Sunday, February 24, 2013

Brooklyn, the Hoist and the Helicopter

Helicopters were carefully introduced to the U.S. Armed Forces during the latter half of the Second World War, and Brooklyn played an important part in the development of rotary-wing aircraft. Both the Navy as well as the Coast Guard and the Army realized that the helicopter might become a useful tool, and landing trials took place in Long Island Sound on board the merchant tanker Bunker Hill on May 7, 1943. This demonstration was sponsored by the Maritime Commission, and the trials were conducted by an Army Air Corps pilot, Colonel H. Frank Gregory. He made some 15 flights in a Sikorsky XR-4 (Navy designation HNS-1) and landed both on the water and the tanker during the course of the day. Five months later, in October 1943, Lieutenant Commander Frank A. Erickson, USCG, accepted the first Navy helicopter, a HNS-1. On November 19, 1943, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a directive that designated the Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn located at the Floyd Bennet Field as a helicopter training base. In all three HNS-1 helicopters were assigned to the base.

Several military units were located at the Floyd Bennet Field before and during the Second World War. The U.S. Navy dedicated part of the civilian facility to Naval Air Reserve Base New York in the 1930s, and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn was established on April 23, 1938. The units based at Floyd Bennet Field did pioneer air-sea rescue using hydroplanes, and during the Second World War anti-submarine patrols were conducted from the field.

The Sikorsky HNS-4 "Hoverfly" or R-4 as it was called in the United States Army Air Corps was a humble but fully functional first helicopter to serve branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Lieutenant Commander Erickson was the first helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard and he was the commander of the base between December 1943 and February 1945. As Lieutenant Commander Erickson got started at the Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn, his unit's first responsibilities were to learn how to fly and maintain the helicopters, but it was not long before the men at the Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn started to work on developing the rescue hoist and several pickup harnesses. Instrument and night flying capabilities as well as rescue techniques were developed while autopilots and loudspeakers were added to their helicopters. 

On December 20, 1943, Lieutenant Commander Erickson reported that his unit had experimented with a HNS-1 as a flying ambulance. A helicopter had made flights with a 200 lb load suspended on a stretcher approximately four feet beneath the floats of the helicopter in addition to the crew of a pilot and a mechanic. The stretcher was subsequently moved to the side of the helicopter and landings were made at the steps of the dispensary. The air sea rescue equipment was tested in earnest on October 2, 1944 off Manasquan, NJ, when four men were picked up from a rubber raft and landed on the cutter Cobb in less than ten minutes.

However, the first actual rescue was conducted by a civilian, Dimitry "Jimmy" Viner, who was Sikorsky's test pilot, on November 29, 1945. The helicopters conducted other rescue and relief missions as well: blood plasma was flown to Sandy Hook, NJ, in a storm to treat wounded from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Turner after she exploded in the New York harbor on January 3, 1944. Additionally, a youngster was rescued from a sandbar in Jamaica Bay and firefighting equipment was airdropped to firemen fighting a fire on a railway trestle when all other means to supply the firefighters with necessary equipment had failed. A more complicated rescue operation was conducted on April 21, 1945, when a Canadian PBY-5A Catalina had been forced to land in the wilderness 180 miles south of Goose Bay in Labrador. Two of the crewmen were badly burned after the crash, but bad weather conditions did not allow conventional aircraft to take off in the loose snow at the crash site. Fortunately the aircrew of the Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn could come to the rescue with one helicopter being disassembled and loaded in a C-54 cargo plane. The HNS-1 was reassembled at a base camp and Lieutenant August Kleitsch took nine hour-and-a-half trips to and from the crash site to rescue the stranded Canadians one by one.

In addition to U.S. personnel, the British Admiralty requested that the Coast Guard would train helicopter pilots and mechanics for the Royal Navy. Four British helicopters were added to the base, and a number of pilots were also trained for the USAAF and the Navy. Regular training commenced after initial organization was completed on June 1, 1944. After one year 102 pilots and 225 mechanics had been trained to fly and service rotary wing aircraft. Besides rescue operations, the helicopters were used for radar calibration of vessels being overhauled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Air Station at Floyd Bennet Field was eventually decommisioned in May of 1998, and the rescue hoist originally developed for use with the HNS-1A was donated to the Pensacola Aviation Museum to be inducted into the Coast Guard Wing of the museum.

 Original Caption: "U.S. Coast Guardsmen take a break during the first Arctic helicopter rescue in the history of aviation. Lieut. August Kleisch (center), Coast Guard pilot of the Sikorsky helicopter 'The Labrador Special,' chats with Lieut. Lawrence G. Pollard, Assistant Operations Officer of the Air Transport Command at Goose Bay. Pollard, flying supplies into the ATC radio-weather station which served as the base for helicopter operations, flew Sgt. G. J. Bunnell, the first man rescued, back to Goose Bay. On the right, facing the camera, is AMM1c Gus Jablonski of Brooklyn, Crew Chief on the Labrador Special. Jablonski worked very hard through the entire operation. Kleisch made all the rescue flights personally."; Date: 2 May 1945; no photo number; photographer unknown.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mediterranean Nightfighting

Thinking of the redeployment of NJG 2 to Sicily, it would be interesting to find out how nightfighting worked over the Mediterranean, so far away from Kammhuber lines and Home Chain Radar stations and without the lights of Ibiza to guide today's nightlife. I/NJG 2 was deployed to Catania between November 15, 1941, and January 16, 1942 followed by a two-week deployment to Greece. The Gruppe subsequently returned to Catania on January 16, and they remained at the base until September that same year. Before returning to Germany in 1943, NJG 2 managed to shoot down 39 allied aircraft around the Mediterranean.

I do not know what specialized night-fighting equipment I/NJG 2 had, but they lacked both airborne intercept radar and IR sighting devices (the not very effective Spannergeraet). It must have been quite difficult for the pilot and the observer to constantly monitor the night sky, anxiously looking for an exhaust plume of an Allied bomber. As for ground control intercept capacity, the nightfighters had to rely on communications intelligence from the Luftflotte and patrol areas. Individual aircraft did have direction-finding loops for their communications equipment, but it seems reasonable that accuracy left something to be desired.

The Abrasive Bomber Harris

Bomber Command and German Night Fighters are for obvious reasons tied together. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at Bomber Command HQ between early 1942 and up to the end of the war was the controversial, abrasive and able Arthur Travers Harris, known to posterity as "Bomber Harris", although his contemporaries knew his as "Bert" while his air crews referred to him as "Butcher" or just "Butch". Much has been said and written about this man, the levelling of German cities, and his oftimes boorish behaviour. His intense dislike of the British Army and the Royal Navy did not help him make friends outside the Royal Air Force, but on the other hand, he did not seem to need that many. As for the Army, he often claimed that they wouldn't understand the value of tanks until they could "eat hay and shit". He also enjoyed driving his Bentley at reckless speeds between Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe and the Air Ministry in Londin, and one late night he was actually pulled over by a police constable on a motorcycle. The police officer told him that "you might have killed somebody, sir", to which Harris snapped: "young man, I kill thousands of people every night". It should be noted that Harris was dismissed as soon as the war ended.

Harris' abrasive comments were not limited to the armed forces. Striding into the Air Ministry one morning, he passed one of the most senior civil servants with a bluff greeting of "morning, Abrahams, and what have you done to impede the war effort today?" Even Winston Churchill did get his dose of remarks from Harris. One morning, Churchill growled testily that "I'm sick of these raids on Cologne". Harris barked back that "so are the people of Cologne".

Some readers might argue that Harris should have borne the name of the Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Sir Douglas Evill, although we must assume that the stress is on the second syllable.

(Max Hastings, Bomber Command, Churchill's Epic Campaign).

A Hot Tuesday in Brooklyn

The largest battle of the American War of Independence was fought on Long Island, no more than a brisk walk east of our neighborhoods. It may be difficult to imagine red-coated British infantrymen, Hessian grenadiers, kilted Highlanders and a plethora of soldiery pursuing New Yorkers, Marylanders and other Americans into Trader Joe’s or along DeGraw Street, but these familiar locations saw intense military activity towards the end of August 1776.

Our neighborhoods did, of course, look somewhat different in 1776. The Brooklyn of yesteryear was dominated by the Heights of Guan or the Brookland Heights (at times also referred to as the Prospect Range), a rocky and heavily wooded moraine ridge that ran down the center of Long Island, roughly along the lines of today’s Greenwood Cemetery to Prospect Park and then northeast to Jamaica. The ridge was covered with trees such as oak, ash, chestnut and Pepperidge, with the occasional garden patch, or “English meadow” to break up the woods. The Gowanus Creek and the marshes on both sides of the creek separated the Heights of Guan from the elevated areas in today’s Carroll Gardens through Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights to Fort Greene. All of these areas were sprinkled with farms and villages, many dating back to the 17th century. The area was nevertheless sparsely settled: the first census that was taken just after the War of Independence indicated that there were 3,017 white residents and 1,478 residents of African origin in Kings County. New York City itself had a population of approximately 25,000 at the time.[1]
According to a British traveler by the name of Smyth who visited New York during the War of Independence, two-thirds of the population on Long Island were of Dutch origin, and particularly in the western parts. They did “…make use of their customs and language in preference to English”.[2] The Hessian Adjutant-General Major Baurmeister of the von Mirbach regiment described the western end of Long Island as follows: “The inhabited regions resemble Westphalian peasant districts; upon separate farms the finest houses are built, which are planned and completed in the most elegant fashion. The furniture in them is in the best taste, nothing like which is to be seen with us, and besides so clean and neat, that altogether it surpasses every description. The female sex is universally beautiful and delicately reared, and is finely dressed in the latest European fashion, particularly in India laces, white cotton, and silk gauzes”. Another Hessian, Brigade Commander Colonel Count Carl von Donop called Long Island “a beautiful island, an arcadia, a most delightful region”.[3]
Preparations and Fortifications
The newly commissioned Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, was in charge of implementing the defense plan for New York. It may seem odd to see a Lord Stirling in the American Army, but the New Jersey-born Alexander had previously travelled to London to secure his claim to the title of the Scottish earldom of Stirling.[4] The defense plan was originally drafted by Charles Lee (while struggling with a gout flare-up), third in command after Washington. When Lord Stirling took over after his friend Lee in March, 1776, he had accepted Lee’s conclusion that the British would try to attack New York City itself. Besides the armed forces as well as out-of town reinforcements that were made available to Lord Stirling, approximately 1,000 New Yorkers helped build the fortifications in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some of New York’s gentlemen paid considerable fines to hire workers that would exempt them from service, but most chose not to. Lord Stirling noted that everybody worked “with great spirit and industry”. New Yorkers from all social classes, and blacks as well as whites, helped build the fortifications, and they were mustered each morning with fife and drum. Whites worked every other day while blacks worked every day. The excavation and construction of the fortifications was, of course, hard and dirty work. Officers complained about their inability to keep their men in clothes, since they wore out their garments in very little time. The amount of grime on the soldiers made Greene write to Washington that it would be “a piece of justice to the troops to allow them a double quantity of soap”. However, the accommodations of the soldiers were decent. Most lived in bell-shaped tents with wooden floors, and they could vary their fare with produce from the Dutch farms in the area. Some soldiers were even given leave to visit Manhattan. Without any enemies in the immediate vicinity, the American soldiers began relaxing, but discipline was maintained by diligent individuals such as Lieutenant-Colonel Cornell of Hitchcock’s Regiment who was known as “Old Snarl”. Pilfering was strictly forbidden, and General Greene wrote that “a few unprincipled rascals may ruin the reputation of a whole corps of virtuous men”. As the warm season started, health issues had to be addressed with increased vigilance. So-called “Colormen” kept the camps somewhat clean while tending to the hospitals, and cooking practices were given strict attention. Although deployment on Long Island offered less than Manhattan in terms of women or grog shops, General Greene wrote in a general order that “complaints have been made by the inhabitants situated near the Mill Pond [on today’s Gowanus Canal] that some of the soldiers come there to go swimming in the open view of the women and that they come out of the water and run to the houses naked with a design to insult and wound the modesty of female decency, [so] ‘tis with concern that the general finds himself under the disagreeable necessity of expressing his disapprobation of such beastly conduct”.[5]
There was also the issue of the Tory element. The inhabitants of Queens County in particular displayed Tory sympathies, and previous attempts to disarm the inhabitants had been less than successful. One Whig reported that “The people conceal all their arms that are of any value; many declare that they know nothing about the Congress, nor do they care anything for the orders of Congress, and say that they would sooner or later lose their lives than give up their arms”. [6] Problems persisted, and in January of 1776, a Colonel Nathaniel Heard of New Jersey was dispatched by Congress together with a regiment of militia and 300 troops of the Connecticut Line to arrest the Tory leaders.[7]
Work on the fortifications of New York started in Manhattan, and when these fortifications were completed, work began in Brooklyn. The initial plans called for three forts to be built on the crest of Brooklyn Heights to command the East River, but only one fort – Fort Stirling – was actually built. Its approximate location was at the intersection of Columbia Street and Clark Street. Another massive fort, the Congress, was started on the plateau of Brooklyn heights near today’s corner of Henry and Pierrepont. This fort was a hexagonal construction that was planned to cover a good five acres, and it was mainly built by slaves. However, this fort was not able to defend from an attack in the rear from the interior of Long Island, and it was not completed.[8]
The Heights of Guan did in themselves offer a natural line of defense across Brooklyn. There were only four roads through the ridge, at Gowanus, Flatbush, Bedford and Jamaica, respectively. The fortifications between Red Hook and up towards the Brooklyn Navy Yards of this day would provide a second line of defense to protect Manhattan.
The defenses of New York between Wallabout Bay and the marshes of the Gowanus consisted of three forts and two redoubts with breastworks connecting them.[9] The fortifications were strung out along roughly a mile and a half between today’s Fort Greene, which was a full one hundred feet above sea level, and the lower-lying lands owned by Rutgert Van Brunt and Johannes Debevoise.
The northernmost redoubt was close to Wallabout Bay on today’s Cumberland between Myrtle and Willoughby. It was only referred to as “the left redoubt” or “on its left” of Fort Putnam, which in turn was located at the Fort Greene Park of this day. Fort Putnam was a star shaped fort with four or five cannon, and it was named after the Chief Engineer, Colonel Rufus Putnam. The fort held a garrison of five companies.
Fort Oblong was located south of Fort Putnam. It was, as the name implies, an oblong fortification that held three companies. It was located at DeKalb and Hudson Avenues. Fort Greene (not to be confused with today’s Fort Greene) was next in the defense chain. This was a
star-shaped fort with a well, two magazines and six cannon. Named after General Nathanael Greene and commanded by a Colonel Little, it was the largest fort on Long Island, having room for an entire regiment, and it could be found on Bond Street between State and Schermerhorn. The southernmost fortification, Fort Box, was built in May and June approximately a mile south of Fort Greene. Fort Box was small diamond-shaped outpost on Bergen’s Hill, approximately on Pacific Street above Bond Street. It was named after Major Daniel Box, General Greene’s brigade-major (an office corresponding to adjutant-general).
Fort Cobble Hill, also called the “Corkscrew Fort” after the spiral road that was paved to move cannon to its top, was located west of the Wallabout Bay-Gowanus defense line, on the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. In orders of the day the fort was also called “Smith’s Barbette” after Captain William Smith, an engineer whom Lee brought along who also commanded the fort. It was situated on the top of a cone-shaped hill rearing itself above the surrounding corn fields and referred to as Ponkiesbergh by the Dutch settlers and Bergen Hill by the British. Fort Cobble Hill overlooked New York harbor and South Brooklyn, and it mounted three or four cannon. The construction, and especially the turf laying, was apparently challenging. There were few turf layers available, and the ones who volunteered were allowed half a pint of rum per day.[10]
The name Cobble Hill may very well originate from the Battle of Long Island, since the hill resembled a Cobble Hill in Sommerville that held an American fortification during the siege of Boston. Greene’s brigade was posted close to the Bostonian Cobble Hill during the siege, and referring to Ponkiesbergh as Cobble Hill may have been preferable to the New Englanders. It has also been claimed that the name Cobble Hill comes from the large amount of cobble stones being disposed of around the hill. Such cobble stones were used as ballast on sailing vessels.
There was also the Redoubt at the Mill, a small battery with breastwork on the eastern end of a long and low sand hill on what now is Degraw and Bond Streets. It was in form of a right angle with a single cannon facing a narrow bridge across the Gowanus, a bridge that subsequently played a part in the American retreat from the Heights of Guan. The Mill was actually two mills on the other side of the bridge, and they were called the Upper or Yellow Mill, and the Lower Mill. The Redoubt was opposite the Upper Mill.[11]
Each of the fortifications was a surrounded by a wide ditch lined with pointed stakes, and every fortification had sally ports. Trees had been cut down to a distance of around 100 yards in front of the fortifications, and most fortifications were surrounded by abatis from the felled trees to provide additional defenses. The fortifications were also supplied with food and water to enable the garrison to withstand a siege.
Fort Defiance in Red Hook was the southernmost link in the fortification chain. It was built on a 75 foot hill on top of Cypress Tree Island that was located between today’s Pioneer Street, Dwight Street, Beard Street and the Buttermilk Channel. The fort commanded entry to both the East River and Buttermilk Channel. Fort Defiance was probably built on top of an old abandoned fort from the 16th century, and it was completed overnight on April 8, 1776. The armaments consisted of four 18 pound guns firing over breastworks.[12]
The American Forces
The American soldiers that fought in the battle were to a significant extent inexperienced recruits from all walks of life, many of them drawn in by promises of cash or land grants: gentlemen, fortune seekers, farmers, freed slaves and paid substitutes, or “the young, the inexperienced, the unemployed, the socially expendable”.[13] There were some veterans as well a few officers that had served under the British, but few of the troops that fought with Washington around Boston re-enlisted. The new recruits received little training, and on-the-job training on a battlefield is daunting at best. Issues were further aggravated by rivalry between the colonies, and eight of the 13 colonies sent contingents to New York with Connecticut providing the largest one. Diarist Joseph Plumb Martin claimed that “he would rather serve alongside Indians” than men from Pennsylvania whom were regarded as “mostly foreigners”.[14] The backwood ways and habits of some of the riflemen from the frontier states may very well have been embarrassing to the urban New York cousin, as they had been to the pious New Englanders during the battles around Boston the previous year.[15]
The citizen-soldier was often a fair-weather friend, with morale soaring with successes, and desertion and insubordination after even minor setbacks. Pay was another issue. The American soldiers were paid more than their British counterparts, but they were paid in Continental bills, bills that often weren’t accepted by merchants. Early in 1776, General John Sullivan complained that “not near half of the Massachusetts militia could be prevailed upon to tarry and many of them went off one day before their time was out”.[16] But for some unfortunate recruits, service provided clothing and food they otherwise couldn’t afford. The American officers were equally inexperienced as well, although some were veterans from the French and Indian War. The American officers were in general unable to maneuver the significant formations that Putnam had under his command during the battle.
New York State provided around 4,500 men, while New York City contributed two battalions containing companies with fancy names such as Captain James Alner’s “the Prussian Blues”, Captain John Berrian’s “the Hearts of Oak”, Captain John J. Roosevelt’s “Oswego Rangers” and Captain Abraham Van Wyck’s “the Sportsmen”. King’s County was represented by a small regiment commanded by Jeronimus Remsen as well as a troop of cavalry. Few units wore anything that looked like uniforms, except for Colonel Haslet’s 1st Delaware Regiment, and the “Dandy Fifth” Marylanders, the latter referred to as “macaronis” by the rest of the American soldiers.
Then there was Colonel John Lasher’s at part rather extravagantly uniformed New York City “Battalion of Independent Companies of Foot”. This unit was composed of young men “of respectability and wealth”.[17] Other units were dressed in civilian garb, or at best hunting shirts. Captain Wagner, Hessian Colonel von Donop’s adjutant, wrote that “their clothing is a great mixture. A short smock of blue or white linen somewhat gathered at the sleeves”.[18] Firearms were also in short supply, with various muskets being supplemented by hunting rifles, blunderbusses and anything else that could fire a ball.[19] Despite all these shortcomings, Lord Stirling remained quite optimistic, hoping that the British would attack New York. He perceived the American positions as being quite strong.
Although George Washington held overall command, the American forces in Brooklyn were commanded by Major-General Israel Putnam. He was a colorful character surrounded by a mass of legends and anecdotes. He was almost burnt at the stake by Indians in 1758, he had been shipwrecked off Cuba, and he had later on opened a tavern and married a wealthy widow. Colorful or not, “Old Put” was an indifferent officer, and he was probably promoted way beyond his capabilities. Since General Greene’s feel ill in a near fatal bout of typhus (“camp fever” in the terminology of the 18th century), Putnam eventually was appointed to his command as late as August 24. Putnam did not know Long Island. Apparently he did very little to improve upon his lack of knowledge before the English attacked a few days later.
The British and their Allies
The British commander, General William Howe, did on the other hand hope that the Americans would be more aggressive and perhaps over-confident, leading to a battle in the open. Howe had served in the colonies throughout his long career, he had a reputation as a bold and even reckless soldier, but he was also moderate Whig who sympathized with the colonists. [20] Howe’s units were composed of Brits, Scots and Germans, the latter being from Hessen and other German principalities. Loyalist colonists were later added to Howe’s force. The British soldiers were professionals, well-trained, often experienced, and well-led at the unit level, not to mention brutally disciplined. The ordinary soldiers were mainly recruited from the lower classes of society, and the army had a somewhat poor public image, since British taxpayers saw a peacetime army as an extravagance. It was difficult for His Majesty’s Army to find recruits, and by 1776 even Roman Catholics were allowed into the ranks. Howe was not pleased, since he deemed the Catholics “certain to desert if put to hard work, and from their ignorance of arms are not entitled to the smallest confidence as soldiers”.[21] In general, though, the forces in the colonies were better trained and more experienced than their counterparts back in England, and so were the officers serving in America. Scottish units were raised in a part of the United Kingdom that held soldiery in high regard, so these units tended to be of even higher quality.[22] But the quality of the soldiers could not compensate for the lackluster high command, the ridiculously complicated organization and the inept administration. The latter led to serious supply problems for the His Majesty’s forces, since almost all provisions had to be shipped from England. Food supply was particularly difficult, with inferior goods being further diminished by pilfering, poor packaging, and slow shipments. The British soldier daily rations were supposed to consist of 1 lb of bread or flour, 1 lb of beef, 3/7 of a pint of peas, 6/7 oz. of butter, or 2/7 oz. of cheese, and 1/7 oz. of rice or oatmeal as well as a rum ration, but this was either spoiled or simply not available. Surveyors checking provisions sent from Cork would regularly report of “very old Bread, Weavile Eaten, full of Maggots, mouldy, musty and rotten and entirely unfit for men to eat”. Meat would be described as “pork seemed to be four or five years old. It was streaked with black towards the outside and was yellow further in, with a little white in the middle.”[23]
The German units from Hessen, Brunswick, Waldeck and the other German principalities were typically from poor families and between the age of 16 and 30 and contracted to serve for 24 years. Men owning farmland, students, and other privileged parts of society were usually exempt from service. The officers were mostly commoners, many of whom had risen through the ranks. Officers from the aristocracy were common, but a minority. Most Hessians were stout Calvinists.[24]
Reports about Hessian cruelty had been circulated among the Americans even before the arrival of the German contingent. They were described as indulging in rapine and bloodshed as well as delighting in torture. Conversely, the Hessians were told by the British that the Americans were savage foes. James Thacher, a physician serving with the Americans later reported that captured “officers and soldiers, by a finesse of the British to increase their ferocity, had been led to believe that Americans are savages and barbarians, and, if taken, their men would have their bodies stuck full of pieces of dry wood and in that manner burned to death”.[25] The British had also told the Hessians that the Americans practiced cannibalism on defeated enemies, noting, as evidence, the tomahawk that most Americans carried.[26] The British did seem to do a fair amount of double-dealing with the Hessians, who at times did not understand the attitudes of neither Brit nor American. Lieutenant Andreas Wiederholt wrote that “…it happened that the silly Americans had an odd impression and fear of us Hessians. They did not believe that we looked like other human beings, but thought that we had a strange language and that we were a raw, wild, and barbaric nation”.[27] Other Hessians deplored the disloyalty of the rebel Americans against their sovereign, while yet other Hessians were revolted by the hypocrisy and idleness of the Virginians, who lived by slave labor.[28]
Other units included Loyalist units such as the New York Volunteers from Westchester. This unit lacked uniforms, and they could therefore scout and infiltrate Washington’s forces. There were also a few black regiments from the West Indies in the ranks of the British. These units were recruited from the slave population and promised freedom for service.[29]
Besides the fighting men, it should also be added that both sides included a vast variety of civilian men, women and children in their respective baggage trains. German and British officers and non-commissioned officers were often allowed to bring “necessary women”, i.e. their wives on campaign, and then there were various civilian contractors such as drivers, waggoners, sutlers and other craftsmen. There were also non-contracted camp followers, general hangers-on, odd-job men and prostitutes.
The Battle
Following the defeat after the ten-month siege of Boston, Lord Howe withdrew all of his troops on St. Patrick’s Day 1776. Howe was intent on attacking New York next, and George Washington fully expected Howe to attack the city. Brigadier General William Thompson took over from Stirling after the Thompson’s arrival on March 20, and reinforcements from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia arrived to bolster the defenses in Brooklyn and Staten Island. But a fair number of invalids were included in these reinforcements, and many of the soldiers did not have firearms. Diseases in New York had further reduced the effective strength of the Americans.[30]
Howe set sail from Halifax on June 11 with an army of approximately 9,000, and between July 12 and August 12, a British fleet of approximately 400 vessels carrying 25,000 soldiers assembled off Staten Island, which was turned into a staging area.
A severe thunderstorm lashed New York on the night of August 21. Several inhabitants were struck dead by lightning, and some regarded this as bad omens. The landing of British troops at the villages of New Utrecht and Gravesend on August 22 probably reinforced the unease of the civilian New Yorkers. The British advance guard of some 4,000 men under generals Clinton and Cornwallis did not meet any resistance, although the American advance parties did burn down all houses and barns as they withdrew.[31] The British were well received on southern Long Island. One British officer claimed that “The Inhabitants receiv’d our people with the Utmost Joy, having seen long oppress’d for their Attachment to Government”.[32] Two Tory regiments, all local militia with red badges in their hats, added 600 men to the British forces, and 800 slaves that had fled to the British were formed into a labor regiment. Other Long Island Royalists acted as informers and guides for the British.[33] However, further north into Kings County, rumors of the advancing British soldiers caused quite a commotion in the villages, and there were quite a few skirmishes between American and British troops. Howe spent four days gathering intelligence and planning his advance, and at 9 PM on August 26 he made his move. His units marched through the night and were ready to engage the Americans on a hot Tuesday morning, August 27, 1776.
The battle itself was dominated by the British. The Americans had not left any troops to guard the roadways through the Heights of Guan, and the main American line was out-flanked by British light infantry and grenadiers coming from Bedford, Hessians advancing from Flatbush, and yet more British infantry advancing from today’s Sunset Park. The advance guard of the latter prong was possibly noticed when two British soldiers were caught foraging for watermelons from a patch by the Red Lion Inn (39th street and 5th Avenue) by soldiers from Colonel Hand’s Pennsylvania Regiment. The foragers beat a hasty retreat, but their 5,000 comrades were close behind.[34]
The subsequent American retreat was close to a rout, and they could have been overrun by His Majesty’s troops. The British forces showed little mercy on the Americans. Colonel Heinrich Anton von Heringen, commanding the Hessian regiment “von Lossberg”, remarked that “the English soldiers did not give much quarter and constantly urged our men to follow their example”. An officer of Major Simon Fraser’s 71st Highland Regiment stated that “it was a fine sight to see with what alacrity they dispatched the rebels with bayonets, after we had surrounded them so that they could not resist. We took care to tell the Hessians that the rebels had resolved to give no quarter to them in particular; which made them fight desperately, and put all to death who fell into their hands”.[35] But there were also cases where prisoners were taken without cruelty by the Hessians, for example by the Grenadier Regiment von Rall, where a von Elking saw the Americans more as civilians than trained soldiers.[36]
But the remnants of the American forces were to a not inconsiderable extent saved when Lord Stirling counter-attacked the British at the Gowanus Road near the Vechte Farm House (now the Old Stone House on 3rd Street and 5th Avenue) west of Prospect Park with just about 400 Marylanders. Seeing Lord Stirling’s Marylanders advancing from his command post by Cobble Hill Fort at the intersection of today’s Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, George Washington reportedly wrung his hands and cried out: “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!” At the end of the day, 256 of the 400 Marylanders were lying dead in front of the Vechte Farm. Lord Stirling was captured, surrendering his sword to Hessian overall commander General von Heister.[37] But despite the intrepid Marylanders, the retreat across the approximately 80 muddy yards of the Gowanus Creek and adjoining marshes was less than orderly. The Americans were forced to retreat down the Porte Road (today’s First Street) to cross the tidal flats of the Gowanus Creek at Freeke’s Pond, where there was a wooden bridge. For some reason, the bridge caught fire, and the retreating Americans were forced into the Gowanus Creek, and many drowned, weighted down by weapons and equipment. The bridge was located where the Union Street Bridge is today. The Americans were also bombarded by British artillery firing grapeshot, roundshot and chain, while “some of (the Americans) were mired and crying to their fellows to their fellows for God’s sake to help them out; but every man was intent on his own safety and no assistance was rendered.”[38] Other American soldiers were cut off by the British and forced to seek shelter in the woods.
The end result of the battle was roughly 1,200 dead Americans and another 1,500 wounded, captured or missing, while the British suffered a mere 60 dead and 300 wounded or missing. The Americans casualties included some individuals that are commemorated in street names, most notably General Nathaniel Woodhull. He was surprised at an inn on Jamaica Road by a party of British light horse under Oliver De Lancey together with a detachment of Fraser’s Highlander’s led by Captain Sir James Baird on the day after the battle. A British officer apparently hacked him in the head and arm, purportedly for not saying, "God save the King," as ordered, saying instead "God save us all". Woodhull was carried him off as a prisoner to New Utrecht, where he died on September 20.[39]
The British forces also captured six field cannon and 26 heavy cannon. But despite this favorable outcome, Howe did not follow the Americans across the Gowanus Creek. Instead, he started to preparations for a siege of the American fortifications west of the Gowanus Creek. With Washington with his back towards the East River and his troops defeated, Howe did have a real opportunity to extinguish the revolution once and for all. But for some reason, he didn’t. There has been much speculation as to why he paused his advance. Did he prefer to avoid a frontal assault similar to Bunker Hill? Did he hope that the Americans would simply capitulate without a fight? Regardless of which Washington was left around Brooklyn Heights with around 9,000 mostly miserable soldiers.
The Retreat
Both sides were beset by almost incessant rains for the two days following the battle, making it impossible to light campfires and to keep gunpowder dry. The Americans also lacked tents and baggage trains, and both food and drink was scarce. If food was available, cooking was impossible, and some Americans had to subside on hard biscuits and raw pork. The entrenchments and fortifications were rapidly being drenched by the downpour. General Scott wrote that “you may judge of our situation, subject to almost incessant rains, without baggage or tents, and almost without victuals or drink, and in some parts of the lines the men were standing up to their middles in water”. Captain Olney stated that “the rain fell in such torrents that the water was soon ankle-deep in the fort. Yet, with all these inconveniences, and a powerful enemy just without musket-shot, our men could not be kept awake”. The mood of the soldiers was deteriorating. The only bright spot was that heavy winds did keep the Royal Navy from entering the East River, thus cutting off Washington from Manhattan.[40]
On August 29, the British trench lines were only about 600 yards from the American lines, and another full day of digging would place the British within musketry range. British reconnaissance probes against Fort Greene in particular were repulsed, but Washington remained outnumbered two to one with his back to the East River, an army with low morale, the Royal Navy poised to attack from the sea - when the weather improved - and the British Army preparing a siege of Brooklyn Heights. The decision was made to evacuate. Fortunately for the Americans, the storm was followed by dense fog that covered New York in the early morning of August 30, thus reinforcing the concealment of the hazardous evacuation from the British. The evacuation was supposed to start at 8 o’clock, but the weather delayed the operation by several hours. Once the operation started, the 27th Massachusetts and Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead regiment, both mainly composed of fishermen, led the river crossing. They would row approximately a mile in each direction to ferry 9,000 Americans as well as their horses, their cannon and their supplies over to Manhattan. Some of Glover’s men rowed across the East River as many as eleven times before the evacuation was completed. The oarsmen were so careful not to make noise that some tied their shirts around the oars to muffle the sound of oars in the water. The situation was hazardous in the extreme. Washington rode all night among the troops on his white mule Magnolia, telling them to “keep quiet and keep moving.” He supervised the operation himself, and in the scant light of the early morning sun, Lieutenant Ben Tallmadge of the Continental Line looked back across the river from Manhattan. Through the receding mists, he claims to have seen a tall figure in a long black cloak with a three cornered hat: George Washington may very well have been the last man out of Brooklyn.
Pastor Schaukirk saw the soldiers debarking on the west side of the East River: “The merry tones on drums and fife had ceased. It seemed as if a general damp had spread, and the sight of the scattered people up and down the streets was indeed moving. Many looked sickly, emaciated, cast down, etc.”[41] Morale was steadily declining, and even the troops from New England, supposedly the hotbed of rebellion, left en masse after the battle. But not everyone fell victim to the pervading anxiety: Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, wrote that “But if we should be defeated, I think we shall not be conquered. A people fired, like the Romans, with love of their country and of liberty, a zeal for the public good, and a noble emulation of glory, will not be disheartened or dispirited by a succession of unfortunate events. But, like them, may we learn the power of becoming invincible!”[42]
The Battlefield Today
Considering the extensive memorials for other battles fought on American soil, it is disappointing to see that the biggest battle of the American War of Independence has received so little attention. There is a plaque on the side of the building that was the South Brooklyn Savings Institution (now Trader Joe’s), commemorating the location of Washington’s observation post on Cobble Hill. Washington’s retreat across the East River is commemorated by a bronze plaque by the sidewalk next to the Fulton Ferry Landing, just south of the River Café. There are several other sites on the east side of the Gowanus Canal dedicated to the soldiers that fought in the Battle of Brooklyn, for example in the Greenwood Cemetery and around 9th Street and 4th Avenue, where the Marylanders that counterattacked to save the retreat may have been buried. There is also the Old Stone House on 3rd Street and 5th Avenue, which is a reconstruction of the original 17th century farmhouse, dedicated to the American Revolution, colonial life and Brooklyn. The Battle of Brooklyn was also commemorated in a farce written by an anonymous playwright after the battle, but it seems quite reasonable to assume that the tens of thousands of British, Scottish, American and German soldiers that struggled in the heat and rains of August 1776 found the events to be less than farcical.[43]
Atwood, Rodney. The Hessians. Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Barber, John W., and Howe, Henry. Historical Collections of the State of New York. New York: S. Tuttle, 1841.
Burkhard, J.J. The Story of Fort Defiance. Red Hook Star-Revue, May 2011.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike. Gotham. A History of New York City to 1898. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Duffy, Christopher. The Military Experience in the Age of Reason. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1987.
Dwyer, William M. The Day is Ours! An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, November 1776-January 1777. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983.
Fortescue, Sir John. The War of Independence. The British Army in North America 1775-1783. London: Greenhill Books, 2001.
Gallagher, John J. The Battle of Brooklyn 1779. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Hogg, Ian V., and Batchelor, John H. Armies of the American Revolution. Englewood: Prentice-Hall, 1975.
Johnston, Henry P. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. Brooklyn: The Long Island Historical Society, 1878.
May, Robin, The British Army in North America 1775-83. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1997.
Morrissey, Brendan. Boston 1775. The Shot Heard Around the World. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1993.
Schechter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. The City at the Heart of the Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Smith, David. New York 1776. The Continentals’ First Battle. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.
Zlatich, Marko. General Washington’s Army (1) 1775-78. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1994.
Online sources

[1] Gallagher; Johnston, p. 24.
[2] Johnston, p. 29.
[3] Gallagher; Johnston, p. 29.
[4] Gallagher.
[5] Gallagher; Johnston, pp. 47, 50; Schechter, pp. 83-84, Smith, p. 12.
[6] Gallagher
[7] Gallagher; Johnston, p. 51.
[8] Johnston, p. 35.
[9] Johnston, p. 42.
[10] Gallagher; Johnston, pp. 45-47.
[11] Johnston, p. 47.
[12] Burkard.
[13] Duffy, p. 285.
[14] Smith, pp. 22-24.
[15] Morrissey, p. 33.
[16] Dwyer, p. 67.
[17] Johnston, p. 67; Zlatich, pp. 4, 6, 44.
[18] Atwood, p. 70.
[19] Smith, pp.22-24.
[20] Morrissey, pp. 17-18, Schechter, p. 84, Smith, pp. 12-13, 15.
[21] Dwyer, p. 100.
[22] Morrissey, pp. 25-26, Smith, pp. 20-22.
[23] Hogg and Batchelor, pp. 15-16, 20-22; May, pp. 33-35.
[24] Atwood, pp. 36-44; Dwyer, pp. 14-15
[25] Dwyer, pp. 12-13, n.
[26] Gallagher.
[27] Dwyer, p. 44.
[28] Duffy, p. 284.
[29] Gallagher.
[30] Barber and Howe, p. 229.
[31] Fortescue, p. 36.
[32] Burrows and Wallace, p. 235.
[33] Barber and Howe, p. 229.
[34] Gallagher; Brooklyn On Line3 <>
[35] Dwyer, pp. 12-13.
[36] Gallagher.
[37] Burrows and Wallace, p. 237; Gallagher.
[38] Burrows and Wallace, p. 237.
[39] Johnston, pp. 123-124.
[40] Johnston, pp. 131-133; Smith, p. 55.
[41] Burrows and Wallace, p. 239.
[42] Johnston, p. 125.