainville two months earlier, and he and others urged Yamamoto to cancel his tour. But the admiral’s chief of staff, Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, who would join Yamamoto on the trip, deemed it crucial for morale. Having already announced his plans, Yamamoto said, “Even if it were dangerous, I could not turn back now.”


In a photo taken just a week before his death, Yamamoto (in white) inspects Japanese pilots at Rabaul, New Britain. (National Archives)

The Americans were depending on it. “Yamamoto’s supposed to be coming to Bougainville tomorrow morning,” Mitchell briefed his pilots. “We figure he’ll land at 9:45. We’re going to jump him there, to the west, 10 minutes before that.” It meant circling more than 400 miles around the Solomons in radio silence to avoid enemy contact, navigating by dead reckoning over the ocean and flying at sea level to duck radar. Even with extra-capacity drop tanks, the Lightnings would have only five to 10 minutes in the target zone. Mitchell privately figured their chances of even seeing Yamamoto were about 1,000-to-1, and that was before Kahili, the Japanese base on Bougainville, potentially launched its 75 Zeros at the Americans. With just a dozen or so Lightnings to fly cover, it seemed like a suicide mission.

At 0710 hours Mitchell led the cover flight takeoff in Mitch’s Squitch. Lanphier—brash, ambitious and, with several victories, a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the 339th’s hottest pilots—led the shooter flight in Phoebe. His wingman, soft-spoken Oregonian Lieutenant Rex Barber, had earned his own Silver Star for penetrating a screen of Zeros to down a bomber in their midst. Since Barber’s usual mount, Diablo, was out of commission, he instead was piloting Miss Virginia. Flying backup were 1st Lts. Besby Holmes, a Pearl Harbor veteran who’d moved up to Henderson even before Mitchell, and Ray Hine, an experienced pilot who was on his first combat mission in a P-38. Neither had flown with Lanphier or Barber before. Holmes couldn’t believe his luck.

At Rabaul, Yamamoto was for once almost late for takeoff. Accompanied by several aides, and wearing a plain green service uniform as a show of unity with the troops, the admiral boarded a Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty,” No. 323 of the 705th Air Group. Ugaki and his staff boarded No. 326, so rapidly that the two admirals had no time for farewells. Taking off on schedule at 0600 Tokyo time, by which the Japanese military operated (0800 at Henderson), the bombers climbed to 6,500 feet. Zeros of the 204th Air Group flew escort, 1,500 feet above and behind, in two formations of three planes each. Among the escort pilots were Petty Officers 1st Class (Aviation) Shoichi Sugita, who would become one of Japan’s top aces, and Kenji Yanagiya, a 100-mission veteran who felt deeply honored to be taking part. Bearing southeast, the bombers flew in echelon, with Yamamoto’s slightly ahead on the right. Ugaki, who was recovering from a bout of dengue fever, soon dozed off.

Meanwhile, in the sunny greenhouse cockpit of Mitch’s Squitch, lulled by the engine drone and the glassy-smooth sea speeding just beneath the plane’s nose, Mitchell was trying not to doze. Constantly checking his GI wristwatch and specially mounted Navy compass, at 0820 he fixed their position at slightly more than 180 miles west of Henderson. He then waved his wings to signal a turn. Twenty-seven minutes on course 290 degrees. Thirty-eight minutes on course 305 degrees. At 0925, less than 20 miles off Bougainville, they made their final turn to the northeast, under cover of a low-level haze.


Among those gathered in front of one of the 339th Squadron’s P-38s are (from right) 1st Lt. Rex Barber, Major John Mitchell, Thirteenth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Nathan Twinning and Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr. (National Archives)

High to the northwest, the Japanese had clear skies. “We could see transport ships with escort destroyers steaming on the blue water below,” Yanagiya recalled. “On ahead of us, we could see [Kahili] air base…at the southeast end of Bougainville Island.” The formation began to descend on approach.

As the Americans neared the island, they had begun to climb. At 2,000 feet they cleared the translucent mist to see the 7,500-foot peaks of Bougainville’s Crown Prince Range and the crescent of Empress Augusta Bay—but no aircraft. Mitchell checked his watch: 0934. They were a minute ahead of schedule. Yamamoto ought to be about three miles to their port quarter…

At that moment cover-flight section leader Lieutenant Doug Canning, reputed to have the sharpest eyes in the squadron, called out, “Bogeys! Eleven o’clock high!”

Mitchell hadn’t expected two bombers; the shooters would have to get both. Leading the cover flight upward, he radioed Lanphier: “All right, Tom. Go get him. He’s your meat.”

“It was obvious that we were late to spot [the Americans],” Yanagiya later recalled. “The P-38s had dropped their extra fuel tanks and were already zooming up to engage our two bombers.” To save weight, the Zeros carried no radios, but when his flight leader waggled his wings and dived to the attack, Yanagiya said, “we wingmen all accelerated and swooped into the first group of P-38s.”

Holmes’ drop tanks had hung up. Trying to shake them off, he pulled away to the west, and his wingman Hine went with him. Only Lanphier peeled up into Yanagiya’s flight—3-to-1, head-on—spraying the Zeros with fire and breaking up their attack. Separated, Yanagiya later reported, “We repelled the first group of P-38s, while another P-38 engaged aft of the bombers.”

That was Rex Barber. Unlike Hine, he hadn’t stuck with his flight leader. Using the seconds Lanphier had given him, he went after the bombers, which had dived for the deck. As they passed across his nose, he banked hard starboard to get behind them, and for a few seconds his upraised left wing blocked the enemy planes from his view.

Ugaki’s crew had seen the Lightnings split up. He later reported, “We made a quick turn of over 90 degrees to evade them,” seaward, through their attack. Miss Virginia flashed overhead. When Barber rolled out of his bank, he had one bomber in front of him. He started working it over with his nose-mounted 20mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns.

Phoebe had reached the top of its half-loop. Hanging inverted, Lanphier saw to his right the second three Zeros chasing Barber’s Lightning, and, out in front of them all, a lone Betty fleeing across the treetops. From there he reported diving back down and banking around for one desperate, extreme-range, almost right-angle burst. Even he was surprised to see the Betty’s right engine light up.

Ugaki’s plane had made two more evasive turns before he spotted Yamamoto’s G4M, already ablaze and sinking. He would recall thinking, “Oh! Everything was over now!”

Firing all the while, Miss Virginia had closed to less than 100 feet as debris, smoke and finally flames streamed off the bomber. Then the Betty abruptly snap-rolled left and down. Barber dodged its upraised right wing and, looking back, saw smoke billowing up from the jungle. Lanphier also saw the Betty’s wing go up—he would report it had torn off—and a gout of flame as the bomber went in. Shaking Zeros off his tail, he radioed: “I got a bomber. Verify him for me, Mitch. He’s burning.” Barber, characteristically, didn’t say a word during the whole fight.

Holmes had shed his drop tanks in time to see the stricken Betty go down. Clearing each other’s tails of Zeros, he, Hine and Barber chased the remaining G4M out over the water. Grieving to see nothing but smoke where Yamamoto’s aircraft had been, Ugaki could only hold on as the Lightnings raked his plane with gunfire. The Betty struck the sea off Moila Point at full speed. Only Ugaki and two crewmen survived.

“Mission accomplished,” Mitchell called. “Everybody, get your *censored* home.” The P-38s headed for Guadalcanal in ones and twos. Barber, Holmes and Hine lost each other. Escorted by Canning, Holmes made it to a forward base in the Russell Islands with just four gallons of gas to spare. Last seen trailing vapor from his right engine, Ray Hine never returned. Lanphier and Barber put down at Henderson before noon, Phoebe with two bullet holes in its tail, Miss Virginia with more than 100 scattered over its airframe.


From left: Lanphier, Lt. Besby Holmes and Barber, three of the four "killer flight" pilots, pose for a photo on the day after the mission. The fourth pilot, Lt. Raymond Hine, did not return and was never found. (National Archives)

Lanphier laid immediate claim to Yamamoto, touching off a dispute with Barber that would tear their friendship apart and last almost to this day. [For more on this debate, read the companion story “Who Got Yamamoto?” in our May 2013 issue.] For the time being, however, all was forgotten. Mitscher radioed headquarters, “April 18th seems to be our day,” and the pilots launched into a bender that continued into the night, uninterrupted even by a bombing attack. A correspondent hunched in a nearby foxhole wrote, “This is the noisiest raid I know, not so much from the bombs and ack-ack but from officers who started singing early in the evening and are still out in the moonlight singing like a bunch of high school kids after a ball game.”

Though the Americans claimed four Zeros downed, all six Japanese fighters returned to Rabaul, claiming at least three P-38 kills. Sugita had put a burst into a wingman covering a leader with unshed tanks: Hine. And Yanagiya, following the Americans, shot up a vapor-streaming, straggling Lightning (also Hine), but didn’t see it go down.

Yanagiya was sent home in June, after F4F Wildcats shot off his right hand over the Russell Islands. He would survive the war, credited with eight victories. The other Zero pilots, including Sugita, all died in combat. Hours after Emperor Hirohito announced the final Japanese surrender in 1945, Ugaki strapped on a sword given him by Yamamoto and disappeared on a kamikaze flight.

The Bougainville jungle was so thick, and Yamamoto’s crash site so remote, that Japanese search planes could only circle overhead, vainly seeking any sign of survivors. A rescue party finally hacked through to the downed Betty the next day. The admiral’s body was found near the wreckage, belted upright in his seat and still holding his sword, leading some to believe he survived the crash and might have been saved. More likely his body was arranged by another dying victim, in a demonstration of the reverence his countrymen felt toward him. Tokyo did not admit his loss until May 21. Yamamoto was awarded the Order of the Chrysanthemum (1st Class), the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords by Germany and, in June, was given a state funeral.

Medals of Honor for Mitchell and the four shooters were downgraded to Navy Crosses when the press got wind of their story, threatening to reveal the secret of the broken Japanese code. That in no way diminishes their feat of planning, navigation, timing and sheer audacity.

In all of American history, the only equivalent is the operation that killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden. Yamamoto was no different from any officer caught in a sniper’s crosshairs—in uniform, on a combat mission, a legitimate military target. Today, when the enemy rarely wears a uniform, the debate centers on targeting terrorist leaders with remote-controlled drones. Few remember that the precedent was set 70 years ago, over the jungles of Bougainville.
Death by P-38


Senior member
Dec 3, 2017
The Borie’s Duel to the Death
U-boats and Allied destroyers typically fought with torpedoes and depth charges during the Battle of the Atlantic. But in the early hours of 1 November 1943, ramming, shotguns, shell casings, and even a sheath knife also came into play during a 64-minute free-for-all between the USS Borie (DD-215) and U-405. The gripping duel, during which each vessel’s crew demonstrated skill, courage, and tenacity, is an example of what a U.S. Navy junior officer can accomplish on his own initiative when taking his ship in harm’s way.

A Tin Can and Her Crew
The Borie was a Clemson-class flush-deck destroyer commissioned in 1920. She had plied the Black, Mediterranean, and Caribbean seas as well as the Atlantic and Pacific oceans before her fateful battle with U-405. Two refits prior to the fight had transformed the Borie from a mediocre warship into a submarine killer. The ship’s main armament of four 4-inch/50-caliber guns as well as two depth-charge tracks at her stern remained, but SL surface-search radar was installed, and two of her four triple-tube torpedo mounts were removed to help make room for six 20-mm Oerlikon guns and six depth-charge projectors.


U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive

The Borie is pictured at Balboa, Canal Zone, in August 1942 during her refit for escort duty. Among modifications, her crow’s nest will be replaced with an antenna for newly installed SL surface-search radar, which on Halloween night 1943 will enable her to find U-256 and U-405.

Her captain, Lieutenant Charles Hutchins, had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1936. He served two years on active duty, during which time he got married, and then resigned his commission and moved back to Terre Haute, Indiana. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Hutchins was commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He joined the Borie as executive officer in October 1942 and was promoted to captain in June 1943. The 30-year-old reportedly was the Navy’s youngest destroyer skipper at that time.

The Borie’s crew were mostly reservists who had served together for three years. Fire Controlman First Class Bob Maher, a reservist who had first come on board in November 1940, painted a picture in his memoir of a well-run, if not exactly spit-and-polish, ship. He was the pointer on the ship’s fire control director. From his battle station above the bridge and directly below the Borie’s 24-inch searchlight, Maher would have a box seat for the battle to come.

In early 1943, the Borie was assigned to Captain Albert J. Isbell’s Task Group 21.14, which was built around the escort carrier USS Card (CVE-11) and also included the Clemson-class destroyers Goff (DD-247) and Barry (DD-248). After escorting Atlantic convoys, the group headed north, past the Azores, in late October, as a hunter-killer group on the prowl for U-boats.

Meanwhile, U-405 was operating as part of a six-boat wolf pack, Siegfried 1. A Type VIIC submarine, U-405 had four torpedo tubes forward and one aft and typically carried 14 reliable 21-inch electric G7e model torpedoes. Topside, she mounted an 88-mm/45-caliber deck gun forward for surface engagements and four 20-mm single guns and a quad-mount 20-mm on the “wintergarden” behind the conning tower for antiaircraft defense.

Well-liked by his crew, U-405’s skipper, 37-year-old Kor -vetten Kapitain Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann, was a veteran of all seven of the submarine’s war patrols. When the boat sortied from Saint-Nazaire, France, on her eighth and final patrol on 10 October 1943, 49 officers and enlisted men were on board. After operating as part of the 23-boat wolf pack Siegfried, Hopmann’s vessel deployed with Siegfried 1 on 27 October. When the wolf pack dispersed three days later, scoreless, U-405 headed for a midocean refueling area and her rendezvous with destiny.

The First Attack
At sunset on 31 October 1943, Lieutenant Hutchins received orders for the Borie to investigate an attack report by aircraft from the Card. The planes had sunk one U-boat, but a second one, which they suspected was a tanker and resupply boat, had escaped. Captain Isbell wanted that vessel found and dispatched. The Borie steamed southward at 22 knots in relatively calm seas to do just that. The crew was eager for action—and they would get plenty. “We young bucks, dumb and happy, were really excited,” Maher wrote. “We were the hunters, not the hunted, and it was an exhilarating feeling for all of us.”

At 2010, the Borie got a radar contact at a range of 6,500 yards and accelerated to 27 knots. The target was U-256, a VIIC boat converted to an antiaircraft submarine, or U-flak. Quickly closing the distance, the Borie fired a salvo of star shells from a range of 1,700 yards, illuminating U-256 and driving her underwater. The destroyer closed and delivered a depth-charge attack. Soon after, a mysterious heavy underwater explosion temporarily knocked out the Borie’s sound gear.

Frantic work brought the gear back on line, and ten minutes later, the Borie again made sonar contact and dropped depth charges. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to force the boat to the surface. But before the Borie could engage her with gunfire, U-256 submerged. After regaining sound contact, the destroyer delivered a third depth-charge attack. Even though she remained in the area searching for more than three hours, the ship was unable to reestablish contact. Her crew noted the strong smell of fuel oil and a large slick, and Hutchins reported to the Card: “Scratch one pig boat eleven miles south of your position. Am searching for more.” Although the destroyer had damaged U-256, she had not sunk her. The submarine managed to limp back to Brest, France.

A Second Contact
he Borie continued south for less than an hour through worsening seas before her surface-search radar picked up a second contact, U-405, at a range of 8,000 yards. Accelerating to 27 knots, the Borie swiftly closed on her prey, which disappeared from the destroyer’s radar screen at 2,800 yards as she submerged. The Borie slowed, gained a sound contact, and delivered a depth-charge attack during which a malfunction caused the entire contents of both stern tracks to empty at once. Besides lifting the Borie’s stern out of the water, the explosive force drove U-405 to the surface.

Using radar bearings, the Borie’s searchlight swiftly illuminated the boat. The destroyer would keep U-405 lit up for the entire fight, with one brief exception. Maher noted that the illumination allowed him to see that the conning tower of the light gray submarine bore the polar bear insignia of the 11th U-boat Flotilla. As the Borie closed on the boat, which evidently was unable to submerge, the destroyer’s guns began to engage independently as they came to bear.

German sailors scrambled to man their deck guns amid the destroyer’s deadly hail of fire. Some managed to hit the Borie with a few 20-mm rounds before being killed by the murderous return fire. Although other German sailors courageously tried to fire back, almost all were slain before they could man their guns. The 88-mm deck gun never got a round off. The first director-controlled salvo by three of the U.S. ship’s 4-inchers literally blew the gun into the ocean.

Twisting U-405 like an eel, Korvetten Kapitain Hopmann used her superior maneuverability to try to flee on the surface. Nevertheless, Hutchins displayed fine seamanship and the Borie stuck with her opponent, pounding her mercilessly. At one point, U-405 shot off a number of Very pistol flares and a sailor stood on the conning tower waving his arms as if asking the Americans to stop shooting. Lieutenant Hutchins accordingly ordered his guns to cease fire. But the gun captain of a galley deckhouse 4-inch gun had removed his headphones. His gun continued to fire, decapitating the gesticulating German sailor. As Maher related, “It was a sight that was to give me nightmares for months.” U-405 again began to maneuver and the battle continued.

A Lethal Embrace
A few minutes later, Hutchins’ command echoed through the Borie: “Stand by for a ram!” Determined not to let U-405 escape, the Borie closed on her starboard quarter at 25 knots. Hopmann tried to avoid the blow but started his turn too late. A sudden wave lifted the Borie up, and she crashed down on U-405’s deck between forecastle and stem at a 30-degree angle. For the next ten minutes, they would be locked together in a lethal embrace.

Within seconds of the collision, the Borie’s crew put into action a drill that the executive officer, Lieutenant Phillip B. Brown, repeatedly had run during the past few months. With the exception of the black gang (the engine room and fire room crew) and the gun crews, as many as possible of the rest of the ship’s company armed themselves with a variety of weapons ranging from Thompson submachine guns to shotguns to pistols. They took station on the port side and added their fire to that of the 20-mm Oerlikons and 4-inch guns. Any submariner who braved that hail of fire died before returning a shot.

Two incidents illustrate the ferocity of the encounter while the two ships were locked together. In the first, Fireman First Class David Southwick threw his sheath knife at a German sailor less than ten yards away, killing him. In the second, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Walter Kruz hurled a 4-inch shell casing at a different German, knocking him into the frigid water.

While the battle raged topside, the black gang became engaged in a desperate battle belowdecks. The grinding of the Borie’s hull plating, already worn thin by 23 years of continuous service, against the U-boat compromised structural integrity. When the two vessels finally separated, Captain Hutchins became aware of the seriousness of the damage. He later reported: “The entire port side, from bow to after end of the ‘D’ tanks was badly crushed and holed. The forward engine room flooded completely in spite of all efforts to prevent it.” As the flooding worsened, a damage control party joined the black gang as they strove to keep back the sea. Together they managed to keep both engine rooms manned throughout the rest of the battle—even to the point of operating the forward engine in neck-deep cold water.

More Fighting, Then Victory
By the time the Borie slid off the submarine, about 35 of U-405’s crewmen were out of action. Hopmann managed a series of evasive maneuvers in an attempt to escape and opened the range to around 400 yards. That allowed the Borie to engage with coordinated 4-inch salvos. One struck the sub’s starboard diesel exhaust and may have penetrated the aft torpedo room. The Borie then fired a torpedo at U-405, but in the increasingly heavy seas, it missed.

The submarine next began turning in a tight circle, and the destroyer, because of her very wide turning radius, was unable to close. During this maneuvering, Lieutenant Hutchins realized that the U-405’s stern tube was continually pointing at the Borie. He ordered the searchlight extinguished to reduce the possibility of taking a torpedo from the “stinger” tube and in the hope that the boat would try to escape in the darkness and he could reengage her. It worked. The Borie bent on 27 knots to pursue, illuminating U-405 once again. Now on a collision course, the boat gamely attempted to ram the Borie on her starboard side.

Hutchins wrote in the after-action report, “Borie immediately turned hard left, backing full on port engine throwing stern toward sub, to bring it in range of projectors and fired starboard depth charge battery.” Three depth charges set for 30 feet straddled the conning tower, bringing the stem of the U-boat to a stop six feet from the Borie’s starboard side. Once again, the German tried to flee, but at considerably reduced speed.


U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive

Under camouflage netting, U-405 sailors lean against the boat’s 88-mm deck gun, which the Borie would obliterate with a salvo of 4-inch gunfire. Borie crewmen were close enough to the sub to clearly discern the polar bear insignia on her conning tower.
The Borie launched another torpedo, which missed the U-boat’s bow by ten feet. Since the range had once more opened to 700 yards, 4-inch salvos again struck U-405. One such barrage delivered the coup de grace, blasting the starboard diesel exhaust again. The battered U-boat glided to a stop and surrendered. On board the Borie, Hutchins later wrote, “there was a yell that went up from all hands—it probably could be heard in Berlin.” U-405 fired off a shower of white, red, and green Very pistol flares, while about 15 of her battered crewmen made their way into yellow rubber rafts.

As they prepared to collect the U-405 survivors, the Borie’s crew noticed that the occupants of the life rafts continued to fire off Very rounds. Alarmingly, these were answered from a distance by a similar flare display. Shortly thereafter, the destroyer’s sound operator heard a torpedo headed in the ship’s direction. The Borie narrowly avoided it, with a number of the crew observing the torpedo’s wake as it went down the port side. Already severely damaged and in no condition to battle a third U-boat, the destroyer cleared the area, making radical zigzags—and in the process unavoidably steaming through the group of U-405 survivors—as she headed to the northwest at best possible speed.

The Final Battle
In many ways, the fight to keep the badly damaged Borie afloat in seas that had increased to 40 feet rivals the drama of the battle. The black gang abandoned the now-flooded forward engine room but, aided by a damage control party, managed to keep the fire room and the rear engine room operating so the ship could still make way.

The flooding of the forward engine room, however, resulted in the loss of all generators and electrical power. The crew worked through the night throwing anything they could overboard to lighten the ship, including the 20-mm guns, torpedoes and tubes, all but ten rounds of ammunition for each 4-inch gun, and the one-ton gun director.

By dawn on 1 November, only one engine was working, and saltwater had contaminated the ship’s fuel and the water supply for her boilers. At 0900, the last turbine seized from the accumulation of salt. Alone and unable to maneuver in sub-infested waters, the Borie was in desperate straits. Lieutenant Hutchins decided to call for help, but the radio had no power. All of the gasoline had been used to run pumps.

Undaunted, the radiomen used lighter fluid, kerosene, and rubbing alcohol to get the Kohler auxiliary generator working. At 1110, the Card received the destroyer’s message “commenced sinking.” Captain Isbell promptly ordered the Barry and Goff to light off all boilers to rush to the Borie’s rescue as soon as she could be located. The Card launched two aircraft, which found the stricken destroyer 14 miles away on a bearing of 052 degrees true.

The Goff dashed off, leaving the Barry to escort the Card. Arriving just before noon, the Goff immediately began attempts to aid the dead-in-the-water destroyer, but the efforts were doomed by the heavy seas. Unable to come alongside, the Goff and then the Barry were only able to stand by to take on survivors. At 1630, Lieutenant Hutchins gave the order to abandon ship, and men began going over the side at 1644.


U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive

The Borie’s captain, Lieutenant Charles Hutchins, receives the Navy Cross from Atlantic Fleet commander Admiral Royal Ingersoll for his actions during his ship’s duel with U-405. Two other members of the crew earned the Navy Cross for their heroic actions to keep the damaged destroyer afloat: Lieutenant Morrison Brown, posthumously, and Machinist’s Mate Second Class Randolph Saum.
Remarkably, the Borie’s crew had suffered no serious casualties during its battle with U-405. But, as Hutchins related in a filmed interview:

This maneuver, this abandoning ship, resulted in the loss of 24 men and 3 officers. The temperature of the water was 44 with very cold air, the seas were very high and, although the abandoning was very orderly, when the rafts got alongside the rescue ships the rolling and the pitching of those ships resulted in the loss of men.

He commended both the Goff and Barry for their outstanding seamanship and rescue work.

Hutchins closed by saying: “However, the conditions were such that these men who had no sleep since the previous night, who had fought the action all night, and many who has spent the balance of the night and day in controlling damage, many of them lost were just unable to get over the side.” Bob Maher wrote that he was the last survivor plucked, nearly frozen, from the sea. In all, 125 enlisted men and 4 officers survived the battle and were rescued. The next morning, the Borie was still afloat. Captain Isbell ordered the task force to sink her, and a combination of gunfire and aircraft-administered depth charges finally sent the Borie to the bottom.

The struggle between the USS Borie and U-405 shows the grit and determination of both sides in the Battle of the Atlantic. It also demonstrates what a junior officer—Lieutenant Charles Hutchins—a crew composed largely of reservists, and a World War I–era ship can accomplish in the heat and aftermath of combat. More than 75 years after the contest, their story can still inspire naval officers facing the test of battle.
The Borie’s Duel to the Death


Senior member
Dec 3, 2017
The Navy's Atlantic War Learning Curve
The Battle of the Atlantic—the World War II struggle for control of Atlantic Ocean convoy routes—was actually a series of naval campaigns of varying lengths that began in September 1939 and lasted until Germany's surrender in May 1945. While the Atlantic was the crucial naval theater of the war for Great Britain and its Commonwealth partner, Canada, the Pacific was America's chief naval theater. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy's material, technological, and operational contributions were vital in defeating the U-boat onslaught against shipping. In the end, Allied victory in the Atlantic required the combined efforts of Britain, Canada, and the United States.

America did not officially enter the war until December 1941, but its evolving role in the Battle of the Atlantic began soon after the conflict began with Germany's 1 September 1939 invasion of Poland and declarations of war by Britain and France two days later. On 5 September, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued proclamations stating the United States' neutrality and prohibiting the export of arms and munitions to the belligerent powers. The following morning, White House Press Secretary Stephen Early told reporters that the Navy would set up a patrol to operate 200 to 300 miles off the East Coast to warn U.S. merchant ships of the presence of German, British, and French submarines and surface ships. The announcement, however, caught the Department of the Navy off guard, since the Atlantic Squadron at that time consisted of only a battleship division, one cruiser division, a single destroyer squadron, a patrol wing, and the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4).

From Patrolling to Escorting Convoys
Doing his best with the few ships he had, Rear Admiral Alfred W. Johnson distributed his force along the Atlantic coast from the Grand Banks, southeast of Newfoundland, to the Caribbean. Given the limited number of surface ships the Atlantic Squadron had available for patrolling in the first months, the Neutrality Patrol quickly became primarily an air patrol. The British Admiralty was very opposed to the patrol, but on 4 November Congress headed off friction when it amended the 1937 Neutrality Act by repealing the arms embargo, thereby making it possible for Britain to purchase U.S. military supplies on a "cash-and-carry" basis.

By the close of 1940, however, Britain was in dire financial straits because of war costs. This fact was brought home to Roosevelt personally by a lengthy message he received from Prime Minister Winston Churchill in which he wrote, "The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies." The solution Roosevelt proposed was to lend Britain the war supplies it needed until the fighting was over and they could be returned. The President explained the idea to Congress in January 1941 and signed the Lend-Lease Act into law on 11 March.

During the first weeks of April, a cautious FDR reviewed courses of action designed to help Britain's position in the Atlantic. Finally, on the 21st, he directed the Navy to begin executing Navy Western Hemisphere Defense Plan No. 2. Under the plan, Navy ships and aircraft would patrol the "Western Atlantic Area" out to Longitude 26 degrees West to observe and broadcast the movements of Axis ships and planes they encountered. Just over a month later, on 27 May, President Roosevelt proclaimed a state of unlimited national emergency. This virtually placed the Navy in the Atlantic on a full war footing.

The United States took the next step in September 1941, when Roosevelt directed that Atlantic Fleet ships begin escorting Allied convoys. HX 150, the first convoy to be covered by escorts of the fleet's Support Force, sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 16 September. The next day, five U.S. Navy destroyers—the Ericsson (DD-440), Eberle (DD-430), Upshur (DD-144), Ellis (DD-154), and Dallas (DD-199)—replaced the convoy's Canadian coastal escort. Encountering no U-boats on the voyage, the convoy arrived safely at the mid-ocean meeting point, where British warships picked up the escort duties on the 25th. Its only loss was the freighter SS Nigaristan, which had been abandoned after catching fire. Thereafter, U.S.-escorted fast convoys regularly traveled between the East Coast and the waters off Iceland. On 31 October during one of the runs, however, the USS Reuben James (DD-245) was torpedoed by U-552. The first Navy ship sunk during the war, the destroyer went down with the loss of 115 men.

The move to active escorting required substantial adjustments. The first step was taken on 1 November, when an executive order placed the U.S. Coast Guard under the jurisdiction of the Navy for the duration of the period of national emergency. The Support Force nevertheless remained short of the number of escorts needed for the new assignment, and many of the ships in use were not up to the demands of the escort cycle. The "short-leg" 1,200-ton destroyers in the Support Force, for example, lacked the oil capacity to provide a decent margin of safety in winter operations.

East Coast Slaughter
On 2 January 1942, less than a month after Germany declared war on the United States, Admiral Karl Dönitz, the commander of the U-boat service, ordered five Type IX boats to commence Operation Paukenschlag (literally, Roll on the Kettledrums), which targeted shipping along America's Atlantic coast. The boats' transits to their hunting grounds were carefully directed by U-boat Command, which instructed them to begin attacks on coastal shipping on 13 January.

What the German submariners then found was an abundance of easy targets. The Americans were making no effort to convoy their coastal shipping. U-123 was operating off Cape Hatteras on 19 January when she sank what her captain, Lieutenant Commander Reinhard Hardegen, estimated to be eight ships within a 12-hour period. In all during January, the U-boats attacked 29 ships in the Eastern Sea Frontier—which stretched from the waters off Maine down to north Florida—16 of which they sank.

Before this first group of Type IX U-boats had to head for home toward the end of the month, three additional Type IXs arrived in the vicinity of the Chesapeake Bay and were joined by two medium Type VIIC boats. Consequently, four or five U-boats were constantly operating off the American coast during February. They took an even higher toll of shipping that month, attacking 37 merchant ships and sinking 19.

From the perspective of its British and Canadian allies, the U.S. Navy needed to institute escorted coastal convoying as soon as possible to reduce substantially the number of sinkings. While Admiral Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, understood the importance of coastal convoying as a means of reducing sinkings, he was convinced that the Navy lacked the additional escorts needed to begin such an effort. Aircraft for flying antisubmarine warfare (ASW) patrols were also in short supply. On 7 December 1941, the Eastern Sea Frontier had just four squadrons of aircraft—three PBY Catalina seaplane squadrons and one squadron of PBOs, modified Lockheed Hudson two-engined bombers—all designed for flying longer-range patrols. For in-shore patrolling the Coast Guard was operating a few Grumman Widgeons and OS2U Kingfishers.

In those first months of 1942 the Navy also lacked personnel who were adequately trained for antisubmarine work. The organizational aspects of the ASW problem were among the first to be tackled. On 16 February Atlantic Fleet commander Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll assigned Captain Wilder D. Baker as his staff ASW officer and as commanding officer of the Atlantic Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Unit. One of the new unit's immediate duties was to draft a manual on ASW procedures. At that time, the Atlantic Fleet had only four antisubmarine attack teachers, one of whom was installed at the Sound School at Key West, Florida. The ASW Unit was assigned supervisory responsibility over the attack instructors and for reviewing the curriculum and operation of the Sound School.

The supervisory efforts quickly showed positive results. As a postwar command history noted: "In 1942 [American sonar] operators were still using a dozen different techniques, they were trying to report ranges as well as bearings, they were untrained in Doppler effect. Nowhere along the line had the procedure been analyzed, systematized, or promulgated throughout the Fleet." The Anti-Submarine Warfare Unit issued a proposed procedure for sonar operation at the end of February 1942. That summer a revised version was adopted for use throughout the Atlantic Fleet.

During March 1942, Operation Paukenschlag continued taking a deadly shipping toll off the East Coast. In all that month, 47 merchant ships were attacked, 29 of which were sunk. Also in March, however, Rear Admiral M. K. Metcalf, the director of convoy and routing in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, submitted the first concrete proposal for a coastal convoy system. On 27 March a panel convened to examine the issue submitted detailed arrangements for instituting coastal convoys from a point just north of Key West up to Halifax.

By early May, sufficient escorts had finally been assembled within the Eastern Sea Frontier to provide six escort groups of seven ships each for coastal convoying. The vessels consisted of a mixture of old 1,200-ton destroyers, yachts, British-loaned corvettes, World War I-era Eagle boats, and other craft. The first escorted convoy sailed from Norfolk bound for Key West on 14 May, and the first northbound convoy set out the following day.

The key to effective convoying, however, was relying on the integrated use of escorts and patrolling aircraft, as the Royal Navy had earlier demonstrated. By July the Eastern Sea Frontier's aircraft complement had increased to three squadrons of PBY-5A amphibians, one squadron of the new PBM seaplanes, and six squadrons of OS2U observation planes for coastal patrolling.

The Battle Moves Farther South
The beginning of coastal convoying resulted in an immediate drop in the number of American ships sailing independently. Although U-boat Command initially did not realize that convoying was the reason for this change, on 5 May it ordered six of the 16 U-boats then operating off the East Coast to head for the Caribbean. This considerably increased the boats' operating radius and thus the strain on their fuel supplies. Fortunately for the Germans, however, U-459—the first of a new class of 1,700-ton Type XIV sub tankers known as Milch (milk) cows—had been operating some 500 miles northeast of Bermuda since 20 April.

The U-boats' principal operating area was soon shifted from the Eastern Sea Frontier to areas farther south, where there were as yet no coastal convoys. In April only six merchant ships had been attacked and three sunk in the Gulf Sea Frontier, which included the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off Florida's east and west coasts, but in June 32 were attacked there, 23 of which sank.

As additional escorts were added to the sea frontiers' forces, however, the Navy instituted new convoys. On 1 July one began steaming between Key West and Trinidad. At midmonth, escorts began convoying ships between Guantanamo, Cuba, and Panama. In both areas the number of ship sinkings dropped noticeably. On 27 August, the northern terminal of the coastal convoys was shifted from Norfolk to New York City and a new, interlocking system of convoys between the Gulf, Caribbean, New York, and Great Britain was initiated. Within a month, the U-boat depredations against shipping off the Gulf coast had ended.

New Weapons and Intelligence Come into Play
As the U-boats withdrew from the U.S. coast that summer, new groups were repositioned once more against the North Atlantic convoy routes, and the toll on merchant shipping in the mid-Atlantic again rose. Meanwhile, the race between the Allies and Germany to bring new weapons and sensors into the battle continued.

The United States' immense industrial capacity and vast pools of scientific and engineering talent were being quickly brought into play in the hunt for new ASW technologies. In March 1942, the first practical test of a radio sonobuoy, designed to detect the sounds of a submerged submarine's propellers, occurred in the waters off New London, Connecticut. Just seven months later, the U.S. Navy ordered the procurement of 1,000 sonobuoys and 100 associated receivers for use by its ASW squadrons. Similarly, in June 1942 the Navy established an organization, designated Project Sail, to test the effectiveness of the new Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), which was designed to spot submerged submarines by the changes they induced in the earth's magnetic field. Two hundred sets of MAD gear were quickly ordered following promising early tests. Also in 1942, American engineers developed a highly secret, air-dropped acoustic homing torpedo. Designated for security purposes the Mark 24 mine but commonly called Fido, the weapon homed in on the cavitation created by a submarine's whirling propellers.

On the German side, in August 1942 the first U-boats were fitted with Metox radar search receivers, which could pick up signals from the 1??-meter radar sets then used by Allied bombers to spot surfaced U-boats. The warning of approaching aircraft provided by the Metox receivers enabled the submarines to dive before the planes arrived overhead.

The struggle by each side to break into the naval codes and ciphers of the other had been ongoing since the war began. During most of 1942, the German cryptographic organization B-Dienst held the upper hand. The Germans were reading the Allies' Combined Naval Cypher No. 3 at a time when Britain's Government Code & Cypher School at Bletchley Park had been unable to break into U-boat communications (designated "Shark" by the British) enciphered by the four-wheel German naval Enigma machine. And even though Bletchley Park at last broke into the Shark Enigma messages in mid-December 1942, decrypting the U-boat transmissions was a slow, laborious, hit-and-miss process. Some days the messages could not be read at all.

Merchant vessel sinkings in the entire North Atlantic had risen to 75 ships in November 1942 before falling to 46 in December because of bad weather. Although only two sinkings occurred in the North Atlantic Convoy Area in January 1943, merchant ship losses there increased to 34 in February. That month, the estimated number of U-boats operating against North Atlantic convoys increased to 39.

During March, however, a series of events changed the Allied antisubmarine picture for the better. Early that month, the escort carrier USS Bogue (CVE-9), the centerpiece of the first U.S. convoy support group, joined Task Group 24.4 at Argentia, Newfoundland. During the Atlantic Convoy Conference held in March, Admiral King agreed to turn over to the British and Canadians responsibility for protection of the North Atlantic convoys, while the U.S. Navy covered those operating between the American East Coast and Africa and escorted the special tanker convoys running between Aruba and Britain and Aruba and Africa. The month also saw increasing numbers of American-built B-24 Liberator bombers modified for very long range (VLR) flying enter service with operational squadrons. U-boats could not detect the signals broadcast by the planes' 10-cm radar sets.

As April drew to a close, it was evident that a major fight between the U-boats and the North Atlantic convoys was again looming. The initial engagement was a continuous battle from 29 April through 6 May between Convoy ONS 5 and the U-boats of Groups Star, Fink, and Amsel in which 13 merchant ships and eight submarines were sunk—a rate of return favorable to the Allies. U-boats proved no more successful against the next two convoys. After additional failures, U-boat Command decided on 24 May to withdraw the submarine groups from the North Atlantic convoy routes for the time being. The Allies had beaten back the U-boat offensive in the decisive area of the conflict. Those boats with adequate fuel were sent to the area southwest of the Azores, where they could operate against the U.S.-Gibraltar convoys.

The Navy Takes the Offensive
The U.S. Navy's ASW forces came into their own during the subsequent months. A period of sustained convoying, as well as major increases in the number of American surface escorts and patrol aircraft, had been required before the tactical and operational aspects of antisubmarine warfare became ingrained in the U.S. Navy. Yet once this learning curve had been overcome, the sea service went from strength to strength.

In mid-May 1943, Admiral King established the Tenth Fleet in his Washington headquarters to exercise unity of control over U.S. antisubmarine operations. With Rear Admiral Francis S. Low as its chief of staff, the organization maintained oversight of the Navy's ASW efforts until war's end.

In June, the first American-made "Bombe"—a high-speed analytical machine used for matching assumed plain-text German messages with Enigma-enciphered texts—came online at Dayton, Ohio. With a similar British-made Bombe becoming operational at about the same time in the United Kingdom, the time delay in reading Enigma Shark messages was cut from an average of 600 hours to about 450 hours. When a full series of Bombes began operating in Washington in September, the time lag dropped to an average of just 72 hours. This had a major effect on the Allied responses to German operations at sea.

In July, Admiral King and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall agreed that the Army would withdraw its air forces from antisubmarine operations as quickly as the Navy could take over those duties. The Army Air Forces agreed to turn its B-24s modified for ASW patrolling over to the Navy if that service, in turn, gave the Army its existing non-modified B-24s. They completed the changeover during the following few months.

In the summer of 1943, Admiral King shifted the Navy's support groups—formed around individual escort carriers—from close support of convoys to hunter-killer operations against the Milch cows that refueled U-boats in the central Atlantic and off the Azores. King and Low were convinced that since refueling was the key to high-speed, long-range U-boat operations, sinking the tankers would decrease the effectiveness and operating radius of the entire U-boat deployment.

Vectored to the precise refueling locations by deciphered Enigma communications, the hunter-killer groups based around the USS Card (CVE-11), Santee (CVE-29), Core (CVE-13), and Bogue began sinking the Milch cows, as well as some of the boats waiting to refuel, with great regularity. Moreover, the escort carriers' Avenger torpedo-bombers were using the Navy's newly operational Fido homing torpedoes to great effect against the hastily submerging U-boats. In June and July, the Germans lost eight boats, including two U-tankers, in the waters southwest of the Azores. And by the end of August 1943, another seven subs used for refueling were sunk, most by carrier aircraft operating from the CVE hunter-killer groups. The continuing losses severely curtailed U-boat operations in distant waters.

Dönitz and U-boat Command went to great lengths in the war's final years to regain the initiative in the Battle of the Atlantic. U-boats were equipped with Schnorkels (breathing tubes) to allow them to run their diesel engines and recharge their batteries while submerged, as well as heavy antiaircraft armament to better enable them to fight it out with attacking planes. Germany also designed new breeds of U-boats, such as the Type XXI and Type XXIII, that were faster and deeper diving and boasted greater endurance than earlier models.

Fortunately for the Allies, those cutting-edge submarines never became operational in any great numbers and Germany's U-boat forces were never able to regain the upper hand. Instead, the U.S. Navy—relying on its hard-won tactical skill in antisubmarine warfare and a sound understanding of U-boat operations—worked in tandem with its British and Canadian naval allies to win the long and bloody Battle of the Atlantic.
The Navy's Atlantic War Learning Curve


Feb 16, 2019
Tripura, NE, India
The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force’s contribution to World War II

January 22, 2020

I considered calling this article ‘Flying & Fighting in the Hawker Hurricane' (yes, but not quite a first-hand account) to tie in with this sites series of excellent pilot interviews. Hush-Kit readers are accustomed to informed, authoritative articles, on flying and fighting in various exotic, high-performance aircraft, representing the best of both Western and Russian technology. These first-hand accounts come straight from experienced practitioners. The Second World War is in a different category. Few experienced practitioners from that war are still with us. Of course, articles from former Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, on flying and fighting in the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, would be fascinating.

Thankfully, there are many fine books available, which capture those experiences in the authentic words of people who were there. But accounts by those who flew specifically in the Burma-India theatre are still relatively rare – and accounts of Indian and Burmese personnel rarer still. My book, The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II (HarperCollins India, 2019) makes an attempt to capture some of them.

The Forgotten Few is the first narrative history of the Indian Air Force’s involvement in the Second World War. Informed by access to Indian Air Force squadrons’ war diaries, and first person inputs compiled from over two dozen veterans of the time, it showcases first-person content straight from those veterans, describing the experience of flying and going into combat in Hurricanes, Spitfires and other aircraft of that era. And that experience was very different from the air war over Europe.


The Indian Air Force’s war, indeed that of all the Air Forces in India, was far from being a simple replication of the Battle of Britain in tropical environs. The physical and meteorological environments were completely different, which drove many changes in equipment and operating procedures. Even flying clothing had to be re-designed, as may be imagined. Most importantly, the tasks of the Air Forces in India were different from those of the RAF at home. They were less about shooting down bombers than about supporting ground (and occasionally naval) forces, by the delivery of fire upon the enemy, sometimes within yards of our own troops; and about reconnaissance and the collection of information, on terrain and enemy dispositions, in an environment with none of the infrastructure that could be taken for granted on the Home Front or in Europe. This was all less spectacular than swirling Battle-of-Britain-type dogfights, but of crucial importance to winning the war in this theatre.

Of course, there were some Battle of Britain parallels. Some fine RAF veterans of the Battle of Britain, and also of the Dams Raid, went on to serve in India; and as elsewhere, they were accorded immense respect. They and their comrades of the Indian Air Force and the Burma Volunteer Air Force (as well as the RAAF, the RCAF, the RNZAF and the South African Air Force, all of which served in the theatre) wore mostly identical uniforms, and frequently played cricket or football between flying and fighting. Like them, the Indian Air Force flew Hurricanes (although only from 1943 onwards) and Spitfires (although only when the RAF was moving on to Thunderbolts). They were all young, high-spirited, and given to schoolboy jokes and pranks. They too, like the mythical Kilroy, Were There.


Indian airmen served during the Second World War in far smaller numbers than Indian soldiers, but again like Kilroy, they showed up in many theatres. Indian Air Force personnel served in the skies over England and France, and also in the Middle East and North Africa. Broad recognition of Indian contribution has improved in the last few years, prompted partly by commemorations and publications around the centenary years of the First World War. But the Second World War was a more complex involvement. Indians took on more complex roles, sometimes in the face of strong imperial prejudice.

For the most part, India embraced its role. Indian princely families made significant contributions to the war effort, and some young princes joined the Indian Air Force, just as during the First World War some Indian princes joined elite cavalry regiments. The Indian film and entertainment industry actively supported the war effort, and outside official view there were some unscripted romances between dashing young flyboys and glamorous figures from the film industry, even across national divides. There were also connections to the Indian cricket world, although Indian cricketers did not have the celebrity status then which they enjoy now.

Beyond fighting and flying in Hurricanes and Spitfires, there is an incredibly rich vein of Second World War stories in India. This book starts to tell a few of them.

— K S Nair

The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force’s contribution to World War II


Senior member
Dec 3, 2017
The British Had A Plan To Drop Anthrax Laced Cattle Feed Over Germany In 1942
Under the darkly ironic codename Operation Vegetarian, the United Kingdom developed a scheme to respond in kind should Nazi Germany unleash a biological warfare attack on the British mainland during World War II. The fear of Hitler employing germ warfare was very real, intensifying after the fall of France in the summer of 1940, after which the United Kingdom was expected to be the next major target of the German military conquest of Western Europe.

Chair of the Bacteriological Committee in the United Kingdom, Lord Maurice Hankey urged Prime Minister Winston Churchill to look into the practicality of biological weapons “so as to put ourselves in a position to retaliate if such abominable weapons should be used against us.” Churchill agreed and set up a team of scientists at Porton Down, a top-secret laboratory in Wiltshire, southwest England, to embark on a project examining options for reprisal — should it ever be needed.

The choice of biological weapon fell on anthrax. Caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, anthrax is a familiar agent of biological warfare. Anthrax spores occur in nature and can be produced in a lab. The spores can be delivered in the form of powders or sprays, or via contaminated food and water, and can persist in the environment for decades. Humans contract the disease when spores enter the body via a cut or scrape (cutaneous anthrax), via inhalation (pulmonary) or by consumption of infected meat (gastrointestinal). While pulmonary is the most lethal (around 80% mortality, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), the gastrointestinal version used for Operation Vegetarian still results in death in between 25% and 75% of cases. These figures all depend on levels of exposure and availability of antibiotics, which can usually treat cutaneous anthrax.


Maurice Hankey, in 1934.

Tests were conducted on Gruinard Island on Scotland’s north coast and on Penclawdd off the Welsh coast. The former was bombarded with anthrax spores from the air by Vickers Wellington medium bombers, killing the island’s resident sheep within three days. Penclawdd, meanwhile, was attacked by a Bristol Blenheim in a follow-up test. The twin-engine bomber delivered a single device from around 5,000 feet. Its target was two lines of sheep — 60 in all — placed downwind of the impact point. The three pounds of liquid anthrax spores were found only to have killed two animals outright. Nevertheless, after these trials, anthrax was judged 100 times more effective than a chemical agent on a weight-for-weight basis.

January 1942 saw the go-ahead for Britain’s production of anthrax on a large scale with the War Cabinet simultaneously recommending that it be used against Germany as a reprisal weapon if Britain was attacked using germ warfare. Porton Down scientists by 1943 had produced an operational stockpile of five million cattle cakes infected with anthrax spores. Under Operation Vegetarian, these were to be delivered by Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bombers — 12 in total — that would drop the deadly cargo over northern Germany. Aiming for farmland rather than population centers, the scheme was planned to wipe out the country’s beef and dairy cattle. As well as removing a vital food source, the bacterium would also work its way into the human food chain that was expected to lead to fatalities numbering tens or hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

The Lancaster was an obvious choice for the mission, had it ever been sanctioned. The four-engine type had entered service in December 1941 and would go on to excel both as a conventional heavy bomber and in a range of more unconventional missions, including dropping the 22,000-pound “Grand Slam” earthquake bomb and the “Upkeep” bouncing bombs that breached German dams in the raids of May 1943.

Of course, Hitler never sanctioned the use of biological warfare for reasons that have never been fully explained. It’s been speculated he may have had an aversion to germ warfare based on his experience of being gassed in World War I or his phobia of microbes. The Nazis nonetheless carried out research in this area including establishing an entomological institute to study the physiology and control of insects that inflict harm to humans.

British anthrax stockpiled under Operation Vegetarian was ultimately destroyed at the end of the war — all but two crates of infected cattle cakes were incinerated. It’s not clear what became of the remainder, but the spores they contained were still judged to be effective as of 1955.

The defeat of Nazi Germany was not the end of British interest in biological warfare. On the contrary, with the beginning of the Cold War, the focus now turned to the Soviet Union, which had begun its own experiments in the field before World War II and which had captured a Japanese biological weapons facility in Manchuria.

The effect of the anthrax tests on the British islands was dramatic and long-lasting, including reports of livestock deaths on the Scottish mainland after an infected sheep carcass from Gruinard was washed up on a beach. According to Porton Down’s official account, the mile-long island was not fully decontaminated until 1986 following a painstaking sterilization process amid mounting public pressure.

Today, Porton Down continues to play a role in biological and chemical weapons – rather than developing them for potential wartime use, it’s now tasked with developing countermeasures. It was also a focus of attention in the wake of the poisoning by nerve agent of former Russian military officer and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in nearby Salisbury in March 2018.


A scientist at the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, 2011.

Operation Vegetarian — details of which for many years remained within classified the National Archives — is clearly one of the more extreme plans hatched by the Allies during World War II, but it’s a clear reminder of the kind of thinking at the highest military levels during one of the darkest periods in Europe’s history.
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