This one-of-a-kind vessel was a late-war design intended to be an improvement over the earlier standard hull types such as the Richmond class. As such, the Milledgeville had a similar hull structure to that of earlier ironclads but incorporated significant design changes. Fortunately, these changes are shown in extant plans of the ironclad bearing Constructor Porter’s signature. The Milledgeville was a twin-screw standard hull ironclad laid down in February 1863 by Henry Willink, the constructor of CSS Savannah and a prominent and skilled local shipbuilder. The new ironclad was 175 feet in length between perpendiculars, 185 feet in overall length, 35 feet 2 inches in molded beam, and 48.5 feet in extreme beam. It featured the late-war improvement of the flush deck design of the Columbia, which continued to flare up to main deck level instead of turning back at the waterline. This allowed for a wider main deck and more room for multiple pivot guns in the shortened casemate, which was covered with 6 inches of armor. Most important, the ship had a reduced draft of 9 feet.
The Milledgeville plans also show the general machinery arrangement of the ship, although its final configuration may have differed slightly. Unfortunately, like those of most other Confederate ironclads, the plans show little actual detail of the engines and boilers. Two circles scaled to approximately 30 inches in diameter representing single-cylinder horizontal engines are shown in the starboard plan view along with a boiler 14 feet long and 6 feet in diameter. Dimensions taken off the plans show that the Milledgeville had two boilers. Twin propellers 7 feet in diameter are shown at the stern. All the machinery was built by Columbus Naval Iron Works and should have given good service.
The Milledgeville’s completion was severely delayed, like many other Confederate ironclads. Willink’s prior commitments and design changes to the ship while under construction were the biggest factors. The Milledgeville was launched in the early fall of 1864 and was nearly complete when it was burned to prevent capture as Union forces under General Sherman reached Savannah on December 21, 1864. The ship was anchored and ready for towing out of harm’s way, but there were no vessels available to help. After removing some stores and readying the hulk for maximum destructive effect, the Confederates set fire to the ironclad; it was soon sunk.
The Milledgeville’s engines and most of its armor were installed by that time but were salvaged by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1890s. The current condition of the wreck is unknown—future archaeological surveys of the site may uncover new details.
The design of Dunkerque and Strasbourg was heavily influenced by the latest British practice. The battleships Nelson and Rodney, scaled-down versions of the G3 battlecruiser design of 1922, entered service in August and November 1927 respectively and had a major impact on the thinking of other navies. They introduced a number of revolutionary design features: an all-forward main armament with the machinery aft, a secondary battery in trainable twin turrets above the weather deck, a tower structure to carry the main fire control directors, and an inclined 14/13in armour belt topped by an exceptionally heavy armoured deck. The all-forward main armament placed the turrets at the broadest part of the hull to maximise protection for the magazines from shells and torpedoes. Locating the machinery aft saved on shaft length and therefore on weight. The inclined armour belt was equivalent to a thicker vertical belt, and a shell striking at an oblique angle was more likely to be deflected or broken up. And the secondary turrets had better all-weather capability, superior firing arcs and greater range than casemate-mounted guns; they also benefited from replenishment systems similar to those of the main guns, which gave them a high sustained rate of fire.
Many of the key features of the Nelson design were focused on securing complete protection for the magazines and machinery. In particular, the length of the armoured citadel was reduced to a minimum in order to maximise armour thickness; this ran counter to accepted practice in other navies, notably the US Navy, which saw the armoured belt as a protector not only of the ship’s vitals but also of its buoyancy and stability.
The French ships were by no means slavish copies of Nelson and Rodney, but the influence of the British ships on Dunkerque and Strasbourg and on their successors is readily apparent, particularly if the latter ships are compared with earlier French capital ship designs such as the 37,000-tonne battlecruisers. The all-forward main armament with the secondary guns in trainable turrets aft, the single funnel and heavy tower structure amidships, the inclined armour belt topped by a heavy armoured deck over the magazines and machinery, and the relatively short length of the armoured citadel (equivalent to approximately 58 per cent of length between perpendiculars); all these features were characteristic of the latest British capital ship designs, and distinguish Dunkerque and Strasbourg from the ‘paper’ designs of the 1920s. In her general configuration and layout Dunkerque is as different from the 37,000-tonne battlecruiser as the last French treaty cruiser Algérie from the Suffren class.
However, there were also many important design differences between the British and the French ships, some of which relate to the relatively high speed of the French ships and others which result from Dunkerque being designed almost ten years later, when naval technology had moved on. The Nelsons had a two-shaft propulsion system with eight boilers and two sets of turbines delivering 45,000shp for their designed speed of 23 knots; Dunkerque and her sister had four shafts, six boilers and four sets of turbines delivering 107,000shp for 29.5 knots. Although the Indret boilers developed for Dunkerque were large high-pressure models and were housed side by side in pairs, the three boiler rooms were necessarily longer than those of the Nelsons. Moreover, the four-shaft propulsion system required two separate engine rooms, so the machinery spaces occupied a length of 53.5 metres as compared with 41.5 metres in the British ships. The French vessels, however, had only two main gun turrets because of the adoption of quadruple mountings, so the machinery spaces could be moved farther forward and occupied a more central position, with the forward engine room (housing the turbines for the wing shafts) in the broadest part of the hull amidships. As a result, the secondary quad turrets could be located abaft the superstructures – in the Nelsons these were abeam the superstructures – enjoying excellent arcs on after bearings.
The layout adopted for Dunkerque freed up the stern for comprehensive aviation facilities which included a trainable 22-metre catapult and a two-tier hangar on the centreline served by a lift. Three long-range reconnaissance aircraft could be carried, which was a particularly valuable resource when the ships were hunting down enemy commerce raiders. By locating the big guns forward and the aircraft facilities on the quarterdeck, the risk of blast damage was eliminated, and the arrangement also had the advantage of placing the aircraft and the hangar close to the volatile aviation fuel, which in accordance with customary French practice was stowed in tanks isolated from the hull structure in the upper part of the stern.
Other novel features of the design included the mounting of fire control directors one above the other atop the forward tower and around the heavy pole mainmast. This arrangement was to have an unforeseen drawback, but it was certainly an ingenious way of economising on centreline space, and it ensured clear, uninterrupted training arcs for the directors. Considerable attention was also given to ‘passive’ protection measures such as subdivision, the layout of the machinery spaces, and the design and location of the main gun turrets. Despite the single funnel a ‘unit’ machinery arrangement was adopted, with one boiler room forward and the other two between the two engine rooms. This had the disadvantage of extensive – and poorly protected – uptake trunking leading from the forward boiler room above the main armoured deck to the single funnel, but enabled the ship to continue to steam with two or even three adjacent machinery compartments flooded or otherwise out of action. The quadruple turrets were divided into two independent gunhouses by a central 40mm bulkhead which extended down into the working chamber beneath the turret at a reduced thickness of 25mm. In order to minimise the risk of both turrets being disabled by a single shell or torpedo hit, they were separated by a distance of 28.5 metres – significantly greater than in the British Nelsons.
During the first four months of the war forty per cent of Allied ship losses resulted from magnetic mines; after that, the percentage of losses dropped by half. On the whole, while magnetic mines constituted an added hazard to navigation and a source of mental anxiety to the High Command, they caused less actual losses than might have been expected. In fact they proved less deadly than the more conventional weapons, such as submarines or surface raiders.
At the very beginning, however, the situation was at times so alarming that Winston Churchill, accompanied by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, made a special trip to Maintenon to ask the French Navy for assistance.
Admiral Darlan, who, like General Gamelin, had a special train at his personal disposal, sent it to Cherbourg to pick up the distinguished guests. The French naval stewards who manned the dining car were ordered to make certain that there would be no lack of champagne and other spirituous refreshments. Consequently the atmosphere of the meeting was particularly cordial. The conference took place under the trees of the Parc de Noailles, a setting which somewhat astonished the English. But the exchange of views which took place was straightforward and without ulterior motive, for both sides had in mind the one objective of winning the war. Curiously enough, when one reflects on events which were to follow, Mr. Churchill declared to Admiral Darlan that he had complete confidence in the Admiral and his officers—but he would prefer that the French Navy Minister and the French politicians not be kept too well informed on operating plans as he, Mr. Churchill, did not consider them capable of keeping a secret!
The British were particularly interested in the large new French battleships. To meet German battleship and cruiser raids they had only battleships that were too slow or battle cruisers that were too thinly armored. Until the time the new Prince of Wales would be ready in 1941, the British were counting a great deal on the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg, as well as on the Richelieu, then nearing completion, and on the Jean Bart, under construction, which they asked be completed at the earliest possible moment.
French industry was to perform miracles in this respect; the British were far ahead in submarine detection gear, and they promised to provide the French Navy with a class of trawlers equipped with asdic.
Returning to London after his conference with the French Admiralty, Mr. Churchill informed the House of Commons on November 8, “I wish to point out to you the remarkable contribution of the French Navy, which has never been, for many generations, as powerful and effective as it is now.” Later, he was to write in his memoirs that French assistance “exceeded by a great deal all the promises made or engagements entered into before the war.”
A few days after the conference, and in the same spirit of fellowship, the British Admiralty asked for the assistance of French submarines in escorting the transatlantic convoys being formed at Halifax. To defend against German surface ships that might possibly be encountered, the convoy escort generally included one British battleship or cruiser and one submarine steaming in the midst of the merchant ship group. From November, 1939, to May, 1940, except for the middle of the winter, French submarines of 1,500 tons alternated with British submarines in escorting eight Halifax convoys. On the African coast, likewise, the British often requested French assistance in escorting British convoys for Sierra Leone and Cape Town.
With their resources strained by the transatlantic convoys, the Royal Navy no longer had enough ships to escort their important shipping which traversed the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean unguarded, but which had to be convoyed from Gibraltar to England. The French Navy agreed to take turns with the British Navy in escort duty on that essential route, and from October, 1939, to May, 1940, French destroyers, torpedo boats, and sloops provided the escort for 29 convoys in one direction and 27 in the other. Ships thus escorted totalled 2,100, of which 89 per cent were British or British-chartered vessels. Out of the 56 convoys, only four ships were lost—three British and one Greek.
These large convoys, sometimes numbering as many as 60 ships, were too unwieldy to burden them further by adding French ships bound from the Mediterranean or Morocco to French Atlantic ports. Moreover many of the older French merchant ships could not make the minimum required speed of nine knots to keep up with the English convoys. Consequently the French Admiralty was forced to sail its ships in small groups from Oran and Casablanca, and then form them into one convoy off Gibraltar for the run north; on the return voyage, the procedure was reversed. From October, 1939, to May, 1940, the Navy thus escorted almost 200 small convoys between the Bay of Biscay and Gibraltar. These convoys totalled 1,532 French or French-chartered ships, of which only seven were sunk by the enemy.
The greatest deficiency of the French Navy in antisubmarine warfare was in submarine detection devices. Rarely was a U-boat found on the surface where well-aimed guns would quickly eradicate it, and the only way to reach it down below was by depth bombs. Differently from the gun crews, for whom target practice was frequently held, there had been no practice at depth bombing with live charges. Consequently the ships too often mistook the great surface upheaval resulting from the explosion of the depth bomb as sure evidence of a “kill.” To reduce such erroneous reports to a minimum, the French Admiralty distributed a film on depth charging which showed the true crescent-shaped eddies formed on the surface by a series of explosions. Still, in order not to discourage the attackers, the Admiralty was quite liberal in giving credits to those who had pressed home an attack vigorously.
Up to May, 1940, the French Navy had recorded more than fifty attacks on submarines in the western theater, not counting numerous ineffectual searches. In the eastern end of the Channel, German submarine activity was practically zero, thanks to the effective Allied Pas-de-Calais minefield barrier, in which three U-boats were sunk during the month of October. Most of the reports of submarines sunk, however, were found to be erroneous. Such was the case with the U-boat which the Lorientaise reported it had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on January 19, 1940, and which a diver even claimed he had actually seen lying on the bottom. German archives, examined after the war, proved however that no U-boat was lost in that vicinity. Similarly the U-41, attacked with gunfire and depth charges by the Siroco in the Bay of Biscay on November 20, 1939, and reported sunk, was able to return to port and report the attack. These same German archives, however, confirmed the victory of the Simoun, which rammed and sank the U-54 on February 23, 1940—a sinking which had not been officially recognized by the French Admiralty at the time.
As for other attacks carried out in conjunction with British forces, the degree of success attributable to either will never be known. Such was the case of the U-55, attacked simultaneously on January 30, 1940, by the French destroyer Valmy and two British destroyers and a British plane.
The really important thing was that the U-boat had been sunk!
In addition to convoy escort and antisubmarine warfare—routine tasks in any naval war—numerous other missions devolved upon the French Naval Forces.
First there was the protection of the heavy troop movements at the beginning of the war: seven convoys transporting two divisions from Africa to the Rhine front; eight troop convoys from Marseilles and Algiers to Beirut, to form the Army of the Levant; and two convoys of British troops from Gibraltar to Malta, which were escorted by the French. In addition a steady stream of native African troops—45,000 men in nine months—began to flow from Dakar and Casablanca to France.
Other important convoys were those carrying the British Expeditionary Force to French soil—four modern divisions in 1939, and thirteen by the end of May, 1940. At first these landed at Brest and in the ports of the Loire, in order to be beyond range of German air raids. The escort was British, though French destroyers and fighter planes often participated in the protection of convoys carrying troops. Local patrols and the sweeping of harbors and harbor entrances for mines was the particular responsibility of the French.
The great minefield barrier which the Allied navies had laid across the Pas-de-Calais at the beginning of the war, had only two narrow passageways through it, each of which was guarded by microphones and other detection gear. One of these passageways was close to the English coast, and opened toward the Downs roadstead; the other was at the foot of Cape Gris-Nez, and opened toward Dunkirk. As its share in the barrier, the French Navy laid 1,000 mines, but within the next few weeks the swift Channel currents tore over 200 of them up and deposited them on the nearby beaches. But just as many British-laid mines washed up on these same beaches. With typical courtesy the French mine disposal officer disarmed these mines, disassembled them, greased them, and returned them to their British owners.
As soon as the Pas-de-Calais mine barrier was in place, the terminal ports for British military convoys were moved closer to the front. Saint-Malo replaced Brest, but the principal port of disembarkation was Cherbourg, where before April, 1940, over 300,000 men were landed without incident. On mail steamers from Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk a stream of sick or wounded men, of non-combatants from various organizations, and of men on leave crossed the Channel for England, sometimes as many as 2,000 or 3,000 within a day.
It was not only in the Channel that the French Navy cooperated in ensuring the safety of British troop convoys; in December, 1939, London requested the loan of the Dunkerque to escort a Halifax-to-England convoy of seven passenger liners carrying Canadian troops to join the British Expeditionary Corps in Europe.
Other crossings requiring special care were the convoys carrying gold. Not only was the United States of America not in the war at that time, but it was so fearful of being dragged in that a special neutrality law—the “cash and carry” law—governed all dealings with the belligerents. Under the law these latter were required to pay for all purchases in cash and then to transport the goods themselves, as American ships were forbidden to enter the war zone. The Allies had to transport the purchased goods either in their own ships or in neutral ships chartered by them. When the Allies ran out of U.S. dollars, the only currency the Americans would accept was gold.
In November, 1939, the battleship Lorraine, escorted by two cruisers, carried the first shipment of gold to the United States; on its return it escorted a convoy of merchant ships loaded with airplanes. When in December the Dunkerque went to Halifax to escort the Canadian troop convoy mentioned above, it deposited there, as at a teller’s window in a bank, 100 tons of gold. The aircraft carrier Béarn, going to pick up airplanes in the United States, took over 250 tons of gold, and the passenger liner Pasteur an additional 400 tons. The cruiser Emile Bertin started for America with 300 tons, but the armistice intervened and she was diverted to Fort-de-France, in the island of Martinique, instead.
In addition to safeguarding the transfer of all this gold without a penny’s loss, the French Navy also rescued, via Beirut, 78 tons of gold belonging to the Republic of Poland—gold which later figured in important diplomatic exchanges at the time of the evacuation of the reserves of the Bank of France when the country was invaded by the Germans.
Nor was the Navy’s part confined to the mere convoying of ships; it also mounted offensive operations against surface raiders which threatened them.
The operations of the German surface raiders are now well known, but in 1939 the Chiefs of Staff in London and Maintenon could not deduce the German plans from the maze of information, both true and false, which poured in from all over the world.
On September 30, for instance, news was received of the sinking of the English freighter Clement, sunk in the South Atlantic by a German pocket-battleship. The French battleship Strasbourg promptly sailed from Brest for Dakar on October 7, to join the British aircraft carrier Hermes in forming a “killer group.” The Strasbourg would be relieved later by two heavy cruisers from the French Mediterranean Squadron. These “killer groups” made periodic sweeps of the tropic seas, and eventually the raider, identified by then as the Admiral Graf Spee, was brought to action off the Río de la Plata on December 13, 1939, by a British force under Commodore Henry Harwood. Damaged, and driven into the neutral harbor of Montevideo, the Graf Spee scuttled herself. Perhaps her refusal to come out for a final fight was due in part to a rumor, carefully “leaked” by the French, that several large ships were cruising off the Río de la Plata.
A second German raider, the Deutschland, was reported loose in the North Atlantic on October 21. The Dunkerque and a division of cruisers promptly put to sea to safeguard to its destination an unescorted British convoy from the West Indies.
A month later a British auxiliary cruiser was sunk north of Scotland by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Believing mistakenly that the blow had been struck by the Deutschland, which in reality had already returned to Germany undetected, the British sent out a search group built around the Dunkerque and the British battle cruiser Hood, which swept the northern seas unsuccessfully from November 25 to December 2.
In the Indian Ocean the French heavy cruiser Suffren was escorting Australian convoys, while in the Atlantic joint patrols searched for the Altmark, the Graf Spee’s supply ship. But the Altmark escaped all its hunters until two months later when it was intercepted in Norwegian waters, bare hours from the safety of its home port.
Also watched by the French Navy were certain areas suspected of running supplies to enemy ships at sea. One such area was the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was proclaimedly neutral, but her government was indebted to the Germans for help rendered during the Civil War. Also many German merchant ships, caught at sea by the war, had taken refuge in Spanish ports, especially Vigo. The British and French Admiralties suspected that some of these ships were secretly taking supplies out to enemy submarines or even enemy cruisers at sea. Therefore the French Navy had its light craft, during the entire war, patrolling the approaches to the Cantabrian coast and the principal ports from Bilbao to Vigo. French airplanes and even French submarines participated in these patrols at the beginning. Nevertheless, out of the score or more of German merchant ships that were reported to have slipped out of Spain’s northeast ports between September, 1939, and May, 1940, only two were intercepted. Of these one was captured, and the other was scuttled by its crew.
As for German submarines slipping in and obtaining supplies from German merchant ships anchored in Spanish harbors, even today little is really known.
The French naval attaché at Madrid sent in reports giving in detail the identifying numbers of German submarines supposed to have been supplied from merchant ships anchored in Spanish ports. German records examined after the war proved, however, that none of these particular submarines had been within hundreds of miles of Spain at the times cited. On the other hand a German submarine commander made an official report, as evidenced by the German archives, that he had had to forego seeking the shelter of the Spanish coast in order to recharge his batteries, because the sector was too closely patrolled by the French for safety.
In addition to all the areas mentioned thus far, the French Navy was also responsible for patrolling the regions of the Azores and of the Canary, Madeira, and Cape Verde Islands, where some German freighters and tankers had taken refuge. On several occasions our own submarines or auxiliary cruisers would investigate these suspected areas, and on September 23, 1939, the French submarine Poncelet captured the German freighter Chemnitz, which had slipped out of Las Palmas and was attempting to get back to Germany. In October a joint Franco-British “killer group” intercepted the German freighter Halle, which scuttled itself, and captured the German Santa Fe. In the middle of the following month the German freighter Trifels was captured by the French auxiliary cruiser Koutoubia, while trying to get away with 21,000 cases of gasoline. On February 14, 1940, a prize crew from the small sloop Elan sailed into Brest with the German Rostock, captured off the Spanish coast three days earlier.
But the most extraordinary episode was that of the German freighter Corrientes, which on the night of May 9 suddenly blew up with a mysterious explosion while trying to get under way in the Las Palmas roadstead. Now it can be revealed that the explosion was caused by two audacious officers from the French freighter, Rhin, cruising off the port, who swam in and placed limpet mines against the underwater hull of the German ship.
But convoy escorting, blockade duty, and vain “killer” patrols were not enough to fill a need for activity which the Italian status of nonbelligerency left unsatisfied in the Mediterranean. At the suggestion of the French Navy, the Royal Navy accepted the offer of a few French submarines to assist in keeping the watch in the North Sea against a possible sortie by the German forces.
The French submarine tender Jules Verne, with a division of 600-ton submarines, arrived at Harwich on March 23, 1940. A month later another division of 600-ton submarines as well as a division of 1,500-ton boats reported at Harwich, bringing the total to 12 submarines thus placed at the disposal of the British Command. The force was further increased by the submarine minelayer Rubis, since the services of such a vessel had also been requested by the British.
But the hazardous operations of this flotilla in German waters more properly belongs to the account of the Norwegian expedition and therefore will be told in that chapter, along with the equally fascinating story of the super-destroyers of our Fantasque-class in the grim battles of the North Sea.
Fifteen Days of War in the Mediterranean
It was a strange aberration that led Benito Mussolini to the balcony of the Palazzo di Venezia on June 10, 1940, to announce to the world the entry of Italy into the war. Strange, because he had made apparently sincere attempts to prevent the outbreak of war during that month of August, 1939. Upon the outbreak of hostilities he had immediately declared his country a nonbelligerent. Like the democracies, he had sided with Finland against the invading Russians. All along he had permitted Italian industry to fill French orders for war materials. In short, while remaining technically faithful to the Axis pact, he had given proof of intelligent moderation. Now he had suddenly given France the “stab in the back.” In actuality it was not France, but his own country, to which he was giving the coup de grâce.
There is no doubt that the Allies’ decision at London to blockade Germany by placing an embargo on her exports, even though these were carried in neutral ships, was a serious blunder. The Italians were exasperated by the stopping and boarding of their colliers bringing German coal to Italy, and still more exasperated when the embargo forced them to import this needed coal by rail over the Brenner Pass. Also there was undoubtedly a deep aversion between the Fascist leaders and many statesmen of the democracies. Nevertheless none of these reasons was sufficient to bring Italy into the war—which in the case of France could be considered almost fratricidal—and Italian opinion, including the military, was all against it.
The only explanation for Mussolini’s declaration of war is, perhaps, the slogan that circulated in Rome: “To participate in the peace, one must participate in the war.” Germany’s quick success in Norway had disturbed Mussolini. Now, with France apparently breaking up, he thought he had better get in a few quick shots if he wanted to sit down as a conqueror at the peace conference afterward—a conference where he could demand Nice, Corsica, Tunis, etc., as Italy’s legitimate compensation for participating in the victory.
The Allied Navies had been preparing against just such an action by Mussolini ever since the beginning of April. At that time responsibility for the Mediterranean was divided by agreement between the two Allies: the French Navy was to have responsibility for the western half, the Royal Navy for the eastern half. Although the British, strained by the demands of the Norwegian campaign, had given thought to asking the French Navy to take over the responsibility for the entire Mediterranean, it had been decided to adhere to the original agreement, with some slight modifications.
For instance, it was decided that as a precaution against Italy’s entry into the war, the French Raiding Force should be transferred immediately from Brest to the western Mediterranean, and that in addition another French squadron should be sent temporarily to the eastern Mediterranean where at the time the English had only some light forces.
In accordance with this plan, Admiral Gensoul’s squadron, consisting of the Dunkerque, Strasbourg, and several light groups, sailed for Mers-el-Kebir, French Algeria, arriving there on April 27. An improvised squadron called Force X, consisting of the old battleships Lorraine, Bretagne, and Provence, plus several heavy cruisers and some light craft, all commanded by Vice Admiral René Godfroy, were sent to Alexandria. They joined Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s two old British battleships which had just arrived there. Three weeks later, when Admiral Cunningham’s squadron was reinforced from England, the Bretagne and the Provence returned to the western Mediterranean; the Lorraine remained, to form part of a British division.
Thus, in order to cope with the Italian Fleet, the Allies had made strategic dispositions as follows: at Toulon, the Third French Squadron, of 4 heavy cruisers and a dozen destroyers; at Mers-el-Kebir and Algiers, Admiral Gensoul’s fast battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and two older and slower battleships under Rear Admiral Jacques Bouxin, plus two cruiser divisions and many destroyers; at Bizerte, six divisions of French submarines; at Malta, a number of British submarines; and finally, at Alexandria, a British squadron and Force X, under the over-all command of Admiral Cunningham.
In basing the large ships of the Allied navies at the ends of the Mediterranean, far from Italian airfields, the Allied leaders were perhaps according the Italian Air Force the same respect they gave the Luftwaffe—something which experience later proved was overrating it.
Admiral, South (Admiral Esteva), who had cordial personal relationships with Admiral Cunningham, set up his headquarters at Bizerte. In anticipation of hostilities with Italy, British maritime traffic between the eastern and the western Mediterranean had been suspended and the ships routed around Africa. But in the western waters, traffic between France and North Africa continued as usual, under protective cover of the air forces of the 3rd and 4th Naval Districts and of the escort and patrol divisions in that area.
On May 15 the strategic plan had been formed that, if Italy entered the war, the Allies should attack that very night, should bombard her bases and industrial centers, and should shoot up her coasts to try to provoke the Italian Navy into coming out to fight. For aerial bombing, some Royal Air Force squadrons had been based in Provence, where they were in striking distance of the Po valley factories. The French 3rd Cruiser Squadron was to bombard the petroleum tank farms and other military installations in the Gulf of Genoa. The code name for this operation was “Vado.”
Other operations were to follow without delay: the Toulon forces were to strike in the Tyrrhenian Sea; the forces at Bizerte and Algiers were to raid southern Italy and Sicily; and the Alexandria forces were to strike in the Dodecanese and along the coasts of Cyrenaica.
Hostilities began at midnight on June 10. At 0850 on the morning of June 11 the French Admiralty sent out the order to execute Vado that evening. The English were informed that the French would rely on the assistance of their aviation units as previously planned. Admiral Emile Duplat, of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, received orders to go ahead even if the French Air Force could not provide him with air cover. When the order was confirmed at 1735 that afternoon, the cruiser force was assembled in the Salins d’Hyères roadstead, with turbines warmed up, waiting for night to fall so they could get under way and strike the target at daybreak.
Then, 22 minutes later, came the unexpected counterorder: “Cancel Vado. Cancel preceding dispatches. This is a Government order.”
Admiral Duplat sent a respectful but firm protest, but all in vain. Once more he was told that it was not the Admiralty but the Government which had given the counterorder.
Gloom settled over the ships. The crews had to be informed. The squadron made a crestfallen return to Toulon, since the Salins roadstead was poorly defended against air attacks.
What was going on?
The truth gradually came out. At Briare that day, during a Ministers’ conference one or them had remarked that, considering the position of France at the time, it seemed to him foolish to provoke the Italian Air Force unnecessarily by taking the offensive. This opinion had prevailed, and Admiral Darlan had had to abide by it. General Joseph Vuillemin, Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, received orders to stop the R.A.F. squadrons which were just getting ready to take off.
The decision thus made created considerable excitement. Churchill mentions it with decided acidity.
It is known that on June 10 the Italian Air Force was under very restrictive instructions: reconnaissance flights alone could be made, and these could not fly over the French coasts. It was really a most unusual war!
But the next day Mussolini lifted these restrictions. On June 12, some 21 Italian Savoia-79 bombers attacked Bizerte, damaging a few planes and setting fire to some gasoline drums on the Sidi Ahmed airfield.
Darlan thereupon managed to obtain a reversal1 of the counterorder. Vado would be carried out. Not that night, because there was not time enough, but on the night of June 13.
“Bizerte having been bombarded, the Government authorizes reprisals. The 3rd Squadron will carry out Vado the night of June 13. . . . Give British air squadrons freedom of action to attack.” Admiralty message, 2250, June 12.
As if to sweep away all French scruples, the Italians bombed Toulon that night, but so timidly that the French commander requested the antiaircraft batteries to save their ammunition.
The exact results of the shelling by the ships of Admiral Duplat at daybreak on June 14 have never been assessed. What counted were the exultant reports brought back by those who had participated in the action.
The squadron had approached the Italian coast in two groups, and despite enemy fire had carried out the bombardment exactly as planned. The Italian resistance had been feeble. Enemy aviation did not show up at all. Four or five motor torpedo boats attacked, but without success, and lost one ship for their temerity. Only one French ship was hit—the destroyer Albatros, which was struck in the fireroom by a 152-mm. shell, resulting in 10 men burned to death. She continued her firing, however, and returned with the rest of the squadron at 25 knots.
The first group consisted of Algérie and Foch; the second, of Dupleix and Colbert. Each group was escorted by two divisions of destroyers.
That same night the R.A.F. attacked the industrial centers of northern Italy, and the airplane Jules Verne,3 of Naval Air, gained laurels by bombing the gasoline storage tanks of Porto Maghere, at Venice.
The Jules Verne was a 4-engine commercial-type Farman plane with a 6,000-kilometer range of action. It had been requisitioned by the Navy to carry out scouting missions over the Atlantic. Though it had a negligible armament, it could carry over 4 tons of bombs. Manned by a crack crew under command of Lieutenant Commander Henri Daillière, the Jules Verne, during May and June of 1940, carried out a series of very risky operations over the enemy’s lines at Aachen, Flushing, and Rostock. It even ranged as far as Rome, where it flew several times to drop propaganda leaflets.
Its most famous operation was the bombing of Berlin—the first such action of the war—which it accomplished on June 8, despite violent antiaircraft fire. When the bombing officer had nothing left to drop on his objective, he took off his hobnailed boots and held them threateningly over the heads of the Berliners. The same petty officer, on a trip over Rome, became very worried because a bundle of leaflets he had dropped had failed to open. His comrades assured him that without a doubt he had made a direct bull’s-eye on the Vatican!
The following day Admiral Cunningham carried out a raid in the Dodecanese with two battleships, an aircraft carrier, and light forces. From Beirut, in Lebanon, Admiral Godfroy led the cruisers of Force X to the vicinity of the straits of Casso. The Bizerte submarines set up a barrier line in the central Mediterranean. Admiral Gensoul had sortied from Mers-el-Kebir on the false report4 that a German squadron was preparing to drive past the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean.
The origin of this false bit of intelligence lay in two suspected shadows—German supply ships, in fact—which had been detected in the Iceland-Faeroes channel several days earlier by the Northern Patrol, at the time of the sortie of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, during the evacuation of Narvik.
Surprisingly, almost no enemy submarines were sighted during all these operations. One launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack against a cruiser of the Raiding Force; another sank a Swedish freighter and a British cargo ship; a third, damaged, had to intern itself at Spanish Ceuta. Not a single enemy surface ship had shown itself.
Despite the entry of Italy into the war, French morale was high, and neither they nor their English allies had any idea of giving up control of the Mediterranean.
Merchant shipping in the western Mediterranean, which had been suspended on June 10, was resumed on the 12th. The ships followed the French and North African coastal routes as far as Port Vendres and Oran, respectively; there they were formed into convoys and routed, under escort, well to the westward of the Balearic Islands, as far as possible from enemy bases. One of these escorts, the French sloop Curieuse, rammed and sank the Italian submarine Provana 30 miles south of Cape Palos, on June 16.
Meanwhile, back in France, General René Olry’s Army of the Alps, reduced to three divisions, was holding its own against Italian attacks on the frontier. But on June 18, the Germans, rushing down the valley of the Saône, entered Lyons; on the 21st they occupied Clermont-Ferrand. To prevent his flank being turned, General Olry had to pivot hurriedly along the line of the Isère River. Instinctively reacting in the same way it had done when Paris was threatened, the Toulon navy yard rushed twenty 47-mm. and 65-mm. guns to that front, where their sailor crews distinguished themselves against German tanks at Voreppe, near Grenoble.
Here was the enemy in the valley of the Rhône. The usual throng of fugitives was swarming on all roads leading south. On June 21 a German bombing attack on Marseilles sank the passenger liner Chella and killed or wounded hundreds of civilians.
The port of Marseilles was one of the principal evacuation ports of southern France. Through here were routed not only many civilians, but also large detachments of troops and enormous quantities of raw materials—copper, brass, zinc, tin, molybdenum, petroleum etc. These invaluable strategic materials were hustled out of France ahead of the invaders, and were hidden in North Africa on the chance that there would come a day when France would reenter the fight.
During the days preceding the armistice, the majority of merchant vessels in French harbors got under way as soon as loaded and proceeded without waiting for convoy protection. But contrary to what was happening on the Atlantic side, shipping in the Mediterranean did not sustain a single loss from enemy mine, plane, or submarine.
People have asked why at this time the Navy did not evacuate a large part of the French Army, in order to continue the war from Africa.
As a matter of fact, all military groups which arrived at the docks of the French Mediterranean ports were evacuated. Even the Polish troops, for whom the Navy had no transports available when they first arrived, were safely carried away by the English—especially since they wanted to go to England, and not North Africa.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk and the ports of the north, the Royal Navy extended its evacuation operations—“Operation Aerial”—to retrieve all British troops and supply services still in France. It succeeded in evacuating approximately 180,000 men—including Polish troops—through Atlantic ports as far south as Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and slightly more than 10,000 through French Mediterranean ports.
One of the most interesting of such operations was the evacuation to Algeria of the entire movable stock of the French Air Force—trucks, cranes, tank cars, repair shops, spare parts, bombs, etc. This important material arrived at Port Vendres in sufficient time because the Air Force General Staff issued the necessary orders far enough in advance. At the same time all operational planes were being flown to North Africa.
The only way more troops could have been evacuated would have been for half of them to dig in and hold the Germans off while the other half hurried to the seaports and embarked. Such an operation would have been possible only if the plans had been made three or four weeks earlier, when there was still something of a front on the Somme and on the Aisne. But it was impossible for a single force to hold a front on the north and simultaneously retreat toward the south.
Also, it would have been necessary to assemble the required number of transports well in advance. At Dunkirk all that had been required was to evacuate, across a narrow strait, troops who had abandoned all of their equipment. But in the Mediterranean, if the evacuated troops were to carry on the war, it would have been necessary to load aboard with them the material they would need overseas—arms, ammunition, food, vehicles, petroleum—everything.
And to transport a single division overseas, with its necessary supplies and equipment, it was estimated that 20 suitable ships would be required. By violating all rules, it could have been done with half that number—but this would mean carrying men and nothing else, for while men can be squeezed, equipment is incompressible.
Briefly, it would have required 100 ships if it had been desired to embark, for example, 100,000 to 120,000 troops. And because of the demands for vessels in the Norway operation and in the evacuation of the Atlantic ports, the bulk of French Mediterranean shipping had been rushed to the Atlantic side of France. The same was true of English shipping, as the Mediterranean in principle was closed to it and everything was being routed around the Cape of Good Hope. Lastly, up until June 15, there was still talk of establishing a Breton Redoubt, which would have required additional shipping.
It is true that around June 12 the French Government did ask the Navy to plan for the evacuation of several hundred thousand men, without being able to give the dates or even the embarkation ports, Atlantic or Mediterranean. In order to obtain the necessary tonnage, the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, had decided to ask the British for assistance, and had sent General de Gaulle, Assistant Secretary of the Army, to London on that mission, as has been previously mentioned.
General de Gaulle’s trip was useless insofar as that mission was concerned. For the British had no time or ships to spare. Furthermore, there were no troops to embark. There were French ships in the Mediterranean sufficient to evacuate—as they did—all those who presented themselves at the evacuation ports during those days just before and after the armistice. These evacuations averaged several thousand troops each day, plus some civilians.
Since it was well known that armistice talks were in progress, there was not a person in the Navy who was not aching to fire a few last rounds or drop a few last bombs on the enemy before the end of the war—a day which they anticipated with great bitterness.
They just missed such an opportunity in the western Mediterranean on June 23. Some important French convoys were at sea that day between Marseilles and Oran. The 4th Cruiser Division, under Rear Admiral Jean Bourragué, with escorting destroyers, was convoying them. Coming out of their lethargy, the Italians had sent out a light task force, the Sansonetti squadron, the day before. After having steamed as far west as Minorca, these Italian ships were returning to their Sardinian bases when they were sighted by a French plane. The 3rd Cruiser Division, under Rear Admiral André Marquis, immediately got under way from Algiers to intercept them, but contact was lost and the enemy was not brought to battle.
In the eastern Mediterranean, the Lorraine sortied on June 20 with the British division to which she was attached. She bombarded Bardia, in Italian Cyrenaica, on June 21.
The French armistice delegation was meeting with the Italian delegates in Rome at that very time. When the news of the Bardia bombardment, as well as of the bombing of Trapani and Leghorn by French naval air squadrons, was given to the French delegates, a furtive smile lit up their faces. The Italians had the good taste to consider it all just a routine matter.
On the evening of June 22 the entire Franco-British squadron at Alexandria was scheduled to put to sea to bombard Augusta and to raid toward Messina, and to wipe out all Italian communications with Libya. The French cruisers were about to cast off from the buoys when suddenly the British battleships reversed course and Admiral Cunningham sent a signal cancelling the operation. The French were to learn later that the order to do so came from London direct.
The armistice with Germany had just been signed, and Churchill was taking no chances. In Churchill’s eyes it was imperative that French Force X be immobilized in the Alexandria roadstead, under control of the British, the moment the armistice became effective. It was the same pattern as was to be followed in the case of all French ships taking refuge in Great Britain; in fact the British admirals at Portsmouth and Plymouth were receiving orders to that effect at that very moment.
The French Navy had fired its last shots. But it was only now that its real trials and tribulations were to begin.
LCVP No 22 from USS Dickman (APA-13) at Normandy. Note the safety lines hanging from the side in case someone falls overboard.
During the Second World War the LCVP was used in almost all theatres, including North Africa, Sicily, mainland Europe, the Pacific and the Far East. As a result, there are many veterans’ accounts of their experience of landing from an LCVP. Seasickness was rampant and oftentimes troops stepped off the ramp in deep water ‑ sometimes over their heads ‑ because obstructions and other debris prevented the LCVP from reaching the beach itself. Boarding an LCVP was difficult in heavy seas using the scrambling nets as ladders. One had to judge when to let go and jump into the boat at the highest point in the wave. The side armour was limited in extent so when during an opposed landing, troops had to hunker down to benefit from the armour protection. But once beached, the LCVP could be quickly unloaded, much faster than many of its competitors. When leaving the craft, troops in columns were told to jump out to one side or the other of the ramp since there was a possibility that the boat would move forward as it became lighter and the wave action pushed it in further, risking injury to any soldier directly in front of the ramp.
In preparation for an assault landing on a beachhead, a complete checkout of the boat, including installing drain plugs, was carried out, just before the LCVPs were off-loaded from the parent attack transport (APA; the largest of these carried over twenty LCVPs). Just before the LCVP was lowered into the sea, the engine was started to make sure it was running properly. Once on the water, the forward and aft falls (block and tackle) were released, and the LCVP then moved out to a holding pattern circle as shown below. The holding pattern to starboard circled clockwise; that to port, counter clockwise. Spacing between boats in a holding circle was approximately one and one half boat lengths, with speed kept to the minimum that allowed steerageway, which might vary depending on wind and sea conditions. As space became available alongside the APA, an LCVP was called in to load troops. The loading stations alongside the APA were marked with a colour code and number and had a net in position for the troops to use when climbing down into the boat. After loading, the LCVP then went back to the holding circle at the assembly area.
Assembly formation of LCVPs.
After all boats in the assembly area were loaded, the command was then given to move to the rendezvous area. The LCVPs peeled off, being led by a control boat that guided the flotilla to the rendezvous. The control boat was typically a Eureka boat modified with a cabin, communication and radar equipment. The single line ahead formation makes it easy to direct the LCVPs to the rendezvous area. However, if there were a threat of air attack, the LCVPs would scatter and follow in the general direction of the control boat. The flotilla was flanked by support boats, which might carry rockets for the assault, smoke screen equipment or heavy weapons to back-up the flotilla. The support craft might be modified Eureka boats or Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats. The two control boats that define the rendezvous area are shown at the top of the figure. The LCVPs line up in a flank or wave formation when reaching the rendezvous.
Plan of formation for moving to the rendezvous area.
Shown above is the assault wave at the line of departure, ready to hit the beach. The boats are sitting at idle and will proceed at the signal to attack. When the signal is given, the wave starts toward the beach at about 3/4 power keeping the wave lined up. After the support boats have delivered their ordinance, the command is given for full throttle and the LCVPs proceed to the beach at maximum speed.
The M80 Stiletto is a recently built naval prototype manufactured by the M Ship Company as an operational experimental platform for the US Navy. It has an unusual catamaran (pentamaran) hull design which makes extensive use of carbon-fibre construction for both strength and stealth. The M80 Stiletto is an American vessel designed primarily for littoral combat and shallow water roles taking its name from the Italian Stiletto – a short dagger. This 27 m-long vessel has an M-shaped hull providing a stable and fast platform for surveillance, weapons and special operations (Figure 7.16). Its shallow draft means the M80 Stiletto can operate in littoral and river environments that other naval vessels cannot operate in (due to their draught) and can even allow for amphibious assault if needed. The Stiletto is equipped with four 1,232 kW engines, modest by comparison with the power levels of the Type 45 Destroyer, but has a top speed over 50 knots and has a range of some 500 NM when fully loaded! It uses jet drives for shallow water operations and beaching and a small flight deck for the launch and retrieval of several UAVs. The Stiletto can set up a communications network between special inserted forces teams by launching a UAV to relay information between the team and the boat, and can send real-time images to the team on shore. The ship is 88.6 ft long, with a width of 40 ft (12 m) and a height of 18.5 ft (5.6 m), and with a surprisingly small draft of just 2.5 ft (0.8 m).
The Stiletto is the largest US naval vessel yet built using carbon-fibre composite and advanced maritime epoxy building techniques, to yield a light but strong hull with a very low RCS to avoid radar detection. The M80’s hull is unusually wide to capture the vessel’s bow wave and redirect the wave energy under the hull. The Stiletto’s double-M hull enables the craft to achieve as smooth a ride as possible in rough seas at high speed, critical for Navy SEALS and Special Operations Forces.
In some ways, this is a practical small-scale supercessor to the US Sea Shadow, which after its Lockheed Martin test days of the 1980s was for a few years used by Northrop Grumman for initial research towards the recently abandoned Zumwalt programme. As a final note perhaps to the history of the Sea Shadow (developed at a cost of a little over £110 million), this stealthy platform was recently offered to be given away along with its barge for free to any museum that would take it. The barge itself was built over 35 years ago to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, but since 2005 both have been housed in San Diego, California.
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.
The “Royal George” at Deptford Showing the Launch of “The Cambridge”.
After three years of relentless siege, everyone on Gibraltar was starving, war-weary and desperate for the relief convoy to arrive, not realising that it was yet to set sail on the 1500-mile journey. The convoy was still at Spithead, between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, though with the newspapers in England full of stories about an imminent assault on the Rock, fears were growing that it was already too late to save Gibraltar. Even so, urgent preparations were being carried out on board a multitude of vessels, including the Royal Navy’s greatest wooden warship, HMS Royal George – a formidable three-decker with more than 100 cannons and a crew of around 850 seamen, officers and marines.
On board this particular warship, the final consignment of stores needed to be loaded, as well as some last-minute repairs done, but being a fine morning, the vessel would soon be ready to sail. In nearby Southsea, a woman glanced out towards the Royal George, taking in the idyllic scene, before starting on a letter to a distant relative. ‘The day is calm and pleasant,’ she wrote, ‘and as I sit at the open window, the great vessel in the offing, betwixt me and the Fair Island [Isle of Wight] seems to sway not a hand-breadth, nor to flutter a single pennant.’ Her shock as she looked out to sea once more was betrayed by the shaky handwriting:
A dreadful thing has happened. When I had written that beginning of my letter, Dorothy, I looked again southward; the sea was waveless as before, and the Fair Island sparkled in the sun, but betwixt us and it I saw no trace of the great three-decker. I thought my brain had gone wrong, and rang the bell for Agnes; but when she too could see nothing of her, a terrible apprehension took hold of me; and when the alarm-guns from the fort [Southsea Castle] began to thunder, I knew the vessel had gone down. I hear near a thousand men were aboard of her.
In the time taken to write a few sentences with a quill pen, the Royal George had sunk so rapidly that hundreds of people were trapped and drowned. Men in nearby ships were equally stunned. One eyewitness related that they all rushed on deck: ‘What an altered scene in a few short moments! … She was not in the spot she so lately occupied – no vestige of her was to be seen; but as soon as the commotion of the water was stilled (for some minutes it was very great), all the boats … put off for the spot, which seemed as though a hive of bees had been cast on the waves, so thick with boats and human beings struggling for life … Long, long, will the 29th of August, 1782, be remembered!’
One of the few lucky survivors was the seaman James Ingram, who had been on the upper deck heaving massive wooden barrels of rum on to the deck as they were hauled up in a sling. ‘The last lighter [the Lark sloop], with rum on board had come alongside,’ he later wrote,
this vessel was a sloop of about fifty tons, and belonged to three brothers, who used her to carry things on board the men-of-war. She was lashed to the larboard [port] side of the Royal George, and we were piped to clear the lighter and get the rum out of her, and stow it in the hold of the Royal George. I was in the waist of our ship [middle part of the upper deck], on the larboard side, bearing the rum-casks [barrels] over, as some men of the Royal George were aboard the sloop to sling them.
Although the warship had been tilted to one side to carry out a repair just below the waterline, the angle was so slight that those on board took little notice, and from nearby ships everything looked normal. With barely a breath of wind and a flat calm on the sea, conditions for repairs and loading supplies were ideal, but suddenly Ingram heard an urgent order to bring the ship upright: ‘I ran down to my station, and, by the time I had got there, the men were tumbling down the hatchways one over another to get to their stations as quick as possible to right [the] ship. My station was at the third gun from the head of the ship on the starboard side of the lower gun-deck.’ Before anything could be done, the warship began to tip over sideways, and Ingram managed to escape by following his friend Ned Carrell through a gunport: ‘I immediately got out at the same port-hole, which was the third from the head of the ship on the starboard side of the lower gun-deck, and when I had done so, I saw the port-hole as full of heads as it could cram, all trying to get out.’ Even as he scrambled to safety, the ship was falling sideways, so that the gunports were now facing upwards, towards the sky:
I caught hold of the best bower-anchor, which was just above me, to prevent falling back into the port-hole, and seized hold of a woman who was trying to get out at that same port-hole – I dragged her out. The ship was full of Jews, women, and people selling all sorts of things. I threw the woman from me – and saw all the heads drop back again in at the port-hole, for the ship had got so much on her larboard side, that the starboard port-holes were as upright as if the men had tried to get out of the top of a chimney with nothing for their legs and feet to act upon.
He was just in time, because the huge vessel went straight to the bottom:
I threw the woman from me, and just after that moment the air that was between decks drafted out at the port-holes very swiftly. It was quite a huff of wind, and it blew my hat off, for I had all my clothes on, including my hat. The ship then sunk in a moment. I tried to swim, but I could not swim a morsel, although I plunged as hard as I could both hands and feet. The sinking of the ship drew me down so – indeed I think I must have gone down within a yard as low as the ship did. When the ship touched the bottom, the water boiled up a great deal, and then I felt that I could swim, and began to rise.
The vortex caused by the sinking of the ship sucked Ingram down almost to the seabed, but he managed to struggle to the surface and found that the masts of the Royal George had risen up above the water. ‘In going down,’ he explained, ‘the main yard of the Royal George caught the boom of the rum-lighter and sunk her, and there is no doubt that this made the Royal George more upright in the water when sunk than she otherwise would have been, as she did not lie much more on her beam ends than small vessels often do when left dry on a bank of mud.’ These masts proved a blessing for the survivors, and Ingram swam to the main mast where he tried to save the woman he had previously rescued. He called to another seaman, a baker, who managed to grab her unconscious body as she floated past: ‘He caught hold of the woman and hung her head over one of the ratlins of the mizen shrouds, and there she hung by her chin, which was hitched over the ratlin, but a surf came and knocked her backwards, and away she went rolling over and over.’
On shore a mile-and-a-half away, thirty-year-old Richard Dennison Cumberland, vicar of Driffield in Gloucestershire, was strolling to Southsea Castle with his cousin John Balchen. The pair had come to Portsmouth to see the Grand Fleet before it sailed, and the previous afternoon they had taken advantage of the custom of respectable sightseers being permitted to visit warships, as Cumberland described in a letter to his brother George in London: ‘[we] took a wherry and went aboard the Royal George at Spithead – as being one of the finest ships in the fleet. We met with the most civil behaviour from the officers, who shewed us every part worth seeing … We took notice of the number of women on board and they assured us there were above 400 and near double the number of men.’
Once they reached Southsea, the two men found everyone peering out to sea: ‘They told us, a large ship had just foundered, and shewed us the mizen and main masts lying sloping out of the water and a crowd of boats busy about them. With the help of a glass I distinguished a blue flag at the mizen mast, yet we flattered ourselves it was only a transport.’ While walking back to Portsmouth, they heard the dreadful news that this was in fact the Royal George, and the blue pennant indicated that it was the flagship of the sixty-four-year-old Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. An extremely experienced seaman and brilliant tactician, Kempenfelt had radically changed the system of naval signalling and was one of the most highly regarded officers of the Royal Navy. ‘You cannot think how much we were affected,’ Cumberland wrote. ‘It was the identical ship in which we had begun to take an interest. The genteel treatment we had met with the preceding evening, the more than possibility of our having delayed our visit till this morning or perhaps renewed it and the recollection of every face we had seen on board, struck us at once.’
Attempts were already being made to rescue survivors, though Ingram, still clinging to the main mast, was more concerned about the woman who was being washed away:
A captain of a frigate which was lying at Spithead came up in a boat as fast as he could. I dashed out my left hand in a direction towards the woman as a sign to him. He saw it, and saw the woman. His men left off rowing, and they pulled the woman aboard their boat and laid her on one of the thwarts. The captain of the frigate called out to me, ‘My man, I must take care of those that are in more danger than you.’ I said ‘I am safely moored now, sir.’
Before too long, it was Ingram’s turn to be taken off: ‘The captain of the frigate then got all the men that were in the different parts of the rigging, including myself and the baker, into his boat and took us on board the Victory, where the doctors recovered the woman, but she was very ill for three or four days.’ In order to resuscitate victims, it was the practice to rub their bodies and warm them up, though not always with success: ‘I saw the body of the carpenter, lying on the hearth before the galley fire; some women were trying to recover him, but he was quite dead.’ The woman who survived was twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth (‘Betty’) Horn, and she owed her life to Ingram. Betty was one of a handful of wives who had been due to sail in the Royal George, some of them with their children. She was married to the seaman John Horn, who also survived.
Bodies were now being brought ashore at Portsmouth Point, and Cumberland and his cousin did what they could to help:
We walked to the Point and came up just as they had brought one of the poor fellows on shore and were rolling him over a barrel [to get water from his lungs] in his wet cloaths and in the rain. We thrust ourselves among the mob and made them carry him to the next tavern, assisted in pulling off his cloaths, procured warm blankets and pursued the methods recommended by the Society [for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned] but they were applied too late. Finding him in good hands and hearing other bodies were brought ashore, we went out and found a woman in the same condition on the shore and no one attempting to do any thing to save her.
They now separated, with Cumberland later admitting that ‘after the greatest exertion I ever made for two hours I had the mortification of only leaving the bodies in a more decent situation than I found them. After making the people amends for their trouble I returned to our inn, and found Balchen there as much fatigued as myself.’
The number of survivors and dead brought on shore in the first few hours was relatively small, because the Royal George had sunk so rapidly that the majority of those on board were trapped. The warship had been badly overcrowded with crew members, prostitutes, wives of seamen, children, craftsmen from the dockyard, tourists and many traders – well in excess of a thousand people. In the wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Royal Navy was constantly short of seamen and resorted to conscription by press-gangs. Once in a ship, the unwilling men might be at sea for months on end, with no shore leave in case they deserted. Warships anchored well away from land, as at Spithead, to prevent the men from swimming to freedom, and all supplies and visitors were instead taken out by boat to the ship. Traders in small boats, many of them Jewish, were also permitted to bring all manner of goods to sell, including so-called wives – prostitutes.
Warships effectively became floating brothels when moored at Spithead. Hundreds of prostitutes, at times outnumbering the men, remained for several days, selling sex and liquor, drinking, swearing and joining in the general raucous revelry. Francis Vernon, a young Irish midshipman who had taken part in an earlier relief convoy of Gibraltar, described what happened when his ship, HMS Terrible, was at Portsmouth:
Our ship’s company could now revel in the delights of Portsmouth, and filled the ship with hundreds of those obliging females, who desert the capital during the war, and reside in the genteel recesses of Portsmouth, and other naval towns. The back of the point at Portsmouth has been famous [for] some centuries, and the appearance of its inhabitants serves as a barometer, whereby our success against the enemy can in some degree be ascertained, for captures produce money, and this circulating, passes from the seaman to his lass, who being lavish in expence, gives room by the flash of her appearance and dress, to point out the strength of Jack’s purse.
Exactly how many people were on board the Royal George that day will never be known, as Ingram explained: ‘The number of persons who lost their lives I cannot state with any degree of accuracy, because of there being many Jews, women, and other persons on board who did not belong to the ship. The complement of the ship was nominally 1000 men, but it was not full. Some were ashore, and sixty marines had gone ashore that morning.’ Although Cumberland had been told the previous day that more than four hundred women were present, the real number may have been greater, most of whom would have been prostitutes from Portsmouth and Gosport. While relatively good records of the officers and sailors were kept, there was no record of the prostitutes and other civilians, and it was left to the newspapers to speculate:
There was also a body of carpenters from the Dock, to assist in careening the ship; and, as usual on board all ships of war in harbour, a very large number of women, probably near 400. Of these the bulk were the lowest order of prostitutes, but not a few were the wives of the warrant and petty officers. A most poignant scene of anguish and distress was exhibited by a respectable looking old woman, whose daughter and five children had gone on board the same morning to see their father.
At Portsmouth, attempts at resuscitation changed rapidly to dealing with the corpses that were being washed ashore or picked up in boats. Cumberland was struck by the reaction of the Portsmouth Point prostitutes:
I cannot help mentioning a circumstance that has since made us smile. It was the false delicacy of the Point Ladies at the publick houses we were in who could not be persuaded to strip and rub the bodies till a clean shift had been procured and then their lamentations over them were curious indeed. One of the poor creatures left two children at Gosport, the other lost one from her arms. Very few of the women were saved, being below decks – many of them sailors wives who kept a little market on board.
After all hope of survivors had faded, preparing the fleet to relieve Gibraltar was once more the priority, though corpses continued to emerge from the wreck, as Ingram described: ‘In a few days after the Royal George sunk, bodies would come up, thirty or forty nearly at a time. A body would rise, and come up so suddenly as to frighten any one.’ Another seaman, Samuel Kelly, arrived at Spithead some days later on board the packet boat Grenville and moored nearby:
the dead bodies belonging to the Royal George floated and passed our ship both with ebb and flood tide … the rigging of the Royal George was decorated, not with colours, but with dead bodies, who were hung up by arms, legs etc., which presented a horrid spectacle. These men had floated at high water, and to prevent the tide carrying them away, had been tied fast to the shrouds and mainstay, and at low water … they were suspended several feet above the water. Some people searched the pockets of the dead while [they] floated on the tide. ’Tis more than probable that as this crew had just been paid their wages, that they had been the day before rioting in drunkenness and debauchery.
Once the corpses were stripped of their possessions, they had little chance of being identified. Because no authority had responsibility for burying bodies washed ashore, they were dealt with in a haphazard way, in spite of protests voiced in the newspapers. At least nine hundred people had drowned in a matter of minutes. Only a few women, a couple of children and around two hundred seamen and officers were saved. A fund was set up at Lloyd’s Coffee House in London to help the widows and orphans of the seamen who lost their lives. This was the start of the Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund that has, over the centuries, provided assistance to the families of sailors and continues to help former service personnel and their dependants. With predictable parsimony, some of the money was subverted to deal with the corpses that continued to break free from the wreck: ‘The bodies that have been found were heretofore carried in carts to be buried, but the Committee have now directed that those which may be found shall be conveyed in hearses, and decently interred, the expense to be paid out of the subscription money.’ No support was given to the families of the prostitutes and other civilians.
The sudden, shocking loss of such a formidable battleship in a flat calm and at a safe anchorage, within sight of land, was an incomprehensible tragedy that affected everyone – not just in Portsmouth, but throughout the country and across Europe. The Royal George was a prestigious warship, one of only three that were constructed specifically to carry a hundred guns and destined to be flagships. The others were the Victory and the Britannia, both of which were also at Spithead ready to escort the convoy. The Royal George was named after George II, the grandfather of the present King George III, but many people regarded the warship as a symbol of the monarchy. Until eclipsed by the Titanic, the sinking of the Royal George remained the most famous shipping tragedy. For the Grand Fleet, which the king and his government hoped would break the blockade of Gibraltar, it felt like a disaster. The additional delay caused by the aftermath of the loss of the ship made it even more likely that the convoy would not be in time to save Gibraltar from falling to the French and Spaniards.
Capturing of Swedish 44-gun frigate Venus by Russian 22-gun cutter Merkuriy of June 1, 1789.
Captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus.
The spring of 1789 was marked by two single-ship actions on the part of a young Irish-born Lieutenant, Commander Roman Crown, that were to have long-term consequences for Russian naval history. As commander of the 22-gun two-masted cutter Merkurii, Brown captured a 12-gun Swedish tender, ironically named Snapupp, on 29 April (10 May), a useful but unremarkable feat. He then performed the remarkable feat of surprising, engaging and capturing the much more powerful Swedish heavy frigate, the 40-gun Venus, on 21 May (1 June) of the same year. Crown would rise to become a Russian admiral in the coming years, with a record of proven valour and high accomplishment that extended into the 1820s. The captured Venus would be taken into the Russian navy under the command of the heroic young officer who had captured her. In Russian service under Crown’s command, she would accomplish great deeds against her nation of origin, fighting at Revel’ in 1789 and Vyborg in 1790 and then assisting in the capture of the Swedish 64-gun Rättvisan in the immediate aftermath of the battle. Her stout construction and excellent design characteristics would be incorporated into the designs of nearly two score Russian heavy frigates built during the nineteenth century. As for Lieutenant Commander Crown’s first command, the Merkurii, she lent her name to a 20-gun brig built in 1820 and destined for even greater fame than her name-ship by single-handedly engaging a Turkish 120 and a 74 in a four-hour battle in 1829 and emerging heavily damaged but intact.
Although the Greek Ionian Islands had been granted formal independence after the withdrawal of Russia from the war with France, they remained de facto Russian colonies. A small squadron of Russian warships made up of two ships of the line, a single battle frigate, three corvettes and two brigs remained stationed at Corfu after Ushakov’s departure. The heavy ships were veterans of Ushakov’s campaign and the small craft were all captured or converted vessels picked up in and about the Adriatic. In order to reinforce this squadron in the face of growing problems with the French, a moderately sized squadron was dispatched from the Baltic in 1804 under the command of Commodore Aleksei Greig, son of Samuel Greig. Greig’s squadron was comprised of a single Russian-built 74 and three elderly Swedish veterans of the 1788–92 war, the 62-gun Retvizan, the 44-gun Venus and the 24-gun rowing frigate Avtroil. It is unclear whether these Swedish veterans were sent because of their excellent and sturdy construction or because they were simply odd numbers in the Russian Baltic fleet. Regardless of their advancing age, they all served with distinction through the coming campaigns, with Venus acquiring the highest honours and suffering the most unusual fate.
Venus 44/50 Karlskrona
Constructor F. Chapman
Laid down 31.3.1783 Launched 19.7.1783 Captured 21.5.1789
Dimensions 156 ft x 40 ft x 17 ft 6 in (Swedish measurement)
151 ft 6 in x 38 ft 10 in x 15 ft 9 in (Russian measurement)
Armament Captured 26/30 x 24pdrs, 14 x 6pdrs (Veselago)
Swedish heavy frigate captured on 21.5.1789 by Russian cutter Merkurii. Attached to Vice-Adm. Kozlyaninov’s squadron at Copenhagen in 1789. Fought at Revel’ on 2.5.1790 with 1 killed and 2 wounded and 737 rounds fired. Fought at Vyborg on 22.6.1790, capturing 2 Swedish galleys. On 3.5.1790, assisted by Iziaslav (66), she captured the Swedish Rättvisan (64). Cruised in the Baltic in 1791, 1793–4, 1795–7 and 1798. To England in 1799–00. Cruised in the Baltic with naval cadets in 1801. Repaired in 1804. To the Mediterranean as flag to Commodore Greig (Adm. Greig’s son) in 1804. Involved in the capture of Tenedos in 1807. Engaged in the pursuit of Turkish squadron on 9.5.1807, leading the Russian attack and engaging a Turkish line of battle ship. Dispatched by Adm. Seniavin on 9.11.1807 in search of Commodore Baratynskiy’s division. Damaged, repaired at Palermo, blockaded by the British, and placed in Neapolitan custody to avoid bloodshed. Crew evacuated to Trieste.
A term applied to large and heavily armed 24-, 30- and 36pdr frigates found in significant numbers in both the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets. These larger ships were more numerous in both theatres than the smaller standard 18pdr frigates; but their respective popularity in the Baltic and the Black Seas arose from rather different tactical requirements and emphases. In the Black Sea, where the type was first introduced, heavy frigates were not regarded as traditional cruisers suited for scouting and raiding, but were rather the direct descendants of the previously described battle frigates and were intended to supplement the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In the Baltic, on the other hand, heavy frigates were quite ironically the direct design descendants of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus, specifically designed by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman to take its place in the line of battle, and captured by the Russians during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–91. Russian heavy frigates built along the lines of the Venus were utilized in traditional frigate roles and not as battle line adjuncts as was the case with the Black Sea heavies.
During the period between 1770 and 1860, a total of 85 heavy and battle frigates joined the two Russian fleets, almost all of them armed with 24pdr cannon and ranging between 141 ft and 174 ft in length.
Arkhangel Mikhail class (3 ships)
Arkhangel Mikhail 44 Arkhangel’sk
Constructor M. D. Portnov
Laid down 14.7.1790 Launched 24.5.1791
Dimensions 151 ft 6 in × 38 ft 10 in × 15 ft 9 in
Armament LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)
FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs
Arkhangel Mikhail class. Based on the design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Departed Arkhangel’sk on 8.7.1792. Damaged and forced to winter at Bergen. Joined Adm. Kruz’s squadron in the summer of 1793 and cruised in the North Sea. Arrived at Kronshtadt on 15.9.1793. To England in 1795–6. Wrecked while returning home on 25.10.1796 off Porkkala-udd on the coast of Finland. No casualties.
Arkhangel Rafail 44 Arkhangel’sk
Constructor M. D. Portnov
Laid down 14.7.1790 Launched 24.5.1791
Dimensions 151 ft 6 in × 38 ft 10 in × 15 ft 9 in
Armament LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)
FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs
Arkhangel Mikhail class. Based on the design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Sailed to Kronshtadt in 1794. To England in 1795–6. Operated off Holstein in 1797. Repaired in 1798. To Holland with troops with Rear-Adm. Chichagov’s squadron in 1799. Returned to Kronshtadt on 26.9.1800. Carried cargo between Baltic ports in 1802–3. Broken up in 1804.
Schastlivyi 44 Arkhangel’sk
Constructor G. Ignatyev
Laid down 19.12.1796 Launched 19.5.1798
Dimensions 151 ft 6 in × 38 ft 10 in × 15 ft 9 in
Armament LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)
FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs
Arkhangel Mikhail class. Based on the design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. To England with Vice-Adm. Thate’s 2nd Division on 3.7.1798, arriving at the Nore on 8.8.1798. Operated in the North Sea 1798–1800. Returned to Kronshtadt on 21.7.1800. Cruised in the Baltic with naval cadets in 1801–3. Cruised to Dogger Bank with Rear-Adm. Lomen’s squadron in 1804. Participated in Vice-Adm. Thate’s landing of over 20,000 troops on the German coast in 1805. Training duties in Kronshtadt Roads in 1806. Cruised with Adm. Khanykov’s squadron in 1808 and returned to Kronshtadt in 10.1808. Stationed in Kronshtadt Roads as a guard ship in 1809. Blockship in Kronshtadt Roads in 1810–12.
Feodosii Totemskii class (2 ships)
Feodosii Totemskii 44 Arkhangel’sk
Constructor G. Ignatyev
Laid down 9.8.1798 Launched 24.9.1798
Dimensions 150 ft × 39 ft × 16 ft
Armament LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)
FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs
Feodosii Totemskii class. Based on an amended design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Departed Arkhangel’sk for England with Vice-Adm. Baratynskiy’s squadron in 9.1799. Returned to Revel’ in 9.1800. Cruised in the Baltic in 1803–4. Landed troops on the German coast with Adm. Thate’s squadron in 1805. Cruised in the Baltic with Adm. Khanykov’s squadron in 1808 and returned to Kronshtadt in 10.1808. Floating battery in Kronshtadt Roads in 1809–11. Broken up in 1819.
Tikhvinskaya Bogoroditsa 44 Arkhangel’sk
Constructor G. Ignatyev
Laid down 19.8.1798 Launched 22.7.1799
Dimensions 150 ft × 39 ft × 16 ft
Armament LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)
FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs
Feodosii Totemskii class. Based on an amended design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Departed Arkhangel’sk for England with Vice-Adm. Baratynskiy’s squadron in 9.1799. Returned to Kronshtadt in 9.1800. Cruised in the Baltic with naval cadets in 1801–3. Cruised to Dogger Bank in 1804. Landed troops on the German coast with Adm. Thate’s squadron in 1805. Fire watch ship at Revel’ in 1807. Cruised with Adm. Khanykov’s squadron in 1808. Returned to Kronshtadt in 10.1808. Stationed in Kronshtadt Roads in 1809. Fire watch ship at Riga in 1812. Broken up in 1819.
It was now almost 09.15. On Rodney, Bismarck’s slow northerly progress had blocked the arc of fire of ‘X’ turret. Dalrymple-Hamilton therefore turned his battleship to starboard, until she headed south, on a course roughly parallel to that of Bismarck, at a range of 5 miles. Just before she turned, Rodney fired off a spread of torpedoes from her submerged torpedo tubes, mounted in the battleship’s bow. Three of them were launched from the starboard side of the bow, but they all missed, confounded by the constant turning of their target. She did the same from her port tubes, again without hitting her target. Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Frank Pollard began reloading the empty launchers, until a near miss from Bismarck jammed the external door of the starboard launcher and he gave up the attempt.
Next, Rodney began slamming full salvos into the enemy battleship, achieving one or more hits every time. At 09.21, ‘Dora’ turret was put out of action when a shell exploded in the turret’s right-hand barrel. The blast ripped out the breech end of the gun, killing or maiming most of the turret crew. It might even have flashed down the magazine hoist, killing yet more. Soon after, the order was given to flood the turret’s magazine, whether the men down there were alive or not. Anything else would have risked the very survival of the ship. Bismarck could have been ripped apart as Hood was. Instead, the seemingly callous order of Fregattenkapitän Oels might well have saved some of the battleship’s crew. Nevertheless, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. Up near the bow, ‘Bruno’ turret was completely destroyed, with the back of the turret ripped open and one of its guns left pointing towards the sky.
In ‘Anton’ turret, though, the crew had survived the blow that temporarily put them out of action.20 It had severed the turret hydraulics, leaving the guns ‘drooping like dead flowers’, but after much effort the turret crew managed to get their guns working again, and at 09.27 ‘Anton’ turret fired its final salvo. Seconds later, another hit by a heavy-calibre shell put it out of action for good. Now it looked as if Bismarck was on fire in several places and her superstructure had taken a real pounding. Bismarck’s armour was concentrated around her turrets, magazines and engines, but a lot of the compartments above her armoured citadel were only lightly protected; while they might be proof against shell fragments, they couldn’t stop a 14in. or 16in. shell, fired at relatively short range. So, both above and below decks, Bismarck was being pounded into a scrap.
At 09.16, Tovey ordered King George V to make a turn to port, and reversed course. Soon, she was heading north again, with Bismarck lying off her starboard beam. Unfortunately for Tovey and Captain Patterson, the flagship’s guns had been taking turns to malfunction throughout the battle. It was the same problem faced by Prince of Wales three days before – the four-gun turret was a new design and it still had teething problems. As a result, the crew had barely repaired one gun when another would become defective, with the mechanism jamming or the hoist system refusing to work. At one point, King George V was reduced to just two operable 14in. gun barrels. At least by now, though, her secondary 5.25in. guns had joined in, and were peppering the upper works of the enemy battleship.
The German battleship was barely moving, and with all but ‘Caesar’ turret out of action her firing had become intermittent. Her secondary turrets were still firing if they could bear, but one by one they were being silenced too. Their armour wasn’t able to protect the crews from such large shells, striking them at ranges of less than 4 miles. Then, at 09.26 one of the gun barrels in ‘Caesar’ turret was knocked out of action by a direct hit. With the turret optics shattered, the remaining gun couldn’t even fire back with any chance of hitting. So, effectively, all of Bismarck’s main guns had now been silenced. Yet those British shells kept on pounding her, as Bismarck was still afloat, and this was a fight to the death.
So, in just under three-quarters of an hour, Bismarck had become a floating wreck. Surprisingly, while her superstructure was a tangled shambles of steel and her decks were on fire, her armoured belt still protected her from the worst of the enemy fire. She could no longer fight, but she was still afloat. It looked as if the British shells could batter Bismarck, but they couldn’t sink her. Still the shells kept hitting her – several striking her every minute. So, the slaughter continued. On Tartar, just about to head for home due to lack of fuel, Sub Lt George Whalley saw Bismarck burning, and thought: ‘What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of … her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt.’ This sentiment was shared by many British sailors that morning. Hugh Guernsey on King George V felt the same. Afterwards, he wrote, ‘Pray God I may never know what those shells did as they exploded in the hull.’
The trouble was, the Admiralty’s orders were clear. Bismarck had to be sunk. Prime Minister Churchill had been adamant. So, the salvos kept being fired, and the German battleship continued to burn. Afterwards, Captain Dalrymple-Hamilton of the Rodney, whose shells did most of the damage, wrote: ‘I can’t say I enjoyed that part of the business much, but didn’t see what else I could do.’ Tovey was determined to finish the job. He knew that by 10.00 at the very latest, King George V and Rodney would have to break off the action, or run out of fuel on the way home. By then, though, it was becoming clear that shells alone wouldn’t do the job. Bismarck would have to be finished off with torpedoes. In fact, at 09.56 Rodney tried to do just that, launching her last two torpedoes out of the submerged launcher on her port side. The range was less than 3,000 yards (1.5 miles), and the battleship claimed one hit – perhaps the only torpedo hit ever on one battleship from another.
The destroyers had all fired their torpedoes, as had Norfolk, which had fired hers off and missed just before 10.00. That left Devonshire, which carried two quadruple 21in. torpedo launchers, one on each beam. The only other source was Ark Royal, and her Swordfish. In fact, that morning, V. Adm. Somerville had ordered Ark Royal to launch another air strike, and at 09.20, 12 Swordfish began taking off. After forming up they headed towards the Bismarck. When they arrived, though, the gun battle was in full spate. To make a torpedo attack in those circumstances would have been to invite being hit by friendly fire, so the attack was called off. The aircraft kept their distance, circled, and waited. In fact, they were fired on from King George V, until someone identified them as British biplanes. Thus, the air crews merely enjoyed their grandstand view for a few minutes and then headed home.
Tovey, too, was heading home to Scapa Flow, with a desperately needed fuel stop on the way at Loch Ewe. He had left it longer than he should, but his two battleships now had to break off. There was no other option. So, at 10.16 the admiral ordered King George V and Rodney to cease fire and break off the action. Until then, the guns had continued to pound the stricken battleship. In total, King George V fired 339 14in. shells that morning, and Rodney 380 16in. ones. Then there were the hundreds of 8in. shells fired by the cruisers, and the 6in. and 5.25in. ones from the battleship’s secondary guns. Bismarck had been utterly pounded into submission. Her guns silent now, the German battleship was just wallowing there, her decks blazing fiercely, but with her German naval ensign still flying. By then, the order had been given to scuttle her, open her sea cocks, and then abandon ship.
Fregattenkapitän Oels gave the scuttling order, and charges were set. (?) Meanwhile, he passed through the ship, ordering men to head towards the upper deck and save themselves. However, he and hundreds of others were killed by the British shells before they made it. Meanwhile, as Tovey steamed away, he ordered Captain Martin of Dorsetshire to finish Bismarck off with torpedoes. She drew closer to the burning wreck and fired two torpedoes from a range of 3,300 yards (1.6 miles). Both of them struck Bismarck’s starboard side. By now, hundreds of men could be seen jumping into the water, mostly from the battleship’s stern, as forward of the bridge she was a raging inferno of flame. Next, Martin circled round Bismarck and at 10.36 he fired a third torpedo, which struck the battleship’s port side. Almost immediately, Bismarck began listing to port. Whether this was the torpedo hits or the scuttling charges was immaterial. Bismarck was now starting to sink.
Tovey looked back at Bismarck as the two battleships steamed off towards the northern horizon. He saw her list and, as he watched, the battleship leaned over even further, until her superstructure was parallel to the water. Pieces of her superstructure began to break away. Then she slowly rolled over and capsized. Her gun turrets, held in place by gravity, preceded her on the long voyage towards the seabed. It was now 10.39. Men were still perched on her upturned hull as she went under. The stern sank next, and gradually the upturned battleship slipped from view, her passing marked by huge bubbles of escaping air. Her bows were the last to go, but by 10.40 these disappeared too, gurgling and hissing beneath the waters of the Atlantic. Now all that was left of the once-proud battleship was a scattering of floating debris, a large oil slick, and hundreds of men, left floating in the ice-cold water.
They were the lucky ones – the sailors who hadn’t been trapped as the ship sank, or dragged under by the suction. Many of them were badly burned or injured. After almost an hour, Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori inched towards the edge of the floating detritus of men and wreckage and began picking up survivors. The men in the water were no longer the enemy – they had become sailors in distress. So, ropes and rope ladders were thrown over the side and British sailors began pulling the survivors to safety. Müllenheim-Rechberg was one of these, having been hauled up on a rope and pulled on board. Then, a lookout on Dorsetshire spotted a puff of exhaust smoke in the water, 2 miles off the cruiser’s starboard beam. The Home Fleet had expected U-boats to be converging, and this could well have been one of them. So, Captain Martin reluctantly ordered his ship to get underway.
It was now 11.40. Hundreds of survivors were still in the water, and most had been floating there for over an hour. A few lucky ones clung to ropes and were hauled aboard, but as the cruiser made off, followed by Maori, the remainder were left to fend for themselves. This, however, was a necessary and unavoidable decision by Captain Martin. He couldn’t risk the lives of the 850 British sailors on the two ships. Between them, the two British ships had managed to rescue 111 survivors .33 Bismarck carried a crew of just over 2,000 men. While most of these went down with their ship, hundreds of others had abandoned ship and were now in the water. Of these, only five were still alive the next day when they were rescued by U-74 and the German weather ship Sachsenwald, which had arrived on the scene, along with a Spanish cruiser. The rest succumbed to the numbing cold, and quietly slipped away.
For many on board Bismarck, the end didn’t come gradually. Instead, it involved a shattering explosion, a fireball, crushing from falling pieces of wreckage, dismemberment by shell splinters or simply entrapment, entombed by sealed hatches or blocked passageways, and having to wait for the water to claim them. The survivors – 86 on Dorsetshire and 25 on Maori – told a harrowing tale. The decks were littered with broken bodies, and slick with blood and gore. The dead sailors lay everywhere, while parts of the upper deck were an inferno of flame. Shells still exploded on the ship, several each minute, until the final order came to cease fire. Bismarck had become a floating charnel house of the dead and injured, while those still alive struggled to save themselves. Some had to clamber over badly injured shipmates, unable to help themselves, and doomed to go down with the ship.
Everywhere the noise of fires and explosions was punctuated by the cries of the wounded and the dying. Survivors recalled how many of the dead and wounded on the upper deck were washed into the sea when Bismarck started to list. Waves then threw their broken bodies back against the sinking ship, where most were sucked under. Hundreds of men were trapped inside the ship by jammed hatches, while others stayed at their posts, as if resigned to their fate. Some crewmen were driven mad, while some took their own lives.
Müllenheim-Rechberg was the only officer to escape from the sinking ship. When his after guns were silenced, he stepped out of his director tower and saw the real extent of the carnage: ‘Everything up to the bridge bulwarks had been destroyed. The hatches leading to the main deck were jammed shut … flames cut off the whole forward part of the ship. Hundreds of crewmen lay where they had been hit, in the foretop, on the bridge, in the control stations, at the guns, on the upper deck, and on the main and battery decks.’ He eventually jumped into the sea from the quarterdeck and swam away before the ship capsized.
By then, the shelling had stopped. Still, the dying continued. Men were seen blinded by the smoke, running along the upper deck, only to fall through a hole ripped in the deck by a shell and tumble into a fiery pit below. Others were seen trying to squeeze through jammed hatches, while yet others were overcome by the thick smoke that clung to the ship like a blanket. The ship had begun listing when, according to Müllenheim-Rechberg, ‘Two powerful explosions rolled over the sea, as torpedoes from the Dorsetshire hit the doomed ship on the starboard side. They were followed by a third explosion on the port side a few minutes later.’ Some of those who had jumped into the sea were knocked unconscious when the waves threw them against the hull, while others simply sank, too wounded or exhausted to swim. Those who made it faced the long ordeal of freezing to death in the Atlantic swell.
The crew of one of Ark Royal’s Swordfish flew over Bismarck as it sank, and they later spoke of seeing hundreds of heads bobbing in the water. One by one the cold or their injuries overtook them, and the heads disappeared. The lucky few made it to the Dorsetshire and Maori, but even then many were too cold, injured or inexperienced to climb the ropes to safety. Others simply gave up at the final hurdle. Then the British warships got underway, while hundreds of heads still bobbed in the water. By then, the King George V was over the horizon, and heading for home.
On board her, Admiral Tovey was framing the words of Bismarck’s epitaph. When finished, it read: ‘The Bismarck had put up a most gallant fight against impossible odds, worthy of the old days of the Imperial German Navy, and she went down with her colours flying.’ As he wrote it, he must have recalled the day a quarter of a century before, when as a lieutenant commander, and the commander of the destroyer Onslow, he had seen the same scene – the capsizing of the German cruiser Wiesbaden at the Battle of Jutland. That time nobody stopped to rescue the survivors, and by the next morning only one of them was left alive. War at sea could be a heartbreakingly cruel business.