NEWSLETTER NO. 309
PAST EVENTS: The DDH talk for our January 2001 meeting was given
by 90 year old Sam Wills and covered his personal experiences from
the start of WW2 up to "Dunkirk", which was the title
of his talk. Our speaker explained that he had been on a volunteer training
camp at the outbreak of WW2 and was immediately drafted into the army.
After undergoing specialized training in anti-aircraft gunnery, he embarked
for France on Christmas Day 1939. After a frustrating journey across the
Channel and virtually no food for three days, his unit was eventually deployed
at a RAF airfield near the Belgian border at the northern end of the Maginot
line. As far as he was concerned, it was a continuation of WW1 with their
billets, defensive trenches and equipment, exactly the same as they had
been 25 years previously. And there he sat during the so-called "Phoney
War" doing virtually nothing until the German offensive began in the
Spring of 1940.
The first inkling he had of any problems was when the RAF pulled out as the Germans had invaded Holland and Belgium in the north and France through the Ardennes in the South. However, instead of going for Paris as they had done in WW1, they swung north in a bid to capture the channel ports and thereby isolate the BEF. Our speaker's unit was evacuated immediately, but their withdrawal was hampered by thousands of refugees who clogged the main roads and generally paralysed all orderly movement They eventually found themselves on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal where they were supposed to stop the Germans from forming a bridgehead. They were joined by a French artillery unit that laid its guns on the congested road on the other side of the canal. This had disastrous results when the German panzers arrived in the forests behind the canal, because they had to fire through the lines of helpless refugees to stop the German advance. After a day of heavy bombardment, suddenly there was silence. Famously, Hitler had ordered his forces to stop at the St Omer canal for 48 hours. This gave the remnants of the BEF, which included our speaker, time to fall back on Dunkirk.
They were massed on the beaches adjacent to the east mole of the harbour and were subjected to almost continuous strafing and bombing by the Luftwaffe. The chaos and the lack of command resulted in the troops wandering aimlessly along what was left of the streets in the town. Eventually they met up with some Royal Navy petty officers who organized them into groups of 50 and embarked them on what ships were available. Our speaker found himself aboard a ferry steamer, "Queen of the Channel", which set off soon after. He was so exhaused that he fell asleep almost immediately, only to be awakened a short while afterwards by a huge explosion. As he could not see anything untoward, he went back to sleep only to be reawakened later by a sudden silence and the sight of a string of lifeboats heading towards a waiting cargo ship. He managed to jump into the last lifeboat as it was being lowered and was taken aboard the already crowded cargo ship. He stayed on deck and had no idea as to where they were going. Eventually they were landed at Dover and he was sent to a base-camp in the west of England, where his unit was consolidated and re-equipped. When they were re-organized, they were sent to southeast England to counter the expected German invasion, but it never materialized and instead, he was witness to the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. He was commissioned in 1943, saw service in Gibraltar and Italy in 1944 and had reached Venice by VE Day in 1945. It was a moving talk by an old soldier, talking of a famous action he took part in.
Our main talk for the evening was entitled, "The Mighty Hood"
and was given by our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady, and what a magnificent
effort it proved to be. By means of overhead projection transparencies,
photographic slides, computer projection and video, our speaker told us
how the "pride and joy" of the Royal Navy, the ill-fated HMS
Hood had blown up within eight minutes of opening battle in its
second major action.
He began by describing how the "battle-cruiser" came into being It was the brainchild of Admiral Fisher, Britain's premier naval visionary and had its origins in the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought, which in its time (early 20th century) was the most advanced battleship in the world. It combined large calibre long-range guns with heavy armour protection and formed the benchmark for all future battleships. Admiral Fisher was of the opinion that the only way potential enemies could attack Britain was through commerce raiding on the Empire's supply lines and that the "battle-cruiser" which coupled speed with heavy fire-power was the best protection. He envisaged ships like the Dreadnought, but with reduced armour to give greater speed. Hence the concept of the "battle-cruiser" was born and by the outbreak of WW1, Britain had built a number of them. However, their tactical role was that of scouting and the argument that speed was armour, would prove to be a tragic error. The moment of truth for these "battle-cruisers" was at the great naval Battle of Jutland in 1916. Although the Royal Navy achieved a strategic victory, it was at a high price. Plunging German shells penetrated the light deck armour of three of these "battle-cruisers" and detonated their magazines causing them to blow up with appalling loss of life.
Unfortunately, the Admiralty chose to ignore these costly lessons and
proceeded to design the new and larger "Admiral" class of battle-cruiser
in the same mould. In fact the keel of HMS Hood was laid shortly
after that battle. She was 860 feet long, displaced 36,000 tons and was
capable of a speed of 32 knots. She had eight 15-in guns mounted in pairs
in a total of four turrets, fore and aft. Her broadside firepower could
outmatch anything afloat, but she lacked heavy armour on her upper decks.
This fatal error would prove to be her Achilles heel. She was launched
by Lady Hood, widow of Admiral Horace Hood who, ironically, had been killed
at Jutland when his flagship, the battle-cruiser HMS Invincible
blew up. HMS Hood was too late for use in WW1, but between the wars,
she was sent on several world cruises to show the flag around the British
Empire as well as in Scandinavia, South America, the Mediterranean and
the Pacific. It was a highly successful PR exercise and served as a subtle
reminder to friend and foe alike that Britannia ostensibly still ruled
the waves. Towards the end of the '30's the Hood was due for an
extensive refit, that would have included the reinforcement of her deck
armour, but the threat of the impending war with Germany caused it to be
postponed. When WW2 broke out in September 1939, the Hood was rushed into
service even though the Admiralty knew that she was no match for the modern
German battleships. They relied on her worldwide reputation of invincibility
and believed that this would carry the day.
The Hood's first action was after the fall of France in 1940, when Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany. Churchill was worried that the French Fleet would fall into German hands and tilt the balance of naval power in their favour. He ordered that if the French refused to hand over their ships, they were to be destroyed. At the French Naval base at Oran, the French Admiral refused to comply and "Force H" which included the Hood, opened fire. The 15-in salvoes overwhelmed the French ships and their battleship, the "Bretagne" blew up. 1,400 French sailors were killed in the action. The Hood received minor damage, but her next major action almost a year later would prove to be her last. In 1941 Germany brought the Bismarck into service. This magnificent battleship was the most powerful warship afloat and, although comparable in size and main armament to the Hood, it was technically, 20 years in advance. Grand Admiral Raeder who was head of the German Navy hoped that his surface warships combined with the U-boats would blockade and starve Britain into submission. His plan, "Operation Rheinubung," included a battle group comprising the battleships: Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Churchill was aware of the danger this threat posed to his supply convoys across the Atlantic and ordered the RAF and Coastal Command to make every effort to sink them. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Scharnhorst had to withdraw due to troublesome boilers and in April 1941, the Gneisenau was torpedoed in Brest harbour by F/O Kenneth Campbell VC, thereby putting it out of action for six months. (Members may recall this action from previous talks by our speaker). This left Raeder with only two capital ships, but not wishing to be accused of undue caution or cowardice, he proceeded with his planned offensive. In May 1941, the two warships left for Norwegian waters and managed, under cover of heavy fog, to break out into the North Atlantic. However as the intentions of the German raiders were unknown, the British C-in-C Home Fleet, Admiral Tovey, had no option but to split his fleet. Two radar-equipped British cruisers, HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk were ordered to patrol the seas between Greenland and Iceland and HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales plus screening destroyers were to steam on an interception course for the Denmark Straits should the two cruisers locate the German ships. Unfortunately for the Germans the fog lifted and HMS Suffolk spotted the Bismarck and radioed her position to Admiral Holland aboard the Hood, which at that stage was about 300 miles distant. His battle plan was to cut across their bows with the classic 'T' manoeuvre that would allow all his guns to bear, while the enemy would be reduced to forward guns only. Unfortunately the Suffolk was spotted while shadowing the Germans who immediately opened fire and managed to give it the slip. This disastrous news reached Admiral Holland on the Hood shortly after midnight when they were an estimated 120 miles south of the German ships. He was now guessing in the dark and decided to close the distance between the last known position as soon as possible. On the 24th at 03h00, Suffolk regained contact with the German ships 35 miles nor' west of the Hood and Prince of Wales. Instead of crossing the 'T', he was now head-on. Holland ordered, "Prepare for instant action" and expected that the Norfolk and Suffolk would enguge the Prinz Eugen, but because of radio silence, this was not confirmed. The Germans were well aware of the British approach, but assumed them to be cruisers as their intelligence informed them that all the British capital ships were still at Scapa Flow. However, as the British ships approached closer, they were shocked to see that they were in fact the Hood and the Prince of Wales. Although Admiral Lutjens, the German commander, had orders not to engage the capital ships, he had no alternative but to attack. But as the British could not bring all their guns to bear and as they were steaming in close formation, the tactical advantage passed to the Germans. Also, Holland ordered concentrated fire on the left-hand ship, which had been incorrectly identified as the Bismarck. At 05h52 the action commenced with the Hood opening fire at a range of 25,000 yards, followed shortly after by the Prince of Wales whose radar was malfunctioning. The Bismarck's opening salvo fell short, the second was over and the third straddled. It was at this stage that the British realized that they were firing on the Prinz Eugen and changed target, but it was too late. The Hood had been hit and a fire on board outlined the target for the German guns. Holland tried to bring more guns to bear by turning broadsides on to the enemy, but as this manoeuvre was being executed the Bismarck's fifth salvo straddled the Hood with disastrous results. The pride of the Royal Navy came to a spectular end only eight minutes after the start of the action. A sheet of flame was seen to shoot up in the air from the vicinity of the Hood's mainmast, followed by a tremendous explosion that broke the ship in two. Out of a total complement 1,419 only three survived! In the meantime the Prince of Wales had to take evasive action to avoid the sinking Hood. This resulted in immediate loss of aim and placed it directly in the sights of the enemy ships. She suffered several direct hits, which reduced her fighting capabilities drastically. Also the Prince of Wales was now within torpedo range of the Prinz Eugen and Capt Leach decided to cut his losses and break off action by laying down a smoke screen. However, despite sustaining severe damage, the Prince of Wales did manage to score three hits on the Bismarck, one of which was to prove critical to the outcome of Operation Rheinbung. A shell had ruptured a fuel tank and seawater had contaminated the others. Lutjens then decided that rather than pursue the damaged Princeof Wales he would head for the German occupied French port of Brest for repairs. The news of the loss of the Hood stunned the Admiralty and revenge at all costs was imperative. Virtually every capital ship was deployed and the Hood was finally avenged with a death toll of over 2,000 Germans This had a secondary effect in that the Bismarck's sister ship, the Tirpitz, rarely ventured out to sea, spending the duration hiding in a Norwegian fjord. Notwithstanding the comprehensive presentation of this talk by our speaker, question time as usual brought forth some very interesting and thought-provoking observations.
Fellow-member, Lt Cmdr Colin Lawton, RN (ret), gave the thanks to both our speakers on behalf of the Society.
PLEASE NOTE: February 2001 is one of those months when the 2nd Thursday is at its earliest possible date. So please make a special note of the 8 FEBRUARY 2001
It will be a special meeting as the main talk will be given by past Chairman Ken Gillings. A year ago he gave a excellent review talk on all the events of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, and to keep us up to date with the centenary, at this meeting he will provide A SUMMARY OF THE ANGLO-BOER WAR IN 1900. Ken will link all the activity as it spread around the country and will cover those events from both sides. One not to be missed as Ken has the ability to bring our local history alive.
CHARLES WHITEING will give the DDH and his subject will be IAN SMITH. Specifically, Charles will cover the career of this future politician during his time with the RAF as a fighter pilot during the 2nd World War.
THE ANNUAL BATTLEFIELD TOUR TO MAJUBA
24/25 February 2001
The program for the tour has now been finalised, and a copy is enclosed with this newsletter.
We have had confirmation that, due to the importance of the event, we will be joined by DAVID PEARSE (the British Consul) and his family and by 3 journalists - JILL GOWANS and MYRTLE RYAN of The Tribune and PATRICK LEEMAN of The Mercury. That could mean some good publicity for the Society.
On the point of reducing the number of vehicles and to share costs, would all of you who want to offer a lift, or who will want a lift please ring BILL BRADY on 561-5542
The Majuba Lodge has offered a special rate of R170.00 per person for dinner, bed and
breakfast, so please book directly with the Lodge - details are enclosed on the agenda sheet.
Some members have already booked for both the Friday and Saturday nights and we are looking forward to another full tour get together on the Saturday night at the Lodge.
For those who wish to stay elsewhere, please ring PAUL KILMARTIN who has a complete list of B&B's in the area.
To further publicise the tour, our Chairman PAUL KILMARTIN will be interviewed on the SAFM "WOMEN TODAY" program between 11.00-11.3Oam on Thursday 8 February 2001.
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: March to May 2001
See you all on the 8 February and at Majuba!!
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983