Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Campbeltown nee Buchanan , 40

"  I'm a clapped out ship at a Halifax pier , the first of Knox's 'volunteers'  "

HMS Campbeltown - formerly USS Buchanan 131 - hero of the famous St Nazaire Raid
Seventy five years ago next September 6th, the wartime naval base of Halifax Nova Scotia made its biggest ever contribution to military history.

 Without even firing a shot.

All because - ironically enough - it was considered the most suitably neutral ground for two former military enemies to publicly seal a handshake of eternal friendship.

Now professor David Zimmerman did the research first and tells the story best , in his book "Top Secret Exchange".

It tells all about the long series of Anglo-American misunderstandings and disagreements resolved between 1939 to 1940 that finally led to the sealing of those two former rivals' special relationship .

 I merely want to focus one (albeit key) date and location in that whole process.

The "destroyers-for-kitchenware" deal

At about 3:00 in the afternoon of September 6th 1940, a small group of old American four stacker destroyers and the top secret cargo on board the Canadian liner "Duchess of Richmond" (re-badged as a British troopship) met at a Halifax pier.

They were there to seal an emotion-laden transfer that bonded together the Anglo-American coalition that won WWII  ----  and still tends to rule our world.

It is well known that the handful of four stackers were there as the first of fifty such clapped-out destroyers that a still isolationist America had very reluctantly agreed to give Britain in its gravest hour of need as it awaited a cross-Channel German invasion.

Publicly, what had swung the deal in isolationist America was Britain's willingness to grant America naval and air bases in a string of British colonies from icy Labrador to sultry British Guiana, all to act as an outer guard line for America , located safely well beyond its coastal big cities.

The TOP SECRET side of a very public deal

In fact, what had really swung the deal within American government and military circles was that Britain , at the same time as the public destroyers-for-bases deal , also secretly offered to hand over all of its most valuable military cum commercial secrets to America - without reservations and totally for free.

This was to become the famous Tizard Mission --- and its mode of transport was the Duchess of Richmond.

So the Duchess arrives in Halifax Harbour and despite being a military troopship docked - as all wartime troopships did - at the city's southern civilian port facilities.

That was a long mile away the city's famous naval Dockyard in the northern end of the city.

In this case , this distance from civilian to military was like manna from heaven to the British , Canadians and still very much officially Neutral Americans carefully planning the public press coverage of this historical coalition-sealing event.

The Halifax Dockyard had too many unpleasant historical memories for both British imperialist diehards and American isolationists.

But doing the exchange at naval bases in either Boston or Portsmouth England was even more of a political non-starter.

Still, from that Halifax Dockyard , British warships had launched many effective attacks against American shipping during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and the Civil War.

And for the British, the Halifax Dockyard was an unpleasant reminder that Britain interests, despite all this, had basically lost all three wars.

But the civilian part of Halifax harbour held nothing but pleasant memories as a way station for both American and British travellers en route to and from the New World.

Nova Scotia had long been a culturally and geographically close "foreign" vacation for many of America's elite from its powerful North East.

So it was neutral ground , emotionally, to hand over America's destroyers.

Similarly, Halifax had remained a British military base long after Canada was nominally independent of the Mother Country.

Many of 1940's British generals and admirals had married young women from Halifax's British-oriented High Society during earlier naval visits or army tours of duty.

To British imperialists, "The Warden of the North" was as comfortable a place as any to hand over what remained of their New World empire and of their Old World science to those damn Yankees.

PIER B and PIER 20

So it was right there at civilian Pier B, next to the SS Duchess of Richmond at civilian Pier 20 , that the four stackers docked.

They watched as a thousand British sailors and officers  poured off the liner * and marched over to the four stackers to begin the training and handing over procedures.

This process was hardly secret to Halifax citizens and the media's Speed Graphic cameras and newsreel crews - and that was the point.

In a sense , this highly public unloading of its human cargo in broad daylight and at a civilian pier was all part of a concerted effort to conceal the truly valuable cargo that the Duchess was unloading that day in Halifax.

A cargo memorably described by the official historian of America's scientific efforts to win the war as "the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores." 

a CAVITY that for once, wasn't empty

All the more puzzling then that this most valuable object in question was literally "no bigger than a man's hand" and for that it was a extremely Top Secret military weapon during the war, is now found literally in every kitchen in the land.

It is the heart of every $50 cheap microwave oven - the small circular "cavity" magnetron that powers the oven - and still powers all of our most important forms of communication - from GPS to SATELLITE SIGNALS  to RADAR and CELL PHONES.

Small but powerful was its whole point - now the radar station that had occupied acres of British shoreline and soared hundreds of feet in the air could be fitted in any sized aircraft to detect and destroy bombers, panzer columns or U-boats before they saw you.

To complete the subterfuge , the final deceiving touch was exactly how 'the most valuable cargo to ever land in the New World' arrived on Halifax soil.

Can there be anything less warlike than a fussy old solicitor carrying a fussy old battered deed case about ?

Anything less warlike and virile than a middle aged man in civilian clothes carrying a modest black deed case, particularly after you'd just seen a thousand fit young men step about smartly in tight uniforms , just bursting in excessive testosterone ?

A middle-aged civilian , just oozing non-charisma , carrying a small battered black case : "the most valuable cargo ever."

Hidden , in plain sight.

Hindsight , as always , is 20:20

Except that it wasn't seen as particularly valuable - not at the time - amazingly, all its (justified) fame came retrospectively.

Both the British and the Americans considered the other top secret cargo (now being carried off the Duchess of Richmond as part of the scientific baggage of the Tizard Mission) to be much more valuable.

At least the British considered that material to be highly valuable.

Many American military science experts considered Britain clapped out technologically , a loser certain to fall before Germany's superior technology and military prowess and that nothing Tizard could bring could be very valuable.

So all of that disputedly-valuable cargo went off under armed guard - off to Ottawa and then onto Washington.

The cavity magnetron's fame problem was twofold : it had literally just been perfected that summer and it was such an advance in technology that it needed to recognized by the people at the top for the epoch-creating invention it truly was.

That recognition hadn't happened yet in Britain as it was so new.

Alfred Loomis : right man, right place, right time

But it was about to be studied by an American scientist who could see its all its current possibilities and more and who - in addition - had the ear of the Secretary of War and so could jump over the head of hidebound military brass to the very top of the American command structure.

Alfred Loomis was a highly successful wealthy businessman and banker - the sort of chap to instill confidence in the kind of mind that is ever suspicious of long haired ivory tower scientist types.

In addition he was a very brilliant amateur scientist and inventor.

Finally , as a cousin and life long close friend of Henry Stimson, the brand new Secretary of War ( isn't it marvellous how things can all come together at the right time ?) , he could get to the very top of the American political-military world and be trusted completely.

When Loomis saw the cavity magnetron, he saw all its war and peacetime possibilities in a flash (some he later invented himself) and his informed enthusiasm fired up both the American and British microwave radar efforts.

(It is worth remembering that the Allies spent far, far more on radar than they ever did on the atom bomb.)

Far more importantly, his enthusiasm for the wonders of British science convinced most doubting Americans among its elite that Britain might just win the war after all and that as a serious postwar commercial-technological competitor , it won't hurt to keep her close - very close.

Because the other military secrets the Tizard team brought had failed to sway those Americans experts  (not all Americans by a long shot - but a very powerful group nevertheless) who doubted its survival chances.

He even convinced the British that their backroom long haired lab boys might just do what the British Army, Navy and Air Force clearly couldn't do - win the war ---- by winning the science war.

The Boffin moved into the British Cabinet Room and has never really left.

Not bad for a British "invention" that had actually been invented a decade earlier by all leading scientific powers - including backwards Japan and Russia - except for Britain.

The others - and the British experts - simply hadn't seen the potential in what had been discovered.

Beginners' Luck

Britain's luck was the new "cavity" magnetron was casually thrown off by a pair of low level scientists, simply as an unimportant adjunct to their main project.

They had the minor task - as part of a ever so slightly less minor wartime project - to develop a way to detect microwaves.

They simply needed a source of microwaves to test their detector.

Fortunately they knew nothing about microwaves and had no money or time to spend on the effort.

Working literally with a budget of a few pounds and bits of spare wire and copper pipe and a hand drill - things you might have lying around in your own garage -  they invented a penny whistle,  powered by electricity instead of your wind.

But the ancient musical principle of creating a strong pure note by carefully placed holes in a tube still held.

This clean pure note could detect a submarine conning tower ,in a sea of spray, from miles away in the dark.

And today, any high school shop class can build an equivalent of the original cavity magnetron in an afternoon .

Dead easy - once you know how.

Genius - by design or by accident - is like that.  It isn't a question of simply throwing tons of men and money at a problem but of being clever - first.

Their names,  Randall and Boot,  still remain unknown : gentlemen take a bow.

Too bad Stan Rogers isn't here to write a ballad

So : a nondescript 'Halifax pier' as the site where fifty desperately clapped out destroyers were exchanged for the electronic bit that powers that microwave in your daughter's college dorm.

It seems a very inauspicious spot to seal a 'special relationship' between two former hot rivals that has endured for seventy five years and still largely rules our world.

But I think it is a spot - and an event - worth celebrating : what do you think ?

* The human cargo the Duchess of Richmond returned to Britain with in September of 1940 was notable too : it included a very young officer cadet named Hampton Gray , who later earned a VC  for Canada on the last days of the war....

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