HMS SHEFFIELD: SEPTEMBER 1939 – AUGUST 1945

HMS Sheffield: 1940

HMS Sheffield: 1942

Possibly the most active of all the ‘Town’ class cruisers, Sheffield commenced her wartime service as part of 18CS with the Home Fleet. She was heavily committed to search and interception patrols during this period, also deploying occasionally with the fleet. On 26 September 1939 she became the first ‘Town’ to be damaged by enemy action as a result of near misses from He 111 bombers of KG26 whilst participating in a fleet operation to screen the damaged submarine Spearfish’s return to home waters. Attacks carried out on her and the cruiser Aurora from an altitude of c.14,000ft achieved a good degree of accuracy, some bombs falling within 20ft of the ship. However, actual damage was minimal, the temporary failure of the cruiser’s ASDIC being the most serious consequence. Subsequently, on 21 October, Sheffield captured the blockade runner Gloria (5,896 GRT) in the Denmark Strait, the ship subsequently operating under the Red Ensign as Empire Conveyor until torpedoed and sunk the following year.

Following repairs to weather damage on Tyneside during February and March 1940, Sheffield returned to 18CS in time to participate in the unsuccessful Norwegian campaign with the squadron’s other operational ships. She escaped damage from enemy bombing and briefly acted as RDF guardship for Ark Royal, a herald of things to come. From late May to mid-July she performed anti-invasion duties from various east coast ports with other ships of 18CS under operational control of Commander-in-Chief Nore. After a brief docking period at Fairfield, Govan, Sheffield departed the British Isles towards the end of August to join the legendary Force H at Gibraltar.

Along with Ark Royal and the battlecruiser Renown, Sheffield formed the core of Force H for much of the following year. One of her principal roles was to use her Type 79 WA radar to provide air surveillance for the rest of the force’s ships, which were not fitted with similar equipment. During this period, Sheffield assisted with the escort of a number of Malta convoys, participating in the Battle of Cape Spartivento on 27 November 1940 and in Force H’s bombardment of Genoa on 9 February 1941. Gibraltar’s favourable geographical location also facilitated occasional detachments into the North Atlantic for convoy and trade protection duties, sometimes taking Sheffield back to the British Isles.

Whilst attached to Force H, Sheffield was slightly damaged by two British mines caught in her paravanes off the Isle of Islay on 17 March 1941 in the course of escorting the troopship Strathmore from Gibraltar to the Clyde.At the end of the month she sustained further damage from near misses by Vichy French bombers after an abortive attempt to intercept a French convoy off the coast of North Africa during an encounter in which she exchanged fire with French shore batteries. Emergency repairs to her forward fuel tanks and No 4 central store were subsequently carried out at Gibraltar. In May, Force H deployed as part of measures to counter the battleship Bismarck’s sortie into the North Atlantic, Sheffield subsequently proceeding ahead of the force to shadow the German ship. She escaped an attack by Ark Royal’s torpedo bombers in a case of mistaken identity during the afternoon of 26 May but suffered minor damage from splinters and three fatalities when straddled by Bismarck’s 15in guns later that evening. On 12 June she intercepted and sank the German supply tanker Friedrich Breme (10,397 GRT) in the North Atlantic.

MINE DAMAGE: OFF ICELAND – 4 MARCH 1942

On completion of a long-awaited refit and modernisation at Rosyth, Sheffield returned to the Home Fleet in August 1941. However, she almost immediately departed for the Mediterranean with 18CS’s flagship, Edinburgh, and other Home Fleet units to support the ‘Halberd’ convoy to Malta. Following her return she was deployed on patrol and Russian convoy protection duties. On the evening of 4 March she was steaming to Seidisfiord in Iceland in preparation for another Arctic mission.At 22.19 whilst in position 65° 49’N, 12° 28’W to the east of Iceland there was an explosion under the port quarter. It was generally accepted that the explosion was caused by a floating contact mine but its type could not be identified from the fragment recovered.

The explosion caused severe but localised damage. A hole of about 22ft by 22ft was blown in the port side between Stations 229 and 239, with the port side of the platform deck destroyed between Stations 231 and 239 and the lower deck between Stations 234 and 239.There was extensive flooding up to the waterline between the bulkheads at Stations 227 and 239 and some leakage outside this area. The telemotor pipes were damaged and there was temporary power loss to the steering motors. Fortunately the shaftlines in the vicinity of the explosion escaped harm and shoring to the bulkhead between the flooded area and the forward steering compartment at Station 239 on the platform deck held. The engines were stopped immediately after the explosion but Sheffield got underway again at slow speed once the damage had been assessed. Power steering from the aft position was resumed once emergency leads had been run to the aft steering motor and Seidisfiord was reached late in the morning the next day. There was just one fatality.

Sheffield’s problems were not over, however, as a way still had to found to patch up the damage in such a remote location to allow the cruiser to return to the British Isles for permanent repair. The solution adopted was to strengthen the lower deck with temporary girders and construct a wooden patch over the hole, with adjacent compartments being packed with sacks of coke to provide additional support. Although the patch was not watertight, it was intended to protect the damaged area from weather damage. Initial trials revealed that a first attempt was not sufficiently robust to withstand anything but calm seas but, following further strengthening work and creation of an outer shield below the waterline, Sheffield departed for Scapa Flow on 27 March. The patching survived the voyage in spite of some anxious moments and, following further work in Orkney, Sheffield reached the River Tyne for permanent repairs on 2 April 1942.

The work carried out on Tyneside took until the end of July. Sheffield then re-joined the Home Fleet, serving as flagship of 18CS until its disbandment at the start of October. In September she transported Norwegian personnel and stores to the Arctic garrison at Spitzbergen and provided distant cover for QP14, a return convoy from Russia. In November, she flew the flag of Rear Admiral commanding 10CS during the ‘Torch’ landings in North Africa. During this operation she suffered minor damage, possibly from a premature 6in shell detonation, whilst using barrage fire to beat off an attack by German torpedo bombers in company with Bermuda on 8 November 1942. She lost a rating in a minor collision with the minesweeper Cadmus three days later.

BATTLE OF THE BARENTS SEA – 31 DECEMBER 1942

At the end of 1942 the Arctic convoys to Russia resumed after a three-month interruption caused by the redeployment of Home Fleet ships to support ‘Torch’. To lessen the risk of dispersal – and hence the detection of scattered groups of ships – in Arctic winter conditions, it was decided to split convoys into two smaller elements that would be easier to keep together. The first two convoys – JW51A and JW51B – organised under this new system departed for Russia a week apart on 15 and 22 December 1942. In addition to a close escort of destroyers and smaller warships, a more distant cruiser escort was provided as ‘Force R’. Commanded by Rear-Admiral R L Burnett in Sheffield – soon to become 10CS’ new commanding officer – this also included the ‘Colony’ class cruiser Jamaica. Battleship support from the Home Fleet was also available, although at considerable distance to the west.

In view of the vulnerability of cruisers to U-boat attack when operating with a slow-moving convoy, Force R was under orders not to close to within 50 miles of the convoy unless enemy surface forces were located.This – and considerable uncertainty as to the convoy’s location – meant that Force R was some distance away when JW51B was attacked by a German force led by Vice Admiral Oskar Kummetz comprising the cruisers Admiral Hipper, Lützow and six destroyers at 09.30 on the morning of Thursday 31 December 1942. Further delay was caused by the fact Burnett was investigating the radar track of a straggler to the north of the convoy’s position when gun flashes were seen on the southern horizon. However, the situation became clearer when heavier gunfire was observed at 09.46, followed by an enemy sighting report from the convoy’s destroyer escort a minute later. Nevertheless, it was not until 09.55 that Force R altered course and steadily worked up to 31 knots as they ‘steamed towards the sight of the guns’.

Force R subsequently made radar contact with the engaged ships at 10.30 and the range closed rapidly. However, there was again some delay whilst the cruiser force attempted to form an accurate plot of a confused situation and it was not until 11.30 that Sheffield – followed closely by Jamaica – opened fire. Their target was Admiral Hipper, which was preoccupied with engaging the convoy’s escorting destroyers and which consequently did not spot the British cruisers approaching on her disengaged side. The use of Type 284 GS radar for ranging meant that accuracy was excellent in spite of adverse weather conditions and the winter Arctic twilight, with the German ship receiving an early hit at a range variously reported as being between 13,000 and 16,000 yards. The 6in SAP shell penetrated Hipper’s hull below the armour belt as she healed over whilst turning, detonating in a fuel bunker adjacent to No 3 boiler room. The boiler room was rapidly flooded. Two additional hits were subsequently achieved as the range closed to around 8,000 yards, one penetrating the upper section of the armour belt and wrecking the ship’s welding shop and the other starting a fire in the hangar. Constrained by orders to avoid an engagement with anything more than an inferior enemy, at 11.37 Kummetz ordered his force to break off the action as Hipper retired behind a smoke screen.

The British cruiser force was almost immediately faced with the unexpected appearance of two German destroyers in a good position to launch a torpedo attack at around 4,000 yards range. The closest of these, Friedrich Eckholdt, had mistaken the British cruisers for Hipper and Lützow in the confusion of the action and was rapidly engaged by Sheffield. Sixteen salvos of 6in gunfire – supplemented by the British ship’s 4in HA armament and even her pom-poms as range closed to as little as 800 yards – effectively shot the German ship to pieces and she quickly sank, possibly after a magazine explosion. There were no survivors from her c.340 strong crew. The more distant German destroyer – Richard Beitzen – was engaged by Jamaica but turned away unharmed.

The German force had not yet finished with the convoy and there was another brief engagement between the British cruisers and both Hipper and Lützow from 12.29 to 12.36 when the now-alerted German ships forced Burnett to turn away whilst they made good their escape. Two of the convoy’s escorts – the destroyer Achates and the minesweeper Bramble – had been sunk in the course of the prolonged engagement but its merchant vessels were largely unscathed despite the relative weakness of the defending force. All-in-all, it was a considerable Royal Navy victory; the more so because Adolf Hitler’s fury at the meagre results of the action led to the resignation of the German Navy Commander, Admiral Erich Raeder, and the laying-up of much of the surface fleet.

From a tactical perspective, the cruiser action confirmed the effectiveness of Royal Navy search and gunnery-control radar, as well as the ability of its modern 6in cruisers to engage theoretically more powerful opponents in conditions that favoured a close-range action. Post-action reports considered the use of Type 284 rangefinding as decisive given that no useful results could be obtained from optical rangefinders in the prevailing conditions. The performance of the cruisers’ 6in turrets were considered to have been most satisfactory, particularly the long trunk type fitted to Jamaica. However, there was room for improvement. Although Sheffield’s plot had been maintained with ‘considerable skill’, there was concern over the amount of information potentially overloading the command system. The failure to spot the approach of the German destroyers Eckholdt and Beitzen had reinforced the need to maintain an all-round radar lookout: Jamaica’s Type 273 had been disabled by blast at this stage of the engagement whilst Sheffield was using the ranging panel in her own set for a time instead of Type 273’s primary search function. It was also considered ‘disappointing’ neither cruiser used their radar for spotting observations in conditions where this would have been particularly valuable. All of these lessons were fed back to the fleet to the benefit of future operations.

STORM DAMAGE: NORTH ATLANTIC – 17–19 FEBRUARY 1943

Sheffield continued to serve with 10CS into 1943. On 16 February she departed Scapa Flow bound for Seidisfiord in Iceland. The weather deteriorated steadily during the afternoon of the following day, the wind reaching Force 10 during the middle watch on 18 February. The cruiser was forced to heave-to for a time until conditions improved. During the gale the starboard whaler was stove in, the ASDIC set damaged and an accommodation ladder torn away from its stowage position. The weather temporarily eased during the afternoon but deteriorated significantly the following morning and Sheffield hove to again. At this stage the winds reached hurricane force, with waves estimated to be over 50ft high. ‘A’ turret suffered badly, being struck by a particularly heavy wave and submerged. When the ship rose beyond the wave, an armoured roof section of the turret was found to have been washed overboard. It was also thought that there was distortion to the upper roller path and gunhouse deck, as well as an alteration to the mounting’s tilt. The ASDIC dome was carried away – its compartment being flooded – and there was further damage to the weather decks. Sheffield made Seidisfiord safely on the morning of 20 February after the storm had abated. However, it was early June before repairs were completed at Dalmuir on the River Clyde.

On completion of work-up at Scapa Flow, Sheffieldwas detached from the Home Fleet to operate under the orders of Commander-in-Chief Plymouth, subsequently temporarily deploying to the Mediterranean from September to support the Salerno landings. She returned to the Home Fleet at the start of December 1943, in time to participate in the Battle of the North Cape on Boxing Day.

With the exception of two brief spells in dockyard hands, Sheffield continued to operate with 10CS and the Home Fleet throughout the first half of 1944. In April she formed part of the escort for the aircraft carriers involved in Operation ‘Tungsten’, the FAA strike on the battleship Tirpitz in Altenfjord. The cruiser was subsequently despatched for a long refit and modernisation at Boston, MA. Work had not been fully finished when she departed Boston in May 1945 and it was not until mid-1946 that subsequent alterations had been completed at Portsmouth.

HMS Sheffield : The Life and Times of Old Shiny

Ronald Bassett

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