ancestryink fisherman

Friday, March 7, 2014

This Week Russia Sunk a Ship - and an Historical War Time Tactic Resurfaces

This week the Russian Navy extracted one of their aged anti-submarine ships from a Naval metal pile, dragged it out into the Black Sea, and with little ceremony, sank this rust heap in the watery passage leading to Donuzlav Lake, home to a Ukrainian naval base. 

As the Ukrainian - Russian conflict inflates daily, this act of Russian recycling is  "the latest in a series of moves by Russian naval forces in the area that were jangling the nerves of Ukrainian officers." *

I love that term "jangling the nerves." Note it does not say "scaring the heck out of" or "angering into retaliation." Jangled nerves connotes mere irritation.

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.

I immediately thought of the hilarious 1966 movie based on Nathaniel Benchley's novel "The Off Islanders."  Growing up on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, the film was a beloved thing in my home.

Supposedly located on an "island off Gloucester," the fictional Russians, intent on checking out an American town, strayed too close to shore in their submarine, ran it aground. My parents had honeymooned on Nantucket, and were convinced it was filmed on this island. (Indeed, the location looked nothing like Gloucester's rocky coastline.)  In truth, the movie starring the likes of Alan Arkin, Jonathan Winters, etc. was filmed in California.

But I digress.  (Wildly.)

The Russians in the movie were funny and sweet.  And in all fairness, I should include here that the Russians involved in the harbor-blocking incident of the news this week, did approach the Ukrainian Naval commander and "invite" them to get with the Russians so to speak, " promising good pay and a bright future."   Then, proceeded to sink their rusty heap of metal and bolts.

Historically, the sinking or careening of ships was a tactic used in our own Civil War, beginning 1861. The purpose was the same as the Russians:  to block harbors and prevent movement of ships. Though, in our Civil War, also with the intention of preventing an invasion by the Southern navy.

Falmouth had her own "Stone Fleet," as did Charleston, Mass., New Bedford, Mass. and other Northeastern ports.  The tactic involved local mariners responding to their Union Naval commanders, loading old, leaky, aging wooden vessels - previously used for whaling, fishing, or trading - with tons of stone.

The first stone fleet sailed from New Bedford aboard the Leonidas in November of 1861, with the mission of blockading the harbor of Charleston, SC to prevent the Confederates from conducting trade from this key trade location.
Library of Congress image: Illustration:Stone Fleet Charleston, 1861
Although the Leonidas would set sail on a bright sunny November day, the stone fleets usually sunk their vessels under cover of night.  The men would heroically commandeer this creaky fleet of stone to the designated harbor, with metal augurs, open a hole in the hull of their ships, and then hastily jump ship as she sank "like a stone" to the bottom of the sea. A nearby Naval War ship would pick up the men after the deed was done.

But, just picture the actual act:  Sailing from New Bedford to Charleston, SC, in November, (potentially the end of a hurricane season) on an ancient, out of commission, fragile ship loaded with stone.  A voyage that could take days or weeks.  These men were revered for their bravery.

For five long years, the seas around Charleston Harbor was littered with underwater obstacles, from the attempted blockades.  The U. of South Carolina and the Nat'l Park Service continues to conduct archaeological dives to map out the maritime struggles that took place here.  From the U. of South Carolina website:

“The archives of South Carolina’s maritime history are under water. For years we have had these great resources that we should hold in as much respect as historical documents,” said James Spirek, a USC underwater archaeologist. “They are the physical representations of the state’s maritime legacies.”

Spirek directed the project that began in 2008 and wrapped up this spring. He applied the same approach that was used to understand the historic landscape of Gettysburg to understand the Civil War naval operations at Charleston Harbor.

And, from historic news archives at - the following is an 1861 news article outlining the technique to be used by a Stone Fleet:**  (click for closer viewing)

And as I am writing this blog post, CNN reports that the Russians have sunk yet another ship with the purpose of blockading the Ukraine navy.

Perhaps some moment in the future will find an underwater team of archaeologists diving into the Black Sea, searching for sunken hulks, to help map out their own historical struggles.

And how many years into the future will men (and women, now) sail forth in "Stone Fleets" to protect their nation's freedom? It seems a simple and enduring method that, oddly, may never go out of date.

*Source:   Loiko, Sergie L.; LA Times/World; March 5, 2014; web edition:,0,5215300.story#axzz2vH9k8YcB

**The Stone Fleet. Vessels to be Sunk In Southern Harbors: Date: Saturday, November 23, 1861; Albany Evening Journal (Albany, NY) ; page 2.

1 comment:

  1. Apologies for the endless updating and poor formatting at end of this post. Blogspot won this battle, I'm afraid!