Another Christmas for a war weary World

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

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

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

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.

Another raid on the Tirpitz

The German battleship Tirpitz was on the top of the RAF's target list, seen here at Fættenfjord, where she was in March 1942.

The Fleet Air Arm had failed to hit the Tirpitz when they had hastily mounted an attack when she was seen at sea on the [permalink id=17851 text=”9th March 1942″]. Now the RAF would mount the second of what was to become a long campaign to disable the powerful battleship that threatened the Arctic convoys.

Halifax Mark II Series 1, R9441 ?TL-S?, of No. 35 Squadron RAF, on the ground at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. R9441 later served with No. 102 Squadron RAF, and No. 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit with whom it crashed on taking off from Marston Moor on 4 April 1943.
Handley Page Halifax crews of No. 35 Squadron RAF await transport to their aircraft outside one of the Type C hangars at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire.
A Handley-Page Halifax B Mark II Series I of No. 35 Squadron RAF, being prepared for an engine start in a dispersal, while another aircraft taxies past, at Linton-On-Ouse, Yorkshire.

The difficulty of locating the Tirpitz was to pose a challenge for almost the rest of the war. The moonlight assisted the Halifax aircraft from No.’s 76, 35 and 10 Squadrons RAF on the night of the 30th when they flew the 1300 mile round trip from Scottish airfields. Unfortunately it was all in vain, when they reached the Trondheim area sea fog and low cloud made locating the target impossible. Some aircraft bombed the flak searchlights that could be seen – but the weather made it equally impossible to assess their impact.

Halifax Mark II Series I, W7676 ‘TL-P’, of No.35 Squadron RAF based at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, being piloted by Flight Lieutenant Reginald Lane, (later Lieutenant-General, RCAF), over the English countryside. Flt Lt Lane and his crew flew twelve operations in W7676, which failed to return from a raid on Nuremberg on the night of 28/29 August 1942, when flown by Flt Sgt D John and crew.

Linzee Duncan at Archieraf has more details of the raid, and comprehensive information on the RAF aircraft and crew involved in the raids on the Tirpitz in the spring of 1942. Her account lists six aircraft as missing on this raid, whereas the RAF Bomber Command Campaign History lists only one.

An impressive view of a row of Halifax bombers being assembled at the Handley Page factory at Cricklewood. The aircraft can be seen looking from nose to tail, rather than in profile, with the tail of the first aircraft visible in the foreground.

Italian battle fleet attacks Malta convoy

HMS CLEOPATRA throws out smoke to shield the convoy as HMS EURYALUS elevates her forward 5.25 inch guns to shell the Italian Fleet.

On the 21st March a convoy of four merchant ships had set out from Alexandria to bring relief to Malta. Intelligence indicated that the Italian fleet would attempt to attack at some point. The heavy escort of Royal Navy ships was therefore somewhat prepared when on the afternoon of 22nd March 1942 ‘a thin wisp of smoke’ appeared on the horizon. Frank Gregory-Smith records that he felt curiously relaxed at this point, even though the next more detailed report suggested they faced three battleships. As a matter of routine they could also expect to come under air attack from both bombers and torpedo bombers.

Vice Admiral Vian had prepared a plan that involved shielding the convoy with some of his force of destroyers, whilst constantly threatening the Italian fleet with a torpedo attack from other destroyers – a plan that very largely succeeded.

Captain Frank Gregory-Smith was on HMS Eridge:

A series of flashes in the smoke followed by a dull, rumbling boom announced the opening of the surface engagement. As if this was a signal, a formation of torpedo bombers flew into sight, skimming just above the sea. Simultaneously an even larger group of high level bombers were briefly glimpsed through the smoke and clouds on the opposite side of the convoy. Escorts to port and astem of the convoy immediately engaged the high formation, leaving the torpedo bombers to HMS Southwold, HMS Dulverton and HMS Eridge.

The ship shuddered under the opening salvoes and high explosive started to burst around the low flying aircraft. Their crews, obviously surprised by such a heavy concentration from so few ships, promptly split into smaller groups and tried to penetrate the screen on a broader front. Even then gunfire continued to harass them, forcing them into individual units which dropped their torpedoes haphazardly and at such long range that all ships had time to tum towards their tracks, just as bombs from the high formation exploded in a compact mass well astern of the supply ships.

Meanwhile, the two surface forces, exchanging rapid fire as they rolled, twisted and plunged through the heavy seas, were closing at a relative speed of fifty knots. The British were already partially hidden by smoke, which the Italians would have to penetrate if they were to get within range of the supply ships. Just before reaching effective gun range, the Italian Admiral swung his ships to port. To prevent him stealing the weather gauge, the British followed his movements and stretched at high speed eastwards.

On this course, British smoke drifted rapidly to leeward and, when its outer fringes reached the Italians, their Admiral, fearing a torpedo attack, edged his ships further to port. But the smoke still thickened around his ships, harassing them until the Italian Admiral suddenly lost his nerve and swung his cruisers, followed by a division of destroyers which had unexpectedly appeared astem, in a broad sweep to the northward. Rear Admiral Vian held on until satisfied that the enemy
was definitely retiring and then turned towards the convoy; some twenty miles to the south-westward.

See Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander

A bare chested ammunition supply party bringing up shells for the 5.25 inch guns, during a lull in the action, on board HMS EURYALUS, on convoy duty in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Italian battleship Littorio outranged and outgunned all of the Royal Navy ships but dared not penetrate the British smokescreen. When darkness fell, without radar, she was forced to withdraw.

It was not all over. A very short time later another force appeared. Captain Eric Bush was in command of HMS Euryalus:

The enemy, as we know now, was in two groups at this stage, the nearer, about nine miles away, consisting ofthe two eight-inch and one six-inch cruisers and four destroyers we had met before, and the second group, at a distance of fifteen miles, comprising the modern battleship Littorio and four destroyers. We were in for something now, all right! I knew that Admiral Vian would never leave the convoy to its fate, so if needs be we would be fighting to the end.

In the next two hours the fate of our whole force was in the balance. With the powerful ships at his disposal the Italian admiral could easily have wiped us out, but he could not bring himself to enter the smoke-screen knowing that we were waiting for him on the other side

See Captain Eric Bush: Bless Our Ship

The action became known as the Second Battle of Sirte.

‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

A heavy sea breaking over the bows of the battleship HMS RENOWN.

In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time:

Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships.

Capital Ships.

Between the outbreak of war and 31st December, 1941, H.M.S. Renown was at sea 390 days and during this time she steamed 137,000 miles.

HMS RENOWN at anchor in Hvalfjord, Iceland (Photograph taken from the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS) during the search for the TIRPITZ. The battleship aft of RENOWN is possibly USS TEXAS, which arrived in Iceland in late January to escort a convoy back to British waters.

Aircraft Carriers.

H.M.S. Victorious. Steamed 41,378 miles in the first 8 months of her service. 13,000 miles of this distance were steamed in the first 5 weeks of her service.

An aerial view of HMS VICTORIOUS at sea. Steam can be seen venting from the catapult towards the front of the flight deck.

Cruisers.

H.M.S. Cumberland. Steamed 195,876 miles from the outbreak of war to 31st December, 1941. From 18th November, 1940, to 18th May, 1941, H.M.S. Cumberland was at sea for 206 days out of a total of 213.

HMS CUMBERLAND in Grand Harbour, Malta.

Destroyers.

H.M.S. Forester. Steamed 172,000 miles during the war up to 31st December, 1941, and was at sea for 601 days during that period. One destroyer flotilla consisting of eight ships passed the million mile mark steaming during the war in June 1941.

The destroyer HMS Forester had a very busy war, she participated in sinking U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic and would soon move to escort duties with Arctic convoys.

Submarines.

One of our submarines covered a distance of 25,800 miles in five months, of which only 40 days were spent in harbour, and these mostly without a depot ship. During that time this submarine went from 660 N. latitude to 260 S. latitude. Another of our submarines spent 251 days at sea in one year of war.

The crew of HM Submarine THUNDERBOLT display their 'Jolly Roger' on the Submarine Depot Ship HMS FORTH in Holy Loch, Scotland, after a successful patrol in the Mediterranean, 27 March 1942.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet 19th March 1942, see TNA CAB66/23/9.

Fleet Air Arm attacks the Tirpitz

One of the escort cruisers, HMS BERWICK, "taking it green" as water crashes over her bows off the Norwegian coast. She had sailed with HMS KING GEORGE V, HMS VICTORIOUS, HM Destroyers ONSLOW ASHANTI, INTREPID, ICARUS, LOOKOUT and BEDOUIN to join HMS DUKE OF YORK, HMS RENOWN, HM Cruiser KENYA, HM Destroyers FAULKNOR, ESKIMO, PUNJABI ECHO and ECLIPSE to provide cover for passage of Russian convoy PQ12 and return Convoy QP8

In early 1942 it was realised that the Tirpitz had become operational and, based in Norway, would pose a threat to Arctic Convoys supplying Russia or could possibly even break out into the Atlantic, as her sister ship the Bismarck had done, and threaten Transatlantic convoys.

The destruction or even crippling of this ship is the greatest event at sea at the present time. No other target is comparable to it.

Winston Churchill, 25th January 1942

The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys had just put to sea when a German battleship was identified off Norway. A torpedo attack was quickly organised, the only occasion that the Tirpitz was targeted whilst at sea.

Home, Northern Waters and North Atlantic

On the 4th, the Home Fleet sailed to the northward from Scapa and on the 5th the Commander-in-Chief reported that an outward-bound convoy to Russia had been shadowed by Focke-Wulf aircraft when about 300 miles north-east of Iceland.

In the evening of the 6th H.M. Submarine Seawolf reported an enemy battleship or 8-inch cruiser about 55 miles north-east of Trondheim steering N.E..

Subsequently this ship was identified as the Tirpitz, which was located and attacked with torpedoes by aircraft of the Home Fleet at 0930 on the 9th, about 80 miles west of the Lofoten Islands. No hits were claimed and Tirpitz was last seen steering towards Vestfjord. The Home Fleet has returned to Scapa.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/22/50

View from the search-light platform overlooking the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS, showing the strike force of twelve Fairey Albacores of 832 or 817 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm loaded with torpedoes to strike at the TIRPITZ when she was at sea off the coast of Norway. The attack obtained no hits on the German battleship and two aircraft were lost. In the background can be seen HMS RENOWN, HMS DUKE OF YORK, and HMS BERWICK in line ahead.
A Fleet Air Arm flight deck party on board HMS VICTORIOUS leaning against the island of the aircraft carrier whilst they are awaiting the return of aircraft from patrol. The photograph was taken whilst VICTORIOUS was helping to cover Russian convoys.
On board HMS VICTORIOUS a shadowing Fairey Albacore returns. One of the Fairey Albacores that shadowed the TIRPITZ from an early hour and guided the striking force to their objective off the coast of Norway. The attack obtained no hits on the German battleship and two aircraft were lost. The Observer, Sub Lieutenant G Dunworth, is being carried from the machine after being hit by gunfire, note the hatch in the side of the aircraft.

For more details on Royal Navy ships see Naval History Net.

HMS Neptune lost and two Battleships disabled

The Light Cruiser HMS Neptune, only one man survived out of her entire complement when she came to grief in a minefield.

The 19th December 1941 was a black day for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Following so soon after the loss of the [permalink id=15254 text=”Prince of Wales and the Repulse”] in the Far East, it was not surprising that the British worked hard to conceal the scale of the calamity at the time. Details of the losses of HMS Neptune would not be released for six months.

Force K, the Malta based striking squadron which had [permalink id=14468 text=”so successfully taken the fight to the Italian fleet”] in the Mediterranean, struck calamity when it entered an unmarked minefield. HMS Neptune, leading the small task force hit the first mine and the other Light cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope were hit as well. The destroyer HMS Kandahar went to assist HMS Neptune but struck a mine herself. The remaining destroyer HMS Lively was ordered not to approach HMS Neptune. Soon HMS Neptune had hit a total of four mines and was sinking, only around 30 men from the complement of 762 got off the ship. Only one of them survived.

Able Seaman Norman Walton was the sole survivor from the Light Cruiser HMS Neptune. He was not able to provide an account of events until 1943:

We had been at action stations since 8 p.m., when just after midnight there was an explosion off our starboard bow. The captain stopped engines and went astern but we hit another mine, blowing the screws and most of the stern away. Then we were hit abaft the funnel. We were ordered up top and had a bad list to port and were down in the stern. Aurora had also been mined and badly damaged and Kandahar came up to take us in tow.

With seven others, I was asked to go forward to help with the tow, but Kandahar then hit a mine and slewed off. Then we hit a fourth mine and we were lifted up and dropped back again. I got the Petty Officer of the forecastle from beneath the anchor chain but he had broken his back. Four of us Price, Middleton, Quinn and me, climbed down the anchor. They jumped in but I wanted somewhere to swim to, and not to just float around, and when I saw a Carley raft I jumped in and swam to it.

I took the tow rope back to Middleton, who had no lifejacket and when we got back to the raft it was crowded – about 30 people on and around it. We saw the ship capsize and sink and gave her a cheer as she went down. We picked up Captain O’Conor who was clinging to what looked like an anchor buoy and he and three other officers finished up on a cork raft attached to ours. The sea was thick with oil and most of us had swallowed a lot of it. A few died around us that night and at daylight there were 16 of us left. The weather was pretty rough and two officers tried to swim towards the Kandahar but they never made it.

Three more ratings died and we picked up an oar and I tried to steer the raft but could make no headway. By the fourth day there were only four of us left including the Captain who died that night. I was in the water for three days before being able to find room aboard the raft. Most of the lads just gave up the ghost but I was very fit because of playing so much sport and this is probably why I survived. I had a smashed leg and by Christmas Eve on the 5th day, there was only Price and myself left. I saw an aircraft; waved to it and an hour later an Italian torpedo boat came alongside and threw me a line. I collapsed when I got on board and woke up on Christmas Day in a Tripoli hospital. They told me Price was dead.

I was totally blind throughout Christmas because of the oil and was praying it was only temporary. On Boxing Day I got my sight back and looked in a mirror. My tongue was swollen to twice its size and my nose spread across my face, which was black from the oil and from exposure. Still, apart from my broken leg I was almost back to normal by New Year’s Day, when I was put on a ship bound for Italy and full of German and Italian troops going on leave.

I spent 15 months in various prisoner-of-war camps until told I was going to be repatriated and arrived home in June 1943. The Italians had told me I was the only Neptune survivor, but I could never believe that until the Navy confirmed it for me in 1943. Sometimes even now it is hard to take in.

For a full list of casualties on all the ships see Naval History.net, for much more on the ship see HMS Neptune Association.

HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH in Alexandria harbour, Egypt, surrounded by anti-torpedo nets.

Back in Alexandria the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant had remained in port because there were insufficient destroyers to provide anti-submarine escorts. Unfortunately they were no safer here than at sea. Frank Wade was a midshipman on board the Queen Elizabeth. There was an early morning commotion:

… “Valiant” , lying ahead of us, had just signalled C–in-C that she had discovered two Italians swimming around the anti-torpedo nets of the ship. One was a Lieutenant-Commander and the other a Petty Officer. It seemed incredible that the Italians had actually penetrated the boom, despite all our precautions. Things died down and we went back to bed. At about quarter to six I woke up and decided to go on deck. As I was talking my friend, the officer of the watch, the early morning glow highlighted the buildings at Ras el Tin and the French cruisers. Then there was a low, rumbling sound like a tympani drum roll which climaxed in an explosive roar. My friend pointed to “Valiant” which was already beginning to take on a slight list. All the while C-in-C stood silently watching.

Then we blew up. Again there was the low, rumbling underwater explosion and the quarterdeck was thrown upwards about six inches, maybe more. I bent my legs and threw out my arms to keep my balance as the huge ship lurched beneath me. A blast of thick smoke and flame shot out of the funnel.The admiral remained there, as silent and imperturbable as always, steadying himself against the starboard guardrail for balance.

One of the Italian underwater “chariot” submersibles that carried out the attack on Alexandria harbour is in the Imperial War Museum in London, England, as are two 15-inch guns of the type used in “Queen Elizabeth.”

More of Frank Wade’s account can be read at A Midshipman’s War , or in his autobiography Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War: A Young Man in the Mediterranean Naval War, 1941-1943.

At a stroke the Mediterranean Fleet was hopelessly crippled. Following the loss of [permalink id=14657 text=”HMS Ark Royal”] and the battleship [permalink id=14785 text=”HMS Barham”] this was a serious shift in the balance of power. Fortunately it was possible to conceal the state of the damage to Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, both ships had settled evenly on their keels, only a few feet lower in the water than they had been. All the Italian commando’s on the raid had been captured – so the Italians never learnt what had actually happened.

The ship’s boilers continued to make smoke as if they were ready to go to sea. Soon pictures of the two ships in port appeared in British newspapers showing them apparently undamaged. The Italian Navy were deceived and never realised the advantage they had.

Far East disaster for the Royal Navy

Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

Force Z comprised the battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. The only two capital ships in the region had left the port of Singapore to steam up the coast of the Malaysian peninsula to confront Japanese forces invading from Thailand. The Naval force lacked an Aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable had been due to join them but had been damaged. Despite the fact that the Royal Navy’s own Fleet Air Arm had been pioneers in the use of airborne weapons against war ships the threat from the Japanese was underestimated.

Force Z went to sea without air cover and when the two ships were discovered by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes they came under a relentless attack. Cecil Brown was a journalist on board HMS Repulse:

The torpedo strikes the ship about twenty yards astern of my position. It feels as though the ship has crashed into dock. I am thrown four feet across the deck but I keep my feet. Almost immediately, it seems, the ship lists. The command roars out of the loudspeaker: “Blow up your lifebelts!” I take down mine from the shelf. It is a blue-serge affair with a rubber bladder inside. I tie one of the cords around my waist and start to bring another cord up around the neck.

Just as I start to tie it the command comes: “All possible men to starboard.” But a Japanese plane invalidates that command. Instantly there’s another crash to starboard. Incredibly quickly, the Repulse is listing to port, and I haven’t started to blow up my lifebelt. I finish tying the cord around my neck. My camera I hang outside the airless lifebelt. Gallagher already has his belt on and is puffing into the rubber tube to inflate it. The effort makes his strong, fair face redder than usual. . . .

Captain Tennant’s voice is coming over the ship’s loudspeaker, a cool voice: “All hands on deck. Prepare to abandon ship.” There is a pause for just an instant, then: “God be with you.”

There is no alarm, no confusion, no panic. We on the flag deck move toward a companionway leading to the quarterdeck. Abrahams, the Admiralty photographer, Gallagher and I are together. The coolness of everyone is incredible. There is no pushing, but no pausing either.

One youngster seems in a great hurry. He tries to edge his way into the line at the top of the companionway to get down faster to the quarterdeck. A young sub-lieutenant taps him on the shoulder and says quietly, “Now, now, we are all going the same way, too. ”The youngster immediately gets hold of himself. . . .

The Repulse is going down. The torpedo-smashed Prince of Wales, still a half to three-quarters of a mile ahead, is low in the water, half shrouded in smoke, a destroyer by her side. Japanese bombers are still winging around like vultures, still attacking the Wales. A few of those shot down are bright splotches of burning orange on the blue South China Sea. Men are tossing overboard rafts, lifebelts, benches, pieces of wood, anything that will float.

Standing at the edge of the ship, I see one man (Midshipman Peter Gillis, an eighteen-year-old Australian from Sydney) dive from the Air Defence control tower at the top of the main mast. He dives 170 feet and starts to swim away. Men are jumping into the sea from the four or five defence control towers that segment the main mast like a series of ledges. One man misses his distance, dives, hits the side of the Repulse, breaks every bone in his body and crumples into the sea like a sack of wet cement. Another misses his direction and dives from one of the towers straight down the smokestack.

Men are running all along the deck of the ship to get further astern. The ship is lower in the water at the stern and their jump therefore will be shorter. Twelve Royal Marines run back too far, jump into the water and are sucked into the propeller. The screws of the Repulse are still turning. There are five or six hundred heads bobbing in the water. The men are being swept astern because the Repulse is still making way and there’s a strong tide here, too.

On all sides of me men are flinging themselves over the side. I sit down on the edge of the Repulse and take off my shoes. I am very fond of those shoes. A Chinese made them for me just a few days ago in Singapore. They are soft, with a buckle, and they fit well. I carefully place them together and put them down as you do at the foot of your bed before going to sleep. I have no vision of what is ahead, no concrete thoughts of how to save myself. It is necessarily every man for himself. As I sit there, it suddenly comes to me, the overwhelming, dogmatic conviction. I actually speak the words: “Cecil, you are never going to get out of this.”

I see one man jump and land directly on another man. I say to myself, “When I jump I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Down below is a mess of oil and debris, and I don’t want to jump into that either. I feel my mind getting numb.

I look across to the Wales. Its guns are flashing and the flames are belching through the greyish-black smoke. My mind cannot absorb what my eyes see. It is impossible to believe that these two beautiful, powerful, invulnerable ships are going down. But they are. There’s no doubt of that. Men are sliding down the hull of the Repulse. Extending around the edge of the ship is a three-inch bulge of steel. The men hit that bulge, shoot off into space and into the water. I say to myself, “I don’t want to go down that way. That must hurt their backsides something terrible.”

About eight feet to my left there is a gaping hole in the side of the Repulse. It is about thirty feet across, with the plates twisted and torn. The hull of the Repulse has been ripped open as though a giant had torn apart a tin can. I see an officer dive over the side, dive into the hole underneath the line, dive back inside the ship. I half turn to look back on the crazy-angled deck of the ship. The padre is beside one of the pom-poms, administering the final rites to a gunner dying beside his gun. The padre seems totally unconcerned by the fact that the Repulse is going down at any moment. . . .

The jump is about twenty feet. The water is warm; it is not water, but thick oil. My first action is to look at my stopwatch. It is smashed at 12.35, one hour and twenty minutes after the first Japanese bomb came through 12,000 feet to crash into the catapult deck of the Repulse.

See Cecil Brown: Suez to Singapore

The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress low enough to engage attackers due to the list.