HMS Worcester hit by shell from German Battle fleet.
Fortunately for the V & W class destroyers, the German Battle Fleet was more interested in gaining home waters and avoiding the British Bombers and did not stop to finish off the Worcester or pursue the British Destroyers.
Unbelievably, the British Destroyers were again mistaken for German ships by British Beaufort Torpedo Bombers, from 42 Squadron, and were attacked.
Both HMS Campbell and HMS Vivacious narrowly escaped being torpedoes as they manoeuvred to rescue men in the sea and to pick up the wounded from HMS Worcester. All five British Destroyers were targeted by the RAF Beaufort’s, but mercifully no British ships were damaged or their crews hurt.
Meanwhile, The Hunt class Destroyers from Sheerness and Harwich lost the German fleet in the poor weather and darkness of night and were ordered to returned to port.
While the V & W Class destroyers rushed back to Harwich carrying the wounded from HMS Worcester, the remaining crew on the Worcester, having put out the fires and using sea water instead of fresh water in the engines, limped to Harwich under its own steam.
From snow bound airfields around the South East of England bombers lumbered into the skies to rendezvous with their fighter escorts. Their common goal, “Sink the Scharnhorst, sink the Gneisenau, sink the Prinz Eugen.”
The Royal Air Force pursued the German battle fleet and its escort of fighter planes relentlessly, but with little success. The weather was atrocious with the cloud ceiling as low as 700 feet, gusting winds, intermittent heavy rain and visibility at sea level poor.
With short winter days and night closing in, many of the bomber failed to find the enemy fleet. Of the 242 bombers involved only 39 dropped their bombs and the German armada sped on, unscathed.
The RAF lost 42 planes while the German losses were a mere 17 fighters planes and eleven pilots.
Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Biplanes, piloted and manned by hero's.
Six Fairey Swordfish took off to attack. Without doubt their crews were the bravest of the brave.
They circled over Ramsgate waiting for their fighter aircraft escort. It was planned that five squadrons (more than 60 planes) would escort the Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Biplanes. Of these only 10 Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron arrived.
The German fleet had continuous air cover of up to 280 fighter planes with maximum air cover as it passed through the Straights of Dover.
Totally out gunned and outnumbered the British aircraft went in to attack. The German fighter planes, Messerschmitt 109 had a speed of 385 mph. The Fairey Swordfish, when carrying a torpedo, had a speed of only 142 mph.
While the outnumbered Spitfires beat off enemy aircraft, the Fairey Swordfish attacked at low level.
Every single anti-aircraft gun from the escorting Destroyers and the capital ships opened up on the approaching Swordfish. Messerschmitt 109's fired their cannon at the Swordfish from above. There wasn’t a single Swordfish which wasn’t hit by anti-aircraft fire or by fighter planes. The German battle ships now opened up with their large guns. With damaged aircraft, rear gunners dead and pilots wounded the Swordfish pressed home their attack.
One of the Swordfish although being blown to bits from a direct hit managed, moments before, to release its torpedo.
The second swordfish release its torpedo before taking several more hits which mortally wounded the gunner. It swerved around the stern of the Gneisenau to come down in the sea close to the Prinz Eugen.
The third Swordfish, its gunner having shot down a German fighter, with pilot and gunners wounded and fuselage shot to ribbons also managed to release its torpedo at the Prinz Eugen, from only 2,000 yards.
The last three Swordfish flew into the hellish wall of fire never to be seen again.
Of these 18 brave young men only five survived and only one of these was not wounded.
For a more detailed account of the swordfish attack go to http://www.channeldash.org/index.html
Now it was the turn of the Sheerness and Harwich Destroyers, completely out-classed and out -gunned, by the titanic German Battle Fleet, too attack.
Anticipating that the German Fleet would attempt to break through the English Channel the 21st Destroyer Flotilla, based at Sheerness and the 16th Destroyer flotilla, based at Harwich where combined to form two temporary flotillas.
The first of these consisted six V & W class destroyers. V & W-class Destroyer were built during World War One. They were outdated, but were armed with torpedoes and had a top speed of 32 knots. These were,
HMS VIVACIOUS (D 36) V & W-class Destroyer and launched on 3rd November 1916,
based at Sheerness.
HMS CAMPBELL, (D 60) Scott-class Flotilla Leader. launched on 21st September 1918, based at Sheerness.
HMS WORCESTER, (D 96) V & W-class Destroyer. launched on 24th October 1919, based at Harwich.
HMS WHITSHED, (D 77) V & W-class Destroyer. launched on 31st January 1919, based at Harwich.
HMS MACKAY, (D 70) Scott-class Flotilla Leader. launched on 21st December 1918, based at Harwich.
HMS WALPOLE, (D 41) V & W-class Destroyer. launched on 12th February 1918, based at Harwich.
Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyers were to support the V & W-class Destroyers.
Hunt-class Escort Destroyer built from 1939 onwards, were named after British Fox Hunts and were slower than the V & W class Destroyers with a top speed of 27 knots. They did not carry torpedoes and their four inch guns would be useless against the armour plate and eleven inch guns of the German Battle Ships.
They would, however, be invaluable giving anti-aircraft support and by keeping the German Destroyers, and Schnellboots away from the V & W class destroyers as they made their torpedo runs at the German Pocket Battle ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.
Hunt Class Destroyers on standby in Thames Estuary,
HMS BERKLEY (L 17) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer, launched on 29th January 1940, based at Sheerness
HMS FERNIE (L 11) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer, launched on 9th January 1940, based at Sheerness
HMS GARTH, (L 20) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer. launched on 14th February 1940
based at Sheerness
HMS EGLINTON (L 87) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer, launched on 28th December 1939, based at Harwich.
HMS HAMBLEDON, (L 37) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer launched on 12th December 1939, based at Harwich.
HMS QUORN (L 66) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer, launched on 27th March 1940, based at Harwich.
HMS SOUTHDOWN (L 25) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer, launched on 5th July 1940, based at Harwich.
Hunt Class Destroyers in port not on standby,
HMS MEYNELL, (L 82) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer. launched on 7th June 1940, based at Sheerness
HMS CATTISTOCK, (L 35) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer. launched 22 February 1940. based at Sheerness
HMS COTTESMORE, (L 78) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer. launched on 5th September 1940. based at Sheerness
HMS HOLDERNESS (L 48) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer. launched on 8th February 1940. based at Sheerness
HMS PYTCHLEY (L 92) Type I, Hunt-class Escort Destroyer, 13th February 1940. based at Sheerness.
With the expectation that the German fleet would force their way through the English Channel, the 21st Destroyer Flotilla and the 16th Destroyer flotilla, were placed on four hours’ notice in the Thames Estuary.
British minesweepers swept two additional gaps through their own mine field giving easier access for Royal Navy Ships to attack any German ships trying to force their way through the Straights of Dover.
In the mistaken belief that the Germans would pass through the Straights of Dover at night and with the expectation of 12 hours’ notice the V & W-class Destroyer were practising torpedo attacks off Orfordness (Suffolk) and most of the Hunt-class Escort Destroyer were in port at Sheerness and Harwich with their engines idle. Only a handful of the “Hunts” were on standby
Captain Mark Pizey was in command of the reconfigured 21st Flotilla from Sheerness which consisted of the V & W Destroyers HMS Campbell (Sheerness), HMS Vivacious (Sheerness), HMS Mackay (Harwich), HMS Worcester (Harwich), HMS Whitshed (Harwich), and HMS Walpole (Harwich) and the seven Hunt class destroyers on standby.
At 11.45 Captain Pizley received the order to intercept and attack the German Battle fleet. He formed his small fleet into two battle groups. Campbell, Vivacious and Worcester, would form the first group and was led by himself. Whitshed, Mackay and Walpole would form the second group and would be led by Captain Wright.
The Hunt Class Destroyers on standby, HMS Berkley (Sheerness), HMS Fernie (Sheerness) HMS Garth (Sheerness, Dad’s ship) and HMS Eglinton (Harwich), HMS Hambledon (Harwich), HMS Quorn (Harwich) and HMS Southdown (Harwich) were also ordered to intercept and attack the German Battle Fleet. They were at first sent towards Buoy 51 and the Naze (south of Harwich).
Following behind, having first to raise steam, were HMS Meynell (Sheerness), HMS Cattistock (Sheerness), HMS Cottesmore (Sheerness), HMS Holderness (Sheerness) and HMS Pytchley (Sheerness).
At first the V & W class destroyers raced towards the most southerly gap in the minefield which had been swept for just this occasion. But on receiving updated intelligence that the German Battle fleet had increased speed, Captain Pizey altered his course to pass through the northern gap.
The slower Hunt Class Destroyers followed on with little chance of catching up.
Incredibly, the RAF had not been informed that British Destroyers were operating in the North Sea and were expecting to find German Battle ships and German Destroyers in this area.
Having passed through the British minefields the V & W class Destroyers were attacked by RAF Hampdens. Bombs exploded dangerously close to HMS Mackay and HMS Worcester. Demonstrating great restraint, the Destroyers did not fire as the RAF planes came in on their bombing runs.
The high speed was too much for the World War One Destroyer HMS Walpole. She began to experience severe engine difficulties and was ordered to return to port.
At 15.45 on 12th February 1942, with the wind having risen to Force 7, (near to Gale Force with very rough seas) the small group of British Destroyers sighted and attacked the German Battle Fleet. The Scharnhorst, having hit a British mine, had fallen behind the main German Battle Group and was not present.
As the British Destroyers fanned out into attack formation they came under attack from German Junkers Ju 88 Schnell bombers and Stuka dive bombers. Mainly directed at HMS Mackay.
In true Royal Navy tradition, Battle Ensigns were hoisted and unhesitatingly the British Destroyers attacked the more powerful and larger German Fleet.
The Pocket Battleship Gneisenau and Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen, together with their escort of Destroyers, Schnellboats (E-boats) and accompanying Fighter and Bomber aircraft fired on the British destroyers with every gun they had. In this murderous barrage the British Destroyers closed to within 3,000 and 2,500 yards before launching their torpedoes. At that point, miraculously none of the British Destroyers had been hit. As they turned, their luck run out. The Worcester was hit by three eleven inch shells from the Pocket Battleship Gneisenau and by five eight inch shells from the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen. The Worcester stopped dead in the water with 26 of her crew killed and 45 injured.
Holed below the waterline and with number two boiler room flooded she was listing 23 degrees to starboard. The midship ammunition locker had exploded. The lower bridge, radio room, ward room, funnel and mast destroyed. In the carnage, the order “Stand by to abandon ship” was misinterpreted by some of the crew as “Abandon ship”.
The route taken by the German Battle Fleet.
Motor torpedo boats
It was planned, that should the German Fleet attempt to break through the English Channel, 32 Motor Torpedo Boats, with support from other Royal Navy vessels and RAF fighters and bombers would attack the German fleet.
When the German fleet did break through the channel most of these Motor Torpedo Boats were deployed on other assignments and only six based at Dover and four at Ramsgate were able to take part.
The four based at Ramsgate having been in action the previous night and stood down, were unable to catch up to the German Fleet.
Of the six based at Dover one had mechanical problems and was left behind, the remaining five raced out to attack the German Battle ships.
These five tiny boats, only 60 feet (18 m) in length and made of plywood raced across the sea to attack German Battle Ships 771 Feet (235 metres) in length and with 14 inch armour plate.
The visibility was poor with blustering clouds, snow squalls and gusting winds blowing at force six (25 miles per hour) the sea was rough and choppy with six foot waves increasing in height and completely unsuitable for Motor Torpedo Boats.
But this was the least of the problems for the Motor Torpedo Boats. German E-boats and Destroyers were positioned between them and the German Battle Ships and the sky was full of German planes.
One of the five Motor Torpedo Boats had engine problems and fired its torpedoes at maximum range. The four remaining Motor Torpedo Boats, under attack from the air and surface vessels manoeuvred closer to launch their torpedoes at the Battle Ships. But in the atrocious conditions, none struck their targets.
Two motor gun boats based at Dover arrived just in time to provide support for the Motor Torpedo Boats against German Narvik-class Destroyers.
Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Biplanes
Expecting to be forewarned the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm were taken unawares and their bombers were unprepared and unarmed. The only aircraft immediately able to attack the German fleet were six Navy Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Biplanes based at Manston.
These outdated, slow, planes were to attack the German Battle Fleet against impossible odds. To penetrate the firestorm of anti-aircraft fire and the onslaught of the escorting fighter planes, would give little or no chance of returning. Nevertheless, the order given was “The navy will attack the enemy whenever and wherever he is to be found".
SHEERNESS DESTROYERS ATTACK GERMAN BATTLE SHIPS.
The Channel Dash, (Operation Cerberus) 11th to 13th February 1942
In an epic David and Goliath battle, Destroyers from Sheerness attacked
a “Giant” German Battle Fleet.
With the sinking of the German Cruiser Admiral Graf Spee on 18 December 1939 and the Battleship Bismarck on the 27th May 1941 the Germans knew that the British Navy would not rest until every one of their capital ship had been destroyed. This kept the large German Ships bottled up in ports for long periods during World War Two.
The German Pocket Battle ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen had taken refuge in the French Port of Breast, then under German control. Although protected by large numbers of anti-aircraft guns the Royal Air Force repeatedly bombed the docks at Breast. On the night of the 6th February 1942 sixty Royal Air Force bombers attacked the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen causing minor damage to the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. These frequent air attacks caused Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, to ordered these war ships to move to their home bases in Germany.
The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were on standby for this eventuality. But circumstances were to go against the British.
1, The mistaken belief by the British that the German fleet would break through the Straights of Dover, where they would be in range of shore batteries, under cover of darkness.
2, The British submarine keeping watch on Breast being forced to leave its station to recharge its batteries.
3, The jamming of the British radar by the Germans
4, Communications failures and faulty radar equipment.
5, And the weather, cloud cover down to 700 feet, snow and poor visibility.
All this conspired against the British and allowed the German fleet to sail for over three hundred miles up the English Channel, towards the Straights of Dover, undetected.
British Coastal Artillery.
The coastal battery’s around Dover were the first British units to attack the German fleet.
Visibility was less than five miles. The 9.2 inch guns of the South Foreland Battery, with a range of 31,000 yards (17.61 miles) were the only ones with radar and opened fire at the German Fleet. Unable to detect fall of shot to adjust their range, all 33 shells, missed their target. The remaining guns without radar, three 6 inch guns (range 25,000 yards, over 14 miles) at Fan Bay Battery and the two 15 inch guns (range of 42,000 yards, almost 24 miles) at Wanstone Battery were unable to fire.
DESTROYERS (In Action)
H.M.S. Campbell (Sheerness)
H.M.S. Vivacious (Sheerness)
H.M.S. Worcester (Harwich)
H.M.S. Mackay (Harwich)
H.M.S. Walpole (Harwich)
H.M.S. Whitshed (Harwich)
DESTROYERS (Failed to intercept)
HMS Berkley (Sheerness)
HMS Fernie (Sheerness)
HMS Garth (Sheerness, Dad’s ship)
HMS Eglinton (Harwich)
HMS Hambledon (Harwich)
HMS Quorn (Harwich)
HMS Southdown (Harwich)
MOTOR TORPEDO BOATS (In Action)
MOTOR TORPEDO BOATS (Failed to intercept)
MOTOR GUN BOATS
Z 4 Richard Beitzen
Z 5 Paul Jacobi
Z 7 Hermann Schoemann
Z 14 Friedrich Ihn
MOTOR TORPEDO BOATS
SCHNELLBOOT (Fast Boats, Motor Torpedo Boats)
S 29, S 39, S 53, S 70, S 103, S 104, S 105, S 108, S 111, Second Schnell based at Ijmuiden.
S 48, S 49, S 50, S 51, S 52, S 64, S 107, S 109, S 110, Forth Schnellboot Flotilla based at Boulogne.
S 18, S 19, S 20, S 22, S 24, S 69, S 71, S 101, s
Sixth Schnellboot Flotilla
1st Minesweeping Flotilla
2nd Minesweeping Flotilla
4th Minesweeping Flotilla
5th Minesweeping Flotilla
12th Minesweeping Flotilla
2nd R-boot Flotilla
3rd R-boot Flotilla
4th R-boot Flotilla