Chapter V
Opening Moves in Home Waters
3rd September-31st December, 1939

  Of late years the world has become so deeply impressed with the efficacy of sea power that we are inclined to forget how impotent it is of itself to decide a war against great continental states, how tedious is the pressure of naval action unless it be nicely co-ordinated with military and diplomatic pressure.
    J. S. Corbett. England and the Seven Year¹s War (1907).

SINCE one of the first charges placed on the Royal Navy was the safe transport of the British Expeditionary Force and the Advanced Air Striking Force to the Continent we will first view that operation as complete in itself.

The advanced parties sailed to Cherbourg from Portsmouth in destroyers of that command on the 4th of September. Owing to the likelihood of the enemy making air attacks on the ports of disembarkation the plans provided that no French ports east of Le Havre would be used except by hospital ships, which would use Dieppe, and by train ferries which would run to Dunkirk and Calais. On the 9th of September the first convoy of troopships sailed from Southampton and the Bristol Channel ports, and thereafter troopships and store convoys sailed regularly from Southampton, Avonmouth, Swansea, Barry and Newport. Escorts were provided by the local defence flotillas of the Portsmouth and Western Approaches commands and the whole operation was covered by the Channel Force, of which mention has already been made.1 The first main landings took place at Cherbourg on the 10th of September and at Nantes and St. Nazaire two days later. Store-ships were sent chiefly to Brest, Nantes and St Nazaire, and these ports as well as Cherbourg and Havre were used for vehicles as well.2 By the 7th of October, 161,000 men, 24,000 vehicles and about 140,000 tons of stores had been transported without loss, and after the first few divisions had landed frequent maintenance and reinforcement convoys followed. There was virtually no enemy reaction


to this large movement. A few mines were laid off Dover and in Weymouth Bay, which were not among the ports of embarkation used for the British Expeditionary Force.

The movement of stores to the western ports of France placed a severe strain on shipping resources and on the escort forces. Moreover, it was desirable for military as well as for these naval reasons to make fuller use of the French Channel ports. The Admiralty repeatedly pressed this view, but the French, who were anxious not to invite air attacks on these ports, refused at first to agree. However, in October a start was made by sending cased petrol direct to Caen and in the following month a base was opened at Le Havre. Later still, stores were landed at Rouen, Fécamp, St Malo and Boulogne. Almost from the start of the movement rolling-stock and loaded wagons had been sent by train ferry to Calais and Dunkirk, but the conversion of two of the ferries to minelayers had slowed down this method of transport. In December leave traffic was started and the transport of 200,000 men each way during the next six months placed a new and heavy burden on the naval escort forces. By June 1940 about half a million men and 89,000 vehicles had been escorted across the narrow seas. The Portsmouth Command alone had sailed 731 trans- ports and 304 laden convoys. Thus was complete control of the short sea communications to France planned and executed with entire success.

It has been told how, by the last day of August, all ships of the Home Fleet had moved or were moving to their war stations, while Coastal Command aircraft had started to fly the North Sea reconnaissance patrols. The fleet's watchful activity began that evening when Admiral Forbes went to sea from Scapa to patrol the waters between the Shetland Islands and Norway. The following day--the 1st of September--the Admiralty sent the first report of a possible movement by major enemy warships to Icelandic waters to await the outbreak of hostilities. Like so much of the early intelligence it was incorrect, although two pocket-battleships were, in fact, already waiting in the Atlantic.

When war was declared on the 3rd of September a blockade of Germany was immediately proclaimed, and the planned measures for the enforcement of contraband control by the fleet came into force. Submarine patrols off Horn Reef, in the approaches to the Kiel Canal and to Wilhelmshaven, off Terschelling and on the extension of the Montrose­Obrestadt air patrol line were fully manned from the flotillas based on Dundee and Blyth; the Humber force, consisting of the 6-inch cruisers Southampton and Glasgow and eight destroyers, was cruising off the Norwegian coast and the main body of the Home Fleet was at sea some 400 miles to the west of the Hebrides.3

On the 3rd of September Admiral Forbes carried out a sweep to


Map 4. The Northern Passages to the Atlantic
Map 4. The Northern Passages to the Atlantic
North Norway to Grteenland

the north in search of the liner Bremen which was known to be on passage home from New York. But, in fact, she had kept far to the north and had already reached Murmansk. On the evening of that day the Admiralty passed to the Commander-in-Chief a report that the German fleet was leaving Schillig Roads, and he therefore returned to the east through the Fair Isle Channel to the 'cutting off position' already described.4 The fleet cruised to the east of the Orkneys, in thick fog, until the morning of the 6th of September when it returned to Scapa. On the next day Admiral Forbes sailed again with his main strength (the Nelson, Rodney, Repulse, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the cruisers Aurora and Sheffield and ten destroyers) for the Norwegian coast and patrolled as far north as 63° to intercept enemy merchant shipping. The battle cruisers Hood and Renown, two cruisers and four destroyers left Scapa a day later to patrol between Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, also with the object of enforcing our blockade measures. Partly on account of the bad visibility neither force accomplished anything, and they returned to Scapa on the 10th and 12th of September respectively. It should, however, be noted that these early operations of the Home Fleet in full strength were typical of the exercise of maritime power in both its positive and negative forms.5 There was no period of 'twilight-war' for the fleet.

While the Home Fleet had thus been exercising its normal function of commanding the northern exits from the North Sea and covering the lighter forces on patrol, the first bomber attacks on the major units of the enemy fleet had taken place in the south.

At this time the policy of the Air Ministry, which the Cabinet had approved, was to build up and conserve the main strength of its bomber force for the onslaught on German industry. Apart from the few squadrons specially trained for pre-war bombing trials against a naval wireless-controlled target ship, no training in the search for warship targets, in their recognition or in the methods of attacking them had been carried out by Bomber Command. Though unwilling to dissipate its strength by small-scale attacks on what it believed to be secondary objectives--with which our naval forces were in any case prepared to deal--the Air Ministry was prepared to see what could be done against naval targets with a limited force. Moreover the policy regarding air bombardment, which had been agreed with the French Government before the war, was designed to avoid incurring the responsibility for initiating air attacks on the civil population. The most important shore targets could not, for this reason, be attacked.

Bombing the German fleet while at sea or in the open roadsteads of its bases--but not while in the dockyards--was, however, permitted. No time was lost in preparing for such an attack and, on the


day war was declared, a Blenheim bomber, navigated by a naval observer, reconnoitred the Heligoland Bight and sighted warships apparently leaving harbour. A striking force of fifty-four bombers was despatched but failed to find the ships. Next day the same aircraft carried out a second reconnaissance and reported the presence of major warships in Schillig Roads, off Wilhelmshaven, and at Brunsbüttel at the western end of the Kiel Canal. Fourteen Wellington bombers formed the first wave of the striking force which was immediately sent out and fifteen Blenheims formed the second wave. The Wellingtons achieved no success and, although one aircraft attacked the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brunsbüttel, neither ship was damaged. The cruiser Emden, lying off Wilhelmshaven, was attacked by Blenheims. She received some splinter damage from two bombs which exploded close to her and superficial damage from an aircraft which crashed into her, but the damage had been repaired and the ship was again fully operational twelve days later. The pocket-battleship Scheer, lying in Schillig Roads, was also attacked by Blenheims from low heights and was hit by three or four 250-pound bombs. Unfortunately none of these exploded--probably because the height from which the bombs were dropped was insufficient to work off the safety device of the bomb fuses. The ship was out of action only until the 10th of October. The Blenheims, of which five were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, had pressed home their attacks most gallantly, but the results achieved were not commensurate with the losses suffered. Fortunately the enemy bombers, as will be seen shortly, did no better in their early attacks on our own warships.

Meanwhile the Admiralty's plans to control the sea communications to these islands and to deny the seas to the enemy were taking effect in the north, though not entirely without difficulties and mishaps. The most serious of the latter occurred on the 10th of September when the submarine Triton, on patrol on the extension of the Montrose­Obrestadt air patrol line, torpedoed and sank the submarine Oxley which was similarly employed. To maintain correct position while on a diving patrol is a difficult task for submarines and both the boats involved in this tragic accident were, in fact, out of position. A repetition was narrowly averted on the 14th of September when the Sturgeon fired at the Swordfish but, happily, missed. As a precaution against further mishaps of this nature the distance between the submarines so employed was increased from twelve to sixteen miles. By the 10th of September replacement of the Ansons by Hudson aircraft enabled Coastal Command to cover the whole of this patrol line. The submarines were then withdrawn and employed on patrols in the Heligoland Bight, off Jutland, in the Skagerrak, off the Norwegian coast and to the west of the German declared minefield.6


The Northern Patrol, the principal weapon for the enforcement by the Home Fleet of our contraband control, started work on the 6th of September, but the shortage of cruisers and the age of the ships comprising the 7th and 12th Cruiser Squadrons kept the number of ships on patrol to an average of only two to the south of the Faeroes and three between the Faeroes and Iceland.7 This was well below the strength considered necessary by Admiral Forbes. By the middle of October the conversion of liners to armed merchant cruisers had progressed, and as the first of the twenty-five allocated to the Northern Patrol began to arrive the density, and so the effectiveness, of those patrols was increased. It will be convenient to carry the story of the Northern Patrol on to the end of the year. In spite of the age and condition of the ships so employed and the extremely arduous conditions of service in those waters, many eastbound neutral ships whose destination might have been enemy ports, or whose cargoes might have contained contraband goods, were intercepted. The great majority of them was sent to the contraband control base at Kirkwall for examination. A steady toll was also taken of German merchant ships attempting to run the blockade. Most of these scuttled themselves to avoid capture, but in October the liner Cap Norte (13,000 tons), which was carrying reservists from South America to Germany, was successfully seized. The strength of the Northern Patrol--and so the degree of success achieved in enforcing the blockade--fluctuated considerably during this period. None the less, and in spite of the inevitable difficulties of enforcing a blockade with old or converted ships of indifferent sea-keeping quality in waters where bad weather and low visibility are normal rather than exceptional, the results achieved during this first phase of the war were substantial, as the following table shows.

Table 4. Northern Patrol--Ships Intercepted,
September 1939--January 1940

Two-week period covered Total number of ships sighted Number of
eastbound ships sighted
Number of
ships sent in
for examination
(including prizes)
Number of
ships entering
for examination
Number of
German ships
7th-28th Sept. 108 62 28 No record
29th Sept.-12th Oct. 64 26 20 " 1
13th-26th Oct. 112 56 53 " 6
27th Oct.-9th Nov. 79 26 20 " --
10th-23rd Nov. 93 57 50 " 9
24th Nov.-7th Dec. 56 34 23 40 --
8th-21st Dec. 69 38 24 36 --
22nd Dec.-4th Jan. 95 43 35 21 --


On the 10th of December Vice-Admiral Sir Max Horton was relieved in command of the Northern Patrol by Vice-Admiral R. H. T. Raikes to become Vice-Admiral (Submarines), and during the same month the old cruisers of the C and D classes were transferred to theatres where the weather was less inclement.

Reverting now to the main strength of the fleet: on the 7th of September the Admiralty gave Admiral Forbes a greatly exaggerated estimate of the bomber strength available in north-west Germany for an attack on Scapa, and ordered a temporary base to be prepared on the west coast of Scotland. The Commander-in-Chief selected Loch Ewe and sent the Guardian there to lay anti-submarine nets. Between the 9th and 12th of the month the fleet flagship and other major warships arrived there, and prolonged discussions on the future of the fleet's bases began. Meanwhile the enemy's U-boat campaign had started and the Home Fleet was soon involved in attacks and counterattacks. The sinking of U.39 by the Ark Royal's escorting destroyers on the 14th of September, after she had unsuccessfully attacked the aircraft carrier, was the first success in the latter category. On the same day aircraft from the same ship attacked U.30 with antisubmarine bombs. Not only were the bombs ineffective but two of the attacking aircraft were lost through dropping their bombs at such a low height that the explosions brought them down into the sea. The pilots were picked up and taken prisoner by their intended victim. On the 19th of September a report was received by Admiral Forbes that a U-boat was stopping and sinking fishing trawlers off the Butt of Lewis.8 He at once sent ten destroyers and naval aircraft to hunt for her and the result was the sinking, next day, of U.27 and the capture of her crew. There was no doubt that, once asdic-fitted vessels knew where to seek their quarry and enough of them could be spared to do the job properly, a promptly executed hunt could achieve success--especially if aircraft were there to help.

The next important operation carried out by the Home Fleet was to cover an intended raid into the Skagerrak by the 2nd Cruiser Squadron (the Southampton, Glasgow, Sheffield and Aurora) and eight destroyers. Admiral Forbes sailed from Scapa on the 22nd of September, but a collision between two of the Humber Force destroyers caused the abandonment of the plan and the main fleet returned to its base on the 23rd. Two days later news was received that the submarine Spearfish had been badly damaged off Horn Reef and was unable to dive. Clearly she was in a position of grave danger. Admiral Forbes ordered the 2nd Cruiser Squadron and six destroyers to proceed at once to extricate her. The battle cruisers and the 18th Cruiser Squadron were ordered to act as cover and the heavy ships sailed at once in support. On the 26th the damaged submarine


was met by the cruisers and destroyers and safely escorted to Rosyth. Meanwhile enemy flying-boats had started, at 11 a.m. on the 26th, to shadow the battleships and the Ark Royal; one of them was shot down by her Skuas. That afternoon a single enemy bomber attacked the Ark Royal and narrowly missed her with a dive-bombing attack from 6,000 feet. This led to the first of the many false enemy claims to have sunk this famous ship. Other dive attacks followed shortly, and the Hood received a glancing blow on the quarter from a heavy bomb which, however, caused no damage. The cruisers were subjected, shortly afterwards, to high-level attacks from 12,000 feet, but no hits were obtained. The attacks were quite uncoordinated and no attempt was made to concentrate on the most important target present. The anti-aircraft gunfire of the fleet was, on this occasion, as ineffective as the bombing, and Admiral Forbes states in his despatch that 'the control personnel were obviously unprepared for such high performance dive-bombing'.

As ships completed refits or became available through re-dispositions ordered by the Admiralty, reinforcements were added to the Home Fleet during this period. Thus the cruisers Norfolk and Newcastle joined the 18th Cruiser Squadron on the 6th and 15th of September and the Suffolk joined the same squadron on the 1st of October to relieve the Edinburgh, which was transferred to the Humber Force. During the latter part of October the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla (nine of the I Class) and the 5th (eight of the K Class) were allocated to Admiral Forbes and at the end of that month the 3rd Submarine Flotilla (depot ship Cyclops and nine boats of the S Class) were attached to the Home Fleet. On the 7th of November the 4th Destroyer Flotilla from the Mediterranean joined, but four days later the Humber Force, consisting of four cruisers of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, the 7th Destroyer Flotilla and four Tribal-class destroyers, were detached from Admiral Forbes to operate under Admiralty control in order to deal with a reported intention of the enemy to invade Holland by sea. Though this redisposition did not at the time seriously vitiate the Home Fleet's ability to control the northern exits, it was the first of many detachments of cruisers and flotilla vessels to the southern ports to deal with threats of invasion. The consequences of this policy will be discussed later.

An unexpected reinforcement of the Home Fleet submarines occurred on the 14th of October when the Polish boat Orzel, after making a most gallant escape from the Esthonian port in which she had been interned, evaded all the German forces searching for her and finally reached Rosyth. As her sister ship the Wilk and the destroyers Blyskawica, Grom and Burza had escaped to England at the time of the German invasion of Poland, most of the modern units of the Polish Navy escaped the enemy's clutches to join with


the Royal Navy in continuing the fight. Their skill and gallantry were soon to earn them a great reputation. The final reinforcements of the year arrived early in December when the cruiser Devonshire (flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J. H. D. Cunningham) came back from the Mediterranean and her sister ship the Berwick from the West Indies. These two ships then formed, with the Norfolk and Suffolk, a homogeneous 1st Cruiser Squadron of four 8-inch gun cruisers.

But Admiral Forbes did not for long enjoy any real increase of strength: early in October the Admiralty received firm intelligence that a powerful enemy raider was at large in the South Atlantic and rapidly took steps to form a number of hunting groups, the details of which will be given in a later chapter, to seek out and destroy the raider and to afford additional protection to shipping in the focal areas where she was likely to work. Thus the Ark Royal and Renown, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, and also the Effingham, Emerald and Enterprise--the only Northern Patrol cruisers with satisfactory endurance--were all ordered abroad. The Furious at the same time replaced the Ark Royal as the fleet's only aircraft carrier. The presence of a second raiding pocket-battleship on our ocean trade routes was not known until the arrival at Kirkwall on the 21st of October of the crew of the Norwegian S.S. Lorentz W. Hansen which had been sunk by the Deutschland on the 14th. The day after this news was received the American S.S. City of Flint reached Murmansk with a prize crew from the same raider on board. The City of Flint, after leaving Murmansk, endeavoured to reach Germany through the inshore route (or 'Indreled') by which she could keep almost entirely inside Norwegian territorial waters, and an attempt to intercept her with the cruiser Glasgow and destroyers was unsuccessful. As the Norwegians interned the prize crew and the ship was turned over to their own flag the enemy gained no advantage from this attempted violation of Norwegian waters. But the Germans continued to use the 'Indreled' to their advantage; early in November the liner New York passed from Murmansk home to Germany by that route. As she was a merchant ship proceeding on a lawful voyage the Norwegians allowed her to pass.

The battle cruiser Gneisenau, the cruiser Köln and nine destroyers made a brief sortie from the 8th to the 10th of October. Their orders were to operate off the south coast of Norway, to attack any light forces met but to avoid contact with superior forces, to destroy British shipping and to try to entice the Home Fleet towards the Skagerrak where attacks by U-boats and aircraft could be made.

Admiral Forbes first heard of this sortie during the night of the 7th-8th of October and immediately brought the battle cruisers and light forces to short notice. At 1.20 p.m. on the 8th a reconnaissance aircraft of Coastal Command reported the force off Lister Light,


Map 5. The North Sea
Map 5. The North Sea

steering north, and all ships of the Home Fleet raised steam.9 The enemy's course appeared to be set for a break out into the Atlantic, and it seemed possible that the Home Fleet might intercept him. Accordingly the battle cruisers Hood and Repulse with the cruisers Aurora and Sheffield and four destroyers sailed from Scapa and set course at high speed for a position fifty miles north-west of Stadtlandet, the headland 100 miles north of Bergen where the Norwegian coast trends away to the east. About an hour later the Humber Force left the Firth of Forth for the mouth of the Skagerrak whence they would sweep north to catch the enemy if he was headed back. At 6.40 p.m. on the 8th Admiral Forbes left Scapa with the main body of the fleet (the Nelson, Rodney, Furious, Newcastle and eight destroyers) for a position north-east of the Shetlands, while the Royal Oak and two destroyers patrolled to the west of the Fair Isle Channel. The battleships and battle cruisers were to reach their positions at dawn on the 9th and would then steer towards each other.

Throughout the afternoon of the 8th, Coastal Command aircraft continued to shadow the enemy. Twelve Wellington bombers were sent to attack, but failed to find him. At 5.30 p.m. the shadowing Hudson left the enemy in a position thirty miles west of Stavanger still steering north at almost twenty knots.

Next day, the 9th of October, Admiral Forbes' forces scoured the waters to the north, but without result. The Humber Force was bombed intermittently throughout the day. Although some hundred bombs were dropped no ship was damaged. From the intercepting position between the Shetlands and the Norwegian coast Admiral Forbes steered to the waters between the Faeroes and Iceland, where a last chance of catching the enemy might be obtained if he really was bent on breaking out into the Atlantic.10 During the afternoon of the 10th the Admiralty told Admiral Forbes that an enemy force corresponding to that which he was seeking had passed south through the Great Belt early that morning. The enemy had actually reversed his course after dark on the 8th, re-entered the Kattegat at about midnight and was back in Kiel by 1 a.m. on the 10th of October. On receiving the Admiralty's report Admiral Forbes went to Loch Ewe and his other forces to Scapa.

This operation, typical of the many abortive sorties and sweeps made by the Home Fleet during this phase, gave few grounds for satisfaction. Our intelligence had been shown to be slow and inaccurate and our air reconnaissance, though successful in sighting and, for a time, in shadowing the enemy, had been favoured by the weather and by the enemy's choice of time. For it must be remembered that the Germans were, on this occasion, trailing their coat


and wished to be sighted and reported on a northerly course. The successful shadowing had not enabled our bombers to strike, but the German feint had drawn some ships of the fleet within range of air attack. The Luftwaffe had failed, however, to turn this to advantage. We now know that the enemy had hoped that this sortie might dissuade the Admiralty from making further detachments from the Home Fleet to search for the two pocket-battleships then at large in the Atlantic. This hope at any rate was not realised.

Naturally the weaknesses revealed led to discussion between the naval and air force commands concerned and between the Admiralty and Air Ministry regarding the steps to be taken to remedy them. Not only were serious doubts felt regarding the effectiveness of the North Sea air reconnaissances, but it had been shown that even when sightings took place bomber striking forces generally failed to find the enemy. In an endeavour to correct this state of affairs a system of reconnaissance in force by bomber aircraft, with freedom to attack any major warship within a certain area, had been authorised as early as the 28th of September. But this could not be considered a satisfactory solution, for it left too much to the weather and to chance sightings. The striking force's failure on the 8th of October led therefore to the matter being further considered at a meeting held the following day between the Ministers and service heads of the two arms. At this meeting the question of the conservation of the bomber force for strategic use, which was the official policy of the Cabinet, proved the predominant factor and all that was achieved to meet the Admiralty's requirement for prompt and effective attack against any suitable naval target sighted was to place three Bomber Command squadrons, who were, of course, not trained for maritime warfare, temporarily under the operational control of Coastal Command. They were, however, not to be sent into enemy bases and were to be returned to their original command immediately bombing of shore targets was authorised. A proper balance between the offensive use of air power against maritime targets and its strategic use on land was not to be easily or quickly achieved. In spite of the issue of orders on the foregoing lines and of the concern expressed by the War Cabinet over the need to inflict damage on enemy major warships, no bomber striking force or bomber-reconnaissance force succeeded, during the next six weeks, in finding and attacking such a target. Though it runs ahead of our narrative it is, perhaps, desirable to continue now to the next step: on the 7th of December a meeting was held in the Air Ministry to review the effects of the growing enemy attacks on our shipping and the failure to deal with them effectively from the air. As a result of this meeting a joint Admiralty-Air Ministry staff came into being on the 12th of December with Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté as the Air


H.M.S. Ark Royal lying off Rosyth, August 1939
H.M.S. Ark Royal lying off Rosyth, August 1939.
The ships in the background include the Submarine Depot Ship H.M.S. Forth with a cruiser behind her and, on the left, destroyers of the 'Tribal' Class.

The Squadron Navigating Officer (1st Minelaying Squadron, 1940). By Sir Muirhead Bone.
'The Squadron Navigating Officer' (1st Minelaying Squadron, 1940). By Sir Muirhead Bone.
(On loan from the Admiralty to the National Maritime Museum)

Naval 'Swordfish' Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance aircraft in flight, armed with torpedoes
Naval 'Swordfish' Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance aircraft in flight, armed with torpedoes.

H.M.S. Nelson, flagship of Admiral Sir Charles Forbes
H.M.S. Nelson, flagship of Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, at anchor in Loch Ewe on 1st October 1939.
The Times

Force head and Vice-Admiral L. E. Holland as the naval head. This arrangement, however, contributed little to solving the pressing problems with which it was intended to deal, since the Joint Staff had no executive authority but could only advise the Naval and Air Staffs on the measures considered necessary.

The resistance of Bomber Command to the transfer to Coastal Command of a proportion of its meagre striking force for use against naval targets, in accordance with the powerful wishes of both the Admiralty and Coastal Command, continued right up to the middle of 1940, by which time we were fighting for our continued existence. Until a torpedo-bomber striking force, trained, organised and controlled by Coastal Command could be provided we continued to be severely handicapped by the fact that the command which carried out the reconnaissance work possessed no striking power, and the command which possessed the striking power lacked the equipment and specialised training necessary to find the targets or, if the target was located, to strike with weight and accuracy.

We must now return to the endeavours of the Admiralty, of Coastal Command and of the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet to make effective use of sea and air power to defend our shipping when all the time the training, organisation and control of a vital factor in the latter element, namely the shore-based air striking force squadrons, were ill-adapted to such work.

After the last fleet operations (8th to 11th of October) the battleship Royal Oak had returned to Scapa. There in the early hours of the morning of the 14th she was torpedoed and sunk by U.47 (Lieutenant Prien) which had made a daring entrance to the Flow through Kirk Sound, the northernmost of the eastern passages, encumbered though it was by sunken ships.11 At about midnight on a clear moonless night, while the northern lights flickered overhead, Lieutenant Prien, who remained throughout on the surface and had chosen a time near the top of high water, passed between the blockships and the northern shore. Though she touched bottom and also fouled the blockship's cable with her stem the U-boat got clear without damage and, at twenty-seven minutes past midnight, entered the Flow.

To the south-west the big ship anchorage was seen to be empty, but when Prien turned back again to the north he sighted what he believed to be two battleships close to the north-east shore. In fact these were the Royal Oak and the old seaplane carrier Pegasus, then used for transporting aircraft. At 12.58 a.m. Prien closed to 4,000 yards and fired three torpedoes (the fourth tube missed fire), and one of these hit the Royal Oak right up in her bows or possibly on the anchor cable. The explosion was so slight and the damage so small that on board the battleship the Captain and other officers who went


forward to investigate believed the explosion to have been internal. Meanwhile Prien turned to the south, fired his stern tube at the same target without effect, and then withdrew to reload his bow tubes. At 1.16 a.m. he returned and fired three more torpedoes at the Royal Oak, this time with immediate effect. All of the salvo hit and, thirteen minutes later, the battleship rolled over on her side and capsized. Twenty-four officers and 809 men of her complement perished. U.47 now withdrew at high speed and retraced her passage through Kirk Sound, passing this time between the southern block-ship and Lamb Holm. With the tide falling and a strong current flowing this was the most hazardous part of the whole operation, but she passed through safely, and by 2.15 a.m. was out in the open sea again. Meanwhile inside the Flow it was realised that a U-boat had probably penetrated the defences, but a search by every available vessel revealed no trace of her. Such doubts as might still remain were dispelled a few days later when the enemy announced Prien's success; but Admiral Forbes had not waited for this to take such remedial steps as lay within his power. The few fleet cruisers at Scapa were sent to Loch Ewe, while the Northern Patrol cruisers were ordered to use Sullom Voe, in the Shetlands, as their base temporarily--in spite of that harbour being protected only by nets.

It is now known that this operation was planned with great care by Admiral Dönitz, who was correctly informed of the weak state of the defences of the eastern entrances. Full credit must also be given to Lieutenant Prien for the nerve and determination with which he put Dönitz's plan into execution. Though all the battleships of the Royal Oak class were too slow, too old and too ill protected to take their place in the line, and Commanders-in-Chief who had to use them in that manner often found them to be more of an incubus than a strength, they did valuable work escorting convoys and covering landing operations later. But whether the ship herself be regarded as having great military value or not, the loss of so many valuable lives in such a manner was tragic. Prien's success did at least have the effect of hastening progress with the defence works at Scapa. Doubts naturally continued regarding the route by which he had actually entered. It might have been round one of the passages at the ends of the booms, to guard which the few available patrol vessels had been stationed, or it might have been through one of the imperfectly blocked eastern entrances. One thing only was certain--that all the entrances must be made as secure as was humanly possible with the least delay. But this would take time and, meanwhile, the Home Fleet was unable to use its chosen base. Ironically enough, one blockship destined to be sunk in the entrance actually used by U.47 arrived at Scapa on the day after the Royal Oak was sunk.

Submarine attack was, not unnaturally, followed by air attacks,


Map 6. Scapa Flow
Map 6. Scapa Flow
Scapa Flow defences 1940-41

but on a far lighter scale than the intelligence authorities had, on the outbreak of war, indicated as likely. On the 16th of October two squadrons of Junkers 88 bombers attacked the ships lying in the Firth of Forth, where the air defences were at this time far stronger than at Scapa. They were met by Royal Air Force fighters and two were destroyed. One bomb hit the cruiser Southampton but passed through her side without exploding, and a destroyer was slightly damaged. But that was all.

The next day, the 17th of October, while the main body of the fleet was at sea, a raid in similar strength took place at Scapa. The absence of the fleet and the dispersal of all possible targets after the sinking of the Royal Oak left the attackers small choice of objectives since the Germans, like ourselves, were at this time anxious to avoid incurring the odium of starting air warfare against civil populations, and had therefore issued orders to confine attacks to warships. The old and partially demilitarised battleship Iron Duke, then in use as a base ship and floating coast defence battery, received underwater damage from a near miss and had to be towed into shallow water and beached, but that was the only result accomplished for the loss of one bomber brought down by the gun defences. Only naval fighters, of relatively low performance, were available on this occasion and they failed to intercept the attackers. A squadron of Royal Air Force Spitfires was sent north two days later in the hope of catching the enemy should he repeat the attempt, but proper control arrangements were still lacking and, when no further attacks occurred, it was withdrawn.

The lack of success of these early air attacks on our bases and the equal failure of our own corresponding attacks lent support to the view, which Admiral Forbes had always held, that the air threat to naval bases had been exaggerated and was, in fact, quite acceptable once the defences had been reasonably strengthened and were properly organised and controlled. The sense of security in the Fleet while in its bases was certainly improved by these experiences, and it was probably the enemy's lack of success on the 16th and 17th of October which gave the Home Fleet a brief and undisturbed interlude in the Firth of Forth between the 9th and 12th of November. But for the greater part of this period the fleet was far out of range of enemy aircraft. Admiral Forbes left Loch Ewe on the 15th of October and cruised for the next week well to the north to cover the Northern Patrol cruisers. He then returned to the temporary base and there, on the 21st, he received the intelligence already mentioned which made it almost certain that two enemy pocket-battleships were at large on our ocean trade routes.12 The Furious and Repulse were sent to cover a Halifax convoy already at sea and thereafter to operate to


the south and east of Newfoundland, and Admiral Forbes was thus deprived of his only aircraft carrier. Furthermore the cruisers Glasgow and Newcastle were sent to meet a valuable convoy from the West Indies, which included nineteen oil tankers, and to cover it until it arrived off Land's End on the 25th of October.

The sinking of the Royal Oak and the weakness of the defences of Scapa against air attack provide a suitable opportunity to review the whole question of the choice of the fleet's main bases and their protection.

What the security of this island base is to our grand strategy the security of the fleet's main bases is to our maritime strategy. Unless their bases are reasonably secure against all probable forms of attack the main fleets cannot perform their functions, since they cannot remain at sea indefinitely. Replenishment of fuel and stores becomes necessary and, without returning periodically to a protected har- bour, neither the machinery of the ships nor the bodies and minds of their crews can stand the strain of continuous cruising in waters where a constant and high degree of alertness is essential. Though the standard of self-maintenance in British warships is high, assistance from depot or repair ships, if not from fully equipped dockyards, ultimately becomes essential. The strain of operations involving constant watchfulness, particularly in the small ships and in northern waters, where for many months of the year the weather can provide a succession of storms of great severity, renders it just as necessary to arrange periods of rest for the ships' companies as to allow periods for carrying out maintenance work to the machinery and equipment of the ships themselves. Neither of these needs can be satisfied if a high degree of readiness has to be maintained while at anchor in the main base.

This requirement for the security of the fleet's main bases is so well known that it is almost a platitude to restate it here. But it is all too often forgotten in times of peace when it is hard enough to obtain money for the warships necessary to maintain 'the essentials of sea defence' and harder still to obtain it for land defences and harbour works at their bases. It is ironical, even tragic, to remember that the only fleet base on which substantial sums of money were spent during the years between the two world wars was Singapore, and that when the conditions against which it had been constructed finally arose we were as unable to base a properly balanced fleet on it as we were to defend it against the enemy's land and air assaults. Neither in home waters nor in the Mediterranean-- the two theatres where our main naval strength was deployed for war against Germany and Italy--was there a properly defended base from which the


fleets could work confidently and to which they could return in the knowledge of finding reasonable security. In the Mediterranean Gibraltar was poorly protected, while Malta was considered indefensible against Italian air power and no serious attempt was made to defend it until it was almost too late. At Alexandria the Mediterranean fleet was in foreign territorial waters, surrounded by foreign land, and almost all the essential installations of a main base were initially lacking. The effect on our strategy of the inadequacy and insecurity of our Mediterranean bases will be considered later when the tide of war swept over the Middle East. It was in home waters that the consequences of parallel weaknesses first became apparent and where the inevitable price in ships and lives was first exacted. The policy and events which led to such conditions will therefore be considered in some detail.

Until 1938 the three fighting services had been agreed that, in the event of war with Germany, the main units of the Home Fleet would be based on Rosyth, in the Firth of Forth, as had been the case during the final phases of the First World War. Strong arguments in favour of again using the same base appeared at that time to exist. It was well placed for the interception of German warships returning from a short foray northward, its air defence could be combined with the defence of the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and radar stations, fighter defences and an Area Combined Headquarters to control all defending forces were already being provided in that area. To press the Royal Air Force to extend its meagre resources to a different base some 200 miles farther north was a serious matter which could only have been accomplished by weakening the air defences in the south.

In 1938 the problem was re-examined by the First Sea Lord (Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse) and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet. They decided that Rosyth would not meet the changed requirements of a new war with Germany. It was badly placed for intercepting enemy warships attempting to break out into the Atlantic, to prevent which was to be one of the chief objectives of the Home Fleet, and its long approaches were vulnerable to mining, whereas the fierce tidal streams of the Pentland Firth afforded some protection to the main entrances to Scapa Flow. Moreover, Scapa was 150 miles nearer to the 'cutting off position' between the Shetland Islands and southern Norway, and from it the Home Fleet could more easily carry out the tasks of protecting the lightly armed ships of the Northern Patrol and of enforcing our contraband control measures in northern waters. Accordingly it was decided that the Home Fleet would, in the event of a new war with Germany, be based on Scapa Flow, and it was there that it concentrated at the time of the Munich crisis and again in the last days of August 1939. But Admiral Forbes only used it for the first few weeks of the war


and, after the 1st of October, a period of wandering between Loch Ewe, the Clyde and Rosyth began for the Home Fleet and continued until March 1940 when, at last, it was able to return to its chosen base. After the sinking of the Royal Oak, the First Lord told the Cabinet, on the 18th of October, that he thought Scapa was at present quite unfit as a base for the fleet. After much discussion it was decided to continue to use Loch Ewe as a temporary base while the defences of Scapa were being improved. But the enemy guessed correctly that we might make this move and, as Loch Ewe was even less well defended than Scapa, it was hardly surprising that Admiral Forbes' flagship, the Nelson, was seriously damaged on the 4th of December by one of a number of mines which had been laid in the entrance five weeks earlier by a U-boat. On the 21st of November the new cruiser Belfast was mined in the Firth of Forth and her back broken, which event showed that Admiral Forbes' fears regarding the vulnerability of the long approach to Rosyth to mining had been well founded.

It is plainly desirable to make some study of the reasons why this state of affairs came to pass. One factor undoubtedly was the late date (April 1938) at which the decision to shift the fleet's main base from Rosyth to Scapa was taken by the Admiralty. The change affected the other services' allocations and dispositions, and involved increased demands for equipment of which we were already woefully short. In the War Office it certainly caused some dismay. Not until early in 1939 did the Cabinet even consider the Chiefs of Staffs' proposals to increase the defences of Scapa; and the proposals were not approved until the following September--after war had broken out. A second factor was the refusal of the Government of the day to order, even as late as the spring of 1939, any measures of preparedness which might 'alarm the British populace' or might antagonise Hitler. On two occasions--at meetings held in the Admiralty on the 21st of March and the 14th of April 1939--Admiral Forbes was told that the Government had decided only to make such preparations as would not attract public attention and that he must be careful 'to do nothing to upset the populace'. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, who was acting for Admiral Backhouse during the latter's illness, told Admiral Forbes that the Government was very nervous 'of bringing on an attack by publicly making preparations for such a thing'. Such a policy in Whitehall could only have the effect of stultifying the efforts of the men on the spot. But that they made and, after the outbreak of war, were still making constant efforts to improve the defences within the totally inadequate means available to them is beyond argument.

A third important factor was the acute shortage of labour in the Orkneys. Miners from the Midlands were sent up to work on the


defences after the outbreak of war and, although paid double wages, rarely stayed for more than six weeks. Admiral Forbes several times pressed for a labour battalion to be sent north, but his appeals were not successful. Scapa had been well defended during the 1914-18 war but the greater part of the floating defences--booms and nets--had been removed and the shore defences dismantled during the years of peace. Moreover a Local Defence Division of the Naval Staff, specifically responsible for formulating and forwarding the defensive requirements of the fleet's bases, was not formed until May 1939.

During the interval between the decision to use Scapa and the outbreak of war no very great impetus appears to have been applied by the Admiralty to strengthen the defences; and when the senior naval officer on the spot reported in April 1939 that the defences were inadequate the Admiralty replied to the general effect that they were satisfied. In the following July Admiral Forbes drew attention to the state of the defences, but still no energetic response was obtained from Whitehall. Doubtless the governmental policy already mentioned made it difficult for the Admiralty to press defence preparations on an unwilling Cabinet. Moreover a dual misfortune occurred to the Board of Admiralty through the deaths in May 1939 of the Controller (Vice-Admiral Sir R. G. H. Henderson) and of the First Sea Lord in the following July; the changes in the membership of the Board may have contributed to the delay in meeting the requirements of the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet.

On the outbreak of war the Admiralty did, however, give orders to strengthen the defences of Scapa Flow. But the remoteness of the base from industrial centres, the shortage of labour in the Orkneys and of military material everywhere made the process of carrying out these somewhat tardy instructions inevitably slow. By the 31st of October 1939, there were still only eight heavy A.A. guns at Scapa, and they were placed to defend shore oil tanks rather than the fleet. There were no close-range A.A. weapons and only one squadron of naval fighters was stationed in the area. No Royal Air Force fighters were expected until early in 1940. Of anti-submarine defences there was still only a single line of nets across the three main entrances of Hoxa, Switha and Hoy, and the eastern entrances were imperfectly closed by the remains of the blockships of the 1914-18 war to which a few hulks had recently been added.13 The first two blockships sent to close the eastern entrances were sunk on passage north; a third arrived on the day after the Royal Oak was sunk.

The sinking of the Royal Oak naturally called for a stringent enquiry into the causes of the disaster and the First Lord finally reported to his colleagues that the senior officers on the spot had not taken


adequate measures to improve the defences of the base. The just allocation of responsibility must always, in such a case, be difficult, but it does now seem that the true causes went deeper than the conclusion quoted above and that the loss of the Royal Oak was the result not so much of a failure by the officers on the spot, who had in fact several times represented the weaknesses for which they were censured and had done their best to remedy them, as of the policy of the Government of the day and the failure of the Admiralty to obtain proper priority in time of peace for the defences of the fleet's chosen base. However this may be, the fact remains that the failure to defend Scapa Flow adequately against either air or submarine attack not only caused the loss of one battleship, damage to another and to a valuable new cruiser but vitiated the ability of the fleet to perform its proper functions.

The evacuation of the Home Fleet from its main base within a few weeks of the outbreak of war was actually caused by the unduly pessimistic estimate of the air threat which the Admiralty sent to the Commander-in-Chief on the 7th of September. It warned him that the enemy might attack his fleet, while in its base, with a force of 800 heavy bombers. In fact the total operational strength then possessed by the enemy was under 400 heavy bombers, and an attack on anything like the scale predicted was out of the question. Then, when the fleet moved to Loch Ewe, the Royal Oak was left behind at Scapa and the consequence of its insecurity against submarine attack was immediately reaped. As the First Lord, with understandable bitterness, expressed it to the First Sea Lord, 'We were driven out of Scapa through pre-war neglect of its defences against air and U-boat attack'.

There was now no disguising the peril in which the fleet lay at its temporary base. The Admiralty even considered that it was greater than at Scapa, but agreed to give Loch Ewe priority for certain additional anti-submarine defences. The abandonment of Loch Ewe and a move to the Clyde were considered at a meeting in the Admiralty on the 24th of October, but with this proposal the Commander-in-Chief 'totally disagreed', for it would mean the expenditure of an additional day in reaching the 'cutting off position' in the northern part of the North Sea. His urgent desire was to get the defences of Scapa so far improved that he could take the fleet back there at the earliest possible moment; but, if a choice of temporary bases had to be made, he preferred Rosyth to the Clyde, chiefly because the antisubmarine defences were at that time the stronger. In order to resolve these differences the First Lord, accompanied by the First Sea Lord and the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (Air Vice-Marshal R. E. C. Peirse), visited Admiral Forbes on board his flagship in the Clyde on the 31st of October. The Commander-in-Chief rapidly


convinced the First Lord that the proper base for the fleet was Scapa, and that improvement of the defences must therefore be pressed ahead as fast as possible. The slight effects of the enemy's air attacks on Rosyth had lent support to Admiral Forbes' view that the air threat could also be dealt with at Scapa, once the anti-aircraft and fighter defences of the latter base had reached the strength and efficiency of those defending the former.

It was accordingly decided that the anti-aircraft gun density at Scapa should be greatly increased, that heavy nets should be placed around the fleet anchorage to force torpedo-carrying aircraft to close to point-blank range before they could drop their weapons effectively, that two squadrons of Royal Air Force fighters of high performance should be stationed in the north of Scotland, that reinforcement by a further four squadrons would be made if the situation appeared threatening and that proper arrangements for the control of these fighters and an additional radar station would be established. All unused entrances to the Flow were to be totally and permanently blocked and the anti- submarine defences of the main entrance through Hoxa Sound strengthened; booms were to be extended to the shore and controlled minefields and indicator loops laid.14 But all this could not be completed in a few weeks and for the next four or five winter months, during which prolonged spells of bad weather were certain, the fleet would have to continue to use temporary bases each of which possessed grave disadvantages. The Clyde, undoubtedly the most secure, was nearly 200 miles farther than Loch Ewe from the waters where the fleet might at any moment be required. But Loch Ewe was poorly defended. Rosyth was better placed geographically than the Clyde, but harder to defend against air attack. It was this factor which finally led to the decision to use the Clyde until the Scapa defences were adequate. The geographical disadvantage of the Clyde might be lessened by the arrival of reinforcements from the Mediterranean giving Admiral Forbes so great a superiority that the fleet could work in two squadrons keeping the sea alternately; but the number of destroyers available to screen the heavy ships would be the deciding factor and, in fact, shortage of destroyers and new demands on the fleet prevented this mitigation from ever being realised.

These differences of opinion and discussions have been dealt with at some length because they were endemic to the insecurity in which the fleet was placed. Had the enemy realised the weakness of its


condition and exploited fully the possibilities of submarine attack and the use of the magnetic mine, or had he been sufficiently well informed to send his battle cruisers out into the Atlantic while the effective strength of the Home Fleet was at its lowest ebb, the results might well have been serious.

While the discussions on bases were in progress, and in spite of the grievous handicap from which the Home Fleet at this time suffered, it had to continue to exercise its functions.

On the 22nd of October, the Admiralty ordered Admiral Forbes to cover a convoy of iron ore ships then assembling at Narvik. As the enemy was bound to know about the sailing of this convoy the Commander-in-Chief sailed from Loch Ewe on the 23rd. The Aurora and four destroyers were to act as close escort for the convoy while the Nelson, Rodney, Hood and six destroyers formed the covering force. Admiral Forbes remained at sea until the last day of October and cruised to the north as far as the Lofoten Islands; but the whole area remained completely quiet. The convoy was brought in safely to the Firth of Forth and the heavy ships returned to the Clyde where, on the 31st of October, the visit of the First Lord, the First Sea Lord and Deputy Chief of the Air Staff took place.

The next operation was to cover the second Norwegian convoy between the 12th and 17th of November. This was successfully accomplished and, on the 10th, Admiral Forbes was back in the Clyde where, at 3.51 p.m. on the 23rd he received an enemy report from the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi (Captain E. C. Kennedy) on the Northern Patrol stating that an enemy battle cruiser was in sight four miles to the west of her position between the Faeroes and Iceland which was given as 63°40' North 11°29' West. A few minutes later a second report was received which identified the enemy, wrongly, as the Deutschland. Admiral Forbes ordered all ships to raise steam with all despatch.

Before describing the operations which followed it may be as well to remark on the reasons for the incorrect identification of the enemy by the Rawalpindi; for she had, in fact, sighted the battle cruiser Scharnhorst and her first enemy report had therefore been correct. To identify a strange ship sighted towards dusk in far northern waters is likely, in any case, to be difficult; but with the German major warships it was rendered more so by the similarity in silhouette of the pocket-battleships, of the battle cruisers and also (though they were not yet in service) of the new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. This was particularly the case when no means of comparing their relative sizes was available, or at distances where even fairly pronounced detail, such as the placing of turrets, could not be distinguished. It


Map 7. The Sortie of the Scharnhorst and Gneisnau
Map 7. The Sortie of the Scharnhorst and Gneisnau
21st-27th November 1939, and the sinking of the Rawalpindi

is now known that, although without any intention to confuse identification, the Chief Constructor of the German. Navy adhered deliberately to certain broad features in all the heavy ships designed by his department, and this produced a strong similarity in their silhouettes. In the case of the Rawalpindi's sighting the second report was perfectly possible since the Admiralty and Admiral Forbes' ships all knew, from the adventures of the City of Flint and Lorentz W. Hansen, that the Deutschland had been at large in the Atlantic.15 An attempt by her to break back through one of the northern passages during November was likely. In fact we now know that she left Wilhelmshaven on the 24th of August, passed through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic and had returned by the same route on the 8th of November. By the 15th of that month she was back in Kiel again, but no intelligence to that effect had been received by the Admiralty at the time of the Rawalpindi's sighting. She was not actually located in her home waters until four weeks after her return. Not until the middle of December was the Admiralty of the opinion that the Gneisenau also took part in the operations now to be de- scribed. The mistake made on the Rawalpindi's bridge thus helped to confuse the Admiralty's intelligence regarding the movements and dispositions of the enemy's main units for some time.

The German battle cruisers, commanded by Vice-Admiral Marschall with his flag in the Gneisenau, had actually sailed from Wilhelmshaven at 2 p.m. on the 21st of November and they remained in company throughout the operation.16 The intention of the German Admiral was to break through to the Iceland­Faeröes area, then move to the waters where our patrol lines were thought to be established and make a feint out into the north Atlantic, in order to draw off our patrols and dislocate our shipping movements. Finally he intended to sheer off into the mists of the far north whence, making use of the long nights, he would choose an opportunity to slip home at high speed. This does not appear a very aggressive plan for two of the most powerful warships afloat to execute, since nothing more than a brush with patrols, followed perhaps by a chase, was likely to result. But it seems probable that Admiral Raeder, on whose directions the orders were framed, felt that only small risks should be taken in this first venture by his largest and newest ships, and was prepared to be satisfied with slight results--or even with none.

The German battle cruisers passed north of the Shetland and Faeröe Islands and patrolled in the Iceland­Faeröe channel throughout the 23rd of November. Towards dusk the Rawalpindi was sighted by the Scharnhorst, which chased and engaged at 8,000 yards range, and destroyed the armed merchant cruiser after a one-sided action


which lasted only fourteen minutes.17 The Rawalpindi fought to the end and obtained one hit on her powerful adversary.

Admiral Forbes had with him in the Clyde on the afternoon of the 23rd November the Nelson and Rodney, the cruiser Devonshire and seven destroyers of the 8th Flotilla. Three six-inch cruisers (the Southampton, Edinburgh and Aurora) and two more destroyers were at Rosyth. The forces on patrol consisted of three of the old C Class cruisers to the south of the Faeröe Islands, the Newcastle, Rawalpindi, two C Class and one D Class cruiser between the Faeröe Islands and Iceland, and the eight-inch cruisers Norfolk, Suffolk and three armed merchant cruisers in the Denmark Strait. The six-inch cruiser Sheffield and three of the D Class were at Loch Ewe or on passage from the Northern Patrol, while the Glasgow and two destroyers were at sea to the north-east of the Shetlands trying to intercept the German liner Bremen. An outward-bound Norwegian convoy was just leaving the Firth of Forth with three destroyers as escort; four more destroyers had recently sailed from Belfast to escort two dummy battleships, which were intended to attract the attentions of the Luftwaffe to Rosyth. Lastly there were five submarines on patrol.

The Commander-in-Chief recalled the Norwegian convoy and ordered its escort to join the Glasgow off the Shetland Islands, whence they were to search to the north. The dummy battleships were sent back to Belfast and their escort ordered to join his main body. The Newcastle and Delhi, the nearest ships to the Rawalpindi's position, were ordered to close and shadow the enemy and three destroyers were sailed from Scapa with orders also to locate and shadow. The Rosyth force, under the Vice-Admiral Commanding the 2nd Cruiser Squadron in the Southampton, was ordered to the Fair Isle Channel and there to spread and search. One destroyer from Scapa was placed in the Pentland Firth to guard that possible, though unlikely, route of return. The C and D Class cruisers on patrol were ordered to concentrate off North Rona and thence cover the approaches to the Fair Isle Channel. The Sheffield, from Loch Ewe, was sent to the enemy's last reported position and the Norfolk and Suffolk were ordered to proceed towards Bill Bailey's Bank (60°30' North, 10°00' West). The submarines from the Forth and Tyne were ordered to patrol on a westward line from the Lister Light and other submarines were stationed off Horn Reef, the Skaw and the Naze. Having thus redisposed his forces to maintain contact with the enemy and to cover all his likely return routes, Admiral Forbes hurried north by the Minches and the Pentland Firth towards a central position some 60 miles off the Norwegian coast (in 58°36' North, 03° 00' East)--a position he could have reached far more


quickly had he been based at Scapa. All possible air searches had been requested, and the armed merchant cruisers were temporarily withdrawn from the patrol lines.

The Admiralty had, meanwhile, ordered certain other changes of disposition for the greater safety of shipping already at sea and to strengthen the searching forces. The Warspite was ordered to leave the Halifax convoy she was escorting and to steer towards the Denmark Strait. The Repulse and Furious were sailed from Halifax to the east, but the former was damaged by heavy seas and both had to return. The Hood sailed from Plymouth on the 25th of November and proceeded with the French battle cruiser Dunkerque towards a position (60°00' North,20° 00' West) from which the North Atlantic routes could be covered.

It now only remained to keep in touch with the enemy until such time as the heavy ships could bring him to action. The cruiser Newcastle, which was next in the patrol line to the Rawalpindi, had received her enemy reports and altered course to the east to close her position at full speed. Two hours later she sighted, first, a searchlight on the horizon and then gunflashes. Visibility was about eight miles, but there were several rain squalls in the vicinity which might at any time greatly reduce the visibility. At 6.15 the Newcastle sighted a darkened ship six and a half miles away and, two minutes later, a second ship to the right of the first who signalled with a bright lamp to her consort. By 6.22 the range was closing rapidly and the Newcastle reduced speed and altered course away. She had, in fact, been sighted by the German ships at this time. Quite apart from the orders received from Admiral Forbes, to her had fallen the traditional role of the cruiser in contact with heavy enemy units, namely to shadow and keep in touch with them. She had learnt that there were two enemy ships in company and that one of them was certainly heavily armed and armoured. For her to have engaged such a ship with her 6-inch guns would have courted disaster, but why the Germans, who knew that their presence had already been reported and that they had no friendly ships in the neighbourhood, did not attack the Newcastle immediately on sighting her is less easily explained.

Unfortunately for the successful performance of the Newcastle's object a rain cloud now drifted between the shadowing cruiser and the enemy and visibility was greatly reduced. We now know that the Scharnhorst was stopped and picking up survivors when first sighted by the Newcastle: and that, in response to the Gneisenau's signal made at 6.54 she got under way again after recovering one boat with twenty-one survivors and followed her senior officer in an easterly direction at high speed. The Newcastle emerged from the area of bad visibility at about 6.30 to find nothing in sight, and although she and the Delhi searched to the north-west and north-east until dawn next day they


never regained contact. The Newcastle, like most British ships at that time, had no radar. Had she been so fitted she could hardly have failed to maintain contact--at any rate for some time. The German ships equally had no search radar sets, but were fitted with a set whose purpose it was to obtain ranges for their main armaments.

After the action the German Admiral decided to abandon the feint to the west owing to 'the rapid approach of darkness and time lost in picking up survivors', thus further reducing the already limited scope of his operation orders. Neither of the foregoing arguments appears to afford valid reasons for a rapid withdrawal since darkness would have covered the start of the feint movement, and the time lost in sinking the Rawalpindi and recovering one boat-load of survivors had only been about two and a half hours. The more probable reason, though not admitted in any German account, was that Admiral Marschall knew that his position had been reported and that other ships were already searching for him. He had to anticipate intensive air patrolling next day, and heavy naval forces were certain to be moved in his direction with the utmost rapidity. Discretion therefore appeared to indicate an immediate withdrawal although, in fact, no British ship capable of engaging his force on anything approaching equal terms was, at the time, within many hundreds of miles of his position.

After shaking off the Newcastle by steering to the east at high speed the German Admiral acted with great circumspection. He altered course to the north-east at about midnight on the 23rd-24th November and reached the vicinity of 65°40' North, 6°00' East the following evening.18 He remained in this general area until 11 a.m. on the 25th of November when he shaped course to the south to reenter the North Sea. On reaching 62°55' North, 3°10' East that evening Admiral Marschall found the visibility to be too good for his liking, and turned north again until midnight. Next morning in the bad weather and low visibility for which he had been waiting, he resumed his southerly course and, by daylight on the 26th of November, had reached the latitude of Stadtlandet at a distance of 20 miles from the coast. Apart from sighting, but not being sighted by, a ship which was probably one of the cruisers or destroyers of a patrol line established by Admiral Forbes between the Shetlands and the Norwegian coast, the German Admiral's anxieties were now almost over because the weather remained uniformly bad until he reached Wilhelmshaven Roads at 1 p.m. on the 27th of November.

Meanwhile Admiral Forbes with the Nelson and Rodney had taken up his intercepting position about 60 miles off the Norwegian coast, and had redisposed his cruisers from the evening of the 24th of November to improve the chances of catching the enemy if he broke for home.


During the forenoon of the 25th enemy flying-boats sighted a number of our searching forces and reported their positions to Admiral Marschall. These air reports played a part in causing the German Admiral to postpone his break- back till next day. The lack of an aircraft carrier to work with the fleet deprived the Commander-in-Chief of the possibility of conducting his own air searches, and the best efforts of Coastal Command failed to accomplish for him what the German flying-boats did for Admiral Marschall. Admiral Forbes waited in vain for a sighting report from his patrolling cruisers or aircraft off the Norwegian coast from the 25th to the 28th of November. He swept to the north on the 29th--on which day the Rodney, which had developed serious rudder defects, had to be sent back to the Clyde--and turned south again on the 30th. But during all this period of waiting not one sighting report reached him. In fact the enemy had already slipped back home through his cruiser line only some 100 miles inside his waiting position. The weather, or rather the clever use of periods of bad weather, had, of course, favoured the enemy's escape. But it was not only good luck and favourable weather which enabled him to complete his sortie unsighted and unidentified. Firstly there was the Newcastle's failure to maintain contact. Had she shadowed successfully even until dawn on 24th of November the chances of successful interception would have been greatly improved. And, more serious still, grave weaknesses in our intelligence regarding the movements of the major enemy warships and deficiencies in the capabilities of our patrolling aircraft were exposed by these operations. Lack of regular visual and photographic reconnaissance of the enemy's main bases handicapped our forces from the start, too sanguine pre- war estimates of the effectiveness of our North Sea air patrols greatly extended this handicap and, finally, the use by the Home Fleet of temporary bases several hundred additional miles from the 'cutting off position' in the North Sea all helped towards successful evasion by the enemy.

German intelligence, on the other hand, seems at this period to have worked fast and accurately; not only was the closely guarded secret of the use of Loch Ewe as a temporary base by the Home Fleet known to the enemy but each of the redispositions ordered by the Admiralty after the sinking of the Rawalpindi is correctly stated in Admiral Raeder's report to Hitler on the operation.

After his fruitless sweeps to the north on the 29th of November and in the reverse direction the following day Admiral Forbes ordered normal movements of shipping to be restarted on the 1st of December and, two days later, decided to call at Loch Ewe to fuel his destroyers on his way to the Clyde. It was while entering that temporary base early on the morning of the 4th of December that his flagship, the Nelson, was, as told earlier, damaged by a magnetic


mine.19 Not until the 4th of January, by which time five more of the eighteen mines laid in the channel had been exploded, was it considered safe to send her to Portsmouth for repairs. The event was skilfully kept secret from the enemy, but the implications were serious in the extreme since it was made clear that, until the magnetic mine had been mastered, any of our main ports and bases might be closed for weeks on end.

In the German Admiralty there was considerable jubilation over the success of Admiral Marschall's foray jubilation which hardly seems to have been justified by the limited scope of Admiral Raeder's orders and the incomplete fulfilment even of those objects. The whole operation was, in fact, exactly of the type which the Admiralty had long expected and with which the Commander-in-Chief's plans and dispositions were intended to deal. From the enemy's point of view this sortie by his heavy ships had no effect on our control of sea communications, and the sinking of one armed merchant cruiser cannot be considered good grounds for Admiral Raeder's conclusion that 'for Germany the results of our first battleship operation may be rated very highly'.

But although the enemy's intelligence had been good it had not been good enough to enable him to take any advantage of an opportunity which occurred at this time to use his battle cruisers really effectively. The detachments made from the Home Fleet to hunt for the raiding pocket-battleships, the mining of the Nelson and the development of defects in the Rodney had temporarily reduced Admiral Forbes' strength to one capital ship--the Hood--and she could only steam 25 knots and was in urgent need of refitting. The arrival of the Warspite from the Mediterranean soon eased the situation, and by the end of the year the Rodney, Repulse and Furious had all rejoined, and Admiral Forbes again commanded a balanced fleet. But had Admiral Raeder used his battle cruisers more frequently and more determinedly during November and the early days of December he might have accomplished big results.

Two days after the Nelson was damaged Admiral Forbes transferred his flag to the Warspite at Greenock and there, on the 7th of December, he was visited again by the First Lord and First Sea Lord to review once more the future of the fleet's bases, the problems posed by the enemy's use of the magnetic mine and the disposition of certain major warships. Regarding the first matter it was readily agreed that there was no alternative but to continue to use the Clyde until such time as effective magnetic sweeps had been produced and the defences of Scapa improved sufficiently to permit the return of the fleet to the northern base.

It was decided that until the heavy ships could enter and leave


harbour in safety the Northern Patrol could not be properly covered and that it should therefore be reduced. The lack of effective countermeasures to the magnetic mine thus had a direct effect on the efficiency of our blockade measures. As reinforcements the battleship Barham was to join the Home Fleet, and the Repulse and Furious would rejoin Admiral Forbes' flag after bringing in the first Canadian troop convoy.

On the 12th of December Admiral Forbes sailed twelve of his destroyers to meet and bring in the first Canadian troop convoy. It consisted of five large liners, carrying 7,450 men of the First Canadian Division. That same morning Coastal Command aircraft, and also the submarine Salmon, sighted enemy surface forces in the central North Sea, steering west. We shall return to the adventures of this German squadron, which was actually on a minelaying sortie, in the next chapter. To Admiral Forbes the sighting reports presented a possible threat to the approaching Canadian troop convoy since, if the enemy ships were trying to break out into the Atlantic, they could reach the Fair Isle Channels late on the 13th. Accordingly he sailed from the Clyde with the Warspite, Hood and Barham screened by six destroyers. The enemy's intentions had, however, nothing to do with the convoy which, escorted by the Repulse, Resolution and Furious and covered by the heavy ships of the Home Fleet, arrived safely in the Clyde on the appointed day. The only untoward incident was a collision between the outward-bound liner Samaria and the Aquitania, one of the troop convoy, and also the Furious. It was fortunate that none of these three valuable ships received more than superficial damage. Enquiry revealed that the collision had been caused by the Samaria being given a route close to the inward-bound convoy's track. This happened because the routing authority in Liverpool had not been informed of the troop convoy's movements. Excessive security precautions are liable to produce unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.

The second Canadian troop convoy, of seven large liners escorted by the Revenge, was also met by a strong force of ten destroyers of the Home Fleet which sailed for that purpose on Christmas Day. The third similar convoy did not arrive until the 7th of February 1940 and once again the ocean escort was reinforced by the Home Fleet.

The approach of the Christmas period brought an increase rather than a relaxation of the Home Fleet's duties, for the Admiralty warned Admiral Forbes on the 17th of December of a possible attempt by a number of enemy merchant ships to reach home. The armed merchant cruisers, which had been withdrawn since the 9th, were therefore sent out on the Northern Patrol again and Admiral Forbes took his heavy ships to sea to cover them against an attempt by the enemy to repeat the foray in which the Rawalpindi had been sunk. The Admiralty also considered that the enemy might attack the


homeward-bound Norwegian convoy (H.N.5), and this possibility meant that the fleet had to cover it as well as the Northern Patrol. In the event, however, the enemy did nothing. On Christmas Eve the Admiralty notified a minefield off the east coast from 58°20' North to 51°36' North and instructed all traffic to keep either to the north or to the south of the barrier.20 The effects of this new declared area will be discussed in the next chapter.

On the 28th of December the battleship Barham, which with the Repulse and five destroyers had been ordered to remain in northern waters on covering duties, was torpedoed by U.30 in 58° 34' North, 6°30' West. She reached Liverpool next day to dock but was out of action for three months. An error in the torpedoed ship's signal prevented an effective hunt being organised at once by her escorting destroyers, and the U-boat escaped unscathed.

On New Year's Eve the Rodney rejoined Admiral Forbes in the Clyde after being refitted at Liverpool and the Commander-in-Chief hoisted his flag in her the next day.

Thus ended the first phase of the Home Fleet's operations. The period discussed so far had been one of much arduous steaming, often in adverse weather conditions, and the accomplishments had been chiefly of a negative and unspectacular nature. The flow of shipping across the oceans had been well maintained and serious difficulties had not arisen until coastal waters were reached. Action with surface forces had so far been denied to the fleet, and the few U-boats sunk and the captures by the Northern Patrol were the only losses so far inflicted on the enemy. Disappointments had been many and handicaps, the chief of which had been the inability of the fleet to use its chosen base, not a few. But much valuable experience had been gained. It was known that our intelligence was slow and often inaccurate, and that the North Sea air patrols could not be relied on to sight and shadow enemy warships, nor bomber striking forces to find and attack them; it had been shown that, given the necessary gun and fighter defences, the fleet could be assured adequate security from air attack in its bases; that neither anti-aircraft gunnery nor bombing attacks on warships were at present able to achieve their predicted results appeared clear; and that properly organised and promptly executed asdic search could sink enemy U-boats had been demonstrated. The need to remedy weaknesses and deficiencies had been recognised, and the necessary measures to provide the remedies were in hand and were slowly beginning to take effect. But above all Admiral Forbes had shown, by his constant keeping of the seas, without regard to the weather or any of the difficulties which beset him, that the spirit of the fleet and its capacity to control the sea communications to these islands remained unimpaired.


Map 8. The Western Approaches to the British Isles
Map 8. The Western Approaches to the British Isles

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