In this chapter Admiral of the British Home Fleet, Sir John Tovey,
receives news of the strange sighting of an unexpected German raider in the Norwegian Sea,
July 31, 1941
the Admiralty was abuzz with the electrifying news of the sighting of another large German raider out near Jan Mayen. What could it be? Latest intelligence indicated Tirpitz was laid up at Kiel for repairs, but the Fleet Air Arm was immediately ordered to send two Beaufort fighter bombers to have another look. In the meantime, First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound was taking no chances. He was on the phone to Scapa Flow, using the long red line that had stretched from London over the Scottish Highlands for decades, hopping buoys as it finally left the land and reached out to the command Flagship of Fleet Admiral Sir John Tovey aboard King George V.
John “Jack” Tovey looked at the list of all his available ships that morning. A professional man, well schooled in the operational arts and dedicated to the Navy from an early time in his
life, Tovey was an amiable man, quick to smile, but just as likely to redden up with a temper when things did not suit him. Strong-willed and highly disciplined, he could be relentless when focused
on a mission or a particular naval objective. Yet in the heat of battle his one great virtue was that he would remain cool under fire in spite of the temper that he was all too willing to show if
things did not go as he expected.
A natural leader, Tovey was a student of tactics and ship handling, as capable a captain as the Royal Navy possessed until he was promoted to acting Admiral
of the Home Fleet. He was a sea going admiral, seeing the duty aboard ship as essential to morale. What was good enough for his sailors was good enough for him, and his men had both great admiration
and respect for him. The man at sea, he believed, had the best information at hand to make a decision in any engagement. As such he sometimes resented the overweening interference by desk laden
officers in the Admiralty, including the First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound, who had a predilection for sticking his thumb in the pie whenever possible.
This evening he was looking at the long list
of ships still operational under his command, still the most extensive and well armed navy in all of Europe, and by a considerable margin. He had all of fifteen battleships, with one sunk and one
consigned to the far east, leaving thirteen of the big ships in theater. Admittedly, it was an aging fleet, but still imposing on paper. Only three on the list would be considered modern battleships
by 1941, his own flagship King George V, and her sister ships Prince of Wales and Duke Of York, the latter still running through trials. He wouldn’t even have that third
ship were it not for Churchill’s earlier urging that the Germans were up to something in their shipyards and the Royal Navy had better be ready to answer. Two more ships in that class would
come on the line later in the war, Anson and Howe, but these three were the only true fast battleships he had in hand, and that said, they could make only 28 knots on a good day. For
modern ships they had very little range but compensated with decent firepower and very good protection.
The heart of his fleet, however, were the ships laid down before or during the Great
War, all aging, yet proven and capable designs, even if they looked somewhat antiquated with their reverse inclined bows and stodgy smokestacks. He had three Revenge class battleships and five in the Queen
Elizabeth class. They could plod along at 18 to 21 knots under normal circumstances, but had good firepower with their 15 inch guns. The two Nelson Class battleships were the only ships in the fleet carrying larger 16 inch guns. With an ungainly design they were well armored yet also slow at a maximum speed of 23 knots. For all practical purposes, these ten ships would be excellent convoy escorts, enough to deter lighter and faster German raiders, and also capable of standing with anything bigger
Tovey also had a small squadron of fast battlecruisers, once led by the pride of the fleet, the mighty HMS Hood. A little over 60 days ago, Bismarck had run this stalwart knight thru with a fatal lance from her fearsome 15 inch guns, and put Hood,
along with Admiral Sir Lancelot Holland, at the bottom of the Denmark Strait. The Renown and Repulse were the last of the British battlecruisers, with a little less firepower, carrying only six 15 inch guns for the extra speed that gave them. Yet, their speed alone made these ships suitable for hunting and interception roles, and he could pair these lighter ships with his three King George V class battleships to form fast search and intercept groups capable of confronting and dealing with any known German raider. The campaign against Bismarck proved that, even though both Hood and Prince of Wales had a rough time of it in that first, awful engagement.
This role would be ably supported by divisions of strong and capable cruisers, both heavy and light, and these ships could serve as escorts to any convoy or capital ship squadron he put to sea. They were also excellent as picket line scouts along the main breakout corridors used by the Germans. At any given time a string of cruisers stretched from Iceland to Scapa Flow, plying the seas with forward searching radars and the eyes of many able seamen.
Tovey also made good use of his fleet of aircraft carriers, though these were lighter ships carrying anywhere from sixteen to fifty planes, mostly old bi-planes: Swordfish torpedo bombers or other search aircraft, and a few Fairey Fulmar dive bombers. They had only a fraction of the striking power of the bigger modern carriers in the Japanese or American navies, but they served him well as escorts, hunters at sea, and could manage a sting or two if their torpedo squadrons could close with an inviting target.
In all it was a capable fleet given the primary role it had in securing the vital Atlantic shipping lanes. If anything, it lacked speed in its heavy ship elements, and range. Yet the Royal Navy made up for its deficiencies by sheer weight and quantity, and the considerable experience it had at sea. It tripled the size of the German Fleet, even though it mostly sailed with older designs. Yet Tovey still had to assign ships to Cunningham in the Eastern Med, and Somerville at Gibraltar, and this thinned out the ranks of capital ships available for home waters and Atlantic operations. God forbid that he should ever lose Gibraltar. The Rock was the gateway to the Med, and an excellent dual purpose base. Ships there in Force H under Somerville could sortie to aid Cunningham in the Eastern Med, or venture out into the Atlantic, particularly to cover the French ports or receive southbound convoy traffic.
His Chief of Staff, Patrick “Daddy” Brind would be in shortly with the latest reports, and together they would plan the fate of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau,
the next two German raiders on his list for quick elimination. At present they were both holed up in the French port of Brest on the Atlantic coast, and that is precisely where he wanted to keep
them. Yet when Brind arrived he was all in a fluster, a fistful of cable intercepts in his hand and a look approaching shock on his face.
“I'm afraid there's some bad news this
evening, sir,” said Brind. “It seems we have more than Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to worry about. A new German raider was spotted southwest of Jan Mayen earlier today. The signal suggests it might be Tirpitz, or possibly a Hipper class cruiser again. We got a Beaufort reconnaissance flight off to have another look at Kiel, but it will be some time before we hear on that. Something is up, sir, and we're going to have to be on our toes up are going to catch up with it.”
Brind laid out a map on the table, leaning heavily on one hand as he gestured. “The Norwegian weather team on Jan Mayen also reported the landing of an odd aircraft with a squad of marines. The men said nothing, searched the place and then left. Very strange, sir. Wake-Walker is up there with Force P, and he forwarded the report yesterday. Perhaps it was a search plane off this new raider, wanting to make sure they had not been spotted passing the island. A Fulmar off Victorious overflew the contact yesterday and gave a confused report. The pilot thought it looked like a heavy cruiser, except for the guns.”
“Except for the guns?”
“That’s just it, sir. He said he couldn’t see any large guns or turrets, except a few smaller caliber secondary batteries. He claimed the forward decks were largely empty. And another odd thing was the fact that the ship held its fire. If it was a German cruiser they would have lit up with everything they had.”
“In the heat of the moment the plane was not properly fitted out. Wake-Walker was hurrying off to the east, but thank god he at least had the presence of mind to have a second look by sending out a scout detachment, though I can’t say much for his choice of ships. He sent the mine laying cruiser Adventure up with a destroyer yesterday, and it seems they bumped noses with this contact this morning. Destroyer Anthony took three hits on her bow, putting a gun turret there out of action, and the scout force wisely broke off action. This is looking very suspicious, sir.”
“Well, they damn well fired on the ships, even if Walker’s planes caught them napping,” said Tovey. “Yes. It has all the markings of another Atlantic sortie. Strange that they didn’t blow that destroyer out of the water.”
“German radio traffic has been very quiet. It looks like Jerry is making an effort to keep his cards close to his chest this time around. What do you make of it, sir?”
“Damn bloody business,” said Tovey. “And just when we've got convoys spread out over half of the Atlantic, with Mr. Churchill due in next week on the hush, hush.”
It was going to be a long night, thought Tovey. Weather was bad across the board, seas were rising, and the crews on the ships riding fitfully at anchor in Scapa Flow were ever more edgy. The fleet was put on yellow alert, with eight hour steam up, meaning his main battleships could be ready to put to sea first thing in the morning.
“We haven't got a solid fix on this ship’s position yet,” said Brind. “If it is Tirpitz we've got a real witches brew again. Do you really think they would risk this last battleship in a major operation now, sir?”
“It could be a feint,” said Tovey. “They might have gotten wind of our Russian convoy planning, and could be running this about just to get our attention. Our last fix on Tirpitz had her at Kiel three days ago. They would have had to move very quickly after that if she’s up near Jan Mayen now. We'll have to watch this very closely, and of course we'll have to take Home Fleet to sea as well, just in case.”
“Aye, sir,” said Brind. “The crews are restless enough as it is. Time to put some of that energy to good use. I've taken the liberty of informing Captain Leach on Prince of Wales as to our intentions. He’s still shining the decks for that official visit next week, so I’m afraid we may have to leave her in port, sir. But we've a few other knights we can put in the saddle as it stands. Repulse is available, and she has the speed we need for something like this.”
“What in the world is Winston up to this time?” said Tovey. “All we have is this notice to hold Prince
of Wales for an official visit. Damn inconvenient when Hitler and the Germans have other ideas.” He sighed, resigned to the machinations of command after all these years. “I suppose we'd best start rattling the sabers here and get the cavalry up in good order. It’s a pity Duke of York isn’t ready for action yet. After what we went through with Bismarck, I won’t risk a battlecruiser like Repulse in another engagement like that. Thank god for Rodney. The old girl gave Bismarck quite a pounding. Where are Nelson and Rodney?”
Admiral wanted to know where his big 16 inch guns were. The Nelson and Rodney had been built between the two wars to an odd looking configuration that saw three big 16 inch gun turrets mounted on the forward end of the ship. The weight of the big guns made for slow going, which made them very suitable for convoy escort duty. Yet with nine 16 inch guns, they had more firepower than any ship in the fleet. In a tight spot, a well armored ship like that would come in very handy.
“Rodney is still in Boston for a refit and scheduled for sea trials again on August 12, sir. Her sister ship Nelson is presently at Gibraltar with battlecruiser Renown,
preparing to escort another Winston Special convoy out to Malta.”
“Yes, Sir Winston has too many chips on the markers for our battleships these days, doesn’t he? It may be
prudent to inform Admiral Somerville of this development. That operation may have to be delayed if we need those ships. We had better take a look at the Atlantic convoy situation as well. We may have
to pull some ships off escort duty if it comes down to it. But I want to make sure those convoys have all the protection we can give them.”
“Right, sir,” said Brind.
“We've got at least one battleship with every convoy over 24 ships. Anything less gets an escort of at least one cruiser. We've been moving most of the OB series well north of Ireland
after departure, so that's going to put them in a rather vulnerable spot if the Germans push anything down into the Atlantic in the near run. These are rather large convoys, sir. Upwards of 40 to
50 ships each. Their official designation is to move on to the Middle East and reinforce Cunningham.”
Something told the Admiral that the ships in those convoys would have more to do
along the way than they bargained for. “If Jerry is planning another raider operation, then they'll certainly have to coordinate with their U-boats as well.”
we may have to assign more destroyer squadrons to convoy traffic from this point forward, sir.”
“Indeed.” The Admiral’s mood was darkening with the weather this
morning. The war was finally heating up. 1940 had seen little more than a few enterprising raids by the pocket battleships Graff Spee and Admiral Scheer. They gave his cruiser squadrons
a fit for a time, and sunk well over 150,000 tons of shipping before the first was sunk and the latter slipped back home to German waters. Then came Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, even more
dangerous ships. They were faster and more powerful than the pocket battleships, which were really little more than heavy cruisers in Tovey's mind. Finally Bismarck decided to join the party and was thankfully sunk, but at great cost.
Now, if the Germans were sending Tirpitz into the fray, they would again be escalating the conflict to a whole new level. If that ship managed to get into the Atlantic and link up with the other two battlecruisers at Brest, the Germans would have the most formidable task force they had put to sea since Dogger Bank. He had little doubt that this was what they had originally planned for Bismarck,
and perhaps they were out to have another go at it. He had no choice in the matter now. He would have to put major warships out to sea again, throwing in his last reserve to forestall any potential
breakout by this new German raider, whatever it was. What else did Admiral Raeder have in the cupboard, he wondered? He’s planned this very well, because my cupboard is rather bare for the
Aside from his flagship, all he had was Repulse and Prince of Wales in hand, and the latter was sweeping the decks for this visit involving the Prime Minister. He looked over his list… The only other battleship available was the Revenge, presently at Halifax and scheduled join the Royal Sovereign for convoy duty in the Indian Ocean. The latter was at the Clyde getting fitted out with all the new radar sets and was not scheduled to have that work completed until September. All of his active carriers were already up north with Wake-Walker. The rest, Illustrious and Formidable,
were in US harbors undergoing repairs. He still had Ark Royal with Force H at Gibraltar, and Hermes in the Indian Ocean. Other than that, the only new carrier coming on line was Indomitable,
just starting her sea trials last month.
Tovey leaned back, stretching and scratching his head. “Well,” he said. “It looks like I’m headed out to sea with King George V and Repulse then—and first thing in the morning. We can't assume this new raider is all the Germans will bring to the party,” he warned. “We’ll have to keep a close eye on Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as well.”
“Whatever Jerry is up to, we’ll give him another bloody nose for it, sir.”
“Yes, Raeder may be taking on more than he can chew, Brind, but we'll have to plan for every possible contingency.”
An orderly rushed in, handing Brind a freshly decoded signal. The grey haired chief of staff read it with obvious frustration.
“Thick cloud cover over Kiel,” he said. “Fleet Air Arm says they can’t see a thing in this weather, and won’t be able to confirm the situation regarding Tirpitz until things clear up, sir.”
“Damn,” said Tovey. “We’ll have to assume the worst then. That’s what Admiral Pound will do.”
“That we will, sir,” said Brind. “May I suggest that we get orders off to Wake-Walker as soon as possible? We can’t very well have him dancing off to the North Cape in this light. Vian is up there as well, sir.”
“Better get them both moving west as soon as possible. Even if they can’t cover the Denmark Strait, at least they can seal off the Faeroes Gap.” Tovey thought for a moment. “And Brind,” he said, “I suppose we should also cable the Americans at Reykjavík. They’ve only just begun relieving our garrison there, and they’ll likely be in for a big surprise if this raider is heading for the Denmark Strait.”
“Indeed, sir. I nearly forgot about the Yanks. They’re not in it yet, but there’s a considerable naval presence assigned to the convoy routes between Newfoundland and Iceland. That’s going to be their watch now, sir.”
“Yes, well whether they’re in the war or not, the Germans may have something to say about it soon enough.”
“I believe they’re planning to send a couple of PBY flying boat squadrons to Reykjavík,” said Brind. “If we put the word out those planes could come in very handy. And with that in mind, I’ll order Home Fleet to prepare to get underway first thing in the morning.”
In this brief excerpt the British get their first
taste of Kirov’s formidable Moskit-II “Sunburn” Missiles in ship to ship action vs the Battlecruiser HMS Repulse.
was the Leading Rate in the crow's nest on Repulse that morning, or at least he hoped to be. He was up for promotion this very week, hoping to make that first step up from Able Seamen to one of the higher ratings before the ship was transferred to the Pacific. Today's assignment was just the luck of the draw. His Chief Petty Officer had thumbed his duty roster and landed on his name that morning, and so Doolan was up high in the crow's nest, the wind in his face as he settled in for the morning watch.
As the gray dawn gave way, the skies lightened with clouds dappled pink and mauve, and the first rays of real sunshine piercing through that they had seen in days. It wasn't a bad lot, he thought. He could sit up there and chew on a biscuit or two, though he wished he had the presence of mind to fetch a flask of hot water or tea. Bundled up in his heavy greatcoat, gloves, and thick lined hat with ear muffs, he'd be warm enough until noon when someone else would climb up the metal mast ladder to relieve him. Yet this morning he was to have a front row seat to one of the most amazing spectacles he had ever seen.
Repulse was cruising along at high revolutions, her bow splitting the waves easily as the ship surged forward, her wake clear and white behind her. The air was cool and crisp, the biscuits just salty enough to have a little flavor, and no one would bother him for the next four hours. What could be better?
Sometime after second bell, a little after 09:00 hours, he was peering at the distant horizon when his eye caught the gleam of sunlight on metal in the sky. Surprised to think he would find a plane this far out in the Atlantic, he looked up and saw a remarkable sight. High up in the sky, something was streaking by, leaving a long thin white contrail that sliced through the clouds and vanished behind him, then fell swiftly towards the ocean. It was as if the Gods had hurled a great burning stone into the sea. It's speed was amazing. It was there and then gone before he had half a moment to think what it might be. Two other streaks in the sky sped off to the north. There was no planes on earth that could move at a speed like that, and without making the slightest sound as they lanced through the sky above.
I've gone and seen a meteor, he thought, a bleeding, shooting star! Then he looked and saw another one diving in from the same place in the sky, descending at an incredible rate, as it looked it might careen right into the ocean well ahead of the ship. But as it swooped down, to his utter astonishment, the meteor leveled off and surged right over the wave tops bearing directly in on Repulse in a silent, deadly charge. Dumbstruck, he instinctively reached for the phone mounted on the main mast, but before he could even lay a hand on it something struck the ship a mighty blow, right amidships, just slightly forward of the place where he stood his watch.
There came a shuddering vibration and the ship seemed to rock violently to port, prompting him to hang on the side railings of his crow’s nest for dear life. Seconds later, as a column of thick, black smoke broiled up from below, he finally heard a long descending roar overlaid on the growl of the explosion, not knowing it was the sound of a hypersonic missile finally catching up with itself. Alarms were jangling all over the ship, and he looked down to see engineers quickly donning life preservers and running to the scene of the impact, the orange red flames licking through the heavy black smoke like the tongues of hundred dragons.
Down on the bridge, Captain Tennant never saw the missile as it skimmed in silently over the glistening sea. Traveling at just under three times the speed of sound, the P-1000 Moskit-II “Sunburn” was one of most lethal missiles in the new Russian naval inventory, replacing the P-800 Yakhont/Bramos in 2016. It was the second missile to bear the NATO codename “Sunburn,” as its design and performance were much akin to that of its predecessor, the dreadful Moskit-I.
Shaped like a long, aerodynamic torpedo with a finely pointed nose, it had four small winglets in an X-scheme at mid-fuselage, with a series of small ramjet engines mounted between them that gave it the look of a sleek and deadly shark. It's solid rocket booster would ignite upon firing, followed by two small stabilizing jets from the nose of the missile, one to decline it towards its target after its vertical launch, and the second to counter this thrust and keep the missile level. After these two short bursts, the solid fuel at the rear would rapidly accelerate the missile, expended in the first four seconds of flight as it reached its incredible speed of over 3600 kilometers per hour, quickly leaving the roar of its own engines in its wake. Liquid fuel would then power the missile along the remainder of its flight path. It would fly at altitude for all but the last ten percent of its course to the target, then would streak down to sea level accelerating right over the top of the ocean for the last deadly run.
It had been fired by Kirov just two minutes ago, gobbling up the 100 kilometers to the target with blistering speed. It could maneuver with precision an defend itself with a suite of electronic countermeasures as well, but its job today would not be difficult. Its target was crystal clear ahead, its design giving no thought to minimizing radar cross-sections. It was masked by no countervailing ECM, no infrared suppression system was in play, and there was no chaff in the air intend to spoof or decoy the missile away—nor was there any AA gun aboard the ship with the slightest chance of tracking and hitting it as it came on its final blistering sprint at Mach 3.0. It was like shooting a fish in a barrel.
When the missile struck Repulse,
it delivered a 450 kilogram, armor piercing warhead that hammered against a belt of cemented armor measuring six inches thick just above the waterline amidships. Only her big 15 inch gun turrets had
better protection, though this belt armor was relatively thin for a ship of her size. Some thirty kilometers behind her by now, the flagship King George V, had armor more than twice this
thickness along her main side belts. The protection given Repulse was enough to impede, but not stop, the missile. It prevented it from completely burning its way deeper into the ship when the
Sunburn exploded, but the remaining load of liquid fuel in its long fuselage ignited in a roaring fireball. The armor plating buckled and broke, seared by the explosion and considerable kinetic
impact of the missile, which was enough to send a shower of metal fragments inward to pierce the inner sides of the hull in places, and claim the life of two Able Seamen who had been in the wrong
place at the wrong time. A jet of flaming hot metal seared through the breech, and started a major fire.
On the bridge, Captain Tennant could only think that he had been hit by a torpedo, and
he immediately had his Chiefs check all the watches to see if anyone had spotted a periscope. Doolan's phone rang and he blurted out his incredible tale of high flying meteors descending and
skipping over the waves. Tennant thought the man was daft, but yet his ship was on fire, and he was clearly under attack. The eyes of every watch stander puckered against the horizon looking for any
sign of an enemy vessel, but saw nothing. Then they heard a roar, the sound of the missile’s rocket engine finally catching up with it, well after it had already struck the ship. It seemed like
the moaning of some demonic, unseen leviathan.
Captain Tennant shuddered with the sound and the sight of the awful fire now burning amidships. When he had taken stock of the situation, and
heard from his engineers below, he turned to his signalman and said: “Make to Tovey on King George V. We are under attack, struck by a torpedo amidships on main belt. Ship on fire, but damage appears moderate and under control, and we are still seaworthy. No enemy surface contact, and no periscope sighted. No damaged to engines or plant, but slowing to twenty knots to assess possible breech below the waterline. Beginning zigzag pattern for the next hour.”
He turned and gave the orders to begin evasive maneuvers and scolded his watchmen to be on the lookout for periscopes, particularly on the port side of the ship where the blow had landed. As more reports came in it was soon made apparent to him that, while struck very near the waterline, all the damage to the ship was well above it. Unless this was a new torpedo that could leap out of the water like a swordfish, the damage had to be caused by something else.
Minutes later that ‘something else’ was again inbound on his position with evil intent. As before, it came in from above, then swooped down like an evil bird of prey to skim across the ocean at a scorching speed. This time he saw it, his jaw slack with amazement as the missile bored in on Repulse leaving a long thin white tail of smoke behind it. “Bloody hell,” he breathed. Then it exploded again, a little higher and slightly forward of the last hit.
The ship rocked with the second impact, and fire and smoke billowed up, obscuring his vision. A single fragment of near molten metal struck and pierced his forward viewport, shattering the glass there an jarring a nearby bulkhead with a metallic thud. Thankfully, no one was hit.
“What in blazes was that?” he said to his Executive Officer. His mind reeled, still replaying the image of the silent, swift approach of the weapon as it flashed against his ship. Thank god they were hitting us amidships, he thought. Any higher and that devil would have missed our side armor and run completely through the ship.
A com-link phone jangled, and the XO took it up. “Hull breech from that one, sir, and another bad fire… But well above the water line. No flooding. Burned out one of the new AA guns above the point of impact. Several casualties.”
“Make to Tovey,” he said to the signalmen. “Second hit amidships. Not a torpedo, yet no ship sighted. Weapon appeared to be a rocket. Repeat, not a torpedo.” He knew how unusual this would sound. He had heard of experimental rocket weapons, but had never seen one—until now. It was the only thing that could possibly explain what he had witnessed and also fit with the reports he had been receiving from the engineers below. That thing was flying. It came down at him from above until it hugged the sea before it hit. It was not a torpedo.
Tennant scanned the horizon with his field glasses, then removed them, squinting up into the sallow gray sky to look for any sign of an aircraft. There was nothing. He was like a blindfolded boxer in a ring with the heavyweight champion of the world. He would never see the punches coming, nor the man who threw them, but he would surely feel them. He had taken two hard blows to the gut, and his ship was doubled over with the pain. Yet as he looked about him, rushing from one side of the bridge to another, the sea was stark, cold and empty.
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