Friday, December 7, 2012

HMS Birkenhead & HMS Nova Scotia: connecting the highs & lows of human behaviour to Star Wars

frequent visitor to Halifax Nova Scotia ends up the victim of Allied brutality
Two British troopships, sunk a century apart, on opposite sides of South Africa, probe the very heights and depths of human morality.

When the troopship Birkenhead hit a rock not far off the rocky shore of Capetown in 1845, there wasn't enough lifeboats for the entire crew and passengers and what lifeboats there was, were in very bad repair.

So the soldiers stand to, firmly at attention, on the deck as the women and children are put safely aboard the few small boats that could float and could be launched.

Then the ship sank into the stormy depths and most of the men drowned.

The chivalrous Victorian Age loved the story of "Women and Children First" (the so called Birkenhead Drill) and paintings and prints of the men at attention as the ship goes down hung in many homes around the British Empire before WWI.

It is hard to account for the tens of thousands of incidents of incredible heroism that were almost routine on the Western front without knowing a little of the sinking of the troopship HMS Birkenhead.

Cut to the WWII, (thankfully) the world's only modernist war, a wicked evil war from beginning to end on all sides, in part because the world had come to reject chivalry as an ideal , preferring variants of Social Darwinism instead.

(Modernists, it is said often enough to be a cliche,  had come to reject chivalry as a result of the blood and the mud of the Somme and Passchendaele.)

But bits of chivalry still hung about at the beginning of WWII, even among the Nazis.

So it was in September 1942, when U-156 torpedoed the former Cunard liner Laconia, now a troop ship with 2800 people on board, off Africa, that the U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein  immediately signalled other German U-boats, Italian submarines and even the neutral Vichy French and his enemy the Allies, to come help save lives.

Hartenstein didn't know who was on board, it was enough that they were people and their lives deserved to be saved.

As a troop ship, it fell out of the rules of war, and so he didn't have to rescue anyone, legally.

He flew the Red Cross , while towing lifeboats filled with survivors and with other survivors crowded on his submarine's narrow little deck.

His decision to attempt a rescue was even backed up by the supreme U-boat commander Donitz, who ordered seven other U-boats to back off attacks and come help the rescue.

U-156 even broadcasted an open language and a English language appeal for anyone to come help in the rescue, and that he and the other U-boats would not attack rescuers.

Despite this, an American B-24 Liberator bomber flew over intend on bombing the sub, but hesitated to shot on seeing the Red Cross flags.

But eventually it was ordered to do so by a young officer back at base, Robert C Richardson III, who ordered them to sink the U-boat, Red Cross flag and survivors on board and in towed lifeboats or not.

Remember that odious name : Robert C Richardson III because he has much more evil left to do, before he died very honoured and very old, in his bed.

The B-24 returns home a hero, for claiming it had definitely sunk an enemy sub ,when in fact it only sunk a few lifeboats filled with Allied personnel and Italian POWs.

Most of the thousands of souls about to be saved by a multi-nation humanitarian effort, instead died horrible slow deaths at sea.

As a result of the Americans trying to sink a rescue operation, the German naval command said no more of these chivalrous attempts at life saving.

(The Americans had never practised chivalry in submarine warfare, but up till then , many of the British Commonwealth and Germans  sea commanders had.)

As a result of one junior officer's freelance decision, at least a hundred thousand people died needlessly at sea in the remaining years of the war, as huge shiploads of people were sunk without efforts to get rescuers to the scene by all sides.

 Often the survivors were further machine-gunned in the water, again by both sides.

The next incident off of Africa occurred just a few weeks later when the former Furness liner Nova Scotia, which had spent decades going from Liverpool to America and back, via Halifax Nova Scotia and St John's Newfoundland, was sunk as a troopship off Durban with 900 dead --- the biggest ever marine disaster in South African waters.

Again, no one was signalled to come to the survivors' rescue and the sun and sharks got most of them. Again, like the Laconia, the U-boat had sunk a ship filled with POWs from the Axis forces as well as men, woman and children from all over the British Commonwealth.

The infamous Laconia Incident wasn't enough ; Richardson then invented "Star Wars"

Richardson was unpunished then, and in fact ended up a general after a long career, all the while insisting he'd make the same decision again, regardless of who was in the water.

He was a famous cold war hawk from the earliest days, an expert on thinking about winnable nuclear wars and a consultant to many right wing /free enterprise Republican Party oriented think tanks.

So it was only consistent with his wartime brutality, that in retirement, he fathered the Star Wars pipe dream : if it had come to fruition, the deaths of the 2500 on the Laconia would be but a drop in an ocean of death.

General Richardson died a year ago, age 93.

I hope and pray he is in Hell's hottest fires this very moment, as I write.....

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