Ferocious Luftwaffe attack on HMS Illustrious

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

HMS Illustrious under attack on the 10th January 1941. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.
HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by german bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 Ju-87's and Ju-88's, to make it to Malta. A bomb explodes on HMS ILLUSTRIOUS while another near miss lands next to her.
HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the Mediterranean off the italian island of Pantelleria. In the first action by German bombers in the Mediterranean , HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 Ju-87’s and Ju-88’s, to make it to Malta.
A bomb explodes on HMS ILLUSTRIOUS while another near miss lands next to her.

The Luftwaffe announced their arrival in the Mediterranean with a vengeance. The new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, whose planes had so successfully attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, was the subject of a sustained attack by Ju 87 dive-bombers as it escorted a convoy to Malta. MaritimeQuest has a series of images of the attack and the damage to the ship.

The main forces of the Mediterranean Fleet, consisting of H.M. Ships Warspite and Valiant with H.M.S. Illustrious and 7 destroyers, were operating in support in the Eastern Basin and covering the passage from Alexandria to Malta of a convoy which was escorted by H.M. Ships Perth, Orion, York and Ajax. On the 10th January the Fleet was attacked several times by various types of aircraft.

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

In this attack H.M.S Illustrious was severely damaged as a result of 6-direct bomb hits and several near misses, which caused fires and disabled her steering gear. Her casualties were 83 killed, 60 seriously and 40 slightly wounded, including several officers. H.M.S. Warspiie also sustained slight damage from a near miss. During this attack one Fulmar and one Swordfish were shot down, their crews being saved, and two enemy aircraft were shot down by gunfire.

At 1330 an unsuccessful attack was made on Illustrious by high level bombers and between 1600 and 1700 a second dive-bombing attack by about 30 aircraft was made on her and the Battle Fleet in which another hit was believed to have been made on Illustrious, and H.M.S. Valiant had one killed and 3 wounded from near misses.

During this attack Fulmars from Illustrious, which had refuelled at Malta, shot down 6 or 7 Ju 87 or 88’s and damaged several others. Heavy bombs of about 1,000 lb. were used in all these attacks. Illustrious, covered by the Battle Fleet, arrived at Malta at about 2100 after a final, but unsuccessful, attack had been made on her by torpedo bombers outside the entrance to Grand Harbour. Eleven of her Swordfish and 5 Fulmars were destroyed by fire.

From the weekly Naval Situation report see TNA CAB/66/14/33

Air Mechanic Rayburn was on board HMS Illustrious and somehow lived to tell his story:

My action station as with all maintenance crews, was in the hanger with the aircraft, which by the way were all heavily armed, and loaded with torpedoes ready for an attack on the Italian Fleet.

Illustrious was armed with 16 4.5 dual purpose guns, and 8 6 barrelled 2lb quick firing AA weapons.  The ship kept jumping and shaking.  Several large bombs hit the shop aft, and the after hanger was on fire.  The noise was indescribable.  In my baptism of fire, all that sticks in my mind are impressions. 
I was standing more or less in the centre of the hanger.  A chap came down from the flight deck; his rubber suit was full of holes with blood leaking from all of them.  I helped carry him down to the casualty station in the washroom flats.

The surgeons were busy.  Blood washed from side to side with the sway of the ship. 
I returned to my action station in the hangar.  The ship continued to rock and sway.

I looked up with fear and apprehension.  Then there was an almighty flash as a 1,000 lb bomb pierced the 4 inch armoured deck and exploded.  I was only aware of a great wind, and bits of aircraft, debris, all blowing out to the forward lift shaft of 300 tons, which was also blown out. 
There were dead and wounded all around.  My overalls were blown off and I had small wounds to the back of my head and shoulder.
I was probably 10-15 feet away from the bomb when it exploded.  Luck I survived?  I prefer the thought of someone looking out for me. 
The hanger by then was burning all over.  The ships commander came and said, ‘come on lads close the armoured doors.’  The overhead sprays then flooded the hanger.

The ship started to sink by the stern, and everyone had to blow up lifebelts.  Then came a spot of humour in all that chaos.  Poor old Corporal Gater came through a side door white as a sheet saying ‘I wish I hadn’t bloody joined.’ 
The battering carried on for six to seven hours. 
There were many wounded piled up.  The aft surgeons station had been destroyed, and the forward station was unable to cope quickly with so many casualties. 
Captain Boyd finally steered with the engines into Malta.  The ship was quiet at last.

See Acepilots for his full story and much more on HMS Illustrious.

A hole in the armoured flight deck of HMS Illustrious where a 1,250 pound bomb penetrated. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.

Some repairs were carried out at Malta (where there were further air attacks) before HMS Illustrious returned to Alexandria. There she was sufficiently patched up to make the journey, via the Suez Canal and round Africa, to U.S. shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. She was out of the war for the remainder of the year.

POSTSCRIPT

In 2014 Andrew Wilson wrote to me:

During 2000, some friends of mine moved into a house in Epsom, Surrey, where the previous owners had left a desk. Tucked away in the desk was a letter from HMS Illustrious, a personal letter, with references to the Malta convoy.

Attempts have been made to try to trace the identities of the addressee and the writer, so far without much progress. It is almost certainly one Royal Navy officer writing to another. It would appear that the letter was addressed to an officer who had formerly served on HMS Illustrious and was anxious for news of the casualties sustained in January 1941. There can be little doubt that the letter is authentic and refers to this action and the aftermath.

This is a raw and powerful document that deserves to be seen more widely, a vivid memorial of what these men went through:

HMS Illustrious
3 March 1941

My dear old E.J.,

Your very kind letter of 16th January has just arrived. I knew how you would feel it and longed to be able to assure you that all the team you knew were still alive. I not only could not but dared not say anything until we left Malta and got to Alex as our expectation of life was not very high. But, as you know, we all survived and live to fight again.

How the buzz about Bill started I have no idea as he was more full of life than anyone! My chief sorrows were Lt. Gregory whom you may remember was very sweet to Elizabeth. He was hit on the spine by a bomb splinter and fell down saying ‘I think something has hit me.’ He then turned very grey and asked for morphia knowing he was dying. Keevil gave him a shot and then he had to be moved as a fierce fire was raging under the quarter deck where he was lying. A marine picked him up and his back was heard to break. He was, I think, already dead.

Luddington, ex England and Navy rugger and our Master at Arms, was blown to bits in the hanger where a bomb exploded. He was a golden man.

Clifford, a Lieut. and pilot who had done very well at Taranto, was wounded in the first attack and then devoted himself to the other wounded. After the third attack he was never seen again. Either he was blown overboard or he disintegrated. He was a pattern of gallantry and gentility and one of the best three-quarters we have had for a long time.

Our young marine Manisty, whom Les knew, was killed by a bomb which did not wound him but just blasted him. The other officer casualties you would not know unless you remember Mr Anstis our gunner. He was blown to bits by a bomb which hit the pompom just in front of the bridge. He and all the crew were in an awful mess but were clearly killed instantly. I ordered them to be thrown overboard as they were dreadful sights. Arms, legs, heads and trunks going over the side were awful to see but were better there than lying about the deck where they chilled the stomachs of others.

Analysing one’s feelings afterwards I felt no sorrow at the time as my feelings were that the dead had perhaps the easiest job. Nor was I afraid, it was all so terrific and one’s responsibility so great that I had no uncomfortable feelings other than intense sorrow for the ship as I never expected her to be of any use again. I was on the wing bridge watching the bombs come down and I saw both lifts fly into the air like leaves. An amazing sight.

Fear came later when I realised we must have more attacks before reaching Malta. I then felt utterly sick for a while and trembled from head to foot. I went down to my sea cabin, took a good hold of myself, offered up a prayer that I’d do my stuff and then went back and was waggling the engines to steer her for the next 8 hours and through 2 more attacks without any particular feeling other than an unsatisfied desire for food. From breakfast until 10 pm, when we secured I only had cocoa and a biscuit which Lloyd the Padre brought me.

Our real strain came with the repeat attacks at Malta. On one occasion I was ashore not 20 yards from a cave shelter and the ship was 100 yards away. On the warning I walked to the gangway saying to myself after all there is nothing I can do and when I got to the gangway I stopped, feeling utterly cowardly and bloody nearly ran for the shelter. However I climbed slowly and reluctantly up the gangway and then felt alright. The others were the same I think. I allowed no one on board (there were wonderful shelters) except the gun crews and supply parties. Some of them failed to turn up and we manned the guns with 4 commandos, 6 Lt Cdrs, 2 Paymasters Seamen and Westmacott , 4 Po’s and 6 first class able seamen.

Rosey Barker and I went to the air defence position on the top bridge where we directed the guns on to the targets until the attack developed and then we just watched. However if you have seen Bill you will have heard as stirring a yarn as ever was spun. I sent Bill home because we did learn a lot and I wanted the powers that be to know what we learnt. To say I was indifferent to the fact that Bella had had a baby would be a ruddy lie, but Bill must never know that I thought of that first! He was splendid and deserved a little thought of that kind.

I think my worst job was to see people suffering from strain. It was horrible and some got it badly. Tamplin the Chief, a fat cheerful self indulgent bachelor went ashore and just couldn’t come back so I sent him to hospital. Duckworth, who was badly blasted, cried at the least excuse and yet stuck at it and was always there though I think useless. Men I thought tough were no good at all in fact the only really good ones were the team and a few sailors and engineers of the quiet nice type. Martin whose funny little wife vamped old N.R. was the senior engineer and was the supreme man of the whole show. His guts and skill were quite remarkable and he was quite delighted when owing to the chief cracking he was left with the whole responsibility.

The senior gunner went to the hospital to see the wounded and collapsed staying there! Others in varying degrees were looking like death but they stuck it well. I think I saved them all from going really potty by abandoning ship for 3 days after the Sunday attacks. It was a ghastly thing to do but I had to do it and as usual got away with it as during those 3 days we were not attacked. Had I not done so half of us would have been loonies and in any case we would not have saved the ship. On the Thursday they all came back gladly and were able to produce the goods for an awful passage to Alex. I have often had to bear responsibility but never anything to equal this. To them the 3 days were a rest, to us they were just hell but I knew it was right.

I seem to have run on a bit but your very kind thoughts in your letter and various inspired me to tell you a little, added to Audrey’s they all help to make a picture of which we are all, not without justification, very proud.

I went to a ship’s company dance the other night and jawed with some of them. We were a happy family and I did not realise quite how much they hung on what I said and did.

God bless you both your T.6 (not clearly decipherable)

D.B. [but looks like D.W.]

I thought this was possibly written by the Captain – but there was confusion over whether it was signed D.B. or D.W. . This account by Malta at War Museum suggests that he was Denis Boyd – and this has been confirmed by Alistair Horn (see comments below).

A near miss. HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the Italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by German bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 ju-87's and ju-88's, to make it Malta.
A near miss. HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the Italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by German bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 ju-87’s and ju-88’s, to make it Malta.

In November 2014 I was pleased to be able to add the following account by 92 year old Sydney Millen:

I remember that on the 9th January our escorts including “Warspite” did a practice air defensive exercise, and to all our eyes nothing could penetrate that barrage. How wrong could we be proved.

From first light the action started, HMS Gallant had her bows blown off after hitting a mine, and then towards noon action stations was sounded, and from then on all hell broke loose. I at the start was on duty in the after end of the hanger, but in what seemed a short space of time there was a terrific explosion for’ard and what I am sure was the forward lift was struck, luckily despite the debris etc I was unhurt and left the hanger.

After that the ship shudderred many times as she was hit and like many of my comrades I helped in the rescue of the many injured. One of the after gun turrets suffered a near direct hit and the carnage was awful. After a period owing to damage to our steering gear we were just going in circles, quite a target for the aircraft attacking, our escort had I presume decided to keep a fair distance as they were not conspicuous by their presence.

Anyway that’s as maybe , we eventually arrived at the entrance to Malta harbour, with what seemed to me crowds of people, cheering us in, I often wondered if they would have been so enthusiastic if they had realised that this day would have been the start of the terrible ordeal to which they would have to suffer in the coming years.

Anyway we eventually tied up and the following days were spent in the unenviable task of clearing up, not pleasant, the ship was in dock for I think several days, but as what was left of my sqdn. was ashore I left the ship and stayed at Hal Far aerodrome for I think several months doing what we could to defend Malta.

Not very specific I know, but a day I shall always remember, my first taste of action.

The view of the flight deck from the ship's bridge.
The view of the flight deck from the ship’s bridge.

EXTRA PICTURE ADDED March 2014

Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing. I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo "854 Squadton R.N. "Illustrious"aircraft carrier.
Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing.
I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo
“854 Squadton R.N. “Illustrious”aircraft carrier. Courtesy James Doherty, see comments below.

Celebrations on “The Mighty Hood”

We all drank a toast to 1941 – Peace and Victory. One of the midshipmen from the gunroom came in with a bagpipe and played Scotch tunes. Everyone started to dance the various Scotch dances from the Admiral down to the lowest midshipman. The Wardroom tables were cleared away and a regular party was in full swing. It was a very unusual sight to see the Admiral, Captain, staff, Wardroom, gunroom, and Warrant officers dancing.

"The Mighty Hood" - HMS Hood
HMS HOOD seen between two 16 inch guns (belonging to HMS RODNEY) as she returned from the Mediterranean.
"The Mighty Hood" - HMS Hood
Routine instruction as usual.

HMS Hood, known within the Royal Navy as “The Mighty Hood” was a 860 foot long, 46,000 ton battlecruiser launched in 1918. In late 1940 she was the flagship for the Home Fleet that stood in reserve for a possible invasion and assisted with convoy protection.

The Home Fleet was based in the Orkney Islands anchorage of Scapa Flow in the far north of Great Britain, ready to intercept German ships seeking to make their way into the Atlantic. On board was a United States Naval officer, Joseph Wellings, who recorded the day in his diary:

Last day of 1940 – up at usual time 0745 – breakfast, a good mile and a quarter walk on quarterdeck, more snow last night – Hills are really very pretty – wish I were home. On bridge watching ship shift berths – Not a very good job – cut mooring buoy. Watched the crew get their ration of rum – quite a ritual.

Called on the Warrant Officers – had a gin(s) (2). Lunch, read, nap – First Lieut. In for a cup of coffee at 1730. Dressed for dinner – at 1830 called on the midshipmen in the gunroom and the Warrant Officers before dinner. Had a very fine turkey dinner.

After dinner remained in wardroom – talked with Warrand, the navigator, and Owens. Just before midnight the officers returned from the C.P.O. party. Browne (Lt. Paymaster) rigged up ships bell in Anteroom of wardroom. At 2400 bell was struck 16 times, an old custom. Captain, Admiral, his staff, exec, and practically all officers returned to Wardroom.

We all drank a toast to 1941 – Peace and Victory. One of the midshipmen from the gunroom came in with a bagpipe and played Scotch tunes. Everyone started to dance the various Scotch dances from the Admiral down to the lowest midshipman. The Wardroom tables were cleared away and a regular party was in full swing. It was a very unusual sight to see the Admiral, Captain, staff, Wardroom, gunroom, and Warrant officers dancing.

Included in the party but not dancing was the Chief Master-at-Arms and Sergeant Major of the Marines. Such a comradeship one would never suspect from the English who are supposed to be so conservative. I was impressed very much. Such spirit is one of the British best assets. This spirit will go far to bring about victory in the end. At 0145 I left the party in full swing and turned in but not before thanking God for his many blessings in 1940 and saying goodnight to my two sweethearts.

Joseph Wellings was later to become an Admiral. The remainder of those at the party were less fortunate – all of HMS Hood’s officers would be lost when she was sunk by the Bismarck on 24th May 1941. Midshipman William Dundas was one of just three survivors out of the total crew of 1,418 – he would have been at the party – but he did not join the ship until 6th January 1941.

The HMS Hood Association has a tremendously comprehensive record of the ship, her crew and their final action. They currently (2015) have an appeal to find photographs of all 1415 men lost on HMS Hood – so far they have collected pictures of 889 men.

On His Majesty’s Service: Observations of the British Home Fleet from the Diary, Reports, and Letters of Joseph H. Wellings, Assistant U.S. Naval Attache, London, 1940-41

"The Mighty Hood" - HMS Hood
HMS HOOD seen from HMS REPULSE.
"The Mighty Hood" - HMS Hood
HMS HOOD on speed trials off the Isle of Arran

Battle of Cape Spartivento

Our forces engaged the enemy at extreme range, but were unable to overtake them. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal, however, succeeded in attacking with the following results : one torpedo hit on a battleship of the Littorio class; and one almost certain torpedo hit on an 8-inch cruiser. Another 8-inch cruiser was observed to be in difficulties, and a dive-bombing attack was made on three 6-inch cruisers, probably causing some damage by near misses.

Cape Spartivento
HMS RENOWN underway at speed in the Mediterranean, and firing a salvo from A and B turrets during the Battle of Cape Spartivento.
Cape Spartivento
Bombs falling astern of HMS ARK ROYAL during an attack by Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento (photograph taken from the cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD).

The dramatic attack by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm at the Battle of Taranto had disabled significant parts of the Italian Navy. The effect was to make the Italians cautious about risking of their remaining capital ships, and particularly wary about engaging with Royal Navy aircraft.

The Royal Navy clashed with the Regia Marina again on the 27th November. The Italians were initially in a good position to attack a British convoy headed to Egypt, one of their main objectives.

But the Italian Force was under orders to attack only if assured of success – so when discovering that they facing a roughly equal sized force, it retired at speed, leading to an inconclusive engagement.

The Italian commander Admiral Campioni later gave a candid account of how his decision making was affected by the changing information he received about the forces opposing him:

The sighting report (at 1015) persuaded me to alter course to 135° in order to close the English forces, and if possible intercept them. This appeared possible at the time, also I had in mind that the English forces were inferior to the Italian. Furthermore the encounter would be brought about in waters closer to Sicily than Sardinia, that is in conditions favourable to us.

But whilst our forces were taking up station on the new course I received at 1155 a signal, originally made at 1110 by an aircraft from Armera, giving the position of the Renown’s group. This position was 20 miles nearer to the Vittorio Veneto than the one shown by the plot based on previous sighting reports, and was near enough to the other British forces to render their meeting very easy.

A state of affairs was thus created which on the best hypothesis was unfavourableto us numerically and qualitatively. Particularly important was the presence of an aircraft-carrier, which with well-directed action properly synchronized with action of their ships, that were certainly not inferior to ours, would have brought about a situation of the utmost gravity.

It was a situation not only at variance with the directive given to me by the Ministry of Marine, but with that imposed by military necessity.” [The Admiral then explains that in this latter term he was referring to the effect on the Italian navy of the F.A.A. attack on Taranto on 11th November, and the fact that the battleship Andrea Doria was not yet ready.]

Under these conditions, in conformity with the spirit and letter of the orders received and with what at that moment I deemed to be my duty I decided not to become involved in a battle. In theory I should have been able to take into calculation an effective intervention by our shore-based aircraft, but my previous experience discouraged me from putting too much faith on such intervention, having learnt from experience what to expect.

The British aircraft will damage our ships, the Italian aircraft will not damage theirs, the enemy are not inferior in numbers or quality to us, and at present we cannot afford any further reduction in capital ship strength.

From the subsequent British Naval Battle Summaries, available from the Royal Australian Navy.

Cape Spartivento
The Italian Battleship Vittorio Veneto firing a broadside at the Battle Of Cape Spartivento.
Battle of Cape Spartivento chart
Situation at 1315 from Renown’s Plot, during the Battle of Cape Spartivento

From the British Naval Situation Report for the week:

On the 27th November contact was made with Italian naval forces to the southward of Sardinia. The Italian force, which was sighted by aircraft in a position about 30 miles S.S.W. off Cape Spartivento, consisted of two battleships and a number of cruisers and destroyers.

The British force was in two parts : one, consisting of H.M. Ships Ramillies, Berwick, Coventry and Newcastle and some destroyers, was about 50 miles to the south of the Italian force; and the other, consisting of H.M. Ships Renown and Ark Royal with some cruisers and destroyers, was about 90 miles to the south-westward of the Italians when they were first sighted. Both our forces proceeded to make contact, and some three hours later the Renown sighted the Italian battleships at a range of 20 miles. The Italians retired at high speed towards Cagliari and a chase developed.

Planes leaving HMS ARK ROYAL to attack the enemy. As seen from KELVIN accompanying the ARK ROYAL.

Our forces engaged the enemy at extreme range, but were unable to overtake them. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal, however, succeeded in attacking with the following results : one torpedo hit on a battleship of the Littorio class; and one almost certain torpedo hit on an 8-inch cruiser. Another 8-inch cruiser was observed to be in difficulties, and a dive-bombing attack was made on three 6-inch cruisers, probably causing some damage by near misses. The Italians are also believed to have sustained the following casualties by gunfire : one 8-inch cruiser probably severely damaged, one destroyer severely damaged and another damaged.

On our side H.M.S. Berwick was twice hit by 8-inch shell, resulting in slight structural damage and ” Y ” turret being put out of action. Her casualties were one officer and six ratings killed, two ratings seriously wounded. and six slightly wounded. All our aircraft returned except one Fulmar, and another which crashed on landing and was lost overboard.

Bombs bursting round the aircraft carrier HMS ARK ROYAL during an enemy air attack.

After the action our forces were twice bombed by enemy aircraft without result. In the second attack the Ark Royal was missed by only ten yards by one bomb. Both attacks were intercepted by fighters and two enemy aircraft were shot down.

Only much later was it established that the Swordfish pilots were mistaken, none of their torpedoes had struck home.

Cape Spartivento
As seen from the Cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD during The Battle of Cape Spartivento an engagement off Sardinia. A distant view of the Italian Fleet.
Cape Spartivento
A Supermarine Walrus amphibian in flight. This aircraft was used for spotting at Spartivento.

 

On board HMS SHEFFIELD – removing empty cordite cases after the action.

Bi-planes smash Italian Fleet at Taranto

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

reconnaissance for taranto attack
Aerial-reconnaissance vertical of Italian naval vessels moored in the outer harbour (Mar Grande) at Taranto, Italy. Photograph taken by No. 431 Flight RAF flying from Luqa, Malta.
HMS Illustrious in 1940 with Swordfish aircraft
Twenty one Swordfish were launched from the new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious for the raid on Taranto. Fifty per cent losses were expected.

The potential for Naval Aviation to dramatically alter the strategies and tactics of the war at sea had been considered by many theorists since the First World War. At Taranto a single raid by slow, virtually obsolete old Bi-planes suddenly shattered many long cherished beliefs about the power of Battleships and naval gunnery.

A possible attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto had been planned and prepared by the Royal Navy before the war. The operation called for the Fleet Air Arm to make a surprise attack with the carrier aircraft they had available. In 1940 that meant the Swordfish aircraft would have to make a long distance approach with auxiliary fuel tanks.

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo
The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war.

Lieutenant M.R. Maund describes the reality for the men in the open cockpits of the venerable old Swordfish aircraft:

Six thousand feet. God how cold it is here! The sort of cold that fills you until all else is drowned, save perhaps fear and loneliness. Suspended between heaven and earth in a sort of no-man’s land – to be sure, no man was ever meant to be here Is it surprising that my knees are knocking together?

We have now passed under a sheet of alto-stratus cloud which blankets the moon, allowing only a few pools of silver where small gaps appear. And, begob, Williamson is going to climb through it! As the rusty edge is reached I feel a tugging at my port wing, and find that Kemp has edged me over into the slipstream of the leading sub-flight.

I fight with hard right stick to keep the wing up, but the sub-flight has run into one of its clawing moments, and quite suddenly the wing and nose drop and we are falling out of the sky! I let her have her head and see the shape of another aircraft flash by close over-head.

Turning, I see formation lights ahead and climb up after them, following them through one of the rare holes in this cloud mass. There are two aircraft sure enough, yet when I range up alongside, the moon-glow shows up the figure 5A — that is Olly. The others must be ahead.

After an anxious few minutes some dim lights appear amongst the upper billows of the cloud, and opening the throttle we lumber away from Olly after them. Poor old engine – she will get a tanning this trip.

We are now at 1,000 feet over a neat residential quarter of the town where gardens in darkened squares show at the back of houses marshalled by the neat plan of the streets that serve them. Here is the main road that connects the district with the main town. We follow its line and, as I open the throttle to elongate the glide, a Breda AA gun swings round from the shore, turning its stream of red balls in our direction.

This is the beginning. Then another two guns farther north get our scent — white balls this time — so we throttle back again and make for a black mass on the shore that looks like a factory, where no balloons are likely to grow. We must be at a hundred feet now and must soon make our dash across that bloody water …

I open the throttle wide and head for the mouth of the Mar Piccolo, whose position … can be judged by the lie of the land. Then it is as if all hell comes tumbling in on top of us … the fire of one of the cruisers and the Mar Piccolo Canal batteries …

taranto attack
Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from ‘Illustrious’ Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940
by Charles David Cobb (c) David Cobb; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We turn until the right hand battleship is between the bars of the torpedo sight, dropping down as we do so. The water is close beneath our wheels, so close I am wondering which is to happen first — the torpedo going or our hitting the sea — then we level out, and almost without thought the button is pressed and a jerk tells me the ‘fish’ is gone.

This account, and many others, appears in Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid.

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

artistic interpretation of taranto attack
A reconstruction of the British raid on Taranto with shipping, flares and searchlights in a night sky. The Italian fleet at anchor in the harbour is under attack from aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Searchlight beams shine brightly up into the night sky, there are low flying aircraft and numerous shell bursts also illuminate the sky. A torpedo moves rapidly through the water towards the Italian battleship Littorio in the centre of the composition.

[The title to the video mistakenly credits the RAF rather than the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy]

The other aircraft, carrying conventional bombs and flares to illuminate the target area, caused confusion as they attacked other targets. More ships were hit as well as dockyard installations.

The attack established beyond doubt the potential of aerial launched torpedoes, even in relatively shallow harbour waters. It was closely studied by other navies around the world, not least in Japan. Pearl Harbour was just over a year away.

More immediately it shifted the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Not only was a significant part of the Italian fleet put out of action, many of the remaining ships were swiftly moved to ports further north, out of harms way but further from their main area of operations.

Littorio-and-Vittorio-Italian-Battleships
The Italian Battleships Littorio and Vittorio in action during exercises before the war. Both were targets of the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto, the Littorio was badly damaged.
RAF reconnaissance view of Taranto harbour
After the Fleet Air Arm attack the RAF flew a series of high level reconnaissance flights to assess the damage caused.
ship sunk during taranto attack
The Italian battleship CONTE DI CAVOUR after the attack. Only her funnels and super-structure remain above the water.

The crew of the San Demetrio re-board their ship

A shell had entered the port bow just above the waterline, exploded, and splinters had holed our collision bulkhead, resulting in our fore-hold making water, which was settling the vessel by the head. The bridge and all midships accommodation was a mass of twisted steel, the main deck under the structure was buckled with heat from the fire, which had been so intense that the brass and glass of the portholes had melted and fused, resembling icicles. Part of this mess was still burning. The main deck abaft the bridge had a number of splinter holes, and the petrol cargo was flooding from this as the ship rolled. All the after accommodation on the port side had been destroyed, also the decks. This area was still on fire. These fires were attacked with fire extinguishers and buckets to begin with, and with fire hoses when the Chief Engineer raised sufficient steam to operate the pumps. The fires were extinguished in about five hours.

Oil tanker San Demetrio
The tanker San Demetrio, battered by gunfire from the Admiral Scheer, finally makes landfall on the 13th November 1940. She had been abandoned on 5th November but was later re-boarded.

John Lewis Jones was an apprentice on board the tanker San Demetrio, part of the convoy HX-84 escorted by the Jervis Bay. He and his fellow crew members watched helplessly as the  Jervis Bay was sunk by gunfire and the Admiral Scheer turned her guns on the remaining ships in the convoy.

In turn the San Demetrio was hit and, fearing an imminent explosion of her petroleum cargo, the order was given to abandon ship. Lewis Jones was in one of two lifeboats that got away, rowing furiously to avoid the fire of the Admiral Scheer which continued to hit surrounding ships until around midnight on the 5th November:

In the early hours of the 6th November the wind freshened from the southwest and blew a full gale, with very high seas and swell by daybreak. Our efforts now were just survival as the seas swamped the boat often, and we bailed for our lives. A few hours after daybreak we sighted a cargo vessel about four miles to windward. We attempted to attract her attention with red flares, but were not successful. A brief period of depression followed, which we soon realised was a luxury we could not afford, and the fight for our lives was resumed.

During the afternoon the weather moderated and we saw another vessel to windward. This was a tanker: she was drifting down towards us and on fire. It took a while to recognise that it was our own ship. We hoisted a fully reefed main sail and jib and sailed to cut her off, arriving close to her before dark, intending a re-boarding attempt. It was obviously an unacceptable risk to attempt to re-board at that time, the vessel rolling heavily and shipping heavy seas over her main decks, and daylight was running out; we would likely lose the boat and also many if not all our lives in such an effort, and it was decided to lay off on her weather side until the next morning.

At dawn, the 7th November, San Demetrio was about five miles to leeward. Sail was set and we were again close alongside at about noon. She was still on fire, but no one objected to re-boarding, which was soon successfully accomplished. Anything was better than remaining in the lifeboat, and it was obvious that further time spent in the boat was going to be a futile attempt to survive. We were only partially successful in recovering our lifeboat, which was left hanging in the falls about six feet clear of the sea. From the boat it was seen that the ship was badly damaged; after boarding, the damage found was appalling.

A shell had entered the port bow just above the waterline, exploded, and splinters had holed our collision bulkhead, resulting in our fore-hold making water, which was settling the vessel by the head. The bridge and all midships accommodation was a mass of twisted steel, the main deck under the structure was buckled with heat from the fire, which had been so intense that the brass and glass of the portholes had melted and fused, resembling icicles.

Part of this mess was still burning. The main deck abaft the bridge had a number of splinter holes, and the petrol cargo was flooding from this as the ship rolled. All the after accommodation on the port side had been destroyed, also the decks. This area was still on fire. These fires were attacked with fire extinguishers and buckets to begin with, and with fire hoses when the Chief Engineer raised sufficient steam to operate the pumps. The fires were extinguished in about five hours.

It was now dark, and as nothing further could be accomplished, watches were set for the night. Four cabins were intact and all enjoyed a few hours of luxurious sleep. The weather worsened during the night and the in-secured lifeboat was lost. The fire aft broke out again, but was extinguished by the watch on deck. Now that our lifeboat had gone, we had no choice but to remain aboard.

Lewis Jones was later awarded the OBE for his part in saving the ship. His full account can be read at Rhiw.com.

The story became the Ealing Studios film San Demetrio in 1943. Several versions of the film are available to see online.

The San Demetrio was a lucky ship – this was not the last time she would survive an enemy attack.

SAN DEMETRIO arriving in the Clyde
Shipping losses: MT SAN DEMETRIO arriving in the Clyde after being torpedoed by U 404 on 17 March 1942. At the time of her being torpedoed she had already been shelled by the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER, in 1940.

Captain Fegen wins the V.C. on the Jervis Bay

Captain Fegen, in His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruise Jervis Bay, was escorting thirty-eight Merchantmen. Sighting a powerful German man-of-war he at once drew clear of the convoy, made straight for the Enemy, and brought his ship between the Raider and her prey, so that they might scatter and escape. Crippled, in flames, unable to reply, for nearly an hour Jervis Bay held the Germans fire. So she went down: but of the Merchantmen all but four or five were saved.

Jervis Bay merchant ship
The Jervis Bay was armed with only six antiquated guns and was hopelessly outranged and outgunned by the Admiral Scheer.

On 5th November 1940 seaplanes from the German raider Admiral Scheer spotted convoy HX64 in mid Atlantic, escorted only by the armed merchantman Jervis Bay. This was the opportunity to prove that the 280mm guns of the pocket battleship were as effective as the torpedoes of the U-Boat fleet.

Before she could attack the convoy she had to deal with the Jervis Bay. The subsequent citation for Captain Fegen of the Jervis Bay describes the events:

The King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to the late Commander (acting Captain) Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, Royal Navy, for valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the many ships it was his duty to protect.

On the 5th of November 1940, Captain Fegen, in His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruiser Jervis Bay, was escorting thirty-eight Merchantmen. Sighting a powerful German man-of-war he at once drew clear of the convoy, made straight for the Enemy, and brought his ship between the Raider and her prey, so that they might scatter and escape.

Crippled, in flames, unable to reply, for nearly an hour Jervis Bay held the Germans fire. So she went down: but of the Merchantmen all but four or five were saved.

The ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer which roamed the Atlantic seeking out merchantmen. Many in the German navy wanted to prove that warships were as capable as U-Boats in this role.

It might be thought that the action of the Jervis Bay was very similar to that of another armed merchantman, the Rawalpindi. Almost a year earlier on 23 November 1939 the Rawalpindi had taken on the Scharnhorst in very similar circumstances, although not in protection of a convoy. Captain Kennedy of the Rawalpindi had not won an award for gallantry, even though, as the Prime Minister later acknowledged, he and his men faced “certain death” when they sought to attack a vastly more powerful battleship. When it came to the award of the Victoria Cross very fine distinctions could be made, as the Naval Secretary was later to determine:

The Rawalpindi whilst on patrol was surprised by a superior enemy force which came up on her quarter at dusk. She had not the speed to escape and the end came soon.

One feels sure that Captain Kennedy was gallant to the last but there is no evidence to show that any action taken, or order given, by ship or Captain was of such a gallant nature as to merit the Victoria Cross.

In this case of the Jervis Bay there is evidence from a convoy of ships, including that of the Commander of the Convoy, to that Captain Fegen could have, had he wished, turned to Southward with the remainder of the convoy in an endeavour to escape. Had he done so the Jervis Bay might well have got away unscathed but at the expense of more loss in the convoy.

Rather than do this Captain Fegen turned boldly towards the enemy, and to certain destruction thereby giving the convoy greatest time in which to sail and escape. This was a brave decision, made without any apparent hesitation and I think fully merits [the] award of the Victoria Cross.

See TNA ADM 1/10496

Nor were there awards recognising the sacrifice of the entire crew of the SS Beaverford. When the Jervis Bay was sunk the Beaverford took over, although she had only two small anti submarine guns. This action also contributed to the the delaying action, some sources suggest for a great deal longer than the Jervis Bay, enabling the other merchantmen to escape.

Captain Pettigrew and the other 76 crew members of the SS Beaverford all perished. They were not recognised for their part in the delaying action.

The bravery of all who volunteered to sail on these convoys, in the face of such known dangers, was deserving of recognition. Ultimately it was only possible for the authorities to recognise the gallantry of some.

For more links on HX-84 see Warsailors.

HMS Revenge bombards Cherbourg

One hundred and twenty rounds of 15-inch and 800 rounds of 4-7-inch shell were fired and very heavy fires were started. It would appear that the shore defences at first mistook the bombardment for part of the air attack as the only response to shells falling was a marked intensification of anti-aircraft fire, including flaming onions and multi-coloured tracers of all descriptions. After the bombardment had ceased a battery of heavy guns (estimated up to 13-15 inch) to the east of the town opened fire.

One of the 4.7 inch guns on board HMS JUPITER firing on the night of the 10 - 11 October 1940, when heavy and light forces of the Royal Navy carried out a bombardment of the enemy occupied port of Cherbourg, where a concentration of enemy shipping had been detected.
One of the 4.7 inch guns on board HMS JUPITER firing on the night of the 10 – 11 October 1940, when heavy and light forces of the Royal Navy carried out a bombardment of the enemy occupied port of Cherbourg, where a concentration of enemy shipping had been detected.
What the deck looks like from aloft. The view from the Range Finder Control platform perched high above decks.
What the deck looks like from aloft. The view from the Range Finder Control platform perched high above decks.
These sailors are on the coldest spot on a battleship; the range finder control tower high above the deck of HMS REVENGE. The men at this station are the guiding eyes of the guns.
These sailors are on the coldest spot on a battleship; the range finder control tower high above the deck of HMS REVENGE. The men at this station are the guiding eyes of the guns.

The threat of invasion was now rapidly diminishing but the program of bombing the channel ports from which an attack might be launched continued. The targets were the barges that the Germans had commandeered from around Europe to use as landing craft, and the naval ships that would support them. Unknown to the British Hitler had finally decided to “postpone’ the invasion of Britain.

A bombardment from 15 inch guns of the World War 1 Battleship HMS Revenge augmented a bombing raid by the RAF on the night of 10th-11th October.

A force consisting of H.M.S. Revenge, cruisers, destroyers and motor torpedo boats, working in conjunction with heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force, bombarded the port of Cherbourg on the night of the l0th-llth October.

The co-ordination of the attack was excellent, the lighting of fires in the target area and the illumination of Cape de la Hague by flares for fixing purposes occurring at exactly the right moment. One hundred and twenty rounds of 15 inch and 800 rounds of 4.7 inch shell were fired and very heavy fires were started. It would appear that the shore defences at first mistook the bombardment for part of the air attack as the only response to shells falling was a marked intensification of anti-aircraft fire, including flaming onions and multi-coloured tracers of all descriptions.

After the bombardment had ceased a battery of heavy guns (estimated up to 13-15inch) to the east of the town opened fire. Salvoes fell close to the ships for a period of 30 minutes and up to a range of about 36,000 yards. The fire was so accurate that it was thought that some form of R.D.F. was used for ranging. No casualties or damage were sustained by H.M. Ships.

The ship's Chaplain conducting the morning Service under the shadow of the 15 inch guns.
The ship’s Chaplain conducting the morning Service under the shadow of the 15 inch guns.
Physical Training on the quarterdeck being done to the music of the Royal Marine Band.
Physical Training on the quarterdeck being done to the music of the Royal Marine Band.
There is no lack of drill precision as the men fall in preparatory to landing for field exercises.
There is no lack of drill precision as the men fall in preparatory to landing for field exercises.
The 4" High Angle Anti-Aircraft Gun crew in action.
The 4″ High Angle Anti-Aircraft Gun crew in action.
A 6 inch Gun Crew under instruction on board a battleship.
A 6 inch Gun Crew under instruction on board a battleship.

Clyde shipyards and HMS Sussex bombed

I was ordered to help the firemen by guiding them around the ship and assisting with the hoses. It was a long, dirty and scary night. The plates were buckling with the intense heat and black slippery oil was everywhere.

Quite a few, including Navy men, were sent to the Western Infirmary with severe burns. It was then noticed that the torpedoes in the tubes were getting very hot and would probably explode with the heat. Although we tried to pull them out it was a hopeless task, and all we could do was to spray them with water to keep them cool!

HMS Sussex at anchor in the Clyde.
HMS Sussex at anchor in the Clyde.
HMS-Sussex-bombed-on-the-Clyde
During the night of the 17th/18th H.M.S. Sussex which was completing a refit in the Clyde and was lying alongside at the time, was hit by a bomb during an enemy air attack. A serious fire broke out necessitating the flooding of magazines. She is now resting on the bottom aft and the fire is out. Casualties were 12 wounded, 3 seriously.’ War Cabinet report – TNA CAB 66/12/11

Hitler’s decision to turn to ‘terror’ bombing, after he was frustrated by the failure of the Luftwaffe to subdue the RAF, was not confined to London. The great cities of Britain would soon all see the devastation of the Blitz. There was a mixture of objectives, as well as hoping to bring Britain to the negotiating table, by terrorising her population, there was the intention to destroy strategic targets including aircraft and ship building. The huge Clyde shipbuilding area outside Glasgow was an obvious target.

Peter Petts, a nineteen year old Able Seaman on HMS Sussex describes how the bomb hit:

It went through the lower and platform decks and burst in the engine room near oil fuel tanks. Four members of the crew were killed, and twelve others died later of wounds. The lower deck at that point was destroyed, fire and bilge pumps were put out of action, the fuel tanks caught fire and flames were soon spreading fore and aft. But the worst part was the fact that all the magazines were full of ammunition, torpedoes, shells and depth charges, as well as eight torpedoes in the tubes on the upper deck. If the fire reached the magazines, a large part of Glasgow would have been threatend with death and destruction.

The crew that was on board that night started to fight the fire, but due to the lack of the fire and bilge pumps as well as the thick black oil fuel smoke, we were struggling. However, the Fire Brigade soon arrived and we, the Navy lads, were glad to have some help. We got more than that. They took over and soon had pumps going and water being sprayed just where it was required in the fire.

I was ordered to help the firemen by guiding them around the ship and assisting with the hoses. It was a long, dirty and scary night. The plates were buckling with the intense heat and black slippery oil was everywhere.

Quite a few, including Navy men, were sent to the Western Infirmary with severe burns. It was then noticed that the torpedoes in the tubes were getting very hot and would probably explode with the heat. Although we tried to pull them out it was a hopeless task, and all we could do was to spray them with water to keep them cool!

It was then that the Fire Chief called for the Vehicle Ferry to be used as a fireboat, and they manned it with fire engines. She arrived about 5.30 a.m. on the 19th, and soon had sixteen powerful water jets playing on the “Sussex”.

It was not until the 19th, 23 hours after the bomb had hit, that the fire was brought under control and the ship was sunk alongside the wall so that she was flooded to extinguish the blaze and prevent any explosion of the ammunition.

I believe it was in the early hours of the morning that some of the tenements and a Children’s Hospital were evacuated, but strange to tell, the story of the “Sussex” being nearly destroyed in the heart of Glasgow was kept secret ’til long after the war had ended. Even we Navy Lads were told “not to discuss it”, so we didn’t.

Read his full account at Our Glasgow Story

See also John Milloy’s account at Our Glasgow Story, a schoolboy at the time, he felt compelled to get a closer look – evidently efforts to evacuate the area were not very thorough.

A pattern of contrails (or condensation trails) left by British and German aircraft high up in the sky, 18 September 1940.

British fleet sails into the Mediterranean

‘Operation Hats’ consisted of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious with the battle cruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Valiant supported by three cruisers and seventeen destroyers. For the first time the fleet was defended by all round radar, based on four ships covering different sectors. Although the fleet was spotted by Italian aircraft, the Italian Navy did not attempt an engagement.

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from No. 820 Squadron Fleet Air Arm.

The largest Royal Navy fleet yet assembled in the Mediterranean set out from Gibraltar on the 30th August 1940. Force H led by Admiral Somerville was attempting to provoke the Italian fleet into battle, whilst supporting the escort of a convoy to Malta.

‘Operation Hats’ consisted of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious with the battle cruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Valiant supported by three cruisers and seventeen destroyers. For the first time the fleet was defended by all round radar, based on four ships covering different sectors. Although the fleet was spotted by Italian aircraft, the Italian Navy did not attempt an engagement.

HMS Renown was a 15 inch gun battlecruiser built in 1916

After joint operations with HMS Ark Royal, in which Swordfish aircraft attacked the Italian airfield at Caglieri, HMS Illustrious and HMS Valiant left the force on 2nd September to join the Mediterranean fleet based at Alexandria.

HMS Illustrious, newly commissioned in August 1940, with her Swordfish aircraft.
The battleship HMS Valiant, built in 1914

Portsmouth bombed, battleship Bismarck commissioned

In the words of the ancient poets during the wars of liberation: “Only iron can save us. Only blood can set us free.” Today, we are being endowed and entrusted with a new and awe-inspiring weapon made from steel and iron, our new ship. Today, it will be brought to life by our young crew which is empowered to blend iron and blood into a powerful symphony of iron-willed devotion to duty and conviction, and with red-blooded vigor and fighting spirit the highest military goals shall be achieved.

A view of Portsmouth Harbour (looking to the Portsmouth side) during an air raid of 12th August 1940.
A view of Portsmouth Harbour (looking to the Portsmouth side) during an air raid of 12th August 1940.
Bomb-damaged houses on the corner of Spring Garden Lane and Grove Avenue in Gosport, Hampshire, after a raid on 12 August 1940. The vicarage on the corner itself was completely destroyed.
Bomb-damaged houses on the corner of Spring Garden Lane and Grove Avenue in Gosport, Hampshire, after a raid on 12 August 1940. The vicarage on the corner itself was completely destroyed.

Alongside the RAF airfields the principal German bombing targets included the Royal Navy bases that were expected to play a key part in repulsing any invasion. They had already been the subject of several dive bombing attacks by Ju 87 ‘Stukas’. However, with unsustainable losses of the vulnerable Stukas, the Germans had decided on 19th August to severely limit their use over Britain. RAF Fighter Command were still reserving a proportion of their fighters to deal with them.

David Crook was flying a Spitfire with 609 Squadron:

Certainly it was typical of our English weather that in a normal summer it is quite impossible to get fine weather for one’s holidays, and yet in war time, when every fine day simply plays into the hands of the German bombers, we had week after week of cloudless blue skies.

24th August proved to be no exception to the general rule, and about 4 p.m. we took off with orders to patrol Portsmouth at 10,000 feet. A number of other squadrons were also operating, each at different heights, and on this occasion we were the luckless ones sent low down to deal with any possible dive-bombers.

We hated this – it’s a much more comforting and reassuring feeling to be on top of everything than right underneath. Superior height, as I said before, is the whole secret of success in air fighting.

However, ‘orders is orders’ and so we patrolled Portsmouth. Very soon a terrific A.A. barrage sprang up ahead of us, looking exactly like a large number of dirty cotton-wool puffs in the sky. It was a most impressive barrage; besides all the guns at Portsmouth, all the warships in the harbour and dockyard were firing hard.

A moment later, through the barrage and well above us, we saw a large German formation wheeling above Portsmouth. We were too low to be able to do anything about it, but they were being engaged by the higher squadrons.

They were now releasing their bombs, and I cannot imagine a more flagrant case of indiscriminate bombing. The whole salvo fell right into the middle of Portsmouth, and I could see great spurts of flame and smoke springing up all over the place.

We spent a very unpleasant few minutes right underneath the German formation, praying hard that their fighters would not come down on us.

However, the danger passed and a very disgruntled squadron returned home, having seen so many Huns and yet not having fired a single round.

See David Crook: Spitfire Pilot, one of the classic memoirs of the Battle, published in 1942. D.M. Crook D.F.C. died in 1944 while training for high altitude photographic reconnaissance, it is believed his oxygen failed causing him to crash in the sea off Scotland.

Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour, 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour, 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Sentries on duty near one of the guns on Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Sentries on duty near one of the guns on Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Other ranks sleeping quarters in Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Other ranks sleeping quarters in Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.

Meanwhile in Germany the Kriegsmarine were commissioning the ship that they hoped would take the fight to the Royal Navy.

The Bismarck starts sea trails following commissioning. The 50,000 tonne ship was the largest battleship ever built at this time.
Captain Lindemann addresses his crew during the commissioning ceremony
‘Only iron can save us. Only blood can set us free.’

Soldiers of the Bismarck!

The thousand year history of our German nation and Reich were written with iron and blood.

Almost every generation had to reach for the sword to fight for the rights of the survival of the Reich and nation or to defend its existence and its freedom against its hostile surroundings. For us the call has come again to join in the great struggle for freedom and the survival of our nation and the existence of the Greater German Reich that was created by Adolf Hitler.

In the words of the ancient poets during the wars of liberation: “Only iron can save us. Only blood can set us free.”

Today, we are being endowed and entrusted with a new and awe-inspiring weapon made from steel and iron, our new ship.

Today, it will be brought to life by our young crew which is empowered to blend iron and blood into a powerful symphony of iron-willed devotion to duty and conviction, and with red-blooded vigor and fighting spirit the highest military goals shall be achieved.

Shipyard workers cheeer the hoisting of the ensign signalling the handover of the ship.
The Bismarck had a crew of 103 officers and 1,989 men
A close up view of the gun turrets – four of the eight 380mm guns.