british convoy

October 17, 1917 - German Cruisers Wreak Havoc on British Convoy in the North Sea

Pictured - A 15 cm gun salvaged from SMS Bremse now greets visitors to Scapa Flow. Bremse was one of the two destroyers that sank eleven British ships on October 17.

Britain’s new convoy system was already paying dividends, but the German navy continued to take its toll as 1917 grew late. The convoy system deterred U-Boats, but two German surface ships gave a convoy more than it could handle in the North Sea on October 17.

Two British destroyers, Strongbow and Mary Rose, were suprised to see large German vessels heading at them of the Norwegian coast. The interlopers were the German cruisers Bremse and Brummer, who opened fire immediately. The shells from their large guns immediately immobilized Strongbow. Mary Rose turned to fight but was quickly sunk. The German cruisers fell on the now-defenseless convoy and sank nine merchant ships. The same day, a German submarine sank the American transport ship Antilles, killing sixty-seven. The war in the Atlantic was by no means over.

Naval Actions in the North and Baltic Seas

The Slava pictured shortly before her scuttling.

October 17 1917, Lerwick–With the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet in the Baltic assisting Operation Albion, the British must have deemed the possibility of a German naval action in the North Sea to be highly unlikely–especially since there had been no activity there for nearly a year.  Scheer decided to take advantage of possible British complacency by sending two fast light cruisers, the Brummer and Bremse, to attack the convoy route between Britain and Norway.  The U-boats had had little luck attacking this convoy, and poor weather, low light, and the cruisers’ 34-knot speed meant they would have a good chance of making a surprise hit-and-run attack on the convoy.

At dawn on October 17, the destroyer Strongbow, escorting a convoy of coal to Norway (part of a British promise to keep Norway friendly and stop her from trading with the Germans), sighted the two German cruisers.  Not expecting to see German surface ships, they repeatedly attempted to signal them, only to be greeted with gunfire from a range of only 3000 yards.  The Germans quickly sank the Strongbow and the other British destroyer in the convoy, the Mary Rose, before either were able to transmit any sort of wireless message.  135 sailors were killed.  The Germans then turned on the convoy, sinking nine of the twelve merchant ships in it.  Unlike the U-boats, the fast cruisers were easily able to overpower the destroyers and keep pace with the escorted ships while they tried to escape.  The destroyers then slipped back south to Germany, undetected, despite a considerable British cruiser presence at sea.

Meanwhile, in the Baltic, the Germans engaged the Russian squadron in the Gulf of Riga, while German troops crossed the causeway to Moon [Muhu] Island.  The Russian ships were outclassed by the German ones; in a 27-minute engagement, the pre-dreadnought Slava took severe damage from German dreadnoughts while unable to return fire.  She took on water, making her unable to escape the Gulf of Riga due to her increased draft; the Russians scuttled her in an attempt to block the sound between Moon Island and the mainland to German ships.  Two days later, the remaining Russian ships left for the relative safety of the Gulf of Finland, and Russian resistance in the Gulf of Riga ended.  It would also be the last major action of any sort on the Eastern Front during the war.

Today in 1916: Last Gasp of the Brusilov Offensive
Today in 1915: Italians Launch Midget Submarine
Today in 1914:  Allied Advances Around Armentières and Ypres

Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel; David R. Stone, The Russian Army in the Great War; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

First Transatlantic Convoy Leaves Hampton Roads

The HMS Roxburgh, the cruiser that escorted the convoy most of the way across the Atlantic, pictured before the war.

May 24 1917, Norfolk–The first major British ocean-going convoy, from Gibraltar to Plymouth, had been a great success, with all ships arriving successfully in Plymouth on May 20.  The Admiralty then gave the final approval to a planned transatlantic convoy of British merchant ships back across the Atlantic from Hampton Roads, Virginia.  On May 24, nine ships, accompanied by the cruiser HMS Roxburgh left American waters, making a steady speed of nine knots across the Atlantic.  Two of the ships experienced some mechanical difficulties and were unable to keep up; one of these was sunk by a submarine later in its voyage.  The remaining seven ships were able to continue across the Atlantic without incident, maintaining an orderly formation despite heavy wind, rain, and fog.  They were joined by eight destroyers in the eastern Atlantic, and arrived successfully on June 7, having encountered no submarines along the way.

Even if U-boats had found the convoy, it likely could not do much damage.  The presence of escorts meant the submarines could not use their deck gun and would have to attack with their torpedoes from underwater while simultaneously avoiding the escorts.  Even if they sank one ship, the convoy would likely have moved on before the submarine could fix on another one.  As Admiral Sims put it, the convoys would “establish a square mile of the surface of the ocean in which submarines could not operate and then move that square along until port was reached.”  The success of this convoy, and the Gibraltar one, meant that convoy use was greatly expanded in the coming months; four more left Hampton Roads in June, and another sixteen had crossed the Atlantic by the end of July.

Today in 1916: Germany To Seize All Meats
Today in 1915: Truce at ANZAC Cove to Bury Dead

Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel.

This is a reproduction of “ Fight of the Poursuivante with the British ship Hercules”, 1819 by Louis-Philippe Crépin. The artist was forty-eight when he painted this masterpiece. He died 32 years later. The French frigate was launched in 1796 in the Dunkirk shipyards having been designed by Pierre Forfait. Commissioned in 1798, she was involved in the Battle of Dunkirk and the Haitian Revolution. This painting is of the action of June 28, 1803 when the Poursuivante encountered a British convoy and was chased by the Hercules. She raked and disable the Hercules enough to reach safe harbor and was refitted in Baltimore. She departed America in 1804 and reached France. She was converted to a hulk in June, 1806. This painting is in the Musée national de la Marine in Paris.


The Battle of the Doppelgangers,

When World War I broke out, it was not uncommon for navies on both sides to commission civilian ships for military use, either as transports or warships.  One sneaky move was to arm civilian ships, especially passenger liners, to trick the enemy.  Such ships could use the element of surprise to attack an enemy who believes the ship is nothing more than an unarmed civilian vessel. 

In 1914 the German Navy armed the passenger liner Cap Trafalgar with two four inch guns and six 37mm autocannon.  In addition the Cap Trafalgar was disguised to look like a similar British Cunard line passenger liner called the RMS Carmania.  The idea was that the Cap Trafalgar could approach British merchant and supply convoys with little suspicion of being a German warship.  When the convoy least expected it, the Cap Trafalgar would open fire and destroy the convoy.

On September 14th, 1914 the Cap Trafalgar was discovered off the coast of Brazil by the British passenger liner RMS Carmania.   The Carmania was likewise armed to raid German merchant convoys, and was disguised as the Cap Trafalgar just as the Cap Trafalgar had been disguised as the Carmania.  For 90 minutes the two doppelgangers battled each other in a gunnery duel, often at ranges no more than 200 yards.  During the battle the real Carmania took the most hits and suffered heavy damage.  After being struck with 72 shells her bridge was completely destroyed and she sustained hull ruptures under her waterline.  However the real Cap Trafalgar suffered mortal damage and sank into the ocean, taking 51 German sailors with her.  The rest of the German crew, 279 men altogether, were captured by the British.

Garbo was the code name for Joan Pujol Garcia (ssssssh! Don’t tell the Germans), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and at the time a poultry farmer. Garcia wasn’t a big fan of the Nazi’s or Communists, so in 1940 he decides he would spy for the British, but the Brits turned him away. So he went to the Americans who as it turns out agreed with the Brits and thought that a man who volunteers to be a spy is a little suspicious.

The Nazi’s didn’t seem to mind though, and he decided to spy on them from within because he was just cool like that. The Germans tell him they want him to live in England and recruit more agents below him, which he promptly agrees to and then moves to Lisbon, which is 100% not where England is.

I checked on a map.

And then it starts to get really NUTS.

From Lisbon, Garcia feeds the Nazi’s bogus reports based only on info he gets from tourist brochures, library books, newsreels, magazine articles and the information the Germans give him just repeated back to them. It’s all complete fiction.

He also recruits dozens of other agents under him, except that, well, he doesn’t.

None of them are real either. He just blames them whenever some of his information turns out to be wrong. The Nazi’s pay him for each agent, because each one “requires” resources to gain information and they don’t know that each one is just as made up as his reports. By the end of the war he had been given more than 4 Million dollars by the Germans for to operate his spy ring.

The British finally start listening to him after he successfully convinced a German naval group to hunt down a fictitious British convoy. They go give him a few code names before they settle on Garbo, so named for the popular film actress Greta Garbo.

From then on he was integral to British counter intelligence plans. He fed the Germans misinformation about everything he could. A large part of the success of operation Mince Meat relied on Garbo confirming the identity of Bill as a real person and not, you know, a random dead body from Wales.

He also played a huge part in the D-Day invasions success. By the summer of 1944, Garcia was considered the top agent in the field by the Germans. They had more trust in him than a group of teenage girls at a slumber party.

Leading up to D-Day it was his word about the FUSAG that kept German tanks in northern France instead of heading down to Normandy. He confirmed over and over again that the attack would be up North at Calais like the Germans thought. He confirmed Pattons location and identified the FUSAG’s imminent departures. Hitler believed so strongly that Garcia was true and loyal, he refused to allow troop movements to Normandy.

The hope from allied command was that Hitler would delay reinforcements by 24 hours after the invasion, Garbo convinced them to wait 6 weeks.

And the kicker of it all, the Germans never knew, they never even suspected!
Hitler awarded Garcia the Iron Cross for his work leading up to D-Day. Hitler never doubted Garcia’s loyalty and instead blamed his Generals for the defeat in Normandy.

At the end of the War, Garbo had conned the Nazis out of more than 4 million dollars by current day value, saved even more countless lives, and in return was awarded the highest honor Hitlers Germany had to give.

Not bad for a guy working out of a library.

Operation Double Cross

The British were always pretty good at convincing German spies to turn double. The question of just how good wasn’t truly known until after the war though.

It turns out the British had turned 100% of German spies sent to England into double agents by the wars end.

That’s 100%, as in all of them.

How was this possible?

The British would use their own spies to uncover the identities of others, and this in turn would deliver more identities.

They even created German spies for the Germans to recruit. In one example, a German fighter pilot crashed and was taken into custody, where they convinced him to tell the Germans that he had survived and hidden himself. Naturally the Germans, told him to become a spy behind enemy lines, which delighted the British who just earned one more double agent.

The British suspected this amazing conversion rate could be true during the war, but it was not confirmed until after the war when files were taken from the Abwehr, the German agency equivalent to MI5 or the CIA.

It becomes a little easier to understand how it was possible after reading private entries contained within the files. As it turns out a lot of Abwehr handlers suspected their agents were turned but their superiors did not believe their reports. Many also just wanted the war to end sooner, having lost faith in Hitlers ability to lead their country.

This disbelief and self sabotage allowed the British to construct one of the most effective counter intelligence operations in the history of war.


The Price of Genius - Benedict Cumberbatch cover

Alan Turing, the intellectual father of the modern computer, had a theory. He believed that one day machines would become so powerful that they would think just like humans. He even devised a test, which he called “the imitation game,” to herald the advent of computers that were indistinguishable from human minds. But as Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in the new movie The Imitation Game shows, Turing’s heroic and tragic life provides a compelling counter to the concept that there might be no fundamental difference between our minds and machines.

As we celebrate the cool inventions that sprouted this year, it’s useful to look back at the most important invention of our age, the computer, which along with its accoutrements, microchips and digital networks is the über innovation from which most subsequent Ubers and innovations were born. But despite the computer’s importance, most of us don’t know who invented it. That’s because, like most innovations of the digital age, it has no single creator, no Bell or Edison or Morse or Watt.

Instead, the computer was devised during the early 1940s in a variety of places, from Berlin to the University of Pennsylvania to Iowa State, mainly by collaborative teams. As often seen in the annals of invention, the time was right and the atmosphere charged. The mass manufacture of vacuum tubes for radios paved the way for the creation of electronic digital circuits. That was accompanied by theoretical advances in logic that made circuits more useful. And the march was quickened by the drums of war. As nations armed for conflict, it became clear that computational power was as important as firepower.

Which is what makes the Turing story especially compelling. He was the seminal theorist conceptualizing the idea of a universal computer, he was part of the secret team at Bletchley Park, England, that put theory into practice by building machines that broke the German wartime codes, and he framed the most fundamental question of the computer age: Can machines think?

Having survived a cold upbringing on the fraying fringe of the British gentry, Turing had a lonely intensity to him, reflected in his love of long-distance running. At boarding school, he realized he was gay. He became infatuated with a fair-haired schoolmate, Christopher Morcom, who died suddenly of tuberculosis. Turing also had a trait, so common among innovators, that was charmingly described by his biographer Andrew Hodges: “Alan was slow to learn that indistinct line that separated initiative from disobedience.”

At Cambridge University, Turing became fascinated by the math of quantum physics, which describes how events at the subatomic level are governed by statistical probabilities rather than laws that determine things with certainty. He believed (at least while he was young) that this uncertainty and indeterminacy at the subatomic level permitted humans to exercise free will–a trait that, if it existed, would seem to distinguish them from machines.

He had an instinct that there were mathematical statements that were likewise elusive: we could never know whether they were provable or not. One way of framing the issue was to ask whether there was a “mechanical process” that could be used to determine whether a particular logical statement was provable.

Turing liked the concept of a “mechanical process.” One day in the summer of 1935, he was out for his usual solitary run and stopped to lie down in a grove of apple trees. He decided to take the notion of a “mechanical process” literally, conjuring up an imaginary machine and applying it to the problem.

The “Logical Computing Machine” that Turing envisioned (as a thought experiment, not as a real machine to be built) was simple at first glance, but it could handle, in theory, any mathematical computation. It consisted of an unlimited length of paper tape containing symbols within squares; the machine would be able to read the symbols on the tape and perform certain actions based on a “table of instructions” it had been given.

Turing showed that there was no method to determine in advance whether any given instruction table combined with any given set of inputs would lead the machine to arrive at an answer or go into some loop and continue chugging away indefinitely, getting nowhere. This discovery was useful for the development of mathematical theory. But more important was the by-product: Turing’s concept of a Logical Computing Machine, which soon came to be known as a Turing machine. “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” he declared.

Turing’s interest was more than theoretical, however. Fascinated by ciphers, Turing enlisted in the British effort to break Germany’s military codes. The secret teams set up shop on the grounds of a Victorian manor house in the drab redbrick town of Bletchley. Turing was assigned to a group tackling the Germans’ Enigma code, which was generated by a portable machine with mechanical rotors and electrical circuits. After every keystroke, it changed the formula for substituting letters.

Turing and his team built a machine, called “the bombe,” that exploited subtle weaknesses in the German coding, including the fact that no letter could be enciphered as itself and that there were certain phrases that the Germans used repeatedly. By August 1940, Turing’s team had bombes that could decipher German messages about the deployment of the U-boats that were decimating British supply convoys.

The bombe was not a significant advance in computer technology. It was an electromechanical device with relay switches rather than vacuum tubes and electronic circuits. But a subsequent machine produced at Bletchley, known as Colossus, was a major milestone.

The need for Colossus arose when the Germans started coding important messages, including orders from Hitler, with a machine that used 12 code wheels of unequal size. To break it would require using lightning-quick electronic circuits.

The team in charge was led by Max Newman, who had been Turing’s math don at Cambridge. Turing introduced Newman to the electronics wizard Tommy Flowers, who had devised wondrous vacuum-tube circuits while working for the British telephone system.

They realized that the only way to analyze German messages quickly enough was to store one of them in the internal electronic memory of a machine rather than trying to compare two punched paper tapes. This would require 1,500 vacuum tubes. The Bletchley Park managers were skeptical, but the team pushed ahead. By December 1943–after only 11 months–it produced the first Colossus machine. An even bigger version, using 2,400 tubes, was ready by June 1, 1944. The machines helped confirm that Hitler was unaware of the planned D-Day invasion.

Turing’s need to hide both his homosexuality and his codebreaking work meant that he often found himself playing his own imitation game, pretending to be things he wasn’t. At one point he proposed marriage to a female colleague (played by Keira Knightley in the new film), but then felt compelled to tell her that he was gay. She was still willing to marry him, but he believed that imitating a straight man would be a sham and decided not to proceed.

After the war, Turing turned his attention to an issue that he had wrestled with since his boarding-school friend Christopher Morcom’s death: Did humans have “free will” and consciousness, perhaps even a soul, that made them fundamentally different from a programmed machine? By this time Turing had become skeptical. He was working on machines that could modify their own programs based on information they processed, and he came to believe that this type of machine learning could lead to artificial intelligence.

In a 1950 paper, he began with a clear declaration: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’ ” With a schoolboy’s sense of fun, he invented his “imitation game,” now generally known as the Turing test, to give empirical meaning to that question. Put a machine and a human in a room, he said, and send in written questions. If you can’t tell which answers are from the machine and which are from the human, then there is no meaningful reason to insist that the machine isn’t “thinking.”

A sample interrogation, he wrote, might include the following:

Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.

A : Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.

Q: Add 34957 to 70764.

A: [Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer] 105621.

Turing did something clever in this example. Careful scrutiny shows that the respondent, after 30 seconds, made a slight mistake in addition. (The correct answer is 105,721.) Is that evidence that the respondent was a human? Perhaps. But then again, maybe it was a machine cagily playing an imitation game.

Many objections have been made to Turing’s proposed test. “Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain,” declared a famous brain surgeon, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson. Turing’s response seems somewhat flippant, but it was also subtle: “The comparison is perhaps a little bit unfair because a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine.”

There was also the more fundamental objection that even if a machine’s answers were indistinguishable from a human’s, that did not mean it had consciousness and its own intentions, the way human minds do. When the human player of the Turing test uses words, he associates those words with real-world meanings, emotions, experiences, sensations and perceptions. Machines don’t. Without such connections, language is just a game divorced from meaning. This critique of the Turing test remains the most debated topic in cognitive science.

Turing gave his own guess as to whether a computer might be able to win his imitation game. “I believe that in about 50 years’ time it will be possible to program computers … so well that an average interrogator will not have more than a 70% chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.”

Fooling fewer than a third of interrogators for only five minutes is a pretty low bar. Still, it’s now been more than 60 years, and the machines that enter Turing-test contests are at best engaging in gimmicky conversational gambits. The latest claim for a machine having “passed” the test was especially lame: a Russian program pretended to be a 13-year-old from Ukraine who didn’t speak English well. Even so, it fooled barely a third of the questioners for five minutes, and no one would believe that the program was engaging in true thinking.

A new breed of computer processors that mimic the neural networks in the human brain might mean that, in a few more years or decades, there may be machines that appear to learn and think like humans. These latest advances could possibly even lead to a singularity, a term that computer pioneer John von Neumann coined and the futurist Ray Kurzweil and the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularized to describe the moment when computers are not only smarter than humans but also can design themselves to be even supersmarter and will thus no longer need us mortals. In the meantime, most of the exciting new inventions, like those in this issue, will involve watches, devices, social networks and other innovations that connect humans more closely to machines, in intimate partnership, rather than pursuing the mirage of machines that think on their own and try to replace us.

The flesh-and-blood complexities of Alan Turing’s life, as well as the very human emotions that drove him, serve as a testament that the distinction between man and machine may be deeper than he surmised. In a 1952 BBC debate with Geoffrey Jefferson, the brain surgeon, this issue of human “appetites, desires, drives, instincts” came up. Man is prey to “sexual urges,” Jefferson repeatedly said, and “may make a fool of himself.”

Turing, who was still discreet about his sexuality, kept silent when this topic arose. During the weeks leading up to the broadcast, he had been engaged in a series of actions that were so very human that a machine would have found them incomprehensible. He had recently finished a scientific paper, and he followed it by composing a short story, which was later found among his private papers, about how he planned to celebrate. “It was quite some time now since he had ‘had’ anyone, in fact not since he had met that soldier in Paris last summer,” he wrote. “Now that his paper was finished he might justifiably consider that he had earned another gay man, and he knew where he might find one who might be suitable.”

On a street in Manchester, Turing picked up a 19-year-old working-class drifter named Arnold Murray, who moved in with him around the time of the BBC broadcast. When Turing’s home was burglarized, he reported the incident to the police and ended up disclosing his sexual relationship with Murray. Turing was arrested for “gross indecency.”

At the trial in March 1952, Turing pleaded guilty, though he made it clear he felt no remorse. He was offered a choice: imprisonment or probation contingent on receiving hormone injections designed to curb his sexual desires, as if he were a chemically controlled machine. He chose the latter, which he endured for a year.

Turing at first seemed to take it all in stride, but on June 7, 1954, at age 41, he committed suicide by biting into an apple he had laced with cyanide. He had always been fascinated by the scene in Snow White in which the Wicked Queen dips an apple into a poisonous brew. He was found in his bed with froth around his mouth, cyanide in his system and a half-eaten apple by his side.

The imitation game was over. He was human.

Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time, is the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, from which parts of this piece are adapted

This appears in the December 1, 2014 issue of TIME.