Papal Navy (Eighth-Nineteenth Centuries)

Capitana Pontificia (flagship of the Papal Navy which fought at the Battle of Lepanto, 1571)

An occasional force in the containment of Islam. From the early eighth through the late nineteenth centuries, what can be termed a papal navy existed sporadically. The chief purpose for such a navy was to halt the spread of Islam in the Levant and the Mediterranean. This navy was, more often than not, a collection of men and ships subsidized or authorized by the papacy but operated by other Christian powers to support papal policies.

For centuries the Muslim Saracens raided Christian territories and captured them to use as slaves. Popes and emperors were concerned about such depredations but usually did not maintain any type of standing force to stop them. There were a few exceptions. In 877, for example, Pope John VIII raised a fleet of galley-like ships, known as dromone, to defend Christian interests. This fleet, however, was short-lived and did not solve the problem.

After the popes preached the crusades, a renewed interest in building naval assets to further this effort emerged. In 1201 the Venetians agreed to transport the crusaders of the ill-fated Fourth Crusade to Egypt, whence they would then launch themselves on the road to Jerusalem. This crusade went awry, and the crusaders seized first a portion of the Adriatic coast and then Constantinople itself, but it illustrated how the pope might put naval resources to use.

In 1213 Pope Innocent III authorized King Philip II (Augustus) of France to cross the English Channel and invade England, after he had excommunicated King John and declared him deposed. This invasion did not occur, as John made amends and Innocent lifted the ban; but, again, this was an instance of papal intent to use a naval force.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, papal concern over possible Islamic domination increased. Pope Pius II (1458-1464) wanted to create an actual papal navy that might stem the Islamic tide. This navy did not materialize, but the pope believed a need existed and hoped to lead the charge against Islamic expansion into Europe.

One of Pius II’s successors, Pius V (1566-1572), brought the concept of a papal navy to its highest point. On his election in 1566, Pius V immediately provided funds to Philip II of Spain to strengthen the Spanish Navy in order that it might contain the Turkish fleet, which then threatened to dominate the Mediterranean. Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the papacy had a common interest in suppressing the Islamic impulse, but France and England had their own strategic interests vis-a-vis the Spanish and Catholicism respectively. Thus, the leaders of the Christian world were divided. By 1570, however, Pius V had emerged as the dominant voice in anti-Turk negotiations, and he brought the Venetians into the fray. These negotiations resulted in first a temporary alliance with papal subsidies for the Venetian navy and then a formal alliance in early 1571, the Holy League.

Ultimately, the Holy League went to war against the Turks and defeated them in the greatest battle of galleys since Actium, the 7 October 1571 Battle of Lepanto. It was, unquestionably, the high point of the papal navy. The Christian fleet at the battle comprised 207 galleys, 6 galeasses, and 24 cargo vessels. All but a few were from the pope. The Ottoman fleet was made up of about 250 galleys. The Christians had upwards of 44,000 seamen and 28,000 soldiers from Venice, Spain, Genoa, Savoy, Malta, and the Papal States. Turkish seamen numbered some 50,000, along with some 25,000 soldiers. The casualty count, both in men and ships, is widely disputed, but the Turks lost over 200 galleys and 20,000 dead. The Christians put their own losses at 12 ships, with 7,500 dead and 15,000 wounded.

Although the Ottoman fleet was rebuilt, after the Battle of Lepanto the papal navy was essentially involved with curbing the activities of Muslim pirates who haunted the waters of the Mediterranean until 1830. A papal navy, either subsidized or authorized, managed to survive until the late nineteenth century when Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) dismantled it as a useless vestige of the times when the popes competed stridently for temporal power.

References Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vols. 1, 2. Trans. Sian Reynolds. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Guglielmotti, P. Alberto. Marcantonio Colonna alla battaglia di Lepanto. Firenze: Felice Le Monnier, 1862. —. Storia della Marina Pontificia. Vols. 1-10. Rome: Tipografia Vaticana, 1886-1893.

Papal Naval Flag



Gunther Luetjens, who succeeded Wilhelm Marschall as commander of the German fleet, was born in Wiesbaden on May 25, 1889, the son of a merchant. Enthralled from childhood by stories about the sea, he decided to make the navy his career and joined as an officer-cadet in 1907. In 1910, he graduated from the Naval Academy, ranking 20th in a class of 160. As befitted his high standing, he was assigned to a battleship. Ironically, Luetjens was uncomfortable on large ships. As soon as the opportunity arose, he transferred to the torpedo boats and served on them throughout World War I. In the Weimar days, he alternated between training and staff assignments (mainly involving transport vessels) and was considered an outstanding instructor. He served as commander of the 1st Torpedo Boat Flotilla (1929-1931) and, after a staff tour as chief of the naval officer personnel department (1932-1934), Luetjens was given command of the cruiser Karlsruhe in 1934 and spent the first half of 1935 in South American waters, showing the German flag. When he returned to Germany, he was named chief of staff of Naval District North Sea, serving in that capacity until March 16, 1936, when Erich Raeder named him head of the naval personnel office. The grand admiral needed a staff officer of proven ability for the rapidly expanding navy, and the experienced and dependable Captain Luetjens was his man.

Gunther Luetjens was a taciturn officer with a monk-like devotion to his calling. His friends considered him quite charming once they got beyond his stoic exterior. A confirmed monarchist, he never used the Nazi salute or carried an admiral’s dagger with a swastika on it, preferring instead to wear his old Imperial Navy dirk. He even lodged a protest against Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, but it was buried by Hermann Boehm, the fleet commander at the time.

In 1938 Raeder named Luetjens commander-in-chief of Reconnaissance Forces, and in late 1939, as a rear admiral, he took part in the mining operations off the English coast. He was promoted to vice admiral effective January 1, 1940. After Luetjens’s cruisers took part in the Norwegian campaign, Erich Raeder appointed him fleet commander (Flottenchef) on June 18, 1940. In him, the grand admiral found exactly the man he wanted to command the surface fleet: an officer of the old school he could trust to obey every order SKL gave him without too many questions or objections. The fact that Luetjens had spent the bulk of his career in the torpedo boat and cruiser arms did not make him particularly well qualified to command the fleet, but this did not seem to bother Raeder, who had Luetjens promoted to full admiral on September 1, 1940.

Meanwhile, at Raeder’s urging, Luetjens attempted to take the Gneisenau and the Hipper out on a raid into the Atlantic on June 20, 1940, but his flagship Gneisenau was torpedoed the same day and out of action for months. Meanwhile, Admiral Luetjens was in charge of the naval portion of Operation Sea Lion, under the overall supervision of Admiral Raeder.

Repairs on the Gneisenau were completed by December, when Luetjens went out to sea again with it and the Scharnhorst. However, he ran into a gale, and both ships were damaged by heavy seas, forcing him to return to base again. On his third attempt, in early 1941, Admiral Luetjens finally succeeded in breaking out into the North Atlantic and fell on the British shipping lanes with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. They sank 13 British merchant ships and tankers before being confronted by the British battleship Rodney and its escorts. In accordance with the take-no-risks orders of Raeder and Hitler, Luetjens felt obliged to retire rather than engage in a surface battle. On the morning of March 23, 1941, he entered the port of Brest, France. He was then summoned to Berlin.

On Saturday, April 26, 1941, Gunther Luetjens took his leave of Grand Admiral Raeder after having been briefed on his next mission: he was to conduct a raid in the Atlantic with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the Bismarck. It would be the maiden voyage of Germany’s monstrous 42,000-ton battleship.

Luetjens voiced some valid objections to this plan. The difference between the endurance of the two ships would prevent them from operating together as a homogeneous force, he pointed out. Luetjens wanted to wait until the Scharnhorst was repaired and the Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, completed her crew training period, which would be in about four months. As a combined force, these three ships would be very difficult indeed to defeat. Otherwise, the German Navy would be committing its forces piecemeal. Raeder, however, argued the opposite case. Each pause in the Battle of the Atlantic helped the enemy; also, it was essential to create a diversion in the Atlantic, to force the British to withdraw naval forces from the Mediterranean, thus reducing pressure on the Italian-German supply routes to North Africa.

Although he had by far the stronger argument, Luetjens let himself be persuaded. He would obey the grand admiral’s wishes. When Adolf Hitler visited Gotenhafen (now the Polish port of Gydnia) on May 5, to inspect both the Tirpitz and the Bismarck, he also expressed doubts about the advisability of this operation; Luetjens, however, strongly supported Raeder’s point of view. Had Luetjens said what he really thought and agreed with Hitler, it is quite likely that the tragedy of the Bismarck would have been avoided. However, faced with the united front of his naval experts, Hitler decided not to interfere with Raeder’s plans, despite his personal reservations. The stage was set for yet another naval disaster.

Once again, as with Marschall, the fleet commander was cautioned again and again against taking unnecessary risks. Raeder told him to use “prudence and care” and not to stake too much for the sake of a limited success of dubious value. At his SKL briefing, Luetjens was told that “the primary objective is the destruction of the enemy’s carrying capacity. Enemy warships will be engaged only in furtherance of this objective, and provided such engagements can take place without excessive risks.”

After leaving Berlin, Gunther Luetjens paid a visit to his friend and predecessor Wilhelm Marschall, a champion of the right of freedom of action for a commander at sea. Marschall, now in retirement, warned him not to feel too closely bound by the Supreme Naval Staff’s instructions.

“No, thank you,” Luetjens said as he rejected Marschall’s advice. “There have already been two Fleet Commanders who have lost their jobs owing to friction with the Admiralty, and I don’t want to be the third. I know what they want, and shall carry out their orders.”

The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen left port on May 18 and were spotted by British reconnaissance aircraft on May 22. The Home Fleet tried to prevent them from breaking out into the Atlantic, and on the morning of May 24, a classic naval battle took place in the Denmark Straits, between Iceland and Greenland. Firing from 10 miles away, the Bismarck sank the British Hood. One of the German 15-inch (380mm) shells hit her aft magazine, setting off 112 tons of high explosives. The 42,000-ton battle cruiser went down only six minutes after the Bismarck opened fire, taking 1,416 officers and men with her, including Vice Admiral Sir Lancelot Holland. Only three men survived.

One minute later, at 6:01 a. m., the Bismarck turned its guns on the British battleship Prince of Wales. By 6:13 a. m. this opponent had sustained several hits and was laying a smoke screen, trying to escape the German task force. Ernst Lindemann, the captain of the Bismarck, wanted to pursue the crippled British battleship and finish her off, but Luetjens-ever mindful of SKL orders-refused to do so. A violent argument ensued, but Luetjens held firm, and the Prince of Wales escaped.

The Bismarck headed for the open Atlantic, where the British lost her. Luetjens, however, broke radio silence and transmitted a long report to Berlin, enabling the British to re-fix his position. Even so, the bearings were misinterpreted and the pursuing force went off in the wrong direction. The Bismarck was re-sighted by a Catalina flying boat two days later, and a wave of Swordfish dive-bombers from Vice Admiral Somerville’s Force H attacked the German battleship with torpedoes late in the afternoon of May 26. One of these struck aft, jamming the rudder and making the battleship unmaneuverable. Efforts at repairing her proved futile. Nor could the Bismarck be towed, for Luetjens had already detached the Prinz Eugen. As he had predicted, it did not have the endurance to operate with the Bismarck.

On May 27, the British closed in on the Bismarck in overwhelming force. The last anyone ever saw of Admiral Luetjens was early that morning, as he and his staff walked across the deck of the Bismarck and headed for the bridge. He was unusually quiet and did not bother to return the salutes of the crew. About 9 a. m. the bridge suddenly became an inferno of flames, and this is probably when Gunther Luetjens perished, but this is impossible to confirm. Only 110 of the Bismarck’s crew survived, while some 2,100 (including the entire fleet staff) perished. Many of them drowned after the battleship sank at 10:40 a. m. The British made very little effort to save them. Some have suggested that had the situation been reversed, there would probably have been another “war crimes” trial in 1946 or 1947.

Luetjens made several serious mistakes in his last campaign. There is little doubt but that he should have sunk the Prince of Wales when he had the chance. Adolf Hitler was right when he dressed down Grand Admiral Raeder for this failure, which was at least as much Raeder’s as Luetjens’s. Hitler showed a rare flash of strategic judgment when he recognized this fact-although he seems to have forgotten that he himself had urged caution from time to time. In any event, after the Bismarck debacle, Hitler never fully trusted Erich Raeder’s judgment again. “Whereas up till then he had generally allowed me a free hand, he now became much more critical and clung more than previously to his own views,” Raeder wrote later. 29 This was not necessarily bad for the German Navy. Raeder had exhibited questionable judgment since before the war began and since 1939 had shown a tendency to dissipate the navy’s strength on raids of dubious value. Hitler’s biggest mistake as a naval leader-other than not building enough U-boats and going to war too soon-was not replacing Erich Raeder much sooner.

Although from all accounts a good person, Luetjens must go down in history as a failure as a fleet commander. Certainly he was an unlucky one. His fatal flaws included an underestimation of the potential threat of aircraft to capital ships, a gross violation of the most elementary principles of radio security, and a slavelike obedience to the poor strategic thinking of the Supreme Naval Staff-even to the point of allowing it to cloud his own, sounder judgment. “Luetjens,” one former German naval officer wrote, “personifies the tragedy of a commander whose personal ability was sacrificed on the altar of dutiful obedience.”

And what happened to Wilhelm Marschall, who had warned Luetjens not to listen too closely to the instructions of Raeder and his Supreme Naval Staff? His career seemed to be over until Admiral Raeder suddenly called him out of retirement on August 12, 1942, and named him commanding admiral, France. Six weeks later he was promoted to commander-in-chief of Naval Group West, then headquartered in Paris. Raeder had thus promoted the fleet commander he had previously dubbed a failure and worse, and whom he had forced into retirement in semi-official disgrace. Even so, when Marschall tried to bring up the subject of his actions in Norway, Raeder refused to discuss it. Did this mean that Raeder had realized the validity of Marschall’s concept of tactical freedom of action for commanders at sea and thus recognized his own errors? Marschall thought so but also believed that Raeder “would rather have bitten his tongue out than admit it.”

Generaladmiral Marschall was among those senior officers retired in the first weeks of the Doenitz regime in 1943. He was again recalled in June 1944, to head a special authority staff for the Danube River. Retired again in November 1944, he was reappointed commander-in-chief of Naval Command West on April 19, 1945. He held this post until the end of the war. After being released from Allied captivity in mid-1947, Wilhelm Marschall wrote a number of articles on naval history and strategy. He died at Moelln (in Schleswig-Holstein) on March 20, 1976, at the age of 89.

Room 40 at the Admiralty

The First Bletchley Park: This incredible image taken in June 1919 shows World War One codebreakers – including Major Malcolm Hay (back left) in their secret office in London. The organisation, known as Room 40, had a pivotal role in bringing the Great War to an end

From 1914 the conflict at sea fell into two, almost distinct, parts: the surface engagements of the bigger ships, sometimes in line ahead, pounding each other with their heavy guns; and that of a secret U-boat war of sudden and unexpected torpedo attacks. This last part had political as well as economic effects. The Royal Navy’s strategy was to use their big guns to enforce a total economic blockade of ships supplying Germany and her allies. The North Sea was to be a war zone and boarding parties from the Royal Navy ships made stringent checks on neutral shipping for any goods meant for a German port. It was a brutal, effective and probably illegal weapon, in response to which Norway, Sweden, the USA, as well as other countries, made loud protests about the contravention of international law. The British did not acknowledge their protest so the Royal Navy maintained a very effective blockade with a relatively small number of warships because of the good intelligence from wireless intercepts about German shipping movements. In response, German U-boats were ordered to sink any ships found in British waters in an act of unrestricted warfare. A savage battle was fought in the First World War, as well as the Second World War, as the two opponents tried to strangle each other to death. The stakes were that the population of the loser would starve. The Royal Navy was well equipped to combat surface ships, but was woefully unprepared for the U-boat threat; however, signals intelligence was going to play a crucial part in the great sea battle that lay ahead.

The Admiralty had fitted wireless telegraphy in all its major vessels by the beginning of the First World War, but was still unprepared for the signals intelligence battle in which they were about to become engaged. They had some hints of what part wireless telegraphy might play from their experience in observing the use of wireless telegraphy in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War. An ageing coal-fired Imperial Russian Fleet left their base at St Petersburg to undertake a mammoth trip through the Suez Canal and into South East Asian waters to finally arrive in the Sea of Japan to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy. The British, and indeed the world, watched the slow progress of Russia’s fleet by monitoring its wireless communications during the course of their long journey. The W/T specialists on board the Royal Navy ship HMS Diana, which shadowed the fleet, commented on the poor standard of transmission and encoding of messages coming from the cumbersome Russian fleet as it chugged halfway around the world to confront the Japanese. The Russian Imperial Fleet engaged the Japanese battleships and was almost totally destroyed, distress calls transmitted by sinking battleships filling the airwaves. Russia’s defeat was reported back by wireless to the Admiralty in London, but the lessons of the extended exercise in the use or misuse of wireless telegraphy were ignored. The British Admiralty had no signals intercept service or plan to create one in 1914 as war started, but luck was on their side.

Within days of the declaration of war in August 1914, the Admiralty’s recently appointed Director of Intelligence Rear Admiral Henry Oliver was being given copies of intercepted German wireless transmissions in code that he was unable to read. Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, and the soon to be appointed First Sea Lord Admiral John (Jackie) Fisher, asked Oliver to set up a wireless intercept service. The Admiralty allocated Room 40 in their Old Building to house this new service. Room 40 would be the title of a signals intelligence bureau that would achieve extraordinary things, first for Britain’s war at sea and later as an intelligence centre of wider dimensions. Oliver needed a director for the embryonic intercept service so he turned to his old friend Sir Alfred Ewing, who was Director of Naval Education, and over lunch at the United Services Club, now the Institute of Directors, he offered him the job. Ewing had been a great success at educating navy personnel and had received a knighthood; in addition, Oliver knew that he had an academic interest in codes and ciphers. Ewing, immaculately dressed and conscious of his position and dignity, was an inspired choice for the job with more than his share of luck in its success. Ewing’s first move was to review what there was in coding and ciphering expertise in the archives of The British Library, the General Post Office, Lloyds and other repositories of literature and experience on the subject. His conclusion was that he needed a multi-talented team to help him in the task whose shape was beginning to emerge.

German wireless transmission intercepts were coming in thick and fast from radio listening stations, or ‘Y’ stations as they came to be known, that began to be installed all along England and Scotland’s east coasts. Piles of German transmissions in code and a few in plain text from new ‘Y’ stations were gathering at the Admiralty, in addition to other contributions from radio amateurs who began to play their part in intercepting German messages. Ewing’s ever-increasing supply of messages in cipher needed code breakers to work on them, but also people who could understand the purport of a message in naval terms and practice. The intercepts were all in German, too, so the team that Ewing needed to recruit had to contain talented cryptanalysts, naval officers and translators to create a bureau that would help to shape the war to come.

In the early days, Room 40 in the Admiralty Buildings in Whitehall began co-operation with the Army at the War Office just across the road. The army did not have the flying start in putting together a decryption team that the navy was enjoying, but progress with interception was shared. Some decryptions of German coded messages began to emerge as Ewing’s small but growing team began to bed down in their task. This co-operation did not last long, however, as Room 40 began to prove itself the better bureau of the two and was rather pleased to show it. In Germany at the same time there was no initiative to create an intercept service and, when a German signals intelligence team was finally inaugurated, it proved trivial compared to the British effort. Even Room 40 was not without its shortcomings, however. Intelligence has several aspects to it, each of which needs to work in balance with the others. The accurate interception of a coded transmission was the first stage. Decoding it was next; a translation was needed, which required a knowledge of German marine terminology and practice to make sense of the message. From those fragments of information, and maybe others collected earlier, an evaluator’s skill was needed to build a coherent summary of intelligence for the field commander. These evaluations could support and guide life and death decisions for those directing the ships or ground forces in the face of the enemy.

The directors of intelligence had to decide to whom they should show this precious knowledge of the enemy. Cast the distribution list too narrowly, as Hitler did, and you limit the use of valuable intelligence, but cast it too widely and the risk of a disaster in the shape of a leak could betray your sources to the enemy who would promptly close them down. It was a difficult balance between too open-handed a distribution of your intelligence and paranoia about the enemy’s spies that are always a risk to your secret sources and plans. Room 40 as a bureau had limited its effectiveness by restricting its agenda to acting largely as an interception and decoding role rather than a wider intelligence centre into which it would evolve later in the war. Oliver and Ewing had built up an extraordinarily effective decoding facility, but would play what intelligence cards they had very close to their chests. This meant that any useful intelligence their cryptanalysts had generated had a more limited effect than it could have done. Later in the war, Room 40’s capability came into its own as a fully effective, intelligence-gathering, evaluation and exploitation organisation under the inspired leadership of Admiral ‘Blinker’ Hall. He was not only a superb spymaster but a great judge of men; one of his many lieutenants, Commander Alastair Denniston RN, served his signals intelligence apprenticeship under Hall and was to make his mark in intelligence later on.

To meet the need of the unsolved coded intercepts the Admiralty began by recruiting bright young men and their tutors from the universities for cryptanalysis and linguistic work in the Room 40 team. The foundation of Britain’s signals intelligence bureau and their cryptanalysis skills was being laid by Ewing’s growing team; its effectiveness would last for half a century or more. Sadly, a damaging quarrel between the War Office, or MI 1B as it was designated, and the Admiralty across the road in Whitehall was not resolved until 1915. Such squabbles are not an unknown phenomenon among security services of virtually all nations, even up to the present day. The ‘spat’ limited the development of the army’s military code breaking unit in the precious months during the opening phases of the war. The main reason for the row seemed to be that the ‘Y’ stations intercepting enemy signals were gathering a mix of messages of both naval and military interest, so the War Office and the Admiralty agreed to a guarded co-operation. This arrangement broke down as a result of what seems an immature competition between the two services, probably because Room 40 at the Admiralty was making better progress in decoding intercepted messages than the War Office – and flaunted it. The Admiralty was preparing to go it alone in their signals intelligence war.

Wireless telegraphy was a fairly recent invention in 1914, but it had been made a standard installation in all major Royal Navy ships, as well as those of the fast expanding Imperial German Navy. Telegraphy was widely accepted and practiced by sea goers as it could act as a lifeline, helping them to survive the dangers of the sea, but it was just about to become an effective weapon of offence as well.

Germany was loath to risk her navy against a larger British fleet in a major action, so they decided on a strategy of attrition by trying to catch smaller detachments of the British warships in short, sharp actions. Penetration of German naval codes and ciphers by the British using the new technology helped them to counter this strategy. Deception in signals transmissions became a widely used practice by both the British and German navies, often in innovative ways. One aspect of signals security for ships at sea was to disguise the recipient of a radio message, so a common ruse among German transmitters was to direct a message from one coastal station to another rather than to the ship at sea for which it was really intended. The vessel would ‘overhear’ the message and act upon it; this was the beginning of a wireless-based game of hide and seek played by intercept services to help win or lose the war at sea.

Ewing needed cryptographers urgently so the first place that he looked was within the Royal Navy itself, with staff members of the colleges at Dartmouth and Osborne the first to be interviewed. One candidate was Alastair Denniston, who was teaching German at Osborne. He was offered an appointment which was assumed by all to be a short-term one during the school holidays that he was then enjoying. No one envisaged that the war would last for several years and that cryptology would prove a life-long career for Alastair. He became a major figure in Britain’s long chronicle of cryptology and intelligence spanning almost half a century and two world wars. Ewing recruited a disparate team of characters who came from many walks of life, creating a mixed bag of extraordinarily cerebral linguists and naval experts in his team. Room 40 would prove far too small for the fast growing band of decoders, but it did have the advantage of being situated in the Admiralty Building within a few moments’ walk of Churchill’s and Fisher’s offices. Churchill decided that there should be some ground rules for the staff, and his directions, written on a single page of Admiralty notepaper and dated 8 November 1914, is still in Britain’s archives. It is headed ‘Exclusively Secret’ and addressed to COS (Chief of Staff, Admiral Oliver) and D of Educt- (Director of Education, which is a position Sir Alfred Ewing still retained) and read:

An officer of the War Staff, preferably from the ID (Intelligence Division) should be selected to study all the decoded intercepts, not only current but past, to compare them continually with what actually took place in order to penetrate the German mind and movements and make reports. All these intercepts are to be written in a locked book with their decoded, and all other copies are to be collected and burnt. All new messages are to be entered in the book, and the book is only to be handled under the direction of the COS.

The officer selected is for the present to do no other work.

I shall be obliged if Sir Alfred Ewing will associate himself continuously with this work.

The order has the initial WSC in red ink, the date 8/11 and the counter-signature of Admiral Fisher which was an F in green ink.

Paranoia was working fine in the Admiralty.


In late 2016, the Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, CV Kuznetsov embarked upon an operational deployment that would take the vessel and its attendant task group to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea where it subsequently joined the Russian effort to support Syrian Arab Republic government forces in the fight against IS (Islamic State) and other opposition groups that had, since 2011, attempted a complete take-over of Syria throwing the country into turmoil. In addition, the air group would provide a dissuader to a growing threat from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) airpower supporting a number of opposition groups (not under the NATO standard), from extending their operations against Syrian government forces. This was the first combat deployment of the Kuznetsov in that it would launch air strikes on hostile targets.

With Syrian government forces on the verge of a catastrophic collapse due to pressure from IS and other opposition groups, some of the latter being supported militarily and financially by a the western dominated anti-ISIS coalition that was, in an ironic twist, playing a large part in militarily supporting ISIS, by constantly threatening Syrian government forces, forcing the latter to make dispositions accordingly, Russia intervened militarily in the conflict commencing with air operations on 30 September 2015. The Russian intervention, which allowed the Syrian government forces to go on the offensive and retake large swathes of territory from IS and western supported opposition forces, was reduced in tempo in March 2016. However, in late 2016, western backed opposition groups fighting in Aleppo carved out closer cooperation with the extremists of the Al-Qaeda and IS affiliated Al Nusra Front. This led to a stiffening of resistance in Aleppo, the main defence of which was conducted by Al Nusra Front. To the south, IS launched an offensive against Palmyra, which had been liberated by Syrian Government forces backed by Russian airpower in March 2016. The IS offensive, which resulted in the recapture of Palmyra, was designed to take advantage of the tactical situation that saw Syrian Government Forces drawn into the Aleppo battle; the ultimate objective being the collapse of the government offensive against Aleppo as well as the capture of ground in and around Palmyra.

The task group that departed from Northern Fleet bases consisted of the ACHC (Aircraft Carrying Heavy Cruiser) Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov, the Nuclear powered Heavy Missile Cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), the Large ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) ships Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov and four support vessels, including at least two x fuel/replenishment ships. This task group joined an estimated 10 other Russian ships in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, it is possible that one or more SSN (nuclear powered attack submarine) was present in the Eastern Mediterranean, although this is unconfirmed conjecture.

The Kuznetsov brought with her a wealth of capability, much of which was new to the Russian campaign in Syria. This included an in-flight refueling capability for strike aircraft (it is unclear if this was employed) and a rotary winged AEW (Airborne Early Warning) capability courtesy of the Ka-31 helicopter (this capability is assumed and, if present, would have been restricted to fleet protection duties). Enhancements to existing capabilities in the Syrian theatre included an enhanced scout/attack helicopter capability, air defence fighters and multirole strike fighters, as well as additional air defence capability for the naval presence courtesy of her integral air defence system and electronic warfare capabilities. The Russian surface to surface anti-ship capability was significantly enhanced by her twelve P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles, adding to the anti-ship missiles on the Peter the Great and additional Russian surface assets already in theatre – these systems being important politically as at that time misguided voices within western politics were advocating using shipborne surface to air missile systems on western coalition warships in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to engage and shoot down Syrian government and potentially Russian military aircraft. The presence of such a powerful Russian anti-ship capability within her task group being a less than subtle message that Russia was prepared to counter all threats to her air operations over Syria.

The air group consisted of a mix of Ka-27PL ASW and Ka-27PS search and rescue helicopters, Ka-31 AEW helicopters (unconfirmed), Su-33 fleet air defence fighters, MiG-29KR (and possibly KUBR) multidimensional strike fighters and a small group of Ka-52K scout/attack helicopters. It is known that at least one MiG-29K or KUBR was lost during a landing accident aboard the carrier on 13 November 2016.

Although details of the Kuznetsov group strike operations are sparse, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General of the Army, Valery Geriasimov, confirmed that the Kuznetsov Groups aviation assets had been involved in operations leading to the ‘liberation of Aleppo’. Operations were also, it is understood, flown against IS targets in other parts of Syria. Missions were flown over Syria by Su-33, MiG-29KR/KUBR and the small detachment of Ka-52K scout/attack helicopters. In addition the naval task groupings launched Kalibr cruise missile strikes on opposition targets in Syria on 15/16 November 2016. Details, released by Russia’s Northern Fleet Vice Admiral Nikolay Evmenova in early summer 2017, included a sortie total of 420 by the Kuznetsovs air group. It was noted that 117 of these sorties were flown during the hours of darkness and most of the sortie total was flown in conditions of adverse weather. More than 1,000 targets were struck, these including command facilities, groupings of enemy forces and fixed fortified fire positions.

The implementation, from 00.00 on 30 December 2016, of a shaky ceasefire which, it was hoped, would lead to the projected peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, led to a decision by Vladimir Putin, Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, to drawdown Russian forces in the Syria region. An obvious starting point was the early termination of the operational deployment of the Kuznetsov Group of the Northern Fleet, this being announced on 6 January 2017. The Kuznetsov group moved into Northern waters off Norway in late January 2017 and returned to Russia several days later.

Aircraft type/codes known to have taken part in the operation include Ka-27PS’s Red 55, Red 57 and Red 60, Ka-27PL Red 47, MiG-29KR(KUBR) Blue 41, Blue 47, Blue 49 and Blue 52, Su-33’s Red 62, Red 66, Red 67, Red 71, Red 76, Red 77, Red 78, Red 84, Red 85 and Red 88.

Air War to Doom…

In December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy was the world’s third largest. It may have been the best. It certainly had the best naval air arm.

Of its 1,500 pilots, nearly all had 600 or more hours of flying time, half of it in the combat aircraft they were flying. Most of the formation leaders had as much as 1,500 hours. The majority were veterans of combat over China, where the Naval Air Service had flown strategic bombing, close support, and air cover missions since the “China Incident” began in 1937.

Their aircraft were fully worthy of their pilots. The A6M Zero was the best carrier-based fighter in the world. The B5N Kate was equally adept at torpedo bombing and level bombing. The D3A Val was at least as good as the notorious German Stuka. The land based G3M Sally and the G4M Betty had long range and were good high-altitude bombers and excellent torpedo bombers. The Japanese rounded out their strength with several types of seaplanes and the H6K Mavis, a four-engined flying boat with incredible range. All of this was supported by a strong corps of some of the most expert mechanics in Japan.

The carrier-based planes, nearly five hundred strong, flew from nine modern carriers, including some of the best in the world. That was not only three times as many as the United States Pacific Fleet had, but more than the whole United States Navy’s carrier strength.

But by the summer of 1945, the Naval Air Service’s planes (too many the same early-war types) squatted under camouflage net ting and in caves, waiting for their mechanics to prepare them for semitrained pilots to take one last flight, crash-diving into a ship of the American invasion fleet-if they got that far. How the mighty had fallen.

But why?

The Japanese Naval Air Service died from the same cause as so much of the Japanese war effort-faulty grand strategy and a weak economic base. To be brief about the second, Japan had to import practically every essential item of a modern war economy except coal. And in 1944 alone, a fully mobilized American air craft industry produced almost as many planes (better ones, too) as Japan produced during the whole period of 1942-45.

The Japanese strategic stumble is less well known. Basically, they planned on a short war leading to a decisive battle that would put the enemy in a position that he would not have the political will to fight his way out of.

This strategy meant hitting by surprise, fast, hard, and often. Specifically, it meant preparing a defensive barrier stretching from the Kuriles in the north in a great crescent down to the anchorage of Truk in the Caroline Islands far to the south. Planes, destroyers, and submarines from these bases would hack away at the American fleet (what other one need Japan fear?) until it approached the Home Islands. Then the Combined Fleet would sortie at full strength and so thoroughly crush American offensive capabilities in the Pacific that the United States would seek a negotiated peace.

The concept of a short war has been attributed to the Samurai mentality; to the code of bushido, emphasizing daring and aggression; and to stark realism. The Japanese had not forgotten how narrowly they escaped running out of men and money at the end of the war with Russia, even after winning the decisive battle at Tsushima.

So their main naval striking force, the aviators, were polished to perfection for a short war. The force had once been composed exclusively of graduates of Eta Jima, the Japanese naval academy, survivors of a four-year curriculum that made Annapolis look like a prep school. In 1929 suitable enlisted men were admitted to the two-year flight training course, which washed out about 80 percent of the candidates. Then in 1931 potential pilots were allowed straight in from civilian life.

Having a larger pilot pool helped somewhat, but it also introduced the hierarchical Japanese class system into naval aviation. Physical punishment was allowed; initiative usually was not. This environment was not calculated to produce the best mind-set among the new lower-class pilots.

The planes they climbed into also had a few limitations. None of them had armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. Radios were in short supply, and so heavy and prone to static interference from unshielded ignitions that some pilots refused to carry them. And of course parachutes were bulky and implied an unthinkable willingness to be taken prisoner, and therefore were refused. They could have saved many pilots’ lives.

So the Japanese Naval Air Service flew off to an initial victory that slowly turned into doom.

They earned their first triumphs. Pearl Harbor was an attack on a scale that no other navy in the world could have executed until well into 1943. And while survivors were still getting first aid, off in the Philippines air strikes from Formosa (now Taiwan) were devastating American airpower in the islands.

General Douglas MacArthur helped the Japanese cause by failing to disperse his planes despite knowing the war had started. The Japanese fighter pilots who escorted the bombers were flying at extreme range, their fuel-air mixtures leaned out as far as they could go without stalling.

These were apparently amazing feats-but there was a scribble of handwriting on the wall at Wake Island. There, four Marine F4F Wildcats proved their toughness by taking to the air full of holes and not only shot down Japanese planes but damaged a light cruiser and sank a destroyer.

The Japanese went on running wild from Burma to the fringes of Australia. But they were losing as many as two hundred planes a month (army and navy) to operational accidents (read: piling up on a runway hacked out of scrub, ankle-deep in mud, and with a few rocks left for good measure). And pilots who died nosing-over in a pothole were just as dead as those killed dropping a bomb on an Allied warship.

The Indian Ocean saw a lot of that kind of bombing in April, when the Japanese carriers went east. The Japanese carriers also saw what a really determined defense could do-over Ceylon they lost forty to fifty planes.

Worse was to follow. Later in the spring the Japanese divided their carriers, sending two south to cover an attack on New Guinea and getting the rest ready. Warned by the code-breakers, the Americans stop-punched them in the Coral Sea, although losing one fleet carrier against one Japanese light carrier. The real blow to the Japanese was that one of their carriers had her flight deck wrecked and the other lost most of her air group-another dent in the supply of experienced Japanese naval pilots.

So both carriers missed Midway, where they might have turned the tide. As it was, the Japanese lost four carriers-giving them a shortage of first-class flight decks, from which they never really recovered. Many pilots survived, but hundreds of the veteran mechanics were not so lucky-and that was another irreparable blow.

The Battle of Midway also let one other plum drop into American hands. In the Aleutians, a Japanese diversionary raid left a flyable Zero upside down on an uninhabited island. Salvaging it, the Americans got it back in the air and tested it thoroughly. It did not influence the design of the F6F Hellcat (already flying when the Zero crashed), but it did allow the U. S. Navy to learn its opponent’s weakness and use its new fighter more effectively.

The Japanese now turned to an advance down the chain of the Solomon Islands, seeking another approach to cutting off Australia. (The Japanese services never agreed on a plan for invading that continent-but then, they hardly ever agreed on much.) They established an air base on the island of Guadalcanal. The United States promptly landed marines to seize the base. The Japanese counterattacked by air, land, and sea.


The Battle of Guadalcanal may have decided the Pacific War. It certainly decided the fate of the Japanese Naval Air Service. Bombing raids from Rabaul and carrier battles at sea took a toll on Japanese planes and pilots. The Japanese lost about seven hundred planes of all kinds, as well as most of their pilots-and many of the lost pilots were the irreplaceable veterans. The United States lost nearly as many planes, but fewer pilots and crewmen, and the U. S. pilot-training program had plenty of three-hundred hour pilots in the pipeline, just waiting for their new planes and carriers. The Japanese, on the other hand, were stretched so thin that to send a veteran pilot back to be a flight instructor would deprive a frontline squadron of an indispensable leader.

Meanwhile, Japanese pilot training hours were dropping below two hundred, few of those in combat aircraft. Most of the new pilots were being either siphoned off into new air groups or thrown straight into the maw of the Solomons campaign.

The Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal in January 1943. That ended Japanese strategic offensives in the Pacific. The rest of the year saw no great fleet clashes, because both sides were building up their strength for the next one.

The United States did a better job, both qualitatively and quantitatively. By the end of the year it could sweep the Gilbert and Marshall islands with strikes from five fleet and six light carriers, which then sailed south to eliminate Truk as a working naval base (along with most of the ships in it and all the planes on its runways).


The elimination of Rabaul as a barrier to the advance on the Philippines also proceeded with reasonable speed. The Japanese surface fleet fought aggressively at night, but the United States ruled sea and sky by day and island-hopped steadily “up the ladder of the Solomons.” In November 1943, it eliminated Rabaul as a fleet base. In the next few months, it effectively eliminated that base’s air power, which included several replacement air groups intended for the carriers of the Combined Fleet. This blockade ended up trapping yet more pilots and mechanics out of the war as effectively as if they had been in POW camps. From the roofs of their bunkers, they could contemplate new and superior American aircraft such as the P-38 and F4U Corsair swatting the last Zeroes out of the sky.

This did not improve a Japanese situation that was going from bad to worse. Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, joined the staff of a land-based naval air group intended to defend the Marianas. He was appalled to discover that the group had fewer than two hundred planes and that the average training time for the new pilots was 120 hours-not enough time logged to let them even fly some of the new planes that were at last reaching the front safely, let alone use them in combat. The mechanics were in equally short supply and equally undertrained, likely to be hopeless with the new planes such as P1Y Frances, D4Y Judy, B6N Jill, and the magnificent long-range flying boat, the H8K Emily.

The Japanese needed more than new planes. They needed flight decks, as they had gained only one fleet carrier in the last year, and they needed fuel for both planes and ships. Unfortunately, while the East Indian oil fields were now producing again, American submarines were taking an increasing toll on Japanese tankers. They were also targeting Japanese destroyers, leaving both convoys and carriers with increasingly thin escorts.

Nor would it have helped Japanese morale to discover that the Americans had a complete set of the plans for the defense of the Marianas, correctly assumed to be the next major objective. Filipino guerrillas had retrieved the plans from a Japanese staff officer who’d swum ashore from a crashed plane.

So when the American Fifth Fleet and a multidivision Marine and Army landing force appeared off the Marianas, the Japanese response held few surprises. The Mobile Force sailed out, with new air groups aboard its five large and four small carriers. Meanwhile, the Americans had systematically eliminated all the Japanese aircraft based on the islands, craft which the Japanese had hoped would be an equalizer, and cratered most of the runways that the Japanese carrier planes were supposed to use for shuttle bombing operations.

Then the Fifth Fleet positioned itself west of the Marianas and waited for the enemy to come to it. On June 19, 1944, the Japanese came-four massive carrier raids, all of which were intercepted, three of which were nearly annihilated. The Japanese lost three hundred planes to American interceptors and anti-aircraft fire. The Americans had one battleship lightly damaged.

That same day, American submarines sank two of the best Japanese carriers. On the next day the Americans delivered a counterstroke, launching two hundred planes at extreme range and knowing they’d have to return at night.

They sank another carrier and two tankers, in addition to wiping out the few remaining Japanese planes. Then they headed for home. Many ditched for lack of fuel. Many more might have except that Admiral Marc Mitscher, commanding the fast carries, threw caution to the wind and ordered his ships illuminated. That grand gesture saved many plans and crews, and provoked no attacks.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea has been discussed in such detail because it was the greatest carrier battle of all time-and the death knell for Japanese naval aviation. The last carrier force it sent to sea was a diversionary force at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, four carriers with only 116 planes, and they were all sunk or lost.

Then Japan’s naval pilots flew into the shadowy land of the kamikazes, where they played an effective role. Certainly many of them must have gone in the same spirit as other pilots who thought that Japan was doomed: life in a defeated Japan would not be worth living, so why not go out doing as much damage to the enemy as possible?

May Americans never have to answer such questions. And may we try not to judge too harshly those who have.

Grumman TBF/M Avenger

An early production Grumman TBF-1 Avenger similar to those flown by the shore-based element of the USS Hornet’s VT-8 at the Battle of Midway. There was not, normally, a crew position in the ‘glass-house’ behind the pilot, the radio-man’s station being in the ‘tunnel’ below the turret.

Although the torpedo squadrons received a new aircraft after the Battle of Midway the striking weapon remained the same for some time, the slow Bliss-Leavitt 21in Mark XIII torpedo, seen here immediately after release from a TBF-I Avenger of the USS Ranger’s VT-4. The Avenger’s weapons bay doors are open, each door was in two sections, the outer of which folded outwards and upwards and the inner inwards and upwards, a complicated arrangement made necessary by the aircraft’s lack of deck clearance when on its wheels.

The Battle of Midway, which began on 4 June 1942, was among the early and very vital actions of the Pacific war. In this savage encounter the Japanese fleet lost four aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga and Soryu, these representing the spearhead of Admiral Yamamoto’s naval strike force. Without them the Japanese fleet was deprived of its initiative and became a defensive rather than the innovative offence force which had brought chaos to Pearl Harbour less than seven months earlier. As in the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought rather less conclusively some four weeks earlier, the attack and defence of both the Japanese and United States naval forces had been almost entirely the prerogative of carrier-based aircraft. US Navy carriers involved in the Battle of Midway comprised the USS Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown, the last being so severely damaged in the action that she became an easy target for a Japanese submarine two days later.

Forming a proportion of the naval aircraft which were involved in this action were the first of the US Navy’s monoplane torpedo-bombers, the Douglas TBD Devastator, and the first operational examples of the newly developed torpedo-bomber intended to replace it, the Grumman TBF Avenger. For both of these aircraft types the operation was a disaster with two squadrons of Devastators almost completely destroyed, and of the six Avengers in action only one survived. The Devastators were no match for the Japanese aircraft against which they were ranged and were thereafter withdrawn from operational service. The Avengers, which had been intended to reinforce Squadron VT-8’s TBD-1s aboard USS Hornet, arrived at Pearl Harbour after the carrier had sailed. Instead, they flew to Midway Island and went into action from there.

Clearly, the Devastator was obsolete and the Avenger’s crews lacked adequate experience, for they had been equipped with these aircraft at Norfolk Naval Air Station only four weeks earlier. To highlight this latter point, it is necessary to point out that the Avenger continued in operational use without the need for any significant modifications as a result of their deployment at Midway, remaining in US Navy service for some 15 years.

The TBF had originated in early 1940 when the US Navy initiated a contest to procure a more modern torpedo-bomber to replace the Douglas TBD Devastator, ordering two XTBF-1 prototypes from Grumman on 8 April 1940, and two competing XTBU-1 prototypes from Vought a couple of weeks later. This latter aircraft was to enter production, built by Consolidated as the TBY Sea Wolf, but only about 180 of them were built. The XTBF-1 represented something of a challenge for the Grumman design team headed by Bill Schwendler, for although the company had produced a number of successful carrier-based fighters, this was the first attempt to evolve a torpedo-bomber.

First flown on 1 August 1941, the prototype was seen to be a hefty mid-wing monoplane of ail-metal construction, except for fabric-covered control surfaces. Leading-edge slots forward of the ailerons and split trailing-edge flaps were provided to ensure good low- speed handling characteristics, despite a comparatively high wing loading. On the Avenger the wing loading was to be as much as 37 lbs/sq ft (180 kg/m2) by comparison with 24 Ibs/sq ft (118 kg/m2) for the TBD Devastator. For carrier stowage the outer wing panels could be folded, or unfolded, with the locking pins actuated in correct sequence by hydraulic power, controlled from the pilot’s cockpit. The fuselage and tail unit were of conventional construction, the retractable landing gear of the tailwheel type. Attachment points for catapult launch, and an electrically actuated arrester hook were standard. Later versions had RATO (rocket assisted-take off) provision. The powerplant consisted of a 1,700 hp (1268 kW) Wright R-2600-8 Cyclone 14 radial engine, driving a three bladed constant-speed propeller. Accommodation was for a crew of three (pilot, bomb-aimer and radio-operator/gunner) with a long transparent canopy covering all positions. All important, of course, was the armament which comprised of a 7.62 mm (0.30 in) machine gun firing forward through the propeller disc and controlled by the pilot; a ventral machine-gun of the same calibre under control of the bomb-aimer; an a 12.7 mm (0.50 in) gun in a power-operated dorsal turret controlled by the radio-operator as well a large fuselage weapon bay with hydraulically actuated doors to accommodate a 22 inch (559 mm) torpedo or up to 2,000 lbs (907 kg) of bombs.

Flight testing of the prototype by Grumman was followed by US Navy evaluation which ended satisfactorily in December 1941. But 12 months prior to that the us Navy had placed its first production order for 286 TBF-1s, and the first of these began to enter service on 30 January 1942. Despite the inauspicious start to the Avenger’s career at Midway, the US Navy procured this aircraft in large numbers, and between first delivery at the end of January 1942 and December 1943, Grumman were to build a total of 2,293. These included TBF-1s, basically the same as the prototypes, and TBF-1Cs, which differed by having two additional 12.7 mm (0.50 in) machine-guns mounted in the wings, and provision for the carriage of drop tanks. Grumman also built XTBF-2 and XTBF-3 prototypes with XR-2600-10 and R-2600-20 engines respectively.

Of the above the Royal Navy received 402 aircraft under Lend-Lease, mostly procured as TBF-1Bs for this purpose, with No. 832 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm being the first to be equipped on 1 January 1943, the aircraft being designated Tarpon I in British service until January 1944, when they became re-designated Avenger I. No. 832 Squadron took delivery of its aircraft at Norfolk Naval Air Station where their crews completed familiarisation with the type before embarking aboard the USS Saratoga in April 1943. Two months later they were deployed operationally in support of US Marine Corps landing in the middle of the Solomon Islands chain, and this is regarded as the first occasion that FAA (Fleet Air Arm) aircraft were flown into action from a US Navy carrier. Subsequent to the equipping of No. 832 Squadron, seven more FAA squadrons took delivery of their aircraft at US Navy air stations in the USA, completing training before embarking on escort carriers for the long journey to Britain. The TBF-1 version was also supplied to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, which received a total of 63 aircraft.

With the demand for Avengers considerably exceed- ing Grumman’s productive capacity, the Eastern Division of General Motors, which had established production lines for the Grumman F4F Wildcat, was selected as a second source of supply. Avengers with the designations TBM-1 (equivalent to TBF-1) and TBM-1C (TBF-1C) began to flow from their lines in September 1942, and the company had produced a total of 7,546 of these and subsequent versions when its production lines closed down in June 1945. Of these early versions from General Motors, the Royal Navy received 334 TBM-1s, these duly being designated Avenger IIs.

General Motors had produced an XTBM-3 prototype with an R-2600-20 engine, generally similar to the XTBF-3 built by Grumman. It differed, however, by having strengthened wings to allow the carriage of rocket projectiles, drop tanks or radar pod, and many were supplied without the heavy power-operated dorsal turret. Designated TBM-3, delivery of this version began in April 1944, and of these the Royal Navy acquired 222 which were identified as Avenger III. These latter aircraft were particularly useful to the FAA which, despite the torpedo-bomber categorisation, had rarely deployed its Avengers in such a role. Instead they had been deployed on anti-submarine patrol, bombing missions, as rocket-firing strike aircraft and, occasionally, for mine-laying operations.

FAA Avengers thus saw a variety of action and proved a valuable and reliable addition to the Royal Navy’s carrier-based forces. Avengers were involved in the Arctic convoys to supply the Russian ally, during which Avengers of No. 846 Squadron shared in the sinking of two German submarines (U-288 and U-355) and took part in D-Day preparation and operations, primarily in an anti-shipping strike role, but their major contribution came in the Far East, operating as a component of the East Indies ahd Pacific Fleets. Almost certainly their most important actions were the two attacks made by 48 aircraft of Nos. 820, 849, 854 and 857 Squadrons on the Japanese oil refineries at Palembang, Sumatra, on 24 and 29 January 1945, reducing the output of the two plants to the merest trickle at a moment when every drop of fuel was critical for both the Japanese army and navy. Many people are unaware of the co-operation and support which the FAA gave to the Americans in these closing stages of the Pacific War. Avengers from the carriers HMS Formidable, Illustrious, Indefatigable, Indomitable and Victorious gave intensive support in bombing operations against such targets as Formosa and the Japanese home islands. No. 820 Squadron actually launched an attack on Tokyo.

Apart from the main production stream of TBF-1/-1C and TBM-1C/-3 aircraft, there were also small numbers of special versions which resulted from modification programmes introduced during 1944-5. These included the TBF-1D with special radar equipment, the TBF-1E with electronics equipment, the TBF-1L which carried a searchlight in the bomb bay, and the TBF-1CP equipped with cameras for a reconnaissance role. More or less equivalent versions were modified from General Motors production aircraft under the designations TBM-3D, TBM-3E, TBM-3L and TBM-3P respectively. There was, in addition, a TBM-3H version equipped with search radar. General Motors also built the prototype of what had been anticipated as the next production version and this, designated XTBM-4, differed primarily by having a strengthened fuselage. No production aircraft were built, however, following contract cancellations after VJ-Day.

But the termination of production and the end of World War II did not bring to a halt the career of the Avenger, which still had valuable service to offer during the difficult postwar years. The major operational version in US Navy service was the TBM-3E, by then carrying even more advanced radar equipment for the search and location of submarines, and it is in this area of activity that the Avengers were used extensively until the introduction into service of newly developed and highly specialised aircraft. These were developed to cater for the growing threat from deep diving nuclear-powered submarines which, in the nuclear-weapons age, were then becoming regarded, somewhat prematurely, as the ultimate weapon. Thus TBM-3Ws and TBM-3W-2s carried APS-20 radar in a large underbelly radome and, in US Navy service, were paired eventually with TBM-3S and TBM-3S-2 strike aircraft to create submarine hunter-killer teams. Other postwar conversions included TBM-3Ns for night and all-weather operation, TBM-3Qs for electronic countermeasures against enemy radar emitters, TBM-3R seven-seat Avengers for COD (Carrier On-board Delivery) of priority personnel or urgently needed supplies, and target-towing TBM-3Us.

In Royal Navy service the wartime Avengers remained operational in only small numbers after the end of World War II, serving last with No.828 Squadron until 3 June 1946, but even that did not end the Royal Navy’s operational use of Avengers. As in the USA, there was a growing awareness of the threat from new-generation submarines, leading to the acquisition from 1953 of TBM-3Es which entered service first with Nos. 815 and 824 Squadrons under the designation Avenger AS.4. These aircraft, supplied under the Mutual Defence Aid Program (MDAP) were followed by later examples, modified more specifically to Royal Navy requirements, which entered service as Avenger AS.4s or AS.5s, these remaining in first-line service until replaced by Fairey Gannets in 1955.

Also under the MDAP, Avenger variants were supplied after the war for service with the French Aeronavale, Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force, Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Netherlands Navy. Many post-war Avengers saw continued civilian service as fire bombers. The Canadian province of New Brunswick used many of these aircraft (with the weapons bay converted over to carry a large water tank) until the year 2000, when finally replaced by more modern aircraft. It is one of these “retired” New Brunswick aircraft that the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, is trying to acquire to replace the one lost, ironically, in a hanger fire a number of years ago.

Nicknames: Chuff; Turkey; Pregnant Beast; Tarpon (RAF).

Grumman TBF/M Avenger

Crew: three

Length: 40 ft 11½ in (12.48 m)

Wingspan: 54 ft 2 in [18] (16.51 m)

Height: 15 ft 5 in (4.70 m)

Empty weight: 10,545 lb (4,783 kg)

Loaded weight: 17,893 lb (8,115 kg)

Powerplant: 1 × Wright R-2600-20 radial engine, 1,900 hp (1,420 kW) Performance

Maximum speed: 275 mph [19] (442 km/h)

Service ceiling: 30,100 ft (9,170 m)

Rate of climb: 2,060 ft/min (10.5 m/s)



1 × 0.30 in (7.62 mm) nose-mounted M1919 Browning machine-gun or

2 × 0.50 in (12.7 mm) wing-mounted M2 Browning machine-guns

1 × 0.50 in (12.7 mm) dorsal-mounted M2 Browning machine-gun

1 × 0.30 in (7.62 mm) ventral-mounted M1919 Browning machine-gun


up to 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs or

1 × 2,000 lb (907 kg) Mark 13 torpedo


Huge columns of water erupted in the vicinity of the Prinz Eugen as the 15-inch projectiles fired by the Hood exploded nearby in the sea. A half a minute later, the Bismarck had a similar experience as shells from the Prince of Wales arrived in her area. If there was any doubt before as to the type of British ships involved, there was none any longer in the minds of the Bismarck’s gunners. Only the big guns of capital ships could have produced the blasts seen as the British opened fire on the German squadron and created the gigantic waterspouts caused by their shells exploding in the sea. The angle of approach by the British force still made it difficult to see any distinguishing features of the British ships, and therefore they still could not yet be positively identified.

Admiral Lütjens was surprised to see that the Prinz Eugen was also coming under fire from the British ships, but not nearly as much as the crew of the Prinz Eugen itself. An element of fear had to come over those aboard the cruiser with the realization that a single hit by a major caliber shell could easily wreak havoc on their relatively thinly armored ship. A 15-inch shell is about seven times more powerful than an 8-inch shell based on their relative weights (i.e., 1,900 pounds versus 270 pounds). The Prinz Eugen’s crew naturally assumed that the Bismarck would be the primary target of any British capital ships and that they might have to take on one or both of the enemy cruisers following the German squadron, but they did not expect to take fire from enemy capital ships.

Admiral Lütjens realized that he had a real fight on his hands and that he could no longer evade the issue. The range was down to 23,500 yards and the British ships were at a bearing of 70° off the port bows of the German ships, just 20° forward of their port beams. Lütjens finally gave permission to open fire on the British force. The Germans had gained the tactical advantage of being able to employ their full firepower while the British ships were initially limited to their forward turrets only, depriving them of their two to one superiority in firepower.

The Prinz Eugen had been traveling on a steady course of 220° since 0532, and her gunners had been tracking the lead ship for over 20 minutes. Although he had not been given any specific instructions from the flagship, Captain Brinkmann naturally assumed that the Prinz Eugen, being the lead ship of the German squadron, would take on the lead ship in the enemy column as commanders had done since the time of ships-of-the-line. The Prinz Eugen’s gunners had been working on a firing solution as they went along, and they were therefore able to detect the last 20° turn to starboard by the lead ship at 0549 and make the necessary corrections before opening fire.

When permission was finally given to open fire, the Prinz Eugen fired a full salvo at 0555:00. With her fast-firing 8-inch guns, the Prinz Eugen could discharge as many as three to four salvos per minute, and she began a blistering attack on the lead ship in the British force, i.e., the Hood. Her guns had a muzzle velocity of over 3,000 feet per second, and her 23cm (8-inch) projectiles, each weighing 270 lbs., could cause some damage to lightly armored sections of even enemy capital ships.

Believing at first that the oncoming British warships were cruisers, the first gunnery officer of the Prinz Eugen, Paulus Jasper, decided to use high-explosive shells rather than armor-piercing ones, since they were more effective against lightly armored targets. This choice of ammunition was carried out for the entire period of the battle, but it did have the advantage of distinguishing the detonation of those shells from the armor-piercing shells used by the Bismarck.

At the time the Prinz Eugen opened fire, the range was down to 22,200 yards, and it would take 38 seconds for the results of her first salvo to become known. Not being certain that the splashes seen in the distance were from Prinz Eugen’s shells, Jasper fired a second full salvo, which straddled the target and scored a hit on the upper deck of the Hood. The hit started a fire that remained visible to the German squadron for the next few minutes.

It was now the Bismarck’s turn to get into the action. The Bismarck was directly astern of the Prinz Eugen at the time, but when the Prinz Eugen came under fire from the Hood, Captain Lindemann altered course to 215° which was 5° to port of the Prinz Eugen’s course of 220°. With the Bismarck traveling at her full speed of 30 knots and Prinz Eugen continuing to travel at a speed of 27 knots, the Bismarck would eventually pass the Prinz Eugen off the cruiser’s port beam. The Bismarck would then come between the Prinz Eugen and Prince of Wales and thereby place the Prinz Eugen on the lee side to protect the cruiser from heavy British gunfire as prescribed by German naval operating procedures.

The last turn to port by the British ships at 0555:00 put them at a more broadside inclination from the line of sight from the German squadron, and the gunners on the Bismarck were finally able to positively identify (erroneously) the enemy ships from their features as being the Hood and King George V, the worst-case scenario in their minds. The Germans thought that since the Prince of Wales had just been commissioned and did not have the time to weld its crew into a cohesive fighting unit, they did not consider the possibility that they would be facing the Prince of Wales instead of the King George V. The Hood was always the foe in war games played by the Kriegsmarine, and the Bismarck’s gunnery crew was anxious to try out the tactics developed during those war games.

Admiral Lütjens was perplexed by the sudden appearance of what he believed to be the two most powerful ships in the Royal Navy and which were thought to be still at Scapa Flow. Not only had he been let down by his own intelligence service, but he at last realized that the British had been fully aware of his sortie all along and that this was not merely a chance encounter. The enemy knew exactly where he was, but Admiral Lütjens had absolutely no idea of the disposition of British forces that he knew would be directed to intercept him and keep him from accomplishing his mission.

When the Bismarck’s gunners finally worked out the initial firing solution, considering the time of flight for her shells, the lead angle, and the corresponding range and azimuth, the Bismarck opened fire with a full salvo from her eight 15-inch guns on the lead ship shortly after 0555:30. At the time, the Bismarck was still 1,500 yards astern of the Prinz Eugen, and the range was down to 21,100 yards. With the Bismarck’s guns having a muzzle velocity of 2,700 feet per second, her 1,760-pound armor-piercing projectiles would reach their target in 32 seconds.

The splashes from the Bismarck’s first salvo landed ahead of the Hood and slightly short, and her gunners made the necessary adjustments in the azimuth and elevation of the guns before she fired again. Her second salvo was fired at 0557:00 at a range of 20,100 yards, and there was another wait of 30 seconds before the telltale splashes would reveal where it had landed and what further corrections might be necessary. The second salvo by the Bismarck also went wide of the target, but by then the gunners on the Bismarck realized that the British ships had probably made a turn to port from their previous course.

When the new course and speed of the Hood had been determined from successive sightings, the Bismarck’s gunners worked out new range and azimuth settings for their guns. They then fired their third salvo at the Hood at 0558:00 at a range of 19,000 yards. After a 28-second wait, they could see the splashes of their shells erupt around the Hood. Again no hits, but they were able to straddle the target.

After her second salvo, the Prinz Eugen began a rapid-fire attack against the Hood, firing at a rate of one salvo every 25 seconds, but she scored no further hits. When the Bismarck achieved a straddle on the Hood with her third salvo, Admiral Lütjens knew that it was just a matter of time before the Bismarck would begin scoring hits on the British battle cruiser. Having the range on the Hood, and not wanting to leave the Prince of Wales unattended, Lütjens ordered the Prinz Eugen to shift target to the Prince of Wales. By that time, the Bismarck had probably received at least one if not two hits from the Prince of Wales, and coming under fire from the Prinz Eugen could possibly interfere with the gunnery of the British battleship sufficiently to make it more difficult for her to score any more hits on the Bismarck.

After firing her sixth salvo at the Hood at 0557:40, the gunners on the Prinz Eugen turned their sights toward the Prince of Wales. It took about a minute to make the necessary changes in elevation and azimuth, and at 0558:40, the Prinz Eugen begin firing at the British battleship. With this new arrangement, the lines of fire from the German ships would be crossing each other instead of being parallel or converging on one ship. The lead ship of the German squadron would now be firing at the rear ship in the British column while the rear ship in the German squadron would continue to fire at the lead ship of the British.

In addition to taking on the Prince of Wales, the Prinz Eugen was ordered by Admiral Lütjens to keep the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, still trailing the German force, under observation and to prevent any unexpected incursion from that direction. At the time, the Norfolk and Suffolk were still over 10 nautical miles (20,000 yards) astern of the Prinz Eugen, and therefore they really posed no threat to the German squadron. At almost zero inclination, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could not even be distinguished from one another at that distance.

Having found the range, the Bismarck’s first gunnery officer, Lt. Comdr. Adalbert Schneider, ordered the firing of three more salvos in rapid succession at the Hood. These salvos were 25 seconds apart, beginning at 0559:10 and at an initial range of 17,800 yards. After the fourth salvo, each additional one was then fired at a slightly reduced elevation with the hope that the Hood would sail into the impact area of each salvo as the range between the opposing forces continued to drop. The Bismarck fired her fifth salvo at 0559:35 at 17,300 yards, and it had a flight time of 25 seconds.

The first of three rapid-fire salvos (the fourth in total count) fired by the Bismarck straddled the Hood but without scoring any hits. The fifth salvo, however, landed with devastating effect at 0600:00, just as the Hood was still executing her second 20° turn to port onto course 260°. Most of the shells from that salvo fell harmlessly into the sea, but one projectile plunged into the stern of the ship in the area below her after turrets. The shell penetrated the Hood’s armored side and exploded in one of her after magazines, causing the ammunition stored therein to blow up. British experts believe that the smaller magazine with ammunition for the secondary armament of 4-inch guns may have exploded first, and that this ignited the ammunition for the Hood’s 15-inch guns in the main magazines.

A large sheet of flame was seen to shoot skyward near the mainmast of the Hood, and this was followed by a tremendous explosion in the after section of the ship. The Hood had been dealt a mortal blow when tons of cordite propellant stored in her magazines detonated. In the maelstrom created by exploding powder, high explosive shells could also be seen rapidly detonating. The force of the explosion literally tore the ship apart with debris consisting of shattered structural members, equipment, and even human remains raining down on the ship and the surrounding sea. A huge cloud of brown and yellowish smoke boiled skyward above the remains of Hood, marking the end of her long and illustrious career.

The Bismarck fired its sixth salvo at the Hood at 0600:00, just before her gunners realized that the battle cruiser had blown up, but it was a wasted salvo since the fifth one had already done the job. The sixth salvo landed in front of the huge smoke cloud enveloping the Hood, and it can be readily seen in one of the photographs taken from the Prinz Eugen during the battle.

The officers and crewmen on the bridge of the Hood were so concentrated on the ongoing action against the Bismarck that they scarcely noticed what had happened to their own ship. They felt the jolt when the ship was hit, but they had no idea at first that the after section of the ship had been blown away and that the Hood was in imminent danger of sinking. The helmsman first noticed that he had lost steering control of the ship, and then the rest of the bridge crew finally realized that there was something dreadfully wrong. They began to sense that the ship was slowing down and taking a gradual list to port. A look outside by one of the crewmembers revealed the stern obscured by smoke and confirmed the fact the Hood was indeed sinking by the stern.

The blown off aft section of the Hood quickly slowed down as its ragged broad surface, acting as a brake, pushed against the sea and rapidly filled with water. It gradually tilted forward as the water gushed in, lifting the stern end completely out of the water and exposing the ship’s screws and rudder underneath. Within a minute, the stern slipped beneath the sea, taking all within it to a watery grave.

The momentum of the forward section of the Hood, however, caused it to surge ahead, but without the push from her screws, that section also began to slow down and take on water more rapidly through its shattered after end. As the after part of the ship became heavier, it caused the front end to begin lifting out of the water. Crew members who were on the bridge, in adjacent areas, in gun positions or other locations on deck, or otherwise had access to avenues of escape, began to scramble for survival as the ship took on a greater list and sank deeper into the water.

As the Hood continued to sink downward by the stern, its forward section became almost upright out of the water, causing some to liken it to a church steeple. Observers saw what appeared to be the guns in the Hood’s forward turrets fire one more salvo aimlessly into the air as the forward section of the ship continued to sink. After the Hood had fired her tenth salvo at 0559:25, her guns were probably reloaded and ready to fire by 0600:00 when she was mortally stricken. It may have been possible for the firing circuits to be short-circuited by the seawater gushing into the forward section of the ship, causing the guns to fire spontaneously.

However, the forward section of the Hood was later found to be separated from the rest of the hull on the ocean floor, leading to speculation that there may have been a secondary explosion in that part of the ship. Such an explosion with its resultant smoke could have been mistaken for the Hood firing one last salvo as she was sinking. The issue is still open to speculation.

Finally the sea closed over the bow of the Hood about three minutes after she had been struck, taking hundreds more of her crew in their steel tomb to the ocean floor. For a few moments, the sea seemed to boil as the air trapped in the sinking ship continued to bubble its way to the surface. All that remained on the surface after the bow disappeared were pieces of floating debris, patches of fuel oil, a couple of Carley rafts, and a few survivors.

There was little time to abandon ship once it became certain that the Hood was going to sink, however several crewmen were able to clear the ship before she went under. Admiral Holland and Captain Kerr apparently made no effort to escape and went down with their ship in true naval tradition. Eventually, only three crewman survived the sinking of the Hood. Thus ended the illustrious career of the most revered ship in the Royal Navy and one of the most renowned fighting ships in all of naval history.

Admiral Wake-Walker, who saw the Hood blow up from his position on the bridge of the Norfolk, immediately radioed the news to the Admiralty and to Admiral Tovey on King George V, which was still sailing on a westerly course to intercept the Bismarck. The news was initially received in disbelief: How could the pride of the Royal Navy be so quickly destroyed? But then reality set in, and now the entire weight of British resources would be devoted to avenge the Hood and sink the Bismarck.

The destruction of the Hood was reminiscent of the loss of three British battle cruisers during the battle of Jutland in World War I. The battle cruiser concept was the brainchild of Sir John Fisher, who as First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty before the war had a number of these ships built. Fisher believed that the thicker armor of battleships could be sacrificed for the greater speed of cruisers to enable heavy firepower to be brought into play more quickly during a naval battle.

The battle cruiser concept was discredited by the Battle of Jutland, and it was eventually replaced by the concept of the fast battleship, which offered a better balance between armament, armor protection, and speed. During World War II, the United States built two ships classified as battle cruisers—the Alaska and Guam—to counter Japanese cruisers and German pocket battleships, but these ships were not cost effective, and were scrapped after the war. Another ship of that class, the Hawaii, was launched, but never completed, and three more were authorized, but never even laid down as their programs were cancelled.