Tuesday 3 June 2014

Ship as splitting maul

I had something to say the other day about the loss of the Empress of Ireland in the Gulf of St Lawrence. In that incident, a smaller ship holed a larger one amidships below the water-line and because of design and operational failures more than 1000 people drowned. I was visiting my pal Russ two days ago and he lent me his copy of Fourteen Minutes by James Croall, it's a lot more informative and engaging than wikipedia; you'll have to buy your own copy. As a post-script, I cited an example where a larger ship struck a smaller one with far more dramatic physical consequences - HMS Curacoa was cut in half by RMS Queen Mary mid-Atlantic and sank within minutes taking 70% of her crew (99/338 survived) to Davy Jones's Locker.  As a navy-brat, these things have a certain resonance because the Old Man had strong opinions about who should shoulder any blame in such events.

Today is the 45th anniversary of the loss of USS Frank E. Evans in circumstances similar those of the Queen Mary / Curacoa collision. Evans was taking part in a joint SEATO exercise with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.  At 0300hrs. Evans was ordered to take station to the rear of the carrier and act as plane guard. This duty requires a small manoeuvrable ship to pick up the crew of any aeroplanes that miss the carrier or otherwise fall into the drink. USS Evans was, at the time of the order, port and front of the larger vessel and needed to be diametrically opposite at starboard and rear. The standard practice for re-positioning the ships is for the smaller one to turn away from the larger and go round her stern.  But Evans, under the command of two junior watch-keeping officers, turned to starboard across the bows of the Melbourne.  Both ships took evasive action but because seconds only were available and there was no time to communicate precise intentions to the other ship a collision relentlessly occurred, and Evans was cut in two losing 74 members of her crew of 273.  Most of the drowned were in the bow section of the Evans which sank almost immediately.  The court of enquiry headed up by a senior USN man, found that part of the blame for the accident could be shuffled off onto the Australians. This pissed the Ozzies off big-time because they had
a) done everything according to the rules. In answering the question about whether Stephenson had given USS Evans sufficient warning about the imminent danger the Judge Advocate at his court martial asked "What was he supposed to do—turn his guns on them?"
b) they'd been there before.
Indeed this was the second escort that Melbourne had cut in two and sunk.  Five years earlier in remarkably similar circumstances, Melbourne had collided with HMAS Voyager when the latter turned across her bow as a shortcut to assume her position as plane guard. 82 men lost their lives.  Cue Lady Bracknell "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness". Indeed so, but my reading of the evidence is that the carelessness did not lie at the door of either of the skippers of the carrier.  Captain J.P. Stevenson, i/c during the second, USS Evans collision was so mindful of the potential hazard that he invited the Captains of all five escort destroyers to dinner at the start of the exercises, regaled them with the tale of the earlier disaster and handed out written instruction for how to avoid a similar incident re-occurring. As if that wasn't warning enough, on 31st May USS Everett F. Larson, another escort, managed a near-miss with Melbourne while taking plane guard station. Nevertheless, both Stephenson and Captain John Robertson (i/c Melbourne during the Voyager Incident) were given new jobs in shore-establishments and promptly resigned from the RAN, feeling dis-respected. In 2012, 43 years too late, the Australian government  offered Captain Stephenson a written apology for his shabby treatment in an earlier era. On the USN side, the Commander Albert S. McLemore i/c USS Evans, even though he was not on the bridge at the time, felt that he was fundamentally responsible for the collision because he should not have left two inexperienced officers in charge of his command.  My father would have approved.

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