Daily Archives: May 26, 2018

Swordfish Versus Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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The Offering We Bring: the Observance of Memorial Day

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is Memorial Day weekend and for the vast majority of Americans, even those who loudly claim to “support the troops” the weekend is little more than an opportunity to start the summer. There will be ball games and picnics, parties and concerts, as well as road trips, and some will even honor the military personnel that are currently serving; however, that is not why we observe Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is observed to honor the lives and sacrifice of those men and women who died in the service of the country. Its roots go back to May 1865 when newly freed Blacks in Charleston South Carolina took the time to honor the fallen Union soldiers by dedicating a cemetery to them. I’ll go back to that in a bit.

Frederick Douglass discussed the meaning of Memorial Day in 1884:

“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

Memorial Day, at one time known as Decoration Day is one of our most sacred civil holidays that we observe in the United States, or at least it should be. It was a holiday born out of the shedding of the blood of about 750,000 American soldiers, from the North and the South in the Civil War, a singular event that still echoes in our history and in some sense defines who we are and it is important that we come to understand its meaning and history.

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The Racecourse Cemetery

The first observance of what we now know as Memorial Day is fascinating and it needs to be remembered. Frederick Douglass was absolutely right when he spoke the words that I began this article, and we need to remember the humble beginnings of this day which was first marked by recently freed slaves in Charleston South Carolina on May 1st 1865. They did so barely two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and three weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.

The acrid smell of smoke of the last battles of the American Civil War was still lingering over many towns and cities in the South on May 1st 1865. Charleston, the hotbed of secession was particularly hard hit during the war. In 1861 Cadets of the Citadel and South Carolina militia forces began the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Union Forces laid siege to the city in late 1863, a siege which ended with the city’s surrender to Union forces under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman on 18 February 1865. The day of the surrender was somewhat ironic. Charleston, the city most associated with the opening of the conflict surrendered to Union forces on the fourth anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. By the time of its surrender much of the city had been destroyed by Union siege artillery and naval forces.

As a Confederate stronghold Charleston had also been the home of three of the Prisoner of War Camps. One was located in the Charleston City Jail and the other at Castle Pinckney which had been one of the ante-bellum U.S. Army installations in the city. A third camp was erected on the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in 1864. This was an open air camp and Yale Historian David Blight wrote that “Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.”

By the end of the war most of the white population of the city had left and most of those remaining were recently freed slaves. After their liberation and the city’s occupation by Federal forces, which included the famous 54th Massachusetts as well as the 20th, 35th and 104th US Colored Troops Regiments; about 28 recently liberated Black men went to work and properly reinterred the 257 Union dead on the raceway and built a high fence around it. They inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course” on an arch above the cemetery entrance.

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On May 1st over 10,000 Black Charlestonians gathered at the site to honor the fallen. Psalms, Scriptures and prayers were said, hymns were sung and many brought flowers. A parade of 2800 children covered the burial ground with flowers. They were followed by members of the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and the Mutual Aid Society. This society’s members provided relief supplies to Freedmen and provided aid to bury those Blacks who were too poor to afford burial. More citizens followed many laying flower bouquets on the graves. Children then led the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, America and Rally around the Flag. The Brigade composed of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th Colored Regiments marched in honor of their fallen comrades. Following the formalities many remained behind for a picnic.

Other communities established their own Memorial Day observances in the years following the war, but the event in Charleston was the first. The first “Official” commemoration was on 30 May 1868 when Union General John Logan who headed the veteran’s organization called The Grand Army of the Republic appealed to communities to honor the dead by holding ceremonies and decorating the graves of the fallen.

In the South three different days served a similar purpose. In Virginia people commemorated the day on June 3rd, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Carolinas marked the day on 10 May, the birthday of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In much of the Deep South the event was conducted April 26th, the anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph Johnson’s Army to General William Tecumseh Sherman. For many in the South, still attempting to come to grips with their defeat the day would become about “The Lost Cause” or “the defense of Liberty” or “States Rights” and the war was often referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

The “Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery is no longer there. The site is now a park honoring the fascinatingly complex Confederate General and post-Reconstruction Governor of South Carolina Wade Hampton. An oval track remains in the park and is used to run or walk by the local population and cadets from the Citadel. Thankfully, at long last in 2010, one hundred and forty-five years after the dedication of that cemetery a marker was placed in that park commemorating the cemetery and the event that we now recognize as the first Memorial Day.

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African American Children saluting the Union Dead years later

The Union dead who had been so beautifully honored by the Black population were moved to the National Cemetery at Beaufort South Carolina by the 1880s. Some state that the reason for this was that the cemetery had fallen into neglect, and this may be the case, but the event and their memory conveniently erased from memory of Charlestonians.

I do not think that this would have happened had the people who had the bodies moved simply restored and maintained the cemetery. Had not historian David Blight found the documentation we probably still would not know of this touching act by former slaves who honored those that fought the battles, and gave their lives to win their freedom. Blight wrote in 2011 in the 1870s Charleston “had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse.”

The African American population of Charleston understood the bonds of slavery and oppression. They understood the tyranny of prejudice in which they only counted as 3/5ths of a person. They understood and saw the suffering of those that were taken prisoner while attempting to liberate them from the tyranny of slavery. They stand as an example for us today.

But their suffering was not over. Within little more than a decade Blacks in the South would be subject to Jim Crow and again treated by many whites as something less than human. The struggle of they and their descendants against the tyranny of racial prejudice, discrimination and violence over the next 100 years would finally bear fruit in the Civil Rights movement, some of whose leaders, like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. would also become martyrs. Unfortunately that struggle is not over.

Frederick Douglass spoke to Union Veterans on Memorial Day 1878. His words, particularly in light of the war and the struggles of African Americans since and the understanding of what those who were enslaved understood liberation to be are most significant to our time. It was not merely a war based on sectionalism or even “States rights,” it was a war of ideas, a war of diametrically opposed ideologies. He said:

“But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature. It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.”

Douglass’s words were powerful then and they resonate today as many of the same ideas that were the cause of the Civil War and were continued during Jim Crow are still alive. Unfortunately there are those in our society who labor daily to establish the “rights” of the strongest over the weak, the poor, the powerless and minorities of all kinds. Of course such actions, often wrapped in the flag, patriotism and buttressed with cherry picked quotes (many of which are fake, changed or taken out of context) from some of our founders are designed to re-establish the oligarchy of the power of the few, much like the men who owned the lives of the slaves and poor whites in the ante-bellum American South. Such actions do nothing but demean and trample the sacrifice of those who fought for freedom and the only remedy is to fight them with the full knowledge of truth.

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I do hope that today we will observe Memorial Day in a fitting manner. Let us honor those Americans who died that others might be free. Let us look back at what freedom actually means and not forget the sacrifices of those that gave, and still give their lives in the “last full measure of devotion to duty” that others might live. This is especially true in an era where the racial and religious hatred and prejudice of Southern Slave Power, and Northern Know Nothings, that enslaved African Americans, exterminated Native American, invaded and Mexico, and treated Irish, German, Asian, and other immigrants, Roman Catholics, and Jews as enemies is raising its head as White Supremacists take their cue from the President that such behavior is acceptable.

Take a moment on Monday at noon to pause what you are doing and go silent for at least one minute, and remember.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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