The Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943 marked the end of an era for Britain's Royal Navy, and indeed for naval warfare generally. In the curtain raiser to the 9 September Society meeting, John Murray identified the sinking of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst as the last time capital ships would fight a big-gun duel without the involvement of either submarines or aircraft.
Scharnhorst was the German Navy's 'lucky' ship. This 32 000-tonner carried nine11-inch guns with a crew of about 1 800 at a maximum speed of 31,5 knots. She was faster than any ship afloat that could out-gun her, and could out-gun any ship that was faster. Scharnhorst was involved in the sinking of the British aircraft carrier Glorious off Norway in June 1940. Along with her sister ship Gneisenau, she enjoyed a brilliantly successful campaign against allied convoys in the North Atlantic in early 1941. A year later she had taken part in the Channel Dash, when the two battle-cruisers, with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, had escaped from Brest on the French coast, through the English Channel to safety in German waters. Scharnhorst was high on the RN's wanted list.
By the end of 1943 the German surface fleet was much denuded from a combination of sinkings, fatal damage, and Hitler's loss of faith in its efficacy. The only really formidable units remaining in the Atlantic were Scharnhorst and the battleship Tirpitz. Both were menacing the allied convoys supplying the USSR through its Arctic ports. On the evening of 25 December Scharnhorst sailed from its Norwegian base at Altenfjord accompanied by five heavy destroyers, to intercept allied convoy JW 55B bound for Murmansk. By morning, as she was closing in, and having parted company with her destroyers, she encountered three British cruisers and a firefight ensued. A hit from HMS Norfolk damaged her forward radar.
Scharnhorst changed course to evade the cruisers, but later changed again towards the convoy unaware of the approach of the battleship Duke of York, flagship of British C-in-C Admiral Sir Andrew Fraser, with one cruiser and four destroyers. Partially blind and unaccompanied, the wounded ship came within range of the Duke of York's 14-inch guns. In the duel that followed the battleship fired no less than 52 broadsides, but it was one of the last shells that proved fatal when it disabled one of Scharnhorst's boilers and slowed her speed. Torpedoes from the destroyers administered the coup de grace. Only 36 of Scharnhorst's crew survived this last big-gun battle fought, as it was, in complete darkness.
Society Chairman Colin Dean gave the main lecture of the evening. His subject was The Jet Race. Research into the design of aircraft and their engines intensified after WW1. Aircraft had established themselves as potent weapons of war, and the race was on to increase their speed and capabilities. It was early realised that the propeller ultimately limited aircraft speed, and this prompted a search for alternatives. The development of an engine based on the gas turbine already in use for generating electricity raised interest in both Britain and Germany. The traditional piston engine works in four stages. These are Suck, when fuel is drawn in, Squeeze, when it is compressed, Bang, when ignited and Blow, when expelled. A jet engine performs these stages in one continuous action along its central axis by using a turbine instead of pistons. Air is sucked in at the front, compressed, heated, and expelled at great speed from the exhaust.
In both Germany and Britain the participants in the jet race faced many obstacles, some technical, some in the lack of facilities for building and testing, others political. In Germany the main problems were the struggle for materials required for reliability, and the lack of suitable sites for developing and testing engines and the aircraft to go with them. In Britain the problems were mainly with the authorities of various kinds, especially the RAF, which saw little merit in the idea of jet propulsion. The fact that its pioneer was a junior officer in the RAF itself did not help.
The pioneer in Germany was Dr Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain. He began his development work in 1935. It was soon taken up by aircraft manufacturer Heinkel, and an experimental aircraft powered by a jet engine flew in August1939. Other companies soon took up the idea. In Britain it was Flying Officer Frank Whittle, who obtained a patent for the design of a practical turbojet as early as 1930. Practical development, done under Air Ministry control, was also taken up by various private-sector companies intrigued by potential post-war commercial possibilities.
Throughout the war German development continued to be impeded by the shortage of imported special metals required for the turbo blades. Nevertheless, the first operational jet aircraft, the Me262, took off in October 1944. One of these is on view at the Museum. The British were somewhat later. Their first operational jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, joined 616 squadron RAF in July 1944 but did not see active service in the war.
The jet race was neck and neck, but Germans had won it.
The Museum's librarian, Mrs B L de Lange, retired at the end of September after 25 years service. Your committee has decided, in appreciation of the helpful co-operation she has always extended to the Society and its members, to present her with the gift of a book token. It will enable her to read a book of her own choosing for once.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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