Category Archives: nazi germany

True Leadership and Responsibly: Eisenhower’s Letter in Case D-Day Failed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted: “It is now quite clear how greatly the objective of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. Only one more element is needed to make war a gamble – chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through through the element of guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war…. If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war – the means by which war has to be fought – it will look more like a gamble. The highest of all moral qualities in time of danger is certainly courage.”

For a year General Dwight D. Eisenhower had worked to marshal the largest force possible to launch the long awaited invasion of Nazi Occupied France. Eisenhower surrounded himself with an exceptional staff, but had to fight for what he would need for the coming invasion. He had to struggle with Admiral Ernest King for the landing ships and crafts he needed, against the competing needs of Admiral Nimitz, and General MacArthur’s Forces in the Pacific Theatre of operations. He had to battle the Allied bomber commands, Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s British Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force and Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, Commander of Strategic Air Forces for bombers to support the invasion. This meant taking them away from the strategic bombing command against the heart of German industry; and finally he had to battle Winston Churchill to be in overall command of the multi-national force being assembled to attack.

The invasion was his baby. He had the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. He knew the dangers. In 1942 the British launched a raid using Canadian troops on the English Channel port of Dieppe. It was a disaster. With all the work he had done to get his forces ready for the invasion, Eisenhower knew that he owned the result regardless of the outcome.

Eisenhower understood that everything in war is a gamble and that success is not guaranteed. The weather conditions of the English Channel are unpredictable. They only  offer a few month window of opportunity to successfully mount a cross channel invasion. The Germans found that out in 1940 when after their failure to clear the skies of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain by early September, that the a favorable opportunity for Operation Sea Lion had passed and would never come again.

The Allied invasion required a full moon for a massive three division nighttime paratroop drop, and favorable weather for the landing craft to get ashore. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. High winds, seas, and rain forced a cancellation of the planned June 5th invasion, the open question was whether conditions would be on the 6th would be favorable. If not the next opportunity would not be for at least two more weeks, in which the Germans would continue to strengthen their defensive positions along the Atlantic Wall. 

The German weather forecasters, had lost lost the ability to observe weather in the western and mid-Atlantic due to the allies sweeping the ships that relayed weather information from the Atlantic. Blind to oncoming weather systems, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe meteorologists anticipated that the bad weather would continue to be unfavorable for an invasion. With this in mind, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B which had operational control over the potential landing beaches, decided to make a visit to his wife for her birthday and a trip to Berlin to plead for more resources. Other Senior German Commanders departed to inland areas to conduct war games and were not with their units on the night of June 5th.

Meanwhile, the forecasters at Eisenhower’s headquarters had access to weather data from the mid-Atlantic unavailable to the Germans, predicted a brief lull in the storm, not perfect weather, but acceptable. Eisenhower met with his staff and made the decision to go ahead with the invasion in the night of June 5th and June 6th with the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and the British 6th Airborne Division landing behind the German coastal fortifications.

But the weather was just one factor, the Allies did not know the latest German deployments, including the movement of the crack 352nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. Likewise, a prompt German response with heavy Panzer units could throw the invaders back into the sea if they moved fast enough. One threat was already deployed, but the other was a real probability knowing German doctrine.

However, neither Eisenhower or his staff knew of the conflict in the German High Command and Hitler regarding the deployment of the Panzer Divisions in France. Rommel argued that the Panzer Divisions should be deployed near the potential invasion beaches. However, traditionalists in the German command and Hitler decided that most of the Panzer Divisions should be held back awaiting a point that they could make a massive and decisive counterattack that would drive the Allies out of Europe. However, most of these men had commanded Panzers in Poland in 1939, France and the Low Countries in 1940, and the Soviet Union. In all of those campaigns the Germans always enjoyed air superiority or parity. But Rommel, a veteran of Africa and the West knew the power of allied tactical air assets, and the havoc they could inflict on the Panzers. Rommel believed that the invasion had to be defeated on the beachheads and the allies not given the chance to advance inland, in which case he knew that there would be no chance of defeating the invasion.

Eisenhower also knew that the success of the invasion depended on the success of the landings. A disaster at any of the landing beaches could doom the it. In light of this and so many other ways that could cause the invasion to fail, Eisenhower, wrote a letter to his troops and the world when the invasion commenced. It read:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations1 have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

However, prepared for any eventuality he also also wrote a letter in case the invasion failed, as it nearly did on Omaha Beach. That letter noted:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches the attempt it is mine alone.”

It was dated July 5th, not June 5th, the mistake obviously due to the pressure of what he was feeling for his soldiers, and the mission. Likewise, there was very real threat to his own career if the mission failed. He knew that his adversaries in the United States military and in Britain would have seen that would see that he was relieved and sent back to the United States in disgrace. As Eisenhower’s successor as President, John F. Kennedy said: “Victory has a hundred fathers, defeat is an orphan.”

Likewise, defeat could embolden those in the United States and Britain willing to make peace with Germany at any price. Such an outcome could have destroyed the allied alliance that ended up defeating Germany, rebuilding a democratic Western Europe, establishing NATO, the United Nations, and many other international organizations that have done much good for America and the world.

In a sense Eisenhower was in a similar situation to Grant and Sherman in the Summer of 1864, if they failed, Abraham Lincoln could have been defeated by the anti-war pro-Confederacy Copperheads, who would have settled leaving the South independent, the country divided, and slavery in place. Defeat would have ended the American experiment. Defeat in Normandy could easily have destroyed the Allied alliance, and given the Germans  the time they needed to turn defeat into victory. The whole course of the war and history could have changed, for the worse, with Hitler’s Nazi Regime controlling most of Europe, continuing its genocidal policies, and developing weapons far in advance of the Allies.

Eisenhower would not make excuses if the invasion failed. He was ready to take full responsibility if Overlord failed, regardless of how it happened. The buck stopped with him.

Likewise, he knew that the failure of the invasion would have made it possible for the Nazis to divert needed forces to the Eastern Front, where they might have been able to turn back the Soviet Operation Bagration which destroyed the German Army Group Center. Likewise, the success of the invasion opened the way for the Soviets to drive the Nazis from Soviet territory, advance to Warsaw, and knock key German allies out of the war. Before long, Hungary, Romania, and Finland had abandoned the Germans.

The fact that the invasion succeeded was as much as luck as it was the careful planning, and the exceptional courage, and dogged determination of the Allied troops. The American 4th Infantry Division landed on the wrong beach. Had they landed on the correct beach they could have faced slaughter. The Allied Airborne Divisions were scattered over much of Normandy and had to improvise to capture the targets needed to assist the invasion forces. Had Hitler’s lackeys the courage to wake him when the invasion was in its early stages , he might have released Panzer Divisions sooner than he did. Had Rommel not gone back to Germany for his wife’s birthday and to plead with Hitler for more troops, and been on the ground to coordinate the German response; or the number of realistic “might have beens” that could of defeated the the invasion, and Eisenhower was well aware of them.

Eisenhower’s willingness to take responsibility for defeat as well as give his troops credit for the eventual victory over the Nazis sets him apart from so many others then, and now who would deflect blame for a failed operation to their subordinates and lie about the results achieved.

In the age where the American President blatantly refuses to take responsibility for his actions, blames subordinates and allies for his failures, and who abdicates the duties of his office on an hourly basis, the ability for Eisenhower to be ready to acceptance of failure is an example that we must emulate. Donald Trump would have surrendered to Germany, given Hitler a platform to proclaim his defiance of human rights and international law, and the rights of American citizens at home. Interestingly enough over the past week many highly respected Generals and Admirals, active and retired, have warned against the dangers posed by President Trump.

History and humanity are always the product of character, integrity, and responsibility, or their opposites. All qualities Eisenhower had, and Trump does not, and as many well respected American military commanders are now speaking out about. But I was doing this as early as 2015 and 2016.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here…” America at the Tipping Point of Dictatorship and Democracy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I started this article last night but could not finish it because of how upset I was after seeing President Trump’s speech last night where he threatened the use of active duty military forces against protestors, declared an unorganized amorphous group known as Antifa, as a terrorist organization on the order of Al Qaida, and launched into a tirade worthy of Hitler in a teleconference with the nation’s governors.

But what got me was what happened during his speech. He promised the use of dominating protestors, as he ended his speech tear gas was launched and a line of unarmed peaceful protestors near St John’s Episcopal Church were suddenly assaulted by heavily armed police in riot gear and officers mounted on horseback. An aid station was overrun and two priests handing out water assaulted. I do not know if National Guard personnel were involved in the attack, which was ordered personally by Attorney General Bob Barr, so the President could walk from the White House, through Lafayette Square, and have a photo op holding a Bible in front of the church. It was  an act of absolute violence just to take a propaganda photo.

The Episcopal Bishop for Washington DC, Bishop Mariann Budde almost immediately after the incident:

“ I am outraged. The President did not pray when he came to St. John’s, nor as you just articulated, did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now,” Budde told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360.”

“And in particular, that of the people of color in our nation, who wonder if anyone ever — anyone in public power will ever acknowledge their sacred words. And who are rightfully demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country. And I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love.”

While we were in Berlin a bit under two years ago I visited the German Resistance Memorial Center. The museum is located in what was the headquarters of the German Army in World War One, the Weimar Republic, and during the Nazi Era. On July 20th 1944, German Army officers attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war. Sadly, they failed in their attempt and most of those involved were tried and executed for what their criminal government considered treason.

Of course by the law of their times their act was treasonous, but morally it was all that men and women committed to the rule of law and human rights could do. Our founders even understood and enunciated that concept of liberty in their time.

One of the conspirators in the anti-Hitler plot was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was well aware of how their actions would be categorized under current German law. The man who planted a bomb and attempted to assassinate and overthrow Hitler noted:

“I know that he who will act will go down in German history as a traitor; but he who can and does not, will be a traitor to his own conscience.” 

He was correct by the law of the times. All of the officers involved had all sworn a personal oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler as the Führer and Reichskanzler of Germany in 1934. At the time most of the men who swore that oath did not anticipate what would come, as many of us who took our oaths the the Constitution could imagine ever having to possibly disobey criminal orders, lawfully issued by the President? Today, actually yesterday evening, President Trump threatened states and cities which could not control protests with military intervention.

Many of the older officers had served in the Imperial Army and sworn an oath to the Kaiser and their dynasties of the lands where they entered service. That changed in 1918 when the Weimar Republic came into existence and military officers as well as civil servants swore an oath to the constitution rather than a person. We don’t have that excuse, our military officers have always sworn our oath to the Constitution and not any President or political party.

However, one year after Hitler came to power as Reichskanzler, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, seized the opportunity used the occasion to swear the military, as well as the civil service to a new oath. This oath was not to the Constitution, or to Office of thePresidency or Chancellor, but to him personally as the Führer and Reichskanzler. Though there have been no changes to our oaths of office, the President acts as he is the law, and the law is his word, and overrides the Constitution, it’s prescribed checks and balances between the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch, and the powers given under the Constitution to the States. Like Hitler, Trump has surrounded himself with yes men committed to serving him and ignoring the Constitution and law of the land.

Most German officers and civil servants, even those uncomfortable with Hitler’s policies, obeyed their oaths and simply stayed in their lanes and did their jobs, even when they had incontrovertible evidence of Nazi atrocities. They stood by as bystanders. Yehuda Bauer, Israeli historian and chronicler of the Holocaust, who with his family escaped Czechoslovakia on the day Hitler invaded it, and made their way to Palestine wrote these immortal lines: Thou shall not be a perpetrator, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”

Yet there were others who for a number of reasons, in some cases noble, and in others pragmatic, or even base, decided to break the oath they had sworn to Hitler in 1934. Among these men was General Ludwig Beck. Beck noted:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

Beck also wrote something that is all to important to any military officer, intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as diplomats in such times as we live today:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

With the rise of legally elected authoritarian rulers in Europe and the Americas should concern men and women who have sworn to uphold the constitutions of their countries. These leaders campaigning against democratic institutions, and upon gaining power purge those institutions of opponents and use them to solidify their own power. The veneer of democracy is maintained while the soul of it is crushed, as it seems to be this very day as President Trump threatens and verbally insults governors, and uses the most heavy handed methods to crush mostly peace protests.  Almost all the Constitutional and institutional guardrails designed to prevent a President from assuming dictatorial powers have be rolled over and crushed. Too often those charged with guarding it are willing participants in its death, soldiers, civil servants, judges, and legislators. Such was the case in the Third Reich, and could well be the case here.

The problem is that President Trump as a malignant narcissistic sociopath who has no empathy for anyone, no respect for the Constitution or law, despite calling himself a “law and order president.” He has no scruples and there is no line he will not cause. His policies have been racist, homophobic, misogynistic, one sided to enrich the richest and impoverish everyone else. Though he bills himself as a defender of the Christian faith, he blasphemies its most sacred doctrines, scorns its command to love, carries a Bible for show, all to gain the allegiance of his most politically naive, theologically insipid, morally bankrupt, ethically challenged, and power hungry voting block in the nation, Conservative Christians. Russian dissident Gary Kasparov stated something that is burned into the DNA of President Trump:

“dictators & would be autocrats do not ask “Why?” when it comes to using power for their advantage. They ask “why not?”

With the COVID 19 pandemic still raging that he cannot control, and has simply abdicated his position to do anything constructive to solve; much less actually help the states with over 106,000 Americans now dead, over 40 million Americans are newly unemployed, businesses large and small are failing, and he does nothing. Even so the stock market is booming, even as he and the Republican Senate refuse to pass anymore aid to help those without jobs, small business owners who have lost everything, and those who will be soon evicted from their rental properties or have their homes foreclosed on in the next month or two. There is an obvious disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. And finally, we have massive civil unrest which could have been prevent had President Trump simply been civil and decent, rather that rude, crass, and unfeeling. Rather than addressing the truth of what was going on he retreated into his cloud-cuckoo-nest of acting tough while hiding in a bunker. Kasparov was completely right about him.

That is what Beck understood as well. Beck was certainly not perfect. He longed for the return of the monarchy and had the same cultural anti-semitism of most German conservatives, but he did not act on it. Instead, resigned his office as Chief of Staff of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, became a member of the anti-Hitler resistance and died in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th 1944. He was a career Army officer and a conservative, but he realized that there are limits to obedience in the face of evil.

Another officer, Colonel, later Major General Henning Von Tresckow noted: “I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.”  We can now just substitute Trump’s name in that quote, for in the case of many supposed conservative Evangelical Christians, Trump has become a Messiah figure.

Tresckow also noted: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.” Again you can substitute Trump’s name in that quote. Tresckow also said: “It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?” The same is true in our day.

How harshly will history judge the American people if we allow this by our action, or inaction to keep going even as thousands of people a day continue to die of COVID19, more and more people losing their jobs, businesses and houses, and heavy handed police tactics claim the lives of more and more people, mostly Blacks and other people of color? Answer that question.

The more Trump says and does the more the world, and especially our oldest and most reliable allies wonder about us, and will seek ways to separate themselves from us if Trump remains in power. At the same time all of our real enemies like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran salivate as we self destruct. In fact they willingly participate in our destruction by doing things that help Trump stay in power by playing Americans off against one another through malicious use of the internet and social media.

Historian Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Over the past couple of decades we have seem American police officers, state troopers, and sheriffs kill unarmed people in cold blood, many times their actions being recorded on video, only to be acquitted or sentenced to little in the way of incarceration or punishment. Last week a Minneapolis police officer with a long history of misconduct charges killed George Floyd after arresting him for a non-violent misdemeanor. Three other officers assisted. They were filmed by multiple witnesses, and Mr. Floyd died six minutes into his killer’s knee cutting off his ability to breath, as he reportedly  told the officers “I can’t breath” as witnesses said the same. None of the officers paid any heed and it wasn’t until nearly the eight and a half minute mark, the officer finally removed his knee from Mr. Floyd’s neck, and Mr. Floyd was already dead. If that had been the only occasion of police brutality and over reaction, which now seems to be the standard operating procedure for many police departments, the application of the maximum use of force for any infraction, unless you are a heavily armed white man, in which case you get the benefit of the doubt.

This is not to say that probably the vast majority of law enforcement officers take their jobs seriously and are impartial dispensers of the law who go out of their way not to harm suspects. Sadly, there are a lot that do go out of their way to harm suspects, and with the support of political action committees and police unions laws are written to protect the bad actors from any repercussions from their misconduct.

Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, for Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote in The Atlantic today:

While no one should ever condone the violence, vandalism, and looting that has exploded across our city streets, neither should anyone lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage.

As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today. But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.

We must, as citizens, address head-on the issue of police brutality and sustained injustices against the African American community. We must, as citizens, support and defend the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

And neither of these pursuits will be made easier or safer by an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard. The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws. The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered…

I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.

Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.

Even in the midst of the carnage we are witnessing, we must endeavor to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not “battle spaces” to be dominated, and must never become so.

We must ensure that African Americans—indeed, all Americans—are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.

Too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarized; too many military missions have become politicized.

This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.

Admiral Mullen, though retired is a voice of conscience who understands the dangers of what the President, Attorney General Bob Barr, and their Congressional and media surrogates are doing. He is standing for all Americans, and though a White man who as he admits cannot fully understand the experience of Black Americans, he speaks truth. He is speaking prophetically to a President and Administration who though they attempt to appear to support the law of the land and represent themselves as the modern defenders of the Christian faith, even though all they do is antithetical to the Gospel.

Now, let’s say the active duty military, which is not trained in crowd control or riot control is unleashed on civilian protestors. I am sure that many soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen would refuse to follow unlawful orders, but then there are others who would shoot to kill with no reservations, especially since a President who has pardoned convicted war criminals gave the orders. This could fracture the military, and endanger national security. But it does not seem that this matters to the President, or most of his advisers and supporters. The SECDEF’s reference to the cities of the United States being battle space can easily lead to disaster. It doesn’t take a senior officer to order killings, just a nervous young squad leader, who after being told that he is in a combat situation and that anyone could be a terrorist, panics and orders his squad to fire on protestors. In that moment that squad could kill more Americans in minutes than the military killed terrorists in the last few years.

If the active duty military is committed to dominate the battle space, and kills people, the blood shed would forever stain the honor and reputation of the American military. We would be no different than the Wehrmacht soldiers who aided the SS Einsatzgruppen in the extermination of Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union during World War II, and we would be worthy of every condemnation, for even Hitler Refused to use the military for domestic police missions in Germany, he left that to the SS and the Ordungspolizei, which after Heinrich Himmler took over all internal police functions, fell under the command and control of the SS. 

I hate to put in those terms, but I have to ask this question. Will our military become an oppressor of our people when even Hitler forbade his to be?

The German Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who ended up dying for his connection to the Herman conspirators against Hitler wrote:

“The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of a Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him. The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted. Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself, before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.”

Bonhoeffer’s words are timeless and should send a chill through anyone who claims the Name of Christ, and supports what Trump is doing.

I leave you with that very disturbing thought for the evening.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

P.S. For the next few days I will be republishing articles on the Battle of Midway and D-Day in order to catch up on work for my book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era and Beyond. 

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The Bismarck’s Last Battle

FinalBattle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is a massively edited and expanded version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood.

I also apologize for not publishing this yesterday as I had planned. I went a lot deeper into my research and could not complete it before I needed to go to bed. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

King_George_V-px800

Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed the remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before the hit both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety of German occupied ports in France to fight again.

After a sleepless night in which they attempted to regain control of their ship and endured multiple attacks from destroyers before sunrise, the officers and crew of Bismarck were preparing their ship and themselves for what they all understood would be their final engagement. That sense of fatalism had been fueled by messages they received from Grand Admiral Raeder and Adolf Hitler that were broadcast to the entire crew. Raeder’s message said `All our thoughts are with you and your ship. We wish you success in your difficult fight.’ Hitler addressed the crew `All of Germany is with you. What can be done will be done. Your devotion to duty will strengthen our nation in its struggle for its existence. Adolf Hitler.’ At that point the crew knew that both Raeder and Hitler already considered them dead. Bismarck’s 4th Gunnery Officer Kapitänleutnant Burkhard von Mullenheim-Rechberg was told by another gunnery officer spoke words that Mullenheim-Rechberg would never forget: `Today, my wife will become a widow, but she doesn’t know it yet.’

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lütjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “Stringbag” hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

On that fateful morning the British ships prepared for a battle, even Admiral Tovey donned his steel helmet and put cotton in his ears as his ships closed the range with the German ship. Rodney, which was already being prepared for her overhaul in Boston had much gear stowed about her decks.  Bismarck was ploughing in to force 8 winds (34-40 knots) and Bismarck struggled to maintain seven knots against the wind as the tension on her bridge mounted as the officers and watch standers knew that they would soon meet the British Battleships that would soon sink their ship. These German officers were realists who knew that their lack of maneuverability made them both a sitting duck for the British onslaught, and not be able to control their gunfire as they might have under better circumstances.

At 0833 Tovey order his ships to close with the last reported position of Bismarck. Their lookouts sighted the German ship at 0843 at a range of just over 25,000 yards. Rodney opened fire at 0847 followed by King George V a minute later. Bismarck’s forward turrets opened fire at 0849, and her first salvos straddled Rodney, something that sent shivers through British sailors who remembered the fate of the Hood, however that was the closest Bismarck got. Her inability to maintain a stable course, something necessary for accurate naval gunfire inhibited her gunnery, while Bismarck’s position amid rain squalls degraded the accuracy of the British gunfire.

For about 12 minutes an uneventful exchange of gunfire ensued, but at 0902 Rodney found the range and two of her 16” shells hit the forward part of Bismarck’s bridge, killing many senior officers and knocking out her forward fire control radar and fire direction equipment, also damaging turret Bruno, the forward 15” turret directly forward of the bridge. The hit blew the rear armor off the turret and over the side of the ship. The hydraulic lines to Anton were cut by a hit and her guns drooped down to their maximum depression, making them useless. At 0908 shells from both British  Battleships, as well as the cruisers destroyed the forward gun direction radar and disabled turret Anton. Bismarck’s Fire control was shifted to the aft fire control center under Mullenheim-Rechberg. In six minutes half of Bismarck’s main battery, and her main fire director destroyed.

Under his control Bismarck’s aft turrets, Cäsar and Dora began to find the range of King George V, and on their fourth salvo straddled the British flagship, but at 0913 the director cupola was destroyed by a 14” shell from King George V. The result was that Bismarck was no longer able to control its main battery fire. Mullenheim-Rechberg wrote about his reaction to the hit:

“My aft director gave a violent shudder, and my two petty officers and I had our heads bounced hard against the eyepieces. What did that? When I tried to get my target in view again, it wasn’t there; all I could see was blue. I was looking at something one didn’t normally see, the `blue layer’ baked on the surface of the lenses and mirrors to make the picture clearer. My director had been shattered. Damn! I had just found the range of my target and now I was out of the battle.”

Mullenheim-Rechberg, ordered the turrets to continue under local control, but within fifteen minutes every turret on Bismarck was out of action. At 0921 turret Dora was put out of action when a shell misfired in the starboard gun, killing much of the turret crew and leaving the gun tube peeled back like a banana. Ten minutes later turret Cäsar was silenced. Only a few guns of her secondary armament, useless against battleships remained in action. At 0930, Captain Lindemann passed the order to prepare to scuttle and abandon ship.

With no real threat to themselves the British ships closed to point blank range, Rodney to a mere 2500 meters, where her 16” and 6” blazing away and hitting the helpless ship with almost every shot, as did King George V and the cruisers from slightly farther away. Without opposition They fired shot after shot into the helpless German ship, but she still remained afloat, though the burning of fires within, seen through holes in her upper deck. She was listing 20 degrees to port and down by the stern, yet on her mainmast her battle flag still flew. Admiral Tovey could not believe Bismarck had remained afloat despite the barrage she had been subjected. In the last minutes before he ordered that the rate of fire be increased, as he due to the smoke he could not see shots hitting hitting. He was concerned. He had remained on station close to ten hours longer than his fuel situation recommended, and he knew that the Germans would certainly send Luftwaffe bombers and U-Boats to attack any British ship the found. Every minute that he remained would make his ships return that much more hazardous.

As the British continued to fire, the situation aboard Bismarck became ever more desperate. Lütjens had been killed. Lindemann was trapped on the forecastle of the ship and made no attempt to escape the sinking ship.

Reluctantly, Tovey ordered the British Battleships to cease fire and withdrew do to a lack of fuel and the real threats of air and submarine attacks. Whether Bismarck remained afloat or sank, Tovey had no doubt the great German ship would never make port. But there was much sympathy for crew of Bismarck. One British officer thought “Pray God I may never know. Another thought “What that ship was like inside did not bear thinking of; her guns smashed, the ship full of fire, her people hurt; and surely all men are much the same when hurt.”  For 45 minutes the British ships had rained a hail of steel  at Bismarck without threat to themselves. Rodney’s Captain, F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton said “I can’t say I enjoyed this part of the business much, but I didn’t see what else I could do.” Likewise, King George V’s Captain, W.R. Patterson remarked that he would have stopped firing earlier if he had been able to see what was going on aboard Bismarck. 

Observers on the British ships could see flames shooting out of the many holes in her superstructure and little knots of men scurrying about the decks, some climbing over rails and jumping into the sea. Aboard Bismarck Mullenheim-Rechberg saw Rodney just 2500 meters away, her now silent guns still trained warily on Bismarck and he wrote “I could look down their muzzles. If that was her range at the end of the battle, I thought, not a single round could have missed.”  

As the King George V and Rodney withdrew from the action Bismarck all that remained was death and destruction. All senior officers except First Officer Fregattenkapitän Hans Oels were dead. Oels ordered that the ship be abandoned and scuttled before he was killed trying to direct some 300 members of the crew to safety, and telling them that the ship had been scuttled and they needed to abandoned ship when a shell hit the crowed space, killing him and over 100 crewmen.  Since scuttling cocks and watertight doors has already  The senior remaining engineering officer Gerhardt Junack ordered the scuttling charges fired, just as HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedos which hit the German ship. The hits stuck the armored belt of Bismarck, and one hit her superstructure as she began to capsize. None would have sunk the Bismarck. 

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

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The end of the Bismarck

The British battleships and cruisers fired 2,876 shells at Bismarck, of which an estimated 300-400 hit Bismarck. This doesn’t mention her previous damage; the three 14” hits scored by Prince of Wales, the three aerial torpedoes from the Swordfish from Victorious and Ark Royal, including the one in a million hit on the night of 26 May which crippled her, and another 3-5 torpedo hits from Rodney and Dorsetshire. 

The shells fired included 380 of 40.6 cm (16”) from Rodney339 of 35.6 cm (14”) from King George V527 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Norfolk254 of 20.3 cm (8”) from Dorsetshire716 of 15.2 cm (6”) from Rodney, and 660 of 13.3 cm (5.25”) from King George V

Though the British had had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained  afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons continued to pound Bismarck at point blank range, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies were dangerously low.  Admiral Tovey then ordered his battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

Following the scuttling order, the ships  watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams. Likewise, pumps which were being used to pump water out of flooded spaces were reversed. Likewise engineers had the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. At 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the torpedos fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship still argue. But truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

As the great ship slipped beneath the waves into the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. It was estimated that about 800 men successfully abandoned ship. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser believed that they spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations to avoid attack. Aboard King George V, Admiral Tovey mused of the words that he would finish his operational report.

Their withdraw left hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted, the U-558 had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers Junack, Mullenheim-Rechberg and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck. Combined with the three men who survived the sinking of Hood, those lost on Prince of Wales, and other ships, nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished during Operation Rheinübung. Junack entered the West German Navy when it was established and in 1958 was the first commander of the Bundesmarine damage control and survival school. Mullenheim-Rechberg became a diplomat and later wrote Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story. Admiral Tovey retired in 1946 became a member of the House of Lords. He died in 1971. Captain F.H.G. Dalrymple-Hamilton retired as an Admiral in 1950 and served in a number of minor civil service positions until 1983. He died in 1984. Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1943 and was appointed Third Sea Lord and Controller where his primary mission was the creation of the vast amphibious armada used from Operation Torch to D-Day. In May of 1945 he was promoted to Admiral and Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet. He died unexpectedly at his home at the age of 57 in September 1945. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder resigned following Hitler’s Tirade against the surface Navy following the Battle of the Barents Sea in January 1943. After the war he was tried for major war crimes by the International Military Tribunal and was found guilty on all four counts and sentenced to life in prison. He was release for health reasons in 1955 and died in 1960. Captain Patterson was Knighted and promoted to Admiral. He retired in 1950 and died in 1954. 

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. In fact only two of Rodney’s 16” shells penetrated Bismarck’s armored belt out of the hundreds of shells that hit her. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

As the survivors went into the water the Bismarck began to sink by the stern as she began to capsize. Some crew member attempted to dive headfirst over the port side only it break their necks on the bilge keel. Others decided to slide feet first as the ship began to capsize. When Bismarck sank some 800 of her crew were adrift in the open Atlantic. The Dorsetshire and the last of Vian’s destroyers went to rescue of the survivors. The sea conditions and their injuries made rescue hard, but then a lookout sighted a periscope, and the rescuing ships took up their lines and steamed away, leaving hundred to die of exposure or drown. A few others would be rescued by German and Spanish ships, but of over 2200, officers, crew, and the admiral’s staff, only 115 survived.

At 1100, Winston Churchill informed the House of Commons of the battle: “This morning shortly after day-break, the Bismarck virtually immobilized, without help, was attacked by British battleships that pursued her. I don’t know the result of this action. It seems however, that Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and now will be sunk by torpedoes. It is believed that this is happening right now. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful enemy battleship, as she is the newest enemy battleship and the striking of her from the German Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining effective mastery of the Northern sea and maintenance of the Northern blockade.” Churchill had just sat down following the announcement when he was handed a note. He rose again From his seat and said: “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.” After so much bad news the members loudly and lonely cheered and clapped at the news.

The German High command issued their statement in the evening.

“Berlin, May 27, 1941. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces announces: The battleship Bismarck, which in her first battle against superior British forces sank the Hood and damaged the King George V, had her speed reduced by a hit forward. A torpedo from an aircraft attack that took place on the 24th of May, again affected her speed. On May 26, when 400 miles west of Brest, towards 21 hours, the ship was again hit by two aerial torpedoes from aircraft, destroying one steering gear and propellers, and the ship was unable to steer. During the night, the Chief of Fleet, Admiral Lütjens sent the following report to the High Command of the Navy: ‘Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer. Chief of Fleet.’ Contending with enemy naval forces which were gradually being reinforced, the battleship Bismarck went on fighting in her incapacitated state, until finally, on the morning of May 27, she fell victim of the superior strength of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, several cruisers and destroyers. The British formation itself has been attacked early today by German bombers. The thoughts of the entire German people are full of pride and sorrow towards the victorious fleet commander, Admiral Lütjens, during his naval battle in Iceland, towards the battleship Bismarck, her commander, Captain Lindemann, and his brave crew.”

Bismarck was now at the bottom of the seas, and within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world. While the legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surviving German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Bismarck’s Survivors in England

But from the perspective of the survivability of a battleship against overwhelming odds and against a massive number of hits by shells and torpedoes. Bismarck was not sunk by the fusillade of British shells and torpedoes, but by the actions of her crew, ordered by Captain Lindemann and carried out by Commander Junack and his engineering and damage control teams. The expedition which discovered her wreck and subsequent explorations of the her by multiple teams have determined damage sustained by Bismarck by the British gunfire and torpedoes was not the cause of her sinking, at least of when she sank. Of all the hits on her main armored belt, only two of the 16” shells of Rodney pierced them. None of the torpedoes, except the last ditch strike launched by Ark Royal’s Swordfish which disabled her steering gear and ended her chance of a safe escape to France, did any appreciable damage.

The one weakness were not appreciated at the time was the structural weakness of the stern of Bismarck, a design flaw found in the Scharnhorst Class, and the Admiral Hipper Class Heavy cruisers. After Bismarck was lost, Tirpitz and other ships with the same weakness were corrected. The last 35 feet of the stern collapsed either shortly before her sinking or afterward. In 1942 Prinz Eugen had her stern collapse from a single torpedo hit.

However, even today there are many controversies about what was the cause of the sinking of Bismarck, however, there are no ships that were designed and built after the Washington and London Naval Treaties, even those built in defiance of them, that ever survived the amount of damage that Bismarck sustained in her short career. Prince of Wales was sunk by just four aerial torpedoes, Roma of the Vittorio Veneto Class, was sunk by one hit by a German guided rocket, Jean Bart of the French Richelieu Class, put out of action by a few 16” shell hits from USS Massachusetts, and last but not least the massive Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi. Both ships were far larger than Bismarck and had much heavier armored belts, decks, and turrets, yet they were sunk by much less ordnance. Yamato was by 11-13 Mk 13 Aerial torpedoes and 6-8 550-1000 pound bombs. Her sister, Musashi was hit by an estimated 19 torpedos and 17 bombs. Their weakness was their torpedo protection. Though on paper their torpedo protection appeared strong there were three major weaknesses. First the voids between the triple underwater armored belts were left empty, rather than filling them with reserve water or fuel. Second, the upper main belt was not joined well to the lower torpedo belt, which created a vulnerable seam just below the waterline, and finally, their bow sections, which were very long were poorly protected, resulting in massive flooding when hit by torpedos. The only modern battleship to survive a large number of hits from 14”, 8”, and 6” shells, was USS South Dakota which was struck by at least 26 shells, but only one was 14”. It is it is doubtful if she or any other ship could have survived the damage inflicted on Bismarck.

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

The Last Chance: 820 Squadron’s Stringbags vs. 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. 

There is one other thing to mention. I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a crewman on the Bismarck, knowing that nightfall would bring them safely unter the protection of the Luftwaffe, and then discover that there was no escape from death and destruction. 

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.

The Admiralty knew that the disaster could not be covered up, and within three hours of the battle sent out a press release detailing the situation: “British naval forces intercepted early this morning, off the coast of Greenland, German naval forces, including the battleship Bismarck. 

The enemy were attacked, and during the ensuing action H.M.S. Hood (Captain R. Kerr, C.B.E., R.N.) wearing the flag of Vice-Admiral L. F. Holland, C.B., received an unlucky hit in the magazine and blew up. The Bismarckhas received damage, and the pursuit of the enemy continues. It is feared there will be few survivors from H.M.S. Hood. 

 

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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.

Swiftly ships were redeployed to find, sink, and prevent Bismarck intercepting and destroying any of the eleven convoys then at sea. HMS Rodney and the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla made up the Tribal Class Destroyers Somali, Tartar, Mashona, and Eskimo, was west of Ireland escorting the passenger liner RMS Britannic which was serving as a troopship even as Rodney made her way to Boston for a major refit, including her notoriously unreliable engineering plant. Leaving the Eskimo behind to escort, Rodney and the other three destroyers steamed to join Tovey and King George V. Likewise, HMS Ramillies was detached from Convoy HX-127 South of Cape Farewell, to intercept Bismarck from the west, and her sister ship HMS Revenge was dispatched from Halifax, Nova Scotia with the same mission. The elderly Ramillies and Revenge would have have stood little chance in an engagement with Bismarck, but they were better than nothing.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 824  Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 824 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairey 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 damage except to scratch and dent the armor plate of Bismarck’s main belt.

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824 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, like Victorious and Repulse were low on fuel, others like Prince of Wales damaged, and others, like Force H 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. Brest had good repair facilities and both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were undergoing repairs there. However, as far as the British knew, Lütjens might have doubled back through the Denmark Strait to Norway.

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.

For over 30 hours the British had no idea where Bismarck was or might be heading. Winston Churchill was livid. He was angry at the loss of Hood and Bismarck’s evasion of ships shadowing her. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May the luck of the British changed.

After breaking clear of Prince of Wales, Norfolk, and Suffolk, the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon Be safe. They expected that by the morning of the 27th they would 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. The aircraft was holed by anti-aircraft fire, but sent out the following message:

One battleship, bearing 240º, distance 5 miles, course 150º. My position 49º 33′ North, 21º 47′ West. Time of transmission 1030/26.”

Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location,  but unless something could be done to slow the Bismarck 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 120 miles behind Bismarck, too far away to intervene unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Ramillies and Revenge were far to the west and too slow to intercept.

This left Somerville’s Force H to the south, but it did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter her 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 before dark 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’ 825 Squadron it was equipped with Fairey Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

The Swordfish entered service to the Navy in 1936. By all standards these aircraft were 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 820 Squadron’s 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 the German ship.  The first wave of aircraft strike were unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators On the torpedoes failed to detonate,  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 the flight deck crew, that labored 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 were 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 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 protected 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. This was mainly due to the most critical design flaw in the class and most other German Capital Ships, and Heavy Cruisers. The structure of the stern was inherently weak. Likewise, the design of the ship’s propulsion system used a three screw system with dual rudders. This was designed to save weight when most other capital ships used a four screw arrangement. The steering gear were hopelessly jammed and the three screw arrangement did not give Bismarck the ability to steer herself and main control just using her screws. The game was now over, except for the final engagement. Escape was now impossible.

After the hit Bismarck 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 hitherto elusive German battleship.

Bismarck’s senior surviving Engineering Officer, Korvettenkapitänen Gerhard Junack recalled the damage and attempts to restore maneuverability to the stricken ship:

    One torpedo which hit amidships caused no damage, but the second affected the rudders disastrously, jamming the port-side rudder at a 15º angle. Immediately, the Bismarck became no longer manoeuvrable.

  • The torpedo-hit on the rudder shook the ship so badly that even in my zone of action in the turbine-room, the deck-plates were thrown into the air, and the hull vibrated violently. Shortly after the blow, water flooded through the port-side gangways into the turbine-room, and clouds of gas and smoke filled the room until the forced ventilation cleared it.
  • The stern compartments of the ship were now flooding, but the men who had been stationed there could still be saved, and soon the carpenters and repair-crew came through, making their way aft. But the ship pitched so violently in the strong sea swell that it was impossible to keep a foothold in the turbulent water surging through the companion-way.
  • All possibilities were now being considered to restore the ship’s manoeuvrability – even if only temporarily. The Commander, Kapitän zur See Lindemann, considered reports from Chief Engineer Lehmann, who was in continual contact with the repair and rescue teams. There was much gesticulation, and at one point the Chief Engineer stepped out of the circle, walked away, turned about, and made a sign of complete refusal. What this was about I am not certain, but eventually it was found possible to connect the hand rudder. But the old rudder would not budge, and to attempt to cut it away with underwater saws was quite impossible because of the heavy swell. A proposal to force the rudder out from below with the help of explosives was rejected, because of the proximity to the propellers. Thus all experiments with the auxiliary rudder were given up as completely hopeless, with the old one immovable.”

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 about Bismarck’s erratic movements 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. As darkness descended the destroyers of Captain Phillip Vians’s 4th Flotilla, the Tribal Class destroyers Cossack, Maori, Zulu, Sikh and the Free Polish Navy destroyer Piorun, closed with Bismarck subjecting her to a Lilliputian torture. The ships harassed and attacked the German ship with guns and torpedoes. Though their attacks did not succeed they kept the bulk of the Bismarck’s crew up and awake all night. They launched 16 torpedoes without a hit, but a star shell landed on Bismarck’s bow forcing damage control teams to race to the forecastle to extinguish the flames in order to prevent heavier ships nearby from shooting at her. As daylight arrived, Admiral Lütjens, his staff, and Bismarck’s Captain and watch standers prepared the ship for the inevitable confrontation with the British battleships and heavy cruisers.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Late Treaty and Post Treaty Battleships, an Introduction

Line Drawing of the German H-39 Class Battleship

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still on Trump and COVID19 overload so I am going back to the introductory article of a series I planned years ago.

This is the introductory article for a series of ten articles on the classes of battleships built or planned by the major powers following the expiration of the Second London Naval Treaty. A previous series of articles dealt with the battleships constructed in compliance or close compliance with the treaty. This series will cover the Japanese Yamato Class, and Super Yamato Classthe British Lion Class, the Vanguard, the German Bismarck and H39 Classes, the French Alsace Class, the Soviet Sovyetskiy Soyuz Classand finally the American Iowa and Montana classes.

Model of the Montana Class

When I first wrote this article over a decade ago I classed all of these ships as post-Treaty designs while overlooking the fact that most were designed during the Treaty period, and that most were designed and built in violation of it, or by invoking the  escalator clause. In truth only the Vanguard, the Montana’s and the never laid down German ships of the H-41 Class and beyond, as well as the Japanese Super Yamatos.

All of these ships were designed and built or designed in the late 1930s and early 1940s and with the exception of the Sovietetskiy Soyuz Class built on each navy’s past experience in battleship design and construction. The Japanese had constructed no treaty battleships in the 1930s, so the Yamato’s were the first battleships constructed by Japan since the Nagato Class which had been completed in the 1920s and the incomplete Tosa Class.

The Bismarck

The Second London Naval Treaty of 25 March 1936 was signed by France, Britain and the United States. Japan walked out on the conference and the Italians did not sign because of the outcry that their invasion of Abyssinia had evoked.  The treaty called for ships to have a standard displacement of not more than 35,000 tons and main armament not to exceed 14” guns. This was a reduction in the size of armament from the previous London and Washington treaties. When the Japanese delayed and then refused to sign the agreement, as did the Italians, refused the United States invoked the escalator clause which permitted them to disregard the treaty limitations.

USS Iowa lead ship of the Iowa class

The Americans who invoked only the armament part of the clause on the North Carolina and South Dakota classes. However they took full advantage of it to construct the 45,000 ton Iowa class. The plans called for six of this class, but only four were completed. The Montana Class of 65,000 tons mounting twelve 16” guns and Provided protection against that type of shell. The Montana Class ships were never laid down but because of their features will be covered in this series of articles.

Line Drawing of the Lion Class

Following the King George V Class the Royal Navy planned the Lion Class which was in essence an enlargement of the King George V Class armed with nine 16” guns.  Four of the Lion ships we’re planned, but none were to built. They cancelled early in the war and only one further battleship the 44.500 ton HMS Vanguard would be completed by the Royal Navy but not until 1946.

HMS Vanguard

The Germans, who were not a signatory to the treaty but had an agreement with Britain to limit their total naval tonnage to 35% of Britain’s had build the Scharnhorst Class Battlecruisers in the mid 1930s and began the Bismarck Classthe largest capital ships completed in Europe. These were to be followed by the H39, H41, H42, H43 and H44 classes ranging in displacement from 56,444 tons to 131,000 tons with armament ranging from eight 16” to eight 20” guns. Since just two of the H39’s were laid down and then cancelled while in the early stages of construction, and the others never laid down, so I will only discuss the H39 class in this series. The others only existed in the world of a mad dictator’s fantasies.

Sovyetskiy Soyuz Class

The Soviet Union which was never a signatory to any of the naval treaties and had not built a battleship since the First World War planned the massive Sovyetskiy Soyuz Class. This would have been a Class of 15 ships would have displaced 58,220 tons and mounted nine 16” guns. Several designs were evaluated, including those of American and Italian shipbuilders and designers. The foreign designs were rejected in favor of a Soviet design. However, the timing coincided with Stalin’s purge of the Armed forces leadership, as well as men who ran military and naval production plants. This added a further delay in their design and construction. The four initial ships of the class were laid down but never completed due to the Nazi invasion in 1941. Construction was halted and all were scrapped after the war.

Yamato

The Japanese Yamato Class, the largest battleships ever constructed of 69,998 tons standard displacement armed with nine 18” guns, the largest main battery ever installed on battleships were the largest capital ships built before the second generation of U.S. Navy super carriers.

The French Alsace Class was intended to counter the German H-39s. They would have been an enlarged and more heavily armed modification of the Richelieu Class. However, the German attack and and conquest of France led to their cancellation before they were ever laid down.

The first article I write will be about the Bismarck Class and that will appear later this week. This will be cutting it close because I plan on dealing with Operation Rheinübung, the deployment of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen which would turn out to be one of the most intense times of the war, especially for the British and the Royal Navy. So tomorrow on to the Bismarck and Tirpitz.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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An Experiment in Failure: The Beautiful, Flawed, Expensive, and Expendable Alaska Class Large Cruisers

Line drawing of Alaska in 1945

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The three ships of the Alaska Class were among the most confusing and curious designs of warships ever built for the US Navy. They had their genus in the early 1930s when the Germans deployed the Deutschland Class Pocket Battleships, which in reality were heavy cruisers with 11” guns designed for long range commerce raiders. Both the Americans and French began to design something larger and faster. The French produced the excellent Dunkerque Class which could be classed as as either a Battlecruiser, or Fast Battleship. The American designs languished on the drawing board due to bureaucratic conflicts between those who believed a specialized ship to track down commerce raiders was necessary, and those who thought such designs were a waste of money and resources.

Alaska and Guam Together 

However in the late 1930s a rumor of Japanese “super cruiser” put them back into the planning stage  with President Franklin Roosevelt being a supporter of the concept. In truth the Japanese had no such ship on the drawing board, but still the process of trying to figure out what the ship and its mission would be perplexed designers. Add this to political pressure and  the resulting confusion had nine different designs underway at the same time, everything from a 6,000 ton modification of the Atlanta Class anti-Aircraft cruiser, an enlarged heavy cruiser, to a 38,000 ton fast battleship. Eventually the Naval General Board Chose in essence what was a greatly enlarged, up-armored and up-gunned modification of the Baltimore Class heavy cruisers.

The confusion even manifested in what the Navy decided to call the class. Based on their size, speed and armament they looked like Battlecruisers, but if you compared them to other battlecruisers they had severe deficiencies in armor and anti-torpedo defenses when compared the the old but still effective British Hood, Repulse, and Renown, the French Dunkerque Class, the German Scharnhorst Class, and the Japanese Kongo Class, which were all battlecruisers or fast battleships.

The Navy classed them as Large Cruisers and deigned them as CB. The Navy designated Heavy Cruisers as CA, Light Cruisers as CL, and the US Navy’s one attempt to build large Battlecruisers, the Lexington Class were designated as CC before they were cancelled with two of the four ships , Lexington and Saratoga completed as Aircraft Carriers. Likewise the naming of the class straddled the line between States and Cities. Battleships were named after States, cruisers were named after cities, but the Alaska Class were named after territories. While Alaska and Hawaii became states later, they were not states at the time. The ambiguity of their names reflected the confusion of their design and mission.

They were designed to hunt and kill the German Pocket Battleships, the imagined large Japanese Cruisers, and as a counter the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which in 1939 and 1940 had created havoc in the Atlantic raiding convoys and sinking the Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier HMS Courageous.


USS Missouri (Top) with USS Alaska (below) at Norfolk Naval Station 1944

As designed the ships were 809 feet long and 91 feet wide, displaced 27,000 tons, and mounted 9 12” guns in three turrets, and and were capable of 33 knots.  They used the expanded hull design of the Baltimore Class, and used the same propulsion system as the Essex Class Aircraft Carriers. The ships mounted a large anti-aircraft battery of twelve 5” 38 caliber Dual Purpose guns, fifty-six 40mm cannons in quad and twin mounts, and thirty four 20mm light anti-aircraft guns. But even this was less than they could have mounted. That was because instead of placing the ship’s aviation facilities on the fantail as was done on the Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers, the Heavy Cruiser Wichita, the Cleveland Class Light Cruisers, the Baltimore Class, and all the modern battleships, to the earlier midships aviation facilities including port and starboard catapults. The Navy’s experience in combat during the Guadalcanal Campaign showed this arrangement to be a vulnerability in surface actions. Despite this the design was not changed.

Their armor protection was proof against 8” and 11” shells but could not withstand the heavier shells of battleships. In addition, to keep the ships at their designed displacement, no below the waterline torpedo protection was provided. The lack of that would have made them vulnerable That being said they had a good anti-aircraft battery, could keep pace with the fast carriers, and conduct shore bombardment operations against the Japanese mainland. None engaged any type of ship that they were designed to fight. The Alaska and Guam were the only two ships of the class completed and which saw service in the war. They were both decommissioned having served barely two and a half years active service each. Hawaii was launched but construction was suspended when she was 84% complete, and she was never commissioned.

The Scharnhorst: She and the Gneisenau were the threat that the Alaska’s were designed to counter

Alaska was laid down in December 1941 shortly after Pearl Harbor, launched 15 August 1943 and commissioned on 17 June 1944. Her sister ship, Guam was launched on 12 November 1943 and commissioned 17 September 1944.  The final ship of the class to be built the Hawaii was launched after the war in November 1945 with her construction halted when she was 84% complete in 1947. Three planned ships, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Samoa were never laid down.

Aerial View of USS Alaska

While fast and large with more than adequate firepower the purpose that they created for no longer existed by the time that they were commissioned.  Of the German Pocket Battleships, Graf Spee had been scuttled in 1939, while Lützow the former Deutschland, and Admiral Scheer were bottled up in the Baltic. The Scharnhorst had been sunk by a 12 ship British task force led by the HMS Duke of York on December 26th 1943 after mounting an attack on a Murmansk convoy at the Battle of North Cape.  Her sister Gneisenau had been heavily damaged in the “channel dash” and bombing in Kiel. While being refitted to replace her nine 11” guns with six 15” guns the work was discontinued after the sinking of the Scharnhorst. Her main battery and secondary armament were removed and used to reinforce the Atlantic Wall, mostly in Norway.

The USS Guam in 1945

With their natural opponents no longer a factor in the war the Alaska and Guam were sent to the Pacific where they spent their time escorting fast carrier task forces, conducting naval gunfire support missions off Okinawa and conducting sweeps in Japanese waters as part of the initial blockade of Japan.  Following the war Alaska and Guam were active in Operation Magic Carpet the return of US servicemen from the Far East to the United States. Alaska and Guam were decommissioned in February 1947 remaining in reserve until stricken from the Naval List. Alaska was scrapped in 1960 and Guam being in 1961. The fate of Hawaii was be debated for years. Suggestions included to complete here her as the first guided missile cruiser (CG) and later a Command Cruiser (CC) were rejected as too expensive and she was sold for scrap in 1959.

Incomplete and undervalued the Hawaii being towed to the breakers in 1959

The era of the Battle Cruiser which began with the launching of the HMS Invincible in 1907 culminated in with launching of the HMS Hood, or arguably the  Dunkerque or Scharnhorst Classes, but not with the Alaska Class. They looked a lot like battlecruisers, but that is where the similarity ended.  It was an ignominious ending for expensive and practically unused ships being broken up. But it had to be. Their lack of underwater protection, barely average armor protection, ill designed aviation facilities, and main battery which was unique, expensive, and had a tendency to break down ensured that they could not have another mission. Instead, for a much more affordable cost, Baltimore Class cruisers were converted into guided missile cruisers or retained as naval gunfire support ships. Likewise, Cleveland Class light cruisers were converted to guided missile cruisers. One of the Baltimore Class, the Norfolk was converted into a Command Cruiser, and two others converted into the light fleet carriers, and later command ships, Wright and Saipan. 

In light of the need for a combination of substantial naval gunfire support, on a platform large enough to support the latest Aegis air defense radars and missiles to protect an Expeditionary Strike Group, capable of ballistic missile defense, and equipped with combat proven 6”, 8”, or 16” guns for naval gunfire support missions, Tomahawk Cruise missiles, and the latest anti-ship missiles and close in protective missiles and guns is needed. The existing Zumwalt Class, Arleigh Burke Class, and Ticonderoga Class, are incapable of fulfilling such a role. The ships would have to be cable of independent operations, and have the capacity to incorporate new technologies including laser weapons, newly developed combat drones capable of ship to shore, ship to ship, and ASW operations, are needed. The ships would have to be capable of extended independent operations, and have substantial protection against current anti-ship weapons, and torpedoes. It seems  to me that a new class of Battle Cruisers, in effect a new, enlarged and much improved Alaska Class would be in order.

The Alaska Class was a failure in design and practice. By the time they were completed their primary mission no longer existed, and the compromises in their design ensured that they would be incapable of any real modernization that would make them effective components of a modern Navy. It was not the first or last time the US Navy, the Royal Navy, or any other Navy has design and built a lemon.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, germany, History, imperial japan, Military, national security, Navy Ships, nazi germany, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

Short, Squat, Powerful and Well Protected: The South Dakota Class Battleships

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still on my holiday from writing about the novel Coronavirus 19 and President Trump and his Administration’s incompetent response to it. It is a response that has already claimed 87,000  American lives, and every day more damning evidence shows the results for the President’s use of it for political purposes, almost all of which are backfiring as much as his malfeasance and willingness to see Americans die by the tens of thousands to maintain his cloud-cuckoo-land fantasy that this will go back to normal as if by magic. But, I won’t go any farther tonight on that tonight.

I was so inflamed about what was happening earlier today I decided that it was best to continue my series on the battleships designed and built by the British, French, Germans, Italians, and Americans from after the Battleship Holiday mandated by the Washington Naval Treaty, and the restrictions of the London Naval Treaty. The Germans were not signatories to these treaties as they were already under the much more severe provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, until the Hitler regime began to clandestinely violate it in 1934, and publicly in 1935. The British signed at bilateral naval accord with Germany in June of 1935, which the Germans renounced in 1938 in order to build a fleet of battleships that Hitler believed would allow him to achieve naval parity or superiority over the British, which he renounced in 1938 during the Czechoslovakia crisis.

This is the fifth and last in a series of articles about the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were already in service or completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty. That treaty required the British to scrap 23, the Americans 30, and Japanese 17 Battleships or Battlecruisers to comply with the treaty. Some were allowed to be converted to Aircraft Carriers, and some demilitarized to serve as training or target ships.

This series looks at the modern battleships built by the future World War II combatants between 1932 and 1939. This article covers the American South Dakota Class. Previous articles dealt with the British Royal Navy’s King George V Class, The German Kriegsmarine Scharnhorst Class, the Italian Reginia Marina’s Vittorio Veneto Class, the United States Navy’s North Carolina Class, and the French Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes.The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

I think that I will also go back and deal with various classes of ships that were allowed to be kept after the Washington Naval Treaty. These included  two of the three partially built American Colorado Class, the two ship British Nelson Class, and the second of the Japanese Nagato Class, the Mutsu; and the battleships and battlecruisers that were completed as Aircraft Carriers by the United States, Britain, Japan, and France. From there I could move on and write about and the new battleships and battlecruisers planned or under construction at the time the treaty came into effect, the ships that had they been built would have launched a major naval arms race in the 1920s, something that few nations could have afforded, especially Great Britain.  I think I will even go back to the Dreadnoughts and Battlecruisers of the First World War. Of course there are a lot of them, so I will probably focus on the ships that continued serving through the Second World War. I might even delve into the German H type battleships which were more fanciful than realistic, only satisfying the need of Hitler for nothing but the biggest, the American Montana Class, the British HMS Vanguard, the French Alsace Class, and the Japanese A-150 or Super Yamato’s. 

Since there is much disagreement about which of the ships that I have written about in this series,  I may try to do a comparison to determine which was the best of these classes in the categories, of armament, speed and range, armor protection, reliably, and performance in combat. One has to remember that these were the first battleships built by their respective navies since the First World War, each was built under the constraints imposed by the naval treaties, and their influenced by the developments of potential opponents and the changing world situation. In some cases sacrifices were made on each design due to expediency and the need to get them to the fleet.

As the world edged closer to war in the late 1930s the U.S. Navy followed up its decision to build the two ship North Carolina class battleships with additional fast battleships. Initially the General Board wanted two additional North Carolina’s the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William H. Standley wanted a different design, which may have created the toughest and best of the battleships in this series. Compared to the other battleships built in this era, the South Dakota Class was short, fat, a bit slower, but was superbly protected with a well designed armored citadel, excellent main, secondary, and anti-aircraft batteries, and superior radars, fire direction systems and combat operation centers. They demonstrated a knack for survival as well as an ability to inflict damage, as was shown by the South Dakota and Massachusetts.

USS South Dakota BB-57 in 1943

Design work started in 1937 and several designs were proposed in order to correct known deficiencies in the preceding North Carolina class to include protection and the latest type of steam turbines.  As in the North Carolina’s the Navy struggled to find the optimal balance between armament, protection and speed. In the end the Navy decided on a shorter hull form with greater beam which necessitated greater power to maintain a high speed. The armor protection was maximized by using an interior sloped belt of 12.2 inch armor with 7/8” STS plates behind the main belt which made the protection the equivalent to 17.3 inches of vertical armor. The Belt continued to the bottom of the ship though it was tapered with the belt narrowing to 1 inch to provide addition protection against plunging fire which struck deeper than the main belt. As an added feature to protect against torpedo hits a multi-layered four anti-torpedo bulkhead system was included, designed to absorb the impact of a hit from a 700 pounds of TNT.

In order to accommodate the machinery necessary to provide the desired speed of 27 knots on the shorter hull the machinery spaces were rearranged.  The new design placed the boilers directly alongside the turbines with the ship’s auxiliaries and evaporators also placed in the machinery rooms. Additional design changes made to save space included making the crew berthing areas smaller. This included that of officers as well as the senior officers and shrinking the size of the galley’s and the wardroom from those on the North Carolina’s. The resultant changes allowed the ships to achieve the 27 knot speed, improved protection and carry the same armament of the North Carolina’s within the 35,000 treaty limit.

Two ships of the design were approved and with the escalator clause invoked by the Navy two more ships were ordered all with the nine 16” gun armament of the North Carolina’s.  The leading ship of the class the South Dakota was designed as a fleet flagship and in order to accommodate this role two of the 5” 38 twin mounts were not installed leaving the ship with 16 of these guns as opposed to the 20 carried by the rest of the ships of the class. The final design was a class of ships capable of 27.5 knots with a range of 17,000 miles at 15 knots mounting nine 16” guns with excellent protection on the 35,000 tons and full load displacement of 44,519 tons.

The lead ship of the class the USS South Dakota BB-57 was laid down 5 July 1939 at New York Shipbuilding in Camden New Jersey, launched on 7 June 1941 and commissioned on 20 March 1942.  Following her commissioning and her shakedown cruise South Dakota was dispatched to the South Pacific. Soon after her arrival she struck a coral reef at Tonga which necessitated a return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

When repairs were complete she was attached to TF 16 escorting the USS Enterprise CV-6 during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942.  During the battle she was credited with shooting down 26 Japanese aircraft but was struck by a 500 lb bomb on her number one turret which caused no damage.


The Dent in South Dakota’s Number Three Turret from a hit from a 14” Shell from Kirishima

She joined TF-64 paired with the battleship USS Washington during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on14-15 November 1942. During the action South Dakota suffered a power outage and was hit by over by a minimum of 26 enemy shells, and possibly up to 40. At least one of a 14” shell from Kirishima, 18 8” shells from the Heavy Cruisers, 6 6” shells from from Japanese light cruisers, and at least one 5” shell from a destroyer. The damage was superficial, once her power was restored much of the damage was repaired ship’s crew. The shellfire knocked out three of her fire control radars, her radio and main radar set which were also repaired.

Three of the escorting destroyers, USS Preston, USS Walke, and USS Benham were sunk or mortally wounded, and USS Gwin was damaged.destroyers were also lost but the Washington mortally wounded the fast battleship Kirishima and destroyer Ayanami which were scuttled the next day and damaged the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao.

South Dakota returned to New York for repairs which completed in February 1943. She joined the carrier USS Ranger CV-4 for operations in the Atlantic until April when she was attached to the British Home Fleet. She sailed for the Pacific in August 1943 and rejoined the Pacific Fleet in September. The battleship joined Battleship Divisions 8 and 9 and supported the invasion of Tarawa providing naval gunfire support to the Marines.

South Dakota spent the rest of the war was spent escorting carriers as well as conducting bombardment against Japanese shore installations. She participated in almost every action of the U.S. drive across the Central Pacific. She was struck by a 500 pound bomb during the Battle of the Philippine Sea that destroyed several anti-aircraft mounts and killed 26 of her crew.

A Photo taken from South Dakota while anchored in Tokyo Bay with Mount Fuji in the Background 

South Dakota was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay and returned to the United States in 1945. She was decommissioned and placed in reserve on 31 January 1947. She was stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962 and sold for scrap in October of that year. Various artifacts of this gallant ship to include a propeller, a 16” gun and the mainmast are part of the USS South Dakota Memorial Park in Sioux Falls South Dakota. 6,000 tons of armored plate were returned to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for use in civilian nuclear programs and a second screw is displaced outside the U.S. Naval Museum in Washington D.C.  She received 13 battle stars for World War II service.

South Dakota also had the dubious distinction of having the youngest sailor of the war 12 year old Calvin Graham who confessed lying about his age to the Gunnery Officer, LT Sergeant Schriver. Graham was court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge spending 3 months in the ship’s brig before he was able to be returned to the United States where just after his 13th birthday he entered 7th grade. Shriver was wounded at Guadalcanal and was awarded the Purple Heart. He left the Navy in in 1945 as a Lieutenant Commander. He later became the Brother in law of John F. Kennedy, and the first Director of the Peace Corps, and became the the running mate of Senator George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential Election, to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. 

USS Indiana BB-58 Bombarding Japan in 1945

The second ship of the class the USS Indiana BB-58 was laid down at Newport News Naval Shipyard on 20 November 1939 launched on 21 November 1941 and commissioned on 30 April 1942.  She served throughout the Pacific War by serving with the fast battleships of Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s TF-34, escorting carriers during major battles such that the Battle of the Philippine Sea or as it is better known the Marianas Turkey Shoot. She returned to the United States for overhaul and missed the Battle of Leyte Gulf but served at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and operations against the Japanese home islands. During the beginning of the Marshall Islands campaign Indiana received her heaviest damage. During night operations with a carrier task group she turned in front of USS Washington. A collision ensued which caused heavy damage to Indiana, including the loss of nearly 200 feet of her armored belt. The collision took off about 20 feet of Washington’s bow which remained imbedded in the Indiana until she was repaired. Washington also required a return to the United States for repairs.

Following the war she was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in September 1963.   A number of her relics are preserved at various locations in Indiana and her prow and mainmast are centerpieces of a display at the University of Indiana’s football stadium. Much of her armor was provided to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for use in civilian programs.

USS Massachusetts BB-59 in January 1946 in the Puget Sound

The third ship of the class the USS Massachusetts BB-59 was laid down on 20 July 1939 at Bethlehem Steel Corporation Fore River Yard in Salem Massachusetts and launched on 23 September 1941 and commissioned on 12 May 1942. After her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet where she took part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. During the operation she engaged French shore batteries, damaged the battleship Jean Bart and sank 2 cargo ships and along with the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa sank the destroyers Fougueux and Boulonnais and the light cruiser Primauguet.

Following her assignment in the Atlantic she sailed for the Pacific where she began operations in January 1944. She took part in almost every major operation conducted by the Pacific Fleet escorting the Fast Carrier Task Forces and operating as a unit of TF-34 the Fast Battleship Task force including the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  She ended the war conducting operations against the Japanese home islands.  She was decommissioned in 1947 and stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962.

USS Massachusetts BB-59 at Battleship Cove, Fall River Massachusetts

She was saved from the fate of Indiana and South Dakota as the people of Massachusetts with the assistance of schoolchildren who donated $50,000 for her renovation and preservation as a memorial. She became that in 1965 at Battleship Cove in Fall River Massachusetts and she remains there designated as a National Historic Landmark.  During the naval build up of the 1980s much equipment common to all modern battleships was removed for use in the recommissioned battleships of the Iowa class.


The final ship of the class the USS Alabama BB-60 was laid down on 1 February 1940 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. She was launched on 21 February 1942 and commissioned 16 August 1942. Following her shakedown cruise and initial training off the Atlantic coast she joined the repaired South Dakota and operated as part of TF 22 attached to the British Home Fleet.

She conducted convoy escort operations, participated in the reinforcement of Spitsbergen and in an operation which attempted to coax the German battleship Tirpitz out of her haven in Norway. Tirpitz did not take the bait and Alabama and South Dakota returned to the United States in August 1943.

Following a brief refit she and South Dakota transited to the Pacific were the trained with the fast carriers.  She took part in the invasion of the Gilberts taking part in Operation Galvanic against Tarawa and the Army landings on Makin Island.

As 1944 began Alabama continued her operations with the fast carriers of TF-38 and the fast battleships of TF-34.  She took part in operations against the Marshalls and took part in the invasion of the Marianas Islands and the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. From there she supported the invasion of Palau and other islands in the Caroline Islands followed by operations against New Guinea and the invasion of the Philippine and the Battle of Leyte Gulf before returning to the United States for overhaul.

Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller
Alabama 
returned to action during the invasion of Okinawa and in shore bombardment operations against the Japanese Mainland. When the war ended the Alabama had suffered no combat deaths and only 5 wounded following the misfire of one of her own 5” guns earning her the nickname of “Lucky A.”  Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller served as a Chief Petty Officer and gun mount captain on Alabama during the war.

She was decommissioned on 9 January 1947 and stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962. The people of the State of Alabama formed the “Alabama Battleship Commission” and raised $1,000,000 including over $100,000 collected by schoolchildren to bring her to Alabama as a memorial.  She was turned over to the state in 1964 and opened as a museum on 9 January 1965. She was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.  She has been used as a set in several movies and continues to serve as a museum preserving the legacy of the men that served aboard her and all of the battleship sailors of World War II.

another thing about the South Donata Class was that their design was evident in the rebuilding of the USS California, USS Tennessee, and USS West Virginia when they were completely modernized after Pear Harbor.

USS West Virginia after her complete modernization after being sunk at Pearl Harbor

In the 1950s a number of proposals were considered to modernize the ships of the class to increase their speed to 31 knots using improved steam turbines or gas turbines. The Navy determined that to do this would require changes to the hull form of the ships making the cost too prohibitive.  The ships were certainly the best of the treaty type battleships produced by any nation in the Second World War. The damage sustained by South Dakota at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal would have not only put most battleships of her era out of action but might have caused enough damage to sink them. Their armament was equal or superior to all that except the Japanese Yamato Class and their protection was superior to most ships of their era, and it was was exceptional, as was evident by the damage sustained by South Dakota. 

Alabama as a Museum Ship 

It is good that both the Massachusetts and the Alabama have been preserved as memorials to the   ships of the class, their sailors and the United States Navy in the Second World War. Because of the efforts of the people of Massachusetts and Alabama millions of people have been able to see these magnificent ships and remember their fine crews. Both have hosted reunions of their ships companies since becoming museum ships and with the World War Two generation passing away in greater numbers every day soon these ships as well as the USS Texas, USS North Carolina, USS Missouri, USS New Jersey, USS Wisconsin aUSS Iowa which stricken from the Naval Register awaits an uncertain fate as a resident of the “Ghost Fleet” in Suisun Bay California.  No other nation preserved any other dreadnought or treaty battleship thus only these ships remain from the era of the Dreadnought. I so much wish that the British had preserved one of the King George V  ships, or maybe the mostend celebrated Royal Navy Battleships of both World Wars, the HMS Warspite had been preserved. I also regret that none of the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor were preserved, nor any of the standard battleships of the Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, California, or Colorado Classes.

I am fortunate. I have been able to go aboard the North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, and Wisconsin, as well as a number of the surviving aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines preserved in the United States. However, too few, especially the ships which bore the brunt of the war like the carrier USS Enterprise were never saved, despite the pleas of men like Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.

I habe also been able to visit ships like the USS Constitution, USS Constellation, Clipper ship Star of India, the Japanese Battleship Mikasa, the USS Nautilus, the German Tall Ship Gorch Fock II, and so many more, but I still have a bucket list of ships I want to visit in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Sweden, Russia, France, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Japan, and Finland.

With those pipe dreams in mind, I wish you all the best. Until tomorrow when I decide to weigh in again on novel Coronavirus 19 and the crisis being fostered by the Trump Administration in this country; please be safe. Don’t do dumb things like going into crowded places with few people wearing masks and the vast majorly of people not adhering to social distancing. Even if other people decide to be stupid and put others and well as their own lives at risk, don’t be like them. I speak this from the heart and I don’t care if someone disagrees with my politics, faith, or social commentary, I would prefer that they not die or through their stupidity and arrogance get other people sick or die. Darwin is not Kind when it comes to the stupidity and arrogance of people regardless of the race, ethnicity, faith, ideology, political leanings, social standing, economic position, or nationality.

I don’t care if people agree with me or not, but don’t do dumb things. This may sound harsh but I tend to speak from my heart when lives and civilization itself are at stake. But please remember the words of Robert Henlein:

“Stupidity cannot be cured. Stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death. There is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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