The British fire on the French at Mers el Kebir

The French destroyer Mogador on fire
The French destroyer Mogador on fire at Mers el Kebir

Relations between the French and British radically altered following the French armistice with Germany. Churchill was determined that the French Fleet should not fall into the hands of the Germans. The British Force H was sent from Gibraltar to confront the main French fleet in harbour. Admiral Somerville, commander of Force H, had orders to seek the French Fleet’s surrender at the French North African maritime base of Mers el Kebir at Oran, French Algeria. The terms contained a number of options designed to allow the French an honourable course of action while denying the French fleet to the Germans, these were:

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France.

For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe.

In these circumstances, His Majesty’s Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;

(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.

(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment. If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.

(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans unless they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies — Martinique for instance — where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours. Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.

Admiral Somerville’s report describes how negotiations continued all day. He despatched Captain Holland to speak with the French Commander, Admiral Gensoul:

49. Whilst this long discussion was taking place in the Admiral’s cabin of DUNKERQUE, Admiralty message 1614/3rd July containing instructions to “settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with” was received at 1646 in HOOD. A signal was immediately passed visually and by wireless to Admiral Gensoul, informing him that if the terms were not Accepted, fire would be opened at 1730. Simultaneously, “Preparative ANVIL at 1730” was made to all ships of Force “H”. (see para. 25 of Enclosure 3).

50. The message referred to reached Admiral Gensoul at 1715, whilst the discussion with captain Holland was still proceeding. The latter then drafted a brief signal, which was shewn to the Admiral, stating that the crews were being reduced and the ships would proceed to MARTINIQUE or the United States of America if threatened by the enemy. This was received in HOOD at 1729, but as it did not comply with any of the conditions laid down, air striking forces were ordered to fly off and the battleships stood in to the coast.

51. Captain Holland finally left DUNKERQUE at 1725 and at the same time “Action stations” were sounded in the French ships. Transfer to FOXHOUND’s motorboat was effected at 1735 and the boat proceeded clear of the net defences.

52. Fire was opened at maximum visibility range of 17,500 yards at 1754, employing G.I.C. concentration with aircraft spotting. The line of fire was from the north-west, so that fire from the French ships was to some extent blanked by Mers el Kebir Fort and risk of damage to civilian life and property reduced.

53. Simultaneously with opening fire, an aircraft report was received that the destroyers in Mers el Kebir were under way inside the boom.

54. At 1757, three minutes after opening fire, a very large explosion occurred inside the harbour, followed immediately by an immense column of smoke several hundred feet high. There would appear little doubt that this was caused by the blowing up of a battleship of the BRETAGNE Class. It was followed shortly after by a similar but smaller explosion which was apparently a destroyer blowing up. By this time, the harbour was clothed in smoke from explosions and fires, rendering direct spotting almost impossible and air spotting most difficult.

55. Enemy shore batteries opened fire about a minute after the first British salvo. These were promptly engaged by ARETHUSA but the range was too great for ENTERPRISE’s older guns. Shortly afterwards heavy projectiles commenced to fall near the battleships.

56. Enemy fire was at first very short but improved considerably in accuracy, a number of main armament (probably 13.4 inch) projectiles falling close to all ships and in certain cases, straddling. No hits were incurred, but a number of splinters caused minor superficial damage in HOOD and injuries to one officer and one rating.

57. After firing a total of thirty-six 15-inch salvoes, the fire from the French ships died down but the fire from the forts was becoming increasingly accurate. Course was altered 180 ° to port together and ships ordered to make smoke to avoid damage from the fire of forts. Fire on the French ships ceased at 1804.

See TNA ADM 199-391 for the full report and enclosures.

A French newsreel report of the action:

HM Ships Glorious, Acasta and Ardent sunk

world war 2 aircraft carrier at sea - hms glorious
HMS Glorious, seen pre war, a carrier converted from a cruiser

The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was returning to Scapa Flow from Norway separately from the other ships in the British Force, accompanied by only her destroyer escorts HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent. It was a fine clear day with light wind but HMS Glorious apparently did not have a lookout posted, did not have an aircraft on patrol – which would have given her all round visibility of approximately 40 miles, and did not have any of her aircraft on deck ready for immediate launch.

She was therefore surprised when spotted by the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst at about 1600. Although Acasta and Ardent attempted to lay a smoke screen and engaged the German ships, Glorious was first hit at 1638. The third salvo from the Scharnhorst reached Glorious from 24,175 meters (26,450 yards), possibly the longest gunfire hit on any enemy warship ever achieved. It hit her hangars and made it impossible to launch the aircraft that were on the point of readiness.

HMS Acasta at sea.
HMS Acasta at sea.

After the war Admiral Schubert, who had been First Officer on the Scharnhorst at the time of the battle, was interviewed by the Royal Navy and provided an account of the great fight put up by the two escorting destroyers, HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent:

The escorting destroyer [HMS Ardent] on the port side of the battleships continued her torpedo attacks and tried, extremely skilfully, to avoid the effective defensive fire of the battleships’ medium armament by means of constant alterations of course. Finally this destroyer also opened fire on the battleships. She fought with outstanding resolution in a situation that was hopeless for her. The destroyer received numerous hits and finally went down, her bow armament firing to the last and her engines apparently in order and driving her at high speed. The final range was about 5 miles.

After the battleships had penetrated the smoke screen, the “Glorious” was sighted again at a great range. The main armament opened frontal fire and the carrier very quickly received further hits. The range rapidly decreased, but still remained relatively great. The carrier developed a list to port, and burned until she finally capsized. Only a few aircraft were left on deck.

The destroyer with the carrier [HMS Acasta] turned to the attack on the battleships, who took avoiding action. At this stage of the fight, at about the time of the capsizing of the carrier, The ‘Scharnhorst’ received a torpedo hit on the starboard side level with the after main turret. As was ascertained later, the hole torn in the ships side was of considerable dimensions. The hit immediately affected the main turret magazines, the turret starting to burn. The starboard engine went out of action; the starboard propeller-shaft together with the bearings was torn away from the hull. A great deal of water entered the ship; her position became difficult the more so as the midships engine-room was gradually filling with water.

The ship however continued the fight with the now very severely damaged destroyer. The latter fought on in a hopeless situation with her far inferior armament against the battleships. She achieved, so far as I can remember, one light hit against the centre barrel of No.2 main turret.

The carrier had in the meantime capsized, and the place where she went down lay far astern of the ship. When the destroyer ceased firing on her armament being put out of action, the battleships did so too. The heavily damaged condition of the “Scharnhorst” made it imperative to see to the return of the damaged ship to the nearest Norwegian harbour, and to put the measures necessary for this in hand immediately.

TNA ADM 205/49

The actions of the two destroyers who both went down fighting against vastly superior battleships were no less valiant than that of the destroyer HMS Glowworm, which had taken on the Admiral Hipper on April 9th. There was even a measure of success here, since the Scharnhorst had been torpedoed. But there were no medals for this action, which was a disaster that the Royal Navy would have no wish to advertise, either now or after the war.

HMS Ardent at a buoy on completion. Pennant No H41
HMS Ardent at a buoy on completion. Pennant No H41

At the end of the action Gneisenau and Scharnhorst made off without stopping to look for survivors. At the time the Germans were uncertain whether the Scharnhorst had been torpedoed by a submarine that might remain in the area.

To compound the disaster HMS Glorious had been using the wrong radio channel. Her radio broadcast announcing the engagement was only indistinctly picked up by HMS Devonshire but she was in a state of radio silence as she was carrying the Norwegian Royal family to safety, and the message was never re-broadcast. For unknown reasons neither Acasta nor Ardent made radio signals about the engagement. There were at least 900 men in the water or on floats from the three abandoned ships, including some of the pilots from 46 Squadron who had flown the Hurricanes on board the previous day. But the Royal Navy was unaware of the battle and no immediate rescue plan was put into action.

It was nearly three days later when the first of only 45 survivors were pulled from the sea by a Norwegian boats. Among them was Squadron Leader Cross of 46 Squadron (see [permalink id=6351 text=’7th June’]). In total 1,515 men died. The Glorious, Ardent and Acasta Association has many more details and casualty lists.

Detailed analysis is at scharnhorst-class and warship.org

US planes sink Yamato – world’s largest battleship

Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials.
Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials in 1941.

The Japanese defenders of Okinawa were not quite alone. On the 6th April the Japanese decided to make one more attempt to support them. Intended to be a knockout blow they assembled over 300 planes for an assault on the US Fleet of over 1000 ships assembled off Okinawa. Their targets were the aircraft carriers and battleships – but the main casualties were amongst the destroyers forming a protective picket on the edge of the fleet.

U.S. aircraft, such as this Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver, begin their attacks on Yamato (center left). A Japanese destroyer is in the center right of the picture.
U.S. aircraft, such as this Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver, begin their attacks on Yamato (center left). A Japanese destroyer is in the center right of the picture.
Yamato steering to avoid bombs and aerial torpedoes during Operation Ten-Go.
Yamato steering to avoid bombs and aerial torpedoes during Operation Ten-Go.

At the same time another suicide mission was launched, Operation Ten Go. The battleship Yamato, at 72,800 tonnes with nine 46 cm (18.1 inch) main guns, was (with her sister ship Musashi, sunk in October 1944) the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleship ever constructed. She was now given sufficient fuel to reach Okinawa with orders to cause as much havoc as possible.

It had been the Japanese who had demonstrated the vulnerability of capital ships in the age of naval air power with the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in 1941. Now Yamato was despatched without any air cover at all. It was inevitable that she would face assault from the massed planes of the US Fifth Fleet. Despite the fact she had 150 anti-aircraft guns the odds were not in her favour.

Yamato had been spotted by US submarines leaving port on the 6th and planes had begun shadowing her at 1000 on the 7th. At 1200 squadrons of Hellcat and Corsair fighters arrived overhead to deal with any Japanese plans escorting her – there were none. Shortly afterwards the first wave of over 280 Helldiver dive bombers, and Avenger torpedo bombers began their attack.

On board was junior officer Yoshida Mitsuru:

1220 hours: our air search radar picks up three blips, each apparently a large formation.

In his usual guttural voice Petty Officer Hasegawa, chief of the antiaircraft radar room, gives a running commentary on their range and bearing. “Contacts. Three large formations. Approaching.”

On the instant we send out emergency signals to every ship in the task force.

Each ship increases its speed to twenty-five knots. As one, they turn. “100 degrees exact.” (Without changing its shape, the formation turns simultaneously onto a course of 100 degrees.)

Once the P.A. passes on word of the approaching planes, the ship, quiet already, becomes quieter still. As the radar tracks the blips, the data is transmitted to us moment by moment over the voice tube: … range 30,000 meters, bearing 160 degrees … second raid, range 25,000 meters, bearing 85 degrees…

How many times, in target practice, have we conducted such tracking? I am possessed by the illusion that we have already experienced searches under the same conditions, with the same battle positions, even with the same mood.

What is going on before my very eyes, indisputably, is actual combat — but how can I possibly convince myself of that fact?

The blips are not an imagined enemy but an enemy poised for the kill. The location: not our training waters, but hostile waters.

Nevertheless, as I pass the reports along mechanically, I am nonchalant, proceed too much by routine. A battle against aircraft – it is at hand! All the lookouts focus on the bearings of the approaching raids. At this moment a light rain shrouds the ocean like a mist; visibility is now at its worst.

The moment we spot the American planes will probably be the moment they attack. 1232 hours: the gruff voice of the second watch – “Two Grummans, port 25 degrees, elevation 8 degrees, range 4,000 meters. Moving right.”

Quickly I spot them with naked eye. The ceiling is between 1,000 and 1,500 meters.

We have spotted them, but conditions are the worst possible: they are already too close; aiming is very difficult. “First raid: five planes … more than ten planes … more than thirty …

A large squadron appears out of a gap in the clouds. Every ten or twelve planes peel off in formation and make a sweeping turn to starboard.

Dead ahead, another large flight. Already entering attack formation.

“More than one hundred enemy planes attacking!” Is it the navigation officer who calls this out?

Inevitable that both torpedoes and bombs will focus on Yamato. The captain orders: “Commence firing.”

Twenty-four antiaircraft guns and 120 machine guns open fire at the same moment. The main guns of the escort destroyers, too, flash in unison. The battle begins.

Here and now we fire the first shots of this desperate, death-inviting battle. My baptism by fire. I feel like puffing out my chest, and my legs want to dance; restraining myself, I measure the weight pressing down on my knees.

As my whole body tingles with excitement, I observe my own exhilaration; as I grit my teeth, I break into a grin. A sailor near me is felled by shrapnel. In the midst of the overwhelming noise, I distinguish the sound of his skull striking the bulkhead; amid the smell of gunpowder all around, I smell blood.

A shrill voice: “The enemy is using both torpedoes and bombs!”

On the left outer edge of the formation, Hdmakaze all of a sudden seems to expose her crimson belly, then lifts her stern up into the air.

In almost no time thereafter bombs landed one after another on the disabled ship. She was enveloped in columns of water, pillars of fire.

The tracks of the torpedoes are a beautiful white against the water, as if someone were drawing a needle through the water; they come pressing in, aimed at Yamato from a dozen different directions and intersecting silently. Estimating by sight their distance and angle on the plotting board, we shift course to run parallel to the torpedoes and barely succeed in dodging them.

We deal first with the closest, most urgent one; when we get to a point far enough away from it that we can be sure we have dodged it, we turn to the next. Dealing with them calls for vigilance, calculation, and decision.

The captain is out in the open in the antiaircraft command post overlooking the whole ship. Two ensigns attend him and plot on the maneuver board the torpedoes coming from all directions, indicating them to him with pointers. The navigation officer sits in the captain’s seat on the bridge; acting as one, the two men operate the ship. Coming over the voice tube, the captain’s orders deafen me. His is a terrible and angry voice, biting off the ends of words. Bombs, bullets focus on the bridge.

Opening her engines with their 150,000 horsepower to full throttle, straining at her top battle speed of twenty-seven knots, and turning her rudders hard to either side, Yamato continues her desperate evasive maneuvers. This ship boasts of being as stable on open sea as on tetra firma; even so she experiences extreme listing and vibration. The creaking of her hull and the grating of her fittings make a din.

See Yoshida Mitsuru: Requiem for Battleship Yamato .

Yamato under attack. A large fire burns aft of her superstructure and she is low in the water from torpedo damage.
Yamato under attack. A large fire burns aft of her superstructure and she is low in the water from torpedo damage.

By 1402 it was over. Dead in the water and sinking after having been hit by a series of bombs and torpedoes, Admiral Ito ordered the crew to abandon ship. Some men got off but at 1423 she was ripped apart by a massive explosion when fire reached her magazines, the water pumps designed to prevent this having already been put out of action.

Around 3,700–4,250 men from Yamato and her escort ships were dead. The US Navy had lost 12 planes and ten men. The six US Navy battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers that were lined up to deal with the Yamato, in case the planes somehow failed, were not needed.

Yamato photographed during the battle by an aircraft from USS Yorktown (CV-10). The battleship is on fire and visibly listing to port.
Yamato photographed during the battle by an aircraft from USS Yorktown (CV-10). The battleship is on fire and visibly listing to port.
Yamato's magazine explodes bringing a sudden violent end to the ship.
Yamato’s magazine explodes bringing a sudden violent end to the ship.

USS Sealion attacks and sinks battleship Kongo

The battlecruiser Kongo had been built by the British shipyard Vickers in 1912. In 1929 she was re-bilit as a battleship as seen here in 1929-30.
The battlecruiser Kongo had been built by the British shipyard Vickers in 1912. In 1929 she was re-built as a battleship, as seen here in 1929-30.She was further modified in the 1930s to become a ‘fast battleship’.
The first USS-Sealion-(SS-195) had been sunk while in dock on the Philippines on 10th December 1941.
The first USS-Sealion-(SS-195) had been sunk while in dock on the Philippines on 10th December 1941.
The launch of the USS Sealion in October 1943, with Comamnder Eli Reich at right.
The launch of the USS Sealion in October 1943, with Commander Eli Reich at right.

The original USS Sealion had been sunk by Japanese during their initial assaults on US ships in December 1941. Less than two years later USS Sealion was reborn, launched on 31st October 1943. Exactly a year later she set off on her third war patrol, her commander, Eli Reich, having already been awarded Navy Crosses for “aggressive and well executed torpedo attacks” on each of the two earlier patrols. In September she had been responsible for the unfortunate sinking of the Rakuyo Maru, with 1300 POWs aboard.

Early on 21st November off Formosa, now Taiwan, the USS Sealion picked up such strong radar signals that at first they were thought to be bouncing off land. They were then revealed to be a group of Japanese battleships and battle cruisers, including, as it turned out, the IJN “Indestructible” Kongo.

Commander Eli Reich’s original patrol report tells the whole story:

21 NOVEMBER 1944

0020: Radar contact at 44,000 yards, on our starboard quarter, (Ship contact #3) three pips, very clear and distinct. Came to normal approach, went ahead flank on four engines, and commenced tracking. Overcast sky, no soon, visibility about 1500 yards, calm sea.

0043: Two large pips and two smaller pips now outlined on radar screen at a range of 35,000 yards. These are the greatest ranges we have ever obtained on our radar. Pips so large, at so great a range, we first suspected land. It was possible to lobe switch on the larger targets at 32,000 yards – we now realized we probably had two targets of battleship proportions and two of larger cruiser size as our targets. They were in a column with a cruiser ahead followed by two battleships, and a cruiser astern, course 060 T, speed 16 knots. not zigging.

0146: Three escorts now visible on the radar, at a range of 20,000 yards. One on. either beam on the formation, and one on the starboard far quarter. We are pining bearing slowly but surely. The formation is now on our starboard beam. Seas and wind increasing.

0245: Ahead of task force. Turned in and slowed for attack, keeping our bow pointed at the now destroyer who is now 1800 yards on the port bow of our target. the second ship in column. Able to make out shape of near destroyer from bridge. Kept swinging left with our bow directly on the destroyer, and at

0256: Fired six torpedoes, depth set at 8 feet, at the second ship in column, range 3000 yards, believed to be a battleship. Came right with full rudder to bring the stern tubes to bear.

0259-30: Stopped and fired three torpedoes, depth set at 8 feet, from the stern tubes at the third ship in column (ie the second battleship). Range 3100 yards. Range to near destroyer at the time of firing stern tubes about 1800 yards. While firing stern tubes, O.O.D. reported he could make out outline of the near cruiser on our port quarter. During the firing of the bow tubes the bridge quartermaster reported he could make out outline of a very high superstructure on target, he said it looked to him like the pagoda build of the Jap battleships.

0300: Saw and heard three hits on the first battleship – several small mushrooms of explosions noted in the darkness.

0304: Saw and heard at least one hit on the second battleship – this gave a large violent explosion with a sudden rise of flames at the target, but it quickly subsided.

The Japnese destroyer Urakaze which blew up and was lost with all hands.
The Japnese destroyer Urakaze which blew up and was lost with all hands.

In fact two torpedoes from the first salvo had hit Kongo and a third torpedo had passed beyond her and hit the destroyer IJN “Wind on the Sea” Urakaze, causing a catastrophic explosion which sunk her with all hands. With two compartments flooded the Kongo began to lose speed.

Eli Reich thought he had lost his opportunity, believing that he had set his torpedoes at the wrong depth for a battleship. His patrol report continues:

0304-07: Went ahead flank, opening to westward from target group. Noted several small explosions, flames, and probably lights in vicinity of target group.

0308: Heard a long series of heavy depth charge explosions from vicinity of enemy force – we are about 5000 yards from group. P.P.I. shows one escort opening and rapidly to east of target group. Continued tracking.

0330: Chagrined at this point to find subsequent tracking enemy group still making 16 knots, still on course 060T. I feel that in setting depth at 8 feet, in order to hit a destroyer if overlapping our main target. I’ve made a bust – looks like we only dented the armor belt on the battleships.

0406: Tracking indicates the target group now zigzagging. We are holding true bearing, maybe gaining a little. Called for maximum speed from engineers – they gave us 25% overload for about thirty minutes, then commenced growling about sparking commutators, hot motors, et al , forced to slow to flank. Sea and wind increasing all the time – now about force 5 or 6 – taking solid water over bridge, with plenty coming down the conning tower hatch. SEALION making about 16.8 to 17 knots with safety tank dry and using low pressure blower often to keep ballast tanks dry. Engine rooms taking much water through main induction.

0430: Sent SEALION Serial Number TWO. [?]

0450: Noted enemy formation breaking up into two groups – one group dropping astern. Now P.P.I. showed:(a) one group up ahead to consist of three large ships in column – cruiser. battleship, cruiser with a destroyer just being lost to radar view up ahead. Range to this group about 17000 yards. (b) Second group dropping astern of first to consist of a battleship, with two destroyers on far side. Close aboard – range to this group about 15000 yards and closing.

0451: Shifted target designation, decided to attack second group, which contains 1 battleship, hit with three torpedoes on our first attack. Tracking shows target to have slowed to 11 knots. Things beginning to took rosy again.

0512: In position ahead of target, slowed and turned in for attack.

0518: Solutions on T.D.C. and plot is getting sour – target must be changing speed.

0520: Plot and T.D.C. report target must be stopped, radar says target pip seems to be getting a little smaller. Range to target now about 17000 yards.

0524: Tremendous explosion dead ahead – sky brilliantly illuminated, it looked like a sunset at midnight, radar reports battleship pip getting smaller – that it has disappeared -leaving only two smaller pips of the destroyers. Destroyers seem to be milling around vicinity of target. Battleship sunk – the sun set.

0525: Total darkness again.

Before Sealion had a chance to make another attack Kongo had blown up. There were just 237 survivors from a crew of over 1400.

Reich had earned a third Navy Cross on his third patrol. Not only was this the only occasion when an Allied submarine successfully sank a battleship during the war but it was the only occasion an audio recording was made of a live attack.

USS Sealion (SS315) later in the war flying her victory pennants.
USS Sealion (SS315) later in the war flying her victory pennants.

Operation Catechism – the Tirpitz is finally sunk

The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered TIRPITZ can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
The wake of a fast moving motor boat as she hurries away from the battered TIRPITZ can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
A Royal Navy photograph taken during an earlier attack.

On 12th November thirty two RAF and RAAF Lancaster bombers left England in the early hours of the morning, arriving over Norway at low level. All the aircraft had been modified to accommodate the the Tallboy bombs that they carried, and all had the specialist Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight that enabled them to aim the bombs with pinpoint accuracy from the altitude that the bombs needed.

It was the ninth attempt by the RAF to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, the twenty-fifth by British forces – including actions by Royal Navy aircraft and midget submarines. The ship had been hit by bombs before – but they had not been able to penetrate the four inch thick deck armour.

At 0930 the Lancasters began to rise to bombing height, 14,000 feet, and in doing so revealed themselves to German radar. German fighters at Bardufoss should have been in a good position to intervene but for some reason they did not appear. One factor was that the Luftwaffe had not been informed that the Tirpitz had recently been moved to a new location.

Wing Commander Willy Tait led the attack:

She was a black shape clearly seen against the clear waters of the fjord, surrounded by the snow-covered hills, which were glowing pink in the low Arctic sun. A plume of smoke rose slowly from the big ship’s funnel.

When the force was about ten miles away the peaceful scene changed suddenly; the ship opened fire with her main armament and billows of orange-brown smoke, shot through by the flashes of the guns, hid her for a moment and then drifted away.

At 0941 the first of 29 Tallboy bombs was released, from 14,000 feet they accelerated to 750 mph (1,210 km/h), approaching the speed of sound, for maximum damage on impact. Eight minutes later it was all over.

One 12,000 pounder apparently hit the Tirpitz amidships, another in the bows and a third towards the stern and there were also two very near misses which must themselves have done serious underwater damage. These displaced sandbanks that had been dredged to prevent the ship keeling over.

The last significant German naval threat to arctic convoys had at last been conclusively neutralised. Around a thousand German sailors were trapped below decks, doomed to a watery grave.

A special 463 Squadron RAAF movie-Lancaster captained by Flight Lieutenant Bruce Buckham DFC RAAF was the last aircraft on the scene, they went in low, despite the shore batteries which remained in action after the Tirpitz herself had ceased firing:

We flew over it, around it, all about it and still it sat there with dignity under a huge mushroom of smoke which plumed up a few thousand feet in the air.

There were fires and more explosions on board; a huge gaping hole existed on the port side where a section had been blown out. We had now been flying close around Tirpitz for 30 minutes or so and decided to call it a day, so we headed out towards the mouth of the fjord.

Just then Flying Officer Eric Giersch the rear gunner called out, ‘I think she is turning over.’ I turned back to port to have a look and sure enough she was, so back we went again. This time we flew in at 50 feet and watched with baited breath as Tirpitz heeled over to port, ever so slowly and gracefully.

We could see German sailors swimming, diving, jumping and by the time she was over to 85° and subsiding slowly into the water of Tromso Fjord, there must have been the best part of 60 men on her side as we skimmed over for the last pass.

That was the final glimpse we had as we flew out of the fjord and over the North Sea. After a 14-hour flight we landed back at Waddington where the interrogation was conducted by Air Vice Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane. When asked how it went, my one remark was, ‘Well we won’t have to go back after this one; Tirpitz is finished’

These account appears in Martin Bowman: Bomber Command: Armageddon (27 September 1944 – May 1945) v. 5: Reflections of War .

Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken from De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI, NS637, of No. 544 Squadron RAF, showing the capsized German battleship TIRPITZ, lying in in Tromso fjord, attended by salvage vessels. Dodd F L (Sqn Ldr), and Hill A (Plt Off): No. 544 Squadron RAF
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken from De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI, NS637, of No. 544 Squadron RAF, showing the capsized German battleship TIRPITZ, lying in in Tromso fjord, attended by salvage vessels.
Dodd F L (Sqn Ldr), and Hill A (Plt Off): No. 544 Squadron RAF

Contemporary newsreel:

Wing Commander J B Tait, Commanding Officer of No. 617 Squadron RAF (fifth from left), standing with his crew by the tail of their Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special), EE146 'KC-D', at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, on returning from Lossiemouth, the day after the successful raid on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Tromso Fjord, Norway,
Wing Commander J B Tait, Commanding Officer of No. 617 Squadron RAF (fifth from left), standing with his crew by the tail of their Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special), EE146 ‘KC-D’, at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, on returning from Lossiemouth, the day after the successful raid on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Tromso Fjord, Norway,
The German battleship TIRPITZ, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation CATECHISM). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews.
The German battleship TIRPITZ, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation CATECHISM). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews.

One Day in a Very Long War

Men of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 39th Infantry Regiment in action during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest
Men of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 39th Infantry Regiment in action during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest

World War II Today examines aspects of the war on a daily basis. In many cases the background to any individual incident featured here could form the basis of a whole book, and in many cases they have been written. John Ellis took an alternative approach when he wrote One Day in a Very Long War – he looked at the entirety of the war through a wide variety of different incidents happening on one day, 25th October 1944.

To illustrate his approach three different short extracts are reproduced here, illustrating just a few off the diverse perspectives on the war that illustrate the impact of a truly global war.

The personal experience of the infantrymen who were on the front line of the conflict in western Europe. Here he examines:

the relentlessly grim day—to—day existence all along First U.S. Army’s front. In 28 Infantry Division, for example, there was a growing number of non—battle casualties. Many were trench-foot cases, also known as immersion foot, a term of First World War vintage and describing a condition very akin to frost-bite.

It was the result of getting one’s feet wet and not being able to dry them for hours, even days on end. The feet went numb, turned purple and in extreme cases the nerves died and gangrene set in. In such circumstances toes and sometimes the whole foot had to be amputated.

The only effective way to keep trench—foot at bay was to wash and vigorously massage the feet twice daily, apply liberal amounts of talcum powder and, above all, change into dry socks. It was a cause of particular frustration, therefore, that at this time socks were one of several items of winter clothing in short supply.

Behind the divisional lines the dressing stations and field hospitals were full of such cases.

“If they were lucky the medics caught the complaint in time and they would be put to bed in long lines of cots on which lay soldier after soldier, their feet sticking out from under the blankets, with a little ball of cotton wool separating each toe.”

One such rifleman spent fully ninety days in hospital in the autumn of 1944 after taking his boots off for the first time in two weeks. His feet appeared blue and frozen as soon as he removed his socks but he simply fell asleep while trying to rub them back to life.

The next morning “my feet were like balloons, so red and swollen I couldn’t put my shoes on. Some guys had big black blisters and a couple of guys had to get their feet cut off. The doc says you get that from not changing your socks when your feet are wet. Christ, what the hell you gonna do when you’re living in a hole for two weeks and the water’s up to here and Jerries are shooting at you so you can’t go no place? Christ, I’m lucky I’m here at all.”

U.S. Navy destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen during the Battle of Samar, 25 October 1944. Note the splashes from Japanese shells.
U.S. Navy destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen during the Battle of Samar, 25 October 1944. Note the splashes from Japanese shells.

The strategic perspective of two great forces of the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy as they clashed off the Philippines during the Battle of the Leyte Gulf. The two surface fleets met at the Battle of Samar on the 25th October:

Admiral Kurita had spotted the Americans at almost exactly the same moment that he was discovered. He reacted to the sighting just as quickly as Sprague and gave immediate orders for ‘General Attack’.

Unfortunately the order came only a few minutes after an earlier one to deploy from a five—column cruising formation to a circular one on a more easterly heading. ‘General Attack’ was very much a free-for-all manoeuvre, leaving direction and choice of targets to individual captains, and coming in the middle of another change of formation it caused considerable confusion.

Even before battle was joined, in fact, Kurita had already made his most serious mistake, attributable, no doubt, to the fact that he had now gone 72 hours without sleep and was still not recovered from his bout of dengue fever.

No historian of the battle has seriously quarrelled with S. E. Morison’s judgement that the order was “a fatal error. Kurita should have formed battle-line with his . . . battleships and . . . heavy cruisers, which would have allowed his superior firepower to count, and he should have committed [destroyers] immediately for torpedo attack. But complete surprise seems to have deprived the Admiral of all power of decision, and the result was a helter—skelter battle. His ships . . . were committed piece- meal and so defeated.”

A B-29 Superfortress in flight.
A B-29 Superfortress in flight.

Also considered are the technological achievements that were winning the war for the Allies, not least the extraordinary developments in aeronautical engineering that had taken place in just a few years. Now from some of the remotest parts of the world the US was able to launch devastating firepower against Japan itself:

On this bright morning, at each of the nine bases around the Kwangchan—Likiang—Kumming triangle, some fearsome aircraft were taxiing forward for take—off. They were carrying 500—lb M—64 general-purpose bombs and M-67 incendiary bombs, at a ratio of two to one, and fully loaded each aircraft weighed 65 tons.

The four engines revved up to their maximum 8,800 horsepower and then, at fifty-second intervals, the planes slowly started off down the mile—and-a—half runways. Though the thunderous pounding of piston engines was heard instead of the whine of jets, the Superfortresses were very much the ‘Jumbos’ of their day, dwarfing other bomber types and with extremely slender wings whose slight swaying seemed altogether inappropriate to the task of getting even the four massive engines airborne let alone the rest of the enormously long plane.

A major consideration on the 25th October mission, as on any long- range sortie, was fuel efficiency.

After take-off the planes levelled out at about 5,000 feet and the pilots eased back the throttles and settled down to a ‘lean burn’ cruising speed of around 200 m.p.h. Greater speed could have been achieved at 20,000 feet, in the more rarefied atmosphere, but the climb would consume lots of fuel as the aircraft was still very heavy with well over 6,000 gallons of aviation gasoline in the tanks.

So wherever possible the climb was delayed until they neared the target area and the enemy defences, by which time climb would consume probably 20 per cent less fuel.

The planes remained at high altitude over the target itself and each man donned his flight suit and oxygen mask as the planes were depressurised to prevent explosive decompression if the hull should be punctured by enemy fighters or flak.

See John Ellis: One Day in a Very Long War

US submarines narrowly miss the battleship Yamato

Japanese battleship Yamato under construction at the Kure Naval Base, Japan, September 20, 1941. The aircraft carrier Hosho is at the extreme right. The supply ship Mamiya is in the center distance.
Japanese battleship Yamato under construction at the Kure Naval Base, Japan, September 20, 1941. The aircraft carrier Hosho is at the extreme right. The supply ship Mamiya is in the center distance.

Both Germany and Japan had put their faith in super battleships, only to discover that Naval air power had fundamentally altered the potential threat of such huge ships. Germany’s Bismarck had come to grief early in the war. Her sister ship, the Tirpitz was never able to operate as an ocean raider as first intended, although she tied up significant British resources for much of the war.

Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials.
Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials.

Japan had built two ships even larger than the Bismarck class. The Yamato and the Musashi each displaced over 65,000 tons and were over 250 metres (820 feet) long, both carried nine 18 inch guns. On 23 October 1944 the Yamato had a narrow escape, although USN submarines were to put a significant dent in Japanese forces in the opening moves of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf.

In the early hours of 23 October 1944 Admiral Matome Ugaki was sailing with a large Japanese naval force commanded by Admiral Kurita, consisting of several cruisers and the battleship Yamato, north through the Palawan Passage in the Philippines.

Fair. Although I had expected it, could there be any worse day than today? I went up on the bridge as usual with the order ‘all hands to quarters’ one hour before sunrise.

We were sailing in an alert formation against submarines, with column abreast with 18 knots on course of 35°. While we were simultaneously turning to port in a zigzag movement, at 0625 all of a sudden I saw port ahead the flame of an explosion and what seemed like a spread water column on the dawn sea. I shouted involuntarily, ‘Done it!’ which proved to be the earliest discovery of it.

Immediately we made a simultaneous 45° turn to starboard with the signal ‘green green.’ Soon a second explosion took place in the same direction. The same ship seemed to have induced another explosion.

Asked about the situation of the Fourth Heavy Cruiser Division, the lookout replied there were three of them. Then, thinking it might have been a destroyer, I came to the port side where I saw a ship lying dead, emitting white smoke, and another one, damaged and heavily listing, which was approaching us.

The former was Takao, second ship of the line, and the latter Atago, first ship. One destroyer each from the left wing was standing by the damaged ships, while another was sent to the rescue. The visibility gradually widened.

Since there were many friendly ships in addition to enemy submarines, not only did excessive evasion pose a danger, but as a senior commander I couldn’t go too far away because of the prevailing visibility.

Therefore, following the turning of the Fifth Heavy Cruiser Division, we turned to port and formed a column. At this moment Maya, fourth ship of the Fourth Heavy Cruiser Division, sailing starboard ahead, exploded. Nothing was left after the smoke and spray subsided. The firing position of the torpedo could be seen at about 1500 meters port ahead of her.

How dangerous it was! Had Yamato been situated a little bit either way, she would have taken three to four torpedoes. Evading to starboard and still advancing, we found another periscope to the port ahead, so we went over to the starboard. By this time the First Force was put into great confusion; some advanced while others turned back. It was certain that there were four submarines.

See Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-1945

Imperial Japanese Navy's battle ship, Yamato running full-power trials in Sukumo Bay, 1941
Imperial Japanese Navy’s battle ship, Yamato running full-power trials in Sukumo Bay, 1941

The Royal Navy bait the German artillery

HMS WARSPITE, part of Bombarding Force 'D' off Le Havre, shelling German gun batteries in support of the landings on Sword area, 6 June 1944. The photo was taken from the frigate HMS HOLMES which formed part of the escort group.
HMS WARSPITE, part of Bombarding Force ‘D’ off Le Havre, shelling German gun batteries in support of the landings on Sword area, 6 June 1944. The photo was taken from the frigate HMS HOLMES which formed part of the escort group.

The work of the battleships offshore was just beginning. The bridgehead remained narrow and the enemy were to remain within range of the big guns for longer than expected.

W.F. Hartin, a reporter with the Combined Press was on board HMS Warspite, which was working alongside the cruisers HMS Frobisher and HMS Scylla:

Four men with their eyes glued to their powerful binoculars mounted in the control tower from which the fire of this battleship is directed shouted together “there he goes again!” as a winking light on the shoulder of the skyline this afternoon betrayed a powerful German gun in action. It had obviously been dragged into position overnight to take the place of the battery which we had knocked clean out with our 15-inch salvos yesterday. The new arrivals had dug themselves in near the old position probably because no other so completely commanded our beaches.

They had no intention of interfering with us. Seeing the devastation of yesterday so near them, they probably had a healthy respect for our gunnery, but they betrayed their activity by a few unostentatious ranging shots which they put out to sea. What they wanted to do was to take advantage of the hazy distance between us and them to get on with their real job of harassing the beach without being spotted by guns like ours which could answer back.

It was part of the schedule of the cruisers Frobisher and Scylla to investigate certain targets reported to them by aircraft, and so they were instructed as they passed nearby to let the new-occupants have a few salvos. It was hoped that the Germans would return the fire and so give us an opportunity of marking them down accurately for the attention of our heavier guns. I was in the director control tower when one of the gunnery officers’ team reported “Frobisher has opened fire, sir”.

“Now we will see if Jerry accepts the bait”, said the gunnery officer (“Guns”). It was a few seconds later that the cry went up from the watchers, and the tell-tale gun flashes from the all but invisible skyline were quickly translated into a target for our “B” turret. Distance, angle of sight and a dozen other readings were transmitted to the G.T. “table” in the bowels of the ship from which all the guns get their instructions.

In the meantime, another of our team had noted the fall of shot about the two cruisers. It was too close to be healthy, and from the splashes we judged the guns to be 5’9 in. or 6’1 in, big pieces to have got into position so quickly unless they were mobile. The Germans had taken the bait wholly, and flash after flash revealed them as they tried to pin down the weaving cruisers.

I took my eyes from the binoculars for a second to peep through my armoured slit at the blistered and blackened barrels of the old “Spite’s” guns. They were already trained of the “new tenants”, cocked so aggressively so that where I sat 20 feet above the captain’s bridge I could almost look down their grizzled muzzles. They were only waiting the order of Captain Kelsey to spit out the inferno of flame and brown smoke speeding their ton-weight of high explosive to its billet. “Open fire!” came the order from the bridge. The Director Layer – an experienced warrant officer – pressed a foot-pedal which can fire all the main armament in one mighty broadside.

Two ranging shells went screaming away through the volcano of smoke and flame which blotted everything from our view temporarily. “Guns” imperturbably noted the passage of the seconds. It was amazing how all the crew could tell you exactly when the projectiles were going to burst. “Splash!” sang out “Guns”, using the technical slang to indicate that the shot had fallen; and peering through my binoculars I saw two fountains of grey smoke spring up from the side of the hill. We were “right for line” as they say, but a little short. “Up 200” and “right one” were the instructions that sent the next two ranging shots screaming on their path. Then whoops of delight rang through the D.C.T. As the next salvo spouted high above the horizon, exactly where we had seen the gun flashes of the “new tenants”.

“That will make them think again, but let them have another for luck!” said “Guns”. Away screamed another salvo and as the “projjies” hurtled on their way still echoing faintly back at us the German battery flashed again. “Wait until this one reaches you!” Again we seemed dead on the target, and behind the dun-coloured bursts of our shells a great cauliflower of angry smoke spread and drifted to leeward in a heavy pall.

In the absence of a spotting aircraft to give us a bird’s-eye report, we could only gauge our success by whether or not the “new tenants” manned their guns again. There was no sign of life and no further reply to Frosbisher’s fire, nothing from that direction harrying the beach, and we came to the conclusion that the gun site was again “to let”.

Though we had fired until dusk on Tuesday we were ready again by 6.30 this morning. The first target reported to us came at 7.40 when spotting aircraft recommended for our attention a group of transport attached to a Panzer column two miles north of Caen. It was moving south-westerly along a road. Three two-gun salvos landed smack in the middle of them, and then, shifting range a thousand yards, we put three more salvos into some more transport concentrated near a village. The aircraft reported so many of the vehicles destroyed that they did not consider it worth our while continuing.

Then we had indicated to use some strongly held earthworks in a wooded area south of a village. Including our ranging shots we only needed to put 20 rounds into this strong-point before we received the report that it appeared to be totally destroyed. Next came news of a troublesome German A.A. Battery of five guns lying on high ground and, ranging on it, we quickly knocked out four of them.

This account first appeared in The War Illustrated Magazine on July 7, 1944.

Beach casualties being helped to the sick-bay on board HMS FROBISHER.
Beach casualties being helped to the sick-bay on board HMS FROBISHER.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

7th June 1944 was also the day that twenty year old 2nd Lieutenant Edwin Bramall landed in Normandy with 2nd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps. He was to fight through to Germany with them, awarded the Military Cross on 1st March 1945 but was not promoted to Lieutenant until 1946 and not to Captain until 1950. Thereafter he made steady progress through the ranks – becoming Field Marshal and Chief of the Defence Staff in 1982.

It was in 1994 that he addressed students at Radley College on ‘Operation Overlord and the North West Europe Campaign’. His lucid and incisive analysis of the Allied Command team, and the interaction of their various personalities, is well worth reading. He went on to consider the German situation on D-Day and immediately afterwards:

The German Army at this time was probably the most formidable and effective fighting machine since the Roman legions. Immensely battle-experienced in Poland, the fall of France, North Africa, Italy and, above all, Russia; superbly well-equipped, intensely fanatical and, above all, literally fighting for their lives and future, for they realised that if the Allies were not pushed into the sea or at least contained in a small lodgement area, this was the end of Hitler and their Nazi world, in which most of them had grown up and become enthusiastic followers. This, constituting as it could, a second defeat for Germany in less than thirty years, would have meant that, for them, life would not be worth living.

This particularly applied to the Waffen SS formations, the fighting arm of Hitler’s Party elite, of which there were a very high proportion in Normandy, and none more fanatical than the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division, made up of young Nazis, no older and in some cases much younger than all of you.

But balancing this was the fact that the German High Command was not in the best state to deal quickly with a landing. Only the Seventh Army of some three lowish-grade Infantry Divisions and one good Armoured Division, the 21st Panzer, were actually facing the invasion beaches.

A much larger number were held in the Pas de Calais, which was always thought by the Germans to be a more likely area for an invasion — an idea cleverly fostered by a brilliant Allied deception plan in which a mythical Army Group (FUSAG), com- manded by the dangerous Patton, was created in the Dover area and made ominous noises (through a lot of totally bogus wireless traffic) while appearing ready to descend on north-eastern France.

This was supported by the clever selection of Air Force interdiction targets, in which for every bomb dropped on Normandy three were dropped on the Pas de Calais, seeming thus to point to that area as the target for invasion. This tied down a number of the Fifteenth Army Divisions away from Normandy. On top of that, the real striking power, the Panzer Divisions, controlled by Panzer Group West, was held back centrally, and there was also a major disagreement about their use.

Field Marshal Rommel, the Army Group Commander, realising the power of the Allied air effort and the difficulty his troops would experience moving at all, and particularly in daylight, wanted to defeat the invasion on or near the beaches, with immediate armoured counter-attacks by armour held far forward. The Commander-in-Chief, West, the elderly patrician Field Marshal Rundstedt, however, wanted to hold the reserves back until the Allied weak points had been identified and then make a large concentrated counter-attack.

In any case, no decision on reserves could be taken without Hitler’s personal authority and he often could not be disturbed by his sycophantic staff. Much play was made of this in the film The Longer: Day. All this slowed things up, and to top it all, Rommel was taking advantage of what he was informed was unsuitable weather for an invasion and was in southern Germany on D-Day for his wife’s birthday, and the commander of 21st Panzer Division, based in Caen, was in Paris with his girlfriend.

So all in all, and for a number of hours, there was almost total paralysis of the German High Command, first not believing it was the main invasion at all and then not being certain what to do. The only real counter-attack on that first morning was by 21st Panzer Division, stationed in the city of Caen itself, but without its commander.

Of course, all that changed with the arrival back of Rommel on the evening of D-Day, and from then on it became a really vicious dog-fight and blood-letting on both sides, of which my own personal memories, still so vivid even after fifty years, are of lush Normandy countryside, with its standing corn nearly chest high, interspersed with chunks of sinister impeding bocage (deep ditches and high hedges), today, because of modern farming measures, largely disappeared, all suddenly blighted by the terrible sights and smells, thunderous noises of guns and mortars going on both sides, and the congestion of war: the blackened corpses, the bloated and stinking dead cattle and horses, the savage no—quarter fighting, with stay-behind snipers everywhere, and the appalling destruction of so many hamlets, villages and towns.

Normandy quickly became a hellish battle, with the elite Panzerlehr Division, made up of Army instructors, the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, and also the 2nd Panzer Division — seven elite Divisions, Nazi fanatics, with far better tanks and anti-tank weapons than we had — all started to pour into the battle, and all of them against the British sector. It was only fortunate that so much of their original power had been reduced by our own air support, on their way to the fight.

An excerpt from “The Bramall Papers” reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

US Navy ‘practice gunnery’ targets Japanese strongpoints

The U.S. Navy light cruiser USS Montpelier (CL-57) enters Havannah Harbor, Efate, New Hebrides, as seen from USS Columbia (CL-56) on 22 April 1943. Note the Curtiss SOC "Seagull" floatplane in the right foreground, and the worn paintwork on Montpelier´s hull, forward and amidships, with apparently fresh paint further aft.
The U.S. Navy light cruiser USS Montpelier (CL-57) enters Havannah Harbor, Efate, New Hebrides, as seen from USS Columbia (CL-56) on 22 April 1943. Note the Curtiss SOC “Seagull” floatplane in the right foreground, and the worn paintwork on Montpelier´s hull, forward and amidships, with apparently fresh paint further aft.
USS Montpelier CL-57 40mm gun crew in action on the 06 Apr 1944.
USS Montpelier CL-57 40mm gun crew in action on the 06 Apr 1944.
Empty 6" shell casings on the deck of the USS Montpelier CL-57 after battle action of Task Force #39 in the South Pacific on the 23 Dec 1943.
Empty 6″ shell casings on the deck of the USS Montpelier CL-57 after battle action of Task Force #39 in the South Pacific on the 23 Dec 1943.

In the US Navy, as in many other services, it was strictly forbidden to keep a diary. All around the world there were people defying that order. Some of them were to form the basis for fascinating memoirs later. It took great ability to write contemporaneously about the daily incident of life and produce something highly readable at first draft. It was rare for an ordinary seaman to achieve this.

James J. Fahey was serving on the USS Montpelier, one of the busiest ships in the Pacific War, ending the war with 13 battle stars. He kept his diary throughout, written on loose sheets of paper kept in a tin. It was never intended for publication – but won wide acclaim when ‘discovered’ and then published in 1963. He brought a fresh view to incidents that would otherwise be recorded as fairly routine:

Saturday, May 20, 1944:

Arose at 4:30 A.M. We left Munda at 5:50 A.M. We will travel to Bougainville for more gunnery exercises against pillboxes. On the way to our destination, Captain Hoffman spoke to the crew, saying that our targets will be live. There are still japs on the end of the island that we will be shooting at. Shore batteries are reported there by a destroyer that was passing when the guns opened up on it.

The Captain believed that the japs there were being supplied by enemy submarines. This will be only classified as a practice run but return fire by the Japs is anticipated. We got quite a kick out of the Captain’s phraseology. Having six inch shells being fired at us by the enemy, and they rate it practice. Planes will spot for us, informing us of our accuracy. We will have four destroyers and the cruisers Cleveland and Birmingham with us.

Arriving at 10 A.M., we commenced firing at 10:35 A.M. The Jap shore batteries on the beach returned the fire quickly after. Their guns were stationed on top of a hill. Their guns that were firing at us were the big 8 inch variety. Our largest caliber was the 6 inch. Our run on Bougainville was commencing as our starboard guns opened fire.

On returningthe port guns were brought into action. The first ship to be fired at by the enemy shore batteries, was the cruiser Cleveland. I was at my battle station on the 40 mm. machine gun mount and the Admiral and Captain were just above me on the bridge. As I looked to the rear, I saw big geysers of water, rising all around the cruiser Cleveland. It was a miracle that it was not hit.

At first we took it as a joke, but then got very serious because we knew that our turn would come to be fired on by the big Jap guns. Cruisers make a very big target in the daytime, they are over six hundred feet long. While we were on our way in to hit the japs; they opened up on us.

They must have had us in their sights, because their big 8 inch shells began to explode all around us and fly through the mast, they could not have come any closer without hitting us. In the meantime our guns were blazing away but the Japs were in a very dfficult spot for us to hit, behind a hill.

We could not get any closer to the Japs, because it would be suicide. We could see the big flashes from their guns as they kept up a steady fire with their 8 inch guns against our six inch guns. The jap shells sent big sprays of water up into the air just in front of my mount and one of the 20 mm. gun mounts up forward on the bow was knocked out by shrap nel, as it sprayed the ship with big chunks of red hot steel.

Some of the wounded were carried to the crew’s lounge, it is a battle dressing station. One Marine named Darling had a big piece of shrapnel go through his helmet and out the other side. When they picked up his helmet part of his scalp was still in it. One fel- low almost went insane with the pain, and he was going to jump over the side.

Blood and hair was splattered over the deck. Some had to have transfusions. One of the fellows will not be able to have the shrapnel removed until his wound is healed, then he will be operated on. They have to wait until the artery is healed. Another fellow’s leg was a mess. Another received a notice today, saying that he would be transferred to the States, and he also got hit.

It was a lucky break that one of the fellows had his life jacket on, because it was full of shrapnel. If our ship was going a little faster the Admiral and Captain would have got it and we are very close to them. You hold your breath when you see the Jap guns fire at you and then wait to see if they hit you.

They could not come any closer without hitting us. It does not feel very good to see 8 inch shells falling all around you and you have no place to hide. One of the fellows dove for the deck when he heard the shells close by explode and an officer dove on top of him, we got a kick out of it. A piece of shrapnel about six by six almost hit Gallagher, and he had to pick it up with his hat because it was so hot.

When shrapnel hits thick steel it bounces around. The anchor chain which is about as thick as a football was almost cut in half. Someone said the Cleveland also got hit. If the Japs ever hit us with direct hits, they would have done an awful lot of damage and you do not know what it might have led to, it could have sunk us.

The japs didn’t interfere with our “practice,” because we stayed here for two hours firing at them. The Japs did not stop us from carrying out our plans. The Japs’ firing was terriffic and they are supposed to be starving. I would hate to run into them on full stomachs.

The Japs also had anti-aircraft guns on the shore and they opened up on our planes when they were spotting for us. It was like a hornets’ nest over there. I don’t blame our troops on shore for leaving them alone where they can do no harm to anyone.

Our ship knocked out the Jap radio tower and some anti-aircraft guns, we also helped knock out some of the big shore batteries. The cruiser Cleveland fired over a thousand rounds of six inch shells not to mention what the rest of us fired. The Japs must have thought they were at a shooting gallery firing these big 8 inch guns at us and shell and shrapnel falling all around us. Those Japs have plenty of guts, they are not afraid of anything.

This was a good old fashion slugfest, with no quarter given by either side. No one was brokenhearted when we finally left, and they call this practice.

See James J Fahey: Pacific War Diary, 1942-1945: The Secret Diary of an American Sailor

James J Fahey served on the USS Montpelier
James J Fahey served on the USS Montpelier.
USS Montpelier launched at the New York ship Building Yard. The ship has 100,000 horsepower with a crew of almost 900. Aerial oblique view. 27 Oct 1942.
USS Montpelier launched at the New York ship Building Yard. The ship has 100,000 horsepower with a crew of almost 900. Aerial oblique view. 27 Oct 1942.
USS Cleveland at sea, circa late 1942
USS Cleveland at sea, circa late 1942

Operation Cockpit – the Japanese surprised at Sabang

A surprise raid on Sabang in northern Sumatra. A general view from one of the attacking planes showing a blazing oil tank with oil spreading out over the harbour area, burning docks, warehouses and ships. In the foreground is a Japanese destroyer which was set on fire by fighters. 19 April 1944
A surprise raid on Sabang in northern Sumatra. A general view from one of the attacking planes showing a blazing oil tank with oil spreading out over the harbour area, burning docks, warehouses and ships. In the foreground is a Japanese destroyer which was set on fire by fighters. 19 April 1944
Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing
Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing
Seventeen Fairey Barracuda bombers and 13 Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and 11 Grumman TBM “Avenger” torpedo-bombers, 18 Douglas “Dauntless” dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F“Hellcat” fighters from USS SARATOGA attacked Sabang harbor and nearby Lho Nga airfield. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise and there was no fighter opposition.
Seventeen Fairey Barracuda bombers and 13 Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and 11 Grumman TBM “Avenger” torpedo-bombers, 18 Douglas “Dauntless” dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F“Hellcat” fighters from USS SARATOGA attacked Sabang harbor and nearby Lho Nga airfield. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise and there was no fighter opposition.

The British Far Eastern Fleet, with USS Saratoga, sailed from Trincomalee, on 16 April 1944, and on 19 April 1944 attacked the port of Sabang, on the northwestern tip of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese were caught completely by surprise and the combined effort destroyed oil refineries, huge storage tanks and transportation facilities. In addition the minelayer Hatsutaka, and the transports Kunitsu Maru and Haruno Maru were sunk.

See records of US Carrier Air Group 12

This was a truly multinational force including aircraft the carriers HMS Illustrious and the USS Saratoga, the French battleship Richelieu as well as Dutch and New Zealand ships.

Reuters correspondent Alan Humphrey was there to give this dramatic account for the worlds’ press:

At the rate of ten tons a minute, 350 tons of steel and high explosive struck Sabang in the 35 minutes the bombardment lasted. Battleships; cruisers and destroyers poured shells varying from 4-in. to 15-in. into the base at close range. When the flagship turned away after completing her firing she was only two miles from the green, jungle-covered hills which rise steeply from the sea around Sabang.

It was the first time that any Allied naval surface force had been in sight of Sumatra since the dark days of the Japanese onrush in 1942.

The fleet reached its objective unobserved and the ‘first thing the Japanese knew was intensive strafing by carrier-based Corsair fighters. Among the Corsairs’ targets were three airfields, including one at Kota Raja on the Sumatra mainland. Confirming suspicions that Japan’s air strength was’weak,’ only four aircraft were found and all destroyed. Disturbing as was the air raid to serene Japanese slumbers, the first reaction of the defenders when they saw the powerful battle fleet closing in must have been one of extreme dismay.

The fleet was divided into five forces for the operation. The carriers with their escort stayed a considerable way out at sea. The aircraft went strafing, were ready to deal with any Japanese aircraft coming up, provided an umbrella over the warships and acted as spotters for the guns. Battleships made up another force. A third force which included Dutch warships penetrated the harbour and dealt with installations at Sabang. Two other forces were devoted to attacks on coastal targets east and west of Sabang.

Just before 6.55 a.m. — zero hour — the loudspeakers announced: “Two minutes to go !” An unusual silence developed, so that sounds normally unnoticed became insistent, the remote slap of spray, the faint hiss from the funnel, the bubbling whistle, of wind in the wires just overhead. Then with a great belch of flame, a greater belch of orange-brown smoke, a blast of hot air and a jolt back on to the heels, the first salvo was fired from the big guns at a range of 17,000 yards.

A rating fired his own shot. “Share that lot amongst you!” he said, as the guns roared. One by one resonant booms told that the other battleships had joined in the bombardment. Then began the process described beforehand by a gunnery officer; of “inflicting the maximum damage in the minimum time”. The particular target of the flagship was the military barracks area, and in the words of the same gunnery oflicer, the Japanese garrison there was given “a new type of reveille in the form of a 15-in. ‘brick’”.

For the next quarter of an hour it was a rapid succession of jarring explosions. The force going into the harbour was firing furiously, one destroyer depressing a multiple pom-pom and spraying the defences with that also.

Three Japanese batteries inside the harbour engaged these warships, a number of bursts throwing up grey gouts of water all round and close to them. On the run in one battery was silenced, the workshops and wharves were attacked, and a large crane was seen to topple over.

Two batteries were silenced on the run back. The report on the operations concluded with the words “quite a skylark!”.

The remainder of the fleet carried out the bombardment unmolested; it appeared there were no coastal batteries. All the time a great cloud of smoke was steadily thickening over Sabang, a testimony to the weight and accuracy of the bombardment.

The Japanese defenders, who made only the slightest reaction to the air attack, apparently nettled at last, whistled up their aircraft, possibly from Sumatra, possibly from Malaya.

Two hours after the fleet withdrew, a Japanese two-engined bomber was reported approaching. It was shot down by Corsairs. Shortly afterwards a Zero fighter found the fleet. He came in as close as ten miles, then started to run home. He reported from 14 miles away, then 25, then 28. At this point‘ the fighters‘ cried “Tallyho!” and a moment later the Zero went into the sea 30 miles away.

See also New Zealand History

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of fighter squadron VF-3 on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in October 1941. The plane on the aircraft elevator is 3-F-9 (BuNo 3982), piloted by Ensign Gayle Hermann. This plane was in service with VF-6 in December 1941 and hit by "friendly" fire near Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (USA), on the night of 7 December 1941 while trying to land after a combat air patrol. It was badly damaged but the pilot could land the plane and luckily was uninjured.
Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of fighter squadron VF-3 on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in October 1941. The plane on the aircraft elevator is 3-F-9 (BuNo 3982), piloted by Ensign Gayle Hermann. This plane was in service with VF-6 in December 1941 and hit by “friendly” fire near Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (USA), on the night of 7 December 1941 while trying to land after a combat air patrol. It was badly damaged but the pilot could land the plane and luckily was uninjured.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.