Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Battle & Royal Naval Articles of War

"It is upon the Navy, under the good providence of God, that the wealth,
safety and strength of the Kingdom do chiefly depend" 
As promulgated in ‘The Admiralty Account of Naval operations April 1941 to January 1943’
and in force at the time of this Battle.

"He that commands the sea is at great liberty,
and may take as much and as little of the war as he will" 
Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)
Celebrated English statesman, jurist, scientist, philosopher, speaker, essayist and author


The painting, Oils on board, by Wallace Trickett, 30”W x 20”H
© C R Sharplin

This painting depicts just one of a whole host of such unbridled actions that occurred in the Mediterranean during this period of World War 2 where, with virtually no air cover, there was no protection for Royal Naval forces from the ferocity of the onslaught waged upon them by the German Luftwaffe (Note 7). This particular incident occurred during the Crete Campaign in May 1941. As Greece fell to the German Army in late April the Royal Navy, including Ajax, evacuated about 30,000 troops, principally ANZAC with some British and Greek, carrying them southwards to the island of Crete. Ajax evacuated, among others, elements of the 6th New Zealand Brigade, 2/3 Australian Battalion and last of all, on April 29th, Rear Admiral ‘Tom’ Baillie-Grohman RN (who was attached to the Staff of the General Officer Commanding Middle East) together with New Zealand’s Major-General Bernard ‘Tiny’ Freberg VC, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, who would soon take command of all allied military forces on Crete.

The allied forces arrived on Crete to be taunted by Nazi radio propaganda broadcasts that they had been landed on the ‘Isle of Doom’. These broadcasts were prophetic as Ajax and the other naval ships then found themselves being called in to defend the allied forces they had so recently landed on the island from German seaborne invasion. Within a month or so German forces overran the island. The Royal Navy again had to evacuate the allied troops, this time from Crete to North Africa. Thousands who could not be saved were captured and suffered four years in German prisoner of war camps.

Of the utmost importance was ensuring the historical accuracy of the ship's appearance for the artist to include in his work. Consequently a great deal of research on a part time basis had to be undertaken before the artist could start his work, this took place over some ten years or so. After the River Plate action Ajax’s silhouette changed substantially during her repair and refit in Chatham Naval Dockyard between February and July 1940. Bob Sharplin joined the ship in the midst of these repairs on March 19th. Tripod masts and Type 279 aircraft warning radar were installed and Zarebas enclosures fitted to the four 4” gun mountings which had already been changed from single to twin mountings. At various other times over the next year or so her reconnaissance aircraft and its catapult were removed being replaced by a quad 2 pounder Pom-Pom gun, eleven Oerlikon guns were fitted as were Types 282, 284 and 285 radars. Also Ajax wore several different camouflage patterns through her war service. The key questions to be answered were which of these changes had been made between the 1940 refit and 21st May 1941, the date of the action portrayed, and what details could be found of this specific Mediterranean action including which German aircraft actually bombed her? As an example the removal of the aircraft and their catapults were found to have been made in March 1941, probably in Alexandria, the crane however was retained to assist in the handling of the ship’s boats. This painting is the culmination of those years of research to find the evidence to ensure that the painting is an accurate record.

It must be recognised that at this stage of the war nearly all of the Royal Navy’s ships were extremely vulnerable to air attack due to the mistaken belief by the Admiralty that they had been adequately equipped with regard to their armament. The reverse had quickly and horribly become apparent. During the spring of 1940 the effectiveness of German air attack in all its forms in actions off Norway demonstrated just how completely the Admiralty had grossly underestimated the ability of their ships to defend themselves against aerial attack with a lack of anti aircraft (AA) guns and their control equipment (Note 1).

In these actions around Crete the Axis air attacks were so vicious in their frequency and numbers of aircraft employed to the point of being almost overwhelming. The British ships expended huge amounts of ammunition such that their defensive firepower was always a consideration and often became restricted. Even their main armament was used in spite of its insufficient elevation limits. One cruiser actually exhausted all of her ammunition and had to resort to firing signal and practice shells.

The lack of this defensive capability compounded by almost non-existent air force resources to provide air cover was to exact a terrible toll in ships and men in the Battle for Crete (Note 2). This was the scene which Ajax and all other fleet units found themselves in.

The action shown took place over just a few minutes on the morning of May 21st, the day after German airborne forces began “Operation Merkur”, their invasion of Crete. Admiral A.B. (Andrew Browne) Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, or ‘ABC’ as he became known in the Royal Navy, had the previous day issued instructions for night sweeps of the Aegean to challenge expected seaborne invasion. Daylight found Ajax, under the command of Captain E. D. (Desmond) B. McCarthy, heading to the South West of Antikithera, beyond the southern tip of Greece, as part of Force D under the command of recently appointed Flag Officer, Rear-Admiral Irvine G. Glennie, in the cruiser Dido, together with the cruiser Orion and four destroyers, Hasty, Hereward, Kimberley and Janus (Note 3). Having swept the Maleme, Canea and Kissamo Bay areas of the Cretan coast the previous night they had investigated what proved to be false reports of enemy seaborne landings at Heraklion, the squadron was then to join other ships of the fleet in a major concentration of naval forces to defend the island.

That morning at 0800 the ships log recorded the weather conditions as 'sea state 11, wind westerly force 3, visibility good, and position 35.27N/22.32E.' The log shows that the sea state would rise to 21, wind strengthen slightly to force 4 west by north-west and visibility to become excellent by noon.

Captain E. D. (Desmond) B. McCarthy R.N.
In Command Ajax April 1940 – November 1941
Later Vice Admiral and Commander in Chief South Atlantic KCB DSO
Photo © courtesy of HMS. Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association Archive

The following three portraits are of Admiral Sir A.B. (Andrew Browne) Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet or ‘ABC’ as he came to be known within the Royal Navy. Ultimately First Sea Lord & Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral of the Fleet, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope KT GCB OM DSO.
Portrait for Ministry of Information
Believed commissioned 1943
Artist unknown
Photo believed to have been taken on board his Flagship

Time Magazine cover, 24 May 1943

In his book Crete 1941, The Battle at Sea, David A Thomas wrote: 'The daylight hours of May 21st were to witness violent and prolonged battles between warships and the bombers.' 

Frank Pearce in Sea War, Great Naval Battles of World War 2 wrote: '... the air was filled with the drone of approaching aircraft. They came in droves.... it seemed impossible that any ship could survive such a massive attack.'

Rear-Admiral Irvine G. Glennie
Commander Force D on May 21st 1941
Ultimately Vice Admiral and Commander in Chief America and West Indies Station KCB CB

At 0825 the Ajax ship’s log (Note 4) reads the order ‘Hands to repel aircraft stations’ was given to confront an imminent attack by Heinkel 111 bombers. At 0915 the log reads ‘Attacked by ten Ju 87 dive bombers, several very near misses with bombs, damage to port shafts.’ It is this precise moment which the painting has attempted to capture. Ajax is shown in the painting as working up to high speed commencing an evasive hard turn as her orders were ‘manoeuvre to avoid (air attack)’. This attack ceased at 0922, the whole action had lasted just seven minutes although it must have seemed like an eternity to Ajax’s crew. A little later at 1050 a pair of Stukas attacked. Then in the afternoon there was another ferocious attack that lasted for 2½ hours followed by a further attack that evening all of which were beaten off.

The Admiralty Account of Naval Operations: April 1941 to January 1943 (from which some of the above is sourced) gives a most vivid description on page 29:

'In this and subsequent bombings, every form of attack was made on the ships; high level, single and formation; massed bombing by Junkers (Stukas) 87s and 88s and Heinkel 111s; high-speed horizontal attacks by Messerschmitts, or shallow dives at a height of a few hundred feet, aircraft returned to their adjoining airfields (in Greece), bombed up, ammunitioned, refuelled and returned independently to the attack.

There is no spot more naked under heaven than the deck (of a ship) as a stick of bombs falls slanting towards it. The assailant may be the size of a gnat on the rim of a far off cloud; it may be a raid approaching from four quarters, roaring down with machine guns and cannon spraying the decks with explosive shell; the bombs may fall unheralded out of the blinding Mediterranean sun or low-lying cloud; they may burst on the surface of the sea, flinging a myriad of steel splinters abroad, killing or wounding everybody in their path, piercing anything but armour; they may burst under the surface, throwing up the water in the semblance of gigantic monoliths that, as they collapse, deluge the pom-poms and machine-guns and their crews, and flood the ventilation trunks. These explosions lift the ship as if a giant had kicked her, wrenching the steering gear, straining frames and plates. They are called near-misses, and the men, watching the bombs scream down at the ship, thank God for them as the alternative to a direct hit.'

Another Near Miss
Photographed from HMAS Perth (A Modified Leander Class cruiser) during the Battle for Crete.
Both Perth and Ajax were frequently in company with each other during this campaign to the
extent that they became known as “buddy ships” to each other.
Royal Australian Navy Photo.
For those of the crew  below decks in the ship's magazines, machinery spaces, engine and boiler rooms devoid of a view of what was actually happening in the attacks on their ship it was particularly harrowing and stressful.

One officer whose ship was similarly attacked in the same battle that day described it thus:

"During a prolonged bombing attack such as we endured, engine room and boiler rooms resemble the inside of a giant’s kettle against which a sledge hammer is being beaten with uncertain aim. Sometimes there was an almighty clang; sometimes the giant in his frustration, seemed to pick up the kettle and shake and even kick it. The officer detailed to broadcast (from the ship’s bridge) a running commentary suffered a breakdown during the battle so we heard little below but through the noise and heat (which might easily have been up to 40 degrees C) of the machinery spaces we came to understand something of what was happening on deck …. We could hear our 5.25-inch turrets opening fire which told us aircraft were attacking. Next, the bridge telegraphs might signal Full Speed and we would see the rudder indicator move … at the moment the bombs release . This would be followed by the sound of the short range weapons as the bomber pulled out of his dive … We learned to interpret by the ensuing shake or shudder or clang the success or otherwise of our navigators’ avoiding action.

From time to time my chief or I would visit the boiler rooms. Here, for hour after hour after frightening hour, with ears popping from air pressure the young stokers knew and heard little of what was going on apart the obvious near misses and scream of the boiler room fans. On their alertness, as they watched for orders to open or shut off oil sprayers to the furnaces, depended the precise supply of steam available to meet sudden changes of speed ordered ... on which (the ship’s) survival depended" (Note 8).        

Note in the painting that both of Ajax’s forward main gun turrets are firing a salvo. Her crew had found that by firing all its main armament as salvos, although limited to a maximum elevation of 60°, their chance of hitting attacking aircraft was greatly increased, as it placed a virtual cloud of flack directly into the path of the attacking aircraft. Lieutenant W.D.S. White, the senior watch keeping officer, was afterwards recorded as saying “The shooting against the aircraft was not particularly effective although I remember one Ju 88 ploughing into the water only about half a cable off our starboard bow, to the enthusiastic cheers of Desmond McCarthy, our Captain”.

Amongst the attacking German aircraft were Junkers Ju 87B Stukas (Stuka being the abbreviation for ‘Sturzkampfflugzeug’, a dive bomber) from Stabstaffel III St.G. 2, named the ‘Immelmann Geschwader’. Stukas characteristically attacked in near vertical screaming dives but artistic licence has been taken in the work to deliberately incorrectly position one of these attacking Stukas to display the distinctive squadron markings of the Emblem of the Order of Teutonic Knights just for’d of the cockpit, the aircraft’s unique unit identity, T6+AD, and their special paint scheme which included bright yellow noses and rudders. Two incoming aircraft are similarly positioned to show their distinctive ‘cranked’ wing silhouette.

The Mediterranean war theatre 1941

In the distance, off Ajax’s stern quarter is the cruiser HMS Dido (flag Rear-Admiral Glennie) under similar air attack.

At midnight Force “D” intercepted and attacked an enemy invasion convoy north of Cannae comprising some 25 caiques and small steamers carrying German troops escorted by the Italian destroyer Lupo. In the ensuing mêlée 10 caiques were sunk, their troops killed or thrown into the sea and the Lupo damaged.

The Battle for Crete. Fleet movements and events from dusk 20 May 1941
One week later on May 28th, Ajax received a direct bomb hit causing a fire and 20 men were seriously wounded. The damage forced her to be detached from the action to return to base.

The task of defending Crete ultimately proved fruitless at a dreadful cost to the Royal Navy with 2,252 men dead and 430 wounded (Note 5). Ajax lost 11 dead and had 38 wounded. 9 ships were sunk, 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers. 18 were damaged including 2 battleships, the only aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers, some so badly that they could not be repaired within the Mediterranean facilities capabilities and were despatched to other repair locations such as in South Africa.

At the conclusion of this campaign in August 1941 Admiral Cunningham wrote in his report to the Admiralty:
“More than once I felt that the stage had been reached when no more could be asked of officers and men, physically and mentally exhausted by their efforts and by the events of these fateful weeks. It is perhaps even now not realised how nearly the breaking point was reached, but that these men struggled through is the measure of their achievement and I trust that it will not lightly be forgotten. The Mediterranean Fleet paid a heavy price for the achievement. Losses and damage were sustained which would normally only occur during a major fleet action, in which the enemy fleet might be expected to suffer greater losses than our own. In this case the enemy fleet did not appear (though it had many favourable opportunities for doing so) and the battle was fought between ships and aircraft”.

  1. It was only in the opening months of 1941 that this was beginning to be rectified with the almost desperate short term solution of installing 20mm Oerlikon guns in ships as they came in for refit. Governed by manufacturing capacity these guns initially were in such limited numbers the first ships, Galatea, Devonshire and Orion, only received two or three each. (Ibid - Raven & Roberts, “British Cruisers of World War Two”, P 324).
  2. This dire combination became somewhat repetitive in a lesson not quickly learnt resulting in additional Royal Naval losses in other theatres such as two battleships at the same time Repulse and Prince of Wales off the coast of Malaya on 1 December 1941.
  3. The number and names of the destroyers actually in company with Ajax during the morning’s “near miss” incident vary across the range of published accounts. The destroyers named in this account are those named in Ajax’s Daily Diary (ibid) which also states that Hasty and Hereward were replaced by Imperial and Isis later in the day. Vincent O’Hara in his book “The Struggle for the Middle Sea – The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean 1940 – 1945”, P118 -119, agrees with those in Ajax’s Daily Diary as also do the Daily Diaries for Kimberley and Hereward. Imperial was bombed seven days later on the 28th  and so extensively damaged that she was deliberately sunk by Hotspur to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. The next day Hereward received a fatal direct bomb hit just near her foremost funnel during an attack by Stukas; she was last seen heading for the Crete coast some five miles away with her guns still firing. She had on board some 450 troops who had been evacuated from the island. (Ibid, Bibliography  - “Crete 1941, The Battle at Sea”, David A Thomas, P190). On that same day Dido was hit as was Orion taking two hits in which her Captain (Captain Beck RN) was killed "and there was indescribable horror between decks aft when a bomb burst among thousands of men (evacuated troops) there"  (Ibid, Bibliography  - "The Med, the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1939-45", Rowland Langmaid).
  4. Ibid, Ship’s Log attached
  5. Ibid, Bibliography  - “Crete 1941, The Battle at Sea”, David A Thomas. Appendix C. A comprehensive listing for each ship.
  6. For detail of air and sea forces involved of all participants refer to (ibid) “Order of Battle, The Battle for Crete 14 May – 1 June 1941”.
  7. The merchant ships involved in convoying supplies and material in this theatre of war were at an even worse disadvantage being lightly armed, of slower speed, more difficult to manoeuvre and invariably the prime targets. They played, however, negligible participation in this particular action. 
  8. Ibid, Bibliography  - “The Royal Navy, An Illustrated Social History 1870 - 1982", Page 184. A contemporary account by Admiral Le Bailly, then Senior Engineer Officer in HMS Naiad, a Dido Class Anti-Aircraft Cruiser. Involved in the battle that same day she suffered several air attacks and received some splinter damage and flooding forward. In heavy air attacks the next day 181 bombs were aimed at Naiad causing serious damage including two gun turrets disabled and her speed reduced to 16 knots. On 11 March 1942 she was torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat  U565 south of Crete.