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.
fascinating article in Maritime Executive on service of Cunard Line passenger ships in war:
Cunard Pays Tribute to War Service
Cunard ships have answered the call of Great Britain in every major conflict from Crimea in 1853 to the first Gulf War in 1990………….
In September 1939 the fleet was again quickly requisitioned for war service. One of the most daring voyages of the war was the secret Atlantic dash of the unfinished Queen Elizabeth in 1940 in order to remove her from Scotland and prevent her being a target for German air attacks.
The captain put to sea, with workmen still on board, and once out of the Clyde opened his sealed orders which he expected to instruct him to go to Southampton. Instead, he was told to head at full speed to New York. The secret dash was done with the launching gear still affixed to the underside of the ship, and without proper fitments inside. Men who expected to be going home by trains from Southampton within days did not get home for years.
After trooping from Australia Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth began bringing American GIs across to Europe in 1942 at full speed and unescorted. Not only were they faster than the U-Boats whose crews had been offered £100,000 by Hitler to sink either of them, but they were faster even then the torpedoes.
In summer, 15,000 soldiers were carried on each voyage – such a huge number that the men had to sleep in shifts, observing a strict one-way system on board. Queen Mary’s master, Commodore Sir James Bisset, noted that the ship was so difficult to handle under such circumstances that he was concerned for her stability. On one voyage Queen Mary carried over 16,000 which is still a record today.
All told she made 28 such trips, taking soldiers eastbound and prisoners-of-war westbound, with Queen Elizabeth undertaking a similar number. On three occasions Queen Mary was the nerve-center of the Empire as Sir Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic to see President Roosevelt.
The closest the enemy ever got to him was when he was travelling on Queen Mary as prisoners of war would be transported to the States on the decks below Churchill’s Main Deck Suite – unbeknown to those prisoners at the time. Naked flames were not allowed in cabins at any time but special allowance was made for Churchill to have a candle lit at all times – for his cigars.
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.