German Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper
“Am engaging unknown enemy battleship,” signaled Cdr. York McLeod Cleeves, RNR, captain of the Royal Navy corvette, HMS Clematis, to the British Admiralty on 25 December 1940. No doubt coded “Most Immediate,” the highest priority, this became one of the most famous signals of the Royal Navy in World War Two. Why? It demonstrated the aggressiveness and sacrifice expected in the British navy. If you sighted an enemy warship, you attacked it – especially if your were escorting a troop convoy. Bravery of this kind wasn’t thought to be heroic. It was expected of a Royal Navy officer.
In this case the “battleship,” fortunately (at least for the convoy) turned out to be the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, 676 feet long vs 205 feet for HMS Clematis. Admiral Hipper mounted a main battery of eight 8 inch guns in four turrets, all aimed and fired by central control. Each shell weighed 269 pounds.
HMS Clematis mounted a main battery consisting of a single 4 inch deck gun which fired a thirty-one pound shell. The gun was aimed and fired manually. Not much different from the era of Lord Nelson. The Admiral Hipper could make thirty-three knots, the Clematis could make sixteen knots on a good day with a following wind.
The German raider Admiral Hipper had come upon British convoy WS5A, which was carrying troops to South Africa. (Presumably for further deployment in the Mideast.) HMS Clematis was one of the ships in the escort group. Like all troop convoys, WS5A was heavily protected. Her escort consisted of four Flower class corvettes, one County-Class heavy cruiser, HMS Berwick, which mounted 8 eight inch guns, equal to the Admiral Hipper (although Hipper was a larger, more heavily armored ship), HMS Bonaventure, a Dido class light cruiser mounting ten 5.25 inch guns, and HMS Dunedin, a World War One era light cruiser mounting six 6 inch guns in her main battery.
Two aircraft carriers, HMS Furious and HMS Argus, were part of the convoy’s defense. While their main purpose was moving additional aircraft to Africa, which were disassembled and packed in crates, both carriers also had operational aircraft.
HMS Clematis was on the starboard side of the convoy, just forward of the main body of ships. Since all warships of a convoy escort monitored the signal traffic of the other ships, the British cruisers, all grouped on the port side, deciphered the signal and HMS Berwick came steaming round at full speed followed by the other cruisers.
Convoy: Merchant Sailors at War 1939-1945 by Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie
Atlantic Escorts: Ships, Weapons, and Tactics in World War II by David K Brown
Anatomy of the Ship: The Flower Class Corvette Agassiz by John McKay and John Harland