Battleships HMS Barham, HMS Malaya and aircraft carrier HMS Argus at sea circa 1935. (US Navy Archive)
Both HMS Barham and HMS Malaya were Queen Elizabeth class battleships built during World War One. Neither received significant modification between the wars and were past their design life when World War Two came. They were both old and slow. HMS Barham was sunk in the Mediterranean while HMS Malaya spent much of the war escorting Allied troop convoys. Under specific instructions from the Admiralty, all troop convoys, many from America, had to be escorted by a battleship plus a heavy close escort force.
The Cunard liners, RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Mary were exempt from this because of their speed. When accepted into service as troop transports, their designation was changed to HMT/S (His Majesty’s Transport ship)
HMS Malaya, in spite of not being reconstructed like several of her sisters including HMS Warspite, still performed yeoman service in the war. Her engines were not in great condition and she could not make more than 20 knots which limited her from staying with a battle fleet. In the Med, she often feel far behind HMS Warspite, flagship of C-in-C Mediterranean.
After being hit by a German torpedo in March of 1941, HMS Malaya spent four months in dry dock in New York being repaired. She was scrapped in 1948 after long and honourable service.
Fairy Swordfish torpedo bombers were rugged planes in spite of their fragile look. A handful of them were made as amphibious planes and used for shot spotting during battle or reconnaissance. Once landed in the water, the plane would position itself so that its home ship only had to slow down but not stop to when a tow rope was thrown to the crew. They attached this to a special fitting and a crane lifted them out of the water.
Major Werner Pluskat, First German to Sight Allied Invasion Fleet, informs his higher echelon headquarters of the German 352nd Infantry Division.
At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed “straight at me.” During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division, a scratch division built around a handful of surviving veterans from the 321 Infantry Division which had been torn to shreds during the Battle of Kursk in July and August of 1943 and the subsequent Soviet offensives. *
German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.
(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
“The Longest Day,” an account of D-Day written by American journalist and narrative historian Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.
Dawn of 6 June 1944
From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:
“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”
Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”
Pluskat: “Right for me!”
Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”
“We’re being shelled!”
“Exact location of shelling?”
“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”
Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.
German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.
In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. Most German bunkers were well constructed and survived Allied naval gunfire.
Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While battleships could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that many battleships assigned to the bombardment force were able to anchor in a long row in the English channel.
On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. There were occasions when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at Allied destroyers who were firing back.
Naval captains took their ships in as close as they could, scraping bottom occasionally. But the invasion had to succeed. There wasn’t a “Plan B.”
Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June. Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggests Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and fabricated his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.
Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry Division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.
And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.
In an article about D-Day in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:
“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From his forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”
Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well-known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.
Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.
Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge, such accusations were never made.
Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.
“The Longest Day” was published in 1959.
Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.
*a fascinating “look behind enemy lines” can be found in the correctly translate reported written for the Allies after the battle by one of the captured regimental commanders of the 352nd German Infantry Division. Historian Stewart Bryant tracked down the original document in German written by the officer. About twenty years ago, historians discovered that hundreds of these documents had been incorrectly translated.
Bryant has translated this German report into English himself and has added valuable commentary and explanations.
Firing all main battery guns at once was a broadside. Usually, battleships fired salvos. This consisted of firing every other barrel of the main batteries and was the usual practice.
comments Charles McCain: HMS Rodney was one of two Nelson class battleships constructed in the late 1920s. (Commissioned in 1927). These two battleships were unique in the Royal Navy. They were the only battleships armed with 16 inch main batteries, the heaviest guns in the fleet, all three main battery turrets were forward of the bridge.
They were the only two RN battleships which had armament equal to the Bismarck’s.
Comments Charles McCain: battlecruiser HMS Renown firing. During this carefully planned attack on the dockyards at Genoa by the famed Force H from Gibralter (the ‘H’ did not stand for anything), HMS Renown served as the flagship of Admiral James Somerville.
Known to the men as “our Jimmy,” or “Slim” Somerville was a respected, popular and effective fighting admiral. He was never pretentious and radiated calm and good humour. He was knowledgeable about new technology and how to best use such new inventions as radar.
Curiously, he had been retired before the war due to what we call today as a “false positive” on an x-ray for tuberculosis although it became clear as time went on that he did not have that disease. Somerville was recalled to the colours when the war began and served throughout the conflict on the retired list.
Tuberculosis was a serious problem in the Royal Navy and medical officers were deeply concerned about the disease. Given how contagious this disease was, it could spread rapidly through the damp and often poorly ventilated mess decks of a warship.
After testing positive for TB,100 men immediately taken off HMS Renown
In late December 1944, HMS Renown arrived in Durban for a refit prior to returning to Europe. While the ship was being refitted and critical maintenance on engines and other machinery performed, every member of the ship’s company was given a chest x-ray. More than 100 were found to have tuberculosis and were immediately removed from the ship.
(Source: The Battlecruiser HMS Renown by Peter C. Smith)
HMS Barham, torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 55 officers and 806 ratings.
This vid clip is one minute and eleven seconds long. In these 71 seconds, the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Barham, rolled over on her beam ends, explodes, and then sinks. At the end of the vid clip, the ship is gone, disappeared beneath the sea.
In the time it takes to watch it, fifty-five officers and eight hundred six ratings died–men who were fighting against “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime,” as the Nazis were so aptly described in their evil by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 13 May 1940 in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister.
Incredibly, the sinking and explosion was caught on film by a news reel cameraman from Gaumont News. The cameraman who caught the sinking and explosion, John Turner, was standing on the deck of the nearby Royal Navy battleship, HMS Valiant, which was on station close to Barham.
You can read accounts by the crew members who survived here:
Rakish, occasionally reckless, always recognizable, and a fighter in the tradition of Lord Nelson, Admiral David Beatty became the most well known figure of the Royal Navy in later World War One and afterwards.
Admiral David Beatty was keenly aware of the value of public relations however often he decried the popular press. He complained in letters to his wife and friends about that damn fellow Filson who is here….(that is, aboard his then flagship, HMS Lion). He was referring to Filson Young who was a journalist and war correspondent who wasn’t important but knew a lot of important people and managed to get himself into all sorts of places. He talked himself into being commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a sub-Lieutenant and had himself assigned to HMS Lion with the express task of writing about Admiral David Beatty.
This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds since Young had known Beatty for several years and hero worshiped him. Beatty theoretically found all this annoying mind you, he hardly wanted some hero worshiping journalist like Filson Young around. Except he did and he liked Filson so he invited Filson Young to become part of personal staff mess over which Beatty presided like a king. So as much as he complained, he was usually available to talk to Filson who was aboard HMS Lion during the Battle of the Dogger Bank. In the early twenties he wrote an impressive book still worth reading today: With the Battlecruisers.
Admiral Beatty, later Admiral of the Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, later First Sea Lord and elevated to the peerage as Earl Beatty of the North Sea, was looked on by the public as the ideal of a true Royal Navy officer with the ‘Nelson touch.’ Handsome, controversial (but not too controversial), always wearing his naval cap with his trademark “Beatty tilt,” he was instantly recognizable. Beatty was a handsome man and a warrior. Women were strongly attracted to him and he was strongly attracted back. His private life was considered scandalous (which it sort of was) which only made him more interesting.
Battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable explodes at Jutland on 31 May 1916. Only two sailors out of a ship’s company of 1,019 survived.
“In the distance the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable sinking after being struck by shells from the German battlecruiser Von Der Tann first in “X” magazine and then once she had limped out of the line she was hit by another salvo on the foredeck, the resulting explosion then destroying her. All but two of Indefatigable’s crew of 1,119 were killed in the blast.”(Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Three of Admiral David Beatty’s battlecruisers— HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary, and HMS Indefatigable —were hit in vulnerable areas not protected by sufficient armour, by German shells during the battle of Jutland and literally exploded. Only a handful of officers and ratings from the three ships survived. Beatty’s own flagship, HMS Lion, was hit repeatedly by German shells which did significant damage.
HMS Lion on the left with waterspouts from enemy shells surrounding her. To the right, battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary explodes after German shells penetrated one of her powder magazines.
Beatty and HMS Lion had been pounded by the German navy before in the Battle of the Dogger Bank when German ships temporarily put HMS Lion out of action. Fortunately, since the battle was in the North Sea, HMS Lion did not have to steam far to reach port once the engines were brought back online. Nonetheless, after this experience and Jutland, Beatty had been in more action exposed to death and danger on an open navigating bridge than any other British admiral.
battlecruiser HMS Lion at sea (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The battlecruiser, a fast, lightly armoured but carrying heavy guns, was the brainchild of Admiral of the Fleet Jacky Fisher, First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910 (that is, the professional head of the Royal Navy) who subsequently served disastrously in the same position from 1914 to 1915.
“Their speed will be their protection,” was Fishers’s unrelenting slogan: a dictum now as flawed as the refusal of combat with a nominal equal was unthinkable.”
Thus writes the brilliant naval historian, Professor Andrew Gordon, of the battlecruiser concept, in his magisterial work: The Rules of the Game—Jutland and British Naval Command.
HMS Dreadnought, circa 1906. The booms lashed to the side of the ship were designed to hold anti-torpedo netting. (US Navy Archives)
Fisher was a brilliant and far-sighted naval officer who in his first term from 1904 to 1910, was responsible for the modernization of the Royal Navy including the construction of the first modern battleship, HMS Dreadnought. Upon commissioning in 1906, the revolutionary design of the ship immediately rendered obsolete all other battleships in the world including all the pre-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy.
Fisher’s second major brainchild was the battlecruiser. He forced this design through a skeptical Admiralty only to see his design proven disastrous at Jutland on 31 May 1916.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Richard Beatty, PC, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO. (Privy Counsellor, Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Order of Merit, Grand Cross of the Victorian Order, Distinguished Service Order) Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. From the Collection: THE ROYAL NAVY IN THE HOME WATERS, 1914-1918
During that battle, the Admiral Commanding Battle Cruisers, David Beatty, was more than startled when the battlecruisers around him started exploding. After the second of his battlecruisers exploded, Beatty turned to his flag captain on HMS Lion and said, “something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today.” And there was.
You can read book after book on the Battle of Jutland but it was Beatty who found and pinned the German High Seas fleet and led them toward what should have been its destruction by the Grand Fleet under Jellicoe. In doing so, Beatty was in action with his battlecruiser squadron far longer than the heavy battleships of the Grand Fleet.
The battlecruisers were not designed to fight it out with battleships but this is what happened in any event. Beatty has been criticized for being overly aggressive but that is specious. The culture of the Royal Navy was once the enemy was sighted, you went at them. It was the responsibility of the heavier ships to come up in support as fast as they could. In this Jellicoe failed.
But the biggest failure was that of the battlecruiser design and concept. It was a disaster. Unfortunately, after scrapping enough ships to meet their obligations under the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty, the Royal Navy was left with three of the newer battlecruisers: HMS Hood, HMS Repulse, and HMS Renown. Of these three, only the Renown was taken out of service and rebuilt with all of her major flaws corrected including thickening the armour over her magazines. While the other two were taken out of service for refits, neither spent two years in the dry dock being completely rebuilt and re-engined as did the Renown.
HMS Hood at sea. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The result wasn’t surprising. HMS Hood became a victim of plunging fire from the Bismarck. A shell went through the three inches of steel which formed the armoured deck over the aft powder magazine. It ignited the magazine and the ship blew up and sank in less than two minutes.
HMS Hood was the largest warship in the world and a symbol of the might of the British Empire. Since the Hood spent so much time on “goodwill” tours throughout the world showing the flag, she was the most well known warship in the world. That she simply blew up was a shock to the British public and people throughout the world. (Only three men out of 1600 survived).
In a disastrous nightmare, HMS Repulse accompanied the KGV class battleship Prince of Wales, to Singapore and was sunk by the Japanese in the early days of the Pacific campaign.
This left only HMS Renown which for many months served as Admiral James Somerville’s flagship while he commanded the famous Force H from Gibraltar. (The ‘H’ doesn’t stand for anything). HMS Renown survived the war because she survived the bombs and the shells which hit her whereas the Hood and the Repulse did not. A sad story of a class of ships which should have been taken out of service entirely once their vulnerability at Jutland became clear.
Comments Charles McCain: because of the odd appearance of the Nelson class battleships, only two of which were ever built, the ships often appear in photographs to be going in a different direction than they are. You can see what I mean in the photo above. HMS Nelson is the middle ship. Her bow is pointing to the left side of the photo and the ship is moving forward right to left in the photo which you can discern from the obvious direction of the other two ships.
If you did not know anything about the design of the Nelson class battleships, then you could easily think the Nelson’s bow was pointing to the right side of the photograph and that the ship was moving left to right.
Comments Charles McCain: once again appearances can be deceiving. The mail launch is approaching the stern of HMS Nelson not the bow.
Comments Charles McCain: the men in the fore and aft caps are part of the ships contingent of Royal Marines and are not sailors.
Mail was obviously important in keeping up morale. What chaffed the men more than anything, however, was the policy that every single letter sent by a rating up to and including the most senior petty officers, had to be read and possibly censored by an officer. The men disliked the idea that officers were reading to read their mail (just the outgoing) and officers intensely disliked reading and censoring the letters written by the ratings.
In smaller ships there was often not time to read all the letters the men had written at sea if the ship was only in port for a quick turnaround. So the officers would read a few of the letters then proclaim that all had been read by the naval censor.
Theoretically, officers were supposed to read and censor each other’s mail but they rarely did. They just took a sealed envelope from a fellow officer and stamped that it had been censored.
All letters written to someone in the Royal Navy during the war were addressed to the specific person with their rank, followed by the name of the ship, followed by GPO (General Post Office), London. That was it. The whereabouts of any ship was a secret.
Built to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, Nelson class battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney were unique in being the only battleships in the world with all main batteries mounted on the foredeck as well as being the only European battleships armed with 16 inch guns.
HMS Nelson during gunnery trials. Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum
In order to meet the restrictions something had to give. Hence Nelson and Rodney were given far less engine power than they needed and the ships were slow, their maximum speed being 23 knots vs King George V class battleships laid down in mid 1930s without treaty restrictions which could make 28 knots plus. KGV class had 14 inch guns. The Bismarck carried 15 inch guns as did HMS Hood and the other Royal Navy battlecruisers HMS Repulse and HMS Renown.
In spite of their efforts, the Admiralty had a difficult time making a workable design of the Nelson class battleships. One problem: if all main batteries were trained abaft the bridge structure and fired, then the explosive shock shattered the glass on the bridge.
You can see how massive these ships were even in their truncated state since they had the deck space required for a game of deck hockey, a popular sport in the Royal Navy of the era.