Escorting convoys to Russia was a brutal task given the terrible weather and constant attacks by German aircraft and U-boats out of Norway. Home Fleet provided “distant cover” since fleet carriers like HMS Victorious and battleships such as KGV were too valuable to risk anywhere close to German air attack. Home FLeet distant cover was laid on in the event the Tirpitz came out.
The Royal Navy named all of its bases as if they were ships. Hence, HMS Spurwing was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm base providing cover for convoys forming up off Freetown, Sierra Leone, a major convoy destination point where escorts changed.
The Royal Navy did most of its accounting by ship so it was easier to keep track of everything if all bases were treated as ships. For instance, unassigned officers were carried on the books of HMS Victory although they were obviously not on the ship itself although it did have accommodation for a small number of officers in transit.
If you wrote someone in the Royal Navy in World War Two, you addressed the letter to that person followed by name of ship followed by GPO, London.
The two photographs above are unusual because they show planes both landing and taking off from the Royal Navy fleet carrier HMS Victorious while the carrier is at anchor in the Royal Navy Home Fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow.
Because of aerodynamic reasons, carriers in World War Two typically had to turn into the wind which gave added lift to planes taking off. As an aircraft carrier neared its anchorage, the planes based on the carrier took off while the carrier was still at sea and could turn into the wind and flew to a Fleet Air Arm base on land.
They usually practiced landing on a carrier deck by landing on runways on land marked with the length of a carrier deck. Aircraft carrier pilots then and to this day often describe landing on a carrier as a “controlled crash.” It isn’t and wasn’t for the faint of heart.
In the last few years, the US Navy has started to fly drones from aircraft carriers which calls in question our naval strategy based around massive aircraft carrier battle groups. This is according to defense writer and expert Thomas Ricks, not me.
RNVR means Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Officers wore wavy stripes on their coat sleeves instead of regular stripes worn by professional “regular service” officers. Hence known as “wavy navy.” Nonetheless, RNVR officers came to vastly outnumber the regular service officers of whom there were only about 5,000 when the war began.
RNVR officers who were pilots assigned to the Fleet Air Arm wore a small insignia denoting this. The men claimed the small insignia was meant to inform all other RN personnel that they knew absolutely nothing about the navy.
Hvalfjord was a treacherous anchorage because it was exposed to vicious winds. Ships at anchor normally dropped both bow and stern anchors which they usually didn’t do in more protected anchorages as well as keep steam on since they often had to make revolutions for two or three knots simply to stay where they were and not drag their anchors if a storm came up.
Featured image shows: Fairey Albacores, the torpedo carrying plane of the Fleet Air Arm landing on the deck of HMS VICTORIOUS while the ship was en route to Hvalfjord, Iceland from Scapa Flow. The automatic Bat can be seen in the right of the picture, as can the arrestor wires running across the flight deck.
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)
Comments Charles McCain: “the Fairey Barracuda was a fighter/bomber and/or torpedo bomber used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. This aircraft was slow, underpowered and never an operational success. Its performance with the British Pacific Fleet can charitably be described as a disaster. All were immediately replaced aboard Royal Navy fleet carriers with Grumman Avengers.”
US Navy Grumman Avengers in official photo taken at U.S. Navy Naval Air Station Jacksonville
Comments Charles McCain: “The Supermarine Walrus was designed and built by the same company which designed and produced the iconic Spitfire also known as the Supermarine Spitfire. As you might imagine from the name, the Supermarine company originally specialized in manufacturing amphibious planes until the specs for a fast and maneuverable fighter were issued by the British Air Ministry in the mid-30s. A special design group at Supermarine led by Reginald Mitchell took over and the rest is history. Mitchell died of cancer before the famous Spitfire ever took wing.
14 steel hulled, coal fired fishing trawlers were built on order in Germany for a London company which could only get blocked credits out of Nazi Germany by using the money to buy something in Nazi Germany. So the company bought trawlers, each one christened with the first name of ‘”Northern.” Hence they became known as “Northern Class trawlers” although they were not purpose built for the Royal Navy.
HMT Northern Pride was a built in 1936 by Deschimag, Germany. taken over by the admiralty in August 1939. returned to her owner in November 1945. and scrapped at Gateshead in 1964. Photo and caption courtesy of harwichanddovercourt.co.uk/warships/trawlers/
All 14 were requisitioned by the Admiralty and refitted as mine sweepers and later several were refitted as convoy rescue ships. After being taken-over by the Royal Navy, each was designated with the prefix HMT–His Majesty’s Trawler. These were robust ships and many served as rescue and escort ships on the Murmansk run through the Arctic Sea as well as in the North Atlantic. They swept for mines, rescued people and had enough armaments to give a respectable account of themselves.
Depending on their operational schedule, they would “de-ammunition” the ship before a boiler clean or a refit since the navy did not want the ship filled with live ammunition while it was being worked on.
You only have to look at this plane to think it is from World War One. It’s a biplane with a metal framework covered by canvas. Going flat out, throttle to the firewall, it could make a maximum speed of one hundred thirty nine miles per hour. Only it can rarely go that fast. Put bombs under the wings (“bombing up”) they called it, or hang an aerial torpedo from its belly and it’s speed dropped to one hundred ten or even lower if an extra fuel tank were also added. By contrast, a Spitfire could make a maximum speed of 360 miles per hour.
A Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish Mk. II (serial number LS326) in flight during Air Fete’88, a NATO aircraft display hosted by the U.S. Air Force’s 513th Airborne Command and Control Wing, at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk (UK). This aircraft is today operated by the Royal Navy Historic Flight. This aircraft was built in 1943 at Sherburn-in-Elmet. Later that year she was part of ‘L’ Flight of 836 Squadron on board the MAC ship Rapana, on North Atlantic Convoy duties. Following her active service she was used for training and communications duties from the Royal Naval Air Station Culham near Oxford and Worthy Down near Winchester.
Although obsolete when the war began, the Swordfish became one of the few successful designs produced by the Fairey Aircraft Company. It was manufactured from 1936 to 1944 with 2400 built. The British could not find a replacement until they were able to acquire the US made Hellcat dive bomber, a carrier based dive bomber. And that’s what the Swordfish did, among other things, fly off Royal Navy aircraft carriers functioning as torpedo bombers or dive bombers. And incredibly, they were far more deadly than they looked.
They were also used on Merchant Aircraft Carriers which I will discuss in another post and suffice it to say that in the right conditions they could take off from an anchored aircraft carrier.
Take this story which would presage a similar disaster. An Italian fleet is peacefully at anchor in Taranto harbor. Six of the ships swinging at their moorings are battleships. In fact, these are the only battleships in the entire Italian Navy and they are all in the same harbor. The water in their anchorage is relatively shallow which protects them from aerial torpedoes so they think. At the time, it was thought that aerial torpedoes would not work in shallow waters because they would hit the bottom and explode after being dropped.
On the night of 11/12 November 1940, twenty-one Swordfish launch from the Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious. That’s all the Royal Navy can muster for this attack. Several of the aircraft flew at a higher altitude dropping flares and distracting the Italian gunners. By the time these gunners saw the rest of the Swordfish coming in no more than two or three feet above the water they had trouble depressing their guns low enough and even when they did so they risked hitting their own ships. When morning came nineteen Swordfish had made it back to HMS Illustrious. Three Italian battleships had sunk to the bottom of the shallow harbor — Conte di Cavour, Andrea Doria, and Littorio. The first never returned to active service, the other two required months of repair work before they could again put to sea.
This was the first attack ever by carrier-borne aircraft on an enemy fleet. And no one paid much attention. Except the Japanese. The attack on Pearl Harbor had its genesis at Taranto.
Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious before the attack on the Bismarck. Date 24 May 1941
Over two-hundred Flower class corvettes were built in 1939 and 1940 in the UK. Their length at the waterline was just less than two-hundred feet because that was the longest ship which could be built by the majority of civilian shipyards in the UK. These ships were hurriedly constructed by indifferent British laborers. They did not have the redundant heavy steel framing and structural supports common to other Royal Navy warships.
But there was a war on and this was the best the British could do. If the ship was seaworthy, the engine worked, the guns worked, and the depth charge apparatus functioned, then everything else was excused. Consequently, deck seams leaked, portholes weren’t properly sealed, and ventilators were badly designed and badly installed and had to shut down in storms depriving the interior of the ship with fresh air.
The mess decks, where the sailors lived, were often awash with six inches of sea water washing from side to side as the ships rolled from side to side, often in an arc of ninety degrees. The interior hulls of these ships were not insulated and condensation formed and dripped onto the decks.
Officers didn’t have it much better. They usually had two or three inches of water in their cabins and unlike the sailors, who slept in hammocks which swayed to the movements of the ships, the officers had bunks and staying in their bunks and trying to sleep in heavy weather was difficult, almost impossible.
A Flower Class Corvette on patrol in the North Atlantic. The distorting camouflage pattern can be seen here although it is much faded.
[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of World War II Today.]
One can’t read this book or any other on the North Atlantic escort force without being astounded at the endurance demanded of these men. Their primary enemy, after the Germans of course, was the weather. Gale after gale. Waves often towering above their small ships. And not only towering but then crashing onto the decks with tremendous force which often swept away equipment of every sort – all of which was bolted down — including the ship’s boats, life rafts, deck railings, tool boxes et al.
During his command of the destroyer, HMS Warwick, he describes green water, meaning it isn’t just spray from wave tops but ocean water itself, three feet deep sweeping across the decks. In that storm, the weather was so violent it tore from the deck a 3 inch high angle anti-aircraft battery and washed it overboard. And this gun was bolted and welded to the deck.
HMS Oakham Castle. While actually a “Castle Class Frigate” and not a “Flower Class Corvette” you can easily see the open navigating bridge.
What is even more astounding is this: on every Royal Navy warship of the era, the navigating bridge, where the officers stood watch, was open to the elements. Only a chest high wall of steel plating surrounded the bridge topped by glass panels to cut the wind. That was it. Photographs which accompany this post will show you what I mean. Snow, sleet, ice, gale or hurricane did not matter. The watch officers, bridge ratings, and captain stuck to their posts.
Officers on the bridge of Canadian Flower class corvette HMCS Trillium circa 1940-1942.
Writing in Escort, D.A. Rayner on the Battle of the North Atlantic:
It was a long, cold, hard death-grapple, fought against the most cunning of enemies, under an almost continuous waterfall of salt-spray.