Konigsberg First Major Warship Sunk by Air Attack

German light cruiser Konigsberg has the distinction of being the first major warship sent to the bottom by attack by aircraft.

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light cruiser KMS Konigsberg circa 1935. Official US Navy photo.

On 10 April 1940 during the Norwegian campaign, fifteen FAA (Fleet Air Air of Royal Navy) Skua dive-bombers pounced on KMS Konigsberg tied up to a jetty in Bergen Harbour. All fifteen dived bombed the ship. Three bombs hit the Konigsberg which rolled over and sank. Not one British aircraft was shot down.

She was the first major warship ever to be sunk by air attack.

 

source: Narvik by Peter Dickens

 

 

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KMS Konigsberg taken at Swinemunde, Germany, with a sentry on guard in the foreground. The original photograph, from Office of Naval Intelligence files, was dated 1938. However, it appears to have actually been taken earlier in that decade. Note Königsberg‘s searchlights and torpedo tubes. The light cruiser Leipzig is in the right distance.

Air Attack Königsberg Capsizes After Pounding by Norwegians & RAF

 

Reichsmarine/ Kriegsmarine light cruiser Konigsberg

Konigsberg Visiting Gdynia, Poland, circa 1935. Note the offset arrangement of her after 15cm triple gun turrets. (US Navy History and Heritage Command).

 

The Königsberg on fire and sinking.

[Images courtesy of the US Navy History and Heritage Command]

9 April 1940, during the German invasion of Norway, Norwegian coastal artillery located on the approaches to Bergen fired effectively on Konigsberg and caused major damage to the ship which almost sank. On 10 April 1940, Royal Navy dive bombers of the Fleet Air Arm sank the ship.

 

Artwork by Adolf Bock, 1941, published in a book on the German Navy published by Erich Klinghammer, Berlin, during World War II. It depicts the light cruisers Köln and Königsberg landing troops at Bergen, Norway, on 9 April 1940. (USNA)

 

German damage control crews labored through the night, but the damage from the guns of the Norwegian fort had been grievous. Nonetheless, the ship was afloat–but not for long.

Approximately 0700 on 10 April 1940, sixteen Skua dive bombers of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm located Konigsberg in Bergen Harbor. German AA crews were exhausted and thought the British planes were German. The first British bomb hit knocked out electric power to the AA guns. Thus, before the Germans were fully alert a half dozen or more 500-pound armour piercing bombs had hit the Konigsberg.

With fires spreading out of control and water pouring into the ship from holes opened in the sides, the Kommandant ordered the crew to abandon ship, and the Konigsberg rolled over and sank. This was the first sinking of a major warship by aerial attack to occur. Many more would come. (Source: The German Invasion of Norway April 1940 by Geirr H Haarr)

 

While the British and French had long been urged by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to block Swedish iron ore shipments to Nazi Germany through Norwegian territorial waters, hand-wringing on behalf of the French and the British delayed this action. (The French Minister of War refused to speak to the Prime Minister who would avoid being in the same room with him if possible. Their respective mistresses also hated each other. This ill feeling caused delays in decision making as you might imagine).

 

+Halftone reproduction of a photograph taken while the ship was transiting the Kiel Canal, about 1935.
 

 

Moored in a German harbor, circa 1936. Note the ship’s crest on her bow, and what appear to be old torpedo boats tied up in the right distance.

 

When British ships were finally ordered out to lay mines in the sea lanes used to transport the ore and to capture the ice free port of Narvik, they ran into German forces who were staging a surprise invasion of Norway including the occupation of Narvik. Germans got to Narvik before the British by taking incredible chances in terrible sea conditions and managing to find the fjord which led to Narvik. Ten German destroyers carrying troops navigated in pitch dark down the Narvik fjord and put the troops ashore.

Captain Warburton-Lee, RN, VC.
Early that morning, while the exhausted German sailors were sleeping and their guard-ship not very alert, British destroyers under the Command of Captain B.A.W. Washburton-Lee, VC, skipped in and sank three destroyers and damaged more.
Their commander was killed in the action and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in Great Britain. Several days later the battleship HMS Warspite went down the fjord with numerous destroyers protecting her and her big guns hit the remaining German destroyers and blew them out of the water.

King Haakon VII and Crown Prince Olav seeking shelter on the outskirts of Molde during a German bombing raid on the city in April 1940.
While the invasion of Norway by the Germans was success, they failed in to accomplish one of their key objectives which was capturing the King. The Germans were looking everywhere for the King and Crown Prince (the Queen had died in 1938) and had been bombing any town or village they were rumored to be in.
On 1 May 1940, a British cruiser took them and leaders of Parliament from the small coastal town of Molde to a temporary capitol in  Tromsø.  King Haakon VII and the crown prince took refuge in a small cabin in the nearby woods.By the end of May, the Germans had attacked France and both France and Great Britain began to withdraw their forces. On 7 June 1940, the Royal Family and government ministers boarded HMS Devonshire and were spirited away to England. The King had been a Danish Prince elected King of Norway. He was an uncle to England’s King George VI.
Königsberg on her visit to Britain in 1934; she is flying the British White Ensign and firing a salute. (US Navy History and Heritage Command)
 

+Vertical aerial photograph, probably taken while the ship was under attack by British aircraft at Bergen, Norway, on 9 April 1940. Note the prominent swastika identification markings on her deck, fore, and aft. This was used in most German Navy ships to prevent them from being attacked by their own airforce.
Being attacked by your own planes was a constant problem particularly in the European theater. Pilots saw what they wanted to see. No matter what recognition devices ships employed their own planes attacked them.

HMS Bittern Ablaze

 

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HMS BITTERN ablaze in Namsos Fjord after having suffered a direct hit in the stern by a bomb. (official photograph by War Office photographer Major Geoffrey Keating courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Royal Navy sloop HMS Bittern was set ablaze in Namsos Fjord 30 April 1940 after repeated attacks from Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. The ship had been on station attempting to protect other British warships and merchant ships in the fjord from attack by U-boats and German aircraft.

 

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HMS Bittern: a view from the port quarter showing the stern almost blown off

 

In common with all other British warships, HMS Bittern was equipped with the Royal Navy’s High Angle Control System (HACS) for its anti-aircraft guns. This system proved to be a disastrous failure in defending ships from air attack. In the Norwegian campaign, this failure was responsible for the loss of a British aircraft carrier, two cruisers, and seven destroyers.

Further, numerous RN Patrol Service trawlers used for mine sweeping and anti-submarine duty were also sunk. Other ships were badly damaged. (While not well known, the RNPS did outstanding work and suffered significant losses in men and ships during the war. You can read more about them here: /www.rnpsa.co.uk/association

In the late 1920s, poorly trained ordnance officers of the Royal Navy who lacked the necessary scientific skills failed in their duty to correctly evaluate the different AA systems and chose a far inferior system. Indeed, according to Corelli Barnett, “in 1938 the Admiralty’s Director of Scientific Research described HACS as ‘a menace to the service.’ ” Obviously not a strong endorsement.

“… the Admiralty had gone for the wrong sort of control system-one in which enemy aircraft movements were in effect guessed instead of actually measured and the measured results used to provide the required control data. This latter, called a tachymetric system, was the proper answer…,” Wrote Stephen Roskill, RN, official historian of the Royal Navy in Naval Policy Between the Wars.

 

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HMS Bittern on fire in Namsos fjord viewed from the stern

 

Naval historian Corelli Barnett adds that British engineering firms may have also pressured the Admiralty in making the choice for the HACS because the firms “…were incapable of designing and manufacturing such sophisticated precision equipment as the tachymetric system…”

After the captain ordered ‘abandon ship,’ the ship’s company of HMS Bittern were taken off by the destroyer HMS Janus which came alongside in a dangerous maneuver. After all the men had been rescued, HMS Janus stood off and fired a torpedo which sank the ship, this done to prevent HMS Bittern from drifting to shore and being seized by the Germans.

 

HMS_Janus_(F53)_IWM_FL_003695 (1)

British destroyer HMS Janus, underway on contractor’s sea trials, 5 August 1939. The ship was sunk by a German glider bomb on 23 January 1944. 

(official Royal Navy photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29)

 

Sources:

Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War by Corelli Barnett.

Norwegian Campaign WW Two bbc.co.uk/history/

HMS Bittern www.naval-history.net

author’s research