Saturday, December 31, 2016


'Scharnhorst immer voran' ('Ever onwards')

Under Adolf Hitler, Germany embarked on a program to rebuild its navy on a global scale. The German navy (Kriegsmarine) began this major effort after the signing of the Anglo- German Naval Treaty in June 1935. The goal was creation of a balanced fleet that would serve as the core of a future bluewater navy dominated by battleships. This Z Plan envisioned a powerful fleet that would one day challenge Britain and the United States for world naval mastery.

In 1938, Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy forced the navy to consider the possibility of a future naval war against Great Britain. The navy’s commander, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, designed a strategy to attack the British sea-lanes. His proposal to build ships more suited to a commerce war, including additional U-boats, was rejected by Hitler, who was intent on building a battleship-dominated navy that would serve as an instrument of political and military force commensurate with a world power. Shortages of resources contributed to delays in naval construction, and Raeder’s blind confidence in the Führer’s diplomatic successes and promises that war would not come before 1942 or 1943 found the navy unprepared for war in September 1939.

One indisputable advantage the Kriegsmarine enjoyed was a cadre of excellent commanders, from the top down, and the luxury of relative freedom from the meddling of Hitler, who saw himself as a land-based warrior and tended to leave naval matters to the experts. Naval high command was the Oberkommando der Marine (OKM) headquartered in Berlin. Reporting to the OKM were Naval Group Command East, Naval Group Command West, Naval Station North Sea, and Naval Station Baltic. Two additional naval stations controlled coastal defense and training. The fleet was distributed as required among these commands. It was divided into the High Seas Fleet, the Security Forces, and the U-boat Fleet. The High Seas Fleet encompassed all major surface ships. The Security Forces controlled coastal defense, convoy escorts, antisubmarine forces, and minesweeping forces. The U-boat Fleet experienced explosive growth during the war and became the dominant arm of the Kriegsmarine.

At the beginning of the war, the German navy consisted of 79,000 men, 2 battleships, 3 pocket battleships (small, fast, strongly constructed battleships), 1 heavy cruiser, 6 light cruisers, and 33 destroyers and torpedo boats. Fewer than half of the 57 U-boats available were suitable for Atlantic operations. In spite of Raeder’s initial pessimism that the navy could only “die gallantly,” thereby creating the foundations for a future fleet, he intended to carry out an aggressive naval strategy that would attack British sea communications on a global basis using his concept of diversion and concentration in operational areas of his own choosing and timing. Raeder persistently argued with Hitler that only total economic warfare against England could have a decisive impact.

Hitler’s restrictions on naval operations, particularly on the U-boats, frustrated Raeder’s attempts to seize the initiative and achieve early successes. In late 1939, concerned that the British were planning to invade Norway, Raeder instigated planning for the successful German occupation of Norway and Denmark (Operation WESERÜBUNG). This April 1940 operation was for the navy its “feat of arms”—justifying its contribution to the war effort and future existence. Although the navy did secure important port facilities for surface raiders and U-boats in Norway as well as the shipping route for iron ore from Sweden, it also suffered substantial losses in the operation in the form of 3 cruisers and 10 destroyers. In June, with the defeat of France, the navy acquired additional ports on the Atlantic and Bay of Biscay for surface ships and submarines. But the navy also now had to protect an extended coastline from occupied France to Scandinavia. From 1940 to 1943, Germany also sent to sea 9 armed auxiliary cruisers.

Raeder’s intent to prove the worth of the surface fleet, in particular the battleships, led him to demand of his commanders that they take risks yet avoid unnecessary combat that could lead to losses. Two fleet commanders lost their jobs when they failed to exhibit the necessary aggressiveness. The scuttling of the pocket battleship Graf Spee in December 1939 and Hitler’s displeasure over this loss further reinforced the inherent contradictions in Raeder’s orders to strike boldly but avoid damage to the navy’s own ships. With new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz joining the fleet, Raeder envisioned a new phase of the Atlantic surface battle, with task forces that would engage Allied convoys protected by capital ships.

In an effort to prove the value of the battleships, Raeder pressed the Bismarck into service before the other battleships were available for action. Her loss in May 1941 represented the end of the surface war in the Atlantic and Hitler’s increasing interference in the use of Germany’s remaining capital ships. Unable to achieve the conditions for a cross-Channel invasion (Operation SEA LION) in September 1940, Raeder tried to divert Hitler from his plans to attack the Soviet Union. Raeder advocated an alternative strategy in the Mediterranean to defeat Britain first, especially given the growing cooperation between that nation and the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Raeder saw an opportunity to link up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and use the French African colonies and the Atlantic islands of Portugal and Spain to expand the bases for a long-term war against the Anglo-American naval forces in the Atlantic. These plans never materialized, as the war against the Soviet Union faltered and Germany was forced to come to the aid of Italy and secure its southern flank in the Balkans.

Nervous about British threats to Norway and Allied support to the Soviets in the north, Hitler ordered that the two battleships in Brest—the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst—and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen be either moved to Norway or scrapped. The “Channel dash” in February 1942 was a tactical success but a strategic defeat for the navy. With the fleet relegated to Norway as a “fleet-in-being,” the U-boat arm, under the command of Admiral Karl Dönitz, continued its role as the navy’s primary weapon. The lack of Luftwaffe support, though, continued to seriously hamper all operations. The navy never resolved the issue of whether the U-boat war was a “tonnage” war or a commerce war in which U-boats attacked targets that had the greatest potential for a decisive impact. Dönitz continued to argue that all resources should go to the U-boat war and disagreed with the diversion of U-boats to other theaters such as the Mediterranean or to the defense of Norway.

In late December 1942, the failure of the Hipper and Lützow to close with a weakly defended convoy in the Barents Sea (Operation RAINBOW) led an angry Hitler to attack Raeder and the surface fleet. Raeder resigned, and Dönitz succeeded him. Although Dönitz was determined to prosecute the submarine war ruthlessly, as with the surface fleet, the defeat of the U-boats in May 1943 resulted from Allied technology and successes in code-breaking that reflected the shortcomings in the naval leadership and military structure of the Third Reich. As the military situation of Germany deteriorated, the navy provided support to the army, particularly in the Baltic, where it conducted a massive and highly successful evacuation effort of troops and civilians.

In sharp contrast to the navy’s collapse after World War I, the German navy during World War II enforced strict discipline until the end. In April 1945, Hitler named a loyal Dönitz as his heir and successor.

Further reading: Jackson, Robert. Kriegsmarine: The Illustrated History of the German Navy in World War II. Osceola, Wis.: MBI Publishing, 2001; Showell, J. P. German Navy in World War Two: An Illustrated Guide to the Kriegsmarine, 1920–1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1979; Showell, J. P. The German Navy in World War Two: A reference Guide to the Kriegsmarine, 1935–1945. London: Arms & Armour Press, 1979; Stern, Robert C. Kriegsmarine: A Pictorial History of the German Navy, 1935–1945. Carrollton, Tex.: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1979; Tarrant, V. E. The Last Year of the Kriegsmarine: May 1944–May 1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994. Bird, Keith W. German Naval History: A Guide to the Literature. New York: Garland, 1985. Blair, Clay. Hitler’s U-Boat War. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1996, 1998. Howarth, Stephen, and Derek Law, eds. The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945. London and Annapolis, MD: Greenhill Books and Naval Institute Press, 1994. Militärgeschtliches Forschungsamt. Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (Germany and the Second World War). Trans. Dean S. McMurrey, Edwald Osers, and Louise Wilmott. 7 vols. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1990–2001. Salewski, Michael. Die Deutsche Seekriegsleitung 1935–1945. 3 vols. Munich, West Germany: Bernard and Graefe, 1970–1975.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Kriegsmarine Cruiser Warfare



As Operation Sealion petered out during the autumn of 1940, Admiral Raeder and his colleagues in the Kriegsmarine began to focus on the kind of warfare they believed in. Following the damage sustained in the spring of 1940, a sense of optimism was renewed when many ships returned from the shipyards. Among the ships expected to be fully serviceable soon were the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. They had formed a task force during the attack on Norway in April 1940, when Admiral Marschall had been in command. If sent to the Atlantic together, they would form a powerful group, menacing British merchant shipping. The long winter nights would also improve chances of them being able to break out undetected into the Atlantic. Finally Raeder could embark on the large-scale warfare against merchant shipping that he had advocated for so long. His intention was not only to sink merchant ships; Raeder hoped that the countermeasures that the Royal Navy would be forced to take would also disrupt British trade.

The German Navy had deployed surface ships against British merchant shipping since spring 1940, but these were not regular warships. Instead, the Germans had employed Hilfkreuzer—armed merchant ships not unlike the British Rawalpindi. By fitting the weapons behind doors and other forms of cover, they could be effectively disguised, yet quickly made ready to fire on prey as it appeared. Mostly, the ships sailed under false colours, to avoid recognition.

Their combat capabilities were far too low to engage regular warships and the German Navy did not expect any grand achievements from them. However, by sailing outside normal convoy routes, the Hilfzkreuzer could search for merchant ships sailing alone, approach disguised and when they had approached close enough, sink or capture them. Usually the Germans preferred to employ their armed merchant ship in areas like the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic, where many ships sailed unescorted. Protected convoys were left to the regular German warships, which had not appeared in the Atlantic since the autumn of 1939.

The first German warship to reach the Atlantic Ocean in 1940 was the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. She had been at Wilhelmshaven when the war broke out, as she needed a major overhaul. Her antiaircraft artillery shot down a Wellington bomber while she was at the yard, but otherwise she took no part in combat during the first year of the war. When she was at last fully refitted, her crew needed training to attain combat readiness. She was sent to the Baltic for a month of intensive exercise, before finally being declared ready for operations. On 23 October, 1940 she weighed anchor at Gdynia and steered west on the Baltic. After passing Denmark, she sailed north. Undetected she continued towards the Atlantic and a week after departing from Gdynia, she passed through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The first phase, regarded as the most difficult part of the operation by the Germans, had been successfully completed. The Admiral Scheer could begin searching for prey.

She did not have to wait long. Early on 5 November she discovered the lone Mopan and promptly sank her. A few hours later the lookouts on board the Admiral Scheer caught sight of an even more tempting quarry, the convoy HX84—a British convoy numbering no less than 37 merchant ships. The escort consisted of only a single ship, the armed merchant ship Jervis Bay. Since the sun was about to set, the commander on board Jervis Bay, Captain Edward Fegen, decided to accept battle with the Admiral Scheer, hoping that the convoy could scatter and as many merchant ships as possible disappear in darkness before the German ship got too close. Fegen’s decision doomed his ship. The battle was hopelessly uneven. A sailor in the convoy thought the action resembled a bulldog attacking a bear. The 40 year old, 152mm guns fitted to Jervis Bay did not even have the range needed to successfully engage the German warship.

Nevertheless, the British fired incessantly, while laying smoke to protect the ships of the convoy. The battle could only end in one way and after 24 minutes it was over. The Jervis Bay had become a burning wreck. Admiral Scheer sank five merchant ships and another three were damaged, but the rest of the convoy escaped. Later, 65 men from the gallant crew of the Jervis Bay were saved by the Swedish freighter Stureholm.

A few uneventful days followed, until on 12 November Admiral Scheer met with the tanker Eurofeld and the supply ship Nordmark. A few days were spent bunkering diesel oil and taking on supplies. Also, 68 prisoners from the Mopan were transferred to the supply ship, before the Admiral Scheer resumed her search for prey. The results were not impressive. After almost a month had passed, she had only been able to add another two ships to her tally. Again, the pocket battleship met with the supply ship to bunker. On this occasion, the opportunity was used to perform some maintenance on her diesel engines, before the Admiral Scheer set course for the southern Atlantic on 15 December.

While the Admiral Scheer operated in the Atlantic, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper was prepared for the same purpose. In fact, she had sailed already on 24 September, with the intention of reaching the Atlantic, but before passing the Skagerrak she had problems with her machines. She was forced to return to Germany and spent two months in the yard, until she was finally fit again. On 30 November she left harbour, commanded by Captain Wilhelm Meisel, to attack convoys in the Atlantic. The operation was called Nordseetour. At first she searched in vain for Allied shipping and had to survive extremely bad weather. Problems with her machinery ensued, but they could at least be temporarily repaired. The Admiral Hipper bunkered fuel oil from German supply ships, first on 12 December, then on 16 and 22 December, but after three weeks at sea not a single enemy ship had been seen. However, on the night before Christmas Eve, her radar finally picked up an echo. She had found the British troop convoy WS5A about 600 miles west of Cape Finistere. Unlike HX84, which had been attacked by Admiral Scheer seven weeks earlier, the WS5A was escorted by regular British warships: the heavy cruiser Berwick and a few smaller ships. Captain Meisel did not become aware of the British escort, and shadowed the convoy with the intention of attacking it after dawn. While it still was dark, Meisel closed the distance to the convoy and fired a number of torpedoes, but none hit. The German commander was not deterred and pursued his intention to attack at dawn, this time relying on his guns. Almost immediately the lookouts on the Admiral Hipper found the Berwick. Meisel decided to attack the British cruiser. In the ensuing battle, Berwick was damaged and forced to withdraw from the battle, but enough time had passed to allow the convoy to scatter and all merchant ships evaded the Admiral Hipper. The German cruiser had not been hit, but nevertheless Meisel decided to break off the operation and steer towards Brest. His decision was based mainly on the defects in the machinery, which he wanted to correct. On Christmas Day the lone freighter Dumma was found and sunk. It was the only success scored by the Admiral Hipper during Operation Nordseetour. She reached Brest on 27 December.

Operation Nordseetour and the battle between the Admiral Hipper and the Berwick exposed shortcomings in the German Navy’s concept of cruiser warfare. Although the German ship came out unscathed, the action had certainly put her at risk. When encountering an escort of equal strength, the German ship might at least suffer damage and impaired mobility. This was a serious risk, considering the kind of warfare Raeder intended to conduct.

On the very day the Admiral Hipper reached Brest, a meeting took place in Berlin, attended by Hitler, Raeder and a few other high ranking naval officers. The German Navy was already planning for the Admiral Hipper’s next voyage and Hitler wanted to know the purpose. Raeder explained that the Admiral Hipper was only to attack enemy supply lines, concentrating on the convoys as the main target but avoiding the escorts. She should only accept battle with the escort if it was clearly inferior in armament. Hitler concurred. It is possible that this discussion resulted from discontentment with Meisel’s decision to engage a British heavy cruiser.

The Admiral Scheer spent the last weeks of 1940 without much drama. The only exception was on 18 December, when her floatplane found the refrigerator ship Duquesa, which carried food, including about 15 million eggs and 3,000 tons of meat. She was captured and her cargo came in handy for the German ships operating in the Atlantic. In addition to the Admiral Scheer and the Admiral Hipper, the armed merchant ships Thor and Pinguin, several blockade runners and captured ships were also operating in the Atlantic. The Duquesa supplied several German ships with food, before she was finally sunk after two months.
While the Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper ravaged the Atlantic, the two battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst also prepared for an operation in the same waters. They sailed on 28 December, but very bad weather caused damage to the Gneisenau and both ships had to return at an early stage. The Gneisenau was quickly repaired, but the operation was postponed for a month.

Meanwhile the Admiral Scheer patrolled the South Atlantic. She did not score any notable successes. No convoy was found, but a Norwegian tanker was captured and sent to Bordeaux on 17 January. Three days later two freighters were sunk, but subsequently the Admiral Scheer ran out of luck. Late in January she set course for the Indian Ocean, hoping to find better opportunities for success there. On 3 February the Admiral Scheer passed south of the Cape of Good Hope.

Major accomplishments had thus far eluded the German naval ships in the Atlantic, but Raeder indulged in expectations of more success when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reached the transatlantic convoy routes. Due to the mishap with the Gneisenau, Admiral Lütjens, who commanded the squadron, was given more time to think about the best way to use his two battleships. As they were much more powerful than the Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer, Lütjens could attack escorted convoys without hesitating. When Meisel had attacked WSA5, despite the cruiser included in its escort, his action had bordered on the foolhardy. Considering the scarcity of German heavy vessels, it was imperative to keep them ready for action, or else it would be impossible for the German Navy to maintain the threat against the British convoy routes. With two battleships at his disposal, Lütjens would be in a very different position, as the British could hardly be expected to include stronger ships than cruisers in their escorts. However, damage to the German ships still had to be avoided. Prudence suggested that combat had to be conducted at long range, to avoid the menace from torpedoes.

Lutjens did not have to answer the question of how to attack convoys until his squadron reached the Atlantic, and he had a difficult journey ahead of him. The main problem was the ice in the Baltic, the Danish Belts and the Kattegat. The severe cold in January 1941 had resulted in ice with a thickness of about 30cm in the Danish Belts. Under normal conditions, Lütjens would have preferred to pass through the Belts in darkness, to avoid being seen from the coast, but in the present icy conditions it seemed impossible to sail through the narrow straits during night. The German squadron would have to make the passage in full daylight, when Allied agents as well as men and women from the Danish resistance could easily see the ships. When he had passed through the Great Belt, his two battleships would sail towards the Skagen, where escorts would join them, before continuing in the direction of Norway.

The forthcoming operation was given the name ‘Berlin’ and was a much more whole-hearted attempt to implement the cruiser warfare concept, compared to the small-scale operations conducted so far. Lütjens was a good choice to lead Operation Berlin, since he was the German naval officer with most experience at sea. In 1914 he commanded a torpedo boat unit and saw frequent action in World War I. When the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940, Lütjens commanded the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, which had been tasked with the mission to protect the landings at Narvik and Trondheim.

Lütjens was a purposeful and calculating commander who carefully considered his alternatives. He preferred to retain freedom of action for as long as possible and was not given to impulsive decisions. Rather, he carefully weighed risks and opportunities. Success in Operation Berlin would depend greatly on the squadron’s ability to remain unobserved on the high seas and to maintain the element of surprise. The commander would have to display good judgement in estimating when the British convoys left ports, what course they followed and how fast they sailed, so as best to assess the risks of attack. Errors of judgement would severely curtail prospects of sinking a significant amount of British shipping. Lütjens seemed to possess exactly the traits needed to plan and conduct the kind of operation envisaged.

Operation Berlin provides the best example of the realisation of the German concept of cruiser warfare. The first phase of the operation was the actual break out into the Atlantic.

The passage from Kiel and, further on, the Kattegat and Skagerrak were narrow, icy and partly mined, requiring coordination with icebreakers, minesweepers, antisubmarine units and other escorts to get the squadron through safely, without jeopardizing secrecy. Tankers and supply ships had to be stationed in the Atlantic, to enable the battleships to remain there for months. Rendezvous places and signals had to be established well in advance, in order to minimize radio communication that could be intercepted by the British.
Radio traffic was a major concern. To reduce the risks of British interception the Germans used a large number of code names for various coordinates. A number of locations at sea had been assigned brief codes, such as ‘black 3’ or ‘red 15’. Without the specific tables needed, it was impossible to interpret the content of the messages. Furthermore, the actual transmissions could be briefer with the aid of the codes, making it more difficult to obtain bearings and estimate the position of the sender.

Several frequencies and types of transmitters were used. The two battleships used ultra short wave for communication between them, as it was very difficult to intercept at longer distance. For reporting between the ships and the shore staffs, other frequencies were used. The weather forecasting used its own specific frequency band, as did communication between the ships and the Luftwaffe. Considering the geography, it was unlikely that the battleships would cooperate with the Luftwaffe far out on the Atlantic, but during the initial and the final phases of the operation, coordination with air power might be needed. Communication with the supply ships was governed by special regulations, as was the use of special crews that were to sail captured ships to German-controlled harbours in the Bay of Biscay. All of these details had to be specified and included in the orders issued before the operation began. However, once the battleships had reached the north Atlantic, Lütjens emphasized that he would make the decisions as the events unfolded.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Battle of Nauru – Nazi Germany’s Forgotten Foray into the Pacific

The Battle of Nauru - Nazi Germany's Forgotten Foray into the Pacific

In late 1940, the tiny tropical island of Nauru seemed about as far from the bloody battlefields of the Second World War as one could get. Also known as Pleasant Island, the 21 sq. km (8 sq.

The Gustloff Incident – History’s Deadliest (and Mostly Forgotten) Maritime Disaster

The Gustloff Incident - History's Deadliest (and Mostly Forgotten) Maritime Disaster

The RMS Titanic is by far the most famous ill-fated ship of all time. Yet the unlucky luxury liner, which went down with more than 1,600 on board, can't touch the doomed Nazi cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff when it comes to lives lost.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Raeder’s heavy ships –December 1942

Painting depicting the sinking of German destroyer Friedrich Eckoldt by HMS Sheffield at the Battle of Barents Sea.

JW.51B, left the Highland port of Loch Ewe on 22 December 1942 with fourteen freighters and the usual mixed escort screen and a range of warships offering both close and more distant cover. This was exactly the type of convoy that Raeder’s heavy ships were meant to savage. Lützow (the former pocket battleship – now designated a heavy cruiser) had joined the other heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper at Altenfjorden in the Finnmark region of northern Norway just prior to Christmas. Although Fall Regenbogen (Case Rainbow) was not originally designed with Lützow in mind, it made sense for her to join the operation in a bid to destroy all vestiges of convoy JW. 51B and reinforce the impression that the Germans wished to relay to London, namely, that the Arctic convoys were too costly for the Allies to run even in winter. As a result, the two heavy cruisers left port together at 1745 hours on 30 December accompanied by six destroyers. Under the operational command of Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz on board the Admiral Hipper, the plan was hardly the stuff of Yamamoto complexity and ought to have worked far better than it did. Simply put, the Hipper, accompanied by the three destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt, Richard Beitzen and Z29, was to plough on ahead of Kapitän zur See Rudolf Stange in command of the Lützow and his three destroyers Theodor Riedel, Z30 and Z31 during the night to open up a gap between the heavy cruisers of 75-85nm (139-57km) by first light on 31 December. In between the two heavy cruisers the destroyers were to be deployed some 15nm (28 km) apart from one another. This would widen the convoy search area and provide some opportunities for the destroyers to cause some confusion once the convoy had been sighted. In theory at least it was expected that Kummetz, working on information first supplied by German aerial reconnaissance and then subsequently derived from tracking reports from U354, would be the first to intercept the unsuspecting convoy. According to the plan, the Hipper and her destroyers were to engage the Allied destroyer escorts and lure them away from the convoy they were guarding. If this phase went according to plan, it was thought quite reasonably that the unprotected freighters would flee in the opposite direction – in other words to the south and straight into the arms of the Lützow and her destroyers. In this way the Hipper and the northern group of destroyers would eliminate the convoy escorts while the Lützow and her group would fall on the rest of the convoy and reap another PQ. 17 whirlwind. That at least was the theory. In practice the operation turned out to be something quite different. Far from being a belated, but glorious, opportunity to show Hitler that the surface fleet still possessed value and hitting power, Fall Regenbogen was to demonstrate to the Führer just what Raeder’s heavy ships had lost.

In far from ideal conditions with a heavy swell running and sea sickness rampant amongst all the crews of the German vessels, Hipper first glimpsed some elements of an already partly scattered convoy at 0718 hours on New Year’s Eve and sent the destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt to confirm that these ghostly silhouettes were indeed from the convoy. Kummetz now waited for dawn to break but even when it did the visibility was poor and a grey murkiness disguised the ships of both sides. While Kummetz and Stange seemed to be neutralised to some extent by the inclement weather conditions and the latter especially behaved with excessive caution throughout, Captain Robert Sherbrooke in the destroyer Onslow showed tactical acumen and considerable bravery in combating the far superior enemy force pitted against him once he realised that they and not some Russian vessels were in the offing. Sherbrooke only received confirmation that he was about to confront a German force when the Friedrich Eckholdt opened fire on the British destroyer Obdurate from about 8,000 yards (7,315m) at 0929 hours. He wasted little time in signalling the destroyers Obdurate, Obedient and Orwell to join the Onslow and gave orders for the only other destroyer Achates and the remaining vessels of his convoy screen to close with the freighters and lay a smokescreen to try and hide their retreat to the southeast. As Achates began to make smoke so the Hipper hove into view and opened fire on her. Splintered by a near-miss and with her power lines ruptured, the ageing destroyer slowed to 15 knots. At precisely the same time that Kummetz had concentrated his guns upon Achates (0941 hours), Sherbrooke had opened fire on the Hipper from about 9,000 yards (8,229m). Sherbrooke realised he had no chance in an artillery duel with the far heavier weight of shot available to Kummetz’s flagship, but he hoped by steering directly at her and then hauling away he might give the impression that he was firing torpedoes at the heavy cruiser. If his ploy worked, of course, Kummetz would turn away to avoid being hit. Sherbrooke’s only realistic chance was to simulate this type of torpedo attack more than once in a bid to keep the enemy on edge and stall for time until Force R (the light cruisers Jamaica and Sheffield some 50nm [93km] distant) came to his and the other vessels’ rescue. Unfortunately, help was anything from one to four hours away. If the Allied force was to survive for that long and not be crippled in the meantime it would take much initiative, fine shiphandling and raw courage from Sherbrooke and the others captains of his destroyer flotilla. They were up to the task but they needed a slice of luck too and this arrived in the shape of a series of snowy squalls that would temporarily obscure the protagonists from one another. After at least thirty-five minutes of feinting and weaving to good effect and shortly after ordering two of his lightly-armed destroyers (Obdurate and Obedient) to rejoin the convoy to give it added protection, Onslow was finally hit with telling effect by Admiral Hipper at approximately 1016 hours. Holed, on fire, without the use of either her `A’ or `B’ guns and with forty of her crew either dead or wounded, Onslow was in no shape to continue the action. Sherbrooke who had continued to direct operations on the bridge didn’t escape punishment either. Badly injured by flying splinters and having lost the sight of one eye from the flying metal shards, he nonetheless remained at his post, issued orders to lay a smokescreen and only afterwards passed over command to Commander Kinloch on the Obedient before taking his burning vessel out of the line of fire. In putting paid to Onslow (but not sinking her), Kummetz’s gun crews had used 48 x 8-inch (203mm) and 72 x 4.1-inch (104mm) shells to strike her only three times.

Orwell now stood in her path but before Kummetz could do anything on this score, the weather intervened once more blanketing the British destroyer from the sight of the German heavy cruiser. Instead of waiting for the snowstorm to lift, Kummetz decided on a turn to the northeast. This route took him away from the Orwell and the convoy itself now lying some 12nm (22km) distant, but put him on track to meet the minesweeper Bramble. She was quickly rendered into a smoking hulk by a total of 51 x 8-inch (203mm) and 38 x 4.1-inch (104mm) shells that began to rain down on her from shortly after 1036 hours onward. It was no contest, but why Kummetz devoted so much time and attention to destroying Bramble is not clear. She would be finally put out of her misery by the two German destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen, but precious time had been lost in destroying a vessel that posed no real threat to the operation as a whole or to the heavy cruisers in particular. If Kummetz can be faulted for this error, Stange’s entire performance in the Lützow was unsatisfactory. Coming up from the south he and his three destroyers had not sought any action whatsoever. They had crossed the path of the convoy and had reached a point by 1050 hours only 2-3nm (3.7-5.5km) ahead of the freighters. There was nothing in their way and mass slaughter appeared on the cards. Amazingly, Stange failed to respond to this enviable situation. Citing poor visibility, he decided to wait for the weather system to blow itself out and for better conditions to present themselves before taking decisive action. It was an extraordinary blunder. Grossadmiral Raeder would long have cause to regret Stange’s aversion to risk-taking and his appointment to the Lützow.

Even if Stange didn’t recognise the Allied vessels, they had little trouble in determining the Lützow’s identity. Gathering all the British destroyers around the Obedient and displaying none of the restraint of his far more powerful adversary, Kinloch decided that action was called for. Before he could launch any attack, however, the picture became more complicated as Kummetz brought the Hipper back into contention. At 1115 hours she announced her return by opening up once more on the Achates with deadly effect. After pulverising the small destroyer, the German heavy cruiser next turned her attention to the Obedient and quickly straddled her knocking out Kinloch’s wireless as she did so. Command shifted for the second time in a little more than an hour and was passed on this occasion to Lieutenant-Commander Sclater on board the Obdurate. Once again the tactics would be the same – a torpedo feint to force the Admiral Hipper to turn away. It succeeded as before and at 1130 hours the heavy cruiser did just that to comb the tracks of any torpedoes sent her way. Within a minute Force R finally made an appearance and began to make its presence felt as the first shells from the light cruisers Jamaica and Sheffield began to fall around Kummetz’s flagship. Despite frantic manoeuvring, the Hipper was hit by one of Sheffield’s 6-inch (152mm) shells that penetrated her starboard hull beneath her armoured belt some 11 feet (3.35m) below the waterline, causing extensive flooding and knocking out two of her boiler rooms and reducing her power temporarily to 15 knots. Two more shells struck home within the next six minutes: one passing through her hull on the starboard side without exploding and the other detonating inside the aircraft hangar and starting a blazing fire. These were unwelcome and surprising developments, but none were critical and need not have caused the abandonment of the entire operation. After all, neither Jamaica nor Sheffield was actually a match for the two heavy cruisers if they had coordinated their activities better. What Kummetz didn’t know, of course, was whether there were any other Allied ships that would enter the fray and tip the balance of advantage to the other side. He remained very mindful of the advice which Admiral Klüber (Flag Officer, Northern Waters) had given him shortly after he had sailed on the previous evening. `Contrary to operational order regarding contact with the enemy… use caution against enemy of equal strength because it is undesirable for the cruisers to take any great risks.’

Klüber’s original message, coincidentally repeated in condensed form just at this crucial juncture in the battle, would weigh on Kummetz’s mind and dictate his actions subsequently. At 1137 hours he signalled his other ships to break off their action with the Allied vessels and to turn away to the west. As they did so, both the Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen unsuspectingly found themselves on a collision course with the two British light cruisers a mere 2nm away (3.7km). Sheffield sank the former in a blaze of gunfire but Jamaica somehow managed to miss the latter. A minute before Sheffield opened up on the German destroyer (1143 hours), Stange at last got Lützow into the act by opening fire on one of the freighters (Calobre) in the convoy. As the British destroyers congregated to meet this latest threat, they laid a dense smokescreen to obscure the emergency turn to the southwest that the convoy made in an effort to put some distance between the freighters and the German surface vessels. It worked. Kummetz reinforced the order to withdraw back towards Altenfjorden at 1149 hours before darkness fell and Stange complied in a rather languid and desultory way that had marked his entire approach to the naval action throughout. As a result, he failed to make further inroads into the convoy and though the Lützow would inflict some splinter damage on Obdurate at midday, the Battle of the Barents Sea was largely over. There might yet have been a successful resolution of the affair for the Germans after midday as Rear-Admiral Burnett in the Sheffield in grey, misty conditions suddenly stumbled upon the two heavy cruisers and Lützow’s destroyers once more at 1223 hours. A lucky man at the best of times, Burnett was once more fortunate as Stange couldn’t recognise Sheffield’s shape or identity in the prevailing gloom. An awkward interlude of six minutes followed in which both ships challenged one another by flashlight, but Burnett brought that episode to an end by firing upon the Lützow and straddling her at 1229 hours from a distance of about 8nm (15km). Stange replied a minute later but the Lützow’s first shells fell short. Shortly afterwards, Kummetz reappeared once more to join in the shelling at 1234 hours. Her gunners were more accurate and Burnett found his ship being straddled almost immediately. It didn’t take him long to decide that this was an unenviable position to be in and at 1236 hours he retired swiftly to the northwest and out of range. Neither Stange nor Kummetz followed and Sheffield and Jamaica were spared destruction as was convoy JW. 51B which had been the objective of Fall Regenbogen in the first place. In this unsatisfactory way, the Battle of the Barents Sea ended for the Germans. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of what the surface fleet could do for their war effort at sea and would scarcely impress the Führer whose patience with Raeder’s heavy ships was wearing intolerably thin by the end of 1942. Once again the line between success and failure was very thin. Fall Regenbogen could have been a classic triumph for the beleaguered surface fleet, but it ended up in exposing it to ridicule and incurring the Führer’s undying contempt.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Planning the “Dash” I

The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen in the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941. Painting by British artist Jon Kindred.

Although Scharnhorst and Gneisenau posed a considerable threat to the British while lying at Brest in 1941 and the repeated raids by the Royal Air Force were far too inaccurate to do any serious damage, Hitler felt the two units were too exposed, and ordered them to return. Operation 'Cerberus', the daylight dash through the English Channel in February 1942, was probably the Kriegsmarine's greatest success, for it took the British completely by surprise, the two battle-cruisers and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen slipping past ineffectual air and sea attacks. Apart from slight damage to Scharnhorst from a magnetic mine during the final phase it had been a humiliation for the British and proof that audacity pays. 

The two great grey ships appeared off the entrance to the French Atlantic port of Brest just after dawn. They were Germany's 32,000-ton battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returning from marauding raids against Allied shipping in the Atlantic.

They had sailed from Kiel at the beginning of 1941. Evading the British Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow, they had broken through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic. For the next two months like gigantic pirates they roamed the Atlantic shipping lanes sinking more than twenty ships totalling over 100,000 tons. It was the first—and last—successful foray by German battleships against Allied merchant shipping in the Second World War. Then in early March they seemed to disappear into Atlantic mists.

At 7 a.m. on 22 March 1941, as sullen French dock workers watched, they tied up at the quai Lannion in Brest. It was nearly a year since France had fallen and the French Naval base had been taken over by German dockyard workers from Wilhelmshaven. They had returned to Brest because they were badly in need of repairs. The two-months' cruise had revealed serious defects in Scharnhorst's boilers. The tubes of the super-heaters, especially, had given constant trouble threatening a major breakdown. German dockyard engineers who examined her estimated ten weeks would be needed for repairs. When her Kapitän, Kurt Hoffmann, reported this news to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German Navy in Berlin, the German Admiralty staff were shocked at the extent of the repairs necessary.

Her sister ship Gneisenau was also in need of minor repairs. The refit of both battleships went ahead quickly but no Frenchman was allowed to work on them, for French workmen in the repair depots ashore went as slow as they dared to hold up the work of the German conquerors. Throughout the dockyard and in the town, the inhabitants were not only surly and hostile, but some of them were in touch with French underground agents, who would pass the information about the repairs to Britain.
After the ships' arrival eight depressing days passed with unceasing rain and frequent false air-raid alarms. Then on the evening of 30 March came the real thing. The wail of sirens was followed by the crash of bombs. The flak gun crews poured up a curtain of fire but their shells could not reach high-flying planes.

Ashore, many officers of the German Naval Staff were killed when the hotel where they were accommodated was hit and caught fire. The ships were undamaged but when the fragments of bombs were examined by German experts next day they made an important discovery. The RAF had dropped 500-lb armour-piercing bombs specially made to crash through the armoured decks of the warships. The Germans then knew that this was no routine dock raid. These bombs were direct evidence that the RAF knew they were there. Now the raids would never cease. They were right. The RAF started to come day and night when weather permitted.

At dawn on 6 April a RAF torpedo-bomber suddenly dived out of the clouds. It was a Coastal Command Beaufort from St. Eval in Cornwall, piloted by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, who made a most courageous and determined attack upon Gneisenau. She was tied up to the buoy against a wall at the north end of the harbour, protected by the curving mole. The little hills all around the harbour bristled with clusters of guns and moored near the mole as extra protection were three flak ships.

The battleship's position appeared to be impregnable. Even if an aircraft managed to deliver a low level attack it would not be able to pull out in time and must crash into the high ground surrounding the harbour.

But Kenneth Campbell dived down to deck level and flew steadily past the blazing muzzles of the flak ships' guns. He skimmed over the mole and dropped his torpedo at point-blank range towards Gneisenau's stern. As he did so, the German flak gunners hit him and he crashed in flames into the water.

But he had done his job. Seconds later his torpedo exploded against Gneisenau on the starboard side aft. Water rushed in and she began to list heavily. A salvage vessel which came alongside to pump tons of water from her scuppers had difficulty keeping her from sinking.

The bodies of Campbell and his gallant aircrew, Sgts. Scott, Mullis and Hillman, were fished out of the harbour and brought on board the battleship. Their bodies were draped in flags and placed on the quarterdeck, where a guard of honour was mounted as a mark of respect.

While this chivalrous ceremony was taking place, the salvage crews managed to pump enough water out to right her, since she could not remain in danger at the buoy. RAF spotter planes were now informing the British about every move of the battleships. Another attack like Campbell's on Gneisenau would probably sink her.

The following morning Gneisenau again entered dry dock where inspection confirmed that Campbell's torpedo had wrecked the starboard propeller and shaft tunnel. This would need six months to repair. She would be out of action twice as long as Scharnhorst.

When the British heard about Campbell's heroic act he was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. The citation said: "Despising heavy odds Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell went cheerfully and resolutely to his task. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, he displayed valour of the highest order."

As a result of Campbell's torpedo both battleships were now due for a long stay so the German Navy decided to put their static fleet to some use. A detachment of a hundred midshipmen were sent from Germany to the Brest battleships to complete their training. They were posted equally to both ships and, as anti-aircraft defence was most vital, this was their main task. It became a brutal battle training for these budding officers. For some it was very short.

On the night of 10 April, the sirens again wailed and the first bomb explosions could be heard above the roar of the flak guns. Suddenly there came a series of tremendous flashes and explosions and a red glow lit up Gneisenau's superstructure. She had been hit by three bombs and was on fire. The bombs killed fifty and wounded ninety of her crew, the heaviest casualties being among the flak crews and the young midshipmen. At the time of the raid many of the off-duty midshipmen were in their quarters between decks. Most of them were killed by fragments of other big bombs exploding on the quayside.

As ambulances drew up at the ship's gangway and long rows of stretcher cases were taken to hospital, Captain Hoffmann went across from Scharnhorst to offer help. He ordered a working-party to fight the fires on the mess decks, but they had to flood one magazine before the fires were controlled and Gneisenau out of danger.

The Germans' main concern was to conceal the extent of the damage from the French, but each battleship could only make ten coffins, and this meant tiiey would have to call in French carpenters to make many more. When the order was given the news of the German dead spread rapidly among the inhabitants of Brest.

After this they arranged for most of the crews to sleep ashore in barracks, leaving only flak gunners and a duty watch in the ship. This raid also decided the authorities in Berlin to step up the A.A. defences of Brest. They increased the number of 4-inch guns to 150 and smaller flak guns to 1,200, to make a murderous concentration of fire. Also the two battleships were moved closer together. The lock gates were closed and protected by nets against torpedoes fired by either intruding submarines or wave-skimming planes.

In Scharnhorst's old berth, Hoffmann built a wooden and sheet-iron replica of her on the hull of an old French cruiser, Jeanne d'Arc. Nets hung from the battleships' masts to the dockside with paint sprayed over them to make them resemble clumps of trees. On the roofs of the Naval College the surviving midshipmen erected wooden huts to make it look like a village.

A network of artificial smoke-generators which could shroud the port under a thick fog within a few minutes was installed around the harbour. This last precaution aroused protests from the Luftwaffe who maintained that the dense smoke would endanger their fighter operations. This artificial fog also nearly caused a collision between the two battleships when they came to leave harbour.

The flak and the fighters gave them protection during the day but in darkness it was a different story. As the RAF's heavy bombing continued nearly every night it looked as though not only would the ships be damaged but most of their crews endangered. Although many of them were taken at night in lorries to barracks in Brest, many were still being killed ashore so it was decided to move them farther out to avoid the raids.

They were moved at night to La Roche fifteen miles from Brest near the sleepy little Breton town of Landerneau. Both places were on the main line to Paris and the railway was used a lot to move crews about.

Hidden in a small forest of birch trees near Landerneau, barracks were built for the crews of each ship. It was also planned to build extra ones for the crew of another German battleship, Bismarck, due in for a refit after her own Atlantic merchant shipping forays. Outside the dockyard at Brest the large buoys swung at their moorings awaiting her arrival.

While the other two German battleships were being repaired in Brest, Bismarck was sheltering in the German-occupied Norwegian port of Bergen. But on a moonless night—20 May 1941—she slipped out, escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. At noon next day, when the news reached the Admiralty in Whitehall, the Home Fleet was ordered to sail from Scapa Flow to intercept the German ships south of the Denmark Straits.

At dawn on 24 May the two German ships were in action with the British fleet, which included the veteran battle-cruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales on her maiden voyage. The Royal Navy had the worst of the battle. Hood, hit by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, blew up. Prince of Wales was so badly damaged that she took no further part in the action. But smaller Royal Naval ships still shadowed the fast-steaming Bismarck.

In the afternoon the new aircraft-carrier Victorious was detached from the main force to attack her. When 825 Squadron of Swordfish rose from her flight deck to make a night attack on the German battleship, the leading plane was piloted by Lt.-Cdr. Eugene Esmonde.

At 11:30 p.m., when they were 120 miles from the carrier, Esmonde's Swordfish squadron sighted Bismarck. Flying 100 feet above the waves in the darkness, they let go their torpedoes from less than 1,000 yards. As they banked away there was a roar followed by a flash and a curling plume of flame.
The Bismarck had been hit amidships.

The torpedo slowed her down, and after a three-day chase the Home Fleet again brought the Bismarck into action. This time she was alone. Four hours before the battle the Prinz Eugen had slipped away. The Bismarck sank under the guns and torpedoes of the Royal Navy.

It was on the night of 7 May that German naval officers at Brest, surreptitiously listening to the B.B.C. news, heard: "At 10:37 G.M.T. the German battleship Bismarck was sunk."

Planning the “Dash” II

The German Navy in Brest took the news of Bismarck's sinking gloomily. Equally depressing was the lack of news of her escorting cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Had she too been sunk? Or had she escaped and was preserving radio silence in case her calls were intercepted by the pursuing Royal Navy? For five days there was silence. Then at dawn on 1 June a buzz of excitement went round the battleship crews. Prinz Eugen had appeared at the entrance to Brest Harbour.

She brought grim news. When her captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, made a report to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin about the fate of the Bismarck, he stated that the British battleships now had such good radar equipment that it could not be evaded.

The rest of the situation was also depressing. Despite German precautions, day and night raids on Brest docks became a familiar part of their daily life. Almost every day, the B.B.C.'s nine o'clock news reported that bombers had visited Brest to attack the German warships.

The British realized that this constant bombing might eventually cause the Germans to make a desperate dash home. A series of conferences was held between Admiralty and Air Ministry planners. 

As a result Coastal Command was ordered to establish three separate dusk-to-dawn radar reconnaissance patrols off Brest and along the Channel. They became known as "Stopper," which covered from Brest to Ushant, "Line SE" from Ushant to Brittany and "Habo" from Le Havre to Boulogne. Fighter Command also organized daylight Channel sweeps known as "Jim Crow."

On 29 April 1941 an Air Ministry letter to the three RAF Commands—Fighter, Bomber and Coastal—said: "Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may attempt to reach a German port up the Channel route during the period April 30th to May 4th inclusive. It is considered probable that the Straits of Dover will be navigated in darkness. It is considered unlikely that the enemy would attempt the passage of the Straits in daylight. But if this should be attempted, a unique opportunity will be offered to both our surface craft and air striking force to engage the enemy ships in force whilst in the Straits of Dover." Bomber Command was instructed to have strike forces in readiness for the Germans leaving Brest.

At this stage, the RAF were well ahead of the Germans in their tactical appreciation. It was not until 30 May—a month after the Air Ministry had considered the possibility of a Channel break-out—that the German Naval Command West in Paris sent a memorandum to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin suggesting a contingency plan: "The possibility of bringing heavy ships through the English Channel should be carefully examined. The route is shorter than the Iceland passage. There are good escort possibilities, both air and sea. Enemy radar could be jammed. Superior enemy units would not be present and the passage would be in the close proximity of our own harbours to which ships could be taken in the event of breakdowns."

Raeder reacted strongly against this suggestion. He drew up a formidable list of hazards: "1. The difficulty of navigation in narrow waters. 2. The battleships must be seen by the British. 3. The danger from mines, torpedo boats, torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive-bombers."

But Raeder's principal objection was that mine-sweepers could not clear a wide enough path for the ships to take avoiding action in the event of torpedo attack. He concluded, "The naval war staff therefore consider an unobserved and safe escape through the Channel to be impossible." This view entirely coincided with that of his opposite number in London, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.

Raeder had good reasons for being cautious. For he had only five battleships—including the "pocket" battleships—to the Royal Navy's fifteen. He had no aircraft-carriers, although the Graf Zeppelin was under construction—but never completed—whilst the British had six operational carriers.

Raeder, one of the ablest and most professional naval officers Germany has ever produced, nursed his ships like a duck with ducklings. During the fourteen years in which he was its Commander-in-Chief no one had guarded the honour of the German Navy more jealously than he.

When Raeder rejected the Channel plan it was generally felt among the admirals in Berlin that this was the end of the matter. For Hitler trusted Raeder's judgement and had promoted him to Grand Admiral, second only to Goring as Hitler's adviser for the prosecution of the war.

It came as a surprise when Admiral Krancke, Raeder's personal representative on Hitler's Supreme Staff, was summoned to the Führer's headquarters and, standing stiffly to attention, listened pale-faced to the tirade of abuse concerning the German capital ships and their officers which Hitler hurled at him.

Hitler, at war with Russia since June, was becoming alarmed at the numerous small British commando raids on the coast of Norway, starting with the Lofotens in March 1941. He considered the Norwegian coastline to be the most vulnerable section of his Western Wall. The news had also reached Hitler that British convoys were bringing tanks, aircraft and guns to the Eastern Front. He decided that Norway, where in any case he had always thought the British intended to open a second front, had now become even more strategically important.

Meanwhile the RAF continued to keep up their non-stop bombing attacks on Brest. A month after Raeder had rejected the Channel plan—on the morning of 1 July—it was Prinz Eugens turn. While she lay alongside the eastern basin of the commercial dock, a RAF bomb smashed the ship's armour-plating and exploded in the most vulnerable compartments— the plotting room and transmitting station. It killed forty-seven men, including her first officer, Cdr. Otto Stoos, and wounded thirty-two. It also put Prinz Eugen out of action for three months.

On the other hand, Scharnhorst was refitted and on the morning of 23 July left for La Pallice, 250 miles to the south, for trials to test her super-heaters and practise firing her guns. Captain Hoffmann chose the shoal-dotted waters around La Pallice because they afforded the best protection against submarines and he needed only a few patrol boats to keep watch.

A tanker took her place in the dock as a decoy and was covered with netting. To disguise the direction of her departure, the Germans put out false oil trails leading north from Brest. In spite of this careful camouflage, the ever-watchful RAF spotted the move and reported that Scharnhorst was moving south from her berth. Was she about to break out into the Atlantic? As spotter planes watched her, the opinion grew that this might be the long-awaited escape.

Unaware of the British suspicions, the battleship performed perfectly, reaching a speed of thirty knots without difficulty. She returned to La Pallice that evening, expecting to remain there for several days while minor adjustments were made.

Before dark a group of Stirling heavy bombers attacked her and made one direct hit with a heavy armour-piercing bomb. More heavy bomber attacks during the night damaged La Pallice docks. At dawn a RAF photographic reconnaissance plane was over La Pallice. As it revealed little serious damage it was decided to mount the most massive daylight raid on both battleships.

Ninety-nine RAF bombers took off, arriving over the battleships at 2 p.m. Three Flying Fortresses, sixty-three Wellingtons and eighteen Hampdens attacked the Gneisenau in Brest while eight Halifaxes bombed the Scharnhorst in La Pallice.

This was the first time Fortresses, fitted with the new Sperry bombsight for high altitude bombing, had taken part in a raid on the Brest battleships. They had arrived in England just three months before and the attack that hot July afternoon on the German battleships was only their third operation.

Because of the height at which they operated they carried special aircrews—none of them over 24 years old. The pilots of the three Fortresses, Wing-Cdr. Macdougall, Sq. Ldr. MacLaren and Flt.-Lt. Mathieson, were told to concentrate on the Gneisenau. At eight minutes past two they started bombing from a height of 30,000 feet, each aircraft dropping four 1100-lb. bombs which burst on the quays and docks. Although accurate flak was seen following them a thousand feet below they were too high for the German defences. After they had released their bombs three Messerschmitts climbed steeply towards them but the Fortresses turned away and lost them.

At the same time Wing-Cdr. Maw led the low-level British-built bombers down to 6,000 feet, their bombs bursting among the dockyard buildings. Pilot Officer Payne went down to 3,500 feet and as his bombs straddled the Gneisenau both he and his front gunner, Sgt. Wilkinson, were wounded by flak.