British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck

Year
1941
Month Day
May 27

On May 27, 1941, the British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic near France. The German death toll was more than 2,000.

On February 14, 1939, the 823-foot Bismarck was launched at Hamburg. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that the state-of-the-art battleship would herald the rebirth of the German surface battle fleet. However, after the outbreak of war, Britain closely guarded ocean routes from Germany to the Atlantic Ocean, and only U-boats moved freely through the war zone.

In May 1941, the order was given for the Bismarck to break out into the Atlantic. Once in the safety of the open ocean, the battleship would be almost impossible to track down, all the while wreaking havoc on Allied convoys to Britain. Learning of its movement, Britain sent almost the entire British Home Fleet in pursuit. On May 24, the British battle cruiser Hood and battleship Prince of Wales intercepted it near Iceland. In a ferocious battle, the Hood exploded and sank, and all but three of the 1,421 crewmen were killed. The Bismarck escaped, but because it was leaking fuel it fled for occupied France. 

On May 26, the ship was sighted and crippled by British aircraft, and on May 27 three British warships descended on the Bismarck, inflicting heavy damage. By mid-morning, the pride of the German navy had become a floating wreck with numerous fires aboard, unable to steer and with her guns almost useless because she was listing badly to port. Soon, the command went out to scuttle the ship, and the Bismarck quickly sank. Of a 2,221-man crew, only 115 survived.

READ MORE: The Pictures that Defined World War II 

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Divers recover U.S.S. Monitor turret

Year
2002
Month Day
August 05

On August 5, 2002, the rusty iron gun turret of the U.S.S. Monitor broke from the water and into the daylight for the first time in 140 years. The ironclad warship was raised from the floor of the Atlantic, where it had rested since it went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during the Civil War. Divers had been working for six weeks to bring it to the surface.

Nine months before sinking into its watery grave, the Monitor had been part of a revolution in naval warfare. On March 9, 1862, it dueled to a standstill with the C.S.S. Virginia (originally the C.S.S. Merrimack) in one of the most famous moments in naval history—the first time two ironclads faced each other in a naval engagement. During the battle, the two ships circled one another, jockeying for position as they fired their guns. The cannon balls simply deflected off the iron ships. In the early afternoon, the Virginia pulled back to Norfolk. Neither ship was seriously damaged, but the Monitor effectively ended the short reign of terror that the Confederate ironclad had brought to the Union navy.

Designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, the Monitor had an unusually low profile, rising from the water only 18 inches. The flat iron deck had a 20-foot cylindrical turret rising from the middle of the ship; the turret housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. The ship had a draft of less than 11 feet so it could operate in the shallow harbors and rivers of the South. It was commissioned on February 25, 1862, and arrived at Chesapeake Bay just in time to engage the Virginia.

After the famous duel, the Monitor provided gun support on the James River for George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. By December 1862, it was clear the ship was no longer needed in Virginia, so she was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, to join a fleet being assembled for an attack on Charleston. The Monitor served well in the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay, but the heavy, low-slung ship was a poor craft for the open sea. The U.S.S. Rhode Island towed the ironclad around the rough waters of Cape Hatteras. As the Monitor pitched and swayed in the rough seas, the caulking around the gun turret loosened and water began to leak into the hull. More leaks developed as the journey continued. High seas tossed the craft, causing the ship’s flat armor bottom to slap the water. Each roll opened more seams, and by nightfall on December 30, the Monitor was in dire straits.

That evening, the Monitor’s commander, J.P. Bankhead, signaled the Rhode Island that he wished to abandon ship. The wooden side-wheeler pulled as close as safety allowed to the stricken ironclad, and two lifeboats were lowered to retrieve the crew. Many of the sailors were rescued, but some men were terrified to venture onto the deck in such rough seas. The ironclad’s pumps stopped working, and the ship sank before 16 of its crew members could be rescued. The remains of two of these sailors were discovered by divers during the Monitor’s 2002 reemergence.

READ MORE: When Ironclads Clashed: How Hampton Roads Changed Naval Warfare Forever

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USS Pueblo captured


Year
1968
Month Day
January 23

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, is engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans turned their guns on the lightly armed vessel and demanded its surrender. The Americans attempted to escape, and the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the commander and two others. With capture inevitable, the Americans stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while taking further fire. Several more crew members were wounded.

Finally, the Pueblo was boarded and taken to Wonson. There, the 83-man crew was bound and blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor skirmishes between the United States and North Korea.

The United States maintained that the Pueblo had been in international waters and demanded the release of the captive sailors. With the Tet Offensive raging 2,000 miles to the south in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson ordered no direct retaliation, but the United States began a military buildup in the area. 

At first the captured crew of the Pueblo resisted demands they sign false confessions, famously raising their middle fingers at the camera and telling the North Koreans it was the “Hawaiian good-luck sign.” Once the North Koreans learned the truth, they punished the prisoners with beatings, cold temperatures and sleep deprivation, according to a lawsuit some of the Pueblo’s crew would later file against the North Korean government.

Eventually North Korean authorities coerced a confession and apology out of Pueblo commander Bucher, in which he stated, “I will never again be a party to any disgraceful act of aggression of this type.” The rest of the crew also signed a confession under threat of torture.

The prisoners were then taken to a second compound in the countryside near Pyongyang, where they were forced to study propaganda materials and beaten for straying from the compound’s strict rules. In August, the North Koreans staged a phony news conference in which the prisoners were to praise their humane treatment, but the Americans thwarted the Koreans by inserting innuendoes and sarcastic language into their statements. Some prisoners also rebelled in photo shoots by casually sticking out their middle finger; a gesture that their captors didn’t understand. Later, the North Koreans caught on and beat the Americans for a week.

On December 23, 1968, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo‘s capture, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached a settlement to resolve the crisis. Under the settlement’s terms, the United States admitted the ship’s intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and pledged to cease any future such action. That day, the surviving 82 crewmen walked one by one across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjon to freedom in South Korea. They were hailed as heroes and returned home to the United States in time for Christmas.

Incidents between North Korea and the United States continued in 1969, and in April 1969 a North Korean MiG fighter shot down a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft, killing all 31 men aboard. In 1970, quiet returned to the demilitarized zone.

READ MORE: What You Need to Know About North Korea

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The Battle of Tsushima Strait

Year
1905
Month Day
May 27

During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Baltic Fleet is nearly destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. The decisive defeat, in which only 10 of 45 Russian warships escaped to safety, convinced Russian leaders that further resistance against Japan’s imperial designs for East Asia was hopeless.

On February 8, 1904, following the Russian rejection of a Japanese plan to divide Manchuria and Korea into spheres of influence, Japan launched a surprise naval attack against Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in China. It was the first major battle of the 20th century, and the Russian fleet was decimated. During the subsequent war, Japan won a series of decisive victories over the Russians, who underestimated the military potential of its non-Western opponent. In January 1905, the strategic naval base of Port Arthur fell to Japanese naval and ground forces under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and in March Russian troops were defeated at Shenyang, China, by Japanese Field Marshal Iwao Oyama.

Russian Czar Nicholas II hoped that the Russian Baltic fleet under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky would be able to challenge Admiral Togo’s supremacy at sea, but during the two-day Battle of Tsushima Strait, beginning on May 27, more than 30 Russian ships were sunk or captured by the superior Japanese warships. In August, the stunning string of Japanese victories convinced Russia to accept the peace treaty mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Roosevelt was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this achievement.) In the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia recognized Japan as the dominant power in Korea and gave up Port Arthur, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan.

Japan emerged from the conflict as the first modern non-Western world power and set its sights on greater imperial expansion. However, for Russia, its military’s disastrous performance in the war was one of the immediate causes of the Russian Revolution of 1905.

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U-boat devastates British squadron

Year
1914
Month Day
September 22

In the North Sea, the German U-9 submarine sinks three British cruisers, the Aboukir, the Hogue and the Cressy, in just over one hour. The one-sided battle, during which 1,400 British sailors lost their lives, alerted the British to the deadly effectiveness of the submarine, which had been generally unrecognized up to that time.

The German U-boat was a submarine far more sophisticated than those built by other nations at the time. The typical U-boat was 214 feet long, carried 35 men and 12 torpedoes, and could travel underwater for two hours at a time. In the first few years of World War I, the U-boats took a terrible toll on Allied shipping. Germany’s quarantine of the British Isles was almost successful, but in 1917 unrestricted U-boat attacks on neutral American vessels traveling to Britain prompted the U.S. entrance into the war. The infusion of American ships, troops and arms into World War I turned the tide of the war against Germany.

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U.S. Navy stages daring mission during First Barbary War


Year
1804
Month Day
February 16

During the First Barbary War, U.S. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur leads a military mission that famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson calls the “most daring act of the age.”

In June 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of continuing raids against U.S. ships by pirates from the Barbary states–Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripolitania. American sailors were often abducted along with the captured booty and ransomed back to the United States at an exorbitant price. After two years of minor confrontations, sustained action began in June 1803 when a small U.S. expeditionary force attacked Tripoli harbor in present-day Libya.

In October 1803, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be both a formidable addition to the Tripolitan navy and an innovative model for building future Tripolitan frigates. Hoping to prevent the Barbary pirates from gaining this military advantage, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American vessel on February 16, 1804.

After disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force of 74 men, which included nine U.S. Marines, sailed into Tripoli harbor on a small two-mast ship. The Americans approached the USS Philadelphia without drawing fire from the Tripoli shore guns, boarded the ship, and attacked its Tripolitan crew, capturing or killing all but two. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.

Six months later, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the so-called “Battle of the Gunboats,” a naval battle that saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.

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Spanish Armada sets sail to secure English Channel

Year
1588
Month Day
May 19

A massive Spanish fleet, known as the “Invincible Armada,” sets sail from Lisbon on a mission to secure control of the English Channel and transport a Spanish invasion army to Britain from the Netherlands.

In the late 1580s, Queen Elizabeth’s support of the Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands led King Philip II of Spain to plan the conquest of England. A giant Spanish invasion fleet was completed by 1587, but Sir Francis Drake’s daring raid on the port of Cadiz delayed the Armada’s departure until May 1588. The Invincible Armada consisted of 130 ships and carried 2,500 guns and 30,000 men, two-thirds of them soldiers. Delayed by storms, the Armada did not reach the southern coast of England until late July. By that time the British were ready.

On July 21, the outnumbered English navy began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, taking full advantage of their superior long-range guns. The Spanish Armada continued to advance during the next few days, but its ranks were thinned considerably by the English assault. On July 28, the Spanish retreated to Calais, France, but the English sent ships loaded with explosives into the crowded harbor, which took a heavy toll on the Armada. The next day, an attempt to reach the Netherlands was thwarted by a small Dutch fleet, and the Spanish were forced to face the pursuing English fleet. The superior English guns again won the day, and the Armada retreated north to Scotland.

Battered by storms and suffering from a lack of supplies, the Armada sailed on a difficult journey back to Spain through the North Sea and around Ireland. By the time the last of the surviving fleet reached Spain in October, half of the original armada was destroyed. Queen Elizabeth’s decisive defeat of the Invincible Armada made England a world-class naval power and introduced effective long-range weapons into naval warfare for the first time, ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting.

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Spanish Armada defeated

Year
1588
Month Day
July 29

Off the coast of Gravelines, France, Spain’s so-called “Invincible Armada” is defeated by an English naval force under the command of Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake. After eight hours of furious fighting, a change in wind direction prompted the Spanish to break off from the battle and retreat toward the North Sea. Its hopes of invasion crushed, the remnants of the Spanish Armada began a long and difficult journey back to Spain.

In the late 1580s, English raids against Spanish commerce and Queen Elizabeth I’s support of the Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands led King Philip II of Spain to plan the conquest of England. Pope Sixtus V gave his blessing to what was called “The Enterprise of England,” which he hoped would bring the Protestant isle back into the fold of Rome. A giant Spanish invasion fleet was completed by 1587, but Sir Francis Drake’s daring raid on the Armada’s supplies in the port of Cadiz delayed the Armada’s departure until May 1588.

On May 19, the Invincible Armada set sail from Lisbon on a mission to secure control of the English Channel and transport a Spanish army to the British isle from Flanders. The fleet was under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia and consisted of 130 ships carrying 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and almost 20,000 soldiers. The Spanish ships were slower and less well armed than their English counterparts, but they planned to force boarding actions if the English offered battle, and the superior Spanish infantry would undoubtedly prevail. Delayed by storms that temporarily forced it back to Spain, the Armada did not reach the southern coast of England until July 19. By that time, the British were ready.

On July 21, the English navy began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, taking full advantage of their long-range heavy guns. The Spanish Armada continued to advance during the next few days, but its ranks were thinned by the English assault. On July 27, the Armada anchored in exposed position off Calais, France, and the Spanish army prepared to embark from Flanders. Without control of the Channel, however, their passage to England would be impossible.

Just after midnight on July 29, the English sent eight burning ships into the crowded harbor at Calais. The panicked Spanish ships were forced to cut their anchors and sail out to sea to avoid catching fire. The disorganized fleet, completely out of formation, was attacked by the English off Gravelines at dawn. In a decisive battle, the superior English guns won the day, and the devastated Armada was forced to retreat north to Scotland. The English navy pursued the Spanish as far as Scotland and then turned back for want of supplies.

Battered by storms and suffering from a dire lack of supplies, the Armada sailed on a hard journey back to Spain around Scotland and Ireland. Some of the damaged ships foundered in the sea while others were driven onto the coast of Ireland and wrecked. By the time the last of the surviving fleet reached Spain in October, half of the original Armada was lost and some 15,000 men had perished.

Queen Elizabeth’s decisive defeat of the Invincible Armada made England a world-class power and introduced effective long-range weapons into naval warfare for the first time, ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting.

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Old Ironsides earns its name

Year
1812
Month Day
August 19

During the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy frigate Constitution defeats the British frigate Guerrière in a furious engagement off the coast of Nova Scotia. Witnesses claimed that the British shot merely bounced off the Constitution‘s sides, as if the ship were made of iron rather than wood. By the war’s end, “Old Ironsides” destroyed or captured seven more British ships. The success of the USS Constitution against the supposedly invincible Royal Navy provided a tremendous boost in morale for the young American republic.

The Constitution was one of six frigates that Congress requested be built in 1794 to help protect American merchant fleets from attacks by Barbary pirates and harassment by British and French forces. It was constructed in Boston, and the bolts fastening its timbers and copper sheathing were provided by the industrialist and patriot Paul Revere. Launched on October 21, 1797, the Constitution was 204 feet long, displaced 2,200 tons, and was rated as a 44-gun frigate (although it often carried as many as 50 guns).

In July 1798 it was put to sea with a crew of 450 and cruised the West Indies, protecting U.S. shipping from French privateers. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the American warship to the Mediterranean to fight Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli. The vessel performed commendably during the conflict, and in 1805 a peace treaty with Tripoli was signed on the Constitution‘s deck.

READ MORE: How USS Constitution Became ‘Old Ironsides’ 

When war broke out with Britain in June 1812, the Constitution was commanded by Isaac Hull, who served as lieutenant on the ship during the Tripolitan War. Scarcely a month later, on July 16, the Constitution encountered a squadron of five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Finding itself surrounded, the Constitution was preparing to escape when suddenly the wind died. With both sides dead in the water and just out of gunnery range, a legendary slow-speed chase ensued. For 36 hours, the Constitution‘s crew kept their ship just ahead of the British by towing the frigate with rowboats and by tossing the ship’s anchor ahead of the ship and then reeling it in. At dawn on July 18, a breeze sprang, and the Constitution was far enough ahead of its pursuers to escape by sail.

One month later, on August 19, the Constitution caught the British warship Guerrière alone about 600 miles east of Boston. After considerable maneuvering, the Constitution delivered its first broadside, and for 20 minutes the American and British vessels bombarded each other in close and violent action. The British man-of-war was de-masted and rendered a wreck while the Constitution escaped with only minimal damage. The unexpected victory of Old Ironsides against a British frigate helped unite America behind the war effort and made Commander Hull a national hero. The Constitution went on to defeat or capture seven more British ships in the War of 1812 and ran the British blockade of Boston twice.

After the war, Old Ironsides served as the flagship of the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and in 1828 was laid up in Boston. Two years later, the navy considered scrapping the Constitution, which had become unseaworthy, leading to an outcry of public support for preserving the famous warship. The navy refurbished the Constitution, and it went on to serve as the flagship of the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Home squadrons. In 1844, the frigate left New York City on a global journey that included visits to numerous international ports as a goodwill agent of the United States. In the early 1850s, it served as flagship of the African Squadron and patrolled the West African coast looking for slave traders.

In 1855, the Constitution retired from active military service, but the famous vessel continued to serve the United States, first as a training ship and later as a touring national landmark. 

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Bounty mutiny survivors reach Timor

Year
1789
Month Day
June 14

English Captain William Bligh and 18 others, cast adrift from the HMS Bounty seven weeks before, reach Timor in the East Indies after traveling nearly 4,000 miles in a small, open boat.

READ MORE: Mutiny on the HMS Bounty

On April 28, Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate on the Bounty, led a successful mutiny against Captain Bligh and his supporters. The British naval vessel had been transporting breadfruit saplings from Tahiti for planting on British colonies in the Caribbean. The voyage was difficult, and ill feelings were rampant between the captain, officers, and crew. Bligh, who eventually would fall prey to a total of three mutinies in his career, was an oppressive commander and insulted those under him. On April 28, near the island of Tonga, Christian and 25 petty officers and seamen seized the ship. The captain and 18 of his crew were set adrift in a small boat with 25 gallons of water, 150 pounds of bread, 30 pounds of pork, six quarts of rum, and six bottles of wine.

By setting the captain and his officers adrift in an overcrowded 23-foot-long boat in the middle of the Pacific, Christian and his conspirators had apparently handed them a death sentence. By remarkable seamanship, however, Bligh and his men reached Timor in the East Indies on June 14, 1789, after a voyage of about 3,600 miles. Bligh returned to England and soon sailed again to Tahiti, from where he successfully transported breadfruit trees to the West Indies.

Meanwhile, Christian and his men attempted to establish themselves on the island of Tubuai. Unsuccessful in their colonizing effort, the Bounty sailed north to Tahiti, and 16 crewmen decided to stay there, despite the risk of capture by British authorities. Christian and eight others, together with six Tahitian men, a dozen Tahitian women, and a child, decided to search the South Pacific for a safe haven. In January 1790, the Bounty settled on Pitcairn Island, an isolated and uninhabited volcanic island more than 1,000 miles east of Tahiti. The mutineers who remained on Tahiti were captured and taken back to England, where three were hanged. A British ship searched for Christian and the others but did not find them.

In 1808, an American whaling vessel was drawn to Pitcairn by smoke from a cooking fire. The Americans discovered a community of children and women led by John Adams, the sole survivor of the original nine mutineers. According to Adams, after settling on Pitcairn the colonists had stripped and burned the Bounty, and internal strife and sickness had led to the death of Fletcher and all the men but Adams. In 1825, a British ship arrived and formally granted Adams amnesty, and he served as patriarch of the Pitcairn community until his death in 1829.

In 1831, the Pitcairn islanders were resettled on Tahiti, but unsatisfied with life there they soon returned to their native island. In 1838, the Pitcairn Islands, which includes three nearby uninhabited islands, were incorporated into the British Empire. By 1855, Pitcairn’s population had grown to nearly 200, and the two-square-mile island could not sustain its residents. In 1856, the islanders were removed to Norfolk Island, a formal penal colony nearly 4,000 miles to the west. However, less than two years later, 17 of the islanders returned to Pitcairn, followed by more families in 1864. Today, around 40 people live on Pitcairn Island, and all but a handful are descendants of the Bounty mutineers. About a thousand residents of Norfolk Island (half its population) trace their lineage from Fletcher Christian and the eight other Englishmen.

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