The Royal Navy bait the German artillery


7 June 1944: The Royal Navy bait the German artillery

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.

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


20 May 1944: US Navy “practice gunnery” targets Jap strongpoints

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.

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


19 April 1944: Operation Cockpit – the Japanese surprised at Sabang

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.

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.

Operation Tungsten: Navy dive bombers hit the Tirpitz


3 April 1944: Operation Tungsten: Navy dive bombers hit the Tirpitz

Fleet Air Arm personnel fusing bombs for Fairey Barracudas on the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS, before Operation ‘Tungsten’, the attack on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway, April 1944.

HMS FURIOUS and HMS EMPEROR at sea with other ships in the distance, on the night before the Fleet Air Arm raid on the German Battleship TIRPITZ
HMS FURIOUS and HMS EMPEROR at sea with other ships in the distance, on the night before the Fleet Air Arm raid on the German Battleship TIRPITZ

The German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck, continued to hide in the Norwegian fjords, a constant threat to Allied convoys to Russia. In her mere existence the Tirpitz was keeping Royal Navy warships committed to the protection of these convoys. The British had made successive attempts to neutralise her, with both aircraft attacks and miniature submarines. Intelligence now suggested that she would soon be operational again, after repairs to the damage caused by Operation Source.

Hopes were now pinned on the recently developed 1,600-pound (730 kg) armour-piercing bomb, which it was expected could penetrate the heavy deck armament of the Tirpitz if dropped from sufficient height. These would be dropped by Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm dive-bombers. As a preliminary the battleship would be attacked by the escorting fighter aircraft strafing the ship to suppress anti aircraft fire.

In the early hours of the 3rd April 1944 the first of two waves of attacking aircraft took off from carriers in the North Sea, 120 miles from the target. Unusually good weather conditions for the time of year helped the operation which was subsequently judged to be “beautifully co-ordinated and fearlessly executed”. Everything went to plan, significant casualties were caused by the strafing aircraft and were followed by 10 direct hits on the Tirpitz by the bombers. Unfortunately none of them were from sufficient height to penetrate the decks. Nevertheless substantial damage was caused and 123 Tirpitz crew were killed and over 300 wounded. The ship was once again out of action.

Commander S T C Harrison of the ship's air staff briefing Fleet Air Arm crews in their flying gear on board HMS FURIOUS with the aid of a relief map of the target area before the attack on the German Battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway.
Commander S T C Harrison of the ship’s air staff briefing Fleet Air Arm crews in their flying gear on board HMS FURIOUS with the aid of a relief map of the target area before the attack on the German Battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway.
Grumman Hellcat pilots of the escort carrier HMS EMPEROR studying a model of the German battleship TIRPITZ and its hide-out in Alten Fjord on the flight deck just before the attack, which left the TIRPITZ blazing, began. Two of their aircraft can be seen in the distance.
Grumman Hellcat pilots of the escort carrier HMS EMPEROR studying a model of the German battleship TIRPITZ and its hide-out in Alten Fjord on the flight deck just before the attack, which left the TIRPITZ blazing, began. Two of their aircraft can be seen in the distance.
The men and machines of HMS FURIOUS which took part in the Fleet Air Arm attack on SMS TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway. Here Bob Cotcher, of Chelsea, chalks his message on a 1600 pound bomb just before the attack.
The men and machines of HMS FURIOUS which took part in the Fleet Air Arm attack on SMS TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway. Here Bob Cotcher, of Chelsea, chalks his message on a 1600 pound bomb just before the attack.
Fleet Air Arm personnel fusing bombs for Fairey Barracudas on the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS, before Operation 'Tungsten', the attack on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway, April 1944.
Fleet Air Arm personnel fusing bombs for Fairey Barracudas on the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS, before Operation ‘Tungsten’, the attack on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway, April 1944.

This was the account that Commander Anthony Kimmins gave to the BBC after the raid:

There was little sleep in those carriers the night before the attack, for we were now in the danger period as we steamed close into enemy waters. Look-outs and guns’ crews, only their eyes visible through their scarves and balaclava helmets, were constantly on the job. Supply and Damage Control parties never left their posts.

Down in the huge hangars there was feverish activity. On one side were the long lines of Merlin-engined Fairey Barracudas – the new Fleet Air Arm torpedo-bombers which were being tried out in action for the first time. With their wings folded back over their bodies they looked rather like enormous beetles. And on the other side were the American Corsairs with their wings folded vertically and almost touching overhead at the tips. While mechanics swarmed over their aircraft making final adjustments, great yellow bombs were being wheeled down the narrow gangways, loaded up and fused.

At first light, at exactly the prearranged minute, Commander Flying shouted the welcome order “Start up!” The words were hardly out of his mouth before there was a roar of engines. By now the carriers and the escorting ships were all heeling over and swinging into wind. A final nod from the Captain, a signal from Commander Flying, the Flight Deck officer raised his green flag, the engines started to rev up, the flag dropped and the first aircraft was roaring away over the bow.

One after the other they followed in rapid succession, and near by you could see the same thing going on. More Barracudas, Seafires, Corsairs, Wildcats and Hellcats. In a few minutes the sky was full of them, and as the sun started to rise and the clouds turned pink at the edges, they formed up in their squadrons.

It wasn’t long before the mountains in the coastline showed up ahead. As they gained height and crossed the coast the sun was rising to their left, shining across the snow-covered mountains, throwing shadows in the gorges and against the snow-covered trees in the valleys, and lighting up the deep blue of the clam fjord. Down to the left were two or three enemy ships, but these took no visible interest in the proceedings. Everything seemed calm and peaceful, but I’ll bet that down below the wires were humming and that up at the far end of the fjord alarm bells were ringing, fat-headed Huns were falling out of bed, rubbing their eyes and cursing the British as they threw on some clothes and stumbled out to their cold action stations.

By now the strike was passing its next landmark, a huge glacier on the top of a mountain. Soon they were crossing the final ridge and sighted a flak ship on the far side of the fjord. She immediately opened up, but raggedly, and without great effect. And then, as they crossed over the final ridge, they had a thrill which none of those aircrews will ever forget. There, nestling under the sheer mountains in a fjord not much wider than the Thames at London, lay one of the largest battleships in the world – the Tirpitz. A motor-boat alongside raced off at full speed, and I don’t blame him. Up till then the strike had kept dead radio silence, but now as they arrived in position everyone gave an instinctive start as a sudden rasping noise hit them in the ears. The leader had switched on. And then a shout – “All fighters anti-flak – leader over”. And with that shout things really happened. Hellcats and Wildcats literally fell out of the sky. As the Barracudas hurtled down they could see the fighters strafing the surrounding gun positions and whistling across the Tirpitz, with the tracers from their bullets bouncing off her deck. Green and red tracer came shooting up, but the fighters had entirely disorganized her A.A. fire and the Barracudas were able to take perfect aim. Down they went with their eyes glued to her funnel – 6,000 – 5,000 – 4,000 feet. They went down so fast that anything loose shot up to the roof of the cockpits.

Now the leader was at the right height, and he let go. The first three bombs went whistling down, exploding bang on the bridge, the nerve-centre of the ship. The other pilots – diving from either side – were close on his tail. One extra large bomb, bursting through the armour-plate amidships, went off with a terrific explosion between decks. The huge ship shuddered, her stern whipping up and down and sending waves across the fjord. It was only 60 seconds – one minute – from the first bomb to the last. There was no sigh of life from the hutments close to her berth. No doubt these housed many of the repair workers. Six months’ work was going west in sixty seconds.

And now, as the first strike weaved away and made off down the valleys with fires raging in the Tirpitz, and the artificial smoke cover belching out from all around her, they saw above them the second strike – which had been ranged in the carriers the moment the first had taken off – now coming in from the sea.

This second strike had, if anything, a more difficult task than the first. Admittedly the artificial smoke and the smoke from the first strike’s explosions helped to guide them to the target, but by the time they got over the whole fjord was almost completely obscured with a strong box barrage above the smoke. But luckily – at the critical moment – the smoke cleared over the Tirpitz, and with a shout of joy they roared down, carrying out similar tactics. Again there were many hits; one heavy bomb in particular was seen to crash from the upper deck and explode with a sheet of flame that reached above the topmast. By the time the last pilot dived the A.A. fire had ceased. And so a few hectic minutes over the target, and the brilliant dash of those Fleet Air Arm crews had been the highlight in a naval operation which had left the Tirpitz crippled.

A Fairey Barracuda II (P 9926) from Lee-on-Solent Fleet Air Arm Station, with torpedo, in flight. The Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber is a combination of dive and torpedo bomber, and is the newest to come into service with the Fleet Air Arm. The wooden plane that steadied the torpedo before it struck the water and broke off can be clearly seen at the rear of the weapon.
A Fairey Barracuda II (P 9926) from Lee-on-Solent Fleet Air Arm Station, with torpedo, in flight. The Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber is a combination of dive and torpedo bomber, and is the newest to come into service with the Fleet Air Arm. The wooden plane that steadied the torpedo before it struck the water and broke off can be clearly seen at the rear of the weapon.
A Chance-Vought Corsair fighter of the Fleet Air Arm cruises leisurely above the clouds over its American base in New England, USA during a training mission.
A Chance-Vought Corsair fighter of the Fleet Air Arm cruises leisurely above the clouds over its American base in New England, USA during a training mission.
Formation flying by Dutch pilots of 1840 Squadron in Grumman Hellcats based at Royal Naval Air Station Eglinton, Northern Ireland. The squadron is made up of over 80% Dutch. 23 June 1944
Formation flying by Dutch pilots of 1840 Squadron in Grumman Hellcats based at Royal Naval Air Station Eglinton, Northern Ireland. The squadron is made up of over 80% Dutch. 23 June 1944
The Fairey Barracuda bombers and their fighter escort approaching Alten Fjord. Another fjord along with the snow covered mountains surrounding it can be seen below the aircraft.
The Fairey Barracuda bombers and their fighter escort approaching Alten Fjord. Another fjord along with the snow covered mountains surrounding it can be seen below the aircraft.
Smoke screens put up to hide the TIRPITZ drifting across the waters of the fjord though the ship has not yet been hidden from view.
Smoke screens put up to hide the TIRPITZ drifting across the waters of the fjord though the ship has not yet been hidden from view.
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 Barracuda dive bomber landing on HMS VICTORIOUS during Operation TUNGSTEN. HMS BELFAST is seen on the starboard quarter of HMS VICTORIOUS.
A Barracuda dive bomber landing on HMS VICTORIOUS during Operation TUNGSTEN. HMS BELFAST is seen on the starboard quarter of HMS VICTORIOUS.
A Fairey Barracuda of 827 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm returns to HMS FURIOUS watched by other pilots who had returned after taking part in the operations.
A Fairey Barracuda of 827 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm returns to HMS FURIOUS watched by other pilots who had returned after taking part in the operations.
In the middle distance three of the Fairey Barracuda bombers returning to land on after the Fleet Air Arm attack on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway. An aircraft carrier can be seen sailing in the distance.
In the middle distance three of the Fairey Barracuda bombers returning to land on after the Fleet Air Arm attack on the German battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway. An aircraft carrier can be seen sailing in the distance.
A Chance-Vought Corsair damaged by enemy flak makes a safe landing escaping only with a bent propeller on board HMS FORMIDABLE during Fleet Air Arm raids on targets in Norway and particularly on the German battleship TIRPITZ in her hideout in the Alten Fjord.
A Chance-Vought Corsair damaged by enemy flak makes a safe landing escaping only with a bent propeller on board HMS FORMIDABLE during Fleet Air Arm raids on targets in Norway and particularly on the German battleship TIRPITZ in her hideout in the Alten Fjord.
A Fairey Barracuda of 827 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm on fire from enemy flak having just landed on board HMS FURIOUS. The fire is put out by the crash party, the water used to fight the fire can still be seen lying on the deck.
A Fairey Barracuda of 827 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm on fire from enemy flak having just landed on board HMS FURIOUS. The fire is put out by the crash party, the water used to fight the fire can still be seen lying on the deck.
On HMS Furious Sub Lieut E D Knight, of Wincanton, reporting to his captain after arriving back from the attack.
On HMS Furious Sub Lieut E D Knight, of Wincanton, reporting to his captain after arriving back from the attack.

USS Savannah hit by German glider bomb


11th September 1943: USS Savannah hit by German glider bomb

The explosion blew open both the #2 and #1 magazines forward, and killed most everyone in the bow forward of the #3 turret. There were a few exceptions, and there were some guys that were trapped in compartments that we couldn’t get to because they were surrounded by water on 3 or 4 sides. Once the #3 magazine exploded, the blast continued to travel towards the bow. Almost everyone forward of the boiler room that were below deck were killed.

USS Savannah (CL-42) is hit by a German radio-controlled glider bomb,
USS Savannah (CL-42) is hit by a German radio-controlled glider bomb, while supporting Allied forces ashore during the Salerno operation, 11 September 1943. The bomb hit the top of the ship’s number three 6″/47 gun turret and penetrated deep into her hull before exploding. The photograph shows the explosion venting through the top of the turret and also through Savannah’s hull below the waterline. A motor torpedo boat (PT) is passing by in the foreground.

The slender bridgehead that the Allies had established at Salerno remained under contention as the Germans prepared to counter-attack. Off shore the Allied Naval force continued to provide much needed firepower in support of the troops on land.

Overhead the Allied airforces, operating from Sicily and North Africa, were very far from establishing the virtually complete air superiority that would later be seen at Normandy. The Luftwaffe was able to break through often enough to cause significant problems.

New Germans technology, the remote control glider bomb, which had first been seen in mid August, proved to be a potent weapon against the invasion fleet. Frank Romano was on board the USS Savannah:

On September 11, 1943, we were cruising off shore preparing for a fire support mission when German bombers appeared overhead. They were at very high altitude, so we didn’t bother firing the smaller AA at them.

In the past, we’d watch them drop their bombs, and once they were falling, the captain would change course or increase speed, and they’d miss. We also had friendly fighters in the area so we figured that we were ok. So we’re all at our guns stations, sitting around.

We had one kid in the gun crew, his name was Douglas Centers, got real nervous when the bombs starting falling and the bigger AA guns starting going off. He lied about his age when joined up, and convinced his mother to sign the papers and he joined up at 16. Once the Navy found out, he had already turned 17 so they allowed him to stay in. Centers kept telling the Chief he was sick, he needed to go below, and we kept telling him, ’Just relax, you’ll be fine’. He persisted and the Chief finally got tired of his whining, so he went to the gun Captain, who gave him permission to go below to the forward sick bay. He left. About 5 minutes later, the bomb hit, and everyone in the forward sick bay, including Centers, was killed. If he’d only listened to us, he’d have survived.

We had another guy on board, Emmanuel Blankenship, who was aboard the USS Pennsylvania during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was one of the ‘old salts’ at 21 because he’d been in the Navy since before the war. He was killed when the bomb hit.

The bomb impact was initially a huge crash, followed seconds later by a massive explosion that lifted the ship right out of the water, and knocked everyone to the deck. The bomb passed through the turret top, killed everyone inside, and exploded at the keel, blowing the bottom of the ship out and causing a huge geyser of water and debris to come out the port side a little forward of the bridge. It covered us with water, and almost immediately smoke started pouring from the hole in the turret. We all figured the magazine would explode at any second, but it didn’t. When the bomb exploded it blew out the keel directly under the magazine, and the water flooded the magazine before it had a chance to go off.

The explosion blew open both the #2 and #1 magazines forward, and killed most everyone in the bow forward of the #3 turret. There were a few exceptions, and there were some guys that were trapped in compartments that we couldn’t get to because they were surrounded by water on 3 or 4 sides. Once the #3 magazine exploded, the blast continued to travel towards the bow. Almost everyone forward of the boiler room that were below deck were killed. There were 4 sailors trapped in the Auxiliary Radio Room, 2 men that got out of the #2 turret, and 5 or or 6 guys that escaped the #1 turret. One of the men who got out of the #2 turret held the hatch open for his brother. They argued about who should go first and the one holding the hatch was killed. The men in the magazines were killed by blast and concussion. Most of those killed in the turrets died from lethal gas caused by the exploding powder.

Since I was one of the small guys, I was lowered into the hole on top of turret 3 to inspect the damage and look for survivors. Once we got the turret opened up, of course, no one was left, only some pieces and charred remains. I was part of the crew that went below, again, because I was little and could squeeze into places most couldn’t.

The ship had a 30 foot hole in the side of her hull, and we didn’t know what kind of damage the keel had received until after we’d put in to drydock at Malta. We found out that most of the keel in the bow was gone, and we had a 25 foot split in the side of the hull.

Read Frank Romano’s whole account at Model Warships.

The bodies of dead crewmen are laid out on deck as rescue efforts continue.
The bodies of dead crewmen are laid out on deck as rescue efforts continue.
Corpsmen attend to casualties on the USS Savannah, 11th September 1943
Corpsmen attend to casualties on the USS Savannah, 11th September 1943
Fighting fires on the USS Savannah.
Fighting fires on the USS Savannah.

Contemporary newsreel of men trapped below decks for 60 hours:

Two "Liberty" ships afire in Algiers harbor, following a German air attack, 16 July 1943. USS Savannah (CL-42), in the foreground, had a narrow escape.
Two “Liberty” ships afire in Algiers harbor, following a German air attack, 16 July 1943.
USS Savannah (CL-42), in the foreground, had a narrow escape.
The first capital ship to be lost to a guided munition attack was the 45,000 tonne Vittorio Veneto class battleship RN Roma, which burned and sank after being hit by two PC1400X Fritz X radio-controlled glidebombs on the 9th September, 1943. The Roma was en route to Malta to surrender as part of the Italian Armistice. This attack killed 1352 personnel, including Admiral Carlo Bergamini, Chief of Naval Staff of the RN (RN).
The first capital ship to be lost to a guided munition attack was the 45,000 tonne Vittorio Veneto class battleship RN Roma, which burned and sank after being hit by two PC1400X Fritz X radio-controlled glidebombs on the 9th September, 1943. The Roma was en route to Malta to surrender as part of the Italian Armistice when she was attacked by the Luftwaffe. This attack killed 1352 personnel, including Admiral Carlo Bergamini, Chief of Naval Staff of the RN (RN).

Arctic Convoy JW 53 battered in gales

25th February 1943: Arctic Convoy JW 53 battered in gales

I remember trying to use an Aldis lamp from our bridge to signal to a Corvette and found it very difficult since one minute she would be in sight, then she would go down the trough of the wave and all I could see would be her top masts; then up she would come and our ship would go down and all that would be seen was water, but eventually we got the message through.

HMS BELFAST leaving Iceland on 21 February 1943 to escort convoy JW.53 on its voyage to Russia.
HMS BELFAST leaving Iceland on 21 February 1943 to escort convoy JW.53 on its voyage to Russia.
The view from the bridge of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD as she battles heavy seas while escorting convoy JW 53 to Russia, February 1943. The ship suffered severe structural damage during three days of storms and had to return to port for repairs.
The view from the bridge of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD as she battles heavy seas while escorting convoy JW 53 to Russia, February 1943. The ship suffered severe structural damage during three days of storms and had to return to port for repairs.
In the distance HMS OBDURATE (centre) leaving a Russian bay, with HMS CUMBERLAND (left) and HMS BELFAST (right) with HMS FAULKNOR alongside. Photograph taken at Vaenga after the arrival of convoy JW 53.
In the distance HMS OBDURATE (centre) leaving a Russian bay, with HMS CUMBERLAND (left) and HMS BELFAST (right) with HMS FAULKNOR alongside. Photograph taken at Vaenga after the arrival of convoy JW 53.

Munitions and supplies from the United States had been arriving in the Soviet Union for some time. The Royal Navy took the largest part of of the escort work, meeting the ships at Iceland and taking them through the icy northern seas around the North Cape. Earlier convoys had come under sustained attack from German torpedo planes and bombers, and there was always the risk of German capital ships making an appearance.

Some men on Convoy JW53 would therefore have welcomed the exceptionally bad weather that they encountered, which shielded them from the the enemy. Others might have felt treacherous seas, that were bad enough to cause structural damage to large ships, were an enemy in themselves:

On February 15th twenty eight Merchant ships set out in a gale for North Russia in the heavily defended Convoy No. JW 53. The escort was made up of three cruisers, one anti-aircraft cruiser, one escort carrier, sixteen destroyers, two minesweepers, three corvettes and two trawlers which was a very good escort and as the daylight hours were getting longer, trouble was obviously expected.

Due to having to maintain absolute wireless silence the Radio Officers stood their watches on the bridge with the Navigation Officers on duty.

As we sailed North the gale developed into a hurricane and ships began to get damaged. Six of the merchant ships were damaged and had to return to Iceland. On our ship the deck cargo began to break adrift and we were not sorry to see the oil drums going over the side but when the lorries in wooden cases were smashed up and eventually went overboard things were not so good. But we managed to save the tanks and kept on battering our way northwards.

I remember trying to use an Aldis lamp from our bridge to signal to a Corvette and found it very difficult since one minute she would be in sight, then she would go down the trough of the wave and all I could see would be her top masts; then up she would come and our ship would go down and all that would be seen was water, but eventually we got the message through.

At one stage the convoy was well scattered but as the weather moderated the Navy rounded us all up and got us into some semblance of order once again.

The loss of our escort carrier meant that we had no air cover and, as expected, a few days later a German spotter plane arrived which flew round the convoy all the daylight hours to keep an eye on us. The next day we had a heavy attack by JU 88 bombers in which our ship was damaged and our gunlayer was wounded by bomb splinters but we still kept plodding on towards North Russia.

At this part of the voyage we were steaming through pancake ice floes which protected us from the
U-boats which could not operate in these conditions. The blizzards when they came were always welcome as they hid us from the enemy.

Two days later, on 27th February, we arrived at the entrance to the Kola Inlet which is a long fiord with hills on either side and the town of Murmansk situated near the top.

We had not lost any ships to the enemy and I must pay tribute to the good job done by the Royal Navy and our own D.E.M.S and Maritime Regiment Gunners on the merchant ships. Of the twenty two merchantmen in our convoy, fifteen were bound for Murmansk and the remaining seven went on to the White Sea ports near Archangel.

Little did we know at this time that we would not leave Russia until the end of November. The Navy ocean-going escorts which had taken us to the Inlet would now refuel and set off homeward with the empty ships from the previous convoy.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

He was not alone in remaining in Russia until November. Several ships were meant to remain there until a return convoy could be organised, but this did not happen until October – they became known as the Forgotten Convoy. Amongst them were several US Merchant ships and eventually the US Naval Attache in Russia issued members of their crews with certificates. A typical certificate was issued to Third Engineer Philip N. Enegess:

Be it known to all men by these presents: That Philip N. Enegess on board the SS City of Omaha, did suffer eight months confinement in North Russia and did undergo all privations connected therewith, that he did shiver through the Arctic and bask in the rays of the midnight sun, and by virtue of these facts is herewith declared to be a certified member of the Forgotten Convoy.

See US Merchant Marine.

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The whole leaflet can be read at US Merchant Marine.

Another Christmas for a war weary World

25th December 1942: Another Christmas for a war weary World

There was some carol singing last night and this moming. One can’t but feel a certain melancholy at spending Christmas in this depressing camp. An almost intolerable sense of oppression and futility overcomes one at times, as month after wasted month passes. At this time, of course, one thinks much of home, and one realises they must be going through a period of anxiety. And there are many at home who have yet to learn that their relatives out here are already dead.

Here’s To Victory! A sailor downs his Christmas Day Rum. December 1942, at the Naval Base Harwich. Stoker G A Revell (R Fleet Reserve) drinks to Victory in his Christmas tot of rum.
Christmas dinner and celebrations in the wardroom of HMS MALAYA. The ship is based at Scapa Flow.
Christmas dinner and celebrations in the wardroom of HMS MALAYA. The ship is based at Scapa Flow.

Major Denis Forman was rather keen to get away from his remote base in Shetland and spend Christmas at home in Scotland. He managed to get a lift on an RAF plane and then made slow progress travelling down to Inverness by an Army lorry that his colleague Michael had ‘arranged’ by dubious means:

By now the night train had gone, but we boarded the fish train and were lucky enough to find an empty van, where Michael sat in one corner, I in another and my Shetland collie Robin disdainfully pacing the space between, sneezing and coughing through the overpowering smell of fish. After an eternity of shunting, crawling up gradients, stopping, starting and shunting again, we reached Perth.

It was daylight on Christmas Day, and as we emerged from our van we saw a passenger train about to depart. It was pointing south and we made a dash for it. Robin, whom I had released so that he might relieve himself before the next leg, still half-crazed by his ordeal by fish, turned and bit a small girl in the leg. She sent up a great squawk, but there was no time for niceties so, grabbing the dog by the neck, we sprinted for the train and jumped aboard.

Again our progress was slow, but comfortable, for, although the train was packed with troops on leave, we smelled so strongly of fish that we were accorded a decent amount of space. It was not possible to discover whether or not our train stopped at Beattock, our home station, but it did, and we jumped off and arrived home in good time for Christmas dinner. The trip would have formed a good initiative exercise for our students, we told each other.

See Denis Forman: To Reason Why.

Out in Egypt Royal Artillery officer Jack Swaab had just learnt that he was being posted to a front line unit and that he had a limited time left to hand in those personal effects that he could not take with him:

And now it is ending, this rather miserable, rather nostalgic Xmas Day It has been a terrible rush. I nearly went mad when the B.Q.M.S of the Unit Kit Store refused to accept my tin box – saved from the rubbish heap – on the grounds that it was ‘govt. property’. Some men love the letter of the law I had to go out and buy a suitcase, which D. is very kindly having painted up for me and will hand in.

In the afternoon all the officers in the mess listened to the King`s speech. We all stood bolt upright for the National anthem, and it was all vaguely impressive. We go out at 0630 tomorrow morning.

See Jack Swaab: Field of Fire.

In Malta harbour, conditions had eased just a little with the arrival of the latest convoy. The Royal Navy could celebrate with watery beer:

There is a Christmas Day tradition in the navy that the most junior sailor be made captain for the day, and be allowed, within reason, to do whatever he pleases. He dons a captain‘s uniform and can order drinks from the officer‘s mess and have a special dinner. He goes around the ship being entertained by all and sundry.

The senior officers always pay visits to the decorated mess- decks, where they swap jokes with the crew. On this occasion, every man onboard had been issued with a bottle of watery beer. I had a hand in getting the Malta brewery temporarily reopened to produce a bottle of beer for every soldier, sailor and airman on the island.

see Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War.

Leading Seaman becomes Captain for Christmas Day only. 25 December 1942, On Board Hms Dunluce Castle, of The Home Fleet. Leading Seaman V Mccann of Belfast was allowed to impersonate the Captain during Inspection
Leading Seaman becomes Captain for Christmas Day only. 25 December 1942, On Board Hms Dunluce Castle, of The Home Fleet. Leading Seaman V Mccann of Belfast was allowed to impersonate the Captain during Inspection.

On the Eastern Front Sergeant Major Rigoni was with one of the Alpini Divisions of the Italian Army. Some of the 130,000 Italians in Russia were already in trouble as the Don Front began to unravel, but his position was still quite secure. He went out to look at the Russian positions opposite in the sunshine and examine the hare tracks in the deep snow:

It was too cold to be standing there and I went up the trench and re-entered my dugout.

‘Happy Christmas,’ I said. ‘Happy Christmas!’
Meschini was grinding the coffee in his helmet with the handle of his bayonet. Bodei was boiling up the lice. Giuanin was crouching in his corner near the stove. Moreschi was mending his socks. The ones who’d been on the last guard were asleep.

There was a strong smell inside there; of coffee, dirty vests and pants boiling with the lice, and lots of other things. At midday Moreschi sent for our supplies. But as they weren’t Christmas rations we decided to make polenta. Meschini fanned up the fire, and Bodei went to wash out the pot in which he’d boiled the lice.

See Mario Rigoni Stern: The Sergeant in the Snow.

George Silk's classic picture taken at Buna, New Guinea, on Christmas Day, 1942. An Australian soldier, Private George "Dick" Whittington is aided by a Papuan orderly, Raphael Oimbari. Whittington died in February 1943 from typhus.
George Silk’s classic picture taken at Buna, New Guinea, on Christmas Day, 1942. An Australian soldier, Private George “Dick” Whittington is aided by a Papuan orderly, Raphael Oimbari. Whittington died in February 1943 from typhus.

On New Guinea the native islanders were winning a reputation for their assistance to Allied troops, Australian and American, becoming known as the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’:

Picking their way very carefully with expressions of solemn responsibility, came native carriers with the badly wounded. Some of these forms under their coverings were horribly mutilated and might not survive long … The natives moved softly and silently, handling the stretchers with a surprising deftness in rough places in order to save their human burden from the slightest jolt. Their homely faces were soft with pity and concern. They would carry these poor wounded along such a route as I have described, through mud and slush and morass, along the razor backs …

See Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris: Through Mud and Blood to Victory, Wild & Woolley, Sydney, 1993.

Also on New Guinea Chaplain Hartley describes extricating 13 wounded, eight of them stretcher cases, along jungle tracks on Christmas day:

We were astir early and cooked our breakfast . We got over the problem of smoke from our fires by using cordite from the captured enemy shells …

It was a slow, tedious and nerve-racking journey. The patients were heavy. Four men were required for each stretcher. These bearers had to carry their arms in their free hands… There were times when, to our strained hearing, the noise along the track sounded like a herd of elephants crashing through the undergrowth…

Whenever there was a stop for rest, armed men would penetrate the jungle off the track and silently watch against a possible ambush… As we came nearer to Huggins’ it became easier going…

We now came into view of the Jap camp that had been shot up on 1st December [30th November]… There were mangled and rottin g corpses scattered everywhere. Blank-eyed skeletons stared with sightless eyes from beneath broken shelters. Bones of horses with their saddles and harness rotting round them shone white as the morning sun peering through the creepers caught them in her beams. We actually welcomed this gory sight. It was to us a sign post. It meant that Huggins’ was but a hundred yards beyond.

See Australian Official History

Out in the Far East Dr Robert Hardie was trying to do his best for his fellow prisoners who the Japanese were using as forced labour to build the Burma Siam Railway. Conditions were bad and getting worse:

There was some carol singing last night and this morning. One can’t but feel a certain melancholy at spending Christmas in this depressing camp. An almost intolerable sense of oppression and futility overcomes one at times, as month after wasted month passes.

At this time, of course, one thinks much of home, and one realises they must be going through a period of anxiety. And there are many at home who have yet to learn that their relatives out here are already dead. Henry Mills, whom Ian and I knew well and who was wounded badly in Perak and marked for evacuation from Malaya (but wasn’t, because of the incompetence of the medical arrangements in Singapore) has died up-river, we have heard. And there are 20 graves already in this camp alone.

See Dr Robert Hardie:The Burma Siam Railway.

The Regimental Sergeant Major and other members of the 5th Cameron Highlanders preparing Christmas puddings in the Western Desert, 28 December 1942.
The Regimental Sergeant Major and other members of the 5th Cameron Highlanders preparing Christmas puddings in the Western Desert, 28 December 1942.

The French Navy scuttle their Fleet at Toulon

27th November 1942: The French Navy scuttle their Fleet at Toulon

– Oppose, without spilling of blood, the entry of foreign troops in any of the establishments, airbases and buildings of the Navy;
– Similarly oppose entry of foreign troops aboard ships of the Fleet; find settlements by means of local negotiation; and
– If the former proved impossible, to scuttle the ships.

The French Fleet burning at Toulon after the German attempt to seize the ships on the 27th November 1942

The ‘Vichy regime’ in France had come to terms with Hitler following the occupation of France in 1940. Only half of France was occupied by the Nazis, the remainder was nominally an independent nation ruled from the town of Vichy.

The French armed forces were to play no further part in the war according to the Armistice. Yet the British had come to blows with its former Ally at [permalink id=6519 text=”Oran”] and in [permalink id=19279 text=”Madagascar”]. Most recently the Torch landings had brought France into conflict with the USA, before finally the colonies decided to come to terms with the Allied occupying forces.

As a result of the occupation of French Morocco and Algeria Hitler decided to occupy the whole of France. The French were forced into choosing a new stance. Did they stand on the sidelines and allow Germany to seize the French Naval Fleet – or were they to act decisively to deny their ships to Germany?

The crew of a panzer IV look on helplessly as the ships burn.
The French battleship Marseillaise sunk and burning at Toulon

There were some who argued that the Fleet should have sailed to join the Allies but they did not prevail. On the 11th, as German and Italian troops encircled Toulon, the Vichy Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Auphan, ordered Admiral Jean de Laborde and Admiral André Marquis to:

– Oppose, without spilling of blood, the entry of foreign troops in any of the establishments, airbases and buildings of the Navy;
– Similarly oppose entry of foreign troops aboard ships of the Fleet; find settlements by means of local negotiation; and
– If the former proved impossible, to scuttle the ships.

The decision was forced on the 27th when German tanks approached the Naval base.

The French managed to scuttle the greater part of their ships: 3 battleships, 7 cruisers 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 1 school ship, 28 tugs, 4 floating cranes. The ships were not just scuttled but damaged so significantly that they were put beyond use.

Only 4 submarines, 3 destroyers, 39 small ships were successfully seized by Germany. Casualties amongst the French were 12 killed and 26 wounded.

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal continues

14th November 1942: Naval Battle of Guadalcanal continues

Volunteering to pilot a fighter plane in defense of our positions on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer participated in two air battles against enemy bombers and fighters outnumbering our force more than two-to-one, boldly engaged the enemy and destroyed one Japanese bomber in the engagement of September 28 and shot down four enemy fighter planes in flames on October 3 leaving a fifth smoking badly.

Photo taken during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 14-15 November 1942, showing the U.S. battleship USS Washington (BB-56) firing upon the Japanese battleship Kirishima. The low elevation of the barrels shows how the close range of the adversaries; only 8,400 yards, point blank range for the 16″/45 caliber main armament of Washington.
The Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Kirishima at Tsukumowan, Japan in 1937, sunk by a surprise attack by the USS Washington on the night of the 14th-15th November 1942.

The second stage of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal took place on the night of the 14th November after both sides sent further ships into the area. Once again there was confusion as to the identity of the different ships involved. The USS Washington crept up upon the scene because she could not identify a target as definitely Japanese – there was some doubt that she might be the USS Dakota, the ship that she had sailed with. As soon as she was identified as the Kirishima nine shells from the Washingtons main armament and over forty from her secondary guns were smashed into her.

The Japanese tactic of attempting to illuminate targets with searchlights did not work in their favour. Some aspects of the battle were not cleared up until the end of the war.

Interrogation of: Lieut.-Comdr. Horishi TOKUNO, IJN, who was Assistant Gunnery Officer of the Kirishima:

Q. Give a description of the battle the night of the 14th.
A. The Kirishima was again proceeding towards GUADALCANAL to support the transport landing by shelling the airfield. Our speed was about 28-30 knots. One of our destroyers turned its search light on the South Dakota and we opened fire. We think we hit the South Dakota many times, inflicting much damage. We received about 9×16″ hits and about 40×5″ hits. We didn’t think that the South Dakota hit us at any time. However a second battleship was firing upon us. We couldn’t see it because of the glare from the destroyers searchlights. Because we were hitting the South Dakota and couldn’t see the second battleship, we did not shift fire. Two heavy cruisers were with us and were hit but not damaged badly. They were of the Takao class.

Q. Did the Kirishima sink as a result of the gunfire?
A. No. Shortly after the American ships opened fire the steering of the Kirishima was so badly damaged that we were unable to steer or repair it. We kept turning in a circle but couldn’t get away. We slowed down to try to steer with the engines but it was no use. Our engines were not badly damaged, but we were receiving many hits from the Washington. Then the Captain decided that since we couldn’t steer and the engines were damaged that it would be better to scuttle the ship. He then gave the order to open the Kingston valves. We did not receive any torpedo hits.

Q. How long did the ship remain afloat after receiving the first hit?
A. It took about two and one-half hours to sink. Destroyers came alongside and took off about one quarter of the men. The rest of the men jumped over the side and were later picked up by destroyers. We had about 1400 men on board and lost about 250. I stepped from the Kirishima to a destroyer and did not even get wet.

Q. How do you know that the ship was not sunk by shell fire?
A. I heard the Captain give the order to scuttle the ship. Later; on the destroyer, one of the engineers told me that they had opened the Kingston valves. The Captain was also informed that the valves had been opened before he transferred to a destroyer.

See Interrogation of Japanese Officials, 1945.

It was a battle that ranged far and wide. During the day US planes from Henderson Field and the USS Enterprise had had considerable success in locating and attacking Japanese ships and their transports attempting to land troops on Guadalcanal. One man’s Medal of Honor citation gives us an idea of what these men were going through.

Harold W. Bauer, US Marine Corps aviator in WWII – awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the battle for the Solomon Islands.

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage as Squadron Commander of Marine Fighting Squadron TWO TWELVE in the South Pacific Area during the period May 10 to November 14, 1942.

Volunteering to pilot a fighter plane in defense of our positions on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer participated in two air battles against enemy bombers and fighters outnumbering our force more than two-to-one, boldly engaged the enemy and destroyed one Japanese bomber in the engagement of September 28 and shot down four enemy fighter planes in flames on October 3 leaving a fifth smoking badly. After successfully leading twenty-six planes in the over-water ferry flight of more than six hundred miles on October 16, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer, while circling to land, sighted a squadron of enemy planes attacking the USS McFarland.

Undaunted by the formidable opposition and with valor above and beyond the call of duty, he engaged the entire squadron and, although alone and his fuel supply nearly exhausted, fought his plane so brilliantly that four of the Japanese planes were destroyed before he was forced down by lack of fuel.

His intrepid fighting spirit and distinctive ability as leader and an airman, exemplified in his splendid record of combat achievement, were vital in the successful operations in the South Pacific Area.

On November 14, Harold W. Bauer shot down two enemy aircraft in an attack 100 miles off Guadalcanal before being shot down himself. He was seen in the water apparently unhurt, floating in his life jacket. An intensive air and sea search over the following days failed to find him.

The Japanese transports Hirokawa Maru and Kinugawa Maru beached and burning after a failed resupply run to Guadalcanal on 15 November 1942.
The U.S. Navy battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57) and two destroyers alongside the repair ship USS Prometheus (AR-3) for repairs, probably at Noumea, New Caledonia, in November 1942. The inboard destroyer, with the distorted bow, is probably USS Mahan (DD-364), which was damaged in a collision with South Dakota at the close of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 27 October 1942. South Dakota received damage in both that battle and in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 15 November 1942. The other destroyer may be USS Lamson (DD-367).
The wreck of one of the four Japanese transports, Kinugawa Maru, beached and destroyed at Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942, photographed one year later.

Pitched battles all around Pedestal convoy

12th August 1942: Pitched battles all around Pedestal convoy

I decide to carry out a second depth-charge attack and the ship is just turning when a roar goes up, ‘There she is.’ It was a successful attack, and the U-boat has come to the surface, but the job is not yet finished. Perhaps she will crash-dive and try to escape. We can take no chances. So, ‘Full ahead both engines; prepare to ram.’ The guns need no orders. They have already opened fire and the U-boat is getting seven bells knocked out of her.

12 August: Air attacks: An Italian aerial reconnaissance photograph of the convoy.
An Italian torpedo bomber comes under fire as it begins its run to attack the British fleet.
16-inch guns on the battleship HMS RODNEY open fire whilst she is steaming in the Western Mediterranean. In the foreground can be seen one of the battleship’s 4.7 inch guns in an open turret. Note how the barrels of the 16 inch guns are of uneven length, due to the recoil of the gun after firing.

Inevitably as the Pedestal convoy got closer to Italy, and the air bases on Sicily and Sardinia, the air attacks on it intensified. Enemy aircraft now had much longer time to spend over their targets and time to co-ordinate their attacks. The U-boat threat had not diminished and for a period the destroyers were firing depth charges merely asa deterrent.

L. Myers was on board the battleship HMS Rodney. He recalls that they were in almost continuous action for three days starting with the sinking of HMS Eagle. It was the following day that things started to get really busy for them:

The action, when it started, was a fairly gentlemanly affair with a few high level bombing and submarine attacks. But on the second day things got really hectic with combined high level bombing, torpedo bombing, dive bombing and submarine attacks. The action diary for this day as recorded by Kenneth Thompson, the ship’s Chaplain in his book ‘HMS Rodney at war’ lists some 80 plus entries between 0745 and 2015.

A short extract
1236 Mine, bomb or torpedo explodes astern
1239 Manchester opens fire
1241 Destroyers open fire port side
1242 Nine torpedo bombers coming in outside screen
1243 16″ open fire to port
1245 Torpedoes dropped port bow
1248 Six torpedo bombers on port beam
1248 Torpedo bomber shot down by fighter red 10
(Note use of 16″ in ack ack role)

Whenever possible I made my way to the upper deck to observe the operation of our two remaining carriers, ‘Indomitable’ and ‘Victorious’. With the convoy under constant air attack from dawn to dusk there was continual flight deck activity. It must be remembered that fresh aircrew manned each succeeding wave of enemy aircraft whereas our small band of pilots were continuously in action. I watched the aircraft land on and taxi to the forward lift where it was lowered into the hangar, I could imagine the action as it was moved back through the hangar being refuelled, rearmed and repaired while the pilot was debriefed, having a cup of coffee and a pee (not necessarily in that order) and by the time the aircraft reached the after lift he was ready to go again.

It was possibly the most concentrated period of action in the annals of the Fleet Air Arm. Very comparable to the Battle of Britain but with the added hazards of a moving airfield, having to fly through ‘friendly’ flak to reach it and flying aircraft inferior in performance to those of the enemy.

Regretfully I have no statistics to cover this period but the performance of those young Naval aviators is deserving of the highest praise.
I had many friends in both ships and was well aware of the intense activity that was taking place both on the deck and in the crowded hangar below.

Must admit to some embarrassment at the comparatively easy passage I was having but at the same time must admit to being very grateful for the security provided by the Rodney’s 14″ of armour plating.

Read more of Myers’ story on BBC People’s War

12 August: The sinking of the Italian submarine COBALTO: HMS ITHURIEL coming in to ram the COBALTO.

Elsewhere HMS Ithuriel had spotted a U-boat, the Italian Cobalto’s periscope had left a trail in the water, just visible to a lookout on the destroyer. Even though the periscope was withdrawn an attack was made where it was last spotted :

‘Stand by depth-charges. Depth-charges, fire’ The able seaman standing by the firing levers pulls them, and after a few seconds the ship shudders as they explode violently astern of us. ‘Quite a good attack I think, Sir,’ says the RNVR Sub Lieutenant, and everybody looks astern, hoping for some signs of wreckage to appear.

I decide to carry out a second depth-charge attack and the ship is just turning when a roar goes up, ‘There she is.’ It was a successful attack, and the U-boat has come to the surface, but the job is not yet finished. Perhaps she will crash-dive and try to escape. We can take no chances. So, ‘Full ahead both engines; prepare to ram.’ The guns need no orders. They have already opened fire and the U-boat is getting seven bells knocked out of her.

Some of the Italians start shouting and jumping overboard. I give the order ‘Full speed astern’ to take some speed off the ship and avoid damaging ourselves unnecessarily. After all, you don’t need to use a hammer on a boiled egg, so to speak. We hit her abaft the conning tower and heel her right over. It is a delightful crunch.

Lieutenant-Commander D. H. Maitland-Makgill-Crichton DSO RN, Captain of HMS Ithuriel – first published in the Listener, 22nd October, 1942.

12 August: The sinking of the Italian submarine COBALTO: A photograph taken from HMS ITHURIEL showing the COBALTO passing down the destroyer’s port side after she had been rammed.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: HMS INDOMITABLE on fire after being bombed. A Dido class cruiser, HMS CHARYBDIS, is screening the carrier.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: Detailed photograph of the damage to HMS INDOMITABLE’s flight deck.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: The score-board for the successes of HMS INDOMITABLE’s air group painted on the island. INDOMITABLE’s fighters claimed to have shot down 38 Axis aircraft.
12 August: Evening Air and Submarine Attacks: The Italian submarine AXUM’s torpedo strikes the tanker OHIO on her port side.