Kenneth Campbell attacks the Gneisenau

Bad weather caused the six aircraft in the raid to become separated. Kenneth Campbell arrived at the grouping point off the harbour alone and, after waiting for any other aircraft to arrive, launched a single aircraft attack against the target knowing that the defences had not been eliminated. He flew directly into one of the most heavily defended targets in the whole of europe, encircled with up to one thousand anti-aircraft and other guns.

The Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber used by RAF Coastal Command.

After the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau arrived in the port of Brest the RAF had mounted a series of bombing attacks, none of which brought conclusive results. Coastal Command now ordered an “at all costs” attack using three aircraft carrying mines to first breach the expected torpedo nets and to silence the flak ships. Three torpedo bombers would follow this wave and attack the Gneisenau.

Bad weather caused the six aircraft in the raid to become separated. Kenneth Campbell, flying a torpedo bomber as part of the second wave, arrived at the grouping point off the harbour alone and no other aircraft joined him. He then launched a single aircraft attack against the target knowing that the defences had not been eliminated. He flew directly into one of the most heavily defended targets in the whole of Europe, encircled with up to one thousand anti-aircraft and other guns.

Tracer from German anti-aircraft gun fire (flak) vividly depicted in a vertical aerial photograph taken over the Port Militaire, Brest, France, during a night raid, possibly that of 4/5 January 1941.
Tracer from German anti-aircraft gun fire (flak) vividly depicted in a vertical aerial photograph taken over the Port Militaire, Brest, France, during a night raid, possibly that of 4/5 January 1941.

The citation for the Victoria Cross:

Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, 22 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

In recognition of most conspicuous bravery. This officer was the pilot of a Beaufort aircraft of Coastal Command which was detailed to attack an enemy battle cruiser in Brest Harbour at first light on the morning of 6th April 1941. The aircraft did not return but it is known that a torpedo attack was carried out with the utmost daring. The battle cruiser was secured alongside the wall on the north shore of the harbour, protected by a stone mole bending around it from the west. On rising ground behind the ship stood protective batteries of guns. Other batteries were clustered thickly round the two arms of land which encircle the outer harbour. In this outer harbour near the mole were moored three heavily armed anti-aircraft ships, guarding the battle cruiser. Even if an aircraft succeeded in penetrating these formidable defences, it would be almost impossible, after delivering a low-level attack, to avoid crashing into the rising ground beyond.

This was well known to Flying Officer Campbell who, despising the heavy odds, went cheerfully and resolutely to the task. He ran the gauntlet of the defences. Coming in at almost sea level, he passed the anti-aircraft ships at less than mast-height in the very mouths of their guns and skimming over the mole launched a torpedo at point-blank range.

The battle cruiser was severely damaged below the water-line and was obliged to return to the dock whence she had come only the day before. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, Flying Officer Campbell displayed valour of the highest order.

London Gazette, 13th March, 1942

The torpedo put the Gneisenau out of operation for six months. Flying Officer Campbell VC and his crew of Sergeant J P Scott RCAF, Sergeant W C Mulliss and Sergeant R W Hillman rest in Kerfautras Cemetery in Brest.

Portrait of Kenneth Campbell RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: France, 6 April 1941.
Portrait of Kenneth Campbell RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: France, 6 April 1941.

Surviving the sinking of U-76

The entire complement was rescued with the exception of one rating.  The German Captain stated that this man died because he jumped into the sea before putting the mouth-piece of his escape apparatus into his mouth.  He allowed sea water to get into the breathing tube; this acted on the potash cartridge and produce potash lye; he then put the mouth-piece between his teeth, and breathed in acidular gasses from the apparatus; these burnt his lungs.

U-107 returns to the U boat base at Lorient later in 1941, U-76 didn’t make it.

Quartermaster 2nd Class Carl Becker was on board U Boat U-76 when she was depth charged and forced to the surface on 5th April. His letter home recounting the events was intercepted and copied by the Royal Navy:

I am now a prisoner of war on board a British U-boat patrol vessel [HMS Wolverine or Scarborough]. I will tell you what has happened.

We were proceeding in the Atlantic, searching for merchant ships, the weather was bad, strength of the wind 6-7. Shortly after 12 noon on Friday, we sighted a merchant ship and proceeded at utmost speed through the mountainous sea in order to overhaul her. Towards evening we got into a favourable position and sank the ship with one torpedo. Thereupon, we proceeded away submerged, because we calculated that this ship had summoned a destroyer. As soon as it was dark we surfaced, but hardly had we achieved this when we saw a destroyer quite close to us. We immediately submerged. She had not noticed us. After a few hours we surfaced again because we required air and our batteries were almost exhausted. We proceeded for about one minute on the surface, when a destroyer came up again. You can imagine what we felt like. So again we had to submerge.

In a short time it would become daylight and we should be very fortunate to escape. Had our batteries been fully charged, it would perhaps have been possible. Astern of us the whole time was the sound of the destroyer’s searching apparatus – ‘tsst’ – so it continued for quite a long time and then she was above us and dropped three depth charges, which caused comparatively little damage. Then she proceeded away and we breathed again, but after about 40 minutes we heard the noise of the propellers of two destroyers and again this ‘tsst tsst’ which went through us and through us. And it is quite definite that they would find us.

Then things began to happen. Three depth charges on us. The boat shook all over. Ten minutes later there was a hailstorm of depth charges. Everything in the boat was shattered, the depth gauge moved like blazes. The boat assumed a vertical position and all was over. I had my escape apparatus and crawled up the ladder to the conning tower hatch. With the greatest difficulty and using all the remaining air we managed to bring the boat to the surface.

Then came the order ‘Abandon ship’. I was on deck at once. So was the Captain. Two destroyers and one patrol vessel were lying a few hundred metres from us. As we came up on deck, the destroyer opened fire with her machine-gun. However, no one was hit and they immediately ceased fire when we jumped into the water. They probably thought that we intended to man our gun. Most of the crew were swimming about behind the Captain. I made for the patrol vessel, which tried to fish me out of the water, but on account of the heavy seas this did not succeed, nor did a second attempt.

In the meantime, I had been swimming in the icy-cold water for half an hour and I noticed that our boat was still afloat. So I turned round and after much struggling succeeded in getting on board again. In order to put up some defence, I tried to reach the gun, but they immediately opened fire on me with their machine-gun, but only a few rounds. The Captain of the patrol vessel told me that they had at first thought that I intended to open fire with our gun. Then suddenly I was washed overboard again. Then the patrol vessel came alongside again, so close that I could jump across. Very good seamanship on the part of the Captain!

I was immediately taken down below into the engine room, where it was pleasantly warm. Someone helped me off with my wet clothes and rubbed me down with a towel. I was almost stiff with cold. Then someone brought me a thick overcoat and one of the officers took me into his cabin, gave me a good drink of rum and a blanket. Then I had to hand over my personal belongings, and I was given something to eat. They are all very friendly here and ready to help. The Lieutenant gave me some of his gear and a pair of slippers.

Shortly before dinner, the ship stopped, and I was told that they had sighted two boats with shipwrecked sailors. When they came on board I discovered that they were from our ship. Now we sat together in peace. I am feeding with the officers and sleeping on a sofa in the mess. The food is excellent. I was given cigarettes and the wound in my hand was dressed. After the midday meal I slept for two hours, then I was given coffee and cake. In the evening again there was something warm to eat. After that, I felt so poorly that I was sick – all the salt water that I had swallowed was the cause of this.

Then I sat up with the officers until 10 p.m. Three of them are from the merchant navy … Early this morning we got ham and eggs to eat, and before that porridge and milk. After breakfast they gave a Gillette razor so that I could make myself respectable. I can move around quite freely, except that I am not allowed on the bridge. Just now I am sitting beside an officer in the wardroom. I do not know what has happened to the rest of our crew; some may have been picked up by a destroyer, also the Captain.

I have barely escaped with my life, and all my possessions are at the bottom of the Atlantic. I had hoped to have gone on leave in four to five weeks, but now that is all changed. Perhaps it is all for the best and who knows whether I should have been saved on the next occasion.

The precise sequence of events were pieced together by Naval Intelligence when they interrogated the crew:

During the night “U 76” reloaded her torpedo tubes, and at 0430 on Saturday, 5th April, 1941, she surfaced again to charge her batteries and get fresh air, but had to submerge almost at once on sighting a destroyer.

At 0705 “U 76” again surfaced, but had to dive once more as a destroyer was again seen in sight.

The Germans heard the sounds of the British asdic operating, they thought, astern the U-Boat; they described the hunting vessel coming closer and closer until she seemed directly overhead.  “U 76” cook was told not to grind coffee, as the noise might be heard by the British.

At 0737, twenty minutes after “Wolverine” had ordered a sweep on course 260° at visibility distance, she gained good contact on the starboard side.  On running in to attack the recorder broke down, and only one depth charge was fired, in order not to confuse unduly the water in the target area.

According to prisoners “U 76” was at 70 m. (229 ft.).

This first depth charge, set to explode at 250 ft. put the depth gauge out of action and caused sundry broken instrument glasses, and other minor damage.

At 0745 “Arbutus” was ordered to close to assist.

At 0752 “Wolverine” dropped another single depth charge set at 500 ft.

Prisoners thought this attack was less effective.

At 0810 “Scarborough” was ordered to join and classify contact.

At 0815 “Wolverine” indicated target to “Arbutus,” who confirmed the contact, extent of target 3°, but lost it on running in to attack.

At 0848 “Wolverine” again gained contact, and indicated it to”Scarborough,” who attacked at 0920 with four depth charges set at 150 feet, and four at 300 feet.

It was stated by several men and confirmed fairly conclusively that “U 76” was at a depth of 80 m. (262 ft.) when this last attack was made.

The junior officer expressed the opinion that three of these depth charges might have been set at 80 m. (262 ft.), three at 90 m. (295 ft.), one at 95 m. (311.6 ft.), and one at about 100 m. (328 ft.).  He added that in such circumstances a U-Boat would be doomed.

The Engineer Officer thought that one of the depth charges must have exploded close to and level with the conning tower.

One depth charge which exploded close to the port side caused most of the damage.  Serious leaks started aft by a welded seam giving away, all the instruments were destroyed, a stanchion was bent, and most of the remaining lights were extinguished.  The U-Boat went down by the stern.  It was stated that no water entered the Control Room, of the Diesel compartment, but the Captain considered that the Diesels had been put out of action.

“U 76” was forced to the surface, and the crew scrambled out through the conning tower hatch.

When there were only five men left in the U-Boat the Captain gave the order to open the stern torpedo tube; it could not be ascertained whether this order was carried out.  The last to leave the U-Boat were the Sub-Lieutenant and the Engineer Officer.

“Scarborough” fired several rounds to discourage any attempt on the part of the Germans to man their guns, and “Arbutus” signalled “Am ramming,” but hauled off as the U-Boat’s crew were seen to be abandoning ship.

The entire complement was rescued with the exception of one rating.  The German Captain stated that this man died because he jumped into the sea before putting the mouth-piece of his escape apparatus into his mouth.  He allowed sea water to get into the breathing tube; this acted on the potash cartridge and produce potash lye; he then put the mouth-piece between his teeth, and breathed in acidular gasses from the apparatus; these burnt his lungs.

For the full report see TNA ADM 178/221.

Tragedy over Dorset

The pilot stalked the returning German raider for several minutes unseen before opening fire and watching the bomber spin out of control to crash near the market town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Four crew members were able to escape by parachute, but the rear gunner was later found dead in the wreckage.

The Whitley bomber was outdated at the start of the war but with no alternatives available was kept on offensive operations until 1942.

In the early hours of 4th April [but see comments below] a black painted Hurricane night fighter from No. 87 Squadron flying from RAF Charmy Down, Somerset was patrolling in the dark watching for the frequent German raiders targeting the ports of South Wales and Bristol. With no technical aids and reliant only on his eyes, the pilot of the Hurricane found a twin engine bomber heading south at 10,000 feet. It was headed in the direction of German bombers returning to bases in France.

The pilot stalked the returning German raider for several minutes unseen before opening fire and watching the bomber spin out of control to crash near the market town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Four crew members were able to escape by parachute, but the rear gunner was later found dead in the wreckage.

The tragedy was that the rear gunner was Sgt William Brindley of the RAF. The Hurricane night fighter had shot down a Whitley bomber from No. 51 Squadron, on course for the the Nazi battle cruisers at Brest. Sergeant Brindley now lies in the cemetery near RAF Dishforth, his home base.

This was but one incident of ‘friendly-fire’. How common such events were is hard to assess, as no publicity was given to them at the time and RAF records remain opaque.

A Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane Mark IIC (s/n BE500, ‘LK-A’, “United Provinces Cawnpore”) being flown by Squadron Leader Dennis Smallwood, the Commanding Officer of No. 87 Squadron RAF based at RAF Charmy Down, Somerset (UK). No. 87 Squadron was one of the first RAF night fighter squadrons. Sqn Ldr Smallwood led the squadron in 1941-42, when most intercepts were made entirely without on-board radar. The aircraft is painted in an overall black scheme known in the RAF as “Special Night”. BE500 subsequently served with No. 533 Squadron RAF and finally in the Far East.

Rommel’s first success in the Desert

There’ll be consternation amongst our masters in Tripoli and Rome, perhaps in Berlin too. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favourable. No doubt it will all be pronounced good later and they’ll say they’d have done exactly the same in my place.

German troops advancing up the coast road towards the British lines, Libya, March 1941.

The British forces in North Africa had achieved a stunning victory over the much larger forces of the Italian Army, which had invaded British mandate of Egypt from Libya. The arrival of German forces under Rommel was intended to prevent a humiliating collapse, even if it was a minor sideshow for Hitler.

The German forces had managed to surprise the British forces in the Libyan desert with their first attack. Rommel writes home to his wife:

3rd April

Dearest Lu,

We’ve been attacking since the 31st with dazzling success. There’ll be consternation amongst our masters in Tripoli and Rome, perhaps in Berlin too. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favourable. No doubt it will all be pronounced good later and they’ll say they’d have done exactly the same in my place.

We’ve already reached our first objective, which we weren’t supposed to get until the end of May. The British are falling over each other to get away. Our casualties small. Booty can’t yet be estimated. You will understand that I can’t sleep for happiness.

 

From ‘The Rommel Papers’, a collection of original letters and documents contemporaneously written or dictated by Rommel throughout the campaign:

The ‘Battle of Britain’ defined

It was a necessarily a one sided account of a great victory, published at a time when Britain was devastated by the Blitz. It concluded that “Future historians may compare it with Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne”. The pamphlet itself was hugely influential in shaping views of the period over the summer of 1940, hundreds of thousands were sold around the Empire and in the United States.

The first edition of the pamphlet was a very plain wartime economy version with no illustrations.
The first edition of the pamphlet was a very plain wartime economy version with no illustrations.
Subsequent editions were rather more colourful and included diagrammatic explanations of Fighter Command organisation and tactics.
Subsequent editions were rather more colourful and included diagrammatic explanations of Fighter Command organisation and tactics.
One of the diagrams in the Air Ministry pamphlet that sought to explain how the RAF had fought off the Luftwaffe.

In the spring of 1941 the Air Ministry produced the ‘information’ pamphlet “The Battle of Britain”. In doing so it helped give shape to the ‘Great Days from 8th August -31st October 1940’ and defined it as being Fighter Command’s battle, completely omitting the contribution of Bomber Command. It took as its starting point Churchill’s memorable speech of 20th August 1940” but managed to redefine his characterisation of “the few”.

In describing the battle it took as an example one day of action:

The Greatest Day — 15th September, 1940

The foregoing is a summary, necessarily brief and incomplete — for the battle took place too recently for a full account to be written — of almost three months of nearly continuous air fighting. To better comprehend its nature, it is necessary to examine in greater detail an individual day’s fighting. Sunday, 15th September, is as good a day as any other. It was one of “the great days,” as they have come to be called, and the actions then fought were described by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons as “the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force.” The enemy lost one hundred and eighty-five aircraft. This is what happened.

Over the South-East of England, the day of Sunday, 15th September, dawned a little misty, but cleared by eight o’clock and disclosed light cumulus cloud at 2,000 or 3,000 feet. The extent of this cloud varied, and in places it was heavy enough to produce light local showers. Visibility, however, was on the whole good throughout the day; the slight wind was from the west, shifting to north-west, as the day advanced.

The first enemy patrols arrived soon after 9 a.m. They were reported to be in the Straits, in the Thames Estuary, off Harwich, and between Lympne and Dungeness. About 11.30, Göring launched the first wave of the morning attack, consisting of a hundred or more aircraft, soon followed by one hundred and fifty more. These crossed the English coast at three main points: near Ramsgate, between Dover and Folkestone, and a mile or two north of Dungeness. Their objective was London. This formidable force was composed of Dornier bomber 17s and 215s, escorted by Me.109s. They flew at various heights between 15,000 and 26,000 feet. From the ground, the German aircraft looked like black dots at the head of long streamers of white vapour; from the air, like specks rapidly growing. They appeared first as model airplanes and then, as the range closed, as full-sized aircraft.

Battle was soon joined and raged for about three-quarters of an hour over East Kent and London. Some hundred German bombers burst through our defence and reached the eastern and southern quarters of the capital. A number of them were intercepted above the centre of the city itself, just as Big Ben was striking the hour of noon.

To understand the nature of the combat, it must be remembered that the aircraft engaged in it were flying at a speed of between 300 and 400 miles an hour. At that speed, place names become almost meaningless. The enemy, for example, might have been intercepted over Maidstone, but not destroyed until within a few miles of Calais. “Place attack was delivered — Hammersmith to Dungeness” or “London to the French Coast.” Such phrases in the Intelligence Patrol Reports forcibly illustrate the size of the area over which the battle was fought. That being so, it is better perhaps not to attempt to plot the place of attack too accurately — an almost hopeless task — but to refer to it simply as the Southern Marches of England.

The battle, in fact, took place roughly in a cube about 80 miles long, 38 miles broad and from 5 to 6 miles high. It was in this space, between noon and half-past, that between 150 and 200 individual combats took place. Many of these developed into stern chases which were broken off within a mile or two of the French Coast.

“Achtung, Schpitfeuer!”

Sixteen squadrons of No. 11 Group, followed by five from Nos. 10 and 12, were sent up to engage the enemy. All but one of the Squadrons taking part in the battle were very soon face to face with him. Five Squadrons of Spitfires opened their attack against the oncoming Germans in the Maidstone-Canterbury-Dover-Dungeness area. These were in action slightly before the Hurricane Squadrons, which intercepted farther back, between Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells and South London.

The Germans were found to be flying in various types of formations. The bombers were usually some thousands of feet below the fighters, but sometimes this position was reversed. The bombers flew either in Vics ( a “V”-shaped formation) of from five to seven aircraft or in lines of five aircraft abreast or in a diamond formation.

The Me.109s were usually in Vics. One pilot has described the attacking German aircraft as flying in little groups of nine arranged in threes like a sergeant’s stripes. Each group of nine was in this case supported by a group of nine Me.110 fighters with single-seater Me.109s or He.113s circling high above.

The enemy soon realised that our defence was awake and active, for the German pilots could be heard calling out to each other over their wireless ‘phones “Achtung, Schpitfeuer!” (“Attention, Spitfires!”). They had need to keep alert. Our pilots opened fire at an average range of from 200 to 250 yards, closing when necessary to 50. Many of the enemy fighters belonged to the famous Yellow-Nose Squadrons, though some had white noses and even occasionally red.

Justification for Our New Tactics

Once the battle was joined, regular formation was frequently lost and each pilot chose an individual foe. The following account of one combat can be taken as typical of the rest.

A pilot, whose Squadron was attacking in echelon starboard, dived out of the sun on to an Me.109, which blew up after receiving his first burst of fire. By this time he found that another Me.109 was on his tail. He turned, got it in his sights and set it on fire with several bursts. He was now separated from his comrades and therefore returned to his base. As he was coming down he received a message saying that the enemy were above. He looked up, saw a group of Dorniers at 14,000 feet, climbed and attacked them. He got in a burst at a Dornier; other friendly fighters came up to help. The enemy aircraft crashed into a wood and exploded.

While the Spitfires and Hurricanes were in action over Kent, other Hurricanes were dealing with such of the enemy as had succeeded, by sheer force of numbers, in breaking through and reaching the outskirts of London. Fourteen Squadrons of Hurricanes, almost immediately reinforced by three more Squadrons of Spitfires, took up this task, all of them coming into action between noon and twenty past. There ensued a continuous and general engagement extending from London to the coast and beyond.

In it, the tactics so carefully thought out, so assiduously practised, secured victory. Let a Squadron-Leader describe the results they achieved.

“The 15th of September,” he says, “dawned bright and clear at Croydon. It never seemed to do anything else during those exciting weeks of August and September. But to us it was just another day. We weren’t interested in Hitler’s entry into London; most of us were wondering whether we should have time to finish breakfast before the first blitz started. We were lucky.

“It wasn’t till 9.30 that the sirens started wailing and the order came through to rendezvous base at 20,000 feet. As we were climbing in a southerly direction, at 15,000 feet we saw thirty Heinkels, supported by fifty Me.109s 4,000 feet above them, and twenty No. 110s to a flank, approaching us from above. We turned and climbed, flying in the same direction as the bombers, with the whole Squadron stringed out in echelon to port up sun, so that each man had a view of the enemy.

” ‘A’ flight timed their attack to perfection, coming down sun in a power dive on the enemy’s left flank. As each was selecting his own man, the Me.110 escort roared in to intercept, with cannons blazing at 1,000 yards range, but they were two seconds too late — too late to engage our fighters, but just in time to make them hesitate long enough to miss the bomber leader. Two Heinkels heeled out of the formation.

“Meanwhile, the Me.110s had flashed out of sight, leaving the way clear for ‘B’ flight, as long as the Me.109s stayed above. ‘B’ flight leader knew how to bide his time, but just as he was about to launch his attack, the Heinkels did the unbelievable thing. They turned south; into the sun; and into him. With his first burst, the leader destroyed the leading bomber, which blew up with such force that it knocked a wing off the left-hand bomber. A little bank and a burst from his guns sent the right-hand Heinkel out of the formation, with smoke pouring out of both engines. Before returning home, he knocked down an Me.109. Four aircraft destroyed, for an expenditure of 1,200 rounds, was the best justification for our new tactics.”

The pamphlet was necessarily a one sided account of a great victory, published at a time when Britain was devastated by the Blitz. It concluded that “Future historians may compare it with Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne”. The pamphlet itself was hugely influential in shaping views of the period over the summer of 1940, hundreds of thousands were sold around the Empire and in the United States.

The description of how the battle was fought omitted one vital feature that still remained secret – the use of radar. Propaganda at the time gave prominence to the efficiency of the ‘Observer Corps’ in spotting hostile aircraft.

Germans and British clash in the desert

The Fusiliers had a most fearsome reputation. The unit was made up of hard, uncompromising men of little polish; they obeyed their own officers but treated anyone else in authority with contempt, particularly base depot personnel. They were the dourest fighters we were to meet in a long day’s march and we were always glad to have them about.

German panzers in the Libyan desert as they prepared to strike against British positions.

Erwin Rommel had arrived in Libya in mid February to take command of German forces that were supposed to work in co-ordination with the Italians. The German High Command expected Rommel to spend some time building up his forces. But with the British diverting many of their best equipped and most experienced troops to Greece Rommel sensed, from his first probing attacks, that the time was ripe for an immediate assault on the British lines.

The first major clashes between the British and the Germans in Libya began at the end of March 1941. L. E. Tutt was with a gun battery near Mersa Brega on the 1st April 1941:

Our battery position was shielded by some low hills. We saw [German] tanks coming over them, wireless aerials with pennants atop like a field full of lancers. They assumed hull-down positions and blasted the thin screen of recovered tanks which were deployed to face them.

The men of the Tower Hamlets went forward to face them in Bren carriers and were virtually destroyed in a matter of minutes; their bravery was unquestioned but they should never have been asked to face such odds.

Both our batteries fired a heavy concentration on the German Mark Ills and some Mark IVs and they were forced to withdraw slightly, but it was only a temporary respite as their infantry moved against the flank exposed by the withdrawal of the Free French.

Fortunately the Northumberland Fusiliers turned up with their heavy machine-guns and plugged the gap, allowing us to withdraw and regroup – otherwise we might have ended our contribution to the war there and then.

The Fusiliers had a most fearsome reputation. The unit was made up of hard, uncompromising men of little polish; they obeyed their own officers but treated anyone else in authority with contempt, particularly base depot personnel. They were the dourest fighters we were to meet in a long day’s march and we were always glad to have them about.

See The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942

Hard to find images of the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Desert 1941 - but here are their fathers' generation after an engagement with the Germans almost exactly 25 years earlier. Actions of St. Eloi Craters. Troops of the Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd Division, wearing German helmets and gas masks captured at St. Eloi, 27th March 1916.
Hard to find images of the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Desert 1941 – but here are their fathers’ generation after an engagement with the Germans almost exactly 25 years earlier. Actions of St. Eloi Craters. Troops of the Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd Division, wearing German helmets and gas masks captured at St. Eloi, 27th March 1916.

Hull bombed yet again

Dr Diamond was in the basement of an ARP post, talking to a councillor and a Dr Wheatley, who had just arrived in Hull to take over as Casualty Officer, when it was demolished by a direct hit. When the bomb exploded Dr Diamond took the full blast and was killed instantly, two soldiers in an adjacent car park and PC Robert Garton who was on duty at the door of the ARP post were killed and no trace of the policeman was ever found.

The bomb crater left after a parachute mine had devastated a housing estate in Hull

Hull, which had been attacked on the 18th March, suffered another major raid on the 31st March:

One of the persons killed was the Deputy Medical Officer of the city Dr David Diamond, he had just finished a successful campaign asking for blood donors, which resulted in many wanting to do so, for the benefit of people injured in air raids. Dr Diamond was in the basement of an ARP post, talking to a councillor and a Dr Wheatley, who had just arrived in Hull to take over as Casualty Officer, when it was demolished by a direct hit. When the bomb exploded Dr Diamond took the full blast and was killed instantly, two soldiers in an adjacent car park and PC Robert Garton who was on duty at the door of the ARP post were killed and no trace of the policeman was ever found.

From the Hull Times April 6th April 1941

The North East Diary [http://www.bpears.org.uk/NE-Diary/Inc/ISeq_13.html ] used to have full details of the raid.

It may be possible to access the original from the Internet Archive – https://archive.org.

:

20.45-22.53.. Hull.. By the light of seventy-four parachute flares, forty-seven enemy bombers attacked Hull. They dropped thirty-nine tonnes of HE (forty-three bombs) and 22,688 IBs. The concentration point lay between the City Docks and Alexandra Dock, however damage at the docks was only slight. Police premises and the Infirmary were hit. One large fire was started in the north east of the town besides numerous large and small fires in the docks area. A number of public buildings were destroyed or damaged. HE and PMs fell in almost every section of the city, water mains broken, roads blocked by falling buildings and main streets strewn with glass. 500 houses were made uninhabitable, while another 2,000 were damaged. Several industrial undertakings were also put out of action. Many casualties were reported, forty-four of them fatal and seventy-two seriously injured, many of the fatalities occurred in Alexandra Road, the Ferensway shelter and Freehold Street. East Hull fire station was damaged.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau bombed at Brest

118 tons of H.E. were dropped. Results were difficult to observe on account of darkness and intense searchlight concentration, but reports indicate that a large proportion of the bombs were dropped on that area of the docks in which these battle cruisers were situated

A high level reconnaissance photograph of the German cruisers in the French port of Brest, taken 28th March 1941.

The port of Brest was a convenient Atlantic base for the largest German warships, and as a consequence was frequently bombed by the RAF. It had been attacked when the Admiral Hipper was in dock during January and February and was once again a high priority target:

On the night of the 30th/31st March, a total of 134 bombers was despatched, the principal target being the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest, where 118 tons of H.E. were dropped. Results were difficult to observe on account of darkness and intense searchlight concentration, but reports indicate that a large proportion of the bombs were dropped on that area of the docks in which these battle cruisers were situated.

A number of aircraft saw the cruisers by the light of flares, and other aircraft report having straddled the target in all directions. Thirteen Wellingtons attacked Calais, starting a number of fires.

From the Air Situation Report for the week.

The aftermath of Matapan

On the following morning, however, we all saw in the distance a dot upon the ocean which we assumed was a float with Italian survivors. Our destroyers were busy rescuing the poor wretches. Altogether, in the action 1500 “Italians” must have lost their lives as the prisoners amounted to only 900. When you consider the “score”, you will agree that the victory will go down in history as one of the most decisive of all time. 3 enemy cruisers, 2 large destroyers sunk and one battleship damaged, about 1,500 “Italians” written off – and on our side not one single ship damaged and not one man with so much as a scratch.

The Anti-Aircraft ‘Pom-Pom’ gun on a British warship.

Bernard Hallas was on HMS Warspite:

On board ship in any action, there are not many people who can actually see what is happening. Obviously the best viewpoint is commanded by those fortunate to be on the bridge, excluding the fact that it is also one of the most dangerous, subject to shrapnel and even direct hits.

The four-inch AA crews on the upper deck and the pom-poms are some of the ship’s company who have a first class seat at the action. At the guns themselves who are doing the bombardment, only the gun layers peering through their telescopes can see the targets.

The remainder of the crews can only rely on the remarks of the layers as to what is happening. Suffice it to say that the news that night at Matapan was all good, the next morning, taking stock of the results of the night’s activities, it was a most distressing sight.

There was wreckage everywhere floating in oil-covered water, bodies floating alongside others who were signalling with any object they could find to try and attract attention to their sorry plight. One could feel sorry for the struggling seamen using the dead bodies of their shipmates to help keep them afloat. Our Destroyers were hard put to making some attempt to pick up survivors, but as the radar operators were picking up large groups of aircraft on their screens, this act of mercy had to be abandoned.

It was true to Cunninghams’s nature both as a human being and as a seaman, that a paragraph from the prayer of Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar came to mind: “And may humanity after victory be the predominant feature of the British Fleet.” He signalled the Italian High Command and informed them of the situation and requested that they send assistance to give aid to the struggling men and only then, fearing attacks by submarines and aircraft, did he order the fleet to resume formation and proceed back to base.

As expected Stuka dive-bombers attacked us all the way home, but the planes from the carrier HMS Formidable dealt with the attackers successfully. The next day, ships’ companies cleared lower deck and held short thanksgiving services for the victory.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War.

On 30th March 1941 Surgeon-Commander E. R. Sorley on the battleship HMS Barham wrote his account of the Battle of Matapan in a letter home:

“Here we are safely back in harbour after having taken part in what has been rightly described as “the greatest naval battle of the war.” At last our forces managed to bring the scurrying “Italians” to action, although needless to say we would not have done so unless we had taken them by surprise, so that their well-known speed did not avail them so much as usual. The whole action was quite thrilling, the duration of our firing being very short, but devastatingly effective.

We scored a direct 15-inch hit on a cruiser – the Fiume, I think – and the wretched ship was seen soon after to be ablaze and subsequently blew up with a shattering explosion and a mighty flame that lit the night sky. This took place at about 11.30 p.m. constituted our contribution to the victory, although we were attacked by aircraft. Naturally, I saw nothing of the spectacular side of the scrap, as I was at my action station.

On the following morning, however, we all saw in the distance a dot upon the ocean which we assumed was a float with Italian survivors. Our destroyers were busy rescuing the poor wretches. Altogether, in the action 1500 “Italians” must have lost their lives as the prisoners amounted to only 900. When you consider the “score”, you will agree that the victory will go down in history as one of the most decisive of all time. 3 enemy cruisers, 2 large destroyers sunk and one battleship damaged, about 1,500 “Italians” written off – and on our side not one single ship damaged and not one man with so much as a scratch.

The name which has been bestowed on the battle by the C.in.C. is Matapan, Cape Matapan being the nearest land to the site of the action. Cape Matapan is the most southerly point of the Greek mainland. Be sure to look it up and point it out to Graeme. The whole episode is very heartening and yesterday morning when the total enemy damage was announced to us by the C.in.C., the sense of jubilation amongst our officers and men was good to see. One felt that one had been privileged to be in a force that had struck a great blow at the enemies of the King, and one was flushed with the knowledge of our naval power and courage. For remember that the whole Italian force was numerically superior to ours, but as we expected, their ships preferred to run away, but not before we could inflict terrible blows. If their force had stayed to fight, this would have been another Trafalgar; as it is, we doubt if the Italian Fleet will dare to challenge us again.

You have no doubt heard all about this glorious happening, in the press and on the radio. I feel that Winston Churchill will do full justice to the story in the House tomorrow. I can imagine his pungent and gleeful sentences, like those of a small boy who has punched his adversary well and truly on the nose.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War.

Italian fleet surprised at ‘The Battle of Matapan’

Our searchlights shone out with the first salvo, and provided full illumination for what was a ghastly sight. Full in the beam I saw our six great projectiles flying through the air. Five out of the six hit a few feet below the level of the cruiser’s upper deck and burst with splashes of brilliant flame. The Italians were quite unprepared. The guns were trained fore and aft. They were helplessly shattered before they could put up any resistance.

Short Sunderland Mark 1, N9029 'NM-V', of No. 230 Squadron RAF Detachment based at Scaramanga, Greece, in flight over the Greek islands. It was from this aircraft that Flight Lieutenant A Lywood, reported the Italian fleet movements leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan, while flying out of Scaramanga on 27-28 March 1941.
Short Sunderland Mark 1, N9029 ‘NM-V’, of No. 230 Squadron RAF Detachment based at Scaramanga, Greece, in flight over the Greek islands. It was from this aircraft that Flight Lieutenant A Lywood, reported the Italian fleet movements leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan, while flying out of Scaramanga on 27-28 March 1941.
Fairey Albacore Mark Is of Nos. 826 and 829 Squadrons ranged on board HMS FORMIDABLE before taking off to attack the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941.
Fairey Albacore Mark Is of Nos. 826 and 829 Squadrons ranged on board HMS FORMIDABLE before taking off to attack the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941.
The first torpedo bomber, - A Fairey Albacore Mark I of No. 826 Squadron, - taking off from HMS FORMIDABLE for the morning strike against the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941. (Port threequarter front view).
The first torpedo bomber, – A Fairey Albacore Mark I of No. 826 Squadron, – taking off from HMS FORMIDABLE for the morning strike against the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941. (Port threequarter front view).
The Battle Of Matapan. 28 March 1941, an aerial photograph from one of the attacking British aircraft An Italian cruiser (BOLGANO?) firing her guns.
The Battle Of Matapan. 28 March 1941, an aerial photograph from one of the attacking British aircraft An Italian cruiser (BOLGANO?) firing her guns.
Lt (A) Clifford's torpedo being released, as seen by Mid (A) Wallington, Observer in second aircraft.
Lt (A) Clifford’s torpedo being released, as seen by Mid (A) Wallington, Observer in second aircraft.

The Royal Navy secured a famous victory over the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean on 28th March. The official summary at the time did not mention that ‘Enigma’ decrypts had played an important role in the action, a matter not revealed until many years later:

Air reconnaissance on the 27th March reported a force of enemy warships to the eastward of Sicily steering east. On the morning of the 28th March our light forces sighted one Littorio class battleship, accompanied by cruisers, to the south-west of Crete steering south-east, while air reconnaissance reported two battleships, cruisers and destroyers to the north of this position. On being sighted the enemy turned westward, proceeding at high speed.

During the day the Littorio class battleship was repeatedly and successfully attacked with torpedoes by the Fleet Air Arm which caused serious damage. A successful attack was also made by bombers of the R.A.F. on cruisers and destroyers. The loss of speed resulting from these air attacks enabled our heavier ships to gain contact with the enemy at dusk, and a short but decisive action took place, resulting in the loss of three enemy 8-inch cruisers (Pola, Zara and Fiume) and two destroyers, Vincenzo Gioberti and Maestrale.

It is probable that the 6-inch cruiser Giovanni Delle Bancle Nere and one other destroyer were also sunk. Two dive-bombers were shot down during daylight operations. Apart from three Naval aircraft which are missing, no damage or casualties were sustained by any of our ships.

On the morning of the 29th nearly a thousand Italian survivors were rescued, which number would have been considerably increased had not German bombers attacked the rescuing ships. The Commander-in-Chief informed the Chief of the Italian Naval Staff of the position of the survivors, which he had been forced to abandon, and suggested that a hospital ship should be sent. A reply of thanks was received indicating that the hospital ship Piscana had already sailed. Greek destroyers which were rushed through the Corinth Canal arrived too late to take part in the action, but assisted to pick up survivors. Opposing forces consisted of British : three battleships, one aircraft carrier, four cruisers and twelve destroyers; Italian : three battleships, eleven cruisers and fourteen destroyers.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week, see TNA CAB/66/16/1

The Royal Navy battleship HMS Warspite, probably later in the war – see comments below.

Admiral Cunningham’s account of the action paints a vivid picture:

Using short-range wireless the battle fleet was turned back into line ahead. With Edelsten and the staff I had gone to the upper bridge, the captain’s, where I had a clear all-round view. I shall never forget the next few minutes.

In the dead silence, a silence that could almost be felt, one heard only the voices of the gun-control personnel putting the guns on to the new target. One heard the orders repeated in the director tower behind and above the bridge. Looking forward, one saw the turrets swing and steady when the fifteen-inch guns pointed at the enemy cruisers.

Never in the whole of my life have I experienced a more thrilling moment than when I heard a calm voice from the director tower – ‘Director layer sees the target’, sure sign that the guns were ready and that his finger was itching on the trigger. The enemy was at a range of no more than 3,800 yards – point-blank.

It must have been the Fleet gunnery officer, Commander Geoffrey Barnard, who gave the final order to open fire. One heard the ‘ting- ting-ting’ of the firing gongs. Then came the great orange flash and the violent shudder as the six big guns bearing were fired simultaneously.

At the very same instant the destroyer Greyhound, on the screen, switched her searchlight on to one of the enemy cruisers, showing her momentarily up as a silvery-blue shape in the darkness. Our searchlights shone out with the first salvo, and provided full illumination for what was a ghastly sight. Full in the beam I saw our six great projectiles flying through the air. Five out of the six hit a few feet below the level of the cruiser’s upper deck and burst with splashes of brilliant flame. The Italians were quite unprepared. Their guns were trained fore and aft. They were helplessly shattered before they could put up any resistance.

The plight of the Italian cruisers was indescribable. One saw whole turrets and masses of other heavy debris whirling through the air and splashing into the sea, and in a short time the ships themselves were nothing but glowing torches and on fire from stem to stern.

See A Sailor’s Odyssey : The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope

In 1941 Prince Philip of Greece was serving as a midshipman on HMS Valiant. He was 19 at the time of the action.

On board HMS Valiant was Prince Philip of Greece, then a Midshipman in charge of searchlights. He was to earn a mention in despatches for his role:

I seem to remember that I reported I had a target in sight, and was ordered to “open shutter”. The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship.

At this point all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship and Barham’s started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke.

I was then ordered to “train left” and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment.

See Dark Seas: The Battle for Cape Matapan

 The 15 inch guns of HMS Valiant firing a broadside. In the background HMS Barham and HMS Warspite. These three battleships wiped out the three Italian cruisers in the Battle of Matapan.
The 15 inch guns of HMS Valiant firing a broadside. In the background HMS Barham and HMS Warspite. These three battleships wiped out the three Italian cruisers in the Battle of Matapan.

At 2111 hours Force B reported a radar contact on an unknown ship stopped 5 miles to port (This was the damaged POLA). On receipt of this report WARSPITE and the battle fleet altered course to 280¼ to pass nearer the position. (Force B continued on course and took no further part in the action).
At 2210 hours VALIANT, using her Type 279 radar, reported radar contact 6 miles off her port bow, estimated to be 600 feet long (This was the POLA).
Cunningham decided to investigate this contact and the battle fleet altered course together at 2213 hours on to bearing 240¼ into line ahead.
At 2225 hours 2 heavy cruisers (ZARA and FIUME) and 4 destroyers (ALFIERI, CARDUCCI, GIOBERTI and ORIANI) were sighted from WARSPITE on her starboard bow. The battle fleet which comprised WARSPITE, VALIANT, FORMIDABLE, BARHAM in line ahead, with GREYHOUND and GRIFFIN on their port side and STUART and HAVOCK on their starboard side, turned on to 280¼.
At 2228 hours with ZARA and FIUME now on the port side of the battle fleet, FORMIDABLE hauled out of line to starboard and GREYHOUND illuminated FIUME with her searchlight and the battle fleet opened fire with 15in broadsides on FIUME and ZARA, at the same time the battleships switched on their searchlights.
(Prince Philip was mentioned in dispatches for his command of a section of the ship’s searchlight control).
(Part of VALIANT’s Report on the action reads:- “Shortly before this action, telephonic communication between the 15in transmitting station and the radar office, and also, range transmission from the gunnery attachment RBL.10 to a range receiver in the 15in transmitting station had been fitted by ship’s staff. .After sighting the ZARA and FIUME, the guns and radar were put on the FIUME, the right hand ship, and fire was opened, the AFC (Admiralty Fire Control) Table being tuned so that True Range was set to RDF Range. The broadside was seen to hit”)
VALIANT hit the FIUME with one 15in salvo of four shells and seven 4.5in salvos totalling approximately 70 shells.
VALIANT then switched to the cruiser ZARA and fired five 15in salvos, a total of 35 shells and five 4.5insalvos totalling approximately 50 shells.
At 2235 hours fire was checked, leaving FIUME, ZARA, ALFIERI and CARDUCCI seriously damaged, and course was set on to bearing 010¼, with FORMIDABLE on the starboard side.
At 2238 hours the screening destroyers GREYHOUND, GRIFFIN, STUART and HAVOCK were released and ordered to finish off the 2 cruisers.
At 2330 hours the battle fleet altered course to 070¼ speed 18knots.

HMS Valiant, the Queen Elizabeth class battleship launched in 1914, pictured in the 1930s.