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10 Oddest Naval Actions in History

by Larry Jimenez
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

On October 24, 1944, the Navy submarine USS Tang engaged a Japanese convoy bound for Leyte Gulf. Going after a transport, it fired two torpedoes. The first went straight for the target, but the second somehow circled back toward the Tang, hitting and sinking it. The episode of the sub that sank itself might have been lifted from a comedy movie, but the reality was more tragic—78 men died, and only nine survived.

In battles at sea, mishaps such as these make for unique situations one cannot find in ground combat. There are also opportunities to unleash novel weapons and tactics from resourceful and creative commanders. Bizarre artillery, strange-looking ships, and over-the-top camouflage are among the things that make the history of naval warfare fascinating.

Related: 10 Often Forgotten Battles That Helped Shape the Modern World

10 Snakes as Artillery

Facts About Hannibal You Didn’t Learn In School

Hannibal Barca, Carthage’s greatest general, was out of a job after his defeat by the Romans at the battle of Zama in 202 BC, ending the Second Punic War. Wandering the East in voluntary exile, he offered his services to any king who needed his strategic and tactical brilliance. He wound up in the employ of the king of Bithynia, Prusias I. Bithynia, in modern Turkey, was at war with Pergamon and made Hannibal its naval commander.

In 184 BC, Hannibal faced the much larger enemy fleet of King Eumenes II. Seeing the odds stacked against him, he decided to attack the Pergamenians with a weapon unique in the annals of biological warfare. Hannibal ordered his men to fill clay pots with as many venomous snakes as they could find. Then, loading the clay pots onto catapults, the Bithynians hurled them toward the enemy fleet, focusing especially on Eumenes’s ship. Crashing onto the decks, the pots broke and released the deadly, slithering reptiles, causing panic and confusion.

The damage might have been more psychological than physical, but it had the intended effect. It disrupted the coordination of the Pergamenian fleet, and the enemy fled, handing the victory over to Hannibal.[1]

9 The Turtle Ship

Korean Turtle Ships

In the late 16th century, Japan’s great unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, planned to subjugate Ming Dynasty China and incorporate it into the empire. However, with its geographical location, Korea literally stood in Hideyoshi’s way to Chinese territory. Hideyoshi undertook to conquer Korea first and use it as a stepping stone.

From 1592-98, Hideyoshi unleashed the superior Japanese forces against the Koreans. With skilled samurai and troops armed with the matchlock arquebus acquired from the Portuguese, the Japanese overran the Koreans at every encounter on land. But on the sea, it was a different story.

Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin had developed a strange-looking vessel: a coastal galley covered with what looked like a turtle shell studded with sharp spikes—hence the name “turtle ship.” It protected the crew from enemy missiles and prevented the Japanese samurai from boarding the ship. It is disputed whether or not the shell was plated with iron; if it was, it would make the turtle ship history’s first “ironclad” vessel.

Twenty-six cannons gave the turtle ship more firepower than the Japanese, who relied on archers and arquebusiers. The Korean vessel also had a dragon-head prow, which belched noxious sulfurous fumes to irritate the eyes of Japanese sailors. Powered by oars, it was quicker and more maneuverable.

Admiral Yi first deployed his turtle ships at the Battle of Sacheon in 1592. His feigned retreat lured the Japanese fleet out of the safety of the harbor into the open sea. There, the Japanese were baffled about how to attack the enemy ships. As they fumbled, the Koreans simply rammed their formation and sank nearly every Japanese ship engaged. With their seaborne supply lines endangered, the Japanese were forced, for the moment at least, to evacuate the peninsula.[2]

8 The Battle of Texel

When a Dutch Fleet surrendered to French Cavalry: Den Helder

The French, seeking to export its revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity to the rest of Europe, were at war with the Dutch Republic in support of the revolutionaries who fought to topple it. The particularly cold winter of 1794-95 found the Dutch fleet of 14 ships anchored in the strait of Marsdiep near Texel Island caught in a storm and trapped in place as the sea froze.

When the French got wind of the Dutch fleet’s tight situation, they sent word to their ally, Dutch admiral Johan Willem de Winter, who dispatched his infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Arriving on January 22, they camped out for the night. The fleet’s captain, seeing the troops, prepared to scuttle the ships when news arrived that the revolutionaries had taken over the government and a ceasefire was in effect.

The French Hussar cavalry moved forward on the ice to intimidate the enemy, but the ceasefire took the fight out of the Dutch, who needed no urging to surrender. A clash between ground forces and a fleet of ships was thus narrowly averted. It may not have been the real battle the French propagandists romanticized about, but it was the only time in history that a naval fleet surrendered to horse cavalry.[3]

7 The Island Pretending to Be a Ship

Strange Places | HMS Diamond Rock

The French once had the strange task of fighting a ship that could never be sunk. The aptly named HMS Diamond Rock was officially registered as a Royal Navy sloop. But it was made not of wood but basalt—for the HMS Diamond Rock was actually an island rising 600 feet (183 meters) above the Caribbean Sea.

Strategically located between the French-held islands of Martinique and St. Lucia, the uninhabited Diamond Rock had a commanding view of the ocean, and no French ship could avoid being spotted. Commodore Sir Samuel Hood reconnoitered the island in 1803 and was impressed by the easily defensible mountainous terrain. He wrote in his report that it was “an unsinkable stone-frigate.” Hood proceeded to transform the ancient lava plug into exactly that—a Royal Navy warship.

Sailors and supplies duly arrived, and 18 and 24-pounder cannons established on the heights dominated the area in every direction. The “sloop” became a thorn to French shipping between Martinique and St. Lucia and a looming threat to their major base of Port Royal. They must capture the “Rock” somehow.

In May 1805, Napoleon dispatched Admiral Villeneuve with a Franco-Spanish fleet of 16 ships to take the HMS Diamond Rock. The ensuing artillery duel for the next two weeks cost the French three gunboats and damage to the other ships. But ominously, their fire destroyed the island’s cistern of fresh water. On the 31st, French troops landed, and the British held on for another three days until lack of water and ammunition forced the surrender of the Royal Navy’s weirdest ship.[4]

6 Cheese Cannonballs

Winning naval battles with cheese cannonballs

Uruguay, the second-smallest South American country, won its independence from Spain in 1811, only to have it wrested away by its giant northern neighbor, Brazil. It regained its freedom in 1828, but when civil war erupted in the 1860s, other nations took sides, hoping to cash in on the strife and take Uruguay as the ultimate booty.

Argentina and Brazil found themselves supporting opposite factions in the Guerra Grande. The Brazilian navy deployed, and in time, one of its ships encountered the Uruguayans. A skirmish ensued, and the Uruguayans soon ran out of ammunition. Thinking quickly, the captain ordered the old, stale Dutch cheese they had as rations on board be brought up. The cheese wheels were hard as a rock—they could kill a man or damage a ship.

The cheese was loaded into the cannons and aimed at the Brazilians. The first two missed the ship, but the third crashed into the mast, shattering it and wounding two sailors with shrapnel. More cheese balls came raining down on the deck, and the Brazilian commander thought it more prudent to retreat than suffer the humiliation of having his ship destroyed by cheese.[5]

5 The Ship That Hunted Itself

Luxury Liners at War | RMS Carmania vs SMS Cap Trafalgar

The SMS Cap Trafalgar, launched in 1913, was one of the most luxurious ocean liners plying the Atlantic. Her halls and stairwells were accented by gold filigree, and the staterooms were sumptuously furnished in the latest fashion. There was a swimming pool and a cafe within a greenhouse.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the Cap Trafalgar shed her extravagant trappings and was transformed into an armed cruiser. Two 4.1-inch naval guns and six one-pounder cannons were installed on her decks, and instead of socialite passengers, she carried a battle-trained crew. To top off the makeover, she was painted and disguised to look like another ocean liner, the British RMS Carmania.

Cap Trafalgar’s orders were to disrupt British shipping in the Atlantic. Unknown to her, the Carmania was similarly converted into a battle cruiser and tasked to hunt merchant raiders. Reports of the Cap Trafalgar’s activities reached the Carmania, and the British began the hunt for the raider. They scoured the area where she was last seen.

On September 14, 1914, the Carmania approached Trindade Island off Brazil, where her quarry had just finished loading coal and was on its way out. The Carmania’s captain did a double take—the ship he was hunting was the near-exact double of his own! The Carmania gave chase to her doppelganger, and a vicious duel at close quarters ensued. Both ships sustained severe damage, but the Cap Trafalgar ended up sinking with the loss of 16 men, including the captain. The Carmania, with 9 dead, hobbled to a nearby island to lick her wounds.

It was the only time two luxury ocean liners fought to the death on the high seas.[6]

4 The Boats That Traveled on Land

The Strangest Warship Battle of WW1 – Africa’s Lake Tanganyika

In 1915, the Allied attempt to take German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) was stymied by German control of Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world. The SMS Graf von Goetzen and the smaller Hedwig von Wissman and Kingani dominated the lake and harassed the British positions. The British needed to bring ships to the lake to challenge the Germans, but how? With no direct outlet to the sea, they couldn’t just simply sail into it.

The von Goetzen had been built in Germany, disassembled, transported by land to the lake, and then reassembled. Taking his cue from the enemy, Boer War veteran and big-game hunter John Lee proposed hauling boats through overland routes to the lake. By necessity, they couldn’t be full-sized ships, but Lee believed that small motor gunboats, equipped with guns with a 7,000-yard (6400-meter) range, could defeat the von Goetzen.

Two 40-foot (12-meter) motor launches from Britain, the Mimi and Toutou, were sent out to Capetown, South Africa. From there, the gunboats were loaded onto a train for the nearly 4,500-mile (4,000-kilometer) trip to Fungurume in the Belgian Congo. The next stage of the journey saw the gunboats pulled by oxen, steam tractors, and brute force for 150 miles (240 kilometers) through the trackless jungle.

The sailors battled malaria, dysentery, and hyperthermia while trying to survive fires and lightning storms. Paddling upstream on Lualaba River, the Mimi and Toutou ran aground 14 times, “a record, I think, for HM ships,” said the British commander. Then, the gunboats were carried by rail again the rest of the way to Lake Tanganyika.

On December 1, 1915, the British vessels captured the Kingani without alerting the Germans and renamed it the Fifi. The Hedwig, sent out to search for the Kingani, was spotted and sunk in February 1916. The von Goetzen, her guns removed to support troops elsewhere, was at the mercy of the gunboats. She was scuttled in July, making the British masters of Lake Tanganyika.[7]

3 Japanese Navy in the Mediterranean

When The Japanese Navy Safeguarded The Med in WWI…

Japan’s role as one of the Allies in World War I overshadows her turning supervillain in the sequel. Even those who remember tend to think Japanese military actions were confined to Asia and the Pacific—capturing the German colony of Tsingtao in China, driving away the German East Asiatic Squadron from the Pacific, occupying the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls, and ironically, protecting Hawaii.

The Mediterranean was an unusual stage for Japanese naval operations. But that is exactly what happened. On April 13, 1917, the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Second Special Squadron of eight destroyers and one cruiser under Admiral Sato Kazo arrived in Malta. Its mission was to protect Allied shipping between Egypt and France. More destroyers arrived, and at its peak, Japan had 17 operating in the Mediterranean.

During their patrols, the Japanese engaged German and Austrian submarines 34 times. The destroyer Sakaki lost 68 men in an attack by the Austrian U-27. By the war’s end, the squadron had escorted 788 ships, bringing 700,000 troops to the Western Front. Japanese commanders reportedly committed hara-kiri when an Allied ship was lost on their watch.

Before the mission, the racially-bigoted Western Allies didn’t express much confidence in Japanese ability. After the war, they were lavish with their praise and admiration, with Winston Churchill himself saying, “(I) did not think that the Japanese [squadron] had ever done a foolish thing.”[8]

2 The Ship Pretending to Be an Island

The WW2 Ship Dressed Like an Island – HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen

On February 27, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy inflicted a devastating loss on the Allied fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea. Of the four Dutch ships that survived the battle, three were picked off one by one by the Japanese in the following days. The lone ship remaining, the minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen, knew that it had to evade the enemy and somehow manage to reach the safety of Australia.

But the slow-moving, lightly armed ship wouldn’t stand a chance in combat if ever it was spotted. In a sea now swarming with Japanese ships, submarines, and aircraft, remaining invisible seemed impossible. So the crew came up with a desperate idea—disguise the Crijnssen to make it look like an island and blend in with the numerous islands dotting the area.

The ship was duly covered in vegetation, and any exposed surface was painted gray to resemble rocks. The Japanese would be suspicious of a moving island so the Dutch had no choice but to stay put during the day, hugging the shores of a nearby island, hoping the camouflage would bamboozle the enemy. Then, under cover of night, the Crijnssen would slowly and stealthily move away, mile after suspenseful mile, creeping closer to Australia.

On March 20, after eight harrowing days of avoiding detection, the Crijnssen finally arrived in Fremantle, the last ship to come out of the disaster at the Java Sea and the only one in her class to survive.[9]

1 Sink the Tirpitz!

Sinking the Tirpitz: The Hunt for the Beast of the Kriegsmarine

The 42,000-ton German superbattleship Tirpitz was the sister ship of the more famous Bismarck. After the Bismarck was sunk in May 1941, the Tirpitz remained a threat to North Atlantic shipping. “The greatest single act to restore the balance of naval power would be the destruction or even crippling of the Tirpitz,” wrote Winston Churchill. “No other target is comparable to it.”

But the mighty dreadnought seemed impervious to every conventional attack launched against it. The Germans had boasted the Tirpitz was untouchable, and the British were inclined to believe it. But Churchill was obsessed with taking down the behemoth.

Now was the time to think outside the box. The Royal Navy’s first attempt at unconventional tactics was in October 1942, using the human torpedo. This was a self-propelled torpedo guided by two divers to its target, who then detached the warhead and affixed it to the hull. But inclement weather aborted the operation.

Next, the Navy tried midget submarines, the four-man X-craft, two of which actually succeeded in approaching the Tirpitz like stealth assassins in its berth at Kaafjord, Norway, in September 1943. They dropped demolition charges beneath the ship, which detonated, heavily damaging but not sinking the battleship.

Finally, on November 12, 1944, modified Lancaster bombers were launched against the hard-to-kill monster at Tromso, Norway. They were armed with the 12,000-lb. Tallboy bombs called “earthquake bombs” because they were specifically designed to destroy bomb-proof concrete structures by creating earthquake-like pressure waves that could collapse foundations.

Against such a superweapon, there was now no escape for the Tirpitz. Minutes after arrival, the Lancasters, supported by Soviet aircraft, had ripped open the Tirpitz’s port side. Moments later, the “unsinkable” was beneath the waves, and 1,204 men died, many singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” as they went down.

In all, it took a total of 24 operations within a five-year period to sink the Tirpitz. [10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen