Jar Heads

Burning of the Philadelphia

Burning of the Philadelphia

On the night of 16 February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small detachment of U.S. Marines to burn the USS Philadelphia.

In October 1803 the US ship had run around on an uncharted reef while patrolling Tripoli harbour during the First Barbary War (1801-1805).  The captain, Bainbridge, did his best to refloat his ship under constant fire from the Barbary guns.  He jettisoned his own guns to lighten the ship, then jettisoned everything not necessary to handle the vessel.  Finally, in a last desperate attempt he had the foremast sawn off.  Ultimately he had to surrender himself and his crew to Yusef Pasha in Tripoli.

The Corsairs refloated the ship and brought her into Tripoli harbour, where she served both as trophy and a powerful defense against the US fleet.  There are reports that the Muslim call to prayer in this period was signaled by the firing of guns from the captured ship.

Next followed the action described by Horatio Nelson, at the height of his power on the eve of Trafalgar, as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”  Stephen Decatur  and his detachment of US Marines boarded a captured Tripolitan ketch.  In a classic “ruse de guerre” they pretended to have lost their anchors in a storm, and sought assistance from the Barbary troops stationed aboard the captured Philadelphia.  Decatur’s men stormed the ship and overpowered the Tripolitan sailors. With fire support from the American warships, the Marines set fire to Philadelphia, denying her use by the enemy.   Thus began the legend that became the US Marines.

The legend was sealed a year later when the Marines led a mercenary force from Alexandria in Egypt to capture the city of Derna in modern day Libya.  For the first time in history the US flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.  The successes of the First Barbary War became enshrined in the official Hymn of the US Marine Corps.

The First Barbary War was a result of Muslim disruption of shipping in the Mediterranean in a manner that can only be described as officially sanctioned piracy.  The US suffered particularly following the French Revolution, when they lost the protection of the Royal French Fleet.  When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman to enquire concerning the ground for the attacks on US shipping, the ambassador replied that:  It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.   Seems things haven’t changed much in 200 years.

The Marines Hymn; author unknown.

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.



Take two bus engines, a two pounder cannon and stick them into a hugely armoured chassis and you have the Matilda MK II, the British Infantry tank of WW2.  Designed very much around the principles of WW1 rather than WW2, she was slow, but very hard to take out.  Her off road speed was 6 MPH, barely faster than walking pace.  She was not  equipped with high-explosive shells, so against infantry her only effective weapon was the machine gun.

Initially when the Matilda appeared in France in 1940 she gave the Germans some concern.  The Panzer III’s had 37mm guns and the up-gunned Panzer IV had a 50mm gun and neither could penetrate the Matilda armour.  The germans then figured out that they could use their 88mm anti-aircraft guns as tank killers and the Matildas were all lost to the British in France.  They may have contributed in their own small way to the escape from Dunkirk.  The encounter with the Matilda convinced the German High Command that they needed to up-gun their tanks further to 75mm and beyond.

It was in December 1940 against the Italians in “Operation Compass” the Matilda earned the nickname “Queen of the Desert”.  The Italians had nothing like the German 88mm and could not stop the relentless march of the Matildas down the coast road from Egypt to Libya.  A British force of only 31,000 men under General Richard O’Connor (good Irish stock of course) took out an Italian army under General Graziani that was five times their size.

O’Connor was then set to drive right across Libya and oust the Axis forces from the continent of Africa.  But Churchill intervened and ordered the British to stop the advance, and divert troops to a failed defence of Greece.

The collapse of the Italians led to Hitler sending General Rommel and the Afrika Corps in March and Rommel quickly demonstrated that he was a very different kind of opponent.  The reign of the “Queen of the Desert” was over.  Rommel was a modern tank commander with fast moving tanks operating as cavalry, not as infantry.

Amazingly the Matilda remained in service all through the war.  I’m sure the infantry appreciated a large armored barricade that could not outrun them.

Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death; by Hilaire Belloc
Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity.
For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London’s Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
‘Matilda’s House is Burning Down!’
Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;
And took Peculiar Pains to Souse
The Pictures up and down the House,
Until Matilda’s Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away,
It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.
That Night a Fire did break out–
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street–
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidnce) — but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.