Churchill declares that the U-Boat war is top priority

A merchant ship sinks stern first after being torpedoed by a U-boat.
A merchant ship sinks stern first after being torpedoed by a U-boat.
A tanker explodes after being torpedoed by a U-boat in the Caribbean.
A tanker explodes after being torpedoed by a U-boat in the Caribbean.

Churchill was back in Britain after his tour of the Middle East and the Casablanca Conference. Throughout the war he remained accountable to the House of Commons and only a year before had had to face two votes of ‘No Confidence’. Now he faced the tricky position of providing Parliament and the British people with a proper picture of the progress of the war whilst at the same time not giving away information that would be of value to the enemy.

On the 9th February he was to give a long speech in Parliament on the ‘War Situation’. For Churchill it was not just about reporting on the situation but building a morale boosting picture that gave the public confidence. In a wide ranging speech one issue dominated:

The dominating aim which we set before ourselves at the Conference at Casablanca was to engage the enemy’s forces on land, sea, and in the air on the largest possible scale and at the earliest possible moment.

The United States has vast oceans to cross in order to close with her enemies. We also have seas or oceans to cross in the first instance, and then for both of us there is the daring and complicated enterprise of landing on defended coasts and also the building-up of all the supplies and communications necessary for vigorous campaigning when once a landing has been made.

It is because of this that the U-boat warfare takes the first place in our thoughts.

An aerial view of a convoy in the Atlantic. During the course of the war 366,852 tons of Allied Merchant shipping were sunk in the Atlantic.
Original caption: ‘An aerial view of a convoy in the Atlantic. During the course of the war 366,852 tons of Allied Merchant shipping were sunk in the Atlantic.’ See comments below for accuracy of this figure.

The waste of precious cargoes, the destruction of so many noble ships, the loss of heroic crews, all combine to constitute a repulsive and sombre panorama. We cannot possibly rest content with losses on this scale, even though they are outweighed by new building, even if they are not for that reason mortal in their character. Nothing is more clearly proved than that well-escorted convoys, especially when protected by long-distance aircraft, beat the U-boats.

I do not say that they are a complete protection, but they are an enormous mitigation of losses. We have had hardly any losses at sea in our heavily escorted troop convoys. Out of about 3,000,000 soldiers who have been moved under the protection of the British Navy about the world, to and fro across the seas and oceans, about 1,348 have been killed or drowned, including missing. It is about 2,200 to one against your being drowned if you travel in British troop convoys in this present war.

Even if the U-boats increase in number, there is no doubt that a superior proportionate increase in the naval and air escort will be a remedy. A ship not sunk is better than a new ship built. Therefore, in order to reduce the waste in the merchant shipping convoys, we have decided, by successive steps during the last six months, to throw the emphasis rather more on the production of escort vessels, even though it means some impingement on new building.

Very great numbers of escort vessels are being constructed in Great Britain and the United States, equipped with every new device of anti-U-boat warfare in all its latest refinements. We pool our resources with the United States, and we have been promised, and the promise is being executed in due course, our fair allocation of American-built escort vessels.

A photograph taken from the bridge of HMS VISCOUNT which gives a good idea of the difficult weather conditions while escorting a convoy during the Battle of the Atlantic. During this operation HMS VISCOUNT and HMS FAME rammed and sank. two German U-boats.
A photograph taken from the bridge of HMS VISCOUNT which gives a good idea of the difficult weather conditions while escorting a convoy during the Battle of the Atlantic. During this operation HMS VISCOUNT and HMS FAME rammed and sank two German U-boats.

On the offensive side the rate of killing U-boats has steadily improved. From January to October, 1942, inclusive, a period of 10 months, the rate of sinkings, certain and probable, was the best we have seen so far in this war, but from November to the present day, a period of three months, that rate has improved more than half as much again.

At the same time, the destructive power of the U-boat has undergone a steady diminution since the beginning of the war. In the first year, each operational U-boat that was at work accounted for an average of 19 ships; in the second year, for an average of 12, and in the third year for an average of 7½. These figures, I think, are, in themselves, a tribute to the Admiralty and to all others concerned.

One relatively small point in the speech was that he had to inform the British that their armies in Africa were now falling under American Command:

As the Desert Army passes into the American sphere it will naturally come under the orders of General Eisenhower. I have great confidence in General Eisenhower. I regard him as one of the finest men I have ever met.

Read the whole speech at Hansard

Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.
A surfaced U-boat is straddled by depth charges from a Coastal Command Liberator.
A surfaced U-boat is straddled by depth charges from a Coastal Command Liberator.

Arctic convoy ambushed by German cruisers

HMS Bramble underway.
HMS Bramble underway. The 1300 ton minesweeper went into the attack when confronted by the eight inch guns of the 16,000 ton Admiral Hipper and was sunk with all hands.
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in dry dock at Brest, France. Obtained on a 'dicing' sortie by a Supermarine Spitfire PR Mark IG of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit Detachment flying from St Eval, Cornwall.
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in dry dock at Brest, France. Obtained on a ‘dicing’ sortie by a Supermarine Spitfire PR Mark IG of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit Detachment flying from St Eval, Cornwall.

German Naval intelligence learnt from U Boat U 354 on 30th December that an arctic convoy, which appeared to be lightly escorted, was headed for Russia. They despatched the pocket battleship Lutzow and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper with a force of destroyers to ambush the fourteen merchantmen in the convoy.

It should have been an unequal battle but the Royal Navy escorting destroyers turned towards the larger German ships with a view to torpedoing them. The Germans, being under orders to avoid risk, withdrew. This manoeuvre was repeated several times, allowing the merchantmen to get away.

It was not without cost to the British forces. In the polar twilight the minesweeper HMS Bramble stumbled into the Admiral Hipper and was sunk with all hands. It was not the first time that the Hipper had been attacked by a much smaller Royal Navy ship, famously HMS Glowworm had taken her on in April 1940.

The destroyer HMS Achates was also sunk and the other destroyers hit before the cruisers of Force ‘R’, the long distance escort ships HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica, arrived to see the German ships off.

HMS ACHATES, an A class destroyer modified for escort work with a Hedgehog ASW in place of ‘A’ gun, at sea. 114 men died when she was sunk, coming under gunfire as she laid a smokescreen to protect the merchantmen.Amongst those lost was Seaman Kenneth MacIver RNR. He was posthumously mentioned in despatches. He put himself at risk to rescue comrades in a rapidly flooding cabin, then made trips across the deck while under heavy fire to take over the ships wheel. With the aid of just a ships compass he continued to steer the stricken ship and maintain the laying down of smoke screen. Unfortunately, as the survivors were being picked up the wheelhouse was totally destroyed by further shelling and Seaman MacIver lost his life.
Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke, awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the destroyers at the battle of the Barents Sea.
Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke, awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the destroyers at the battle of the Barents Sea.

The commander of the destroyer escorts, Captain Robert Sherbrooke on HMS Onslow, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership during the action:

Captain Sherbrooke, as Senior Officer of four destroyers which comprised the (striking force) protecting a convoy, without hesitation led the ships under his command into action against a superior enemy force consisting of a cruiser and two or three destroyers which endeavouring to attack the Convoy.

He split his force to allow one sub-division to engage the destroyers while he led the other sub-division against the heavier ship. During the ensuing action, on four occasions he forced the superior enemy force to retire under cover of smoke to avoid the threat of his torpedoes.

Each time the enemy gave ground he closed in, forcing him outside gun-range of the convoy and towards our own cruiser covering force. After 40 minutes ONSLOW was hit forward and Captain Sherbrooke was severely wounded in the face by shrapnel, losing the sight of one eye.

Despite this he continued to direct the ships under his command until he was compelled to disengage as a result of further damage from enemy gunfire, but not until he was satisfied that the next Senior Officer had assumed control. It was only then that he left the bridge for medical assistance.

During the time the convoy was endangered, he insisted On being kept fully informed of the situation in his smoke-filled sea-cabin. His bravery, coolness and prompt decisions both before and after being wounded, inspired all in touch with him.

By his leadership and inspiration the ships under his command saved the convoy which was successfully brought to its destination without loss or damage.

Read more of this story on including one of the after action reports at BBC People’s War

HMS Sheffield underway
HMS Sheffield underway
HMS SHEFFIELD, AT Greenock, 10 January 1943. after the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
HMS SHEFFIELD, AT Greenock, 10 January 1943. after the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
Inside one of the gunhouses for the triple mounted 6 inch gun aboard HMS SHEFFIELD. Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines sleep on the floor of the gunhouse. Others stand or sit whilst reading. 6 inch armour-piercing shells sit in the gun cradles ready for immediate action.
Inside one of the gunhouses for the triple mounted 6 inch gun aboard HMS SHEFFIELD. Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines sleep on the floor of the gunhouse. Others stand or sit whilst reading. 6 inch armour-piercing shells sit in the gun cradles ready for immediate action.
Some of the gun's crew of the HMS SHEFFIELD which took part in the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
Some of the gun’s crew of the HMS SHEFFIELD which took part in the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
Heavy seas seen astern of HMS SHEFFIELD during a voyage in northern waters.
Heavy seas seen astern of HMS SHEFFIELD during a voyage in northern waters.

Royal Navy’s Force K from Malta on the attack again

In bright sunlight, HMS KELVIN lays a smoke screen during destroyer exercises.
Crew of a 4.7 inch High Angle gun “closed up” ready to face an aerial attack on board HMS JAVELIN whilst she was at sea. Note the men standing by with further ammunition to be fired.
Torpedomen putting depth settings on the depth charges on board HMS JAVELIN. The thrower for the depth charges can be seen behind them.

Hitler was now seeking to reinforce his troops in Libya and Tunisia as they were threatened by Allied forces coming from the west and east.

At the same time the Royal Navy was gradually re-asserting its presence in the Mediterranean. The small task force based at Malta – ‘Force K’ – had been withdrawn when the constant bombing made the port unsustainable. Its [permalink id=15553 text=”last patrol”] almost a year earlier had met with disaster.

Coastal Command aircraft were now an increasing threat to the Italian and German convoys of troops crossing the Mediterranean, alongside the submarines that had operated out of Malta throughout the crisis. But an attack from the Force K cruisers and destroyers could be devastating.

Frank Wade was a midshipman on the destroyer HMS Jervis which was on patrol with HMS Nubian, which picked up a radar contact, and HMS Javelin and HMS Kelvin:

The night attack by our aircraft had obviously been successful, because we could make out a ship on fire in the distance. As we closed very rapidly, the stricken ship loomed larger and larger and we could soon make out its funnels, superstructure and masts partially covered by smoke and flames. It seemed quite unaware of our approach.

Within minutes we were within gun range of the convoy, about five miles away. Suddenly, the silhouette of a destroyer became clearly visible to us as it passed between us and the burning ship. Very quickly it passed out of view, but not before we had got an accurate true bearing on her. All our gun turrets were rapidly directed in her direction. Then something extraordinary occurred. As Guns was orally preparing the turrets to open fire, we found ourselves steaming through hundreds of men in the water around us. They were so close that some of them could actually be identified as shadowy heads in the water. Farther away were boats full of more survivors. They called out for help in Italian and German, their voices echoing pitifully over the sea.

Our first shot was a star shell which illuminated the whole scene. All our ships directed their fire at the destroyer. We turned our searchlight on her and all the details of a small destroyer became starkly evident. Within three minutes, hot glowing circles appeared on her superstructure and hull from the hits that she was sustaining. Things were happening very fast.

The luckless destroyer, without radar, apparently was quite unaware of our presence before the attack. Within five minutres it was all over. Her mast soon collapsed and her superstructure all but disappeared from internal explosions. What a terrible sight to see a ship being so brutally destroyed with such heavy loss of life. We were soon past her and we put the grisly memory out of our minds as best we could.

See Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War: A Young Man in the Mediterranean Naval War, 1941-1943.

A flotilla of Germans fleeing from the 1st and 8th Armies, found nearly twenty miles out to sea off Cape Bon, Tunisia, were rounded up by the Royal Navy. After weeks of iron rations these German prisoners were glad of good food given to them in the destroyer HMS JERVIS. All the prisoners are German and all except two are anti-aircraft gunners who were bombed out of their gun sites.
HMS JERVIS, June 1945.
The British destroyer HMS NUBIAN returning to Malta after patrolling the coast of Tunis. She had been participating in operations by light naval forces based at Malta to patrol the Sicilian Narrows off the coast of Tunis and cut off the German Afrika Korps’s escape route from North Africa.

Japanese surprised at Battle of Cape Esperance

USS Duncan underway in the south Pacific on 7 October 1942, five days before she was sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance. Photographed from USS Copahee (ACV-12), which was then engaged in delivering aircraft to Guadalcanal. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

The battles on and around Guadalcanal continued. The Marines had fought several intense engagements to defend their base at Henderson Field since the battle at [permalink id=22272 text=”Hell’s Point”] and the [permalink id=22691 text=”air battles”] over the island were equally furious. Both the Japanese and the Americans were intent on landing more troops on the island and the two Naval forces ‘stumbled’ into each other on the night of the 11th/12th.

Shortly before midnight on 11 October, a U.S force of four cruisers and five destroyers—under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott intercepted the Japanese force as it approached Savo Island near Guadalcanal. Taking the Japanese by surprise, Scott’s warships sank one cruisers, one destroyer, heavily damaged another cruiser, and mortally wounded the Japanese commander, Aritomo Gotō. It was a tactical victory to the USN but the Japanese still managed to land their reinforcements.

The USN did not come away completely unscathed. Being on the winning side might be of little consequence to some men, as this account by a sailor from USS Duncan makes clear:

The plunge overboard drove me into dark, warm waters. I fought to hold on to my senses. If I passed out, I would just keep sinking. I was 18, and I had shrapnel in both legs and my skull. I struggled to the surface and saw my destroyer, the USS Duncan, burning and adrift, struck 56 times by Japanese shells during the Battle of Cape Esperance near Guadalcanal.

It was Oct. 12, 1942. I saw a wooden spar and grabbed it. To my surprise, a Japanese sailor was hanging on to the other end. I reached for my knife as we eyed each other. We remained frozen with indecision for a long moment. I eased off my end of the spar. He eased off his end. We swam away as fast as we could in opposite directions. Both of us had had all of the fight we wanted.

As luck would have it, I splashed into someone else floating face up. It was [my shipmate] Stanley Dubiel, raving, out of his mind with pain. His legs were badly burned; I had thrown him overboard before I jumped into the ocean.

Looking back over my shoulder as I swam, I saw the Duncan chasing me. The ship was like a giant flamethrower. Still steaming wildly in a tight circle, blazing like a Viking’s funeral pyre, she bore straight down on me, growing larger as she approached, spewing fire and smoke from every opening. The ship rushed by so near I thought I could reach out and grab her.

I held on to Dubiel and his life jacket with a drowning man’s grip as the wake caught us and drove us tumbling underwater. When we surfaced, after what seemed like hours, the world had grown quiet and warm and peaceful. I thought I must have died. Then I spotted the Duncan, flaming away across the sea in the distance. I must have passed out for a minute.

We had gone into the drink about midnight. Now it was daylight. I had been swimming for hours, towing Dubiel. “Keep going” played itself over and over in my brain.

Somehow I became aware that Dubiel and I were no longer alone. I saw fins cutting the surface like blades of knives. The sharks closed in. One of the fish, larger and bolder than the others, darted in for a bite. My foot was bleeding. The shark’s fin disappeared beneath the surface. I spun in the water, my eyes searching frantically. I screamed, Dubiel screamed. His body exploded out of the water. He twisted violently, then he was gone, wrenched from my grip.

I swam like a madman. I figured by all rights I should have been dead. I heard Dubiel’s screams for years afterward.

See the Daily Beast at Newsweek.

The USS Duncan had only just entered service. En route from her builder’s yard at Kearny, New Jersey, to be delivered to the Navy, 15 April 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

From the perspective of those on Guadalcanal it was difficult to understand who was prevailing. Robert Mahood was one of the Marines on the beach:

I can say I have never witnessed a more awesome sight. We could see salvos of hot shells in threes moving across the night sky in big arcs to hit or miss unseen targets. The battle seemed to last for hours, and all of us beach defense guys sat on the front edge of the gun emplacements and watched the spectacle.

There were from two to six vessels burning at different times all through the night. We sent out rescue craft the next morning to pick up survivors. Many of both sides were found, but few japanese were brought in. Some of the Naval personnel had gaping shrapnel wounds, severed limbs, or they were burned, with oil covering their bodies.

They were all in various stages of shock. I counted over fifty American bodies lying on the beach in neat rows. These were the guys who had been recovered by our rescue teams and were either dead when found or died on the way to the beach.

We could see two or three ships out there that morning, still burning or lying dead in the water. One of these was one of our six-turret cruisers.

This account appears in Pacific War Stories: In the Words of Those Who Survived.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott was awarded the Medal of Honor partly for the “courageous skill and superb coordination of the units under his command” at the Battle of Cape Esperance
A subsequent publicity photograph. Sailor W.R. Martin points out details of the Japanese trophy flags painted on the cruiser’s pilothouse as a scoreboard of enemy ships claimed sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance, 11-12 October 1942. The six Japanese ships (two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and three destroyers) represented in this scoreboard greatly overstates the actual enemy losses, which were one heavy cruiser (Furutaka) and one destroyer (Fubuki) sunk and one heavy cruiser (Aoba) badly damaged. This overclaiming was typical of contemporary night surface actions.

As may be expected the U.S. Naval Institute has an excellent account of the whole battle and analysis of its significance.

HMS Bedouin charges the Italian fleet

The ‘Tribal class’ destroyer HMS Bedouin at anchor in Iceland when she was waiting to join an Arctic convoy earlier in 1942.

In the Mediterranean the battle continued to get supplies through to Malta. Commander B. G. Scurfield, Captain of the destroyer HMS Bedouin, knew his moment had come when the Italian fleet were spotted approaching the convoy he was protecting as part of Operation Harpoon. As planned the convoy changed direction accompanied by part of their escort. The remainder of the escort ships headed straight towards the guns of the Italian battleships:

I was in a fortunate position in many ways. I knew what we had to do and that the cost was not to be counted – the Italians must be driven off. It was no time for fancy manoeuvres – it was to my mind merely a question of going bald-headed for the enemy and trying to do him as much harm as possible by gun and torpedo. Otherwise it was within his power to destroy us and then the convoy at his pleasure.

I knew, too, that the other destroyers would follow me and know what I was about, whether they had signals from me or no. Finally, I knew that the ship was as ready for the test as we had been able to make her, and the result of our labours was now to be shown. I could do no more about it, except give Manners a target and do my best to avoid punishment for as long as possible.

The cruisers opened fire almost at once and the first salvos fell astern of the Bedouin. Their spread was good – too good perhaps at that range – and the shooting seemed to be unpleasantly accurate. Perhaps this is always the impression when one is the target!

My attention was taken up by the time-honoured dodge of steering for the last splash. I had often heard of it being done and found it exhilarating. It worked, too, for some time. A little before 0630, Manners reckoned we were within range, so I told him to engage the leading destroyer, and we opened fire at 17,400 yards. Ten minutes later the enemy altered another twenty degrees away and we shifted our fire to the leading cruiser at 12,400 yards.

By this time we were starting to get hit. Tinny crashes succeeded one another to such a tune that I began to wonder how much the ship could stand. Though I did not realise it at the time, one of the first things to go was the mast, and with it the wireless.

I knew the bridge had been hit; the compass repeater was shaken out of its gimbals and I had had water and paint flakes dashed at me, but the splendid Bedouin was forging ahead and closing the gap minute by minute, Montgomery was passing news to the plot and Moller was standing by to fire torpedoes – wounded himself and with his assistant lying dead beside him. Skinner, though I didn’t know it, was lying at the back of the bridge mortally wounded in the throat; Yeoman Archer and most of the signalmen and ‘rudolf’ men on the flag-deck were either dead or wounded.

All I knew was that the coxswain was calmly doing his job at the wheel and that the ship was responding splendidly. We appeared to be straddling the enemy and must have been hitting, but observation of fall of shot was difficult and it was not possible to allocate targets. That was the only signal I might with advantage have made.

At about 0650 the director was hit. The layer was killed outright and Parker, who was keeping the rate, mortally wounded; Manners and the sight-setter escaped unscathed and so did the cross-leveller, though he was blown clean out ofthe tower.

The ship had received more punishment than I knew, and I felt in my bones that she would not be able to go much farther. So I told Moller to go down and fire the torpedoes from the tubes and when the range had come down to 5,000 yards – tracer was being fired at us by the enemy’s close-range weapons – turned the ship to starboard. During the turn we were hit several times, but the torpedoes were fired when the sights came on. After swinging past the firing course the ship came to a standstill.

The Bedouin was sunk and Commander B. G. Scurfield DSO OBE AM spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. His account comes from a letter he wrote to his wife. He was to die in the closing stages of the war when a column of Prisoners of War being escorted by Germans was bombed by Allied planes.

Later that day the Italian Fleet were bombed by a combination of RAF and USAAF planes, forcing them to return to port. They did not emerge again while Italy remained in the war.

This was just the second mission for the B-24 Liberators of ‘Halpro Force’ – which had been en route to China. It was decided to keep them in the Middle East and they were now flying out of Fayid in Egypt. Their first mission on the 12th June had been to the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania – a target that many USAAF men would later become familiar with.

Airmen ground crew, assisted by soldiers and sailors, load a Mark XII aerial torpedo into the bomb bay of a Bristol Beaufort Mark I at Luqa, Malta, in preparation for a sortie against the Italian naval force threatening the ‘HARPOON’ Convoy.
Aircrews of No. 39 Squadron RAF gather round Flying Officer A O S Jepson in front of his Bristol Beaufort Mark II as he recounts his part in the Squadron’s attack on the Italian Battle Fleet on 15 June 1942, for the benefit of the press cameras at Fayid, Egypt. A force of 12 Beauforts set out from LG 05 near Sidi Barrani to attack the Fleet, but was soon reduced to five following an attack off Derna by German fighters. The remainder attacked two battleships, and a further three aircraft were badly damaged in the process before the survivors flew on to Malta. Although strikes on the warships were claimed, the Italian Fleet was undamaged, except for one hit on the battleship LITTORIO with a 500-lb bomb dropped by aircraft of the USAAF ‘Halpro’ Detachment which also participated in the attacks. Jepson and the survivors flew to Fayid four days later to attend a press day with members of the ‘Halpro’ Force.
The USAAF had arrived in the Middle East. Seven B-24 Liberators from ‘Halpro Force’ took part in the attack on the Italian Fleet on 15th June 1942.
B-24s during one of the USAAF attacks on the oil refineries at Ploesti made in 1943.

Under Stuka dive bomb attack in the Mediterranean

Bristol Beaufighter Mark VIC, X8035 'J', of No. 235 Squadron RAF Detachment, taking off from Luqa, Malta, during the Italian naval attack on the HARPOON
The old World war I battleship HMS Centurion had been reclassified as a convoy escort ship and was at the centre of Operation Vigorous.

The situation on Malta was becoming increasingly desperate. While it had been possible to re-inforce the islands air defences by flying a number of Spitfires into the island, what was really needed was a significant improvement in the supplies reaching the island. The Royal Navy sought to address this by sending two convoys simultaneously to the island in an attempt to divide the attentions of the enemy. Operation Harpoon left Gibraltar and headed east on the 12th June. This convoy came under attack on the morning of 14th June, when the cruiser HMS Liverpool was torpedoed. For more on HMS Liverpool see Operation Harpoon.

On the 14th June heading west from Alexandria was another convoy, with a full Royal Navy complement of 7 cruisers and 26 destroyers in escort plus HMS Centurion, whose main armament was now anti-aircraft guns, codenamed Operation Vigorous.

Amongst these was the war weary crew of HMS Eridge, under the command of Frank Gregory-Smith. They had been under air attack so often that it seemed only a matter of time before they were hit. There was mounting tension as they reached the point nearest the the Libyan coast where they could expect the attentions of the Luftwaffe. It was from here that “a seemingly endless procession of tiny black specks” was now seen:

First ten, then twenty thirty forty fifty Stukas took shape, advancing remorselessly towards the convoy. Fire was opened immediately and the deep boom of heavy gunfire mingled with the continuous smack of shell bursts. Smoke and fumes slowly drew a dark screen across the sky through which the rays of the sun, penetrating with difficulty twitched eerie, dancing shadows across the sea.

Two bombers, reeling drunkenly away from their companions, spiralled lazily seawards in a series of huge loops; the rest of the air fleet advanced steadily towards their diving positions, accompanied by an extending line of shell bursts. At a signal, the bombers peeled out of formation and dived onto the convoy.

The sharp snap, snap of close range weapons immediately joined the bedlam of the heavier guns and accelerating aero engines. Then the bombs began to burst in and around the supply ships, blotting them from view as wave after wave dived to the attack.

A frightening pillar of flame followed by a heavy detonation suddenly flared up amongst this upheaval. An agonizing few seconds was ended when the supply ship Bhutan, turning helplessly in a wide semi circle with her hull rent by internal explosions, drifted into sight. Leaving a rescue ship to pick up survivors, the convoy pressed steadily westwards under constant air attack which continued throughout the forenoon and aftemoon.

The enemy was obviously using every available aircraft in a determined effort to claim as many victims as possible before nightfall restricted aerial activity. But, in spite of the number of bombers engaged, they obtained no more hits. As the day slowly advanced, weary cursing, sweating gunners, firing as fast as their ammunition could be loaded, cast many an apprehensive glance at the sun. They dreaded the coming twilight but hoped that the following darkness would bring them a little respite.

As a blood red sun sank into the sea, a flotilla of E-boats was sighted ten miles north of the convoy. Destroyers on the outer screen immediately turned towards them at high speed, hoping to fire a few salvoes before the faster craft slipped out of range. That, to everyone’s relief, was the only twilight activity.

Once HMS Eridge had become actively engaged, the earlier reluctance to face another Malta run was replaced by a determination to defend the convoy. Now that men had time to think again, their main emotion was a mixture of thankfulness and optimism. The convoy had endured a night and day of heavy bombing but had lost only one ship within the gunnery zone. Malta lay two nights and a day ahead but, so long as our resolute defence was maintained, most of the supply ships should reach their destination.

It was only at midnight that they learnt that the Italians had put two battleships to sea, expected to cross their path in about eight hours time. For the full story see Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander.

HMS LIVERPOOL, pictured in February 1942 , was torpedoed on 14th June during Operation Harpoon but made it back to Gibraltar.

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.

Rescued from the sea by the Japanese Navy

HMS Encounter sunk along with HMS Exeter and USS Pope on 1st March 1942, her crew were stranded in the waters of the Java Sea for almost 24 hours.

Sam Falle was an officer on HMS Encounter which fell victim to the Japanese Navy in the Second Battle of the Java Sea on the 1st March, just after HMS Exeter. He had a lucky escape as he abandoned ship as shells still struck the Encounter. He and others were about to lower the motor boat when it was smashed by a shell, and a shell splinter ‘took away’ his binoculars. Moments later he was in the sea. There was only one lifeboat serviceable – he and the remainder of the crew clung to floats and other wreckage. The surviving crew were still in good spirits – they raised three cheers for the Encounter’s commander, Captain Morgan.

A Japanese destroyer approached them in the water, trained its guns on them, and then made off. They were 150 miles from land, there were no Allied ships in the Java sea, there was no lifeboat in sight, they had no food or water. The Japanese had left them. ‘It took a little time for these fairly stark facts to sink in.’:

Dawn came on 2 March 1942, beautiful, clear and dead calm. We had been in the water for about 18 hours, and there was nothing to be seen. We waited in silence and watched the sun climb in the heavens.

Doc had his medical kit with him, complete with syringe and enough morphine to finish us all off. By that time, according to all logic, there was no hope at all, and yet only one of our number asked for a shot. Doc rightly refused and persuaded our shipmate to give it a bit longer. It grew hotter; the sea was calm and shimmered in the sunshine. We became drowsy; I recall that I felt neither hunger nor thirst.

It must have been about midday, for the sun was vertical and we were just south of the equator. About 200 yards away we thought we saw a Japanese destroyer. Was she a mirage? We all saw her, so perhaps she was real, but our first emotion was not joy or relief, for we expected to be machine-gunned.

There was a great bustle aboard that ship, but the main armament was trained fore and aft and there was no sign of machine-guns. The ship’s sailors were lowering rope- ladders all along the side of the ship. They were smiling small brown men in their floppy white sun-hats and too-long khaki shorts.

The ship came closer. We caught hold of the rope-ladders and managed to clamber aboard. We were covered with oil and exhausted. The Japanese sailors surrounded us and regarded us with cheerful curiosity. They took cotton waste and spirit and cleaned the oil off us, firmly but gently. It was – extraordinary to relate – a friendly welcome.

I was given a green shirt, a pair of khaki shorts and a pair of gym shoes. Then we were escorted to a large space amidships and politely invited to sit down in comfortable cane chairs. We were served hot milk, bully beef and biscuits.

After a while the captain of the destroyer came down from the bridge, saluted us and addressed us in English: ‘You have fought bravely. Now you are the honoured guests of the Imperial Japanese Navy. I respect the English navy, but your government is very foolish to make war on Japan.’

That fine officer searched for survivors all day, stopping to pick up even single men, until his small ship was overflowing. An awning was spread over the fo’c’s’le to protect us from the sun; lavatories were rigged outboard; cigarettes were handed out; and by a biblical type of miracle, our hosts managed to give all 300 of us food and drink.

The only order we were given was not to smoke after dark lest ‘English submarine’ should see a lighted cigarette. The Japanese did not know, it seems, that there were no English submarines in the Java Sea. Yet they had continually stopped to rescue every survivor they could find.

Thanks to this destroyer and other Japanese ships, Encounter only lost seven men and Exeter a surprisingly small number also. The survivors from Pope were rescued by the Japanese two days later.

See Sam Falle: My Lucky Life: In War, Revolution, Peace and Diplomacy. George Cooper, also sunk on 1st March was picked up with the crew from HMS Exeter a good deal quicker than Sam Falle from HMS Encounter. He also has very positive comments about their treatment by the Japanese Navy, in marked contrast to his memories of subsequent treatment.

HMS Exeter’s final battle

HMS Exeter fighting off an aircraft attack in January 1942 during the Battle of the Banka Straits.

On the 27th a combined ABDA – American British Dutch Australian – task force of ships had sustained heavy damage whilst attacking the Japanese invasion fleet heading for Java, now known as the First Battle of the Java Sea. The fleet retired to the port of Tanjung Priok, in the Dutch East Indies (now part of Jakarta, Indonesia). Separate groups of ships left on the 28th February – the USS Houston and HMAS Perth (sister ship to [permalink id=14780 text=”HMAS Sydney”]) ran into the Japanese fleet again and were sunk in the early hours of 1st March in the Battle of the Sunda Strait.

The cruiser HMS Exeter, [permalink id=2370 text=”famed in Britain”] for her role in the Battle of the [permalink id=2364 text=”River Plate in 1939″], had sustained serious damage. On 28th she buried her 14 dead at sea and departed with the destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope. Between Java and Borneo they encountered eight Japanese warships – four heavy cruisers and four destroyers and the Second Battle of the Java Sea followed.

Lieutenant-Commander George Cooper was on board HMS Exeter:

For some unaccountable reason it was considered at headquarters that our best means of escape lay through the Sunda Strait to the westward, whereas the chances of doing this successfully were very remote in such enclosed waters. It would have seemed wiser to get away to the eastward towards Australia, as a chase in this direction would have drawn the enemy away from his fuelling bases, which he could not easily afford.

The following morning, Sunday, March lst, 1942, at 7.30, we sighted the topmasts of two Japanese heavy cruisers and turned south until they were out of sight, when we resumed our westward course. At 9.30, we sighted them again to starboard with a large destroyer, and shortly afterwards two smaller cruisers with five destroyers appeared on the port side. We turned to the eastward with our escorting destroyers, the British Encounter and the American Pope, to put the enemy astern.

For two hours we had a running fight with them. They straddled us many times but never hit us until at 11.30 one shell penetrated the boiler room. It was a shot in a million as it cut our one remaining main steam pipe.

The ship just came to a stop in all departments. The main engines stopped through lack of steam. The dynamos stopped. The turrets were motionless on different bearings. The steering failed. The inside became full of smoke as escaping oil fuel in the forward boiler room burst into flames. There was nothing we could do except sink her.

So the magazine valves were opened. The condenser inlets were allowed to flood the engine room, and watertight doors usually kept closed were opened. A pretty good inferno was going on down below as the fire spread. She started to list slightly to port, pouring black smoke out of her funnels. I thought she looked defiant, like a stag at bay. Men were cutting down carley floats and flotanets, casting timber adrift, turning out boats.

The Japanese were starting to hit us now as the range closed in. The after superstructure caught fire and the whine of projectiles sounded like the Ride of the Valkyries. She was getting lower in the water and heeling more. The inside had been completely evacuated; no one could live down there. At the bottom of the ladder leading to the upper deck were a lot of people, all quite cahn. She was very nearly stopped, and men were leaving in dribs and drabs. As they went they drifted away astern. Then I climbed over the side and
jumped into the water.

A little later, a destroyer closing on the starboard beam fired a torpedo. It was a good shot as it hit her right amidships. The old dear shuddered a bit. She seemed to shake herself from bow to stern. She must have had very little positive buoyancy left as she went right over to starboard until her fumiels and masts were horizontal. Then, heaving herself up in a final act of defiance, she disappeared in a swirl of water, smoke and steam.

I had never seen a ship sink in day time before. I had seen twelve ships sunk in a convoy in the Atlantic one wild night in October 1940. One of these I saw break in half and the two halves rear up in the air and disappear in twenty seconds. But darkness had spared me the most terrible sight for any sailor – a ship’s final lurch below the waves when the ocean floods inside and gets her down forever.

So I shall never forgot the sight of Exeter going. It did not seem real. We had lived in that ship for a year. We had our cabins and messdecks there, all our private belongings and treasures, mementos of home, books, photographs.I remember throwing my large Barr and Stroud binoculars on the deck before I went over the side. What a waste, I thought, yet a bagatelle compared to the loss of a fine 8-inch cruiser with a score that included the Graf Spee off the River Plate.

Anyhow, we all gave her three cheers as she went. You could hear the faint cheers rippling over the water.

George T. Cooper was to survive the war but his experiences at the hands of the Japanese are reflected in the title of his memoir: George T. Cooper: Never Forget, Nor Forgive. He was awarded the OBE for services to other PoWs and later became a Captain in the Royal Navy.

A captured Japanese aerial photograph of HMS Exeter sinking in the Second Battle of the Java Sea.

Britain at War has the full despatch on the action made by the commander of HMS Exeter, Captain O.L.Gordon in 1945, written when he was being repatriated on board USS Gosper after release from PoW camp.

HMS Encounter was sunk shortly after HMS Exeter and about an hour later USS Pope was sunk when attacked by dive bombers.

By dusk of 1st March 1942 the survivors from all three ships, spread out miles apart, were clinging to wreckage in the waters of the Java Sea

In 2016 came the sad news that HMS Exeter and other ships which constituted War Graves had been illegally salvaged. The Guardian has the full report.

The U.S. Navy Clemson-class destroyer USS Pope (DD-225) in January 1924, sunk by Japanese dive bombers on the 1st March 1942.