HMS Active (H 14)
Destroyer of the A class
|Navy||The Royal Navy|
|Built by||Hawthorn Leslie & Co. (Hebburn-on-Tyne, U.K.)|
|Ordered||6 Mar 1928|
|Laid down||10 Jul 1928|
|Launched||9 Jul 1929|
|Commissioned||9 Feb 1930|
Sold to be broken up for scrap on 20 May 1947. Scrapped at Troon, Scotland.
Commands listed for HMS Active (H 14)
Please note that we're still working on this section.
|1||Lt.Cdr. Errol Concanon Lloyd Turner, RN||1 May 1939||Feb 1941|
|2||Lt.Cdr. Michael Wilfred Tomkinson, RN||Feb 1941||1 Jan 1943|
|3||Lt.Cdr. Peter Gordon Merriman, RN||1 Jan 1943||9 Oct 1944|
|4||Cdr. John Pringle, RN||9 Oct 1944||Nov 1944|
|5||Lt. John Aylmer McClure, DSC, RN||Nov 1944||22 Dec 1945|
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Notable events involving Active include:
2 Jul 1940
Operations Catapult and Lever.
Operations agains the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.
Timespan: 2 to 6 July 1940.
Polical situation June / July 1940.
The situation created by the collapse of French military resistance in June 1940 brought to the forefront the question of the disposal of the powerful modern French Fleet. With France eliminated from the contest, Great Britain would stand virtually alone, separated only by the English Channel from the triumphant German Army and threatened by the largest Air Force in the World. On her command of the sea depended her very existence. Suddenly to lose the co-operation of the French Fleet would be a severe blow, but it was a matter of life and death that it should not be added to those of her opponents and used against her.
In circumstances of increasing chaos the marsh of events was swift. On 11 June 1940 the French Prime Minister and the French Government retired to Tours, and three days later moved on to Bordeaux. On the same day the Germans entered Paris.
It was the French Prime Minister who had declared ‘We shall fight before Paris, we shall fight behind Paris. We shall shut ourselves up in one of our provinces and if they drive us out we shall go to north Africa and, if need be, to our American possessions. It was the French Prime Minister who asked the British Government on 16 June to release France from her treaty obligations. The Cabinet refused to do so asked for French warships to be despatched to British ports and offered an Act of Union. The offer fell on deaf ears. The French Prime Minister (Mr. M Reynaud) was no longer in power. He had been displaced in the night of 16/17 June by a defeatist group headed by Marshal Pétain, General Weygand, Admiral Darlan, Mr. Laval, Mr. Baudouin and other politicians.
Negotiations with Germany were opened on 17 June, when Marshal Pétain, in a letter to Hitler, asked if he was ready to sign with him, as between soldiers after the fight and in honour, terms that would put an end to the hostilities.
The British Government, receiving the news ‘with grief and amazement’ refused to release France from her treaty obligations, and announced its intention to continue the fight. Every effort was made to persuade the French Government to order the French Fleet to British ports, or to sink itself before armistice terms were discussed. But the situation was very confusing and no guarantees could be obtained. At the same time it was determined that, if all other courses failed, action should be taken to prevent any important French ships falling into the enemy’s hands. British offers of assistance to the French authorities in arranging for an evacuation from Marseilles to North African ports were declined.
The terms of the armistice signed by France were not made public until 25 June, the day on which the hostilities ended. The clauses effecting the French sea forces stated that the French Fleet was to be assembled in ports under German or Italian control and demilitarized.
It seemed clear to the British Government that in these clauses the enemy had merely provided themselves with a pretext for keeping the whole French Fleet in a state of readiness for action against us when an opportunity accurred. The British Government had evidence, too, that from 20 June the Germans were in possession of, and were using, French naval codes.
The first reactions to the armistice terms of the French naval, military and colonial authorities indicated a determination to fight on. This attitude, however, in face of instructions was however soon abandoned. The British Government consequently decided to offer the French Naval Commanders the following alternatives: to continue the fight; complete immobilisation in certain ports; to demilitarise or sink their ships. By no other means could the French Fleet be prevented from falling into the hands of the enemy.
Reports received from various sources indicated that, the senior French Naval Officers had elected to obey their central government, most junior Officers desired to continue the struggle. The men, divided in their loyalties and lacking firm leadership, were chiefly influenced by the fear of reprisals to their families.
The French Fleet at Oran, coast defences, etc.
The bulk of the French Fleet was distributed between Toulon and the French North African ports in the Western Mediterranean. A squadron of one battleship, four cruisers and a few destroyers was at Alexandria; operating with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. The new battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart which had been completing at Brest had sailed a few days before respectively for Dakar and Casablanca. But by far the most important concentration of French warships was at Mers-el-Kebir, under Vice-Admiral Gensoul.
The shore defences of Mers-el-Kebir cosisted of a battery of two 7.5” guns on top of a hill to the west of the harbour. The harbour entrance was protected by an anti-torpedo boom and anti-submarine booms. A mine net stretched from Cape Falcon to a point one mile north of Cape Canastel. The breakwater (30 feet high) and Fort Mers-el-Kebir (100 feet high) afforded a certain amount of protection to the side armour of the ships inside the harbour from short range gunfire. Also in the vicinity of Oran there was a battery of two 9.2” guns at Cape Canastel.
Assembly of ‘Force H’ at Gibraltar.
In order to fill the Allied vacuum in the Western Mediterranean, caused by the defection of the French Fleet, the Admiralty decided to assemble a strong force, to be known as Force H, at Gibraltar. On 27 June Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville was ordered to hoist his flag in the light cruiser HMS Aretusa and to proceed there to take command of ‘Force H’. His immediate task was to secure the transfer, surrender or destruction of the French ships at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran, so as to ensure that they could not fall into German or Italian hands. It was hoped that the employment of force would be unnecessary, but every preparation to use it was to be made. This was explained to him in an interview with the First Lord and the First Sea Lord.
The Vice-Admiral sailed from Spithead in HMS Arethusa on 28 June. During his passage to Gibraltar he was in constant communication with the Admiralty. On the 29th he received Admiralty message 0435/29, stating certain alternatives which it was proposed to offer the French. (a) to steam their ships to a British port. (b) to sink their ships. (c) to have their ships sunk by gunfire. Later in the day the Admiralty directed the submarines HMS Pandora and HMS Proteus to patrol off Algiers and Oran respectively in order to report any French movements, but not to attack. On the 30th they ordered the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft carriers (Vice-Admiral L.V. Wells) to establish a destroyer patrol 30 nautical miles to the west of Oran and that should the French battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg proceed to the westward, they were to be captured and taken to the United Kingdom.
Vice-Admiral Somerville arrived at Gibraltar on 30 June where he transferred his flag to the battlecruiser HMS Hood. He lost no time with discussing the matter with the Vice-Admiral North Atlantic (Vice-Admiral Sir D.B.N. North) and later with Vice-Admiral Wells, his senior officers and with two officers who had recently been attached to the French as liaison officers. All were strongly opposed to the use of force, believing that this would alienate the French completely and turn them from a defeated ally into an active enemy. So impressed was Vice-Admiral Somerville by these views that he communicated them to the Admiralty at 1230 hours on 1 July together with certain alternative proposals. He received a reply that evening that it was the firm intention of His Majesty’s Government that if the French would not accept (any of) the alternatives then being sent to him, their ships must be destroyed.
Meanwhile a plan of operation had been drawn up, and the Admiralty was informed that the earliest date for it’s execution would be A.M. 3 July. The operation was named ‘Catapult’.
Admiralty instructions to Vice-Admiral Somerville.
At 0426, 2 July, Vice-Admiral Somerville received his final instructions from the Admiralty in dealing with the French Fleet at Mers-el-Keber. These may be summarised as follows: A) Four alternatives were to be offered to the French: (1) To sail their ships to a British port to continue the fight with us. (2) To sail their ships with reduced crews to a British port from which the crews would be repatriated whenever desired. (3) To sail their ships with reduced crews to a French port in the West Indies. After arrival there they would either be demilitarised to our satisfaction, if so desired or to be entrusted to U.S.A. jurisdiction for the remainder of the war. The crews would be repatriated. (4) To sink their ships.
In case of alternatives 1 or 2 being adopted the ships were to be restrored to France at the conclusion of the war, or full ompensation would be paid if they were damaged meanwhile. If the French Admiral accepted alternative 2 but asked that the ships would not be used during the war, we would accept this condition for so long Germany and Italy observed the armistice terms. We particularly did not want to raise this point ourselves.
B) If the French Admiral refused to observe all the above alternatives and suggested demilitarisation of his ships to our satisfaction at their present berths acceptance of this further alternative was authorised, provided that the Flag Officer, ‘Force H’ was satisfied that the measures for demilitarization could be carried out under his supervision within six hours, so as to prevent the ships being brought to service for at least one year, even at a fully equipped dockyard port.
C) If none of the alternatives were accepted by the French, the Flag Officer ‘Force H’ was to endeavour to destroy the ships in Mers-el-Kebir, particularly the Dunkerque and Strasbourg, using all means at his disposal. Ships at Oran should also be destroyed, if this did not entail any considerable loss of civilian life.
As it was undesirable to have to deal with the French Fleet at sea, the Flag Officer ‘Force H’ was instructed to arrive in the vicinity of Oran at his selected time, to send emissaries ashore, and to take such action as he considered fit in the period before the given time limit expired.
A further signal timed 0108 contained the terms in which these demands were to delivered to Admiral Gensoul.
Plan for ‘Operation Catapult’.
A meeting of Flag and Commanding Officers was held during the forenoon of 2nd July, at which the orders for ‘Operation Catapult’ were explained and discussed.
Capt. C.S. Holland, of the Ark Royal, who had recently been Naval Attaché at Paris, had been selected to act as emissary assisted by Lt.Cdr’s A.Y. Spearman and G.P.S. Davies, lately employed as liaison officers. The destroyer HMS Foxhound was detailed to embark these officers. Captain Holland was instructed, if necessity arose, to question the French concerning their plan for demilitarisation at two hours’ notice which had been mentioned to Vice-Admiral North at Gibraltar, and to enquire whether the proposed measures would render the ships ‘ineffective for service during 12 months, even with dockyard assistance.’
The intention of the Flag Officer ‘Force H’, if he was obliged to use force was: a) To destroy morale, damage AA equipment and induce the French crews to abandon their ships by means of long range gunfire with the main armaments of his capital ships, assisted by aircraft spotting. b) Bombing by the aircraft of HMS Ark Royal with the same object. c) Torpedo attack by aircraft from HMS Ark Royal in order to cripple those ships exposed to torpedo fire. d) Sinking of ships still afloat by demolition parties from destroyers. e) The cruisers were to engage light craft or shore batteries as ordered.
The orders drawn up did not propose the laying of magnetic mines by aircraft from HMS Ark Royal, which was held to interference with the first two alternatives offered to the French but if needed this measure could be resorted to.
Attempts to Communicate with Admiral Gensoul.
At 1500 hours, 2nd July, destroyers sailed to carry out an A/S sweep in Gibraltar Bay and approaches and ‘Force H’ cleared harbour at 1700/2.
The composition of ‘Force H’ was as follows; battlecruiser HMS Hood (Capt. I.G. Glennie, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, DSO, RN), battleships HMS Valiant (Capt. H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Resolution (Capt. O. Bevir, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral L.V. Wells, CB, DSO, RN) [as Capt. Holland had been embarked on the destroyer HMS Foxhound, it was probably Cdr. R.M.T. Taylor, RN who was temporary in command], light cruisers HMS Arethusa (Capt. Q.D. Graham, RN), HMS Enterprise (Capt. J.C. Annesley, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Fearless (Cdr. K.L. Harkness, RN), HMS Foresight (Lt.Cdr. G.T. Lambert, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Foxhound (Lt.Cdr. G.H. Peters, RN), HMS Escort (Lt.Cdr. J. Bostock, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. E.C.L. Turner, RN), HMS Keppel (Lt.Cdr.(Emgy.) E.G. Heywood-Lonsdale, RN), HMS Wrestler (Lt.Cdr. E.N.V. Currey, RN), HMS Vortigern (Lt.Cdr. R.S. Howlett, RN) and HMS Vidette (Cdr.(Retd.) D.R. Brocklebank, RN).
The operations orders referred to the possibility of interference but the only evidence of them being even remotely on the alert was that at 2247/2 in position 36°12’N, 03°05’W HMS Vortigern reported a torpedo exploding ahead of her. This was indeed an attack by an Italian submarine, the Marconi. HMS Vortigern and HMS Vidette hunted the submarine for a little over an hour but without success.
At 0300/3, HMS Foxhound was sent ahead and arrived of Cape Falcon at 0545/3. Communication was established with the Port War Signal Station and at 0620 hours the following message was passed. ‘To Admiral Gensoul, The British Admiralty had sent Captain Holland to confer with you. The British Navy hopes that their proposals will enable you and the valiant and glorious French Navy to be by our side. In these circumstances your ships would remain yours and no one need to have anxiety for the future. A British fleet is at sea off Oran waiting to welcome you.’
Permission for HMS Foxhound to enter the port of Mers-el-Kebir was received at 0742 hours. She anchored at 0805/3, outside the net defence, in a position 1.6 nautical miles, 115° from Mers-el-Kebir lighthouse. Five minutes later the French Flag Lieutenant came alongside and informed Capt. Holland that Admiral Gensoul was unable to see him, but would sent his Chief of Staff.
Admiral’s Gensoul refusal to confer with Capt. Holland was emphasized when at 0847 hours HMS Foxhound received a signal from him requisting her to sail immediately. She weighted accordingly, leaving Capt. Holland and Lt.Cdr’s Spearman and Davies behind in her motor boat. Meeting the French Flag Lieutenant off the entrance, Capt. Holland handed him the written British proposals to be given to Admiral Gensoul, saying that he would await a reply. It was around 0935 hours when they reached Admiral Gensoul. The French ships were reported by air reconnaissance to be raising steam. At 1000 hours the Flag Lieutenant returned and handed over a written reply from Admiral Gensoul. It stated the same that had earlier been said to Vice-Admiral North that the French Fleet would never be surrendered and that force would be met by force.
Then followed a further exchange of written statements and a discussion with the French Chief of Staff who came out at 1109 hours. As it was evident that Admiral Gensoul was resolved not to see Capt. Holland, the latter returned on board HMS Foxhound to communicate with Vice-Admiral Somerville.
Meanwhile ‘Force H’ had arrived off Mers-el-Kebir at 0910/3 and by means of projectors transferred the following message (in French) ‘To Admiral Gensoul from Admiral Somerville. We hope most sincerely that the proposals will be acceptable and hat we shall ave you by our side.’
’Force H’ then proceeded to steam to and from across the bay while HMS Ark Royal, with a destroyer screen, was acting independently for flying off aircraft.
At 1140/3 Lt.Cdr. Spearman was sent in with a message from the Flag Officer ‘Force H’ that the French ships would not be allowed to leave harbour unless the terms were accepted. It was at this time that Capt. Holland signalled to the French Admiral, from HMS Foxhound, information of the action taken by Admiral Godfroy at Alexandria to demilitarise his ships. HMS Foxhound then proceeded outside the outer boom to a position inside visual signalling range.
British delegate received and terms refused.
Admiral Gensoul’s reply reached HMS Hood at 1227/3 and Vice-Admiral Somerville considering that it was unsatisfactory and indicated an intention to put to sea and fight, gave the order to mine the harbour entrance. Five mines were accordingly laid by aircraft inside the booms guarding the entrance to Mers-el-Kebir harbour.
It was Vice-Admiral Somerville’s first intention to open fire at 1330 hours but the time for a final answer was extended to 1500 hours on the strength of air reports that there was no immediate indication of the French ships proceeding to sea. In order to ensure the least possible delay, a signal was passed to Admiral Gensoul requisting him to hoist a large square flag at the masthead if he accepted the British terms.
These measures appeared to be effective, for at 1440 hours Admiral Gensoul signalled that he would receive a delegate for honourable discussion. This message forstalled, only by a few minutes, the despatch of a signal from Vice-Admiral Somerville notifying that he would proceed to destroy the French ships at 1530 hours. Despite Vice-Admiral Somerville’s suspicion that the French Admiral was temporizing, he authorised Capt. Holland to proceed, and the latter, in the motor boat from HMS Foxhound and accompanied by Lt.Cdr. Davies, reached the Dunkerque at 1615/3.
Captain Holland’s reception on board the Dunkerque was coldly formal. Admiral Gensoul was extremely indignant and angry. A lengthy discussion ensued, in which he emphasised that the use of force would range the whole French Navy against the British, and that in effect he rejected all conditions proposed stating that he would only obey orders from his Government and Admiral Darlan. It was evident to Captain Holland that it was only during this discussion that Admiral Gensoul began to realise that force might actually be used.
Whilst the discussion was proceeding an Admiralty message was received at 1646 hours by HMS Hood instructing Vice-Admiral Somerville to settle matters quickly or he would have reinforcements to deal with. A signal accordingly passed by visual and wireless at 1715 hours to Admiral Gensoul informing him that if one of the alternatives was not accepted by 1730 hours his ships would be sunk. At the same time action stations was sounded in the ships of the British Fleet.
A summary of Admiral Gensoul’s final statement was passed by signal from Capt. Holland to Vice-Admiral Somerville. It read ‘Admiral Gensoul says crews being reduced and if threatened by enemy would go Martinique or U.S.A. but this is not quite our proposition. Can get no nearer.’
This signal was received on board HMS Hood at 1729 hours. As it did not comply with any of the alternatives laid down, the air striking force from HMS Ark Royal was ordered to fly off and the battleships stood in towards the coast.
Captain Holland left the Dunkerque at 1725 hours. As he left ‘Action stations’ was being sounded in the French ships, all of which were by that time in an advanced state of readiness for sea, with tugs standing by and control positions manned.
Meanwhile signs of movement of French ships in adjacent harbour of Oran having been reported by air reconnaissance, two mines were laid in it’s entrance, and the destroyer HMS Wrestler was ordered to relieve HMS Vortigern on patrol there.
Action against the French ships at Mers-el-Kebir.
At 1754/3 fire was opened at 17500 yards. Aircraft were spotting. The line of fire was from the north-west, so that fire from the French ships was blanked to some extent by Mers-el-Kebir Fort, and risk of damage to civilian life and property reduced.
The four French capital ships and aviation transport were moored stern-on to the mole in the following order, from north-west to south-east; Dunkerque, Provence, Strasbourg, Bretagne and Commandant Teste while the remaining ships were moored on the west side of the harbour. The destroyers, according to an aircraft report, were underway inside the booms.
The effect of the opening salvoes was observed from the Foxhound’s motor boat. The first salvo fell short. The second hit the breakwater, sending large fragments of concrete flying through the air, which probably caused casualties amongst the crews of the ships. The third salvo fell amongst the ships and the battleship Bretagne blew up, a column of orange flame leaping into the sky, followed by an immense column of smoke several hundred feet high. Another smaller explosion indicated that a destroyer had blown up (Mogador). By this time the harbour was shrouded in smoke from explosions and fires. Direct spotting was almost impossible and air spotting most difficult. The French shore batteries and Dunkerque and Strasbourg opened fire about a minute after the first British salvo. The shore batteries were promptly engaged by HMS Arethusa, the older guns of HMS Enterprise being outranged. Heavy projectiles were soon falling near the British battleships as the French fire, at first very short, began to improve in accuracy. The observers in Foxhound’s motor boat recorded several direct hits on the French ships, another explosion with a sheet of orange flame from a battleship, and a direct hit on a large destroyer as she was leaving harbour.
None of the French projectiles hit, though a number of them fell close to – and in some cases straddled – the British ships. Some splinters caused some minor superficial damage in HMS Hood and injured one officer and a rating. After thirty-six salvoes of 15” the fire of the French ships died down, but hat of the forts became increasingly accurate. To avoid damage from the latter, course was altered 180° to port together and the ships were ordered to make smoke.
At 1803/3 as the French ships were no longer firing, ‘cease fire’ was ordered. Vice-Admiral Somerville considered that this would give them an opportunity to abandon their vessels and as the entrance to the harbour had been mined they would make no attempts to put to sea. Repeated signals were being receive in HMS Hood from the shore visual and wireless stations requisting fire to be discontinued, to which the reply was made: ‘unless I see your ships sinking, I shall open fire again’. Vice-Admiral Somerville then proceeded to the westward to take up a position from which, if necessary, the bombardment could be renewed without causing casualties to men in boats or exposing the British ships to unduly fire from the forts. He also deemed it prudent to stand out to sea to avoid the possibility of a surprise attack by aircraft under cover of the clouds of smoke then laying between his ships and the shore.
When the pall of smoke over Mers-el-Kebir harbour cleared away, the scene viewed from HMS Foxhound’s boat showed the Dunkerque, which had slipped from the mole, lying stopped in the harbour. The Provence appeared to have been hit, fires were burning in the Commandant Teste, while nothing could be seen of the Bretagne. Clear of the harbour and gathering speed fast were the Strasbourg and two destroyers (thought to be Mogador-class), steering eastward close under the land.
Chase of, and F.A.A. attacks on, the Strasbourg.
Vice-Admiral Somerville received an air report at 1820/3 that one of the Dunkerque-class battlecruisers had put to sea and was steering east. This report was confirmed 10 minutes later. An air striking force of six Swordfish aircraft of no. 818 Squadron armed with 250-lb. bombs and escorted by Skua’s was flow off by HMS Ark Royal at 1825 hours to attack the ships in Mers-el-Kebir but they were then diverted to attack the fleeing ship which was accompanied by eight destroyers. ‘Force H’ altered course to the eastward at 1838 hours and commenced a chase.
During this period, HMS Wrestler, which was patrolling of Oran, was heavily engaged by shore batteries. At least 100 shells fell near her before she withdrew in accordance with orders.
At 1843 hours the cruisers and destroyers with HMS Hood were ordered to proceed ahead. Both battleships following behind at their best speed without a destroyer screen. Every ships worked up to full speed.
The bombing attack on the Strasbourg was well pressed home, and, although it was met with heavy opposition, was believed to have obtained at least one hit. Two Swordfish aircraft failed to return, but the crews were picked up by HMS Wrestler.
At 1914/3 HMS Wrestler picked up Capt. Holland and Lt.Cdr.’s Spearman, Davies and the crew from the motor boat of HMS Foxhound. The motor boat was then abandoned.
Between 1933 and 1945 hours a French destroyer, steering west close inshore, was engaged at ranges of 12000 and 18000 yards by the Arethusa and Enterprise. Later the Hood and Valiant fired a few 15” salvoes at her. At least three hits were observed before the destroyer turned back to Oran. The British ships were obliged to alter course to avoid torpedoes.
at 1950/3 six Swordfish aircraft of no. 820 Squadron, armed with torpedoes were flown off from HMS Ark Royal, with orders to press home their attack, making use of the failing light. They attacked at 2055 hours, twenty minutes after sunset. Approaching from the land, with their target silhouetted against the afterglow, they were able to deliver the attack unseen, only the last two attacking aircraft encountered some machine gun fire from the screening destroyers. The observation of results was rendered difficult by darkness and funnel smoke, but an explosion was seen under the Strasbourg’s stern and there was some evidence of a hit amidships. All the aircraft returned safely, through one came under machine gun fire from a group of destroyers seven miles astern of the target.
Chase abandoned and return to Gibraltar.
Meanwhile Vice-Admiral Somerville had abandoned the chase about half-an-hour before the torpedo attack took place. At 2020/3 the Strasbourg with her attendant destroyers, was some 25 nautical miles ahead of him. By that time the French Algiers force with several 8” and 6” cruisers was known to be at sea and was calculated to be able to join the Strasbourg shortly after 2100 hours.
Vice-Admiral Somerville considered that a night contact and engagement was not justified. His destroyers had not had recent experience of shadowing, and the French would be numerically superior. Besides that there were more reasons to disengage.
Accordingly at 2025/3 course was altered to the westwards and the Admiralty was informed that ‘Force H’ would remain to the west of Oran during the night with the intention to carry out air attacks on the ships at Mers-el-Kebir at dawn.
Between 1930 and 2100 hours French reconnaissance and bomber aircraft were fired on. These dropped a few bombs which all fell wide except for four bombs which fell close to HMS Wrestler. The attacks were not pressed home.
At 2150/3 the submarine HMS Proteus, which had been ordered to keep clear of ‘Force H’ to the northward during the day, was ordered to patrol north of 35°55’N off Cape de l’Aiguille or Abuja Point (15 nautical miles east of Oran). At the same time she and HMS Pandora (off Algiers) were ordered to sink any French ships encountered. The latter, which had reported six cruisers and four destroyers making to the westward at 1745/3, was warned that the Strasbourg might arrive off Algiers at 2300/3.
During the night of 3 / 4 July. ‘Force H’ steered to reach position 36°12’N, 01°48‘W (about 60 nautical miles west-north-west of Mers-el-Kebir) at 0430/4. It was intended to then fly off 12 Swordfish and 9 Skua aircraft to finish off the ships remaining in the harbour. Shortly after 0400/4, however dense fog was encountered. This rendered flying impossible. As Vice-Admiral Somerville had received a message from Admiral Gensoul the evening before (2250/3) stating that his ships were ‘hors de combat’ (‘out of action’) and that he had ordered the crews to evacuate them, Vice-Admiral Somerville decided to return to Gibraltar where ‘Force H’ arrived at 1900/4.
Review of the operation by Vice-Admiral Somerville.
Reviewing the operation, Vice-Admiral Somerville remarked that it was clear he committed an error of judgement in proceeding so far to the westward after ceasing fire, and gave his reasons for his decision.
He considered that the mines laid in the harbour entrance were sufficient to prevent any French ships from leaving and also he was under the impression that the French crews were abandoning their ships due to the signals to ‘cease shelling’ and the heavy explosions observed. The though uppermost in his mind was how to complete his task without causing further loss of life to the very gallant but ill-advised Frenchmen, and without exposing his fleet to damage by the shore batteries or to submarine attack. He was also under the impression that a torpedo flight, to complete the destruction of ships afloat, had either taken off or was about to do so. In fact, however, the repeated postponement of the attack by gunfire had, unknown to him, seriously upset the Ark Royal’s flying on and off programme.
Vice-Admiral Somerville went into question whether the use of force might have been avoided had Admiral Gensoul agreed at once to receive Capt. Holland. The French Admiral’s final offer differed, unfortunately, from the British proposals in the single proviso that the disablement of ships would only be carried into effect if there was a danger of the French ships falling into enemy hands. Admiral Gensoul maintained that this danger was not imminent, whereas we maintained that it was. Had more time been available Capt. Holland might possibly have converted Admiral Gensoul to the British point of view, but when he made his offer it was already too late, for the discussion could not be continued beyond 1720 hours as French reinforcements were approaching and the ordered of His Majesty’s Government were explicit that a decision had to be reached before dark.
’ I consider ‘ wrote Vice-Admiral Somerville, ‘ that Capt. Holland carried out his most difficult task with the greatest tact, courage and perseverance. That he failed in his mission was not his fault – that he nearly succeeded is greatly to his credit ‘.
Preparations to renew the attack on the Dunkerque.
After the arrival of ‘Force H’ at Gibraltar the ships were immediately completed with fuel and ammunition so to be able to carry out operations against the French battleship Richelieu at Dakar if required.
Vice-Admiral Somerville informed the Admiralty that it was not possible from aircraft observation positively to assess the damage done to the battlecruiser Dunkerque, but that she was aground. Consequently the Admiralty directed that unless Vice-Admiral Somerville was certain that the Dunkerque could not be refloated and repaired in less then a year, she was to be subjected to further destruction by bombardment. This was to precede any operation against the Richelieu.
To put this decision into effect, plans were drawn up for another operation (Operation Lever), and the Admiralty was informed that a further bombardment would be carried out at 0900/6 by ‘Force H’.
At 2005/4 a signal was received from the Admiralty. It contained instructions with regard to the attitude to be adopted towards French warships, which stated that ‘ships must be prepared for attack, but should not fire the first shot’. After confirmation at 2045/5 that this applied to the submarines operating of Oran and Algiers, the instructions were passed on to HMS Pandora and HMS Proteus. It was however already too late.
Proceeding by British submarines 4-6 July 1940.
When ‘Force H’ returned to Gibraltar on 4 July, the submarines HMS Pandora and HMS Proteus remained on patrol off the North African coast.
At 1126/4, HMS Pandora, off Algiers, sighted three destroyers 065° about 1 nautical mile from the shore, but she was unable to get within range. Three and a half hours later (1458/4), however, she sighted a French cruiser thought at that time to be of the La Galissoniere class. In fact it was the sloop Rigault de Genouilly. HMS Pandora turned immediately to a firing course and at 1507/4 HMS Pandora fired four torpedoes from about 3800 yards. Two certain and one probable hits were obtained. The French ship stopped at once and soon after she was observed to be on fire. Closing in HMS Pandora saw that there was no chance this ship could be saved. At 1632/4 she was seen to sink by the stern and a few seconds later an extremely heavy explosion occurred, probably her magines blowing up.
For some time from 1718/4 HMS Pandora was hunted by aircraft and a destroyer or patrol craft, explosions of bombs and or death charges were heard at intervals.
The Admiralty expressed deep regret to the French Ambassy for the tragic happening, which was ascribed to the fact that on completion of the operation at Mers-el-Kebir on 3 July, the instructions that French ships were no longer to be attacked did not reach one submarine.
The seaplane carrier Commandant Teste was more fortunate. She was sighted by HMS Proteus at 1447/4. The weather was foggy and before an attack could be started the French ship altered course to the eastward and was soon lost out of sight.
At 2200/5, in obedience to instructions, HMS Proteus proceeded to patrol off Cape Khamis, about 65 nautical miles east of Oran. At 0243/6 a signal from the Flag Officer Commanding North Atlantic (F.O.C.N.A.) was received that French ships were not to be attacked unless they attacked first.
The Commandant Teste was again sighted at 1734/6. This time she was accompanied by two destroyers. Shorty afterwards HMS Proteus was ordered to proceed to Gibraltar.
HMS Pandora remained on patrol until July 7th when she too was ordered to proceed to Gibraltar.
F.A.A. attack on the Dunkerque, 6 July 1940.
Meanwhile ‘Force H’ sailed from Gibraltar at 2000/5. They first proceeded westwards but turned to the east at 2200 hours and proceeded at 22 knots towards Oran.
’Force H’ was now made up of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, battleship HMS Valiant, aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, light cruisers HMS Aurora, HMS Enterprise and the destroyers HMS Fearless, HMS Forester, HMS Foxhound, HMS Escort, HMS Active, HMS Velox (Cdr.(Retd.) J.C. Colvill, RN), HMS Vidette, HMS Vortigern and HMS Wrestler.
At 0250/6, Vice-Admiral Somerville received a signal from the Admiralty which instructed him to cancel the bombardment. He was ordered to attack the Dunkerque from the air until she was sufficiently damaged.
In position 36°19’N, 02°23’W (about 90 nautical miles from Oran) at 0515/6, the first striking force was flown off. The attack on the Dunkerque was made in three waves. The aircraft taking part were armed with torpedoes, carrying Duplex pistols, set for depth 12 feet, speed 27 knots.
The first wave of six Swordfish of no. 820 Squadron took of from the Ark Royal at 0515 hours. It made landfall at Habibas Island (about 20 nautical miles west of Mers-el-Kebir) and then shaped course at 7000 feet to keep 15 miles from the coast in order to gain up-sun position from the target as the sun rose. The attack achieved complete surprise, only one aircraftbeing fired upon during the get-away. As the first rays of the sun, rising above thick haze, struck the Dunkerque, the flight commenced a shallow dive in line ahead down the path of the sun. Coming in low over the breakwater, the aircraft attacked in succession. The first torpedo hit the Dunkerque amidships, glanced off without exploding and continued it’s run. It had probably been released inside pistol safety range. The second was thought at the time to have hit and exploded under the bridge on the starboard side. The third torpedo to have missed and exploded ashore and the remaining three torpedoes to have hit and exploded near ‘B’ turret. In the light of later information, it seems that no torpedo in this or subsequent attacks actually hit and damaged her. The first (as noticed by the British) glanced off without exploding. The second exploded underneath the stern of a trawler, the Terre Neuve, which – apparently unnoticed by the aircraft – was about 30 yards to starboard of the battlecruiser and sank the trawler. Of the remainder three torpedoes may have hit without exploding or run into shallow water, and one missed. One torpedo exploded ashore against a jetty.
The second attack was made by three Swordfish of no. 810 Squadron with a fighter escort of six Skua’s. They took off at 0545 hours. This sub-flight manoeuvred to a position up-sun at 2000 feet. At 0647 hours they tuned to attack in line astern. They came under heavy AA fire and had to take avoiding action during their approach and they made their attack from over the breakwater. The torpedo of the first aircraft was not released. The second and third torpedoes are thought to have hit the starboard side of the Dunkerque. During the get-away a large explosion was observed, smoke and spray rising in a great column over 600 feet high which was thought to have possibly been a magazine explosion in the Dunkerque. Actually, one torpedo hit the wreck of the Terre Neuve, detonating about 24 to 28 depth charges with which she was loaded, and thereby causing considerable damage to the Dunkerque. The other torpedo missed astern and exploded ashore. No enemy aircraft were encountered, but the 6” and 4” batteries from the east of Oran to Mers-el-Kebir Point kept up continuous fire throughout the attack.
The third wave was also made up of three Swordfish from no. 810 Squadron. These too were escorted by six Skua’s. They wre flown off at 0620 hours. They made landfall at a height of 4000 feet at 0650 hours over Cape Falcon. In line astern the sub-flight made a shallow dive with avoiding action as the Provence and shore batteries opened fire. This sub-flight then came in low over the town of Mers-el-Kebir for its attack. The first torpedo is reported to have struck the Dunkerque amidships on her port side but it did not explode. The second, which would have hit the ship, exploded under a tug close to her which blew the tug into the air. The third torpedo was dropped too close and did therefore not explode, although it appeared to be going to hit. While making its get-away this sub-flight was engaged by French fighter aircraft. The Skua escorts had many dog fights with the French fighters which easily out-manoeuvred our aircraft but they did not press home their attacks. One Skua, damaged in combat, had to make a forced landing on the water on its return. The crew was rescued by a destroyer. There were no casualties although several aircraft were damaged by gunfire.
Vice-Admiral Somerville was satisfied with the results as it appeared that the Dunkerque for sure would be out of action for more then a year. ‘Force H’, having completed its task returned to Gibraltar at 1830/6. After temporary repairs the Dunkerque arrived at Toulon only on 19 February 1942 having made the passage under her own power escorted by five destroyers. (1)
8 Jul 1940
The battlecruiser HMS Hood (Capt. I.G. Glennie, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, DSO, RN), battleships HMS Valiant (Capt. H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Resolution (Capt. O. Bevir, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral L.V. Wells, CB, DSO, RN) [as Capt. Holland had been embarked on the destroyer HMS Foxhound, it was probably Cdr. R.M.T. Taylor, RN who was temporary in command], light cruisers HMS Arethusa (Capt. Q.D. Graham, RN), HMS Enterprise (Capt. J.C. Annesley, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Fearless (Cdr. K.L. Harkness, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Foxhound (Lt.Cdr. G.H. Peters, RN), HMS Escort (Lt.Cdr. J. Bostock, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. E.C.L. Turner, RN), HMS Douglas (Cdr.(Retd.) J.G. Crossley, RN), HMS Velox (Cdr.(Retd.) J.C. Colvill, RN), HMS Vortigern (Lt.Cdr. R.S. Howlett, RN) and HMS Wrestler (Lt.Cdr. E.N.V. Currey, RN) departed Gibraltar as a diversion during operation in the central and eastern Mediterranean. They were also to conduct and air attack against Cagliary, Sardinia but this air attack was later cancelled.
In the late afternoon and early evening of the 9th Force H came under air attack by Italian aircraft. HMS Resolution and HMS Hood were near missed with bombs.
While on the way back to Gibraltar the destroyer HMS Escort was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Marconi at 0300/11 in position 36°20'N, 03°46'W. She was heavily damaged and was taken in tow by HMS Forester while being screened by HMS Faulknor.
Force H meanwhile had arrived at Gibraltar. The destroyers HMS Keppel (Lt.Cdr.(Emgy.) E.G. Heywood-Lonsdale, RN), HMS Foresight (Lt.Cdr. G.T. Lambert, RN) and HMS Foxhound were then sent out to escort the damaged HMS Escort but she later foundered while under tow.
27 Nov 1940
The British merchant Diplomat is torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-104 128 nautical miles west-north-west of Bloody Foreland in position 55°42'N, 11°37'W. HMS Active (A/Cdr. E.C.L. Turner, RN) later picks up 39 survivors.
23 Mar 1941
Battleship HMS Nelson (Capt. G.J.A. Miles, RN, flying the flag of A/Adm. J.C. Tovey, CB, DSO, RN) and her escorting destroyers; HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Boadicea (A/Cdr. E.C.L. Turner, RN) and HMS Escapade (Lt.Cdr. E.N.V. Currey, DSC, RN) arrived at Scapa Flow around 0030 hours.
Battlecruiser HMS Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.J. Whitworth, CB, DSO, RN), battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth (Capt. C.B. Barry, DSO, RN) and their escorting destoyers; HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN), HMS Electra (Cdr. C.W. May, RN) and HMS Eskimo (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Le Geyt, RN) arrived at Scapa Flow around 0700 hours.
Destroyers HMS Arrow (Cdr. R.E. Hyde-Smith, RN) and HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN), which had been detached by the Hood force, first had to proceed to Lough Foyle to refuel, after which they departed that place for Scapa Flow arriving around 1145 and 1900 hours, respectively.
24 Mar 1941
Late in the afternoon HMS Prince of Wales (Capt. J.C. Leach, MVO, RN) departed Rosyth for a trial run and to proceed to Scapa Flow upon completion. She was escorted by the destroyers HMS Liddesdale (Cdr. A.G. West, RN), HMS Avon Vale (Lt.Cdr. P.A.R. Withers, DSO, RN) and HMS Quantock (Lt.Cdr. D.J.A. Heber-Percy, RN).
At 1050/25 this destoyer screen was replaced by the original three destroyers that had escorted Prince of Wales out of Rosyth.
Early in the evening of the 25th Prince of Wales entered Scapa Flow.
For the daily positions of HMS Prince of Wales during these trials see the map below.
29 Mar 1941
HMS Prince of Wales (Capt. J.C. Leach, MVO, RN) conducted compass trials off Scapa Flow. During these trials she was escorted by the destroyers HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Whaddon (Lt.Cdr. P.G. Merriman, RN). (3)
31 Mar 1941
HMS Prince of Wales (Capt. J.C. Leach, MVO, RN) conducted full power trials off Scapa Flow. During these trials she was escorted by the destroyers HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN).
Following these trials she was placed in full commission. (3)
25 Apr 1941
HMS Prince of Wales (Capt. J.C. Leach, MVO, RN) conducted exercises off Scapa Flow. She was escorted by the destroyers HMS Arrow (Cdr. R.E. Hyde-Smith, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN). Prince of Wales also served briefly as target during gunnery exercises of the cruiser HMS Exeter (Capt. O.L. Gordon, MVO, RN). (4)
28 Apr 1941
The battlecruiser HMS Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.J. Whitworth, CB, DSO, RN) departed Hvalfjord, Iceland around 2200 hours to provide cover for the convoys SC 29 and HX 122 during their mid-ocean passage from Canada to the U.K. HMS Hood was being escorted by the destroyers HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN), HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. Viscount Jocelyn, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN). (5)
3 May 1941
HMS Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.J. Whitworth, CB, DSO, RN) and her escorting destroyers; HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN), HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. Viscount Jocelyn, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) are ordered to proceed to Scapa Flow but before doing so they put into Reykjavik to fuel (HMS Echo fuelled at Hvalfjord).
4 May 1941
HMS Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.J. Whitworth, CB, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. Viscount Jocelyn, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) departed Reykjavik, Iceland around 1800 hours for Scapa Flow. They were joined at sea by HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN).
6 May 1941
Around 1300 hours, the battlecruiser HMS Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.J. Whitworth, CB, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN), HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. Viscount Jocelyn, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) arrived at Scapa Flow.
18 May 1941
Chase and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, 18 to 27 May 1941.
Departure of the Bismarck from the Baltic.
At 2130B/18 the German battleship Bismarck and the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen departed Gotenhafen for an anti-shipping raid in the North Atlantic. The following morning they were joined off Cape Arkona by the German destroyers Z 16 / Friedrich Eckhold and Z 23. They then proceeded through the Great Belt. The four ships were joined by a third destroyer, Z 10 / Hans Lody shortly before midnight on 19 May.
First reports of Bismarck and British dispositions 20-21 May 1941.
On 20 May 1941 two large warships with a strong escort were seen at 1500 hours northward out of the Kattegat. This information originated from the Swedish cruiser Gotland which had passed the Germans off the Swedish coast in the morning. The Naval Attaché at Stockholm received the news at 2100/20 and forwarded it to the Admiralty. At 0900/21 the Bismarck and her consorts entered Kors Fjord, near Bergen, Norway and anchored in nearby fiords. A reconnaissance aircraft flying over Bergen at 1330/21 reported having seen two Hipper class heavy cruisers there. One of these ships was later identified on a photograph as being the Bismarck. This intelligence went out at once to the Home Fleet.
The ships of the Home Fleet were at this time widely dispersed on convoy duties, patrols, etc. Some of the units were ranging as far as Gibraltar and Freetown. The Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir John Tovey, was at Scapa Flow in his flagship, HMS King George V (Capt. W.R. Patterson, CVO, RN). With him were her newly commissioned sister ship HMS Prince of Wales (Capt. J.C. Leach, MVO, RN), the battlecruiser HMS Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN, with Vice-Admiral L.E. Holland, CB, RN, onboard), the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (Capt. H.C. Bovell, RN), the light cruisers HMS Galatea (Capt. E.W.B. Sim, RN), HMS Aurora (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN), HMS Kenya (Capt. M.M. Denny, CB, RN), HMS Neptune (Capt. R.C. O'Conor, RN) and the destroyers HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. Viscount Jocelyn, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Antelope (Lt.Cdr. R.B.N. Hicks, DSO, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN), HMS Echo (Lt.Cdr. C.H.deB. Newby, RN), HMS Electra (Cdr. C.W. May, RN), HMS Icarus (Lt.Cdr. C.D. Maud, DSO, RN), HMS Punjabi (Cdr. S.A. Buss, MVO, RN) and HMAS Nestor (Cdr. A.S. Rosenthal, RAN). HMS Victorious was under orders to escort troop convoy WS 8B from the Clyde to the Middle East.
Rear-Admiral W.F. Wake-Walker (commanding the first Cruiser Squadron), with the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk (Capt. A.J.L. Phillips, RN) (flag) and HMS Suffolk (Capt. R.M. Ellis, RN) was on patrol in the Denmark Straight. The light cruisers HMS Manchester (Capt. H.A. Packer, RN) and HMS Birmingham (Capt. A.C.G. Madden, RN) were patrolling between Iceland and the Faeroes. The battlecruiser HMS Repulse (Capt. W.G. Tennant, CB, MVO, RN) was at the Clyde to escort troop convoy WS 8B.
Action taken by the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet
Admiral Tovey took the following action when he received the news the Bismarck had been spotted at Bergen. Vice-Admiral Holland with the Hood, Prince of Wales, Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra and Icarus was ordered to cover Rear Admiral Wake-Walker's cruisers in the Denmark Straight. His force departed Scapa Flow around 0100/22.
HMS Arethusa (Capt. A.C. Chapman, RN), which was taking the Vice-Admiral, Orkneys and Shetlands, to Reykjavik on a visit of inspection, was ordered to remain at Hvalfiord and placed at Rear-Admiral Wake-Walkers disposal. HMS Manchester and HMS Birmingham were ordered to top off with fuel at Skaalefiord and them to resume their patrol. The other ships that remained at Scapa Flow were brought to short notice for steam.
The Free French submarine FFS Minerve (Lt. P.M. Sonneville), which was on patrol off south-west Norway was ordered to proceed to position 61°53'N, 03°15'E and HMS P 31 (Lt. J.B.de B. Kershaw, RN) was ordered to proceed to position 62°08'N, 05°08'E which is to the west of Stadtlandet.
The sailing of HMS Repulse and HMS Victorious with troop convoy WS 8B was cancelled and the ships were placed at the disposal of Admiral Tovey.
A reconnaissance aircraft flying over Bergen reported that the German ships were gone. This information reached Admiral Tovey at 2000/22. HMS Suffolk which had been fuelling at Hvalfiord was ordered to rejoin HMS Norfolk in the Denmark Strait. HMS Arethusa was ordered to join HMS Manchester and HMS Birmingham to form a patrol line between Iceland and the Faeroes. Vice-Admiral Holland, on his way to Iceland was told to cover the patrols in Denmark Strait north of 62°N. Admiral Tovey would cover the patrols south of 62°N.
Commander-in-Chief leaves Scapa Flow on 22 May 1941
The King George V, with Admiral Tovey on board, departed Scapa Flow at 2245/22. With the King George V sailed, HMS Victorious, HMS Galatea, HMS Aurora, HMS Kenya, HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, RN), HMS Windsor (Lt.Cdr. J.M.G. Waldegrave, DSC, RN), HMS Active, HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Intrepid (Cdr. R.C. Gordon, DSO, RN), HMS Punjabi, HMS Lance (Lt.Cdr. R.W.F. Northcott, RN) and HMAS Nestor. HMS Lance however had to return to Scapa Flow due to defects.
At A.M. 23 May they were joined off the Butt of Lewis by HMS Repulse escorted by HMS Legion (Cdr. R.F. Jessel, RN), HMCS Assiniboine (A/Lt.Cdr. J.H. Stubbs, RCN) and HMCS Saguenay (Lt. P.E. Haddon, RCN) coming from the Clyde area.
The Commander-in-Chief was 230 miles north-west of the Butt of Lewis in approximate position 60°20'N, 12°30'W when at 2032/23 a signal came in from HMS Norfolk that she had sighted the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait.
HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk made contact with the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait on 23 May 1941.
At 1922/23 HMS Suffolk sighted the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in position 67°06'N, 24°50'W. They were proceeding to the south-west skirting the edge of the ice in Denmark Strait. HMS Suffolk immediately sent out an enemy report and made for the mist to the south-east. HMS Norfolk then commenced closing and sighted the enemy at 2030 hours. They were only some six nautical miles off and the Bismarck opened fire. HMS Norfolk immediately turned away, was not hit and also sent out an enemy report.
Although HMS Suffolk had sighted the enemy first and also sent the first contact report this was not received by the Commander-in-Chief. The enemy was 600 miles away to the north-westward.
Vice-Admiral Holland had picked up the signal from the Suffolk. He was at that moment about 300 nautical miles away. Course was changed to intercept and speed was increased by his force to 27 knots.
Dispositions, 23 May 1941.
At the Admiralty, when the Norfolk's signal came in, one of the first considerations was to safeguard the convoys at sea. At this time there were eleven crossing the North-Atlantic, six homeward and five outward bound. The most important convoy was troop convoy WS 8B of five ships which had left the Clyde the previous day for the Middle East. She was at this moment escorted by the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (Capt. O.L. Gordon, MVO, RN), light cruiser (AA cruiser) HMS Cairo (A/Capt. I.R.H. Black, RN) and the destroyers HMS Cossack (Capt. P.L. Vian, DSO, RN), HMS Maori (Cdr. G.H. Stokes, DSC, RN), HMS Zulu (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN), ORP Piorun (Cdr. E.J.S. Plawski), HMCS Ottawa (Cdr. E.R. Mainguy, RCN), HMCS Restigouche (Lt.Cdr. H.N. Lay, RCN) and the escort destroyer HMS Eridge (Lt.Cdr. W.F.N. Gregory-Smith, RN). HMS Repulse was also intended to have sailed with this convoy but she had joined the Commander-in-Chief instead.
Force H was sailed around 0200/24 from Gibraltar to protect this important convoy on the passage southwards. Force H was made up of the battlecruiser HMS Renown (Capt Sir R.R. McGrigor, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. L.E.H. Maund, RN), light cruiser HMS Sheffield (Capt. C.A.A. Larcom, RN) and the destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Foresight (Cdr. J.S.C. Salter, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. G.H. Peters, DSC, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN) and HMS Hesperus (Lt.Cdr. A.A. Tait, RN).
HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk shadowing Bismarck 23 / 24 May 1941.
During the night of 23 / 24 May 1941 HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk hung on to the enemy, The Norfolk on their port quarter, Suffolk on their starboard quarter. All through the night they sent signals with updates on the position, course and speed of the enemy. At 0516 hours HMS Norfolk sighted smoke on her port bow and soon HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales came in sight.
HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales 23 / 24 May 1941.
At 2054/23 the four remaining escorting destroyers were ordered to follow at best speed in the heavy seas if they were unable to keep up with the capital ships which were proceeding at 27 knots. Two destroyers, HMS Antelope and HMS Anthony had been ordered to proceed to Iceland to refuel at 1400/23. The destroyers all managed to keep up for now and at 2318 hours they were ordered to form a screen ahead of both capital ships. At 0008/24 speed was reduced to 25 knots and course was altered to due north at 0017 hours. It was expected that contact with the enemy would be made at any time after 0140/24. It was just now that the cruisers lost contact with the enemy in a snowstorm and for some time no reports were coming in. At 0031 hours the Vice-Admiral signalled to the Prince of Wales that if the enemy was not in sight by 0210 hours he would probably alter course to 180° until the cruisers regained touch. He also signalled that he intended to engage the Bismarck with both capital ships and leave the Prinz Eugen to Norfolk and Suffolk.
The Prince of Wales' Walrus aircraft was ready for catapulting and it was intended to fly it off, but visibility deteriorated and in the end it was defuelled and stowed away at 0140 hours. A signal was then passed to the destroyers that when the capital ships would turn to the south they were to continue northwards searching for the enemy. Course was altered to 200° at 0203/24. As there was now little chance of engaging the enemy before daylight the crews were allowed to rest.
At 0247/24 HMS Suffolk regained touch with the enemy and by 0300 hours reports were coming in again. At 0353 hours HMS Hood increased speed to 28 knots and at 0400/24 the enemy was estimated to be 20 nautical miles to the north-west. By 0430 hours visibility had increased to 12 nautical miles. At 0440 hours orders were given to refuel the Walrus of HMS Prince of Wales but due to delays due to water in the fuel it was not ready when the action began and it was damaged by splinters and eventuelly jettisoned into the sea.
At 0535/24 hours a vessel was seen looming on the horizon to the north-west, it was the Bismarck. She was some 17 nautical miles away bearing 330°. Prinz Eugen was ahead of her but this was not immediately realised and as the silhoutte of the German ships was almost similar the leading ship was most likely thought to be the Bismarck on board HMS Hood.
Battle of the Denmark Strait, action with the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. Loss of HMS Hood.
At 0537/24 HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were turned together 40° to starboard towards the enemy. At 0549 hours course was altered to 300° and the left hand ship was designated as the target. This was a mistake as this was the Prinz Eugen and not the Bismarck. This was changed to the Bismarck just before fire was opened at 0552 hours. At 0554 hours the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen also opened fire. In the meantime Prince of Wales had also opened fire at 0053 hours. Her first salvo was over. The sixth salvo was a straddle. The Norfolk and Suffolk were too far astern of the enemy to take part in the action.
At 0555 hours Hood and Prince of Wales turned two points to port. This opened up Prince of Wales' A arcs as her ninth salvo was fired.
Shortly before 0605 hours Hood signalled that another turn of two points to port had to be executed. Bismarck had just fired her fifth salvo when the Hood was rent in two by a huge explosion rising apparently between the after funnel and the mainmast. The fore part began to sink seperately, bows up, whilst the after part remained shrouded in a pall of smoke. Three or four minutes later, the Hood had vanished between the waves leaving a vast cloud of smoke drifting away to the leeward. She sank in position 63°20'N, 31°50'W (the wreck was found in 2001 in approximate position 63°22'N, 32°17'W, the exact position has not been released to the public.)
The Prince of Wales altered course to starboard to avoid the wreckage of the Hood. The Bismarck now shifted fire from her main and secondary armament to her. Range was now 18000 yards. Within a very short time she was hit by four 15" and three 6" shells. At 0602 hours a large projectile wrecked the bridge, killing or wounding most of the personnel and about the same time the ship was holed underwater aft. It was decided temporarily to discontinue the action and at 0613 hours HMS Prince of Wales turned away behind a smoke screen. The after turret continued to fire but it soon malfunctioned and was out of action until 0825 hours. When the Prince of Wales ceased firing the range was 14500 yards. She had fired 18 salvos from the main armament and five from the secondary. The Bismarck made no attempt to follow or continue the action. She had also not escaped unscatched and had sustained two severe hits.
Such was the end of the brief engagement. The loss by an unlucky hit of HMS Hood with Vice-Admiral Holland, Captain Kerr and almost her entire ships company was a grievous blow, but a great concentration of forces was gathering behind the Commander-in-Chief, and Admiral Somerville with Force H was speeding towards him from the south.
When the Hood blew up, HMS Norfolk was 15 nautical miles to the northward coming up at 28 knots. By 0630/24 she was approaching HMS Prince of Wales and Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker, signalling his intention to keep in touch, told her to follow at best speed. The destroyers that had been with HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were still to the northward. They were ordered to search for survivors but only HMS Electra found three. The Prince of Wales reported that she could do 27 knots and she was told to open out to 10 nautical miles on a bearing of 110° so that HMS Norfolk could fall back on her if she was attacked. Far off the Prinz Eugen could be seen working out to starboard of the Bismarck while the chase continued to the southward.
At 0757 hours, HMS Suffolk reported that the Bismarck had reduced speed and that she appeared to be damaged. Shortly afterwards a Sunderland that had taken off from Iceland reported that the Bismarck was leaving behind a broad track of oil. The Commander-in-Chief with HMS King George V was still a long way off, about 360 nautical miles to the eastward, and Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker on the bridge of HMS Norfolk had to make an important decision, was he to renew the action with the help of the Prince of Wales or was he to make it his business to ensure that the enemy could be intercepted and brought to action by the Commander-in-Chief. A dominant consideration in the matter was the state of the Prince of Wales. Her bridge had been wrecked, she had 400 tons of water in her stern compartments and two of her guns were unserverable and she could go no more then 27 knots. She had only been commissioned recently and barely a week had passed since Captain Leach had reported her ready for service. Her turrets were of a new and an untried model, liable for 'teething' problems and evidently suffering from them, for at the end of the morning her salvoes were falling short and wide. It was doubted if she was a match for the Bismarck in her current state and it was on these grounds that Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker decided that he would confine himself to shadowing and that he would not attempt to force on an action. Soon after 1100/24 visibility decreased and the Bismarck was lost out of sight in mist and rain.
Measures taken by the Admiralty, 24 May 1941.
After the loss of HMS Hood the following measures were taken by the Admiralty. To watch for an attempt by the enemy to return to Germany, HMS Manchester, HMS Birmingham and HMS Arethusa had been ordered at 0120/24 to patrol off the north-east point of Iceland. They were told to proceed to this location with all despatch.
HMS Rodney (Capt. F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton, RN), which with four destroyers was escorting the troopship Britannic (26943 GRT, built 1930) westward, was ordered at 1022/24 to steer west on a closing course and if the Britannic could not keep up she was to leave her with one of the destroyers. Rodney was about 550 nautical miles south-east of the Bismarck. At 1200/24 she left the Britannic in position 55°15'N, 22°25'W and left HMS Eskimo (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Le Geyt, RN) with her. Rodney then proceeded with HMS Somali (Capt. C. Caslon, RN), HMS Tartar (Cdr. L.P. Skipwith, RN) and HMS Mashona (Cdr. W.H. Selby, RN) westwards on a closing course.
Two other capital ships were in the Atlantic; HMS Ramillies (Capt. A.D. Read, RN) and HMS Revenge (Capt. E.R. Archer, RN). The Ramillies was escorting convoy HX 127 from Halifax and was some 900 nautical miles south of the Bismarck. She was ordered at 1144/24 to place herself to the westward of the enemy and leaving her convoy at 1212/24 in position 46°25'N, 35°24'W, she set course to the north. HMS Revenge was ordered to leave Halifax and close the enemy.
Light cruiser HMS Edinburgh (Capt. C.M. Blackman, DSO, RN) was patrolling in the Atlantic between 44°N and 46°N for German merchant shipping and was ordered at 1250/24 to close the enemy and take on relief shadower. At 1430/24 she reported her position as 44°17'N, 23°56'W and she was proceeding on course 320° at 25 knots.
Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker was ordered to continue shadowing even if he ran short of fuel so to bring the Commander-in-Chief into action.
The Bismack turns due south at 1320 hours on 24 May 1941.
In the low state of visibility, HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk had to be constantly on the alert against the enemy falling back and attacking them. At 1320/24 the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen altered course to the south and reduced speed. HMS Norfolk sighted them through the rain at a range of only 8 nautical miles. Norfolk had to quickly turn away under the cover of a smoke screen.
It was at 1530/24 when HMS Norfolk received a signal made by the Commander-in-Chief at 0800/24 from which it was estimated that the Commander-in-Chief would be near the enemy at 0100/25. This was later changed to 0900/25.
At 1545/24, Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker was asked by the Admiralty to answer four questions; 1) State the remaining percentage of the Bismarck's fighting efficiency. 2) What amout of ammunition had the Bismarck expended. 3) What are the reasons for the frequent alterations of course by the Bismarck. 4) What are your intentions as regards to the Prince of Wales' re-engaging the Bismarck.
The answers by Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker were as follows. 1) Uncertain but high. 2) About 100 rounds. 3) Unaccountable except as an effort to shake off HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. 4) Consider it wisely for HMS Prince of Wales to not re-engage the Bismarck until other capital ships are in contact, unless interception failed. Doubtful if she has the speed to force an action.
The afternoon drew on towards evening. Still the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen held on to the south while the Norfolk, Suffolk and Prince of Wales were still keeping her in sight.
At 1711/24 in order to delay the enemy if possible, by attacking him from astern, the Prince of Wales was stationed ahead of the Norfolk. The enemy was not in sight from the Norfolk at that time, but the Suffolk was still in contact.
At 1841/24 the Bismarck opened fire on the Suffolk. Her salvoes fell short, but one or two shorts came near enough to cause some minor damage to her hull plating aft. HMS Suffolk replied with nine broadsides before turning away behind a smoke screen.
On seeing the Suffolk being attacked, HMS Norfolk turned towards and she and HMS Prince of Wales opened fire, the latter firing 12 salvoes. By 1856 hours the action was over. Two of the guns on the Prince of Wales malfuntioned again. After the action the cruisers started to zig-zag due to fear for German submarines.
British dispositions at 1800 hours on 24 May 1941.
From the Admiralty at 2025/24, there went out a signal summarising the situation at 1800/24. The position, course and speed of the Bismarck was given as 59°10'N, 36°00'W, 180°, 24 knots with HMS Norfolk, HMS Suffolk and HMS Prince of Wales still in touch. The Commander-in-Chiefs estimated position at 1800/24 was 58°N, 30°W, with HMS King George V and HMS Repulse. HMS Victorious was with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron (HMS Galatea, HMS Aurora, HMS Kenya, HMS Neptune). They had parted company with the Commander-in-Chief at 1509/24. Heavy cruiser HMS London (Capt. R.M. Servaes, CBE, RN) was in position 42°45'N, 20°10'W and had been ordered to leave her convoy and close the enemy. HMS Ramillies was in estimated position 45°45'N, 35°40'W. She had been ordered to place herself to the west of the enemy. HMS Manchester, HMS Birmingham and HMS Arethusa were returning from their position off the north-east of Iceland to refuel. HMS Revenge had left Halifax and was closing convoy HX 128. HMS Edinburgh was in approximate position 45°15'N, 25°10'W. She had been ordered to close and take over stand by shadower.
Evening of 24 May 1941.
At 2031/24 HMS Norfolk received a signal sent by the Commander-in-Chief at 1455/24 stating that aircraft from HMS Victorious might make an attack at 2200/24 and Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker now waited for an air attack which he expected at 2300 hours. By that time Bismarck had been lost from sight but at 2330/24 HMS Norfolk briefly sighted her at a distance of 13 nautical miles. At 2343/24 aircraft from HMS Victorious were seen approaching. They circled round HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Norfolk and the latter was able to direct them to the enemy. At 0009/25 heavy anti-aircraft gunfire was seen and the Bismarck was just visible as the aircraft attacked.
HMS Victorious and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron detached by the Commander-in-Chief.
At 1440/24 the Commander-in-Chief ordered the 2nd Cruiser Squadron (HMS Galatea, HMS Aurora, HMS Kenya, HMS Hermione) and HMS Victorious to a position within 100 nautical miles from Bismarck and to launch a torpedo bombing attack and maintain contact as long as possible. The object of the torpedo bombing attack was to slow the enemy down. On board the Victorious were only 12 Swordfish torpedo bombers and 6 Fulmar fighters. Victorious was only recently commissioned and her crew was still rather green. She had on board a large consignment of crated Hurricane fighters for Malta which were to be delivered to Gibraltar.
At 2208/24 HMS Victorious commenced launching 9 Swordfish in position 58°58'N, 33°17'E. Two minutes later al were on their way to find the Bismarck. The Squadron was led by Lt.Cdr.(A) E. Esmonde, RN.
HMS Victorious aircraft attack the Bismarck.
When the Swordfish took off from HMS Victorious the Bismarck was estimated to be in position 57°09'N, 36°44'W and was steering 180°, speed 24 knots. At 2330/24 they sighted the Bismarck but contact was lost in the bad weater. Shortly afterwards the Swordfish sighted HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. HMS Norfolk guided them to the enemy which was 14 nautical miles on her starboard bow. At 2350 hours a vessel was detected ahead and the squadron broke cloud to deliver an attack. To their surprise they found themselves over a United States Coastguard cutter. The Bismarck was 6 nautical miles to the southward and on sighting the aircraft opened up a heavy barrage fire. Lt.Cdr. Esmonde pressed home his attack, 8 of the Swordfish were able to attack, the other had lost contact in the clouds.
The 8 planes attacked with 18" torpedoes, fitted with Duplex pistols set for 31 feet. At midnight three Swordfish attacked simultaneously on the port beam. Three others made a longer approach low down attacking on the port bow a minute later. One took a longer course, attacking on the port quarter. One went round and attacked on the starboard bow a couple of minutes after midnight. At least one hit was claimed on the starboard side abreast the bridge. The Germans however state that no hit was scored but that the violent maneuvering of the ship to avoid the attack, together with the heavy firing by the Bismarck caused the leak in no.2 boiler room to open up. No.2 boiler room was already partially flooded and now had to be abandoned.
All Swordfish from the striking had returned to HMS Victorious by 0201/25. Two Fulmars launched at 2300/24 for shadowing failed to find their ship in the darkness due to the failure of Victorious' homing beacon. Their crews were in the end picked up from the chilly water.
HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk loose contact at 0306/25.
While the aircraft from HMS Victorious were making their attack, HMS Norfolk sighted a ship to the south-west and gave the order to open fire. HMS Prince of Wales was able to identify it in time as an American coast guard cutter, but in the movements prepartory to opening fire HMS Norfolk lost touch with the enemy for a time and it was not until 0116/25 that she suddenly sighted the Bismarck only 8 nautical miles away. There followed a brief exchange of fire. HMS Norfolk and HMS Prince of Wales turned to port to bring their guns to bear and the latter was ordered to engage. It was then 0130/25. The Prince of Wales fired two salvoes at 20000 yards by radar. The Bismarck answered with two salvoes which fell a long way short. The light was failing and the enemy was again lost to sight. HMS Suffolk, which had to most reliable RDF set was told to act independently so as to keep in touch.
Around 0306/25 the Suffolk lost touch with the Bismarck. At 0552/25 Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker asked if HMS Victorious could launch aircraft for a search at dawn.
Search measures, 25 May 1941.
With the disappearance of the Bismarck at 0306/25 the first phase of the pursuit ended. The Commander-in-Chief, in HMS King George V with HMS Repulse in company was then about 115 nautical miles to the south-east. At 0616/25, Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker signalled that it was most probable that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen made a 90° turn to the west or turned back and 'cut away' to the eastward astern of the cruisers. Suffolk was already searching to the south-west and Norfolk was waiting for daylight to do the same. Prince of Wales was ordered to join the King George V and Repulse.
Force H was still on a course to intercept the Bismarck while steaming on at 24 knots. The Rear-Admiral commanding the 2nd Cruiser Squadron in HMS Galatea had altered course at 0558/25 to 180° for the position where the enemy was last seen and the Victorious was getting 8 aircraft ready to fly off at 0730/25 for a search to the eastward. This plan however was altered on orders being recieved from the Commander-in-Chief to take the cruisers and Victorious and carry out a search to the north-west of the Bismarck's last reported position. Five Fulmars had already been up during the night, two of them had not returned to the ship. The search therefore had to be undertaken by Swordfish, the only aircraft available. At 0810/25, seven Swordfish were flown off from position 56°18'N, 36°28'W to search between 280° and 040° up to 100 nautical miles. The search was supplemented by Victorious herself as well as the cruisers from the 2nd Cruiser Squadron (Galatea, Aurora, Kenya and Hermione) which were spread some miles apart.
DF position of the Bismarck of 0852/25.
HMS King George V was still proceeding to the south-west when at 1030/25 the Commander-in-Chief recieved a signal from the Admiralty that the Bismarck's position had been obtained by DF (direction finding) and that it indicated that the Bismarck was on a course for the North Sea by the Faeroes-Iceland passage. To counter this move by the enemy the Commander-in-Chief turned round at 1047/25 and made for the Faeroes-Iceland passage at 27 knots. HMS Repulse was no longer in company with HMS King George V, she had been detached at 0906/25 for Newfoundland to refuel. Suffolk also turned to the eastward to search, her search to the south-west had been fruitless. The search by HMS Victorious, her aircraft and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron to the north-west also had no result. Six Swordfish were landed on by 1107/25, one failed to return. HMS Galatea, HMS Aurora and HMS Kenya now turned towards the DF position of the Bismarck to search in that direction. HMS Hermione had to be detached to Hvalfiord, Iceland to refuel as she was by now down to 40%. The other cruisers slowed down to 20 knots to economise their remaining fuel supply wich was also getting low. At this moment HMS King George V had about 60% remaining.
Events during 25 May 1941.
At 1100/25, HMS King George V, HMS Suffolk and HMS Prince of Wales were proceeding to the north-east in the direction of the enemy's DF signal. HMS Rodney was in position 52°34'N, 29°23'W some 280 nautical miles to the south-eastward on the route towards the Bay of Biscay. On receiving the Commander-in-Chiefs signal of 1047/25 she too proceeded to the north-east.
Meanwhile to Admiralty had come to the conclusion that the Bismarck most likely was making for Brest, France. This was signalled to the Commander-in-Chief at 1023/25 to proceed together with Force H and the 1st Cruiser Squadron on that assumption.
In the absence however of definite reports it was difficult to be certain of the position of the enemy. The DF bearings in the morning had not been very definite. At 1100/25, HMS Renown (Force H), was in position 41°30'N, 17°10'W was ordered to act on the assumption the enemy was making for Brest, France. She shaped course accordingly and prepared a comprehensive sheme of air search. At 1108/25, HMS Rodney, was told to act on the assumption that the enemy was making for the Bay of Biscay. At 1244/25 the Flag Officer Submarines ordered six submarines to take up intercepting positions about 120 nautical miles west of Brest. The submarines involved were HMS Sealion (Cdr. B. Bryant, DSC, RN), HMS Seawolf (Lt. P.L. Field, RN), HMS Sturgeon (Lt.Cdr. D. St. Clair-Ford, RN) from the 5th Submarine Flottilla at Portsmouth, HMS Pandora (Lt.Cdr. J.W. Linton, DSC, RN), which was on passage to the U.K. from the Mediterranean to refit, HMS Tigris (Lt.Cdr. H.F. Bone, DSO, DSC, RN), from the 3rd Submarine Flottilla at Holy Loch and HMS H 44 (Lt. W.N.R. Knox, DSC, RN), a training boat from the 7th Submarine Flotilla at Rothesay which happened to be at Holyhead. Seawolf, Sturgeon and Tigris were already on patrol in the Bay of Biscay, Sealion departed Portsmouth on the 25th as did H 44 but she sailed from Holyhead. Pandora was on passage to the U.K. to refit and was diverted.
At 1320/25 a good DF fix located an enemy unit within a 50 mile radius from position 55°15'N, 32°00'W. This was sent by the Admiralty to the Commander-in-Chief at 1419/25 and it was received at 1530/25. It was only in the evening that it was finally clear to all involved that Bismarck was indeed making for a French port. Air searches had failed to find her during the day. (6)
18 May 1941
Chase and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, 18 to 27 May 1941.
26 May 1941.
By now the question of fuel was becoming acute. For four days ships had been steaming at high speeds and the Commander-in-Chief was faced with the reality of fuel limits. HMS Repulse had already left for Newfoundland, HMS Prince of Wales had by now been sent to Iceland to refuel. HMS Victorious and HMS Suffolk had been forced to reduce speed to economise their fuel.
Coastal Command started air searches along the route towards the Bay of Biscay by long range Catalina flying boats. Lack of fuel was effecting the destroyer screens of the capital ships. There was no screen available for HMS Victorious. The 4th Destroyer Flotilla, escorting troop convoy WS 8B, was ordered at 0159/26 to join the Commander-in-Chief in HMS King George V and HMS Rodney as was HMS Jupiter (Lt.Cdr. N.V.J.P. Thew, RN) which sailed from Londonderry. Leaving the convoy the 4th D.F. proceeded to the north-east. Force H in the meantime was also approaching the immediate area of operations. These forces were to play an important part in the final stages of the chase of the Bismarck.
Force H, 26 May 1941.
HMS Renown, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Sheffield were having a rough passage north in heavy seas, high wind, rain and mist. Their escorting destroyers had already turned back towards Gibraltar at 0900/25. At dawn on the 26th there was half a gale blowing from the north-west. At 0716/26 HMS Ark Royal launched a security patrol in position 48°26'N, 19°13'W to search to the north and to the west just in case the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had departed Brest to come to the aid of the Bismarck. At 0835/26 there followed an A/S patrol of ten Swordfish. All planes had returned by 0930. None had seen anything.
Bismarck sighted at 1030/26.
It was at 1030/26 that one of the long range Catalina's of the Coastal Command sighted the Bismarck in position 49°30'N, 21°55'W. It was received in HMS King George V at 1043 hours and in HMS Renown in 1038 hours. It placed the enemy well to the westward of the Renown. It was confirmed within the hour when two Swordfish from the Ark Royal which reported the Bismarck in position 49°19'N, 20°52'W some 25 miles east of the position given by the Catalina. The Commander-in-Chief was at that moment about 130 miles to the north of the Bismarck but it was soon clear that the Bismarck had too great a lead to permit her being overtaken unless her speed could be reduced. Nor was the question one merely of distance and speed. The Bismarck was approaching a friendly coast and could run her fuel tanks nearly dry and was sure of air protection, while the British ships would have a long journey back to base in the face of air and submarine attack. HMS Renown was ahead of the Bismarck but it was important that she did not engage the Bismarck unless the latter was already heavily engaged by the better armoured HMS King George V and HMS Rodney.
When the Catalina found the Bismarck at 1030 hours, the 4th Destroyer Flotilla was steering east to join the Commander-in-Chief. They seem to have crossed astern of the enemy's track about 0800/26. The Catalina's report reached Capt. Vian in HMS Cossack at 1054/26 and 'knowing that the Commander-in-Chief would order him to intercept the enemy' Capt. Vian altered course to the south-east.
First attack by aircraft from the Ark Royal.
At 1315/26 HMS Sheffield was detached to the southward with orders to close and shadow the enemy, who was estimated to be 40 nautical miles south-west of the Renown. The visual signal ordering this movement was not repeated to HMS Ark Royal, an omission which had serious consequenses for the aircraft that were to take off did not know that HMS Sheffield had parted company.
At 1450/26 HMS Ark Royal launched a striking force of 14 Swordfish aircraft with the orders to proceed to the south and attack the Bismarck with torpedoes. Weather and cloud conditions were bad and a radar contact was obtained on a ship some 20 nautical miles from the estimated position of the enemy that had been given to the leader shortly before takeoff. At 1550 hours they broke through the clouds and fired 11 torpedoes. Unfortunately the supposed enemy was HMS Sheffield which managed to avoid all torpedoes. The Bismarck at that time was some 15 nautical miles to the southward. The striking force then returned an all aircraft had landed on by 1720/26.
At 1740/26, HMS Sheffield, sighted the Bismarck in position 48°30'N, 17°20'W and took station about 10 nautical miles astern and commenced shadowing the enemy.
Ark Royal's second attack, 2047/26.
The first striking force on its way back sighted the 4th Destroyer Flotilla 20 nautical miles west of Force H. As soon as the aircraft from the first strike had landed they were refuelled and rearmed as fast as possible. Take off started at 1910/26, a total of 15 Swordfish were launched. Reports coming in from HMS Sheffield placed the Bismarck at 167°, 38 nautical miles from the Ark Royal. The striking force was ordered to contact HMS Sheffield who was told to use DF to guide them in.
At 1955/26 HMS Sheffield was sighted but soon lost in the bad weather conditions. She was found again at 2035 hours, she guided the Swordfish in and directed them by visual signal on the enemy bearing 110°, 12 nautical miles. The force took departure for the target in subflights in line astern at 2040/26.
At 2047/26 no.1 subflight of three Swordfish dived through the clouds and sighted the Bismarck 4 nautical miles off to the south-east. One Swordfish of no.3 subflight was with them. Approaching again just inside the cloud they made their final dive at 2053/26 on the port beam under a very intense and accurate fire from the enemy. They dropped four torpedoes of which one was seen to hit. No.2 subflight, made up of two Swordfish, lost touch with no.1 subflight in the clouds, climed to 9000 feet, then dived on a bearing obtained by radar and then attacked from the starboard beam, again under heavy and intense fire. They dropped two torpedoes for one possible hit. The third plane of this subflight had lost touch with the other two and had returned to HMS Sheffield to obtained another range and bearing to the enemy. It then flew ahead of the enemy and carried out a determined attack from his port bow under heavy fire and obtained a torpedo hit on the port side amidships.
Subflight no.4 followed subflight no.3 into the clouds but got iced up at 6600 feet. It then dived through the clouds and was joined by no.2 aircraft from subflight no.3. The Bismarck was then sighted engaging subflight no.2 to starboard. The four aircraft then went into the clouds and cicled the German battleships stern and then dived out of the clouds again and attack simultaneously from the port side firing four torpedoes. All however missed the Bismarck. They came under a very heavy and fierce fire from the enemy and one of the aircraft was heavily damaged, the pilot and air gunner being wounded.
The two aircraft of subflight no.5 lost contact with the other subflights and then with each other in the cloud. They climbed to 7000 feet where ice began to form. When coming out of the cloud at 1000 feet aircraft 4K sighted the Bismarck down wind, she then went back into the cloud under fire from the enemy. She saw a torpedo hit on the enemy's starboard side, reached a position on the starboard bow, withdrew to 5 miles, then came in just above the sea and just outside 1000 yards fired a torpedo which did not hit. The second plane of this flight lost his leader diving through the cloud, found himself on the starboard quarter and after two attempts to attack under heavy fire was forced to jettison his torpedo.
Of the two Swordfish of subflight no.6 one attacked the Bismarck on the starboard beam and dropped his torpedo at 2000 yards without success. The second plane lost the enemy, returned to the Sheffield for a new range and bearing and after searching at sea level attacked on the starboard beam but was driven off by intense fire. The attack was over by 2125/26. Thirteen torpedoes had been fired and it was thought two hits and one probable hit had been obtained. Two torpedoes were jettisoned. The severe nature and full effect of the damage done was at first not fully realised. Actually the Bismarck had received a deadly blow. The last of the shadowing aircraft to return had seen her make two complete circles. One torpedo had struck her on the port side amidships doing little damage but th other torpedo that hit was on the starboard quarter damaging her propellors, wrecking her steering gear and jambing her rudders, it was this torpedo hit that sealed her fate.
HMS Sheffield was still shadowing astern when at 2140/26 the Bismarck turned to port and fired six accurate salvoes of 15". None actually hit Sheffield but a near miss killed three men and seriously injured two. HMS Sheffield turned away and while doing so she sighted HMS Cossack and the other destroyers from the 4th DF approaching from the westward. She then gave them the approximate position of the Bismarck. At 2155/26, HMS Sheffield lost touch with the Bismarck. The destroyers continued to shadow and eventually attack. Meanwhile HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal shaped course for the southward to keep the road clear for the Commander-in-Chief in HMS King George V and for HMS Rodney. Also in the Ark Royal aircraft were being got ready for an attack on the Bismarck at dawn.
Bismarck, 26 May 1941.
The Bismarck could no longer steer after the torpedo hit aft. The steering motor room was flooded up to the main deck and the rudders were jambed. Divers went down to the steering room and managed to centre one rudder but the other remained immovable. She was by this time urgently in need of fuel. It was hoped by the Germans that while she was nearing the French coast strong forces of aircraft and submarines would come to her assistance.
At 2242/26, Bismarck sighted the British destroyers. A heavy fire was opened on them. Their appearence greatly complicated the situation. Before their arrival however, Admiral Lütjens seems to have made up his mind as one hour earlier he had signalled to Berlin 'ship out of control. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.'
The fourth Destroyer Flotilla makes contact, 26 May 1941.
Just as the sun was setting, Captain Vian (D.4) in HMS Cossack with HMS Maori, HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu and the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun arrived on the scene.
Shortly after 1900/26 HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal were sighted to the northward. Ark Royal was just about to fly off the second striking force. The destroyers continued on the the south-east. At 2152/26 HMS Sheffield was sighted and from her Captain Vian obtained the approximate position of the enemy.
The destroyers were spread 2.5 nautical miles apart on a line bearing 250° - 070° in the order from north-east to south-west, Piorun, Maori, Cossack, Sikh, Zulu. During the latter stages of the approach speed was reduced and the flotilla manoeuvred so as to avoid making a high speed end-on contact.
At 2238/26, ORP Piorun on the port wing reported the Bismarck 9 nautical miles distant, bearing 145° and steering to the south-eastward.
Destroyers shadowing, late on 26 May 1941.
At the time the Piorun reported being in contact with the Bismarck the destroyers were steering 120°. All were at once ordered to take up shadowing positions. Four minutes later the Bismarck opened a heavy fire with her main and secondary armaments on the Piorun and Maori. Two attempts were made by these ships to work round to the northward of the enemy but they were silhouetted against the north-western horizon making them easy to spot. The Bismarck's fire was unpleasantly accurate, through neither destroyer was actually hit. The Commanding Officer of the Maori then decided to work round to the southward and altered course accordingly.
The Piorun closed the range and herself opened fire from 13500 yards but after firing three salvoes, she was straddled by a salvo which fell about 20 yards from the ships side. She then ceased fire and turned away to port while making smoke. During this engagement she lost touch with the other destroyers and later also with the Bismarck. She remained under fire for about one hour but was not hit. She worked round to the north-east of the Bismarck but eventually lost touch with her prey at 2355/26.
The other destroyers, meanwhile, had been working round to the southward of the enemy to take up shadowing positions to the eastward of him. Soon after the initial contact it was evident the the Bismarck's speed had been so seriously reduced that interception by the battlefleet was certain, provided that contact could be held. In these circumstances Captain Vian defined his object at firstly, to deliver the enemy to the Commander-in-Chief at the time he desired, and secondly, to sink or immoblise her with torpedoes during the night but not with to great a risk for the destroyers. Accordingly at 2248/26 as signal was made to all ordering them to shadow and this operation was carried out through the night, though torpedo attacks were carried out later under the cover of darkness.
As darkness came on, the weather deteriorated and heavy rain squalls became frequent. Visibility varied between 2.5 nautical miles and half a mile but the Bismarck, presumably using radar, frequently opened up accurate fire outside these ranges.
About half an hour after sunset, the destroyers were ordered at 2324/26 to take up stations prepartory to carrying out a synchronised torpedo attack. This was subsequently cancelled on account of the adverse weather conditions and they were ordered to attack independently as opportunity offered. At about 2300 hours the Bismarck altered course to the north-westward.
At this time HMS Zulu was in touch with her and kept her under observation from the southward. At 2342 hours the Bismarck opened fire on HMS Cossack, then about 4 miles to the south-south-west and shot away her aerials. The Cossack turned away under the cover of smoke, shortly afterwards resuming her course to the eastward.
A few minutes later, at 2350 hours, HMS Zulu came under heavy fire from the Bismarck's 15" guns. The first three salvoes straddled wounding an officer and two ratings. Drastic avoiding action was taken as a result of which Zulu lost touch. HMS Sikh, however, who had lost sight of the enemy half an hour previously, had observed her firing at HMS Cossack and now succeeded in shadowing from astern until 0020/27 when the enemy made a large alteration to port and commenced firing at her. HMS Sikh altered course to port, intending to fire torpedoes, but the view of the Torpedo Control Officer was obscured by shell splashes and Sikh then withdrew to the southward.
Destroyer night torpedo attacks, 26/27 May 1941.
HMS Zulu, after her escape at 2345/26, had steered to the northward and at 0030/27 fell in with HMS Cossack. Shortly afterwards she sighted ORP Piorun. On receipt of a signal from Captain Vian, timed 0040/27, to take any opporunity to fire torpedoes, HMS Zulu altered course to the westward,and at 0100/27 sighted the Bismarck steering 340°.
Positions of the destroyers was now as follows; to the north-eastward of the enemy, HMS Cossack was working round to the north and west. HMS Maori, since losing touch, had been making to the westward. She was now to the south-west of the Bismarck. HMS Sikh was some distance to the southward, not having received any information regarding the position of the Bismarck since 0025/27. HMS Zulu was astern of the enemy and in contact. Range was only 5000 yards. Bismarck finally spotted Zulu and at once opened fire with her main and secondary armament and straddled Zulu. She fired four torpedoes at 0121/27 but no hits were observed and they are believed to have missed ahead. Zulu then ran out to the northward in order to be clear of the other destroyers. Shortly afterwards they widnessed a successful attack by HMS Maori.
HMS Maori had seen the Bismarck opening fire on the Zulu at 0107/27. Maori then closed to 4000 yards on Bismarck's port quarter apparently undetected. When abeam of the enemy, who then appeared to be altering course to starboard Maori fired a star shell to see what he was about. Two minutes later, at 0137/27, two torpedoes were fired and course was altered towards the Bismarck with the intention of attacking again from her starboard bow once the enemy had steadied on her new course. Whilst Maori was turning a torpedo hit was observed on the enemy. A bright glow illuminated the waterline of the enemy battleship from stem to stern. Shortly afterwards there appeared between the bridge and the stem a glare that might have been a second hit. The enemy immediately opened up a very heavy fire with both main and secondairy armaments and quick firing guns. As the Maori was being straddled, she turned away, and increased to full speed. Shots continued to fall on both sides of the ship until the range had been opened up to 10000 yards. Maori was not actually hit. Meanwhile HMS Cossack had been creeping up from the north-eastward and at 0140/27, only three minutes after Maori had fired two torpedoes, Cossack launched three torpedoes from 6000 yards. Bismarck stood out plainly, silhoutted by the broadsides she was firing at the Maori. One torpedo was seen to hit. Flames blazed on the forecastle of the Bismarck after this hit but they were quickly extinguished. Probably as a consequence of the torpedo hits the Bismarck stopped dead in the water, this was reported by HMS Zulu at 0148/27. After about one hour the Bismarck got underway again. On receipt of this report, HMS Sikh, who was closing the scene of the action from the southward, made an attack. Four torpedoes were fired at 0218/27 at the stopped battleship. It is believed that one hit was obtained. After this attack Sikh remained in radar contact with the enemy until 0359/27 when contact was lost.
Around 0240/27 the Bismarck was underway again, proceeding very slowly to the north-westward. At 0335/27, HMS Cossack made another attack firing her last remaining torpedo from a range of 4000 yards. It missed. HMS Cossack then came under a heavy fire. She withdrew to the northward under the cover of smoke, altering to a westerly course shortly afterwards.
At 0400/27 all destroyers had lost touch with the enemy. HMS Cossack was then to the north-west and HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu and HMS Maori were between the south-west and south-east of the Bismarck. All destroyers now endeavoured to regain contact.
Touch with the enemy was not regained until shortly before 0600 hours. By that time ORP Piorun, which was running short of fuel, had been ordered to proceed to Plymouth.
Destroyers shadowing, morning twilight, 27 May 1941, final attack.
Touch was regained by HMS Maori at 0550/27 when she sighted the Bismarck zigzagging slowly on a base course of 340° at about 7 knots. Maori commenced shadowing until daylight. At 0625 hours, HMS Sikh was also in contact when the Bismarck emerged from a rain squal 7000 yards on her starboard bow. By then it was nearly full daylight but to the surprise of the crew of the Sikh she got away with it without being fired at.
Shortly before sunrise a final torpedo attack was carried out by HMS Maori, which fired two torpedoes at 0656/27 from 9000 yards. Both missed. The Bismarck opened fire and straddled Maori which escaped at 28 knots.
At daylight the destroyers were stationed in four sectors from which they were able to keep the enemy under continuous observation until the arrival of the Battle Fleet at 0845 hours.
Force H, 26/27 May 1941.
While the destroyers were shadowing the Bismarck, the pursuing forces were drawing steadily closer. To the north was the Commander-in-Chief with the King George V and the Rodney with the Norfolk closing on them. In the south HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) was coming up, while Force H was waiting for the dawn. When Captain Vian's destroyers got in touch at 2251/26 the Renown and Ark Royal were north-west of the enemy. It was not possible to attack with aircraft during the night but all preparations were made to attack at dawn with 12 Swordfish. Course was shaped to the northward and then to the west for a time and at 0115/27 Force H turned south. Shortly afterwards instructions were received from the Commander-in-Chief to keep not less then 20 miles to the southward of the Bismarck so as to leave a clear approach for the Battle Fleet. Force H accordingly continued to the southward during the night. Bursts of starshell and gunfire could be seen during the night while the destroyers attacked. At 0509/27 an aircraft was flown off from HMS Ark Royal to act as a spotter for HMS King George V but it failed to find the Bismarck in the bad weather. The striking of force of 12 Swordfish was ready but due to the bad weather to strike was cancelled.
At 0810/27, HMS Maori was sighted. She reported the Bismarck 11 miles to the north of her. The made the enemy 17 miles to the north of HMS Renown so course was shaped to the south-west. At 0915/27 heavy gunfire could be heard and the striking force was flown off. They found the Bismarck at 1016/27. By then the battle was almost over, her guns were silenced and she was on fire. They saw her sink. At 1115/27 they had all landed back on HMS Ark Royal. A German Heinkel aircraft dropped a couple of bombs near HMS Ark Royal when they were landing on.
HMS Norfolk, 26/27 May 1941.
When the Catalina report (1030/26) came in, HMS Norfolk altered course to the south-west and increased speed to 27 knots. At 2130/26 the Bismarck was still some 160 nautical miles to the southward and speed was increased to 30 knots. At 2228/26 the report on the torpedo hit by the aircraft from Ark Royal came in and the Norfolk turned to the southward, continuing to close the enemy. At 0753/27 Norfolk sighted the Bismarck. She did not open fire and was lost to sight after ten minutes. At 0821/27, HMS King George V, was sighted to the westward, 12 nautical miles away. The position of the enemy was passed to the Commander-in-Chief. The action opened at 0847/27 at which time HMS Norfolk was then some 10 nautical miles from the Commander-in-Chief and due north of the Bismarck. HMS Norfolk had seen the beginning and was now to see the end.
HMS Dorsetshire, 26/27 May 1941.
On 26 May 1941, HMS Dorsetshire, was with convoy SL 74 proceeding from Freetown to the U.K. When she received the sighting report from the Catalina at 1056/26 she was some 360 nautical miles to the south of the Bismarck. She then left the protection of the convoy to the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Bulolo (Capt.(Retd.) R.L. Hamer, RN) and set course for the northward to take up the possible task of shadowing. By 2343/26 it became clear from reports that the Bismarck was making no ground to the eastward and that at 0230/27 she appeared to be laying stopped. Due to the heavy seas HMS Dorsetshire was forced to reduce speed to 25 knots and later even to 20 knots. At 0833/27 a destroyer was sighted ahead at a range of 8 nautical miles, it was HMS Cossack which reported the enemy at a range of 6 nautical miles. At 0850/27 the flashes of the Bismarck's guns could be seen to the westward. HMS Dorsetshire arrived at the scene of the action in the nick of time.
HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, 26/27 May 1941.
During 26 May 1941 the Commander-in-Chief in HMS King George V had been making hard to the south-east at 25 knots. He had been joined by HMS Rodney at 1806/26. They were then some 90 nautical miles north of the Bismarck. Fuel was a matter of grave anxiety. At noon on the 26th, HMS King George V, had only 32% remaining and HMS Rodney reported that she had to return at 0800/27. Speed had to be reduced on this account to 22 knots at 1705/26. In these circumstances it was no longer possible to hope to intercept the enemy, and the Commander-in-Chief decided that unless the enemy's speed had been reduced by 2400/26, he must turn at that hour. The only hope lay in the Bismarck being slowed up by the Swordfish attacking from HMS Ark Royal. A report came in that the striking force had left. Then at 2132/26, HMS Sheffield, reported that the enemy was steering 340° followed by 000° four minutes later. These reports indicated that the Bismarck was not able to hold her course and that her steering gear must have been damaged. It might still be possible to intercept her.
The Commander-in-Chief turned to the south at once hoping to make contact from the eastward in the failing light. Due to the bad weather conditions and visibility the Commander-in-Chief decided to haul off the the eastward and northward and then work round to engage from the westward at dawn. He turned eastward at 2306/26. During the night reports from Captain Vian's destroyers came in confirming the northerly course of the Bismarck. At 0236/27 the Commander-in-Chief ordered Captain Vian that the destroyers were to fire star-shell every half hour, but frequent rain squalls prevented these from being seen and they tended to attrack the enemy's fire. The Bismarck was still a formidable opponent for at 0353/27 Captain Vian reported that during the last hour she had done 8 nautical miles and that she was still capable of heavy and accurate fire. The Commander-in-Chief decided not to make a dawn approach but to wait until daylight while approaching from the west taking advantage of wind, sea and light. At 0529/27 HMS Rodney reported sighting HMS Norfolk to the eastward by DF. It was light at 0600 hours. At 0820 hours HMS Norfolk was sighted on the port bow of HMS King George V. She signalled 'enemy 130°, 16 nautical miles'. At 0843/27 looming on the starboard bow there emerges out of a rain squall the dark grey blot of a large ship. 'Enemy in sight'.
Bismarck 26/27 May 1941.
The Bismarck after altering course to the north-west had been labouring along with a jambed rudder, steering an erratic course at 8 knots. During the night the attacking destroyers were met with heavy and accurate salvoes. Sixteen torpedoes were fired at her. Early in the morning a glare of star-shell burst over her, lighting her up. Three torpedoes followed from a destroyer on the port bow (HMS Maori) of which one hit on the port side amidships. Three minutes later three more came from the starboard side (these were fired by HMS Cossack) of which one hit on the starboard bow. The damage that was sustained from these torpedo hits is not known. The Bismarck lay stopped for over one hour. At 0140/27 a message was received that a large number of Junkers bombers were coming to her aid as were U-boats but the Bismarck was beyond their help besides that the aircraft did not find her. One U-boat (U-556, which was out of torpedoes) on its way back from the Atlantic joined her and was within sight during the night. Another (U-74) arrived at 0600/27 but had been damaged in a depth charge attack and could do nothing as well. In the Bismarck the crew was exhausted and men were falling asleep at their posts. It was under these conditions that at 0840/27 two British battleships were seen to approach from the westward.
Situation before the action, 27 May 1941.
A north-westerly gale was blowing when dawn broke with a good light and clear horizon to the north-eastward. Reports received during the night indicated that, despite reduced speed and damaged rudders, Bismarck's armament was functioning effectively. Given the weather conditions the Commander-in-Chief decided to approach on a west-north-westerly bearing and, if the enemy continued his northerly course, to deploy to the southward on opposite course at a range of about 15000 yards. Further action was to be dictated by events.
Between 0600 and 0700 hours a series of enemy reports from HMS Maori which was herself located by DF bearings. This enabled HMS King George V to plot her position relatively to the Bismarck which had apparently settled down on a course of 330° at 10 knots. At 0708/27, HMS Rodney, was ordered to keep station 010° from the flagship. HMS Norfolk came in sight to the eastward at 0820/27 and provided a visual link between the Commander-in-Chief and the enemy. After the line of approach had been adjusted by two alterations of course, the Bismarck was sighted at 0843/27 bearing 118°, range about 25000 yards. Both British battleships was then steering 110° almost directly towards the enemy in line abreast formation, 8 cables apart.
Commencement of action 0847/27.
HMS Rodney opened fire at 0847/27, her first salvo sending a column of water 150 feet into the air. HMS King George V opened fire one minute later. Bismarck opened fire at 0850 hours after turning to open up A arcs. The first German salvo was short. The third and fourth salvoes straddled and nearly hit, but the Rodney manoeuvered succesfully to avoid them and the nearest fell 20 yards short. At 0854/27, HMS Norfolk joined in, but the target was not clearly visible and she opened fire without obtaining a range.
Observers state that the German gunnery was accurate at first, but commenced to deteriorate after 8 to 10 salvoes. The first hit on the Bismarck was believed to be scored by the Rodney at 0854 hours with her third salvo. Both British battleships made small alterations of course away from the enemy shortly after opening fire, the King George V to increase her distance from the Rodney and the latter to open her A arcs. From then onwards they manoeuvered independently although HMS Rodney conformed to the Flagship's general movements. The Bismarck's secondary armament came into action during this phase. HMS Rodney opened fire with her secondary armament at 0858 hours.
Run to the southward.
HMS King George V deployed to the southward at 0859/27 when the Bismarck was 16000 yards distant. HMS Rodney, 2.5 nautical miles to the northward, followed suit a minute or two later. Cordite smoke was hanging badly with the following wind and spotting was most difficult. Considerable smoke interference was therefore experienced on the southerly course which was partly overcome by radar. The Bismarck had transferred her fire to the King George V shortly after the turn but except for an occasional splash the latter hardly knew that she was under fire. At 0902/27, HMS Rodney saw a 16” shell hit the Bismarck on the upper deck forward, apparently putting the forward turrets out of action. At 0904 hours, HMS Dorsetshire joined in the firing from the eastwards from a range of 20000 yards but observation of the target was difficult and she had to check fire from 0913 to 0920 hours. Between 0910 and 0915 hours the range in King George V was more or less steady at 12000 yards.
The fate of the Bismarck was decided during this phase of the action although she did not sink until later. Around 0912 hours, the Bismarck was hit on her forward control position. During the run to the south HMS Rodney fired six torpedoes from 11000 yards and HMS Norfolk four from 16000 yards. No hits were obtained. The King George V’s secondary battery came into action at 0905 hours but this increased the smoke interference and was accordingly ordered to cease fire after two or three minutes.
Run to the northward.
At 0916/27 the Bismarck’s bearing was drawing rapidly aft and HMS Rodney turned 16 points to close and head her off. The King George V followed a minute or so later and both ships re-opened fire at ranges from 8600 and 12000 yards respectively. The Bismarck shifted her target to the Rodney about this time. A near miss damaged the sluice of her starboard torpedo tube. Most of the enemy’s guns had however been silenced at this time. Only one turret from her main armament was firing at this time as was part of her secondary armament. A fire was blazing amidships and she had a heavy list to port. During the run to the north HMS Rodney obtained a very favourable position on the Bismarck’s bow from which she poured in a heavy fire from close range. She also fired two torpedoes from 7500 yards but no hits were obtained.
HMS King George V’s position, further to leeward, was less favourable. Her view was obscured by smoke and splashes surrounding the target and her radar had temporarily broken down. Mechanical failures in the 14” turrets constituted, however, a more serious handicap at this stage. ‘A’, ‘X’ and ‘Y’ turrets were out of action for 30, 7 and a unspecified short period, respectively. This resulted in reduction of firepower of 80% for 7 minutes and 40% for 23 minutes which might have had serious effects under less favourable conditions. There were also several defects of individual guns in addition to those effecting the turrets.
At 0925/27, HMS King George V, altered outwards to 150° and reduced speed to avoid getting too far ahead of the Bismarck. She closed in again at 1005 hours, fired several salvoes from a range of only 3000 yards and then resumed her northerly course. Meanwhile HMS Rodney was zigzagging across the Bismarck’s line of advance at a range of about 4000 yards firing her main and secondary armaments. She also fired four torpedoes, one of which is thought to have hit. By 1015 hours the Bismarck was no more than a wreck. All her guns were silenced, her mast had been blown away, she was a black ruin, pouring high into the air a great cloud of smoke and flame. Men were seen jumping overboard at this time and the Captain of the King George V later remarked had he known it he would have ceased fire.
End of the action.
The Commander-in-Chief was confident that the enemy could never get back to harbour, and as both battleships were running short of fuel and as further gunfire was unlikely to hasten the Bismarck’s end, the Commander-in-Chief signalled the King George V and Rodney to steer 027° at 1015/27 in order to break off the action and return to base. At 1036/27 the Commander-in-Chief ordered HMS Dorsetshire to use her torpedoes, if she had any, on the enemy. In the meantime HMS Norfolk had been closing the target but due to the movements of the King George V and Rodney, had not fired her torpedoes until 1010 hours when she fired four torpedoes from 4000 yards and two possible hits were reported. The Dorsetshire was then approaching a mile or so to the southward, and anticipating the Commander-in-Chief’s signal at 1025 hours fired two torpedoes from 3600 yards into the enemy’s starboard side. She then steamed round the Bismarck’s bow and at 1036 hours fired another torpedo but now into her port side from 2600 yards. This was the final blow, the Bismarck heeled over quickly to port and commenced to sink by the stern. The hull turned over keel up and disappeared beneath the waves at 1040/27.
The Dorsetshire then closed and signalled to one of HMS Ark Royal’s aircraft to carry out a close A/S patrol while she was to pick up survivors assisted by HMS Maori. After 110 men had been picked up by both ships from the water both ships got underway again as a submarine was suspected to be in the area.
Damage to the Bismarck.
Survivors have told the story of terrible damage inflicted on her. The fore turrets seem to have been knocked out at 0902 hours. The fore control position was knocked out around 0912 hours. The after control position followed about 0915 hours. The after turrets were at that moment still in action. Then the aftermost gun turret was disabled by a direct hit on the left gun which burst sending a flash right through the turret. ‘C’ turret was the last one in action.
One survivor stated that around 0930 hours a shell penetrated the turbine room and another one entered a boiler room. A hit in the after dressing station killed all the medical staff and wounded that were in there at that moment. The upper deck was crowded with killed and wounded men and the seas surging in washed them overboard. Conditions below were even more terrible. Hatches and doors were jammed by concussion and blocked with wreckage. The air was thick with smoke and even more smoke was coming in from great holes in the upper deck. By 1000 hours all heavy guns were out of action and 10 minutes later the all secondary guns were also silent.
As HMS King George V and HMS Rodney turned northwards they were joined by HMS Cossack, HMS Sikh and HMS Zulu at by 1600/28 more detroyers had joined the screen (HMS Maori, HMS Jupiter, HMS Somali, HMS Eskimo, HMS Punjabi, HMAS Nestor, HMS Inglefield, HMS Lance, HMS Vanquisher (Cdr. N.V. Dickinson, DSC, RN), HMCS St. Clair (Lt.Cdr. D.C. Wallace, RCNR), HMCS Columbia (Lt.Cdr. (Retd.) S.W. Davis, RN) and HMS Ripley (Lt.Cdr. J.A. Agnew, RN). Heavy air attacks were expected that day, but only four enemy aircraft appeared, one of which bombed the screen while another one jettisoned her bombs on being attacked by a Blenheim fighter. The destroyers HMS Mashona and HMS Tartar, 100 nautical miles to the southward, were not so furtunate. They were attacked in position 52°58’N, 11°36’W at 0955/28 by German aircraft. HMS Mashona was hit and sank at noon with the loss of 1 officer and 45 men. The Commander-in-Chief reached Loch Ewe at 1230/29. Vice-Admiral Somerville with Force H was on his way back to Gibraltar.
End of ‘Operation Rheinübung’.
The Bismarck’s consort, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, was not heard off until 4 June 1941 when aircraft reported her having arrived at Brest. After leaving the Bismarck at 1914/24, the Prinz Eugen’s primary need was to replenish her fuel stock. She set course for a rendez-vous with two tankers, the Spichern (9323 GRT, built 1935, former Norwegian Krossfonn) and the Esso Hamburg (9849 GRT, built 1939) which were position to the north-west of the Azores. All next day the German cruiser made her way southwards, and at 0906/26 , some 600 nautical miles west-north-west of the Azores she sighted the Spichern and refuelled. Two reconnaissance ships had also been ordered into this area, the Gonzenheim and the Kota Pinang. On the 28th Prinz Eugen fuelled from the Esso Hamburg. She then proceeded southwards to carry out cruiser warfare against independently routed ships in the area to the north and west of the Cape Verde Islands but an inspection of her engines the next day showed that an extensive overhaul was needed. Her Commanding Officer then decided to break off the action and course was set for Brest, France where she arrived at 2030/1 June.
A German reconnaissance ship, a supply vessel and two tankers were intercepted by Royal Navy warships and sunk by their own crew or sunk with gunfire. Also two tankers were captured. These were in chronological order; tanker Belchen (6367 GRT, built 1932, former Norwegian Sysla) by gunfire from HMS Kenya and HMS Aurora on 3 June 1941 in the Greenland area in approximate position 59°00'N, 47°00'W. On 4 June the tanker Esso Hamburg by HMS London and HMS Brilliant (Lt.Cdr. F.C. Brodrick, RN) in position 07°35'N, 31°25'W, tanker Gedania (8966 GRT, built 1920) was captured in the North Atlantic in position 43°38'N, 28°15'W by naval auxiliary (Ocean Boarding Vessel) HMS Marsdale (Lt.Cdr. D.H.F. Armstrong, RNR), she was put into service with the MOWT as Empire Garden, reconnaissance vessel Gonzenheim (4000 GRT, built 1937, former Norwegian Kongsfjord) was scuttled by her own crew after being sighted by HMS Esperance Bay ((Capt.(ret) G.S. Holden, RN) and intercepted by HMS Nelson (Capt. G.J.A. Miles, RN) and finally ordered to be boarded by HMS Neptune in position 43°29'N, 24°04'W. The next day (5 June) supply vessel Egerland (10040 GRT, built 1940) was intercepted by HMS London and HMS Brilliant in approximate position 07°00'N, 31°00'W. On 12 June, HMS Sheffield, intercepted tanker Friedrich Breme (10397 GRT, built 1936) in position 49°48'N, 22°20'W and finally on 15 June, HMS Dunedin (Capt. R.S. Lovatt, RN), captured the tanker Lothringen (10746 GRT, built 1940, former Dutch Papendrecht) in position 19°49'N, 38°30'W which had first been sighted by an aircraft from HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN). The Lothringen was sent to Bermuda and was put into service by the MOWT as Empire Salvage. (6)
11 Jun 1941
HMS Manchester (Capt. H. Drew, DSC, RN) arrived at Hvalfjord, Iceland and after fueling went out on patrol together with HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Icarus (Lt.Cdr. C.D. Maud, DSC and Bar, RN) and HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. the Viscount Jocelyn, RN). HMS Inglefield and HMS Icarus soon parted company to join HMS Edinburgh (Capt. H.W. Faulkner, RN). HMS Achates was relieved by HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) at 0200/14. HMS Achestes then went to Hvalfjord to refuel and later took over from HMS Active again. (7)
19 Jul 1941
HMS Prince of Wales (Capt. C.H.J. Harcourt, RN) shifted from Rosyth to Scapa Flow. She was escorted by the destroyers HMS Icarus (Lt.Cdr. C.D. Maud, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Achates (Lt.Cdr. Viscount Jocelyn, RN). (8)
8 Jan 1942
HMS Clyde (Cdr. D.C. Ingram, DSC, RN) conducted A/S exercises off Gibraltar with HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN). The exercises were abandoned due to an A/S hunt in the area. (10)
HMS Clyde also conducted independent exercises and attack exercises with HMS Severn (Lt.Cdr. A.N.G. Campbell, RN). (10)
16 Jan 1942
HMS P 39 (Lt. N. Marriott, DSC, RN) departed Gibraltar for her 3rd war patrol (2nd in the Mediterranean). She was ordered to patrol in the Alboran Sea. She was escorted out by HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN).
For the daily positions of HMS P 39 during this patrol see the map below. No position is known for 23 January 1942.
8 Feb 1942
Force H made up of the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) and the escort destroyer HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN), HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN) and HMS Exmoor (Lt.Cdr. L.StG. Rich, RN) departed Gibraltar for the Clyde.
13 Feb 1942
Force H made up of the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) and the escort destroyer HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN), HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN) and HMS Exmoor (Lt.Cdr. L.StG. Rich, RN) arrived in the Clyde from Gibraltar.
16 Feb 1942
Convoy WS 16.
This convoy departed the Clyde on 16 February 1942 and arrived at Freetown on 1 March 1942.
The convoy was made up of the troopships / transports; Awatea (British, 13482 GRT, built 1936), Bergensfjord (British, 11015 GRT, built 1913), Brisbane Star (British, 12791 GRT, built 1937), City of Edinburgh (British, 8036 GRT, built 1938), City of Lincoln (British, 8039 GRT, built 1938), Cuba (British, 11420 GRT, built 1923), Delftdijk (British, 10220 GRT, built 1929), Denbighshire (British, 8983 GRT, built 1938), Duchess of Richmond (British, 20022 GRT, built 1928), Duchess of York (British, 20021 GRT, built 1929), Empire Pride (British, 9248 GRT, built 1941), Monarch of Bermuda (British, 22424 GRT, built 1931), Mooltan (British, 20952 GRT, built 1923), Nea Hellas (British, 16991 GRT, built 1922), Ormonde (British, 14982 GRT, built 1917), Port Jackson (British, 9687 GRT, built 1937), Potaro (British, 5410 GRT, built 1940), Sibajak (Dutch, 12226 GRT, built 1927), Strathaird (British, 22281 GRT, built 1932), Stratheden (British, 23722 GRT, built 1937), Volendam (Dutch, 15434 GRT, built 1922) and Worcestershire (British, 11402 GRT, built 1931).
The Straithaid was unable to sail with the convoy and joined at sea on 21 February 1942.
On departure from the Clyde the convoy was escorted by the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), aircraft carriers HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, KBE, DSO, RN), HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Panther (Lt.Cdr. R.W. Jocelyn, RN), HMS Firedrake (Lt.Cdr. S.H. Norris, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN), HMS Verity (Cdr. R.H. Mills, RN), HMS Walker (Cdr. D.G.F.W. MacIntyre, DSO, RN), HMS Witherington (Lt. R. Horncastle, RN) and the escort destroyers HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN) and HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN).
Between 1300/18 and 1500/18 the transports City of Edinburgh, City of Lincoln and Potaro reported that their cargo had shifted. The Potaro was able to continue but was ordered to proceed to Freetown independently. The other two ships had to return to the U.K.
At 0920/20 the destroyer HMS Anthony left the convoy to proceed to the Azores with condensor trouble.
At 1800/20 HMS Panther was detached to fuel at the Azores and then rejoin the convoy.
At 1300/21 the light cruiser HMS Newcastle (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, DSO, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.G. Tennant, CB, MVO, RN) and destroyer HMS Paladin (Cdr. A.D. Pugsley, RN) joined the convoy. They had the troopship Strathaird with them.
At 0800/21 HMS Croome was detached to Gibraltar.
At 1530/21 HMS Malaya, HMS Eagle, HMS Hermione, HMS Laforey, HMS Lightning, HMS Duncan, HMS Active and HMS Blankney were detached to Gibraltar.
At 1600/21 HMS Paladin was detached to the Azores to refuel after which she was to rejoin the convoy.
At 1800/21 HMS Firedrake was detached. She was to return to the U.K independently.
At 1800/22 HMS Verity, HMS Walker and HMS Witherington were detached to the Azores where they were to fuel after which they were to proceed to Halifax.
At 1600/23 HMS Paladin rejoined the convoy. HMS Panther had sailed from the Azores before her but apparently she was unable to find the convoy. Eventually she joined in the evening.
The convoy arrived safely at Freetown in the morning of 1 March 1942 escorted by HMS Formidable, HMS Newcastle, HMS Paladin, HMS Panther, HMS Boreas, HMS Brilliant and HMS Wild Swan. (12)
23 Feb 1942
HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN), HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN) arrived at Gibraltar from convoy escort duty. (13)
26 Feb 1942
Transfer of Spitfire fighters to Malta.
Around 1830/26 the aircraft carrier HMS Argus (Capt. G.T. Philip, DSC, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Whitehall (Lt.Cdr. A.B. Russell, RN) and the escort destroyers HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN) and HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN) departed Gibraltar westwards. They were to turn eastwards during the night but this move was made as a diversion to 'fool' the enemy spies in Spain that HMS Argus had been relieved at Gibraltar by HMS Eagle which had arrived there on 23 February 1942.
Around 0330/27 the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN) and the destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) and HMS Wishart (Cdr. H.G. Scott, RN).
Around 0630/27 the two groups joined to the east of Gibraltar and then continued on eastwards.
Around 2100/27 course was reversed to return to Gibraltar. The operation had to be abandoned due to problems with the long range fuel tanks of the Spitfire fighters in HMS Eagle that were to be flow off to Malta.
'Force H' returned to Gibraltar in the evening of the 28th. (14)
6 Mar 1942
Operation Spotter II.
Transfer of Spitfire fighters to Malta.
Around 0400 hours 'Force H' departed Gibraltar for Operation Spotter II, a renewed attempt to fly off Spitfire fighters to Malta.
'Force H' was made up of the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), aircraft carriers HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN), HMS Argus (Capt. G.T. Philip, DSC, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN), HMS Wishart (Cdr. H.G. Scott, RN), HMS Whitehall (Lt.Cdr. A.B. Russell, RN) and the escort destroyers HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN) and HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN).
At 1018/7 the first flight of Spitfire fighters for Malta was launched from position 37°29'N, 03°18'E. All eight Spitfires from 'A' flight were airbone at 1032/7.
Meanwhile signals were intercepted that 'Force H' had been reported by German and Italian aircraft.
At 1146/7 the first aircraft of the second flight of Spitfires for Malta was launched. All seven aircraft from 'B' flight were airborne by 1157/7.
Course was then set to return to Gibraltar while it was till being shadowed by enemy aircraft.
In the evening a signal was received that all aircraft had arrived safely at Malta.
On the 8th various exercises were carried out.
At 1330/8 HMS Hermione was detached to act as a target for an exercise by the 9.2" shore battery of the Rock of Gibraltar.
At 1344/8 HMS Eagle, HMS Argus escorted by HMS Laforey, HMS Lightning, HMS Anthony, HMS Blankney and HMS Croome were detached to conduct flying exercises. After HMS Hermione completed her exercise she joined this group.
At 1420/8 HMS Malaya entered the harbour and immediately proceeded into No.1 dock for periodical docking. She had been escorted by the remaining destroyers; HMS Active, HMS Wishart and HMS Whitehall. HMS Active and HMS Wishart then joined the carrier group while HMS Whitehall also entered the harbour for repairs to her condensors.
Between 1800/8 and 1840/8, HMS Eagle, HMS Argus and HMS Hermione entered the harbour. The destroyers remained out for night exercises upon completion of which they also returned to harbour. (14)
20 Mar 1942
Transfer of Spitfire fighters to Malta.
Around 0200 hours 'Force H' departed Gibraltar for Operation Picket, in which they were to launch Spitfire fighters for passage to Malta.
'Force H' was made up of the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), aircraft carriers HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN), HMS Argus (Capt. G.T. Philip, DSC, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN), HMS Wishart (Cdr. H.G. Scott, RN), HMS Whitehall (Lt.Cdr. A.B. Russell, RN) and the escort destroyers HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN), HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN) and HMS Exmoor (Lt.Cdr. L.StG. Rich, RN).
At 0320/20, while passing Europa Point, they were joined by the destroyer HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN).
At 1440/20, when 'Force H' was in position 36°33'N, 01°26'W, underwater explosions were felt by the majority of the ships. At the time these were thought to have originated by aircraft dropping depth charges but later investigations showed that these were most likely torpedoes exploding. [This was indeed the case as the Italian submarine Mocenigo at that time had made an attack on HMS Argus.]
At 0814/21 the first Spitfire of 'A' flight was flown off and the whole flight of aircraft was in the air by 0838/21 where they joined two Blenheim bombers coming from Gibraltar.
After 'A' flight had been launched the aircraft for 'B' flight were brought up to the flight deck. However it became apparent that no more escorting Blenheims would come from Gibraltar and the lauch of this flight had to be cancelled and 'Force H' set course to the westward with the intention to lauch 'B' flight the next day.
In the afternoon a signal was received that all aircraft of 'A' flight had arrived safely at Malta. Meanwhile throughout the afternoon 'Force H' had been shadowed by enemy aircaft which the fighter patrol were unable to intercept.
At 1530/21, HMS Whitehall was detached due to fuel shortage and ordered to proceed to Gibraltar independently.
The next moring, at 0715/22 it apparent that the weather at Malta was unsuitable and the remainder of the operation was cancelled and 'Force H' set course to return to Gibraltar.
In the morning the fleet was still shadowed by an enemy aircraft.
'Force H' arrived at Gibraltar around 0800/23. HMS Hermione had been detached and arrived a little earlier. (14)
27 Mar 1942
Operation Picket II.
Transfer of Spitfire fighters to Malta.
Around 1600/27 'Force H' departed Gibraltar for Operation Picket II, in which they were to launch Spitfire fighters for passage to Malta.
'Force H' was made up of the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), aircraft carriers HMS Eagle (Capt. E.G.N. Rushbrooke, DSC, RN), HMS Argus (Capt. G.T. Philip, DSC, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN), HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN), HMS Wishart (Cdr. H.G. Scott, RN) and the escort destroyers HMS Blankney (Lt.Cdr. P.F. Powlett, DSC, RN), HMS Croome (Lt.Cdr. J.D. Hayes, DSO, RN) and HMS Exmoor (Lt.Cdr. L.StG. Rich, RN).
In the afternoon of March 28th German reconnaissance aircraft were sighted so the force must have been detected.
Between 0720/29 and 0728/29 HMS Eagle launched seven Spitfires from Malta.
'Force H' then set course to return to Gibraltar.
'Force H' returned to Gibraltar early in the afternoon of 30 March 1942.
[We have so far been unable to find a report for this operation.]
1 Apr 1942
The battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) departed Gibraltar for Freetown. (15)
6 Apr 1942
HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN), HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN) arrived at Freetown. (15)
9 Apr 1942
Convoy WS 17A.
This convoy departed Freetown on 9 April 1942 and arrived at Durban on 22 April 1942.
This convoy was made up of the following troopships / transports; Bhutan (British, 6104 GRT, built 1929), Domion Monarch (British, 27155 GRT, built 1939), Duchess of Atholl (British, 20119 GRT, built 1928), Karanja (British, 9891 GRT, built 1931), Keren (British, 9890 GRT, built 1930), Oronsay (British, 20043 GRT, built 1925), Port Wyndham (British, 11005 GRT, built 1935), Rembrandt (British, 5559 GRT, built 1941), Sobieski (Polish, 11030 GRT, built 1939), Winchester Castle (British, 20012 GRT, built 1930) and Windsor Castle (British, 19141 GRT, built 1922).
On departure from Freetown the convoy was escorted by the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. C. Coppinger, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.N. Syfret, CB, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (Capt. A.G. Talbot, DSO, RN, light cruiser HMS Hermione (Capt. G.N. Oliver, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Pakenham (Capt. E.B.K. Stevens, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Laforey (Capt. R.M.J. Hutton, RN), HMS Lightning (Cdr. H.G. Walters, DSC, RN), HMS Lookout (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Javelin (Lt.Cdr. H.C. Simms, DSO, RN), HMS Inconstant (Lt.Cdr. W.S. Clouston, RN), HMS Duncan (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) and HMS Anthony (Lt.Cdr. J.M. Hodges, RN).
At 1800/12, the Dominion Monarch was detached. She proceeded to Capetown independently arriving there on 19 April.
At 1600/13, HMS Pakenham, HMS Duncan, HMS Active and HMS Anthony were detached to fuel at St.Helena from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Abbeydale.
At 0615/14, HMS Laforey and HMS Javelin were detached to fuel at St.Helena from the Abbeydale.
At 1515/14, HMS Pakenham, HMS Duncan, HMS Active and HMS Anthony rejoined the convoy. HMS Hermione, HMS Lightning, HMS Lookout and HMS Inconstant were then detached to fuel at St.Helena from the Abbeydale.
At 1825/15, HMS Laforey and HMS Javelin rejoined the convoy.
At 1100/16, HMS Hermione, HMS Lightning, HMS Lookout and HMS Inconstant rejoined the convoy.
At 1000/18, HMS Hermione discovered missing plating near her bow. She was to be docked to repair this damage.
At 0700/19, HMS Illustrious, HMS Laforey, HMS Lightning, HMS Lookout and HMS Duncan were detached to Capetown where they arrived later the same day.
At 1000/19, HMS Devonshire (Capt. R.D. Oliver, DSC, RN) took over the escort of the convoy. HMS Malaya, HMS Pakenham, HMS Javelin, HMS Inconstant, HMS Active and HMS Anthony were then detached to Capetown where they arrived later the same day. The flag of Rear-Admiral Syfret was then transferred from HMS Malaya to HMS Illustrious.
At 0815/20, HMS Hermione arrived at Simonstown. She was then docked for repairs to her bow.
The convoy arrived at Durban on 22 April 1942 still escorted by HMS Devonshire.
3 Jun 1942
HMS Ramillies (Capt. D.N.C. Tufnell, DSC, RN) departed departed Diego Saurez for Durban. She is escorted by HMS Duncan ( Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO, RN), HMS Decoy (Lt.Cdr. G.I.M. Balfour, RN) and HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN). (16)
9 Jun 1942
HMS Ramillies (Capt. D.N.C. Tufnell, DSC, RN), HMS Duncan ( Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO, RN), HMS Decoy (Lt.Cdr. G.I.M. Balfour, RN) and HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) arrived at Durban. (16)
19 Jun 1942
HMS P 45 (Lt. H.B. Turner, RN) participated in A/S exercises off Scapa Flow with HMS Catterick (Lt. A. Tyson, RN), HNoMS Glaisdale, HMS Halcyon (T/A/Lt.Cdr. H. Harding, RNR) and HMS Salamander (Lt. W.R. Muttram, RN). (17)
20 Jun 1942
HMS P 45 (Lt. H.B. Turner, RN) participated in A/S exercises off Scapa Flow with HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.K. Scott-Moncrieff, RN), HMS Britomart (Lt.Cdr. S.S. Stammwitz, RN), HMS Catterick (Lt. A. Tyson, RN) and HNoMS Glaisdale. (17)
17 Aug 1942
HMS Resolution (Capt. A.R. Halfhide, CBE, RN , flying the flag of A/Vice-Admiral A.U. Willis, DSO, RN), HMS Royal Sovereign (Capt. D.N.C. Tufnell, DSC, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. L.H. Ashmore, RN), HMS Dauntless (A/Capt. J.G. Hewitt, DSO, RN), HMAS Norman (Cdr. H.M. Burrell, RAN), HMAS Nizam (Lt.Cdr. M.J. Clark, DSC, RAN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. A.N. Rowell, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. C.J. Wynne-Edwards, DSC, RN), HMS Decoy (Lt.Cdr. G.I.M. Balfour, RN) and HMS Blackmore (Lt. H.T. Harrel, RN) make rendez-vous with another group of warships which came from Colombo, these were HMS Warspite (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, KBE, DSO, RN), HMS Illustrious (Capt. A.G. Talbot, DSO, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN), HMS Mauritius (Capt. W.D. Stephens, RN), HrMs Jacob van Heemskerck (Cdr. E.J. van Holte, RNN), HMAS Napier (Capt. S.H.T. Arliss, DSO, RN), HMS Inconstant (Lt.Cdr. W.S. Clouston, RN), HMS Fortune (Lt.Cdr. R.D.H.S. Pankhurst, RN) and HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN).
Exercises were then carried out on the 17th and on the 18th all ships entered Kilindini.
8 Oct 1942
German U-boat U-179 was sunk in the South Atlantic near Cape Town, South Africa, in position 33°28'S, 17°05'E, by depth charges from the British destroyer HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN).
Before U-179 was sunk HMS Active picked up 98 survivors from the British merchant City of Athens. This was U-179's first and only victim.
11 Oct 1942
HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. M.W. Tomkinson, RN) picks up 23 survivors of the American merchant Coloradan that was torpedoed and sunk on 9 October 1942 by German U-boat U-159 200 nautical miles south-west of Cape town, South-Africa in position 35°47'S, 14°34'E.
13 Apr 1943
HrMs O 14 (Lt.Cdr. H.A.W. Goossens, RNN) conducted A/S exercises at / off Scapa Flow with HMS Brecon (Lt.Cdr. T.D. Herrick, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Seagull (Lt.Cdr. C.H. Pollock, RN), HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. P.G. Merriman, RN) and HMS Stevenstone (Lt. P.B.N. Lewis, DSC, RN). (18)
14 Apr 1943
HrMs O 14 (Lt.Cdr. H.A.W. Goossens, RNN) conducted A/S exercises at / off Scapa Flow with HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. P.G. Merriman, RN), HMS Echo (Lt. R.H.C. Wyld, RN) and later with local defence craft. (18)
23 May 1943
The Italian submarine Leonardo Da Vinci (offsite link) was sunk north-east of the Azores by the British destroyer HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. P.G. Merriman, RN) and the British frigate HMS Ness (A/Cdr. T.G.P. Crick, DSC, RN).
2 Nov 1943
German U-boat U-340 was sunk at 0430hrs on 2 November 1943 near Tangier, in position 35°33'N, 06°37'W, by depth charges from the British sloop HMS Fleetwood (Cdr. W.B. Piggott, DSC, RD, RNR) and the British destroyers HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. P.G. Merriman, DSC, RN) and HMS Witherington (Lt.Cdr. R.B.S. Tennant, RN) and by depth charges from a British Wellington aircraft (Sqdn. 179/R).
- ADM 186/797
- ADM 173/16333
- ADM 53/114886
- ADM 53/114887
- ADM 53/114437
- ADM 234/322
- ADM 53/114625 + ADM 199/399
- ADM 53/114890
- ADM 173/17567
- ADM 173/17179
- ADM 199/1883
- ADM 199/1211
- ADM 53/116212
- ADM 199/649
- ADM 53/116214
- ADM 199/429
- ADM 173/17407
- File 2.12.03.6390 (Dutch Archives, The Hague, Netherlands)
ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.
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