Archives For North Sea

Brummer & Bremse

October 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

german cruiser

During World War One, Germany’s Kaiserliche Marine often sallied forth with light units and sometimes even battle cruisers to harass English fishing and merchant vessels and to bombard English coastal towns. One of these minor raids occurred early in the morning on October 17, 1916 when the German cruisers SMS Brummer and SMS Bremse chanced upon a convoy of twelve merchantmen escorted by 2 armed trawlers and 2 destroyers – the HMS Strongbow and Mary Rose. The Brummer and Bremse had been designed as minelaying light cruisers and were among the most modern ships in the German cruiser fleet at the time of the action.

Mistaking the German ships for British cruisers, the Strongbow and Mary Rose failed to engage the Brummer and Bremse until they were fired upon at the relatively close range of 2,700m. By comparison, the opening salvos of the Battle of Jutland earlier in the year had occurred at 14,000m. The two British destroyers were quickly sunk (the Mary Rose joining her earlier namesake in Davy Jones’ Locker) and the German cruisers proceeded to attack the now vulnerable merchantmen. The Brummer and Bremse sank 9 of the vessels before breaking off the engagement to avoid any Royal Navy response. The cruisers successfully returned to port and survived the war only to be scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919.

Scapa Flow

SMS Brummer on the Scapa Flow seafloor
Sonar Image Courtesy of UK Department for Transport

royal navy

Scapa Flow Anchorage
CC Image Courtesy of John Haslam on Flickr

On the night of October 13, 1939, Kriegsmarine Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien and the crew of U-47 launched one of the most daring submarine raids of World War II. With hostilities barely a month old, the Kriegsmarine dispatched Prien to the Royal Navy’s vaunted Scapa Flow anchorage with orders to penetrate the harbor and sink one of the Royal Navy’s capital ships. Scapa Flow, situated in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, provided the Royal Navy with a vast secure anchorage in which it could maintain its Home Fleet. Basing the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow allowed the Royal Navy to more effectively deny the Kriegsmarine access to the Atlantic via the North Sea. A succesful strike within the protected confines of Scapa Flow would not only cause serious consternation in the British Admiralty, but it would also serve as a propaganda coup for the Kriegsmarine as Scapa Flow was the site of the internment and scuttling of the German Imperial High Seas Fleet following World War I.

Prien and his crew deftly negotiated the outlying islands, blockships and harbor defenses and shortly after midnight on the morning of October 14, arrived within the anchorage. By an act of Divine Providence, the Royal Navy had recently removed its most important capital ships from the anchorage and Prien was forced to settle upon a World War I vintage Revenge class battleship, the HMS Royal Oak, as his target. Two years later, a similar act of Divine Providence would occur when the US Navy’s aircraft carriers were notably absent from Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Prien lined up his boat and launched a salvo of four torpedoes, only one of which found its mark. After two more attempts, Prien’s torpedoes finally struck home and the Royal Oak swiftly capsized and disappeared beneath the cold waters of Scapa Flow.

A combination of Prien’s skill and confusion within the anchorage allowed the U-47 to successfully escape. Upon their arrival back in Germany, Prien and his crew were feted and presented with Iron Crosses for their incredible feat. Britain, meanwhile, mourned the loss of 833 of Royal Oak’s crew, many of whom were mere boys in training. Although the strike was successful, it failed to accomplish anything strategically significant. The Royal Oak, while an important capital ship, was already obsolete and not essential to Britain’s continued naval dominance. Nor did the strike enable the Kriegsmarine to have a clearer route to the North Atlantic. The Royal Oak was never salvaged and today still lies at the bottom of Scapa Flow.

british battleship

3-D Sonar Imagery of Wreck of HMS Royal Oak
Photo: Divernet

Danish Defiance

August 29, 2013 — Leave a comment
Danish Navy

Peder Skram Scuttled in the Royal Dockyard
Photo: Royal Danish Naval Museum

Following the Nazi invasion in April 1940, Denmark entered an uneasy period of occupation by their Nazi overlords. Because of their ethnic heritage as a Nordic/Scandinavian people, the Danes were generally treated better than other occupied peoples, however, King Christian X famously rode his horse through Copenhagen on a daily basis as a symbol of silent resistance. Among the institutions left to function with only a modicum of Nazi intervention was the Danish Navy which performed minor minesweeping duties off the nation’s islands to prevent the sinking of coastal ferries.

As the war progressed and it became clearer that the Nazis would soon confiscate their warships, the naval high command devised a plan to deprive the Nazis of the entire Danish Navy. The Danish Navy had once been among the most powerful in the world and it wasn’t until Admiral Nelson’s successful attacks on Copenhagen that it was reduced to a minor fleet. By August 1943 it consisted of two coastal defense ships, ten torpedo boats, seven minelayers, a dozen submarines, five ocean patrol vessels, seventeen minesweepers and a handful of auxiliary vessels. The Nazis decided to take over the Danish Army and Navy on August 29, 1943, however, the officers of the Danish Navy were determined not to let even their meager force fall into enemy hands. As the Nazi forces approached the Royal Dockyard in Copenhagen early on the morning of the 29th, a pre-arranged signal was hoisted which instructed each of the vessel’s commanders to scuttle their ships.

Within 30 minutes, 32 of the Danish Navy’s vessels lay at the bottom of Copenhagen harbor and another four were on their way to internment in neutral Sweden. Out of 52 vessels, the Nazis were only able to seize 14 untouched. Nine Danish sailors perished in the scuttling, another ten were wounded and a significant portion of the Danish Navy’s personnel were interned by the Nazis. While it may not have deprived the Kriegsmarine of any significant warships, the defiance exhibited by the Danish Navy strengthened the morale of the Danish Resistance and told the world that the Danes would not go quietly into the night.

fish wrap

The Hunt for Hitler's Warship

Regnery History, a relatively new imprint of Regnery Publishing, has brought readers yet another fantastic offering in Patrick Bishop’s The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Previous books from Regnery History reviewed here include Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron and Fatal Dive. Over the span of ~400 pages, Bishop familiarizes readers with the epic saga of the Nazi battleship Tirpitz from her gestation in Wilhelmshaven to her cataclysmic death at the hands of British bombers in November 1944.

Bishop brings to life the tireless efforts of the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force and Norwegian Resistance to reduce Nazi Germany’s last remaining battleship Tirpitz to a worthless heap of scrap iron. The reader is also introduced to life aboard the Tirpitz through Bishop’s interviews with surviving crew and archival research. This aspect helps round out the work and present readers with a better understanding of both the dread struck in British military planners’ minds by the Tirpitz as well as the fear and trepidation experienced within the ranks of the Kriegsmarine at the prospect of the loss of the Tirpitz in a surface action.  Unlike Hunting Tirpitz, which I reviewed earlier last year and is essentially a compendium of after-action reports by the British Admiralty, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship, is an engaging work designed to bring the story of the sacrifices of British and Norwegian sailors and airmen to life for modern audiences.

norway naval battle

Wreck of German Destroyer in Narvik Fjord
CC Image Courtesy of Eugene van Grinsven on Flickr

On the morning of April 9, 1940, the quiet tranquillity of Narvik Fjord was shattered by the arrival of a flotilla of 10 Kriegsmarine destroyers with orders to capture the strategically significant port of Narvik. Despite only possessing the two obsolete coastal defence ships HNoMS Norge and HNoMS Eidsvold, Norwegian naval commander Odd Isaachsen Willoch refused to surrender and the fjord soon echoed with the sound of screaming shells and whooshing torpedoes. Unfortunately for the Norwegians, their outclassed ships were sunk in a battle lasting a mere 20 minutes with the loss of more than 300 sailors. The victorious Kriegsmarine force quickly took possession of the port and the multitude of ships riding at anchor in the harbor.

The next day, though, saw the arrival of a flotilla of Royal Navy destroyers. Among the flotilla was HMS Hotspur which unfortunately was not captained by Commander Hornblower. Engaging the German force, the Royal Navy’s destroyers acquitted themselves well trading the loss of 2 destroyers and 1 heavily damaged for 2 German destroyers sunk, 4 damaged and 7 cargo vessels destroyed. Three days following this engagement, a Royal Navy task force consisting of the battleship HMS Warspite, 9 destroyers and aircraft from HMS Furious unleashed their fury on the remaining German destroyers. Running low on fuel and ammunition, the German flotilla was at the mercy of the British task force and all 8 destroyers along with 2 u-boats were sent to the bottom of Narvik Fjord. Despite their overwhelming victory, the Allies were unable to follow up for lack of ground forces and Narvik remained in German hands.

battle of narvik

Battle of Narvik
CC Image Courtesy of Arkiv i Nordland on Flickr

The Hunt for U-864

February 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

As hope for victory faded with each passing day, the Japanese and Nazis increasingly turned to miracle weapons to deliver them from Allied domination. As a result, in the waning months of World War II, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan began to increase their technical cooperation. Due to logistical issues, much of this cooperation flowed through transfers by submarine of engineers, blueprints and specialized material and parts between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In early December 1944, Korvettenkapitan Marko Ramius Ralf-Reimar Wolfram and U-864 was ordered to proceed to Japan with a secret cargo of 74 tons of mercury, aircraft blueprints and two engineers. Soon after departing Germany, the U-864 developed engine troubles and Wolfram ordered the ship to put in to Bergen, Norway for repairs. After repairs were completed, the U-864 left Bergen for Japan in early February 1945. Thanks to the dedicated codebreakers of Bletchley Park, the Royal Navy was aware of U-864’s presence in the area and vectored HMS Venturer, a V-class submarine, to intercept U-864.

After arriving on scene, Venturer, commanded by Lt. James Launders with the assistance of Jack Ryan, began its hunt for Red October the U-864 and on February 9 located what it believed to be the sub. Lt. Launders was no stranger to hunting Nazi submarines, as he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for sinking the surfaced U-771 off the Norwegian coast. Carefully stalking his prey, Lt. Launders waited for the U-864 to surface as a submerged submarine had never been sunk by another submerged submarine. U-864 had been equipped with a snorkel, though, which enabled it to operate underwater for prolonged periods and thus Lt. Launders was faced with a difficult decision – surface to re-charge his batteries and risk discovery by the Nazis or attack the U-864 while submerged. Lt. Launders chose to attack the U-864 and after developing a firing solution, unleashed a spread of four torpedoes. U-864 successfully evaded three of the four torpedoes, but the fourth struck the sub amidships and split the sub in two, instantly killing all 73 of her crew.

Lt. Launders was awarded a bar to his DSO and his action remains the only instance of a submerged submarine successfully killing another submerged submarine. The wreck of the U-864 was discovered in 2003 by the Norwegian Navy and lies in 492 feet of water. The wreck’s 74 tons of mercury makes the site an environmental hazard as approximately 8.8 pounds of mercury leak from the sub every year. In 2008, the Norwegian government awarded a salvage contract for the wreck’s recovery and disposal. The salvage has yet to be completed as the Norwegian government postponed the salvage in 2010 citing technical difficulties.

HMS Cymric

Oil Painting by Kenneth King
National Maritime Museum of Ireland

Late in 2011, divers from Dark Star dive team discovered the wreck of the British submarine J6 off the Northumberland coast. While the discovery of a submarine may have surprised the team, what is even more surprising, and tragic, are the circumstances by which the J6 was sunk.

On October 15, 1918 the HMS Cymric was on patrol off the Northumberland coast in Northeastern England. The HMS Cymric was originally an Irish schooner launched in 1893. She was later converted by the Royal Navy for use as a Q-ship. Q-ships were modern-day Trojan Horses – camouflaged to look like innocent merchant ships in order to lure unsuspecting German u-boats and merchant raiders to attack. When attacked, the Q-ship crew would reveal a bristling array of hidden armaments and the hunter would become the hunted. Q-Ships claimed fourteen German u-boats destroyed and 60 damaged during World War I through the use of these tactics.

While on patrol, the Cymric’s crew spotted what appeared to be a German submarine with the markings U6 on its conning tower. The Cymric opened fire and sank the submarine. Unfortunately, the markings were in fact J6 and 15 Royal Navy sailors lost their lives to friendly fire. The Cymric’s captain was cleared after a court of inquiry and the matter remained classified until 1969. The Cymric returned to commercial service after the war, but her bad luck continued as she struck a tram with her bowsprit in 1927 in Dublin harbor and then disappeared with all hands while sailing from Scotland to Portugal in 1944. Dark Star divers plan to return to the wreck this year to lay a memorial plaque in honor of the lives lost aboard J6.

Bonhomme Richard

Battle of Flamborough Head
Photo: US Navy, Painting by Thomas Mitchell

One of the most famous battles in the US Navy’s history occurred 233 years ago today on September 23, 1779. Captain John Paul Jones and his converted East Indiaman USS Bonhomme Richard along with USS Alliance attacked a British convoy protected by HMS Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. In what became known as the Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones and his crew engaged the Serapis in a ship-to-ship duel. Captain Pearson of the Serapis demanded Jones’ surrender and in reply he uttered the now famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Though outgunned, Jones’ superior  fighting skills carried the day and the Serapis eventually struck its colors. Despite having defeated the British forces (Countess of Scarborough struck her colors as well), the Bonhomme Richard sank the next morning and Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis. Jones’ victory was not the last in which an American naval force engaged British forces while penning a famous phrase

The wreck of the Bonhomme Richard is considered one of the crown jewels of shipwrecks and has been the subject of several discovery expeditions. Unfortunately none have been able to locate the wreck and its final resting place off Flamborough Head remains a mystery. John Paul Jones is considered the father of the American Navy and his words “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way” are just as famous in naval circles as “I have not yet begun to fight.” Sadly, Jones never held a significant sea command in the US Navy after the Battle of Flamborough Head and died an Admiral in the Russian Navy.