South African Military History Society


Seagoers will usually agree that there are lucky ships and unlucky ones. Perhaps the luckiest ship in the German Navy in World War Two was the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and the life and adventures of this remarkable vessel were the subject of the curtain raiser presented by military history enthusiast Ian Knight at the society meeting on 14th September.

The Prinz Eugen, named after the famous 18th century general, was build under the German Z plan, which aimed to construct a surface navy capable of taking on the Royal Navy by 1945, but which was abandoned when war broke out in September 1939. She displaced 14000 tons, mounted eight 8-inch guns and had a maximum speed in excess of 30 knots.

Her maiden voyage was in operation Rheinubung in May 1941 in company with the super-battleship Bismarck, another Z Plan project. The two separated in mid-Atlantic when the Bismarck was forced by battle damage to make for France, which, of course, she never reached. Prinz Eugen was ordered to proceed alone to attack allied convoys, but after refuelling at sea was herself forced to head for France for repairs to a propellor damaged by ice.

At Brest she joined the two German battleships Sharnhorst and Gniesenau, which were also being repaired. All three then became targets for intensive RAF bombing, and a badly damaged Prinz Eugen remained out of the war for the rest of 1941.

On completion of repairs, Hitler ordered the three ships to Norway, where he feared a British invasion, and it was he personally who chose the route through the English Channel. The "Channel Dash" of early February 1942 was a triumph of German planning and an embarrassing fiasco for Britain's defences. However, it was not a total success. Both battleships were damaged by mines, and only the Prinz Eugen came through unscathed.

Later the same month, while operating off Norway, a torpedo from a British submarine caused damage that resulted in the Prinz Eugen having to return to Kiel for repairs. An embarrassing incident involving a Russian convoy in December 1942 led to the decommissioning of all heavy units of the German surface fleet, and for a while the activities of the Prinz Eugen were restricted to the training of sea cadets.

The ship was returned to action as an army support gun platform during the German evacuation of the Baltic coast, in the course of which she was involved in a collision with the light cruiser Leipzig.

Surrendered along with the rest of the German Navy in May 1945, the Prinz Eugen was taken over by the Americans and for a short while joined the US Navy. However, the sophistication of her engines proved too much for American naval engineers, and after a break down which resulted in her having to be towed to port it was decided she should end her days as a target ship for the post-war US atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.

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The main talk of the evening, also on naval matters, was given by committee member Louis Wildenboer. The Battle of Savo Island, in the Solomon group, took place in August 1942, and might more correctly be described as a massacre. A numerically inferior Japanese fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Gunichi Mikawa inflicted on the US Navy the worst defeat in its entire history, sinking no less than four heavy cruisers and a destroyer, and doing other great damage, with no serious loss to itself.

The background to the battle was the US Marines' struggle for Henderson airfield on the nearby island of Guadalcanal, the key to the air control of the entire area. On the night of 8th August a fleet of 24 US and Australian warships, consisting of eight cruisers and 16 destroyers under the command of US Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, was deployed in defence of transports in the channel between the islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. This later became known as Iron Bottom Sound on account of the 50 or so wrecks now lying there. Savo Island was roughly half way between the two larger islands and at the northern end of the Sound.

The allied fleet had previously been supported by three aircraft carriers under the command of US Admiral Jack Fletcher, but fearing land-based air attack, these were by now out at sea.

The previous evening Mikawa had left Rabaul, then in Japanese hands, flying his flag in the heavy cruiser Chokai. He was accompanied by five other heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and a destroyer -- had eight ships in all. His intention was to attack the allied fleet in a night action using his ships' six- and eight-inch guns and their Long Lance 24 inch torpedoes. These were formidable weapons with a range of 10km at a speed of 50 knots. They were powered by liquid oxygen rather than the conventional compressed air, which meant they did not leave a wake of tell-tale bubbles.

The following day the Japanese were spotted by a US submarine and later by reconnaissance aircraft. Turner seems to have paid little attention to their reports, apparently under the impression that the Japanese were incapable of a night action and that his ships' radar would provide adequate warning of any attack by daylight. However, he did deploy two destroyers on a defensive patrol line.

He could not have been more wrong about the Japanese' ability to fight at night. In fact they had practiced it for years and had achieve considerable proficiency. A night attack was precisely what Mikawa intended as he steamed the 1200km down the "Slot" between the islands of the group. He planned to enter Iron Bottom Sound south of Savo Island, surprise the warships guarding the transports lying off Guadalcanal, swing across the Sound to attack the transports off Tulagi, then turn north-west to attack the protecting screen of warships patrolling languidly south-east of Savo Island. After that he intended to be out of the Sound, and of range of any US carrier-borne aircraft, by daylight.

In the event, Mikawa's tight schedule prevented him from reaching the transports. But against the warships his plan was brilliantly successful. Taken completely by surprise, with their crews in utter confusion, these became sitting targets for the Japanese ships' guns and torpedoes. Within little more than half an hour the allied fleets had lost four heavy cruisers with 1277 men killed and 700 wounded. The patrolling destroyer Jervis was later sunk with all hands.

No Japanese ship was lost, although Mikawa's flagship was hit in the control room killing 34. Total Japanese casualties were 58 dead and 70 wounded. It was a splendid victory against an enemy who enjoyed a superiority of three to one in ships and 2,3 to one in fire power.

Apart from the fact that the transports, Mikawa's primary target, were untouched, the allies' only consolation in the whole disastrous affair was that the next day the US submarine S-44 was able to sink the heavy cruiser Kako as she was heading back to Rabaul.

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The chairman would like to remind all members that R5 is now charged for every guest attending society meetings. The last meeting yielded R30 for society funds.

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Thanks are due to Professor Ian Copley and David Panagos for a successful tour of the three newly discovered forts at Rietfontein on Sunday 10th September.

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12th October
CR - Elizabeth Leaver - Florence Nightingale
ML - Terry Leaver - The Crimean War, 1864


12th October
Dr John Vincent - The role of Museums in Military History

Cape Town

12th October
John Mahncke - The Zeppelins

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George Barrell

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