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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 | Let me start with the apology. I hate to disappoint my fans and those who love to throw brickbats at me for what I say, especially when I’m yelping about the cross on Mount Soledad. I will get back to it, and with luck, it’ll be in a bigger way than ever. Phil Paulson and I are at work on a book about the whole thing. Meanwhile, here’s a warm, fuzzy story that could not offend anybody. Well maybe those folks at the San Diego Maritime Museum.
The Mighty Media
We San Diegans are proud of our Navy, and for good reason. A tour around the bay or a gander at it from Point Loma reveals a mighty array of warships. Across the bay, we can see the mightiest ships in the world. Almost directly below Point Loma are a half dozen submarines, lying so low in the water they’re hardly visible even from close range.
And the most unusual warship of them all is even harder to spot than the submarines. As part of the San Diego Maritime Museum, a small, but spiffy, steam yacht named Medea, sits snuggled up alongside the centenarian ferry named Berkeley. Medea, named after a Greek enchantress, was built in 1904. She was more than forty years old when she last saw action.
“How can a vessel like that be considered a warship,” you might ask?
How indeed? She certainly wasn’t built to fight. Back around the turn of the 20th century every veddy, veddy, rich Briton had his own yacht. It was just the way things were. Medea was built specifically for one William Macalister Hall, hero of the Boer War and laird of his own estate complete with castle.
Now modified with a diesel engine, Hall’s yacht was then a newfangled steam yacht. She displaces 110 tons or about one tenth of one percent the displacement of her neighbor across the bay, the USS Ronald Reagan.
At first, the enchantress didn’t head off to fight any wars. She merely served as a pleasure yacht, taking William Macalister Hall on hunting excursions, providing a bouncing platform for skeet shooters, or a dandy place to throw a floating party.
Then came along the first “war to end all wars:” World War I. By this time, Medea had changed owners twice. England was in a fervor over the war and Medea’s new owner sold the yacht to the French Navy. There she was outfitted with some guns, a rack for carrying depth charges, and a new name. Medea is either French for Corneille or the name of a French dramatist, Pierre Corneille.
Among other things, Corneille was assigned convoy duty. According to history professor and director of the museum, Ray Ashley, the old vessel helped bridge the gap between the old and the new. She was a steam powered vessel often protecting sailing ships from the threat from beneath the water, German submarines.
So far as we know, Corneille did not actually shoot at anybody. According to Dr. Ashley, it’s probably a good thing she didn’t drop any depth charges, especially in the English Channel where the water is relatively shallow.
In those days, they would have been rolled off the back of the small vessel. Had they done so, the ship wasn’t fast enough to have escaped the blast. She would have blown off her own derriere.
After the war, it was a return to pleasure yachting and upgrades with electric lights and a diesel engine. Then along came the second war to end all wars. Medea re-upped. When France was overrun, thousands of British and French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. History tells us that many yachts braved enemy fire and returned again and again to the French port. Many were sunk. Although the incomplete history of those days does not tell us if Medea was among them, it’s a good bet she was, at least if you’re writing a story about her heroism.
We do know that she did her part during England’s finest hour. Many of the Luftwaffe bombers would fly up the Thames on their way to bomb London. Medea and other yachts were outfitted with barrage balloons, stationed on the river, and moved daily to help thwart those that made low flying attacks. History doesn’t tell us that the old warship/yacht ever caused any German planes to crash but certainly the presence of her and others like her caused them to fly higher and be more vulnerable to anti aircraft fire. A big part of warfare is causing the enemy to do what he doesn’t want to do.
Later, Medea served in the Norwegian navy or perhaps we should say expatriate navy. Norway was overrun by the Nazis in 1940, but a large number of her ships, civilian and military escaped. Our little yacht joined them and flew the Norwegian flag. This time she was given an assignment even less glamorous than towing barrage balloons. She was an accommodation ship used mostly to house commandos. Those glamorous guys then rode faster vessels to carry out their raids against the Germans in their homeland.
She may even have changed her name again. Some say Medea was painted out and a board carved with “King Haakon” hung on her side. If so, she had a touch of royalty. Haakon was the name of several kings of Norway.