WW2 Fleets and battles
USS Iowa (1944). A good representative of the “big gun battleship” which was still the norm in this era. However, by 1944 their role was no more to fight their counterparts but to do shore bombardment and protect the fleet with their impressive anti-aircraft battery.
The respective tonnage of the fleet reflects this fact. In 1918 the different powers were engaged in a race to gigantism had grave effects for their national budgets. A first disarmament treaty was therefore proposed at the initiative of the US president and signed in Washington in 1923. He was packaged in large part, to the following treaties, the new face of fleets amid the “Roaring Twenties” See the page dedicated to the naval treaties and conferences for the period 1919-1936.
Tonnage in 1939 of first rate navies
- 1-UK and Commonwealth
- Battleships 504 000
- Aircraft Carriers 113 880
- Cruisers 467 306
- Destroyers 282 215
- Submersibles 66 828
- Misc* 158 853
- Total 1 593 182 Tonnes
- Battleships 329,240
- Aircraft Carriers 154,745
- Cruisers 268,496
- Destroyers 202,699
- Submersibles 116,084
- Misc* 178,043
- Total 1,249,907 Tonnes
- Battleships 190,000
- Aircraft Carriers 22,146
- Cruisers 171,185
- Destroyers 127,520
- Submersibles ?
- Misc* ?
- Total -? Tonnes
- (To come)
- Battleships 75,000
- Cruisers 29,297
- Destroyers 96,937
- Submersibles 119,594
- Misc* 84,309
- Total 402,138 Tonnes
2-USA (to come)
*Miscellaneous: Torpedo Boats, Avisos, Destroyers escort, Gunboats, Frigates, Corvettes, Hydroplane Carriers, Auxiliary Cruisers, Minesweepers and Mine layers, Landing craft, MTBs, Patrollers, Fishery Guardships.
Naval treaties and conferences (1919-1936)
Tosa class battleship as built, cancelled due to the treaty of Washington, 1920.
Treaty Of Versailles (June 28 1919)
Representatives of the Allied Powers, USA, Italy, France, UK, signed it in the hall of mirrors, Palace of Versailles, near Paris. This infamous treaty had dire consequences for Germany. Without going back to the mythical Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which under the Papal blessing, divided the South American continent between Portuguese and Spanish possessions, the this post-victory peace treaty focused on the drastic disarmament if Germany, which also included naval clauses.
The treaty even not spared German shipping, of which nearly half was given to the allies, but mostly curtailed the mighty Hochseeflotte, still largely intact in 1918 (but which virtually ceased to exist 28 January 1920, two months after his internment at Scapa Flow). The new peace-time German Navy was to remain a reasonable self-defense force, excluding any naval dominance and colonial purposes. For battleships, only the oldest pre-dreadnoughts were kept in service (class Deutschland and Braunschweig, 8 units). 6 were to be operational as “coastal battleships”, and two as schoolships. Alongside, 6 old cruisers of the Gazelle and Bremen (1898-1905) classes were kept, but also 12 destroyers and 12 torpedo-boats.
Another clause stated a firm and definitive ban of submersible construction or any aircraft (and aircraft carriers). There was no formal specific ban on shipbuilding types but only 10 000 tonnes were allowed as a maximal tonnage. We know how the Reichsmarine managed to overcome this limitation, turning its attention to three unique ships dubbed “pocket battleships” because their tonnage only authorized a light cruiser armour. In the new German naval thought it these were assimilated to raiding ships, designed specifically to destroy merchant ships and deal with escorts as massive as heavy cruisers. In fact not affected by the Treaty of Washington in 1922, Germany was free to design unique ships armed with batteries of 280 mm caliber instead of 203 mm as customary for cruisers of the tonnage.
For the submersible ban, Dönitz and Hitler secretly developed a “civilian” office in the Hague, “for the purpose of experimentation”, delivering in the mid thirties a few military units for some minor navies (Dutch, Swedish, Turkish, Finnish…), gaining considerable experience. In 1933, with the arrival of Hitler, Admiral Raeder unleashed the Z plan, resolutely breaking with the Treaty of Versailles in all directions. From that date, Kriegsmarine gradually replaced the Reichsmarine.
Treaty Of Washington (February 6, 1920)
The Washington Treaty was probably the greatest maritime disarmament treaty ever, ending the arms race between nations at the end of the First World War, especially in terms of capital ships. The latter were instruments par excellence of military and economic power at that time, but also sucked considerable resources. This was a case of Politicians vs Navy staffs to the benefit of the tax payers, that would have major consequences for the standardization of warships and interruption of years of the development of capital ships.
Germany was the only former great maritime power not affected by this Treaty (see above), as well as Russia torn by civil war, causing ruin and destruction for the old Imperial Navy, also one of the world’s largest before 1905.
The five signatory countries (Great Britain, USA, Japan, France, Italy) had just built and put into service 8 to 20 Dreadnought battleships, and were prepared to build new ones, even more powerful and faster. Battleships and Battle Cruisers on paper had an average tonnage exceeding 45 000 tonnes (as against 25 000 for the Dreadnought of 1906, 200 to 260 meters long, a battery of 406 mm guns, or even 457 mm for some. Some commissioned even monsters of 70 000 tonnes, armed with 508 mm or 533 mm (20- 21 inches) artillery pieces.
-The Royal Navy was to receive 4 improved battlecruisers of the Hood type, soon to be replaced by the St Vincent and Vanguard. Only the class Nelson will emerged from this second wave as “derogatory” units to the treaty (they would have been demolished otherwise but were too advanced to do so).
-Japan had the will, the training, traditions and industrial assets to be the dominant force in Asia, and diplomatically tried to achieve nothing less than parity, at least with the US and Royal Navy. The Kaga, Kii, Tosa classes of fast battleships were under construction.
-The US, which had previously no battle cruisers started construction of six huge ones of the Lexington class, 260 meters long for 50 000 tonnes and later planned the 6 South Dakota class (45 000 tonnes)
-France approved its behalf in 1912 the construction of the new battleships of the Béarn and Lion class, initially scheduled to enter into service in 1917-1919, armed with 3 to 4 quadruple turrets.
-Italy had the four Caracciolo under construction, anticipating also the fast-battleships of the late 1930s incorporating the lessons of the battle of Jutland.
All these steel leviathans were to take an impressive share of naval expenditures as a whole, adding to state spending, pressure on taxpayers in a way that bordered on the unbearable. In the long-term sense, especially in the context of terrible economic difficulties for the allies, it was finally agreed at the behest of US President, Harold Wilson, an agreement for a drastic plan of naval limitation and disarmament, established February 6, 1922.
The main provisions concern (Article 3) cancellation of all ongoing ship construction and future programs, limiting the global tonnage (Article 4) for capital ship, battleships and battle cruisers, new and future. USA and UK were allowed 525 000 tons, 315 000 for Japan, and France and Italy were allowed 175 000 tons.
Article 5 further defined the unit tonnage of such vessels, that shall in no case exceed 35,000 tons standard (empty weight in running order and not at full load). There was a small room to maneuver though in relation to the overall tonnage granted (France for example indeed managed to order five compromising vessels of 35 000 tonnes, the future Dunkirk, Strasbourg, Richelieu, Jean Bart and Clemenceau). Furthermore it was specified that existing battleships should be conserved in service at least 20 years, compensating for a moratorium in new constructions of at least 5 years starting from the signing of the treaty.
Article 6 limited the maximum size of the main artillery of these ships to 406 mm (caliber adopted by the US and Japan recently). This was still limit during World War II (except Japan with the Yamato).
Article 7 however left considerable room in terms of aircraft carriers, a somewhat avant-garde measure given the mentality of the admiralties at that time. The type being considered as an “auxiliary” together with miscellaneous and light ships. The USA and UK were allowed 135,000 tons, Japan 81000, France and Italy 60 000 tonnes, the displacement of two large Aircraft Carriers. In fact,
Article 9 added that this tonnage per unit could not exceed 27 000 tonnes.
In addition, Article 8 stipulated that these aircraft carriers being new “treaty ships”, all in service prior to the signature should be considered as “experimental” and only kept for training. A clause that suited most the Royal Navy and Japan which had just achieved the Hosho.
Article 9 specified that exceptionally two 33 000 tonnes aircraft carriers could be built for these nations. Section 10 added limitations of size and number of on-board artillery for these aircraft carriers, in order not to allow signatories building “hybrid” battleships abusively declared as aircraft carriers. In line with the ideas of the time, an aircraft carrier was able to defend itself by its own means (planes as a defence means were not being taken seriously!). So they were allowed the equivalent artillery to that of heavy cruisers (8 cannons, 203 mm).
Articles 11 and 12 famously standardized heavy cruisers (10 000 tonnes, 203 mm guns). There were no obstacles to build cruisers within this limit, armed with more than 10 pieces of this caliber, as did the Japanese. Article 13 concerned the exclusion of these limits for requisitioned armed merchant ships used as auxiliary cruisers in time of war or other special circumstances, frequently exceeding 20 000 tonnes.
Article 14 added that their artillery should be limited to 152 mm caliber.
Articles 15, 16 and 17 prohibit signatory countries to build for export ships exceeding the limits of the treaty or to requisition one to increase their own tonnage in case of war, or purchase one by a non-signatory nation.
Article 19 was quite important because it stated that no territorial extension of naval bases and coastal fortifications for “imperial” or colonial powers like the British, American or Japanese should be allowed, but there was no obstacles to improve local naval bases. Therefore Singapore or the Manila Bay (Corregidor) defenses were considerably improved. The US Navy in particular strengthened the approaches of Manila bay by building a serie of “concrete battleships” in 1931.
Chapter II of the Treaty then set out for each country their total and cumulative tonnages, demolitions, cancellation and completion of ships, or those in service for less than 15 years. The second part of this chapter detailed the meaning of “scrapping” (to scrap, sort of “ultimate reserves” before demolition) in order to prevent a country to keep battleships officially out of the “normal” naval reserve with a minimum of maintenance. The article stated that any ships to be scrapped had to be disarmed, the armour dismantled and rangefinders dismounted, as well as its engines. Only conversion in target vessels (such as USS Utah) was tolerated. In the case of France and Italy, conversion as school ships under conditions made them unable to be converted back as warships even in case of war.
The treaty made no mention of destroyers, torpedo boats or submersibles, patrol boats and others, leaving significant room for maneuver to signatory countries in this area. The third part of the second chapter was undoubtedly one of the most important, setting an effective moratorium for 10 years from the signing of the Treaty for capital ships, excluding reconstructions within the permitted tonnage. It was also specified that the signatories were to communicate all relevant information on the general characteristics of their new vessels planned, with the exception of some secret information, details about some weapons and the particulars of the armour scheme, technical or structural details that were all classified. The remainder of the treaty specified the definition of vessels cited in the articles above, standard displacement, and specified a possible re-negotiation 8 years after. In any case, the exact expiration date was 31 December 1936. In a sense this treaty also announced somehow the London conference in 1930.
This text also tried to “freeze” artificially Japan’s ongoing militarization initiated in 1919. Japan will ratify the treaty only after heavy concessions from the USA, in turn renouncing parts of its own program to strengthen its naval bases, or the British Empire, which was accepted parity with USA and had to compromise with the Anglo-Japanese naval agreement in force since 1904. Japan saw in its inferior ratio a racial provocation, only feeding nascent nationalism, giving the Empire more preventions towards the west, only to be confirmed at the time of the London Treaty of 1930. It however allowed Nations to continue a serene naval policy while saving taxpayers money (if not the waste generated by the demolition of canceled or almost completed ships in 1922!).
In the end, this treaty was beneficial for its rationalization, particularly the French and Italian navies, which built a much higher homogeneity rather that losing themselves into sterile experimentation. This imposed rivalry was never “digested” by France either, which saw a clear amputation of its potential in relation to the needs of its overseas empire and former grandeur. The most vindictive against the treaty argued that the fleet would have almost as many “Capital Ships” as UK if the 1912 plan had been completed. In 1923, however, the French representatives obtained a clause to be inserted for a ratification protocol giving more margin to built lighter ships. It was not the only discordant note afterward: An additional naval limitations were tempted towards the USSR, as for the Baltic countries (Germany excluded), the South American countries, followed proposed extensions to Spain, Holland, Belgium, also failed, all asking for unrealistic ratios. In the end, full ratification was never obtained and left more or less all participants but Italy a bitter taste.
London Naval Conference (Jan 21-April 22, 1930)
Members of the US delegation (and French Admiral Darlan, 2nd to the right en route for the 1930 London conference
As announced in the treaty of Washington, it was possible after 8 years to renegotiate some aspects. Situation of the different naval powers involved had changed with the arrival of many aircraft carriers, mostly converted from canceled ships, as well as the first “treaty” heavy cruisers, light cruisers, or destroyers. Also, modernization was ongoing for capital ships, or about to be so. The international situation had evolved significantly whereas the five original Washington Treaty signatories were present again (Germany still out as the USSR, now rearming). The Treaty of Locarno (1925) established a “freeze” on any land claims and the diplomatic status quo. In addition, the Kellogg-Briand Pact stated a ban for war as an instrument of foreign policy. But also in 1927 was the beginning of a new Japan militarism (General Tanaka Giishi) and the adoption by the Emperor of the Tanaka memorandum, giving Japan the moral right to built its own colonial empire in Asia.
More importantly, the conference coincided the Wall Street crash, whose consequences would be felt a bit later in France and Great Britain. France, meanwhile, never ceased to question its ratio, representatives like Admiral Darlan preparing specific additions including needs a reevaluated total tonnage of 800,000 tons seen as a fitting response to the growing threat of the Italian fleet, the German fleet in case of incursion in the north sea, and moreover protection of the empire commercial lines and defense of the colonies, with a margin of safety. Seeing the firmness of the three great naval powers not to give an inch on the Washington limitations to all categories of ships, these provisions were rejected.
- Standard displacement of submarines was restricted to 2,000 tons
- Three submarines up to 2,800 tons retained by the RN and USN.
- Submarine gun caliber restricted to 6.1 in (155 mm).
- Official distinction reaffirmed between 6.1 in (155 mm) “light cruisers” and 8 in (203 mm) “heavy cruisers).
- Heavy cruisers number limited per fleet: UK 15 (mostly County and York classes) for 147,000 tons, USA 18 for 180,000 tons, Japan 12 for 108,000 tons.
- Light cruisers tonnage limits: USN 143,500 tons, RN: 192,200 tons, IJN: 100,450 tons.
- Destroyer tonnage limited to 1,850 tons, 5.1 in (130 mm) guns. USN, RN: 150,000 tons, IJN 105,500 tons.
- Article 22 also precised conditions of submarines warfare, applying international law to them as surface vessels and conditions allowing to sink a merchant vessel.
It has been often considered “the best Washington cruiser”, and was built at the same time of the Zara class cruisers. Soon afterwards, the London treaty already condemned 8-in cruisers and so they disappeared from the various fleets nomenclature.
Polish Blyslawika class destroyers. Small naval powers like Poland, the Netherlands, or the kingdom of Yougoslavia were not signatory, and therefore not constrained by the treaty. This conducted both countries to order in UK “extreme destroyers”, the Blyslawika class and Dubrovnik. Both exceeded the limit. France also did not respected the destroyer limit only by playing with the concept of “flotilla leaders”. So did the Royal Navy from 1936 with the Cossack class, but this was already the result of the 1936 London conference.
Section 1 of the London treaty confirmed the shipbuilding moratorium until 1936. Article 2 set out a number of ships that could be converted to target vessels or demolished and thus replaced or be converted as training ships. For the USA, the Arkansas and Wyoming were cited.
For Japan, the battlecruiser Hiei (1913) was concerned and officially converted into a training ship, but engineers under orders made sure to quickly rearmed the ship a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
For UK, the HMS Iron Duke was also converted as a training ship. Article 3 detailed the different arrangements for the use of aircraft carried on board, still forbidding hybrid conversions from liners, but allowing seaplanes, or even airplanes carriers, recalling Article 4 for 10,000 tonnes ships not to be armed with more than 155 mm guns.
Part II of the Treaty lays down the definition of “standard tonnage” for submersible*. It authorized the construction of 2,000 tons units armed with 130 mm pieces, units of 2,800 tons with 155 mm guns, with specific derogatory references for the French Surcouf, USS Argonaut and British XI. Article 8 on smaller torpedo boats had to meet certain criteria: 600 tonnes standards at most one piece 155 mm accepted, four 76 mm, Torpedo Tubes, and capable of 20 knots and more. At the contrary the mention was reverted for fleet tankers, workshops ships and other auxiliaries, forbidden to possess a 155 mm gun, or more than 4 guns of 76 mm, be armoured or laying mines, possess a landing runway, but to have a catapult and hangars. No tonnage limit was associated.
Article 12 recalled the obligation of transparency and delivery of information by the signatories on their new ships, authorizing specific replacement. Article 13 specified that all vessels anchored in ports and considered pontoons and floating barracks, or depots and escaping the limitations should in no circumstances beings able to reach the open sea. Annex 1 brought a number of clarifications regarding replacements, by tonnage and year, further confirming that a ship lost at sea could be replaced immediately without time constraints.
Annex II continued in this direction stating that the vessels conserved in service had to belong to specific categories, pending scrapping, being utility hulls (hauled or towed, as containers or pontoons), target vessel (again with stringent specifications) testing ships (no machinery, unarmed), and finally schoolships. Limitations were such that French cruiser Jeanne d’Arc, which had some light protection, small conning tower and fell within the category of cruisers despite being tailored as a training ship).
The following different sections allowed to give details, the latest listing by country vessels “derogatory” to the treaty can be kept. Part III of the Treaty defined the distinction between light and heavy cruisers (more or less than 155 mm for the caliber of the main artillery), a destroyer of over 1,850 tons of standard and reinforced over 130 mm pieces, which can be defined as a light cruiser. Article 16 then gave the precise tonnage of the units of each class can beings used by the US fleet, Great Britain and Japan. The United States thus gave 180,000 tons of heavy cruisers, 146,800 in Britain and 108,400 in Japan (these specific tonnages took into account the units already in service and the planned next ten tons.).
For example, the 192 200 tonnes granted to Britain ** as light cruisers (more than the USA) was based on the fleet of vessels of class C and D which dated from 1917 to 1919, and therefore were still in service. By cons for destroyers, two Anglo-Saxon powers agreed 45,000 tons more than Japan, the latter relegated to 105 200 tonnes, no doubt in part to dissuade to build too formidable of its new ships Fubuki class, built shortly before the conference, which together constituted a new firepower standard. For submarines, probably in compensation, the three Nations were tied for may have 52 700 tonnes of units.
Finally, the same Article 16 allowed the US to be in service 18 heavy cruisers, 15 for Britain and 12 for Japan. It allowed for the destroyers that 16% of vessels over 1,500 tons, of which the countries concerned will, except Japan, destroyers “standards” and “Wings of leaders”, and demanded that no more than 25% of cruisers have a carrier aviation.
Section 22 (Part IV of the Treaty) is one of the most interesting, containing rules of “good conduct” submersible (surface vessels and privateers acting) in the war on trade. It is specified in terms of international law that a merchant vessel, cargo vessels, will necessarily have its crew, passengers, and its register and log book placed in safety before the destruction of the ship after the customary warnings. The commander of the privateer to ensure that if he leaves the shipwrecked in their boats, that they are not in danger and rescued by the presence of the proximity to the coast of another vessel, or left in calm weather. It was further stated that this rule was valid in law and ad vitam eternam not until the Treaty expires. We know that this will be part of submariners Germans at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic and Arctic …
In fact, this clause must be resituated in context. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Lee of Farenham, partly because of the tradition of ‘fleet in being “Columbia, and the bitter memory of the U-Bootes in 1914-18, fiercely opposes the submersible construction. France meanwhile, is particularly committed, not only for historical reasons (pioneer in the field, young school, etc …), but also practical: These threatening buildings for heavy units are a defensive weapon of choice inexpensive.
Furthermore, France just successfully export it does not slow down. The differential is set by the addition of this article, which authorizes these units but decreases at the same time their offensive capabilities by employment conditions that are not suitable to their nature. All submersibles that did not apply these restrictive rules were declared pirates beings. This article ended by upsetting France, and it will eventually modified, eliminating the concept and the term “piracy”. The Treaty of Washington to be completed in December 1936, the nations involved were to meet in 1935 to establish the foundation for succession of the Treaty, extension, modification, or renegotiated.
Overall the London Treaty sought, in addition to maintaining and specifying what had been set to limit the maritime resources of Japan, more and more threatening. It should also be noted that Italy does not ratify all the terms of the treaty, saying its insufficient tonnage such as France refused herself this parity. The negotiations will continue in Geneva on the final ratification of the French and Italians, through a British negotiator, Craigie ultimately result in concessions and a reassessment of the ratio of Washington and tonnage granted lines of buildings (181 000 tonnes instead of 175 000), but especially Italy and France could exercise their right to build new line units replacing the old upon ratification (1932) and before the Treaty expires in 1936. what the French will by initiating two Dunkirk. Parity was maintained, however, the benefit of Italy, since it had also been more fully modernized its units that old dreadnoughts French ageless, maintained only to get to this tonnage. But the two actors, also in front of the Columbia intransigence not see France have the fleet it wanted, refused, in the end, the final compromise, and the full ratification of the Treaty of London by the five signatories Washington ended in failure.
In 1934, the situation deteriorated again, with the denunciation by Japan of the Washington Treaty, followed by France, which without formally denounce, before the net cooling of diplomatic relations with Italy and the growing threat of a reset Germany says it is not bound by s quotation originally defined.
*The standard tonnage for submersible relates to a unit in “working order”, but devoid of liquids on board, fuel oil, lubricants, oil, sea water (ballast) and drinking water.
German-British Naval Agreement (June 18, 1936)
Happened after the Stresa Conference, the agreement signed between Britain, France and Italy in order to prevent Germany from too rapid rearmament and broken after the invasion of Ethiopia Mussolini, Britain is seen almost forced by the ambitions of the Third Reich to propose a “gentleman’s agreement” on a ratio allowing him room to maneuver (which was operated as a first fault), and a guarantee that a new “Hochseeflotte” can recover.
Britain was considering a rapprochement between Italy and Germany, but she could not imagine the consequences of an alliance (unlikely) between France and the other two countries in Continental Europe. This agreement is done through embassies notes, without consulting France (obviously), and enables the Third Reich to have initially equivalent to 35% fleet of the Royal Navy, raised to 45% submarines. It is confirmed by a statement on July 17, 1937, which formalizes the same time the ratification of Germany in the second Treaty of London. Front appetites and inflexibility of Hitler, the Treaty of Versailles is almost buried. It does not also consider a clash with the Royal Navy, especially because of the great esteem he wore the English people ( “people dominating, brother people”), and the possibility of a future alliance a division of the world, especially directed against the country “decadent”, “sclerotic by the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory” and the Bolsheviks, the UK had traditionally abhor.
This agreement anyway like an “appetizer” before the collapse of Munich …
The second London Conference (25 March 1936).
It was signed in December 1935, one year before the expiration of the Washington Treaty, in a much more feverish diplomatic atmosphere (The weight of Germany and its growing demands, especially against the Treaty of Versailles, the USSR entry to the League in September 1934 and involvement in European policies, or a strengthening militarist policy in Japan. The second London conference sat between 3 former co-signatories, Western democratic powers: US, France and Britain. Fascist Italy was more aggressive and placed on the bench of Nations after its invasion of Ethiopia. Italy asked sanctions of the League of Nations to be lifted as a precondition before any naval negotiations. Japan still clung to parity with the US navy, but was not rewarded and slammed the door definitively. The Yamato program was then confirmed.
France was persuaded to allow signature including Germany as approval. Italy ratified the treaty after the lifting of sanctions in 1938. The agreement extended the Washington Treaty until 1942, but for the benefit of vessels pending retirement. New battleships could be now constructed, furthermore under less draconian conditions:
In addition, information by any country on their ships in construction were to be much more detailed. Non-signatories as a result were Germany and Japan. False informations were given at first, or outright dissimulation. Following the ratification of the Treaty, in March 1936, further ratifications included Italy in 1937, Germany, while the British tried to attach signatures from USSR (acquired in July 1937), Poland (April 1938), and the Scandinavian and Baltic naval powers such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark. To obtain these, they were allowed tonnages far above their means and their industrial capacity. By June 30, 1938, the Additional Protocol made effective the increase of tonnage to 45 000 tonnes at the instigation of the US, eager to maintain absolute superiority over the Japanese Navy. Indeed already the Iowa and Montana designs were discussed.
Japan refused this extension of the Washington Treaty and considered freed of all constraints. Germany would eventually also slammed the door de facto in April 27, 1939, when the Third Reich revealed the superlative battleship Bismarck. This was the last scratch from the Washington Treaty, the Yamato followed in 1941 and a new race was going on already. However, soon the new capital ship, the aicraft carrier, would enter the fray and put an end to the “big gun race” ongoing since the Dreadnought in 1906.
In 1939 the Royal Navy was still all-powerful, although the 1929 crisis and severe budget cuts made it half its 1914 tonnage in practice, this was still the undisputed world global naval power.
So what could we say about ww2 warships and naval forces?
-In Europe, The Royal Navy was the uncontested master of the North Sea and the Atlantic, condemning the small Kriegsmarine (even more the Hochseeflotte back in 1914) to inaction in the Baltic, if that was not for two factors: The German naval plan included an asymmetric approach to naval warfare which was mostly provisional, waiting for the new ships of the Z Plan to come out. This was a “corsair” war, raids against commercial lines but certainly not the research of a direct naval confrontation. Each ship designed for the Kriegsmarine was to be superior to all its equivalent opponents. Alongside surface ships, submarines (the dreaded U-Boats) would have a growing role as confidence (mostly from Hitler) towards the surface fleet vanished over time. Sub warfare will ravage the Atlantic as well as the Indian Ocean, and in response, an ambitious shipbuilding plan was launched, in order to replace cargo ships losses as well as delivering escort ships of all sizes and capabilities from modest patrol boats to aircraft carriers. The third level actioned by the Kriegsmarine in its war on commerce was the use of auxiliary cruisers, transformed freighters.
-In the Mediterranean, three actors were present from the beginning: The French Navy, operating from Toulon (South of France) and its bases in North Africa (notably Mers El Kebir), the Royal Navy (from Gibraltar and Alexandria securing both ends of the antique sea), and opposing Italy. In the latter case, the Regia Marina had a combined tonnage inferior to the allies, and would certainly not count on any German support in the area. Mussolini had however considerable ambition for its navy, designed to be the instrument of a conquest, making the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” the equivalent of the antique Roman Empire “private lake”. However, from theory to reality, there was quite a gap. Of overall quality, with modern, fast ships and a good training, the Italian navy was an adversary worthy of respect, at least on the paper. It lacked an aircraft carrier, a relative one as the Italian Territory and colonial bases gave a large coverage area to the coastal and land aviation. Or so it was thought before the conversion of a liner (the Aquila) was almost completed in 1943.
Zara-class heavy Italian cruiser Gorizia, 1942.
Opposing it was the French Navy, largely rebuilt from 1920 in parity (by tonnage) with Italy after the treaty of Washington. Since the bulk of the French fleet was stationed in the Mediterranean, both fleets engaged in open rivalry. The French navy had fewer submarines and almost no torpedo boats or MBTs (like the Italian MAS) but relied on a single aircraft carrier (Bearn) and Hydroplane carrier (Cdt teste). It had however much superior heavy destroyers, long-range submarines and mine-layer submarines the Italians also lacked. In terms of cruiser vs cruiser comparison, the 1930 Algérie class was probably better than the Zara class, although most of these ships were very fast (43 knots for the 1942 “Capitani Romani” class!), but thinly armoured (this was the era of “tin-clad cruisers”) and with limited range. The Richelieu would have been a serious contender against the Litorrio built earlier, although lacking one cannon (2×4 vs 3×3) but the Dunkerque (1935) was immensely superior to the modernized Cavour and Cesare class (ww1 dreadnoughts), whereas the French ww1 dreadnoughts still in service of the Courbet and Provence class had been only superficially modernized.
Battle of the Atlantic
-Back on the Atlantic, the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet was more than enough to deal with any German capital ship, although nothing could have prepared the general staff of the reality of the Bismarck, which far exceeded the tonnage and capabilities of even the most recent King Georges V battleships. The Scharnhorst class proved to be faster than any British battleship and even cruisers, while the earlier 10,000 tonnes Graf Spee class still could evade battleships but deal with faster heavy cruisers, comparing well with the average 3×2-4×2 203mm battery of the time with its 2×3 280mm configuration. It took three British cruisers (almost completely destroyed in the process) to damage the Graf Spee, forcing it to seek refuge inside the neutral port of Montevideo in 1939. Proof that the daring concept of a “pocket battleship” was not that illusory.
The few Hipper class heavy cruisers also were superior to any allied design, despite having the standard 4×2 203mm battery, due to a record-breaking 15,000 tonnes instead of the 10,000 tonnes allowed by the Washington treaty. All three cruisers constituted a real threat on the northern sector (operating from Norway against convoys bound to Mourmansk) and were deadly fast. Their autonomy was calculated to operate almost on the entire Atlantic ocean without refueling, again as commerce raiders.
A County class cruiser, HMS Suffolk. These long range cruisers built from the late 1920s were designed for long range colonial operations and the Atlantic.
But of course, the major threat always have been submarines, the dreaded “U-bootes”. An average type VIIC (the most common and most produced type of sub ever produced) was only 77 tonnes, barely 67m long, with a crew of 44-50 but each was armed with 14 torpedoes able to sink a battleship if need be, an 88mm gun for surface actions and AA twin machine-guns. On one side, these U-boats were individually quite limited in range and speed due to technologies dating back from ww1. A “submarine” was more of a “submersible”, cruising at the surface at 17 knots, and only plunging to avoid detection (when a mast was discovered for attack), then reduced to 7 knots on electric batteries. Plus these had a limited range, only covering a fraction of the Atlantic. At such speed, an u-boat became an easy prey, slow and almost blind, relying on the compass, maps of the deeps and a sonar. Max operational depth was 250m at best (beyond that the sub entered the perilous journey into crash depth), so any escort could force a sub to “stay low” by grenades.
Several escort ships, even slow and lightly armed (like the British “Flower” class corvettes, converted whalers), was enough to track, square and sink any U-boat. But U-boats were redoubtable when working as a team under good coordination. Until late 1942, Dönitz “grey wolves” obtained incredible success, almost strangling the UK. It was only for the coordination between the US and British fleets, adoption of proven tactics (for the Americans), and a massive shipbuilding program (both civilian and military) to impose a clear-cut superiority on the whole Atlantic, without any central undefended area (since most destroyers could not reach mid-Atlantic). ASM warfare made significant progress and most of its tactics and technologies were still used well into the 1970s.
A Canadian Flower class Corvette, HMCS Regina in 1943.
One of these inventions was the “hedgehog” and rocket launcher able to destroy a submarine, even starting its immersion. Grenades were refined, more powerful, sonars became more sensitive and operators better trained, and thanks to trigonometry it was easier to locate any transmitting submarine in a given area. In addition, there was the cover of long-range patrol bombers and hydroplanes which could detect far more easily submarines even submerged. Planes were so effective against u-boats that not only the British designed ships carrying a single catapult-launched aircraft (which was lost after its only flight!) but also to convert civilian bulk transports into improvised aircraft carriers, or proper escort aircraft carriers with hangars and several classes of planes. More than 150 aircraft carriers were launched during the war, most of which were of the escort type, 5000 tonnes, stubby, slow, and with 10-30 planes on board.
Certainly, naval warfare in Europe never came close to the scale of operations in the Pacific. Covering a good 3/4 of the globe, this liquid vastness dotted with islands was the theater of the most epic naval battles of world war two, opposing the Japanese Navy (third in tonnage in 1941) and the allied fleets. Reduced for the British, Dutch, Australians, but slightly superior for the US Navy Pacific fleet operating from Hawaii and San Diego, Ca. The Pacific theater consecrated the absolute domination of the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of any task force (also composed of battleships, cruisers and destroyers). it was also true for the setup of combined arms tactics for amphibious assaults.
The Japanese Navy was trained and tailored, with a tradition forged by the Royal Navy dating back from 1910, for classic, decisive naval battles. Most admirals still considered aircraft carriers (The Japanese had the second fleet worldwide for these ships largely ignored by treaties like Washington) as auxiliaries. Only admiral Yamamoto, famously detected all their potential, perhaps after seeing the British fleet air arm almost destroying half of the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour, with a handful of obsolete biplanes. The feat was to be repeated with hundreds of modern torpedo-bombers covered by fighters like the legendary “Zero”, at Hawaii.
USS Yorktown (II) in 1943, an Essex-class aircraft carrier. This class was almost “mass-produced” with 26 ships, well into service for some into the 1970s
Pearl harbor in a sense announced the color for every single naval engagement to follow in this area, each time an “over the horizon” engagement were planes played a crucial role. In some cases like at Midway, luck in addition to judgment, and skills for tactical decisions made the difference between losses, victory and defeat at sea. Indeed they were rare classic big-gun ship-to-ship engagements, with the exception of the Guadalcanal area where fierce cruisers duels took place, not at the advantage of the US Navy. Balance was difficult to obtain at first. The underestimated Japanese proved to have the most daring tactics, best ships, best pilots and training…
Only at Pearl Harbor an error was committed that would have fatal consequences. By chance for the Americans, there were no aircraft carriers present. Therefore, only ww1-era dreadnoughts were anchored in the “battleship row” and were mercilessly pounded. Officiously some in the general staff were almost thanking the Japanese for sinking “a bunch of old junk” as the following events will shows the aircraft carrier would prove far more valuable. The second error was to not order a third wave, which would have been used for devastating the fuel depots, vital to the Pacific fleet. Admiral Ozawa estimated indeed (against the advice of his younger subordinates) that the effect of surprise being gone, it was not worth it. Had it been done, no serious naval presence would have interfere with Japanese Plans for the south pacific for months, and there would be no battles of Santa Cruz or Midway.
USS Wahoo, 1943. The mass-produced Gato/Tench/Balao class (77 built) was instrumental to strangle Japanese communication lines throughout the Pacific.
Outside the role of aircraft carriers, another interesting aspect of the pacific war was the submarine warfare, on the American side this time. The US Navy indeed operated hundreds of long-range submarines (90m long, powerful and fast at 21/9 knots) capable to operate on a 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) area. This was crucial indeed to disrupt the long lines of communications between Japanese isolated garrisons, bases and mainland Japan. Operating in “wolf packs” these were extremely successful and complementary to the aerial bombings from 1944, so much so that the Japanese launched mass-production of patrol corvettes at the end of the war.
LST (Landing Ship, Tank) one of the numerous specialized landing ships used during the war, later refined in the cold war into the modern assault ships.
The third aspect of the pacific war, was the nature of the whole “island-hopping” campaign that multiplied amphibious operations. This was refined as an art, with an air/sea bombing and artillery preparation followed by an infantry assault covered by the big guns of the navy. Several types of ships were devised, alongside other ships converted, freighters modified to carry a dozen landing crafts. Higgins in particular cranked up thousands of wooden assault landing crafts which were complementary to the numerous LVTs used by the Marines. With experience, other ships were devised, larger LSTs capable to carry tanks and other vehicles, and converted rocket-launching ships.
Auboyneau, Philippe – French admiral (1899-1961)
He joined De Gaulle in August, became rear admiral in 1942, then headed of the FNFL (Free French Navy), participating in the landings in Provence in 1944 at the head of the 3rd division of cruisers. He was promoted Vice-Admiral in September 1945, and was head of the Far East Naval Forces in September 1945, then Admiral in 1957 for the Pacific. He retired in 1960. On his side, Admiral Muselier headed the French ships participating in the D-Day bombardements.
Cunningham, Andrew Browne (1883-1963)
He finds himself faced with the worst of situations when Italy entered the war in June 1940, with a powerful Italian fleet, a French fleet about to be captured, and its own fleet weakened by transfers in the Atlantic. With great skill he managed as ordered to “deactivate” the French fleet in his area of Alexandria (Operation Catapult). Later adopting a decidedly aggressive tactic, he managed to inflict several crushing blows to the Regia Marina, including the famous Taranto raid that inspired Pearl Harbor.
In general, he was the pivot of British defense in North Africa, protecting with his means the vital Suez canal against the regia marina assisted by the Luftwaffe. He received the surrender of the Italian fleet at La Valette harbour in 1943, then became first Lord of the Sea, following Sir Dudley Pound. Honored Admiral for life, he remains one of the most emblematic Royal Navy officers in history, the “Nelson of the Second World War”.
Darlan, François (1881-1942)
Nicknamed “the Red Admiral” for his political loyalties to the popular front by his opponents, he effectively reorganized the navy and launched large-scale programs, including those of the first French carriers, and made accurate suggestions for the defense of the northern front, not retained by Gamelin. Faithful of Petain, he would enclose the fleet in a dead end, only leading to British attacks and captures. Hardly struck by the drama of Mers-el-Kebir, he became openly Anglophobic, fervent supporter of the collaboration. He went so far as to lend to the Kriegsmarine in Syria several naval bases, and it was even assumed that he had prepared for a joint offensive with the axis in that sector.
Following the allied landings in North Africa and under the pressure of General Juin, he signed a ceasefire. He was gradually marginalized by Vichy, loosing the confidence of the Nazis. Disavowed by Petain, he eventually took command of the empire as high commissioner, under the close surveillance and support of the Americans, only to see the scuttling of the fleet he promised. He was assassinated on 24 December 1942 by a young pro-Gaullist student, Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle.
Dönitz, Karl (1891- 1980).
However, he developed the “Rudeltaktik”, or pack tactics, which was successfully undertaken until 1943. In 1939 he was able to hire only a handful of ocean submersibles. However, with the fall of France and the new bases gained on the Atlantic, this strategy takes on its full meaning. In spite of the ASDIC, the subtle shots of submarines (like the U-47 of Prien) begin to make Hitler doubt of the resistances of Raeder, especially as surface actions are often disappointing (Graf Spee, Bismarck).
After May 1940, Hitler was more circumspect, forbidding even more surface exits, but gave carte blanche to Dönitz, and in particular impressive means: The construction of U-Bootes will increase, in spite of the programs of classic construction. In 1942, the packs of gray wolves are at the top of their action, with 400 units engaged in the Atlantic, saturating the defense of the convoys. The situation became critical for the Admiralty, which urged the US to go to war. Dönitz was promoted Grand-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine, succeeding Raeder, disavowed. But shortly after his appointment, the US entry into the war and its tremendous material means gradually blurred the U-Boats, then in 1943, making it almost impossible in view of the losses.
However Dönitz is relying on a new generation of U-Bootes, the revolutionary types XXI. Faithful to Hitler, Dönitz will retain his confidence and become his official dolphin after his suicide in his blockhouse in Berlin in 1945. In a week, he will only transfer his armies to the west to avoid their capture by the Red Army And will negotiate with the allies, without success, for a common front against the “reds”. He signed the capitulation, and was arrested two weeks later with his collaborator Albert Speer. He was brought before the Nuremberg court and sentenced to ten years for having prepared a war of aggression and supposed to have condoned the killings (controversial after the “Laconia” affair) of shipwrecked.
Halsey, William (1882-1959)
Following Pearl Harbor and the destruction of the bulk of the classic fleet, he has to face with the remaining aircraft carriers and is conducting an offensive to the Marshall Islands and Gilbert, taking over the Doolittle raid. The “Taurus”, impulsive, energetic and tenacious, is absent for health reasons in Midway, but then exercises all its authority on the South Pacific, organizing in particular the offensives of Guadalcanal and the Carolinas. He was the artisan of the reconquest of New Guinea, of the New Georgia, of the Bougainville.
He was then appointed to the head of the powerful Third Fleet and had to take the decisive blow to the Philippines in 1944. His impulsiveness almost caused the Japanese plan to succeed in Leyte, but the crews would behave wonderfully, reestablishing the situation. With Spruance, he completed the reconquest by destroying the rest of the Nippon fleet in Kure and Tokyo, and preparing for the landing on the island of Honshu. It is aboard his battleship Missouri that will be signed the capitulation of Japan putting an end to the war.
Kinkaid, Thomas Cassin (1888-1972)
After Pearl Harbor, he became engaged as rear admiral, commander of the fleet of cruisers of the Pacific, and then commanded a task force grouped around Of the Enterprise Carrier. With this force, Kinkaid will be the hardest engagements from 1942 to 1944, showing qualities of remarkable cold blood, organization and tactical genius. (Gilbert, Marshall, Wake, Marcus, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, Santa cruz, Solomons).
He was then sent to expel the Japanese from the Aleutians, to occupy Attu and Kiska, and was then propelled to the head of the Fifth Fleet under the direction of Marc Arthur and engaged during the whole reconquest of the Philippines. Participating in the Battle of Leyte and Surigao, he was the main craftsman of the destruction of the Nippon fleet. He was then engaged for the reconquest of Luzon, Borneo, and then went to Korea in 1945 to receive the Nippon capitulation. He became the Admiral and took over as head of the Atlantic Reserve Squadron until 1950.
Leahy, William Daniel (1875 – 1959)
He is a very experienced man who is entrusted with a cruiser, operating in the Mediterranean, then in the Atlantic from which he climbs the ranks: In 1921 during the Greco-Turkish War, In charge of the command of the American fleet in the Aegean Sea. Rear-Admiral in 1927, he was Vice-Admiral in 1935 and Admiral in 1936, and Head of US Naval Operations. Eminence gray of Roosevelt, he advised firmness to him during the Japanese offensive in China, when the gunner USS Panay is destroyed, but is not followed.
Reached by the age limit in 1939, he became governor of Puerto Rico, then joined to Vichy as ambassador in 1940, of which he denounced the collaborationist drift. Recalled to Washington, and still having Roosevelt’s confidence, he will accompany him as chief of interallied staffs, participating in major conferences until the end of the conflict, being assigned a function of Allied defense organizer To the USSR by Truman after the war.
Muselier, Emile (1882 – 1965)
Refusing the armistice, he joined Gibraltar on board a cargo ship, and then by plane London where De Gaulle appointed him commander-in-chief of the FNFL (Free French Navy) and provisionally he organized the FAFL (Free French Air Force). Despite Operation Catapult, he continued his recruitment, and famously proposed a new navy pavilion showing a cross of Lorraine (symbolizing Jeanne d’Arc), lated adopted by the Free French at large. Difficult relations with De Gaulle have him assigned to Algeria in 1943 with General Giraud to maintain order. Compromised in a Putsch against De Gaulle, he was deprived of any official function until his appointment as head of a naval delegation charged with German affairs in 1945.
Nagano, Osami (1880-1947)
He participated in the London naval conference in 1930, trying to get more resources for his fleet. He was then delegated to the Geneva and London Conferences of 1936, withdrawing Japan for lack of agreement on the limitation of armaments in his favor. He then became Minister of Marine of Hirota Cabinet in 1936. In April 1941 he became chief of staff of the navy, and directs all naval strategy, well attended by Yamamoto. But the back of the fleet in 1942 and its inaction in 1943 are reported to be his responsibility, he assumed and resigned in 1944. Captured in 1945, prosecuted, convicted of war crimes Japanese diet, And dies in prison.
Nagumo, Chuichi (1887-1944)
But he also made the unfortunate decision to change, at the last minute, armaments of aircraft which would eventually lead to the destruction by the American naval aviation of the bulk of its force at Midway. Then it will be the Solomons. Santa Cruz will be a Pyrrhic victory, and he will not be able to clear Guadalcanal. His disgrace would only be temporary, for in 1943 he returned to the head of a new carrier force but wiped another defeat to the Mariana in an attempt to defend Saipan. Associated until the end with General Saito defending the island, he eventually committed Seppuku.
Nimitz, Chester Williams (1885-1966)
Following the Japanese attack in the Hawaiian Islands, he was promoted to Vice-Admiral and became Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Under his vigorous leadership, the staff is reorganized and priorities set. His first major decision will be to launch the bulk of the oceanic submersible force in the Pacific to ensure the disruption of Nippon traffic, and a total underwater warfare. He directs and creates the task forces that will bomb the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, as well as Doolittle’s bold raid. He also heads the US forces during the Battle of the Coral Sea, and indirectly saves Port Moresby. He took a major part in the victory of Midway, well supported by spruance and Fletcher.
He then committed his forces to Guadalcanal, leading to a very aggressive and also very risky solution: The remaining Pacific fleet’s fate then had for a brief moment little more than one carrier, the USS Enterprise, and he did the most of it. Nimitz then embarked on a slow and costly reconquest of the Solomons, and in 1943 found himself at the head of a huge new fleet from the gigantic industrial efforts of the United States under the leadership of Admiral King. But a different one will quickly oppose him to Mac Arthur, a proponent of a reconquest of the Pacific West, including the Philippines, while Nimitz wants to go up the island to Okinawa. He devised a combined tactic promised to a great success, operating against the bases of Rabaul and Truk, which he took over, and advanced gradually towards the Mariana.
In September 1944, however, he rejoined MacArthur’s forces in the Philippines and confronted the Japanese forces in the immense battle of Leyte. Despite Halsey’s impulsiveness, he managed to trap the big units of the Nippon fleet and destroy his last aircraft carriers. He later engaged a real Maelstrom in front of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, wiping away swarms of kamikazes almost without loss. He again opposed Mac Arthur on the question of whether or not to conquer Japan, Nimitz preferring a blockade and naval operations designed to bend the Japanese government. But the atomic bomb will solve this question and it is Nimitz who will sign the act of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri.
The press will finally be grateful to him for his efforts in the face of a Mac-Arthur hitherto more media and he will be entitled to a triumph in Washington on his return. He was appointed “Admiral of the Fleet”, an honorary higher rank, and then fully engaged in politics as a UN administrator, regulating the Indian question. He retired in 1951 from politics as well as from his command.
Ozawa, Jizaburo (1886-1963)
Rear-Admiral in 1936, then Chief of Staff of the Combined Fleet, he commanded the 1st and then the 3rd Naval Aviation Squadron. Vice-Admiral in 1941, after serving as Director of the Naval High School, playing his role at Pearl Harbor, he then took over Nagumo’s leadership of the forces that destroyed the Dutch fleet and led to the conquest of Java and Sumatra. In 1944, he was to face Mitscher Task Force 38 in the Marianas, an offensive that turned into a disaster.
In Leyte, he will take the lead of the “bait fleet” including aircraft carriers deprived of air force. He realizes his share but the plan fails following the unexpected withdrawal of Kurita. He will finally take the lead of Kamikazes training for the defense of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the capitulation, he will not be disturbed by justice, having had no role in the decision-makers of the regime.
Pound, Sir Dudley (1877-1943)
Vice-Admiral in 1930, he became commander of the Mediterranean squadron, then gave up his post at Cunningham, to be appointed in 1939 Admiral and First Lord of the Sea, and as Chief of Staff of the Navy , Will become a close counselor of Churchill. Particularly dynamic, although with a failing health, he spends without counting during the pursuit of the Graf Spee, the operations in Norway, the Dynamo operation (the Dunkerque embarkation), then the bismarck affair. He organized the best defense of the convoys of the Atlantic (despite the total loss of the PQ-17) until his deaths of exhaustion in 1943, in London.
Raeder, Erich (1876-1960)
He will see the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland. Captain of a frigate, then captain of cruiser, commander of the Köln, was called to berlin to direct the central section of the ministry of the navy, and was finally captain of ship in 1919. Rear-Admiral in 1922, Raeder commands the forces of The North Sea, then head of the Baltic station, and the Nazis out of respect for his career, offered him the command of the Kriegsmarine then reconstituted thanks to the naval agreement of 1935.
He then developed an ambitious program , Plan Z, whose completion is planned in 1944, with the construction of 6 to 8 battleships, two aircraft carriers, and other surface vessels of which he is an unconditional of the old guard. Opposed to the visions of Dönitz, he enjoys the confidence of Hitler until the disastrous exit of the Bismarck against the English traffic. His views on Hitler’s strategy, including the attack on the USSR, brought him a growing animosity by the leader of the Third Reich, consummated when the Hipper group operating in the Arctic was destroyed.
Hitler decides to disarm the surface fleet in favor of the submarines, and Raeder resigns in January 1943, replaced by Dönitz. Having never been a proponent of the Nazis, Raeder frequently opposed attempts to “purge Aryan” naval personnel. He was nevertheless tried and sentenced in Nuremberg to life imprisonment and released in 1955 on account of his age. He died 5 years later.
Sommerville, Sir James Fownes (1882-1949)
Admiralty staff, and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Far East Squadron. He became interested, then specialized in radars, and was recalled to the Admiralty, assistant Ramsay during the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is Sommerville who will have the heavy task of firing on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir near the capitulation. He then engaged the Italians and fled them to Punta Stilo, bombed Italian cities, including Genoa, and in May 1941 brilliantly engaged his forces from Gibraltar to sink the Bismarck. He then returned to the Far East fleet in April 1942, succeeding Layton, himself a follower of Philips, but undergoes the attacks of Nagumo and Ozawa and is obliged to replicate his surviving forces on the East African coasts. Vice-Admiral, he was seconded as a delegate of the British Admiralty in Washington and in 1945 was appointed Admiral. He then left his post and died shortly thereafter.
Spruance, Raymond Ames (1886-1969)
At the head of a division of cruisers of the Pacific fleet in 1941, he replaced Halsey, sickly, with happiness at Midway. Impressed, Nimitz then appointed him vice-admiral, and he became his chief of staff. He then commands the Fifth Fleet in charge of the peaceful center, brilliantly resumes the Gilbert Islands, Marshall, and develops and executes the Truk raid. He became Admiral and began his campaign in the Marianas in 1943. He then commanded the naval forces deployed at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. He was then Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet and later Diplomat at the request of Truman, In 1955.
Tovey, Sir John Cronyn (1885-1971)
Rear Admiral in 1938, he commanded a squadron in the Mediterranean, and directed the convoys to Malta and the Middle East. In July 1940 he was vice-admiral and commanded the light forces of the Mediterranean, illustrated at Punta Stilo, and was summoned to London to take over as head of the Home Fleet, succeeding Admiral Forbes. He then took on the heavy task of escorting the convoys, and directed the combined actions against the Bismarck, before organizing and controlling the convoys of the Arctic.
He will be responsible for the destruction of the PQ17 by giving the order of his dispersion, which will earn him the wrath of Churchill. But protected from Cunningham, under whose command he had served, he remained at his post. In 1943, he became an admiral and actively prepares the “D-Day” operations.
Vian, Sir Philip (1894-1968)
Speaking French, he headed the Franco-British operations at Narvik at the head of the 4th flotilla of destroyers. He then committed his forces against the Bismarck and was named afterwards at the head of the XVth Division of Cruisers under the orders of Cunningham in the Mediterranean. It is Vian who will keep the supplies of Malta at the worst hours of his siege, and will illustrate himself during the second battle of the Great Sirte.
Under the orders of Ramsay, in 1943 he went to protect the landing in Sicily and then in Normandy the following year. He then took the lead at the end of 1945 of the British Carrier Task Force which will engage the reconquest of the sector of the Indian Ocean. He also participates in the assault of Okinawa. Vice-Admiral and Fifth Lord of the Sea in 1946, he became Admiral and Commanding Officer of Home Fleet in 1950.
Yamamoto, Isoroku (1884-1943)
He left in 1908 with the rank of lieutenant. After further studies at the Navy High School, he returned to the Staff of the Second Fleet in 1916 and then to the Military Affairs Office. In 1919 he studied at Harvard, and in 1925 he returned to the United States as naval attache and then delegated to the London conference in 1929 where he pleaded in vain for the parity of the Japanese fleet with those of the USA and Great Britain, likewise at the second conference which will see Japan withdraw.
He was then Rear Admiral, and Deputy Minister of Marine, Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Violently anti-American, he urged the government to accelerate the arms programs, introduced very advanced methods of training for the crews, and was an indefatigable advocate for aircraft carriers of which he knew the potential. The performance of the combined fleet at the beginning of 1942 is entirely due to him. In 1941, he was promoted to Admiral, set up the main lines and led Operation “Tora”, the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the direction of the forces of the Pacific he unfolded his forces with great success, and personally commanded his forces at Midway. He is surprised at the American response and in the face of disaster, is obliged to give up the operation against the island.
He was then criticized for not having committed his remaining considerable forces in the Solomons, leaving the Americans the initiative, winning with his “tokyo night express” still some successes at the expense of the American cruisers and supplying his troops. Although he was a virulent critic from the USA, he had warned the Tojo government against aggression in the country. The admiral died when his transport was abased by American fighters in the Solomons, who were ignorant of his precious passenger.
This section is dedicated to the second world war naval battles, 1939-1945. The conflict was global on even a larger reach geographically (like the asian and pacific front) and fleets were way more balanced, naval battles and campaigns, including amphibious operations or the intensity of the battle of the Atlantic and new theaters of operations.
Schleswig-Holstein in Dantzig (1er Septembre 1939)
Graf Spee raid (13-19 dec. 1939)
Norwegian campaign (april 1940)
Mers-el-Kebir (6 july 1940)
Battle of Punta Stilo (9 july 1940)
Tarento raid (11-12 nov. 1940)
Cape Matapan (27-28 mars 1941)
Battle of Kerkenna (16 april 1941)
Bismarck raid (18-27 may 1941)
Battle of Crete (may 1941)
Bataille of the Atlantic (1939-45) Main article
Great Syrta battle (22-23 march 1942)
Pantelleria (15 june 1942)
Operation “Pedestal” (11-12 aug. 1942)
Italian specs ops and Flotilla X-Mas (1940-43)
British Amphibious operations and ships (portal)
Axis amphibious ships and landings (German and Italian)
Malta’s axis invasion plan (Operation Herkules/C3)
USN Landings in Europe & Pacific
Operation Husky (July 1943)
Anzio (Jan. 1944)
D-Day (June 1944)
Anvil-Dragoon (August 1944)
This second industrial war, twenty years after the “war to end all wars” saw former naval powers reaching a new height in their development, like the Japanese Imperial Navy. The most crucial aspect was the discrepancy of forces in 1940, after the French defeat: Only the Royal Navy stood, facing the German Kriegsmarine and Regia Marina, while the attitude of the French fleet, neutral but ambiguous, was eliminated in July as a possible threat.
Both the US Navy and IJN remained neutral to this point. In early 1942 however, it was not the case anymore: After crippling the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were free to roam through the pacific, and conquer immense territories in a short period, only stopping short of Australia and India. In this process, the local Dutch and British Royal Navy ships, as well as the Australian navy were also crippled or eliminated altogether. In WW1 both the Japanese and Italian navies stood with the entente.
The central powers mostly counted in the large Kaiserflotte, whereas the Austro-Hungarians and Turkish fleets were quite limited, both trapped in their respective seas, the Adriatic and black sea. The Russian navy was also more considerable than the Soviet fleet in WW2 and due to the territories were largely unoccupied, could take on a more active part in naval operations.
By the fall of 1943 however, reverse started: The Kriegsmarine surface fleet was crippled, limited to Norway and th Baltic, as the Regia Marina, soon to surrender to the allies, while the US Navy stepped into the Mediterranean for a total mastery of this theater.
In the Atlantic, the U-Boat threat was better managed, as new escorts were delivered daily by the US, Canadian and British Yards, and losses compensated by even more numerous Liberty-Ships and Victory ships. In the Pacific a slow reconquest of the whole theater began from southern atlantic islands such as guadalcanal and progressed towards the isles of Japan. In 1944 already, the Philippines were taken in the largest naval air battle of the war, crippling what was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
From May 1945, the Royal Navy, freed from the Atlantic, could return in force in Asia and help supporting SW asian territories to be retaken.
Differences with WW1 naval battles
Hybrid forms of warfare were what distinguished best both conflicts: In WW1 naval air battles were limited to planes doing reconnaissance over a front or an enemy fleet and amphibious operations were limited also in scale and largely improvized. The attack on Tsingtao was perhaps the first, earliest combined arms assault, with naval support, aviation spotting, and landings in 1914.
Naval Air Battles
Although all belligerents used seaplane carriers during WW1, only one, Great Britain, pushed the concept up to the first seaborne attack, from the converted battlecruiser HMS Furious. In 1939, nearly all nations had either specialized seaplane carriers and/or aircraft carriers.
At that stage battleships still ruled, at least the minds of naval staffs around the globe, but the potentialities of naval air warfare were well understood and have ardent supporters in each navy. In 1939, an aircraft carrier could deploy not planes for reconnaissance, which were carried by battleships and cruisers already and made soon obsolete by radars, but rather striking planes, used for an offensive role: Bombers (dive ones in particular), torpedo-planes and fighters to protect them and destroy those of the enemy. The great air-naval battles such as Midway, or Santa Cruz, air attacks of naval bases like Taranto and Pearl harbor were totally new and contributed to place the aircraft carrier as the de facto new capital ship.
There was a single well known amphibious landing, at Gallipoli. In reality, many small-scale amphibious landings took place in many parts of the Front but it was nothing near the scope and scale of the great operations of WW2, in Europe, the Mediterranean or the Pacific.
These were complex operations with classic surface ships shelling positions, submarines posted in the flanks for protection, and permanent air cover, while a large variery of assault crafts, boats, landing ships and assault ships were manufactured. If WW1 Gallipoli was a draft, WW2 operations were the real deal, with amphibious vehicles and scores of specialized ships and crafts, mastery of command and control. The USN Task Force of 1945 was the very basis of operations for NATO during the cold war, a reference. All navies soon adopted specialized assault and landing ships.
-ASW rocket launchers: Unknown in WW1, they appeared on WW2 escort ships and quickly became more popular than deep-charge throwers
-Radars: Certainly the most advanced detection system, rendering reconnaissance aviation obsolete and playing a vital role in some battles (like at Cape Matapan)
-Sonars: More advanced electronic passive sonars developed after the WW1 hydrophones
-Huff-Duff: Using radio signals for trigonometry
-Computer (Colossus): Breaking German Enigma encoded messages sent to U-Boats greatly helped winning battle of the Atlantic
-Electronic ballistic computers: Analog computers already existed in WW1 but hybridation reached a new height in 1944
-Central Operation: In 1944 in some battleships like the Iowa there was already an attempt to create a central operation, to centralized detection and destructions of air and sea threats
-Anti-submarine missiles: The German deployed in 1943 bombers armed with the HS.31 missile and sunk several ships with it, like the Battleship Roma.
-Helicopters: The IJN used ASW autogyros in one of their ships (Akitsu maru), while some U-Boats carried small rotary wing contraptions or fully-fledged helicopters for reconnaissance
-Assault ships: Designed with a compartment that can be flooded and used as motherships for landing crafts, and the ‘Ro-Ro’ concept of vehicle carrier.
-Hydropters: Developed by the Germans, mostly experimentally.
September 1, 1939: Fall Weiss (“white plan”) in preparation for months is launched. Backed by a pact with Stalin, and a secret agreement for a joint dismembering of Poland, compounded by the cowardly wait-and-see attitude of Western democracies, Hitler launches his forces against a country whose political constitution dated back only from 1920.
Against the Polish navy, counting only a few destroyers, and under total air domination by the luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine has a free hand. And the venerable Schleswig-Holstein is sent, a schoolship of the Reichsmarine, from the series of pre-dreadnought battleships of 1905, spared by the allies because of its age.
By the end of August 1939, the commander of the battleship knew what his objective was: Neutralize the arsenal of the Westerplatte, where artillery and ammunition for the Polish fleet were concentrated. The latter is not present, and for good reason: Under the threat of the Luftwaffe, it was preferred to send it to Britain rather than being cut to pieces in an unequal battle, “Operation Peking”.
Therefore no opposition for the old ship was present which coild sail quietly to be positioned in Polish waters, during the night of August 31 to September 1, opening fire at the first light of dawn on the fortifications defending the arsenal. These were reduced to a few 150 mm guns in casemate, that the 305 mm of the German battleship silenced one after another in three hours of time.
The battleship then approached and shelled the installations and warehouses until early afternoon. She then sets off, her magazines emptied, towards Kiel. The Polish Navy was on the run and no longer has a rear base. Polish defense thereafter relied exclusively on the courage of its troops. The navy would fight, however, with exemplary courage throughout the war under British supervision. In particular, the fleet would receive British destroyers and cruisers, renamed and passed under the Polish flag.
Crews were made up of young recruits, Polish sailors fleeing their occupied country. It is disturbing to see how the General Staff casually considered the Polish fleet, to send her an antiquated schoolship that would have been reformed everywhere else, moreover with a crew comprising mostly student-sailors and young officers. Knowing the insignificant Polish threat, and destroyerd airport which paralized Polish aviation, the ship’s departure to the Westerplatte was considered as a simple “shooting exercise”…
Graf Spee’s raid (13-19 dec. 1939)
19 December 1939: This was the epilogue of the Graf Spee amazing but short career. The German “pocket battleship”, or overpowered cruiser scuttled herself in the Bay of Rio de la Plata. Her commander, Hans Langsdorff, commited suicide a few hours later. It was the end of an infernal chase on all seas for the German raider/Corsair. This affair started with the departure of Kiel of the ship named Graf Von Spee, the third of the Deutschland class, most often described as a “pocket battleship”, by the intelligence services.
Indeed, the mistake came from the fact that these ships, designed in the context of a corsair war were designed by the Germans as “Schlachschiff” even armored ships (“panzerschiff”) on the registers of the fleet, capable of Fight and outclass heavy cruisers while being fast enough to escape classic battleships.
They will be operational at the beginning of the thirties and constituted a technical tour de force because Germany was at that time condemned to not be able to put into service any building of more than 10 000 tons in standard. On this basis, the engineers grafted to a cruiser hull six pieces of 280 mm, caliber able to outclass that of heavy cruisers of the time, but neither in protection nor in firepower these ships could not compete with battleships.
They had been designed to conduct a privateer’s war on allied traffic, with diesel-electric machines – a first for ships of this tonnage, a room dedicated to the collection of seamen of sunken ships, clean refuellers – that of Graf Spee was the Altmark (see below) – and equipment (sheets, torches and paints) to change their appearance as well as make cargos privateers.
The very name of Graf Spee was that of the Earl and Admiral of the Pacific Fleet who, with his ships, led a merciless war on British traffic in 1914 from the shores of China to the South Atlantic, the hero of the first Battle of the Falklands. where he crushed the squadron of Sir Charles Cradock, he perished with his ships during the second battle of the Falkands.
Graf Spee, along with his twins, Deutschland and Scheer, had taken up positions in strategic areas before the start of hostilities. The Graf Spee was with Deutschland and U-Bootes well placed to threaten the traffic of England with the United States, and it will flow, like its twins a large number of British civilian buildings, sometimes with prime targets as a liner Clement on September 30, which causes great excitement (many civilians drowned) in Britain and recalls the old hatred of the “kraut” of the great war and the case of Lusitania.
A week later, all available ships, including French and New Zealand ships, track the Graf Spee from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Indian Ocean. In the absence of the predator, who continues to make victims, we also look for his supply ship, also masked by dummy registrations.
The Battle of Rio de la Plata (October 31, 1939)
As of October 31, there are no less than 4 battleships, 14 cruisers and 5 aircraft carriers that track the German privateer. On December 2, he sank the big freighter Doric Star. But the track is precise and the last SOS captured the trap is closed. Henry Harwood thinks that the privateer is now in the perimeter of the bay of La Plata, where the traffic is dense coming from Montevideo.
On December 13, at dawn (6:14), Commodore Harwood’s squadron spotted the German ship in the South Atlantic, off the Rio de la Plata estuary, 150 miles from Montevideo, Uruguay. The Harwood squadron then includes three cruisers, the Exeter, on which Harwood bears his mark, Ajax and Achilles, the latter of the New Zealand Navy.
A three-on-one part will not be easy so far as the large parts of the Graf Spee have a range well above the 150 mm of the two light cruisers English. Only the Exeter 203 mm seems to be able to face the Graf Spee, with the help of his sailors.
This is the “Battle of Rio de la Plata”: On the one hand Harwood does not have an overwhelming superiority, because it lacks one of its buildings, the heavy cruiser Cumberland, refueling at Falklands so close.
On the other side, Langsdorff, who simultaneously spots British ships, thinks the two light cruisers are actually destroyers that escort the exeter. In confidence, instead of taking the field and pounding the ships at a distance, he is getting closer, not counting on giving the British cruiser a chance, while using his 150 mm side pieces against what he believes to be destroyers.
For his part, Harwood has meticulously developed his tactics: He intends to disperse the shots of the German ship by separating his sailors from his ship Exeter, each one on one side of the Graf Spee. At 6:17 am, just as Langsdorff opened fire at 17,000 meters against the light cruisers and realized his mistake, the Harwood squadron responded vigorously and the Exeter shots framed him and some of them hit home.
The Graf Spee wipes impacts without much gravity but disturbing for the future. Understanding the danger, Langsdorff changes course and heads to the estuary of Rio de la Plata, while protecting himself by a release of smoke. Harwood, far from breaking the fight, follows him with every force of machinery.
Langsdorff then began a reversal manoeuver, and deliberately approached the Exeter, concentrating his shot on him and retaliating to the light cruisers with his 150 mm. Very quickly, the Exeter is hit hard by impacts of 280 mm, with a turret out of service and its rudder destroyed. Another impact plows its open footbridge and is a carnage of officers.
The bar answers only through the relay of sailors from the new improvised command post in the engine room. The situation becomes critical, as the Graf Spee gets closer and more fatally adjusts his shots. From the Ajax and Achilles bridges, the Exeter agony is powerless. The responses of the Exeter become very sporadic and are hindered by the smoke.
Even worse, the rangefinders are out of order. Deciding to play his all-out Harwood deliberately approaches for a torpedo, without effect, the projectiles missing their target. He then turns to face his other side and attempt another torpedoing, without further results. For his part, the Gaf Spee accumulates the shots on goal and the Exeter, riddled and almost blind, gives the band. For other commanders, the building is lost.
At 7:40, She moved south and lost contact, but Ajax and Achilles follow her at a distance. Langsdorff decides to continue on his way to Montevideo to repair his damage quickly. But on the spot, it is opposed an obligation to leave the place under 72 hours, according to a law in force governing the parking ships of the belligerents in the neutral ports.
Langsdorff entrusts his wounded to a German freighter who is in the port and his sailors start makeshift reparations, with the small means of the port. Undertakes a diplomatic stand-off to decide to extend (or put an immediate end to) the corsair’s parking in Uruguayan waters. The Uruguayan government does not bend, and Langsdorff is forced to envisage an exit of his ship in the South Atlantic, exit that he fears because his position being known, all the friendly allied squadrons will converge towards the estuary and not leave him no chance.
In fact, at the limit of the territorial waters, stand Ajax, Achilles and Cumberland, which rallied them to any force of machines. Other buildings are expected. The theater of operation (Currently, seen on google earth) On the ground, the Ambassador receives false dispatches announcing the imminent arrival of the Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. The case takes an unexpected turn of the media, and a soap opera commented by all news agencies hastened to follow from the port, where thousands of curious people gathered, following the events.
At 18:15, on 17 December, the time had expired, and Langsdorff had his ship sailed. Nobody knows what his building will do. We expect a naval battle on the horizon and many people start to settle on the beach to watch the “show” at night. What we do not know is that Langsdorff has no illusions about the sequence of events.
His ship was not put back in full combat conditions, and he knew his total inferiority. He does not go to the execution but secretly, arrived a mile from the port of Montevideo, has most of his crew transferred to the German freighter that also leaves the port.
He urged Berlin permission to scuttle his ship, but was told no. He therefore prefers not to sacrifice his men and still puts his plan to execution, mobilizing a small team to do. Machines stopped, the warship stopped at 20:50 in the middle of the bay, and a small star leaves him to couple German cargo, anchored not far from there.
And suddenly, a series of explosions tear the tropical wetness of the twilight. The spectators, delighted, attend the fireworks tons of ammunition remaining in the bunkers of the giant. Ravaged by the flames, unrecognizable, the ship ends up sinking slowly.
The freighter brought the crew of Graf Spee to other assignments, but his commander, who had disobeyed the salvation of his men, knew what he was waiting for when he returned to the Reich. For, as he wrote, “to prevent discredit from tarnishing the salvation of Germany,” he committed suicide in his hotel room in Buenos Aires, the first stopover of the cargo ship.
KMS Hipper landing troops on small boats to invade Norway. This was the most important campaign of the kriegsmarine for the numbers of ships deployed (and lost).
At the moment when the Finnish campaign was coming to an end, and the preparations for the great offensive to the west were being made, the German Staff looked upon Norway with interest. This large coastal and mountainous country, poor and poorly defended, was a key position on the North Atlantic, facing Great Britain, as well as an appreciable reservoir of minerals, oil, as well as the famous heavy water needed for research. atomic.
These concerns were recent for the Germans, but already old for allies who sought to weaken the economy of the Reich. For the first time since the “funny war”, allies and Germans would face each other directly. A first warning shot took place on February 16 when the tanker of Graf Spee, the Altmark, was approached and boarded as in the time of the wooden navy by the crew and commandos of the destroyer Cossack in the Jossing fjord where he was in principle quiet, Norway being neutral. The Norwegian government in Oslo protested to the British authorities, whom Churchill called in return “myopic”. This case almost turned to a British-Norwegian confrontation, because the Altmark who had come to find the protection of the Norwegian neutrality saw itself between him and his pursuers the torpedo-maker Kjell.
ALTMARK in Jössingfjord
The “Altmark” incident in 1940 was a misunderstanding between Great Britain and the Norwegian Government because of the neutral waters, and the threat posed by the belligerent German tanker proved to be for British intelligence the supply ship of the corsair cruiser Graf Spee.
It was also the last “old-fashioned” boarding for the Royal Navy, by commandos of the destroyer HMS Cossack. (credits wikipedia) The operation received the green light from Churchill himself, not hesitating to wipe the reaction of the Norwegians. 300 prisoners, civilian sailors captured by the Graf Spee and transferred to the tanker were released at the same time, and the Altmark dynamited. Hitler considered that the waters of Norway were no longer safe and opened a possibility of invasion. On 19 February, the Weserübung plan was outlined. He understood the invasion of Norway and also of Denmark to close the access to the Baltic. Finland was neutralized and Quisling, Norway’s new strongman, showed a complacent neutrality towards the Reich.
HMS Eskimo after loosing her bow to a torpedo in one of the battles of Narvik
As early as December 1939, with the Russo-Finnish war that began, the allies planned to make Narvik a base of supply for the Finns. But there is a good fear of the Oslo reaction. This does not prevent General Gamelin from forming in January 1940 an Alpine brigade trained to operate in Scandinavia. On March 13, the Allied troops are ready to leave at the insistence of the Finns, who since the 1st have asked for their help. But on this day, the resistance of the Finnish David has found its limits and the peace is signed, the allied operation cancelled.
On March 28, the Allies decide to undermine Norwegian waters to prevent the rail traffic to Germany and occupy the main ports from April 5, but the embarkation of troops and the ordering of convoys is delayed Until the 7th, on the other hand, the ships of the Kriegsmarine leave the Baltic and head for the south of Norway. This campaign both land and sea, because of the nature of the terrain, saw four warring fleets engaged (Royal Navy, French Navy, Kriegsmarine, Norwegian Navy), with feats of arms and major losses on both sides. other.
When the Kriegsmarine arrived in order to engage in the narrow passes of fjords to land troops there, they ran into the weak Norwegian defensive capabilities, but it was not the navy that was the danger to the Germans, but coastal batteries. That same April 8, the allies informed Oslo that their destroyers had undermined its territorial waters (in this case the Vestfjord, south of Narvik) to prevent the arrival of the Germans. One of the most famous pictures of the war: The port of Narvik in flames, testimony of the aftermath of the fighting. The memory is painful for the British troops who lived there a “dunkirk” before the hour.
Narvik in 1940
On the night of April 7, a fleet was leaving Scapa Flow to intercept the convoys of the Kriegsmarine. Landings on Norwegian soil begin on the 9th, together with the rapidly consumed invasion of Denmark. The ground forces represent only 7 divisions of infantry and 2 of mountain, with some armored, aviation 970 devices, but for the time all the Kriegsmarine of Raeder is engaged. The deployed forces have 17 warships, but split into two squadrons. That of Trondheim manages to fiddle company with the English squadron by frequently heading course, but is spotted by an English plane which communicates to the fleet this position. Now it was a bait force, which attracts the British fleet and leaves a boulevard to the squadron squadron narvik and Oslo. the operations are as follows: The group that claims to be moving towards Oslo must first pass the fjord defended by old but well placed batteries.
The wing includes the Lützow (ex-Deutschland), 2 cruisers, 5 destroyers and 9 minesweepers, which preceded the convoy. At 11 p.m., a Norwegian torpedo boat defending the fjord was sent to the bottom, but gave the alert, and coastal batteries soon began to thunder. In the middle of the night, they manage to frame the Blücher and manage to sink her. German sailors jumped and swam quickly to shore, fortunately there were few victims. Nevertheless, the precious KMS Lützow is in turn affected and the squadron renounces to continue further. They disembark their troops which then advance along the banks of the Fjord in order to neutralize the batteries. A parachute raid completes the conquest of Oslo itself.
However the Norwegians of the military installations fight like lions and resist until April 13. The Kristiansand Resistance will be just as strong and the city and the port do not fall until the evening of the 9th. A simultaneous airborne operation allows the Germans to take control of Stavanger. The local aerodrome soon received major squadrons of the Luftwaffe. Bergen is also defended by coastal batteries, but the German ship manage to silence them quickly and to continue their progression until the port. There, they disembark and take the place without difficulty. However, British ships in turn entered the Bergen Pass, only countered by the Luftwaffe.
The beached, destroyed German destroyer Bernd Von Arnim, one of the victims of HMS Warspite
At Trondheim, the German squadron passes in front of the batteries without damage thanks to thick coats of smoke; The forces land at the port they take without firing a shot, but the mountain group (Gebirgsjager) will take three days to master the batteries behind. 2000 more of these elite men of the mountain are embarked by 8 brand new destroyers who engage in the Ofotenfjord, where the bulk of what remains of “navy” to Norway and powerful batteries protect the access in Narvik, strategic port if any. On April 9 at 4 am, German elite troops seize the batteries on the back, the rest of the troops chasing the 6th Norwegian Division of the city. The destroyers were quickly right of the few Norwegian units present. On the 9th of April, the axis made itself master of the Norwegian coast; now the Franco-British would try to take them back.
The first action will come from Admiral Forbes, heading a destroyer flotilla on bergen. But the nearby Luftwaffe attacked and sank HMS Gurkha while damaging other ships, forcing Forbes to give up his plan, for the lack of air cover. Despite of this, the Allied Military Council decided to send three more invading flotillas to take over Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, the main ports of the country. Walburton Lee is sent into the Ofotenfjord at the head of a fleet of 5 destroyers and attacks by surprise the ships present: Two German destroyers are sunk, two damaged, but the other 4 effectively replicate and force it to fall back: Two destroyers are sunk during the latter, including that of the brave captain, killed on his bridge.
With this further failure, the Admiralty decides to use the great means: It sets up a real task force centered around Battleship Warspite and PA Furious, and 9 destroyers. Called “Force B”, this fleet enters this same Ofotenfjord and destroys 5 destroyers, the last three scuttling to avoid capture. Although they do not disembark troops, the British isolate General Dietl’s troops in the harbor itself, who can no longer receive supplies. The reconnaissance reveals, however, that it is impossible to take back Bergen, whose two airfields of the Luftwaffe control the sector. In the face of the Luftwaffe and despite success against the kriegsmarine, the Norwegian campaign was lost to the allies.
Then operation “hammer” against Trondheim started. A naval force was set up, and its direct action was assisted by two diversions at Namsos and Andalnes. The fighting went on inland, Norwegian troops defending valiantly Oslo. On April 13, a bridgehead in Andalnes was established while a brigade landed on the 18th joined the Norwegian forces commanded by General Ruge, but quickly collide in its advance to Lillehammer, to the superior forces supported by the Luftwaffe.
On the 22nd this force leaves the city and retreats to the village of Dombas, an important strategic crossroads. It will maintain delay operations until the 30th, withdrawing from Dombas to Andalnes and being recovered on May 2nd. Until May 30, the last British and French forces, under the guise of naval guns and blocking detachments, and pounded by the Luftwaffe, retreated. The iron road remained open to the axis. This failure prefigured what would follow further south on the continent.
Strasbourg at Mers-El-Kebir
The flash defeat of France was going to plunge press offices around the world into consternation: No one expected anything but a “repetition” of the great war, France to “buffer” Germany, particularly with respect to Great Britain. When the latter fell and the armistice was demanded by Marshal Petain and a certain number of members of the Fourth Republic, England was left to face the axis as well in the Atlantic, North Sea as in the Indian Ocean and in the Mediterranean.
In this last sector, its forces grouped mainly in Gibraltar were inferior to the Marina regia, because the French navy was formerly considered locally sufficient to face it. But since the armistice was requested, despite the opposition of officers including de Gaulle, President Paul Raynaud, and other members of the Fourth Republic, despite the ephemeral project to continue the fight within the “reduced Breton”, then in the heart of the empire, or the national alliance Franco-British, France delivered material and prisoners to Germany.
After these two months of campaign which had cost the French forces dear, the navy was absolutely intact, formidable instrument in the hands of the future government of Vichy. Relations between the signatories, including Petain and Churchill, were strained early on, and they were going to find a definitive breakthrough that would tilt France into a collaborationist neutrality, having passed very close to openly joining the axis with what follows.
For various reasons, Churchill saw the new French government with a wary eye, and still more with Hitler’s future respect for the conditions of armistice. The clauses referred to the disarmament of the German and Italian controlled fleet. His nightmare was to fear the stranglehold of the axis on the fleet.
Position of the ships
This would have had dramatic consequences for the balance of power in a theater of vital operation for England: The Mediterranean. The bulk of the fleet was there indeed, besides buildings stationed in Alexandria, the others were anchored in the bases of Dakar, overlooking the Atlantic, Toulon, and Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, near Oran.
Of the three weapons available to France in 1939, the navy was by far the most beautiful: The drastic rationalization imposed on the French tonnage to the Washington Treaty, forced it to design buildings directly inspired by the rival naval powers, with solutions clean and innovative. In the end, it was a revived navy, homogeneous, with quality buildings and well trained crews.
A formidable instrument which, unfortunately because of the vicissitudes of the French situation, undergoes an infamous fate. Only a few buildings escaped destruction, either as a result of Allied attacks (US and British) or by scuttling. No gun was exchanged with the real enemy of that time.
The Richelieu (opposite) was the symbol of this fleet, modern and innovative, as the use of semi-automatic quadruple turrets and his “mast-chimney” which was repeated many years later, or the drawing of his bow . The British could not give hope to the ax to seize it, and tried everything, even alienating their former allies.
HMS Ark Royal planes preparing to depart for the harbor
The French ships stationed at Brest had urgently set sail for Great Britain or the French Caribbean Islands (Martinique), others were present at the Saigon base in Indochina. If in one way or another, such as the scenario that almost came to fruition in November 1943, the axis got its hands on the fleet of Toulon and those stationed allier, the imbalance in his favor in the Mediterranean would have no doubt driven the Royal Navy of this sector, with the probable consequence of taking Egypt (not to mention Malta and Gibraltar).
Preventing any reinforcement and closing the route of the Indian and Eastern colonies to Britain, as well as valuable resources of fuel and raw materials. In the face of this disaster scenario, and having exhausted its land forces in France and preparing to fight a desperate battle against the Luftwaffe with a weakened RAF, all hopes rested on the Royal Navy.
The latter was largely mobilized against an exit of the German fleet in the North Sea, in fact, the squadron of the Mediterranean had to fend for itself. After having asked France to deliver her fleet to the British Admiralty, here it is before a dilemma of importance. From June 25, he faces an internal political danger: A fringe of the population experiencing sympathies for the Nazi regime, including some lords, a large fringe pacifist, as in France, give him the obligation to mobilize the population by a strong act, the testimony of a relentless resolution to continue the war whatever the price.
Churchill later wrote in his memoirs that in the dark outlook he faced he remembered the words of the French revolutionaries: “The allied kings of Europe are threatening us, let us challenge them to a king’s head…”. He prepared the operation “catapult” in these outlines at this time. He will still have to face the opposition of many members of the cabinet of war, to whom he barely snatched the approval, and also aroused a living reluctance within the British admiralty: A few months before indeed the French Fleet and British were neck and neck in Dunkirk, Norway, in the South Atlantic to chase the Graf Spee.
On June 13, Churchill and Dudley Pound send a last message to the French government, always to ask the passage of the British side of the French fleet, guaranteeing its independence of action. Churchill is indeed dubious with regard to Article 8 of the peace convention, which states that French ships must be disarmed under the control of Germany and Italy: The term “control” in English a flavor much more authoritarian, equivalent to taking possession. His mistrust of Darlan will only get worse as a result of his participation in the Pétain government.
On June 23 there was de facto a near-breakup of diplomatic relations, the only surviving naval mission of Rear-Admiral Olden’hal, and again the latter was not fully informed by the Government of Bordeaux. Darlan’s refusal to accept and Hitler’s mistrust of speech led Churchill to speed up Operation Catapult.
On June 27, the final plan is approved and begins to run: Admiral Godfroy whose ships are in Alexandria (the Suez Canal is also vital for France because of his possession of the Far East) receives from the admiralty order to rally Beirut. He informed his British counterpart A. Cunningham, who in turn informed him that he had been instructed not to let him leave the port.
On the 29th, France is officially authorized to begin the disarmament of its ships, and the preparations begin sluggishly: The new government wishes to keep the potential of the fleet intact, while on the other hand, the Admiral Darlan made the promise to scuttle its buildings in case of threat of capture by the axis.
On 1 July, Admiral Sommerville, commanding the Gibraltar fleet, was ordered to sail in the direction of Mers-El-Kebir, where the French navy’s largest force was outside Toulon: four battleships indeed are wet. Sommerville sent back a confirmation message as he was reluctant to carry out the mission he had been assigned. On July 3, shortly before dawn, British troops stormed the French sailors barracks and ships in Portsmouth, Plymouth, Sheerness and Falmouth.
There will be one dead and a few wounded on each side. On the side of Alexandria, French and British ships stationed nearby: The British guns were pointed at the French ships (The battleship Lorraine, three cruisers, three torpedo boats and a submarine) whereas the British commander was received on board Lorraine for his birtday, and these ships had their torpedo tubes ready to fire. Fortunately, able negotiations and good sense would prevail in this situation, and confrontation was avoided.
First heavy caliber water plumes, early in the battle
At 8 am Cunningham must send Godfroy the ultimatum to surrender the French ships to the Royal Navy, by a crew pass or to have it disarmed under British control. Negotiations will continue all day. We seek to temporize on both sides. On the other hand, at 6 o’clock, the squadron of Gibraltar, the “H force” of Somerville arrives within range of gun of the harbor of Mers-el-Kebir. It is first Foxhound destroyer, scout, quickly followed by the rest of the fleet.
The latter includes the battle cruiser Hood, the battleships Resolution and Valiant, the carrier Ark Royal, 2 cruisers and 12 destroyers. The French forces present include the Dunkirk and Strasbourg battleships, recent and fast buildings, the older Provence and Brittany battleships, the Cdt Teste airlift, the Kersaint, Tiger, Terrible, Lynx, Mogador and Volta destroyers, all powerful units, plus 15 torpedo boats and 4 submersibles, not to mention the air force.
These forced are under the command of Vice Admiral Gensoul, an Anglophile, who had the privilege of having under his command the Hood during a joint hunt of German raiders in 1939. The British, for their part, had on board HMS Foxhound’s Captain Holland, a Francophile who was a naval attaché in Paris and a liaison officer with the French Admiralty in 1939. Everything seemed to come together in advance to reach an agreement.
At 8 am, after warning the French of a very important communication, a message in Morse Hood says “We hope that our proposals will be acceptable and that we will find you with us”. Then at 8:30, Gensoul receives the British notice, a text written as an ultimatum: It leaves three possibilities to the French admiral: Join the British fleet, sail to Britain for British-controlled disarmament, or drive to the Caribbean or the USA whose neutrality allowed not to violate the armistice agreement.
Bretagne is hit
But the spirit of the missive seemed to oppose it. The first two solutions involve violating the armistice convention, Gensoul is forced to refuse. Moreover, the lookouts of Mers-el-Kebir are perfectly aware of the preparations for Force H and the cannons aimed at the harbor. An airplane even took off to observe it and prepare the artillery adjustments. Gensoul gave the order to re-arm the coastal batteries as quickly as possible and to prepare the buildings for a wobble.
He sends a message to the Admiralty, withdrawn to Nerac, in these terms: ‘English force including 3 battleships, 1 aircraft carriers, cruisers and torpedo boats in front of Oran. Ultimtum sent: Sink your ships within 6 hours or we will force you into it. “The admiralty’s response is unambiguous: French ships will respond to force by force” gives Gensoul had in one hand the assurances given by Admiral Darlan concerning a scuttling of the fleet in case of attempted seizure of the axis and had to remained intact, but on the other hand French vessels would defend themselves in case of attack by any opponent, pointing out that the English communication was considered an ultimatum. He refused to receive Holland in person, and his aide-de-camp expresses concerns to him in the event of disarmament under control of the axis: A scuttling could still be possible.
Moreover, through Gensoul’s aide-de-camp on HMS Foxhound, he suggested that disarmament on the spot with the presence of Royal Navy was still possible. But these arguments did not seemed to bend Gensoul, and nothing seemed to be able to prevent the confrontation of arms. Around noon, Sworfish planes of the Ark Royal moored magnetic mines in front of the harbor entrance, seemlingly contradicting possibilities of the fleet to be able to sail to the Caribeans or the USA. At around 12:30, however, Admiral Somerville still reluctant to fire, offered a final conciliation and pushed the ultimatum on his own back at 14:30.
The aides-de-camp on both sides succeeded in persuading Gensoul to meet with Captain Holland. Gensoul believed that disarmament on the spot could constitute a basis of agreement. He however wanted to save time apparently to speed up preparations for combat and equipment, and the British could see them. At 2:30 pm, Gensoul sent a message indicating he agreed to meet Holland in person. This forced Sommerville to extend the ultimatum again.
At 3.15 pm the meeting took place aboard the Dunkirk: It is encouraging: Gensoul gave Holland a text from Darlan, instructions specifying the scuttling of the fleet in case of any threat of capture, and also agreed to start disarmament in situ, but without the immediate threat of the Royal navy, preparations for an immediate departure for the Antilles or the USA were also planned.
However, even as Holland, hopeful of these new developments, was about to report to Somerville, the latter just received from London the message: “Settle the matter quickly, otherwise you will be dealing with reinforcements.” Indeed, Admiral Le Luc, in Nerac, reading Darlan’s message the British intercepted, sailed with his Toulon and Algiers’s cruisers while giving instructions to prepare the ships for a fight. He then informed Darlan of this.
A new communication by Morse is then given from the Hood to Admiral Gensoul, indicating the postponement at 16:30 of the ultimatum, and last deadline. As the British delegation left the Dunkirk at 4:25 pm, 5 min. before expiration, a boat carrying a counterproposal by Gensoul was en route for the Hood. But this was too late. Before it arrived, the admiral opened fire at 16:53.
This was not by any stretch of imagination a “battle” as later claimed in the press, which further scandalized the whole of the French, including De Gaulle, and more a summary execution: The French ships were moored perpendicularly to the harbor, turned inward, so they can’t really defend themselves.
Bretagne is burning
In fact, the two battle cruisers Dunkirk and Strasbourg had all their forward artillery pointing to the shore. In the same way, batteries were mostly turned inwards, to face a possible Italian assault. However they soon turned to the sea and framed the HMS Foxhound, which was obligated to leave fast. The Hood, Valiant and Resolution rained down each eight 16-in rounds every minute, a total of 24 rounds per salvo.
Each salvo raised immense sprays of water, nearly a hundred yards high, falling back with a growl. It was soon apocalypse: Dunkirk was hit on her forward deck, a turret was blown away while the main electric generator and hydraulic system were damaged. The hull was pierced and she took water from all sides. Her commander, to prevent her from sinking decided to make her go straight ahead at full power to beach her. In four minutes the great warship was a steaming wreck with her stern drowned beneath meters of water and her stern raised above the beach.
But the worst was yet to come: The battleship Bretagne, hit the first at 13,000 meters suddenly rose as if by the hand of a titan: Her ammo storages had been reached by a shell. A huge column of flames and mushroom soon replaced her central section. The hull was broken in two, and what was left of the ship capsized and sank quickly, taking 1000 men with her. Provence, which had enough steam, could steam away and clear the harbor, and opening fire on the British squadron as she left.
Her salvo near-missed the Hood which responded with a hit on her 340 mm turret, burning her ammunition store below that was immediately drawn to avoid an explosion. The hull was pierced and the engine compartment was getting water from all sides. She went beaching on the other side of the harbor. The destroyer Mogador saw her stern shredded by a hit when she was trying to get out of the harbor. The whole stern section blew up and she was towed to the bottom of the harbor. Other ships, mainly light torpedo boats, were also struck to death. Only Strasbourg, whose trimmers had done the impossible, was able to escape at sea unharmed.
Mogador’s stern is blasted
Strasbourg’s commander cleverly maneuvered behind the Bretagne burning, hidden from British spotters. Miraculously, she passed between the wrecks on fire, swung at the exit between mines at full speed. This was a sailor’s maneuver that even forced the admiration of the British. He managed, with some destroyers, to reach Toulon and Somerville, who was criticized in this respect, gave up following him and finishing him off.
When the cannons went silent, the harbor of seas-el-Kebir gave the awful sight of a field of wrecks burning in huge black smoke. In the midst of the debris, there were tiny white bodies, the dead and the living, swimming back to the beach. What was the spearhead of the French Atlantic fleet was no longer. Still remained the Richelieu in Dakar and Jean Bart, uncompleted in Casablanca. As De Gaulle, who planned a time of his exile in Canada, said, “it was in our hopes, a formidable axe blow”.
Operation Catapult in color
The consequences of the intransigence of the “old lion”, a lack of communication and perhaps arrogance (or another motivation?) on the part of French officers, falling mostly on Gensoul, led to this considerable drama. While the first consequence was to break the remnants of diplomatic relations – already very tenuous – between France and the United Kingdom, this led a large part of the French to be defiant towards the ally of the day before, as traduced by the sytringer resistance of Vichy territories (like at Dakar) to invasion.
Propaganda of the axis received a gift which Goebbels would exploit to the full, almost obtaining the Vichy government from open collaboration to a frank alliance of fact. Subsequently, on many occasions as said before, the French remaining loyal to Vichy showed fierce resistance. The only immediate follow-up of the British attack was an half-hearted raid of French bombers on Gibraltar, without consequences. However in Dakar, the fierce resistance to the R and Free French was fed by “souvenez-vous de Mers-el-Kebir” (Remember…) and this pushed to a near-civil war between Free France and Vichy France, which the most extremist faction grew in power over time, leading to the dreadful Milice and active hunting of resistance movements by the French themselves.
While the Battle of Britain was raging, the eyes of the world turned to the Mediterranean where Le Duce began a series of campaigns designed both to prove the capabilities of the Italian army against the brilliant success of the Wehrmacht, to annex the Albania and Greece, and was preparing in North Africa, from Libya and Eritrea to start an offensive to eventually seize Egypt and the Suez Canal, depriving Great Britain of this access. vital to his colonial empire to the east. It was in order to guarantee the supply of its armies in Libya to prepare these offensives that the Italian Navy began its operations.
The French Navy is now out of the game due to the armistice and neutralization attacks by the British navy at Mers-el-Kebir, therefore the Royal Navy and the Regia marina were found face to face. In this long duel which was to be concluded in November 1943, the first meeting took place on July 9, 1940, off Punta Stilo, also known as the Battle of Calabria, conducted off the southernmost cape of the Italian “boot”.
Admiral Andrew Cunningham
At that time, the Royal Navy had in the Mediterranean her main fleet based in Gibraltar, locking the passage to the Atlantic, and a squadron in Alexandria, protecting the Suez canal, unique way to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea. A third lock was placed in southern Italy, at Malta, with the naval base at Valletta.
The Italians, however, had the numerical and technical advantage, the British had indeed relegated for the fleet of the Mediterranean their battleships veterans Queen Elisabeth class (QE, Valiant, Barham), Malaya and Warspite being assigned to the home fleet as well as the most modern of its ships, the two Nelson, the battle cruisers, King George V, and the bulk of the battleships of the Resolution class. Only master card in the hands of Admiral Cunningham, its aircraft carriers, which lacked Italy. The latter had a lot of bases around Italy but no coordination between the navy and the air force.
At the beginning of this first encounter, HMS Warspite, after her exploits in Norway, had just been sent to reinforce the Mediterranean Squadron, as well as Malaya and Royal Sovereign. Cunningham could count on six battleships to counter the two Littorio and four Guilio Cesare and Duilio. He also had HMS Illustrious, HMS Formidable, HMS Eagle, HMS Furious in backup. The prologue of this battle will take place in Naples on July 6, because of a convoy to Benghazi made of four cargos escorted by 8 destroyers and 4 TBs. Tripoli was fabricated as a fake destination. The British admiral sent a convoy intended to revive Malta, from Alexandria.
The Italians deployed the bulk of the Italian fleet, a force comprising 6 heavy cruisers, the four Zara and the Trento et Bolzano, 12 destroyers, sent from Tarente and preceding 35 km off the convoy. Behund it followed the Guilio Cesare and Conte di Cavour, 8 light cruisers such as the Duca d’Aosta, Eugenio di Savoia, Attendolo, Montecuccoli, Barbiano, Giussano, Duca degli Abruzzi, Garibaldi, and 13 destroyers. The two squadrons were at the orders of vice-admiral Inigo Campioni joined and converged towards the convoy.
The Cruiser pola
In addition, the first convoy will be separated into two groups of differing speeds (9 & 13 knots) accompanied by three ships, five light cruisers, one destroyer, the HMS Warspite and 5 destroyers on the other. Alexandria fleet with the Malaya and Royal Sovereign armored carriers, bringing you Eagle planes, and 10 destroyers. Dans nuit du 8 au 9, from Italiens destroyers intercepting a message from the RN I planned to intercept the large fleet of Calabria.
Battleship Conte di Cavour
Three destroyers and croisers removed from the formation went to supply and solve engine issue, the squadron receiving extra destroyers from Tarente instead. The first British convoy was attacked by a gruppo of Sparviero bombers and cruiser HMS Gloucester was badly hit, deprived of any targeting capacity. At this stage, Italian cruisers had the advantage.
On the morning of 9 July, at about 9 o’clock, Cunningham’s leading squadron, including the Warspite and destroyers, was now only 90 miles from the Italian fleet. He decided to slow his pace to wait for the second convoy to be better defended. At 1 pm, Fairey Swordfish of HMS Eagle were in range, and launched an attack against the Italian cruisers, but missed. At 15:15, the two fleets were in visual contact and arrived within firing range.
Admiral Inigo Campioni
The Warspite had been joined by the cruisers that formed a forward screen. The three battleships were far apart but the cruisers were much close close, and an artillery duel began at 21,500 meters, which seemed to turn quickly to the advantage of the Italians whose rangefinders were more accurate. But the better experience of British gunners made the difference and quickly, they could increase their rate of fire.
The battleship Warspite, at the thickest of the action during the battle (here in the Indian Ocean by 1942)
Italian fire managed to close very fast on the cruisers of Admiral John Tovey, who decided in agreement with Cunningham on HMS Warspite, to break off from the fight, right after Garibaldi hit HMS Neptune. At 15:30, cruisers had cleared, giving the hand to the battleships.
Warspite started with the Barbiano and Giussano, but failed to score a hit, as they were too short. Cuningham stopped the Warspite completely in order to give him time to be joined by HMS Malaya, whereas HMS Royal Sovereign was still lagging far behind. Admiral Campioni withdrew his cruisers and advanced his battleships to start an artillery duel at 26,500 meters.
But only Giulio Cesare opened fire at first, Cavour being used as an observer according to artillery adjustment principle drawn from the lessons of the Battle of Jutland, when several ships framed the same target, one needed to determine to which belong the watery plumes. It was finally directed against the Cavour while Cesare concentrated on Warspite. HMS Hereward, a destroyer escorting the Warspite, was severely “shaken” by a long impact of the Cesare. The four heavy Zara-class Italian cruisers then began to fire on Warspite, but Campioni ordered them to retreat with the return of Tovey’s cruisers.
The battlehip Guilio Cesare is firing, photo taken from the Cavour, the observer battleship
The fight turned into a tight duel between Warspite and Cesare. The latter almost managed to hit the warspite, her last salvo flooding her bridges and shaking her hull. But the latter responded with a direct impact at 24,000 meter range, hittin the 37 mm ammo storage. The fire drove the smoke back into the port boiler compartment, forcing it to evacuate. These closed boilers cut down the power available to the ship, which speed fell to 18 knots.
Now an easier target, with HMS Malaya and Sovereign dangerously closing in, Cavour’s captain asked nearby destroyers for help. They launched a barrage of smoke to allow the battleship to slip away while Warspite was still waiting for Malaya to catch up. The latter was now very well placed to seriously hit the Cesare, so his new stop seemed providential to the Italians.
The Guilio Cesare during the battle
When forces regrouped, the Italian fleet deployed its cruisers against those of the British. At 15:58, Italian cruiser line opened fire, Trento targeting HMS Liverpool, but at 16:07, Bolzano was hit thrice with medium caliber (6-in), one damaging the rudder. The destroyer Alfieri was also near-missed and badly shaken. Nearby, Guilio Cesare’s chief mechanics announced at that time that they have repaired the two damaged boilers, allowing the ship to reach 22 knots again.
However, Campioni considering that fighting a battle against three battleships and an aircraft carrier with the unique Conte di Cavour was a too much risk to contemplate, and her decided to retreat the fleet towards Messina, ordering a final torpedo barrage from destroyers to cover it. The British did the same, but no impact was noted due to the distance. At around 16:40, a raid of 126 aircraft failed to score any hit. The battle ended at 16:55, but the next morning, a Swordfish raid from the Eagle sank the destroyer Leone.
Zara firing during the battle
Thus ended the first naval battle between the Royal British Navy and the Royal Italian Navy. Despite considerable resources (almost all the Allied and Italian forces present in the Mediteranean participated), the only loss on the aftermath of the battle was an Italian destroyer. A very thin result for the Royal Navy, but a good test for the regia marina, although other events (fatal for Italy) would occur. There were other approaches and isolated battles before the big battle of Matapan in March 1941.
Heavy damage on the Cesare after the battle
Taranto raid (11-12 nov. 1940)
Taranto after the storm: The Conte di Cavour semi submerged. The harbor shallows prevented her to sink completely but she was inactive until the Italian Capitulation.
If the Second World War is fundamentally different from the first, in terms of its geographical scope as well as its dynamics and its industrial massiveness, tactically and strategically it saw the aircraft become a key element: Air attacks were thus conducted with formidable consequences on the various theaters of operation. So it goes from Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. But this attack was inspired in reality by another, much more modest, conducted with all the audacity required by a Royal Navy ready to do anything to ensure the domination of the Meditannean.
Perhaps the most amazing fact was the disproportionate forces tht effectively hit compared to the result: 6 battleships, 16 cruisers, and 13 destroyers against only 4 cruisers and 5 destroyers on the British side, as well as the old aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and also old torpedo-boats. This is the nature of the tactics used with all the necessary nerve, which would make all the difference and revolutionize the naval war…
Winston Churchill’s resolution along the admiralty were known after Mers-el-Kebir. The naval base of Taranto was a thorn in the British side, menacing communication lines between Gibraltar and Alexandria, and Malta in particular. Maintenaing safe convoys supplying Egypt, just when north african campaign started, was crucial. In November 1940, if Italy suffered setbacks in Greece, it still seemed in a strong position in Libya, and Mussilini’s forces just started a campaign with great optimism. Taranto was in 1940 the main Italian naval base. There, were based all the main warships of the Regia Marina, starting with battleships and the majority of cruisers. Naples and Genoa were mainly arsenals that were bombed by British ships, La Spezia being the second largest naval base and the main Italian shipyard.
The harbor of Taranto was the Pearl Harbour of the Italian Navy, with a roomy, ideally suited area, large fuel tanks, and protected by AA. This was therefore a target of choice, with a formidable strike force composed at that time of 6 battleships, 7 heavy, 2 light cruisers, and 8 destroyers. The British admiralty drew up plans for a first surprise attack called Operation Judgment. It was supposed to be carried out by the HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious aircraft. The latter was brand new originally for the trafalgar day, October 21, but in the meantime the Eagle was damaged, and it was decided to assign his surviving devices to the Illustrious who would lead the attack alone. The latter deployed four squadrons of swordfish biplanes and was escorted by 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 4 destroyers, under the command of Andrew Cunningham. It was preceded by twin-engine Martin Maryland reconnaissance flights from Malta, and a Short Sunderland flight the night before the attack.
The plane was spotted by the Italians, but they did not followed suit. That evening, the naval squadron had assembled a few cables from the Greek island of Cephalonia, 170 miles from the Italian base. At 21:00, a first raid of 12 Swordfish arrived on site, followed at 22:00 of 9 others planes. The first, half equipped with torpedoes and the other by bombs, plunged above the harbor at 22:58. These two waves had separated targets, the first attacking the great outer port, and the other half the smaller inner port. The first aircraft marked their targets with flares (which helped the gunners of the Italian AA artillery to down two Swordfish). The attack was carried out with an admirable precision – torpedo planes really arrived at the water’s edge in order to be sure that their gear, modified for the occasion, did not “bounced” or exploded by hitting the bottom which was only 12 meters, which also prevented the Italian ships from sinking completely.
“Dangerous Missions”, You Tube – The Taranto raid
The Littorio, spearhead of the fleet, received three torpedoes, the Caio Duilio and the Conte de Cavour one each. Guilio Cesare was still in repair, withdrawn after the battle of Calabria. The second raid put several bombs on the target, particularly damaging a heavy Italian cruiser. In the end, the balance of the raid was relatively satisfactory: True, the Italian fleet had been deprived for several months of half of its battleships (Littorio (fout months), Duilio (six months), while the cavour was never fully repaired and remained inactive until the armistice of 1943. The fact that this attack was carried out with the torpedoes helped in part to save human lives: Indeed, the Italians had to deplore only 59 dead, mostly prisoners of submerged compartments, and 600 wounded. The British had only 4 losses, 2 airmen killed and two captured. The raid of Pearl Harbor carried out a little later mixed also bombers dive, altitude and torpedo-bombers: the human toll was much heavier.
Regia Marina was then forced to exile to the port of La Spezia further north, and therefore no longer directly threatened the British convoys to the east. The ships needed to mch time to heat up and speed up on the area, the convoys most often were away. Moreover, for each subsequent raid, the fleet was obliged to pass in front of Malta, within the reach of British aviation, always aware of her actions. It can not be denied what was Cunningham’s belief that the Fleet Arm’s “Hour of Fame”, the poor relative of the British Air Force. The coup allowed a frank reinforcement of this corp by many pilots afterwards. On the verge, it was indeed necessary to launch at night such a raid, and it was daring enough to have been made by obsolete planes flying at two hundred kilometers-hours. The Taranto Raid did not meant the end of activities for the Italian fleet, which was going to suffer its most serious setback at Matapan.
The hero of the Taranto raid, Fairey Swordfish (Image Wikipedia). The Japanese Admiralty, then influenced by Admiral Yamamoto, indefatigable promoter of naval aviation, was going to draw all the lessons of this attack that he would literally plagiarize, with a magnitude increased ten years later…
Cape Matapan (27-28 mars 1941)
Undoubtedly the most resounding British victory in the Mediterranean, the battle of Cape Matapan (actually fought off the south of the Peloponnese ridge), was another very hard blow dealt to Regia marina after the attack of Taranto.
Following this attack, the Italian Fleet one had lost the use of three battleships for some time, especially, had to withdraw the bulk of its forces from this forward base further north and dispersing them between different ports. The present battle takes place just at the end of the Balkan campaign. The British armies just re-embarked and has been not disturbed by the Italian fleet.
The Italian fleet in manoeuvers, circa 1939 (colorized by Irootoko JR)
The next move was initially the attempt developed by the Comando Supremo, in consultation with German forces, to attack troopsships between Egypt and Greece. After a long development, the plan was finalized and launched on March 15 under the command of Admiral Angelo Iachino.
The difficulty came from the fact that the British forces established air bases in Crete, and air support urged by Iachino was theoretical. In reality there was no coordination between the fleet and the air cover, smething tat will plague operations of the Italians in the whole Mediterranean campaign.
Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe’s 10th Corps will bombard Malta while the Regia Aeronautica (Italian air force) as planned would take care of Crete. In addition, submarines have been placed under observation and used for reconnaissance sweeps, following one another at regular intervals over a wide front. They were deployed more particularly towards Suda Bay, the only real gathering place in southern Crete.
Savoia Marchetti SM.79 over Sciacca. The absence of coordination navy/air force proved disastrous for the Italians and later motivated the conversion of two recent liners into aircraft carriers.
The Italian forces set sail on March 27. Weather conditions were bad: The sea was heavy, visibility reduced, but the different groups headed east. In Alexandria, at the Royal Navy HQ, Admiral Cunningham closely followed these moves thanks to his spies and intelligence services, which interpreted the reconnaissance missions of the axis and deciphered coded messages.
Around noon, a Short Sunderland saw the Italian fleet approaching southern Greece, and immediately Cunningham gave the order to Force B under the command of Admiral Pridham-Wippell, to set sail from Piraeus and stand behind the island of Gavdos (southwest of crete) and be ready in March 28.
For his part Cunningham fooled the naval attaché of Japan, who spied the British in Alexandria on behalf of the axis, that he was to leave to rest, taking his golf clubs with him when in fact would later later embark during the night and set sail with the bulk of the British naval forces in the east.
The next day around 2 p.m., Iachino was aware of the detection of his fleet after having intercepting a message from the Sunderland after spotting them. As he feared to see himself outnumbered, he ordered his forces to cancel the operation the north of Crete, and to regroup in the south. At dawn, Vittorio Veneto’s reconnaissance planes spotted Force B (Pridham-Wippell) east of Gavdos. As this one included only four cruisers (Ajax, Gloucester, Orion, Perth) and four destroyers, he knew himself in a position of strength and lashed towards the latter. As expected, Pridham-Whipell, after a brief duel from 7.45 am until 8.30 am, withdrew towards the main body of Cunningham’s forces. The classic manoeuver.
Cunningham from his part was at the head of three battleships, the Warspite, Valiant and Barham, followed by the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable and 9 destroyers. Although having a large numerical superiority, the Italians of Admiral Sansonetti’s squadron (the three cruisers Bolzano, Trento and Trieste) failed spot British convoy as Visibility was so poor.
Sansonetti decided to abandon the chase and turned around to return to Vittorio Veneto (Iachino). Pridham-Wippell also turned around and kept in touch with the Italians. This was the time. Sansonetti’s cruisers joined Veneto at 10 a.m. and together opened fire again on British cruisers, who started a second manieuver which almost turned into a rout: The large calibers of the Veneto closely framed them, and those of the heavy cruisers too. The light 6-in guns of the cruisers could not compete and they only survived by deployming an intense smoke curtain and by skillful maneuvers.
It was now around 11:30 am, and the Italians gave up on it and headed north-west. Suddendly, rushing from the sky, a group of Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers from HMS Formidable attacked ihis ships, but without scoring a single torpedo hit.
Iachino felt his forces were now vulnerable especially the vitorrio, now the last operational battleship, and the absence of advanced air cover, decided to withdrew. Shortly after, Force B joined the Cunningham fleet and informed them of the composition of the Italian squadron. His old battleships being too slow to catch up, he had the Fleet air arm ordered to slow down the Italians and renew attacks.
At 2:00 p.m. bombers from Crete bombed the Italians at high altitude, but without results. The latter headed to Taranto, hoping for a rapid intervention by the Regia Aeronautica meanwhile. A new attack on HMS Formidale occurred at 3:20 p.m., practically at the same time as high-altitude planes just captured the attention of the AA crew. Attacking from just abive waves, they rushed almost without being spotted and socred a hit on the Vittorio Veneto, at the port propeller.
This caused a very serious damage: The bar was now blocked, and 4,000 tons of sea water rushed into the engine rooms whose compartments were evacuated. Her engines were stopped, and the Veneto was now dead in the water. Iachino’s worst nightmares were not realized. Mechanic teams reushed into action and will then do the impossible to allow the ship to leave before Cunningham arrival: Their struggled would take half an hour. This ws the Italian heroics of the day, showing that well trained maintenance and emergency tems can save the day, like at Midway.
Vittorio Veneto started painfully to reach 16 and then 20 knots, a miracle which was enough to outrun the dangerousely close British battleships. To save his flagship, Iachino had her framed and protected by a AAA curtain with all his heavy cruisers. These, opening fire and blinding British pilots of the third wave with their projectors at full power, almost routed them, shooting down one in the process. This was the only loss of the battle, showing that Italian AA was certainly not the best at that time. Nevertheless, one of these planes of the third wave scored a hit on the Pola. This was the hinge of the battle, the moment of truth. It was then that the chief admiral made an unfortunate decision.
Ignoring that the bulk of Cunningham’s forces are approaching (the Italians had no radar, unlike the Rpyal Navy – this will weigh heavily in the balance of the battle), Iachino ordered Zara and Fiume to protect and tow the Pola to safety back to Taranto while he plan to strengthens its forces and return. At dusk, the Pola is effectively joined by the Zara, at the head of the line, followed by the Fiume and the destroyers, at low speed.
At 10:25 p.m., Cunningham, closely monitoring the Italian moves by radar, approaches by night, all lights off. The Italians ignore everything about the proximity of the British battleships until they are only at 3,500 meters. By then, order is given to turn the searchlights at full power on the Italians. Time stops for a second; And the batte line then open a deadly fire: In a few minutes, the three heavy cruisers are no more than floating torches, badly hammered by 15-in HE shells. This is a harrowing sight.
The Fiume is wrecked by explosions, list heavily, and sinks in a few minutes, carrying with her, almost the entire crew. Zara is widly blazing but refuses to sink, and the Pola, also burning from stern to stem, is undoubtedly the least “battered” of the three. On board there total panic. Completely bewildering by what just happen, the crew did no longer obeys their officers. Some jumps to the water, others (as reported later the the British boarding party) is drinking alcohol and behave like the end of the world was near. The destroyer Jervis, aking advantage of this situation indeed approach the Pola without being worried and land a company of infantry to take the officers prisoners and possession of the ship in a few minutes.
The crew of Pola, Ionian Sea, 1940.
The battle of Cape Matapan is perhaps one of the best remembered naval battle of the Mediterranean. It is showing grave deficiencies in the Regia Marina, both the lack of radar, and absence of coordinated air cover, which mussolini himself had to admit. The results of this last act of the battle are quite serious for the Italians who lose three heavy cruisers, considered the best in the whole fleet, along with two destroyers, the Oriani and the Carducci. The last operational Italian battleship after the disaster at Taranto, the Vittorio Veneto, is also immobilized for long repairs.
The Zara went on to burn, listing on her the port side up to the next day. She will be torpedoed by the destroyers of the 14th division (Captain Mack) while Pola was towed to Alexandria as a war prize, something quite unique in WW2, and a supreme humiliation for Mussolini. The British press went wild about this success and Churchill had at least something to positive to present to the house of commons.
But Cunningham was criticized to quit the area back to Alexandria, perhaps too soon, because of the still latent threat of Axis aviation. The Pola was torpedoed and the survivors picked up by the hospital ship Gradisca. The battle discouraged the Italians from other large-scale actions for long unless they can make better use of naval aviation or developing or adopting a radar (via Germany). The lesson was digested enough by Mussolini that he returned on his previous opposition to built an aircraft carrier, boasting Italy was itself the best, unsinkable carrier around. Order was given to start the reconversion of two liners, the Aquila and Sparviero, into aircraft carriers, while a commission was charged to bring from Germany engineers and equipment in order to equip the fleet with radars.
Battle of Kerkenna (16 april 1941)
This apparently less important naval commitment was nevertheless a perfect illustration of the purpose of naval battles in the Mediterranean between 1940 and 1943: To allow the supply of the troops of the two camps engaged in Africa. Kerkenna is a series of islands surrounded by shoals on the Tunisian coast. A squadron of British destroyers, without any other more important building, is urgently sent to intercept an Italian convoy of 5 freighters escorted by 3 Italian destroyers, bound for the Italo-German forces which besiege Tobruk.
The convoy includes the German freighters Aegina, Iserlohn, Adana, Arta, and the Italian freighter Sabaudia, escorted by the Tarigo, the Lampo and the Baleno, all under the command of Lieutenant Da Cristofaro. Commander Mack’s 14th British squadron from Malta included the Janus, Jervis, Mohawk and Nubian. These last two were of the “tribal” type, very powerful. This very simple interception action, also called the battle of Sfax, was broken down into two stages.
Italian destroyer Lampo
At first, the British destroyers spotted by radar around 1:00 am the escorts of the convoys and opened fire from a good distance (The Nubian and the Mohawk in particular had 8 long-range 140 mm guns, completely outclassing the Italian artillery). The artillery duel turns very quickly to the disadvantage of the Italians, who take several impacts, but the Luca Tarigo will have time to get close to its attackers enough to release a line of torpedoes, before being permanently disabled.
Regia Marina (Cdv. Mack LdV Da Cristofaro)
Royal navy (Andrew Cunningham)
The British destroyers maneuvered to avoid them, but the Mohawk was struck and badly hit by two torpedoes. Helisted quickly, but without sinking, he was no longer able to make his way to Malta. Second, the British destroyers meticulously torpedoed the Axis freighters, sending them all to the bottom. After the battle, the destroyers saved the crews, but the Mohawk, which had lost 41 men in the double impact, was scuttled before sinking. In the end the action was successful on the British side. The convoy was a precious help for Rommel’s troops, 3,500 tons of material, 300 vehicles and 1,800 men (out of 3000) lost, fuel, food, reinforcements which were sorely lacking.
Bismarck raid (18-27 may 1941)
The Bismarck Affair (May 18-27, 1941): The most famous photo of the most famous battleship: The titanic Bismarck opening fire on the unfortunate Hood.
“Sink the Bismarck”. By this peremptory order of Winston Churchill, which gave rise to a film with the identical title, half of the Royal Navy was dispatched with all business ceasing – including convoys from the Atlantic – from Scotland, from the Firth of Forth, but also from the east coast of England, or even Gibraltar. All these forces against one ship: The German battleship Bismarck. This means that the threat he represented for the “old lion”, well informed by his naval attachés.
It all began with the project, within the Kriegsmarine staff under the patronage of Admiral Raeder, to provide Germany with a real battleship, since the blank check granted by Great Britain in 1936 , which at the time sought to appease the master of the Second Reich by allowing him to build a fleet with a tonnage representing 25% of the Royal Navy. Sweeping aside the Treaty of Versailles, in particular the ban on building ships over 10,000 tonnes, which a priori banned battleships, Hitler and Raeder set up a very ambitious program aimed at returning to the Germany the naval force it had in 1914, then the second largest in the world. But to get there, a long road was to be expected, and the plan was not to be fulfilled until the 1940s.
The first milestone in this plan, after the drafts represented by the Scharnhorst-class battle cruisers, were the four Bismarck-class battleships, of which only the first two were completed. They were put on hold in 1937 and, from the drawing board, a tonnage much higher than the 35,000 tonnes allowed by the Treaty of Washington, still in force, was envisaged. By artillery as by general architecture, the Bismarck and its twin the Tirpitz were only very improved and modernized copies of the Bayerns of 1917. By their speed, the range of their pieces, the precision of their telemetry devices coupled with their Ultra modern radars, all well served by an almost invulnerable protection, the two battleships were a new milestone in the matter.
When the Bismarck, which was launched in 1938, became known to the British, they inquired about the means to fight against such a ship. The Bismarck indeed proceeded from a new philosophy, developed in response to the poor manpower of the German navy. As much as the three Graf Spee-class pocket cruisers were designed to outclass any cruiser, the Bismarck was a ship of naval superiority, made to outclass any adversary, including the last fast battleships. Its aim was not in principle to be integrated into a line of combat with a view to a classic engagement, in line and in numbers against the English fleet, but to be able to operate as a privateer against enemy convoys, with the difference that ‘he could silence his escort without being worried. Against this building, in fact, the Royal Navy did not have battleships fast enough or equipped with an artillery with sufficient range to catch and destroy it. Only an attack by numbers, a real hunt with hounds, slowing it down by repeated air attacks – according to the classic tactics already successfully implemented in the Mediterranean – could overcome it.
However, on May 18, 1941, the battleship had successfully completed tests and shooting exercises, so far well protected in the Baltic. But now Hitler was counting on him to undermine the Atlantic convoys and define Operation Rheinübung. The Bismarck therefore sailed from Gdynia, bearing the mark of Admiral Lütjens, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. As soon as it left Gdynia, the British were on the alert. On the news that the ship had been seen passing the Strait of Skaggerak, in the east of Denmark, closing the Baltic Sea, the RAF, the Coastal Command and the Fleet air Arm were put on high alert: It was primarily a question of maintain permanent contact with the German combat group. On May 20, in poor visibility, the two ships crossed the strait and headed for the port of Bergen, in the south-west of Norway.
Order of Battle:
Royal Navy (Admiral John Tovey, Vice-Admiral Holland)
Kriegsmarine: (Admiral günther Lütjens)
The raiding party is spotted:
On May 21, the Bismarck and its escort were spotted in Bergen by the RAF. An Operation HQ is set up from London, and the order is given to the Scapa Flow fleet to deploy. The Home fleet is on the verge of war. To reach the Atlantic, four routes are possible considering the islands in the north of Scotland. John Tovey must be able to have the means to bar the passage to the German group with all the forces available. Immediately, we mobilize the battleships in full escort, and coming from Scapa flow are sent the Hood and the Prince of Wales, escorted by 6 destroyers, as well as the King Georges V, the aircraft carrier Victorious, the battle cruiser Repulse, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk and 6 other destroyers, the latter patrolling the coast of Iceland. The first ships to leave are in the middle of the night at 12:52 am, the Prince of Wales, the Hood and 6 destroyers under the command of Vice-Admiral Holland.
The “Mighty Hood” was a hugely famous “old boy” around the world, who had never seen anything other than squadron drills since launch, while the Prince of Wales was the second fast battleship in the class. King Georges V, so new that its secondary turrets were not yet fully operational and its painting unfinished: It set off in disaster to the point that the civilian construction workers who were on board did not have time to disembark. All day on the 22nd, the reconnaissance follows one another. Finally, in the evening, at 8:00 p.m., a plane informed Tovey that the two German ships were no longer in Bergen. On the morning of May 23, Tovey’s squadron was complete with the King Georges V, the Repulse, and the Victorious.
Meanwhile, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were on full power north-westward with a view to crossing north Iceland. At 12 o’clock, they had bypassed the island in the plain sea because of the English minefields on the coasts and descended towards the south and the convoy route. The weather was crystal clear, and the two buildings were followed by radar by Suffolk, which at 19:22 communicated its position. At 8:22 p.m., exactly one hour later, Norfolk in turn made contact. The Bismarck will then tack and open fire against Suffolk and the latter quickly evades, not being of size. He will continue his radar contact. Lütjens who suspects that his position is known and that the Royal Navy is mobilized against him wonders if it is better not to turn back, but being too committed, decides to continue his route south. On May 24, the shortest but most impressive battle of the war was to be fought off Iceland, the so-called “Danish Straits” battle.
Very early this morning, the fog had lifted. the sea was still rough, the ceiling low, but the visibility was much better. At 5:25 am, the Prinz Eugen’s hydrphones picked up the sound approaching two important buildings on the port side. At 5:37 am, at 35,000 a building first analyzed as a cruiser was seen. At 5:43 am, a second building, still taken for a heavy cruiser, was seen by the Prinz Eugen and the chief gunner consequently decided to charge his pieces with highly explosive shells. It was actually the group formed by the Hood and the Prince Of Wales, arriving at 28 knots. Vice-Admiral Holland knew the weaknesses of his flagship, poorly protected and equipped with parts of less range than those of Bismarck. As a result, he made the choice to approach the two German ships very quickly. However the British who saw the Prinz Eugen in front, the Bismarck being a mile behind, they believed it to be the German battleship.
The mistake was expected: The two ships had a very similar silhouette. When the mistake was cleared, the gunners were ordered to change targets, but only the Prince of Wales engaged the Bismarck. With 10 pieces of 343 mm he had the advantage of number but neither of range nor of caliber. At 5:52 am, the two English ships opened fire at 23,000 with their forward pieces only, due to their inadequate approach angle. However, from the first salvo, the POW (Prince of Wales) suffered from a mechanical problem on the N ° 1 quadruple turret and had to temporarily put it out of service. His ill-adjusted shots by inexperienced shooting officers fell too far from the Bismarck. For its part, the first two salvos of Hood fell too short aiming at Prinz Eugen. Meanwhile, the Bismarck gunnery officer repeatedly asked the bridge for permission to open fire, without a response.
The Prinz Eugen was still insufficient in range to respond. At 5:54 am, Vice-Admiral Holland had his ships orientated in parallel with those of the Germans to benefit from all their artillery. This enabled Bismarck telemetrists to identify Hood and Prince Of Wales and act accordingly. At 5:55 am, the Bismarck, followed by Prinz Eugen opened fire in their turn at 20,000 meters. At 5:56 a.m., the fifth salvo from the POW fell too long, but a direct impact was recorded on the next, aft of the Bismarck at the stern, leaving behind a trail of fuel oil while the Prinz Eugen recorded with its 203 mm hit the Hood at the rear masts, starting a big fire. The two German ships had hitherto focused their fire on the Hood but Lütjens quickly ordered Prinz Eugen to open fire on the POW, while Bismarck’s secondary artillery did the same, its main artillery still engaging the Hood. By 6 am, the distance had fallen to just 16,000 meters. The Prinz Eugen even fired three torpedoes abeam, to no avail.
It was then that the key event of the battle occurred: While the two English ships this time presented themselves almost perfectly in profile in order to engage their rear artillery, one or more 380 mm shells from the Bismarck penetrated the magazine at Hood’s rear ammunition. There followed a cataclysmic explosion from an incredible height (nearly 600 meters), a column of fire, smoke and debris which echoed in the distance and whose explosion made – according to their description – the German sailors waver. on the deck of the two ships. The tallest building in the world for almost 20 years, the pride of the Royal Navy, had split in two and was quickly sinking. Three survivors of the Hood were rescued three quarters of an hour later by the destroyer Electra and landed in Reykjavik.
On board the POW it was the consternation. Vice-Admiral Holland had perished with his ship, and the English battleship was deprived of the use of its front main turret. So when the guns of Bismarck turned against him, the affair seemed very badly started. The civilians embarked in spite of themselves on board the vessel were livid, terrified. The POW had tacked to pass behind the burning hull of the sinking Hood, carefully moving away from the German ships while responding with its 6 operational 343 mm guns. At 6:02 a.m., a shell from the Bismarck entered the POW bridge, killing all the deck officers except Commander Leach, who was miraculously saved. The German ships had approached the POW at only 14,000 meters and all their parts, 8 of 380, 8 of 203 and 6 of 152 mm and even 24 of 105 mm AA were spitting fire. Leach, came to his senses and immediately ordered a smokescreen to be sent and a retreat.
The brand new English battleship had then taken 4 impacts from the Bismarck and three from the Prinz Eugen and was in a very unfortunate position. Even the POW’s rear telemetry station was out of order, so the British battleship’s rear turret fire officer was firing without recording any results. His speed had fallen and Leach was already seeing himself caught up and destroyed when at 6:09 am the incredible happened: Lütjens decided to break off the fight and stop the pursuit. This unexpected respite allowed Leach to walk away with his building safe and sound. The latter will be off for long repairs and will experience a disastrous fate in the Far East in December. Lütjens continued on his way south-west. He informed the staff that he was going to join Saint-Nazaire to carry out repairs there, while Prince Eugen, who had not suffered any blow to the goal, would continue the mission and attack the convoys.
At 9:50 am, Captain Brinkmann of the Prinz Eugen received the order to pass on the back of the Bismarck to assess its fuel oil leak. However, the German squadron was still active on the watch, with Suffolk on starboard and Norfolk and POW on port. At 12:40, the German squadron bent its course due south in order to reach the central Atlantic and then turn due east towards the French coast. On May 24, it was outrage in London: All the headlines featured the destruction of national pride, the Hood. The blow was severe and in front of Churchill, the House of Commons was unleashed. The admiralty, lectured by Churchill, since the terrible message of the POW on the morning of the 23rd, was forced to stop all ships of the line from their escort missions planned to join the meeting of Bismarck. At this moment of the famous “sink the Bismarck!” ordered by a furious Churchill, the Rodney which escorted the Britannic was the first to leave, at 10:36 am from the east coast of Ireland with 4 destroyers. Commander Dalrymple-Hamilton was formally ordered to split up if the troop transport was needed, leaving him only an escort destroyer.
The older battleship Ramillies, which escorted convoy HX127, was also diverted to proceed southwest. Finally at 3:00 p.m., the ready-to-alert Revenge also set sail in Halifax. On May 24, at 2:20 p.m., the decision was made and the Bismarck sent the Prinz Eugen in Morse code at 6:40 p.m. the order to break up the formation, while the Birmarck was heading south-southeast. The diversion would allow the Bismarck, launched at full speed, to reach France for the 26th. To the north, many ships of the line were hunting. Lütjens hoped that the Bismarck would attract the bulk of its pursuers on a trap: 6 U-Bootes positioned off the Bay of Biscay. En route south-southeast, the Bismarck quickly approached Suffolk. The latter soon saw himself surrounded by shots from the Bismarck.
From 6.30 p.m., the exchange with the English cruiser, which soon retired under a smokescreen, took place with the POW, which remained wisely at a distance, on the port side of the Bismarck, and ended at 6:56 p.m. Suffolk passed over the rear of Bismarck and joined Norfolk and the English battleship. At 8:56 p.m., the fuel situation on board the Bismarck was becoming worrying: Still at full power, the latter no longer had the possibility of joining its refuellers and was obliged to continue heading south and not towards France, to avoid putting a “T” in relation to his pursuers. The U-boats are ordered to cover the Bismarck on its new route. A threat was approaching, however: Rear Admiral Alban’s squadron aboard the aircraft carrier Victorious accompanied by four light cruisers.
At 10:10 pm, the Bismarck was heading at 25 knots. The 9 sworfish of the Victorious took off in an attempt to sink it, followed at 11:00 p.m. and midnight by Fulmar. The lead Sworfish commanded by Esmonde was equipped with a radar which recorded the expected target. The British squadron then prepared for the torpedoing when the sun had disappeared, but instead of the Bismarck it was the coast guard USS Modoc which was very close and was almost targeted. At this point the German battleship saw the planes and opened fire with its long-range AA artillery, while increasing speed to 27 knots.
By midnight the Sworfish had taken up an attack position. They received from Bismarck a real hellfire, because not only all its antiaircraft artillery opened fire, from the 105 to the 20 mm, but also the 152 and even the big 380 mm. Braving the steel wall, the British aviators released their torpedoes, all of which the Bismarck avoided by maneuvering with skill, except the last, which exploded near the starboard belt. The Bismarck therefore recorded no waterway, but the explosion killed a sailor and wounded six others.
At 2:30 am, the Sworfish all returned to the Victorious to land: None had been lowered. The speed of the Bismarck was however reduced to 16 knots to allow some repairs, and at 1:30 in the morning, the Prince of Wales opened fire at 16,000 meters. The Bismarck replied, without the two protagonists registering a shot on goal. At this time, morale was at its highest on board the German ship and the crew were celebrating the birthday of the admiral who was this May 25, 52 years old. The latter also felt in total confidence and tried to take advantage of the darkness to sow his pursuers in a daring maneuver: At 3:06, he made his ship turn due west, then begin a 180 ° in order to pass behind the English ships.
At 4:01 am, the maneuver had succeeded, thanks in particular to the absence of Suffolk to starboard, and Vice-Admiral Wake-Walker had to announce the famous “contact lost” to the admiralty by TSF. By now the Bismarck had left her pursuers and had become invisible, but even more so, was heading directly for Saint-Nazaire, to the south-east, again at 27 knots. Ironically, Lütjens believed that the British were still following him and announced it by radio. He was informed, but too late by the Kriegsmarine HQ Western Operation, that this was no longer the case. Too late, because the first message from Bismarck at 9:00 had been picked up and thus allowed the British to calculate by trigonometry its new approximate position. After that, the Bismarck kept radio silence. This did not prevent around 11:00 a.m. Lütjens from making a speech by intercom to his men to signal them their glorious feat of arms against the Hood, but also that by bending its course towards a French port they would probably be intercepted by the Royal Navy and should fight.
He ended his speech with a vibrant “victory or death!” Soon after, at around 4:25 p.m., he received another happy birthday from Hitler himself and congratulations on his achievement against the Royal Navy. In addition, the crew was ordered to build a second dummy chimney behind the first to deceive the enemy, as well as to paint the tops of the turrets yellow. At 3:00 am on the 26th, a Coastal Command catalina took off from Ireland and located the battleship at 10:10 am when it was time to turn around. Assaulted by the giant’s DCA, he took a schrapnell and had to maneuver to escape the shots, after having released his deep-charges. At that time, Admiral Tovey could only count on King Georges V and Rodney, far too far north, and who could not make their way at full speed in order to save their already well-depleted fuel oil reserves.
There was now only one hope left for the Admiralty to intercept the Bismarck before its arrival in France: The H force of Vice-Admiral James Sommerville, coming at full speed heading north of Gibraltar. Indeed at this time, the Renown accompanying the Ark Royal was in a good position to intercept the Bismarck, but after the loss of the Hood the admiralty did not want to risk a second battle cruiser against the German battleship. Also, Force H found itself chasing east-south-east of Bismarck, with the cruiser Sheffield behind it a short distance away. On May 26 at 8:35 am, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal launched its Swordfish. At around 11:14 am, one of them saw the battleship, soon followed by a second aircraft. Two others came to pick them up in order to maintain contact. The H Force was then closely followed by the submersible U-556, but the latter returning from the Atlantic with more torpedoes could not attempt anything.
At 2:50 p.m., not less than 15 Swordfish took off from the Ark Royal loaded with torpedoes and found their target at 3:50 p.m. thanks to the radar spot recorded by the lead aircraft. visibility was very poor, but the silhouette of the ship stood out in the haze when the old biplanes attacked: with deficient magnetic fire exploded by touching the water or dropping or crossing the turbulence of the cruiser wake. The second wave did not go on the attack after the first Swordfish recognized the English ship.
At 5:00 p.m., the planes returned to the aircraft carrier for refueling. These long operations left only a short time before dusk for a new attack. Another night attack was promised to fail, so the last of the evening was crucial: The next day the battleship would enter an area covered by both the Luftwaffe and U-Bootes. Also, at 7:15 p.m., the squadron of 15 Swordfish took off again with torpedoes equipped this time with contact triggers.
The famous HMS hood, which the British and their allies regarded with immense respect … One hit on goal was enough to make it disappear: Many had forgotten that it was only an evil “battle cruiser” protected.
At 8:47 p.m., the squadron went on the attack in better visibility. The giant’s DCA was unleashed once again. And this time again, its captain maneuvered it masterfully, avoiding the 15 torpedoes except two: One hit the vessel at the port belt, without damage, but the other exploded on the rudder guide which was then pointed. at 12 ° in a tight maneuver. The consequences of this single impact were considerable: The bar room being submerged and the adjacent compartments inaccessible due to the bent sheet metal, the divers could not even hope to repair it in time. (It was even considered to put the rudder in position by triggering an explosion on the other side, but this could damage the propeller shafts, this idea was given up, as well as that of compensating for the gap by using starboard propulsion. Now deprived of the ability to use a helm stuck in the same position, the battleship saw itself enter a long circle which would cause it to turn its back involuntarily to the French coast, but worse, to find himself now at the mercy of his pursuers.
During engine trim tests, the Bismarck set off on an erratic course and came up against Sheffield. The latter, closely framed, found salvation in the flight and a cloud of smoke. At 10:38 pm, the 4th destroyer flotilla commanded by Philip Vian, future admiral, detected the battleship thanks to the Piorun, the most advanced Polish destroyer. The weather was then bad, and the Piorun was almost destroyed by fire from the Bismarck. All night long, the 5 destroyers attacked with torpedoes, sending illuminating shells, one of which ignited the start of a fire on the deck of the Bismarck. In heavy weather and rain, no impact was recorded as the destroyers maneuvered skillfully to avoid destruction in front of the vessel’s heavy fire. One of them, the Cossack, already famous for its attack on the Altmark in Norway, lost radar contact due to a very close impact, its antenna being crushed by tons of seawater.
The Battleship King Georges V, sister-ship of the Princes of Wales, at the time of the events. He carried 10 pieces of 356 mm.
At 7:00 am, the destroyers gave up their actions, having already launched 16 torplles without results. Despite this success for Lütjens, the respite was short-lived: It was only a matter of hours before the big British units arrived. The Bismarck sank forward, making a “ploughshare” in enormous waves: We were at a sea of force 8. The wounded battleship was dragging itself at 7 knots against the wind. Finally at 8.43 am, at 23,000 meters, the King georges V and the Rodney bent their course to place themselves in the battle line. Now the whole crew was tense. Two to one, with low speed and an inability to govern properly, the Bismarck was nothing more than a steel fortress awaiting hallali. His artillery and rangefinders were intact, so his firepower was fully operational and everyone’s resolve was absolute.
At 8.47 am, the Rodney opened fire at 20,000 meters, followed by the KGV. Then, as the distance dropped, cruiser Norfolk did the same with its 203mm guns. When the secondary artillery of the English battleships barked in turn around 9:00 am, the Bismarck replied with its 4 rear 380 mm guns and its 4 152 mm lateral guns. The British totaled 10 pieces of 356, 9 of 381 mm, and 8 of 203 mm. At 9:02 am, the first serious impact deprived the Bismarck of its main telemetry station on the bridge tower. Two minutes later, the cruiser Dorsetshire added its 8 pieces to the concert of steel. The shot of the Bismarck, hampered by the swell, remained effective because of the transfer of the central shot from a rear post. It was then at 9.13 am, when the last salvo from the Bismarck had closely surrounded the KV and was preparing to strike, a 356 mm shell struck the firing center.
HMS Nelson, at the time of the events. This 1925 capital ship, slower than the Bismarck, carried twelve 16-in guns.
Now only the two rear turrets of the Bismarck continued to fire with their own range finders, ineffectively. Soon a shot from Rodney silenced “Dora” turret, and shortly after, it was the turn of “Caesar” turret. Bismarck continued to fire with her 6-in (152 mm). But these turrets were soon also silenced. The rain of hard steel and explosives continued even as the distraught German giant was no more than an unarmed target. Captain Lindemann decided at 9:34 am to evacuate and scuttle her (as shown by Cameron’s expedition in 2002). But as the English battleships approached 3,000 meters, the rolling fire continued. To this, torpedoes were added, hitting the ship at its belt. But the leviathan was still afloat, on fire, heeling, and immobilized.
At 10:00 am, the remaining crew still alive jumped into the sea. The war flag, which was still fluttering in the wind, could hardly be brought down. At 10:16 a.m., Tovey’s battleships ceased firing, short of fuel and ammunition. Bismarck was still floating. As the end drew near, a squadron of Swordfish torpeo planes arrived at 10:15 am but stayed away to avoid being mown down by British fire. They were mistaken for Luftwaffe planes and HMS KGV opened fire anyway with its 133 mm, fortunately to no avail. Now only the British cruisers remained, torpedoing the dying giant from 2,500 meters. But none of the hits still caused the ship to sink although her list increased further.
Short of torpedoes, the British cruisers wanted to finish her off with their 8-in guns, but at 10:39 am finally, they saw the giant slowly capsizing and sinking. Her own crew had opened all accessible valves to accelerate the process. After three quarters of an hour of fierce hammering, the Third Reich proud flagship, which had suffered perhaps 600 hits, over 2876 shells fired, sank to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. 800 sailors were able to evacuate the battleship before she plunged straight into the depths, dragging with her all those who had remained on board and those who had been slow to swim away, by suction. Under the threat of U-Boats, HMS Dorsetshire and Maori rounded up a hundred men before departing, then the Spanish cruiser Canarias arrived on the spot from El Ferrol, a little late for survivors dying in the meantime of fatigue and hypothermia in a water at 13°. 115 men survived however. Hitler from that day on, began to doubt the theories of commerce warfare developed by Raeder as plan Z was cancelled, and started to pay an attentive ear to his rival Dönitz, the champion of submarine warfare. The twin of Bismarck, KMS Tirpitz, never attempted such daring raids and remained wisely anchored in a Norwegian fjord for the duration of the war. Thus ended one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War.
Battle of Crete (may 1941)
Called Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury) this was a bold airborne assault of the island of Crete where the remnants of the British expeditionary force and Greek elements fled in April 1941. The operation’s goal was to mopup rapidly the remnants of these forces to avoid, either a repatriation in North Africa, or the island’s fortification, south of Greece, which would have been a torn in the foot of the German forces present in the area. Despite smaller forces the German paratroopers ultimately prevailed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Luftwaffe however inflicted serious losses to the Royal Navy, in the hands of the Junkers Stuka.
Forces in presence:
Allies: 42,547, including 18,047 British troops, 10,258 to 11,451 Greeks, 7,702 Kiwis and 6,540 Australians. In addition, the Cretan population was not particularly friendly with the Germans and did its part. There was a “harder” local component, consisting of the the Cretan Gendarmerie (2.500 men) and the Heraklion Garrison Battalion. In the air, this was not glorious: The RAF was nearly absent from the sector, with the last fighters of 33, 80 and 112 Squadrons and a squadron of the Fleet Air Arm). The Royal Navy however could oppose notheworthy forces to the Regia Marina (see later).
Axis: 22,000 paratroopers and mountain troops, and 2,700 Italians.
The air component of the axis rested on the Luftwaffe, which could carry troops using 500 transports planes (nearly all Ju-52 and 80 troop gliders of the DFS 230 type, and a few larger Gotha Go 242. The air bridge was protected by 180 fighters which also had the responsibility of covering 280 bombers (Do-17, He-111) and 150 Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers.
We are not going to dwelve of operations in Crete itself, the subject had been well treated already. Let just say the naval side of Crete was important, both in the number of units involved, and of ships destroyed or damaged: This battle affected more than half of the Royal Navy present in the whole of the Mediterranean.
The Town class cruiser HMS Sputhampton, another victim of the Stukas
The Naval fight in Crete:
The naval side started when ships evacuated British and Greek troops from Greece in late April to early May, requisitioned steamers of all sizes and tonnage, and a few Royal Navy ships. The memories of Dunkirk were present and Cunningham had no intention to risk his precious large units, including the destroyers, with a dangerously closing Luftwaffe. The period of June, when the battle turned to the advantage of the Germans, made it necessary for the Royal Navy to risk these precious ships to repatriate British troops, far from bases on North Africa. The air support was limited to few surviving planes after unrelentless attacks on all aerodromes and airfields in the island, and the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Formidable own air group.
HMS York in Suda bay, April 1941.
During these evacuations operations, carried mostly by night, the Luftwaffe sank the cruisers HMS Gloucester, HMS Fiji, HMS Calcutta the destroyers Kelly, Greyhound and Kashmir, or HMS Hereward starting on 22 May and until the 1st of June. Italian bombers did their part too. Those from 41° Gruppo sank the destroyer HMS Juno on 21 May, and badly damaged HMS Imperial on the 28 (she became a total constructive loss). Most of the time, these were taken car of by German Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive-bombers. There were also a few Ju-88 twin-engine bombers that performed dives in some occasions, those of II./LG 1.
The aircraft carrier HMS Formidable was damaged, as well as the battleships HMS Warspite and Barham, the cruisers HMS Ajax, Dido, Orion and the HMAS Perth, even a submarine, HMS Rover, as well as the destroyers HMS Kelvin and HMS Nubian, in repairs for months. The Regia Marina also inicted tremendous damage, sinking the heavy cruiser HMS York in Souda Bay (northern Crete), blasted by Italian explosive motor boats (MTM). Beached on 26 March she was later abandoned and scuttled by using demolition charges during the may evacuation. On 1st June, the Royal Navy had been reduced to two operational battleships and three cruisers for the Alexandrian Eastern squadron. The Italians, despite their losses at Tarento, had still four battleships and eleven cruisers. But fr this price, the allies shot down and estimated twenty enemy aircraft, and in the end about 22 destroyed, 11 probable, 21 damaged. In the end, it appeared the Battle of Crete was the costliest naval engagement of the entire war for the Royal Navy, although it is mostly remembered for its costly paratrooper action.
Great Syrta battle (22-23 march 1942)
Pantelleria (15 june 1942)
Operation “Pedestal” (11-12 aug. 1942)
Italian specs ops and Flotilla X-Mas (1940-43)
Operation Husky (July 1943)
Anzio (Jan. 1944)
D-Day (June 1944)
Anvil-Dragoon (August 1944)
Naval Battles of the Pacific
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the war was already more than two years old and, and the axis so far (to be fair, the Germans) had accumulated a set of successes and assured domination of Western Europe, North Africa, while USSR was still expected to fall. Japan entering the fray was of dire consequences for the allies colonial possessions as they hardly could stretch their forces: The Dutch, British, and French (by the occupation of Indochna) would take the brunt of the attack and be hard pressed everywhere. Pearl Harbour succeeded in eliminating the mighty US Navy battlefleet of the Pacific, ensuring that only a few carriers were left to stop the Japanese all-out conquest. Seven month later, in June however, the best asset of the Japanese, the Kido Butai, the core of large fleet carriers with veteran air crews, superbly trained, was eliminated. Until mid-1943 it is fair to say that the USN was hanging by the nails in the pacific, making the best of inferior forces to contain the Japanese from Australia.
Midway was truly the turning point celebrated by historians, Guadalcanal was its Verdun, and Leyte the last gamble of the Japanese Navy. A plan that could have worked if a serie of assumptions and blunders on both sides, determination plus the crucial use of radar on US side, turned the tables and finished off what remained of the IJN. The Pacific ocean by its nature, imposed a maritime conflict, a counterpoint to the land war in USSR. In this conflict, classic naval engagement were many, most far larger in scale than in Europe. But most importantly for the first time, air-naval battles became the norm, with fleets fighting each others from beyond the horizon and the proxy of their air fleets. The air component therefore became vital, as in addition to numerous carriers on both sides (with a clear advantage for the USN) thanks to numerous islands also used as air bases, and this naval air component will be seen in detail. Last factor, amphibious warfare, was also in scale and scope quite dramatic compared to the western front due to also the nature of operations: A conquest phase in 1942 by the Japanese, a grinding match in 1943 and the “island hopping” slow reconquest by the USN and the allies at large in 1945.
The “internal” instrument to disrupt japanese supply lines during the pacific campaign*, never called “the battle of the pacific”: USN Submarines did much more than just signalling the IJN moves or sinking freighters and oilers but also major IJN vessels, from carriers to battleships. At Leyte, they had sunk to the bottom 75% of IJN oilers, seriously disrupting the capability to continue fighting.
*The “external” instrument was the island hopping campaign waged on the islands chains defensive perimeter.
Indeed, helping in the background all along was the silent service: The submarine warfare waged by the USN to disrupt traffic and oil supplies, worked wonders due to the incapacity for the IJN staff to consider ASW warfare. When it did from 1944 it was already too little too late.
It was indeed mostly an industrial conflict. The Japanese were not all favourable (including yamamoto) to an attack on the US, knowing full well the industrial inequality between the continent and Japan, its seemingly inextingsuishable resources in men and material. In an attrition war, Japan was likely a looser, but the embargo decreted by Pdt. Rooselevelt on Japan after its occupation of French Indochina harmed its capabilities to pursue its war in China and the overall dream of an Asiatic Empire. The 1942 conquest was mostly a way to create a buffer zone to protect its newly gained supplies sources. But in the end, underestimating the American resolve would lead to devastating losses that could not be recovered and as foreseen by Yamamoto and others, Japan was in effect doomed by the scale of the “new fleet” built over two years, unprecedented in history.
Pearl Harbor (7 dec. 1941)
Arizona in flames, Hawaii has gone to war.
There are some key events of the Second World War whose names are among the legends as they were pivotal in history. With D-Day, Pearl Harbor is undoubtedly the most important element of the war: Factually, it is a massive Japanese naval air attack on the American base in the Pacific, on the island of Oahu, part of the archipelago. of Hawaii. But it is also the entry of a continent into the war, and the beginning of the end for the axis: With the entry into the war of the USA, Great Britain had a weighty ally in Europe. Their decisive weight added to that of the Russians was the tipping point of the war, after a period of dramatic uncertainty which together will crush the axis in Europe and in the Pacific.
Everything has been said, written, and filmed about this event. I would therefore limit myself to dealing with the facts: The attack on Pearl Harbor stems from Japan’s desire to do battle with the USA. This was born out of the progressive isolation of Japan by the League of Nations and of the economic sanctions applied to it since its invasion of Manchuria in 1931, then of the rest of China in 1937. However, if Japan was rich in recesses of ores (excellent local steel was produced), it was not the same with petroleum and rubber, two capital materials in any industry, and by extension war industry. The blockade on various important materials was decided by the USA in 1940, but not oil. It did not cut off oil supplies until September 1940, after the Japanese coup in Tonkin, possession of France from Vichy. The staff and the government knew then that the oil reserves were only for a few months.
Faced with the will to continue their expansionist movement, inevitable and the importance of these precious raw materials, a confrontation with Holland and Great Britain, whose colonial possessions were full of these vital riches, was inevitable and seemed easy given the superiority of the Japanese naval, air and land forces were patent. But a conflict with these countries would have raised a new international protest and most certainly an entry into the war of the USA alongside their allies. War with this powerful neighbor was therefore inevitable. It therefore remained to secure victory by decisive “preventive” action. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, a strong supporter of naval aviation whose birth and tactics he had contributed, had the ear of the Japanese admiralty and the support of Nagumo, but also of the military government chaired by General Tojo.
Yamamoto was inspired by the naval air attack on Taranto in November 1940, which had proven that with a handful of torpedo bombers from a single aircraft carrier, half of the Italian fleet could be put out of action. in one night. Thus was defined the attack on Pearl Harbor, the naval base of the Pacific fleet, within direct reach of the Japanese fleet. This powerful naval force was slightly lower in tonnage than the Japanese fleet, with fewer aircraft carriers. Battleships, in a classic naval warfare perspective, were the backbone of this fleet. Also a force attack and the destruction of the American battleships in the Pacific (8 in number, the bulk of the American line fleet) would have neutralized the means of the United States to oppose the Japanese expansion policy, with the impact demoralizing expected. We also expected to quickly build up a defensive glacis on the war weariness of the versatile American people, “softened by a materialist culture”.
From then on the plan adopted in broad outline, the captain of the naval air force Minoru Genda was charged with the technical installation of the attack. While Japanese spies photographed the base from all angles, including by private plane, at Kure the focus was on modifying the torpedo steering to allow them to be launched from shallows. The aircraft carriers, dispersed by squadrons, were assembled into a fleet of a total of 8 ships (Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Sokaku, Zuikaku), the line ships Hiei and Kirishima, the cruisers Tone and Chikuma, Abukuma, 9 destroyers, 3 submersibles cruisers and 28 other carriers of pocket submersibles. The latter were to force the harbor and complete the torpedoing of the ships (- it was in fact a complete failure).
The plan was implemented on November 26: The fleet left Kure and the various rallying ports to regroup at Hitokkapu in the Kurils. It will then tack towards Hawaii by following the northern route, known to be difficult (storms and ice). This little-traveled road serves as a cover: We don’t expect him there. The American intelligence services know that the Japanese fleet is somewhere at sea, but the planes of Hawaii, Wake and Guam which patrol find nothing, the Pacific is vast. On December 2, we ordered the branlebas with the coded order welcomed in general jubilation “Climb the mount niitaka”. On Saturday 6 December, the fleet is only a few cables away from the base. The latest information from agents on site indicates the entire fleet at anchor and the crews preparing for a peacetime weekend. However, the three aircraft carriers in the fleet are not there. It is a relative disappointment for Yamamoto who orders to continue the preparations.
In Pearl Harbor, there are fears of the action of a “fifth column” and spies and saboteurs among the many Japanese residents in Hawaii. Planes are parked outside in a row for more efficient guarding. Despite calls for vigilance from the intelligence services, negotiations with the Japanese government through proconsul Kurusu continue. On the evening of the 6th, in front of the deterioration of diplomatic relations, Admiral Kimmel confirms that the fleet has been put on alert, effective since the announcement of the departure of Japanese forces at sea. A radar was freshly installed on the coast and we’re testing another on the battleship California. On the 7th at dawn, the operators of this radar, without experience, identified a swarm of points. The alert is given to the local manager who consults his files and deduces the arrival of a group of B-17s expected on Hickham Field. In reality it is the 183 aircraft of the first wave, the “Val” bombers, the “Kate” torpedo boats and the “Zero” fighters also loaded with bombs which have taken off since 6 hours and are now in sight of Hawaii and the United States. ‘Oahu.
At 7:48 a.m., Fuchida’s words echo through the headphones: “Tora, Tora, Tora “(“tiger”). This is the signal to attack. Clouds of gray and white planes badged by the hinomaru tumbled in a hellish noise above the harbor, on both sides of Ford Island where 14 ships were moored including the eight famous of the “battleship row”. 27 other large-tonnage vessels were anchored in quays, 96 total. Surprise is total. Sailors are still sleeping to recover from often agitated nights on leave, a few watch officers are on deck, still incredulous. At 7.55 am, the seaplane base is bombed and becomes hell: All the aircraft lined up as in parade exploded one after the other. Hangars are shattered. The staff are still too petrified to react, but soon small arms are taken whenever possible. Then it was the turn of the capital ships in the harbor: The destroyer USS Monaghan is hit and explodes, the cruisers USS Raleigh and Helena are seriously damaged, and then the minelayer Oglala, the battleships Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, West Virginia, California in order were torpedoed and bombed by specialist planes, and their decks strafed by covering fighters. USS Arizona receives a bomb in her ammunition bay and breaks up inside, capsize and sinks rapidly, carrying almost all of her crew. Admiral Kinkaid tumbles into the mess parking lot with his officers, then rejoins the CP and throws a surrealist announcement over the microphone: “Air attack on Pearl Harbor. This is not an exercise!”
Everywhere, distraught sailors, personnel, Marines, pilots are getting organized as best they can. Some shoot with rifles, MGs or even pistols at low-flying planes. Pilots rush towards the remaining planes, just to discover there are no left in flight condition. Bases of Hickham, Wheeler and Ewa are totally devastated. Pearl Harbor is defended by a generous AAA, but servants are absent this sunday, and men trying to fire from ships can’t access ammunitions, often under lock and keys with officers abenset, and are strafed constantly. At 8:40 am, the entire base is a buzzing beehive from which emerges smoke from dante’s inferno’s fires, while the second wave arrives over Ford Island. 134 bombers covered by 36 fighters. This time, it is greeted by a much stronger fire as every able body is armed when possible and ready. The Battleship USS Pennsylvania and destroyers Cassin and Downes however are targeted and gutted, the destroyer USS Shaw sets off in a column of flame. Some fuel and ammunition depots explodes. Hangars collapses and even the military hospital is targeted.
At 9.45 am, planes from the second wave returned and landed. But Nagumo, despite urgent appeals from Commander Fuchida, refuses to launch a third wave, believing that the element of surprise is stale, or to launch a search to find the aircraft carriers at sea and sink them. He is more concerned about finding his supply ships in the North. Not knowing whether enemy aircraft carriers were still nearby or not, and considering himself fully satisfied by the success of the attack, he gave the order to retire and head northwards. The squadron will drop anchor on December 23 at Hashirajima. He recorded only the loss of 29 downed aircraft, and 5 pocket submersibles. The announcement from the American side did not hit the air until 2:26 p.m. The bill was heavy: USS Nevada and Oklahoma, Oglala, the old Utah target boat, are definitely lost, destroyed and sunk beyond any recovery. USS Nevada’s hull lied pitifully upturned, propellers in the air, and men fiercely attempted to help trapped sailors out into what became a vast tub, inexorably filling. In total, there were 2,300 dead and missing, more than 3,000 injured, many seriously burned. 188 planes were destroyed, the immense majority on the ground and almost all ships present, notably all battleships, were put out of action for at least two years. It was not until the end of 1943 that some of these battleships, refloated, repaired, rebuilt and modernized, resumed the fight, to the surprise of the Japanese at Leyte (admiral Oldendorf).
A funeral service will last a week. Later this day in a press conference, Roosevelt made his famous speech of war declaration assorted with the “day of infamy”. The attack seemed to be in contradiction with the Hague Convention of 1907 concerning the late declaration of war, but representatives waited to give it only when the attack was launched, in order to preserve surprise, but because of broken communication, it was given well after the attack started. The attack had a particular historical significance as it strenghtened the resolve of the United States, whose official isolationism stopped that day. The fight would be tough, but soon the entire continent was mobilized for total war, unleashing its war industry to wage war on two fronts, as the same day, war was also declared on Germany and Italy. A total, global war now backed by an industrial juggernaut, to the great relief of the British, but also in all occupied countries.
Force Z end (10 dec. 1941)
HMS Prince of Wales: With her resided the hope of the British presence in Malaysia. (LDD)
Although numerically insignificant compared to Pearl Harbor, the destruction of the British Far Eastern squadron sounded the death knell for the British presence in Malaysia, India’s last bulwark against the Japanese. The loss of the squadron heralded the capture of Singapore by the Imperial Japanese forces, freed from the only force capable of opposing its landings. This squadron consisted of only meager troops, hastily sent by the government to reinforce the naval means almost inexistent since the front of North Africa monopolized the attention. On a broader historical level, it is the best illustration of the vulnerability of large commercial ships to aviation.
The entry into the war of Japan against the allies was indeed a hypothesis long accepted by the British as the Dutch as the economic blockade of Japan risked provoking the new militarist government of Tojo. Ambitious, with an army well-trained in fighting in China since 1931 and the third fleet in the world, as well as the most trained naval air force and the most manageable and fastest fighters in Asia, Japan had since their victory against the Russians in 1905 developed a superiority complex that nothing seemed to hinder, except the lucidity of a few senior officers and politicians as to the entry into the war of the United States alongside the allies.
The reasoning was simple: To defeat the weak British and Dutch forces present and to finish off the Chinese by cutting off their last lines of communication, the project of a massive offensive on several objectives had been conceived. The first was the elimination of the United States Pacific Fleet. The second, to have a free hand in this sector, was the elimination of the squadron of Admiral Tom Philips, who arrived in Singapore on December 5. It bore its mark on the Prince Of Wales, a recent fast battleship which had seen fire against the most powerful warship in Europe a few months before, the Bismarck. He was accompanied by Battle Chest Repulse, a barely modernized Great War veteran, just like the Hood. The squadron was supplemented by two destroyers, the Electra and the Express, the Encounter and the Jupiter, and should also have included the aircraft carrier Indomitable, unavailable due to repairs after an accident during its tests. Added to this were the destroyers Tenedos and the HMAS Vampire (Australian), but above all the cruisers Durban, Danae, Dragon, Mauritius, already anchored in Singapore. 3 days later, the arrival of the heavy cruiser Exeter, the Dutch cruiser Java, 2 other British destroyers and 4 Americans were expected. The deterrent role of Force Z hoped for by Churchill was a failure: On the 7th, the Japanese fleet attacked Pearl Harbor and another squadron was preparing for the invasion of the Malay Peninsula.
Force Z was operational from the 5th, and very quickly Tom Philips had in mind to hunt down the Japanese fleet and seek a decisive confrontation. But at dawn on the 8th, Singapore resounded with the clash of bombs and DCA: An air raid by land-based naval aircraft attacked the port facilities. The ships present responded with their artillery, but without recording any hits. Likewise, the Japanese attack was only too modest to record a tangible result. The landing of the Japanese forces had, however, taken place in the northeast of the peninsula, and the British troops were severely attacked.
Tom Philips decided to set off to intercept the support convoys. She finally left at 5:10 pm with 4 destroyers. he was taking a risk, knowing that the RAF, already strongly engaged, could not promise its support: its aged aircraft were on land already threatened by the Japanese advance. He thought he was relatively safe from an air attack and his ships could endure it without suffering too much (the only losses known since the start of the war had been cruisers, and the “surprises” of Taranto and from Pearl Harbor had caught the crews unawares.
On the 9th, after having traveled all night, Force Z passed the Anamba Islands at around 7.13 am, and bent its course towards the supposed route of Vice-Admiral Ozawa’s convoy. At around 2 p.m., the I-65 submersible reported the presence and position of Force Z in Ozawa. The latter ordered the bulk of the fleet to fall back to Cam Rahn in Indochina. In the evening, three Aichi catapulted by the cruisers confirmed the position of the British squadron. They followed her for an hour. Then the destroyer Tenedos was sent back to Singapore and broke away from the squadron, due to its reduced autonomy. In the middle of the night, these two forces met without seeing each other: The Prince of Wales radar was unfortunately not operational. They were for a short time within 5 nautical miles of each other, which was more than enough for the British squadron to deliver their 6 381 and 10 343 guns at long range. At 8:55 p.m., Philips decided to return to Singapore.
Macassar strait battle (24 jan. 1942)
Java sea battle (27 Feb. 1942)
Doolittle Raid (18 april 1942)
Coral sea battle (7-8 may 1942)
Eastern Solomon Islands 24-25 august 1942)
Santa Cruz (26 october 1942)
Second battle of Guadalcanal (12-13 nov. 1942)
Tassafaronga (30 nov. 1942)
Bismarck sea (3-5 mach 1943)
Comandorsky (26 march 1943)
Vella Lavella or “Tokyo night Express” battle (6-7 oct. 1943)
Empress Augusta islands (2 nov. 1943)
Philippines sea battle (20 june 1944)
Leyte (24-25 oct. 1944)
Phase 1: The Submarine action in Palawan Passage (23 Oct.)
Phase 2: Battle of the Sibuyan Sea (24 Oct.)
Phase 3: TF34 and halsey’s decision
Phase 4: The Night Battle of Surigao strait (24-25 Oct.)
Phase 4: The Battle of Samar (25 Oct.)
Phase 5: Battle off Cape Engaño (25–26 Oct.)
The Battle of Samar in October, 25, 1944 was mainly performed by aviation and American DDs, and Probably one of the most spectacular use of destroyers in this war: It happened when Task Unit 77.4 was attacked by Kurita’s 2nd fleet, which sneaked through the San Bernardino Strait into the perimeter. Earlier the bait fleet (Ozawa) had admiral Halsey, supposed to at least left a battleship force to protect the landing fleet in the north, was entirely away and a message to confirm its presence was received too late to change the events. This leftover USN force under command of Clifton Sprague comprised three carriers groups north to south protecting the landings, and included Taffy 3 which had a screen component, composed of Fletcher class destroyers, the USS Hoel, Heermann and Johnston, and destroyer escorts Dennis, John C. Butler, Raymond, and Samuel B. Roberts. Against overwhelming odds, they repelled Kurita’s fleet, combining skirmishes, smoke clouds and extremely aggressive charges. The recklessness of its commander was paid which heavy losses but the CV force was spared (but for 2 escort carriers sunk). The three destroyers were the best asset of this fleet, and they totally distrupted the already Japanese disorderly attack and put the fleet in total confusion over its real strenght. In total were sunk 3 heavy cruisers, 3 others and a destroyer damaged, while were repelled four battleships and two light cruisers, with, of course, the crusial help of aviation of both Taffy 3 and Taffy 2, launched since the beginning of the attack.
For Iwo Jima (Feb-March 1945), Okinawa (Aprril-June 1945) or Operation Olympic, and all the landings of the Pacific Campaign, see the WW2 US Amphibious page