Fleet destroyers were built to operate with the main battle fleet so in late May of 1941, it is no surprise to find HMS Cossack and Philip Vian in the thick of another battle, this one against the Bismarck which had broken through the British patrols in the Denmark Strait, sunk the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and crippled the new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales.
The threat of the Bismarck to British convoys and merchant shipping was so dire that she had to be sunk no matter what risks the Royal Navy had to take. Although leaving Great Britain substantially uncovered from a German naval attack, the Home Fleet, already stripped bare of heavy ships to cover troop convoys, put to sea. (Admiralty orders required all troop convoys to have at least one battleship in their escort.)
While chasing the Bismarck, Admiral Sir John Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, flying his flag in HMS King George V, had been obliged to order his destroyer screen back to port to refuel. A second Home Fleet battleship, HMS Rodney, had steamed full ahead and managed to catch-up with Tovey in order to reinforce him. Yet Rodney had also been compelled to order her destroyer screen back to port for refueling.
Many Royal Navy destroyers had been designed for fighting either in the North Sea or the Mediterranean or in parts of the globe where a British naval base was never far away. So they were “short legged,” that is, they did not have the fuel capacity to stay at sea for long periods of time particularly at high speeds.
Of great concern, the task force of Royal Navy battleships contained two of only five British battleships which could go toe to toe with the Bismarck: HMS King George V and HMS Rodney. It had to be done no matter what the risk. So the two Royal Navy battleships proceeded alone without any destroyers to screen them and protect them against U-Boats — a very rare and dangerous situation — especially in waters known to be frequented by U-Boats. It is a measure of how urgently Churchill and the Admiralty felt about sinking the Bismarck.
Only their speed, which made it difficult for German U-Boats which made half the speed of these battleships, and the weather, which made it difficult for a U-Boat on the surface to make an accurate torpedo attack, protected the two irreplaceable battleships.
Although crippled by the torpedo strike from Swordfish torpedo bombers flying off the carrier, the Royal Navy was unaware of the mortal damage done to the German super-battleship Bismarck by one of those torpedoes which had jammed the Bismarck’s rudder, forcing the ship to steam in a circle.
At the same time, Tovey did not want to close and engage the Bismarck at dusk since the since the British ships were silhouetted against the setting sun. He wanted to, and did, wait until early morning before closing to engage when the situation was reversed. Fortunately, all of these decisions turned out to be correct and the Royal Navy brought the Bismarck down.
Well aware of the danger of proceeding on his own without screening destroyers, Tovey had no choice but to take the risk of breaking radio silence and ordered the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, comprised of four of the famous “Tribal Class” destroyers and one Polish destroyer, to leave the convoy they were escorting and steam “with all dispatch” to his position to screen his two battleships from U-Boat attack.
HMS Maori, one of the famous Tribal Class destroyers which clashed with the Bismarck, proceeding at speed circa 1940.
The navigator (‘pilot’ in British naval usage) of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, aboard HMS Cossack with Vian, had been plotting the course of the Bismarck based on these messages from the Admiralty. Observing this plot on a regular basis, both he and Vian could see that the only force capable of slowing down the Bismarck was their own 4th Destroyer Flotilla. So Vian, unaware of the damage recently inflicted on the Bismarck by the attack of the Swordfish torpedo bombers, decided on his own accord not to screen the battleships but to make a night torpedo attack on the Bismarck.
He hoped to hit her with at least one torpedo and slow her down, Bismarck being faster than the RN battleships. The reason: fear she would make too much progress toward coastal France and come under a massive air umbrella of the Luftwaffe. Vian had recently been through the British campaign in Norway in the late spring and summer of 1940. Operating without air cover, the Royal Navy suffered significant losses of ships and had the maddening experience of realizing most of their anti-aircraft guns would not elevate more than forty degrees, making them useless against all but high altitude bombers which the Germans rarely used.
Wrote Vian of his experiences under German air attack in Norway: ” …lack of any air cover…was to prove fatal to the success of the whole campaign.”
So he was more aware than most anyone of how dangerous being at the mercy of the Luftwaffe would be and also knew that the nearby carrier HMS Ark Royal did not carry nearly enough aircraft to provide effective fighter cover for the British ships.
Vian was a commanding and intimidating figure in the Royal Navy — one of the few men who would have ignored specific orders from the Admiral commanding the task force and gotten away with it. And the Admiral Commanding was none other than Sir John Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, the second highest command in the Royal Navy.
Nor was Tovey commanding from a desk in the Admiralty operations center. He was at sea. Yet Vian ignored the order — which Tovey later agreed was the correct action for Vian to have taken. Still, it took a lot of cojones to ignore an order from such a man, yet Vian would do this several more time during the war to other men he was supposedly subordinated to including Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, who replaced Cunningham as C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet.
On several occasions while trying to fight convoys through to Malta, Vian just ignored Harwood’s orders, perceiving, correctly, that Harwood was over his head and didn’t know what he was doing. Vian didn’t have much more regard for Cunningham.
[Source: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian. Images courtesy of the UK Imperial War Museums, Wikimedia, Dieselpunk, Naval History, and the UK Imperial War Museums.]