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ROYAL, DOMINION & ALLIED NAVIES in WORLD WAR 2
by Gordon Smith, Naval-History.Net

9. BATTLE of CAPE MATAPAN, BATTLES for GREECE & CRETE, CAPTURE of 'U.110' & ENIGMA CODES, LOSS of 'HOOD', SINKING of 'BISMARCK'

January - May 1941

HMS Hood, battlecruiser (Maritime Quest, click to enlarge)

on to June-November 1941

 

Battle of Cape Matapan (see March 1941)

 

1941

JANUARY 1941

ATLANTIC - JANUARY 1941

German Heavy Warships & Raiders - Pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" was hunting in the South Atlantic, while battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" in Germany and heavy cruiser "Hipper" in Brest, France prepared to sail. At the end of the month the two battlecruisers headed out into the Atlantic for two months operations before returning to Brest. Six of the original seven raiders were still at sea - "Orion" and "Komet" in the Pacific, "Atlantis" at the desolate island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, "Kormoran" in the Central and "Thor" in the South Atlantic. Finally "Pinguin" was in the Antarctic. All six moved to different areas over the next few months. Until June 1941, German warships sank 37 ships of 188,000 tons and raiders 38 ships of 191,000 tons. Thereafter neither type inflicted many losses as worldwide convoys were organised and the raiders' supply ships sunk.

7th - Italian submarine "NANI" attacked a convoy west of North Channel and was sunk by corvette "Anemone".

Battle of the Atlantic - For the next few months the U-boat's 'Happy Time' continued in the Western Approaches against the poorly defended convoys. Bad weather in January and February fortunately kept the level of sinkings down. Approximately 22 U-boats were operational out of the 90 in commission, and long-range aircraft including the Focke Wulf Kondors still roamed the waters off Ireland spotting for U-boats and sinking ships.

Monthly Loss Summary: 59 British, Allied and neutral ships of 273,000 tons in the Atlantic from all causes; 1 Italian U-boat.  

EUROPE - JANUARY 1941

Britain - The Blitz on Britain continued with attacks on Bristol, Cardiff, London and Portsmouth during the month.

15th - Cruiser minelayer Adventure was damaged for the second time on a mine, this time on passage from Milford Haven, southwest Wales to Liverpool. The last time was off the Thames in November 1939 - just 14 crisis-filled months earlier.

Merchant Shipping War - Losses due to air attack and mines remained a major problem. Aircraft and E-boats had now added acoustic to the magnetic and moored contact mines in their armoury, but they never matched up to the threat the magnetic mines represented a year earlier.

Monthly Loss Summary: 15 British, Allied and neutral ships of 37,000 tons in UK waters.

MEDITERRANEAN - JANUARY 1941

North Africa - As the British advance continued into Libya, Bardia was taken on the 5th. Australian troops captured Tobruk on the 22nd and Derna, further west by the end of the month. The Royal Navy's Inshore Squadron played an important part in the campaign - bombarding shore targets, carrying fuel, water and supplies, and evacuating wounded and prisoners of war.

Air War - Hurricane fighters, transported to Takoradi in West Africa, started to arrive in Egypt after flying across the continent. They too played their part in the North African offensive. RAF Wellingtons raided Naples and damaged Italian battleship "Giulio Cesare".

6th-11th, Malta Convoy "Excess" - Another complex series of convoy and ship movements revolving around Malta led to carrier Illustrious (right - NavyPhotos) being badly damaged and the Royal Navy losing its comparative freedom of operation in the Eastern Mediterranean. This followed the arrival in Sicily of the German Luftwaffe's X Fliegerkorps. On the 6th, convoy 'Excess' left Gibraltar for Malta and Greece covered by Gibraltar-based Force H. At the same time the Mediterranean Fleet from Alexandria prepared to cover supply ships to Malta and bring out empty ones. Mediterranean Fleet cruisers Gloucester and Southampton carried troop reinforcements to Malta and then carried on west to meet 'Excess'. Force H returned to Gibraltar. By the 10th, 'Excess' had reached the Strait of Sicily and was attacked by Italian torpedo boats. "VEGA" was sunk by escorting cruiser Bonaventure and destroyer "Hereward". As the Mediterranean Fleet including "Illustrious" met the convoy off the Italian-held island of Pantelleria, screening destroyer GALLANT hit a mine. Towed back to Malta, she was not re-commissioned and finally wrecked by bombing over a year later in April 1942. Still west of Malta, heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft were launched. "Illustrious" was singled out and hit six times by Ju87 and Ju88 bombers. Only the armoured flight deck saved her from total destruction as she struggled into Malta with 200 casualties. There, under continual attack, she was repaired temporarily and left on the 23rd for Alexandria. Sister-ship Formidable was sent out to replace her via the Cape of Good Hope, but it was some weeks before she reached the Eastern Mediterranean. On the 11th, the empty return Malta/Alexandria convoy was proceeding eastwards, with cruisers "Gloucester" and "Southampton" sailing from Malta to join up when they were attacked by German aircraft to the east of Malta. SOUTHAMPTON was bombed and sunk, Gloucester damaged. All merchantmen reached their destinations safely, but at the cost of a cruiser and destroyer, and the loss of "Illustrious'" vital air power.

19th - Destroyer Greyhound, escorting a convoy to Greece, sank Italian submarine "NEGHELLI" in the Aegean Sea

East Africa - The British and Dominion campaign to drive out the Italians from East Africa started. Eritrea in the north was invaded from the Sudan by largely Indian forces, while East African and South African troops attacked Italian Somaliland from Kenya to the south.

Monthly Loss Summary: No British, Allied or neutral merchant ships were lost in the Mediterranean.

 

FEBRUARY 1941

ATLANTIC - FEBRUARY 1941

German Heavy Warships - At the beginning of the month, heavy cruiser "Admiral Hipper" sailed from Brest. On the 12th, far to the west of Gibraltar, she sank seven ships from slow unescorted convoy SLS64 bound for Britain from Sierra Leone. Returning to Brest, in March she headed back to Germany via the Denmark Strait and took no further part in independent commerce raiding. On the 8th, battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" sighted convoy HX106 escorted by the lone battleship Ramillies south of Greenland, but declined to attack in case of possible damage. Two weeks later, five unescorted ships were sunk east of Newfoundland, before they headed for the Sierra Leone routes. Meanwhile pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" in the Indian Ocean operated successfully off Madagascar before preparing to return to Germany.

22nd - Italian submarine "MARCELLO" was believed sunk to the west of the Hebrides by ex-US destroyer "Montgomery" and other escorts of Liverpool-out convoy OB287. The convoy was reported by Kondors which sank two and damaged four merchantmen. No more U-boat attacks were made.

Battle of the Atlantic - Adm Sir Percy Noble took over as Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, just as the command moved from Plymouth to Liverpool.

Monthly Loss Summary: 69 British, Allied and neutral ships of 317,000 tons in the Atlantic from all causes; 1 Italian U-boat.

EUROPE - FEBRUARY 1941

Early February - After leaving her escort off Lands End for patrol in the Bay of Biscay, British submarine SNAPPER was not heard from again. She failed to rendezvous back on the 12th February, possibly lost on mines.

25th - Escort destroyer EXMOOR was the first of the 'Hunt' class to be lost, torpedoed off Lowestoft, east coast of England by German E-boat "S-30" while escorting Thames/Forth convoy FN417.

Monthly Loss Summary: 26 British, Allied and neutral ships of 51,000 tons in UK waters.

MEDITERRANEAN - FEBRUARY 1941

North Africa - British armoured forces crossed the Libyan desert to a point south of Benghazi and cut off the retreating Italians. The resulting Battle of Beda Fomm starting on the 5th inflicted heavy losses. Australian troops captured the major port of Benghazi at the same time, and by the 9th El Agheila was reached. There the advance stopped. Large numbers of British and Dominion troops were now withdrawn for transfer to Greece, just as the first units of the Afrika Korps under Gen Rommel arrived in Tripoli. 24th - Destroyer DAINTY escorting supplies to Tobruk with the Inshore Squadron, was sunk off the port by German Ju87 Stukas.

9th, Force H Attack in the Gulf of Genoa - Ark Royal, Renown and Malaya sailed right into the Gulf of Genoa, northwest Italy. The big ships bombarded the city of Genoa while "Ark Royal's" aircraft bombed Leghorn and laid mines off Spezia, all on the 9th. An Italian battlefleet sortied but failed to make contact.

25th - On patrol off the east coast of Tunisia, submarine "Upright" torpedoed and sank Italian cruiser "ARMANDO DIAZ" covering a convoy from Naples to Tripoli.

East Africa - In the north the Indian advance into Eritrea was held up for most of February and March in the Battle for Keren. In the south, the Italian Somaliland capital of Mogadishu was captured on the 25th, after which British forces advanced northwest into Ethiopia. The East lndies Command under Vice-Adm R. Leatham continually supported the land campaign. 27th - After breaking out of Massawa, Eritrea's Red Sea port, Italian armed merchant cruiser "RAMB 1" was located off the Indian Ocean Maldive Islands and sunk by New Zealand cruiser Leander.

Monthly Loss Summary: 2 British or Allied merchant ships of 8,000 tons.

 

MARCH 1941

ATLANTIC - MARCH 1941

United States - The Lend-Lease Bill was passed into law. Britain and her Allies would be able to receive American arms and supplies without immediate payment.

7th/8th - With better weather the spring U-boat offensive started and 41 ships of 243,000 tons sunk. However, in the space of a few days they suffered their first major defeat at the hands of the escorts and lost five submarines (1-5) in the month, including three aces. From then on, escort versus wolf-pack battles predominated in the North Atlantic. Attacking Liverpool-out convoy OB293, the first sinking was "U-70" (1) by corvettes "Arbutus" and "Camellia" on the 7th. Continuing the hunt, next to go was "U-47" (2) (Cdr Prien who sank battleship Royal Oak in Scapa Flow) to destroyer "Wolverine" on the 8th. 17th - Germany lost two more aces during operations against Halifax/UK convoy HX112. "U-99" (3) (Lt-Cdr Kretschmer) and "U-100" (4) (Lt-Cdr Schepke) were sunk by the 5th Escort Group commanded by Cdr Macintyre. Destroyers "Vanoc" and "Walker" were mainly responsible. 23rd - The fifth of the month was "U-551" (5) to armed trawler "Visenda". All five U-boat sinkings took place to the south of Iceland, the first German casualties since November 1940 - four months earlier.

German Heavy Ships - battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" were sighted by aircraft of battleship Malaya escorting convoy SL67 off the Cape Verde Islands. The German ships returned to the Newfoundland area and on the 15th and 16th sank or captured 16 unescorted ships. They returned to Brest on the 22nd, having accounted for 22 ships of 116,000 tons, but never again took part successfully in commerce raiding.

20th - Following her earlier sighting of the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau", Malaya was now sailing with convoy SL68 off the west coast of Africa. Torpedoed and damaged by "U-106", she became the first British ship repaired in the United States under Lend-Lease arrangements. The convoy lost seven merchantmen to the U-boats.

Battle of the Atlantic - On 6th March 1941, faced with the mortal threat of the German U-boat and aircraft offensive in the Atlantic, Winston Churchill issued his famous Battle of the Atlantic directive. Catapult armed merchantmen (CAM) were to be fitted out, merchant ships equipped with AA weapons as a first priority, and more Coastal Command squadrons formed and fitted with radar. Port and dockyard congestion was to be dealt with and the defence of ports greatly improved. These and numerous other matters were to be dealt with as a matter of the very highest priority. The survival of Britain depended on them. Overall direction was to be exercised by a Battle of the Atlantic Committee chaired by the Prime Minister himself.

Monthly Loss Summary: 63 British, Allied and neutral ships of 365,000 tons in the Atlantic from all causes; 5 German U-boats-including three of the most experienced commanders

EUROPE - MARCH 1941

Norway - A successful Combined Operations commando raid was carried out on the Lofoten Islands, off northwest Norway with installations destroyed and shipping sunk. Escort was provided by destroyers and cover by units of the Home Fleet.

Eastern Europe and Balkans - Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact on the 1st March and German troops marched in. As of now, only Yugoslavia in the Balkans retained national independence

Merchant Shipping War - Royal Navy motor gun-boats (MGB's) were entering service to combat E-boat attacks on East Coast convoys. Improved motor torpedo boats (MTBs) were also being built to attack German coastal shipping. This marked the first step in the build up of Coastal Forces.

Monthly Loss Summary: 73 British, Allied and neutral ships of 153,000 tons in UK waters.

MEDITERRANEAN - MARCH 1941

Greece - In the space of three weeks in March, 60,000 British and Dominion troops were carried from North Africa to Greece, escorted by the Royal Navy (Operation 'Lustre'). 6th - Italian submarine "ANFITRITE" attacked a troop convoy east of Crete and was sunk by escorting destroyer "Greyhound". 26th - At anchor in Suda Bay, northern Crete, heavy cruiser YORK was badly damaged by Italian explosive motor boats and beached. She was later wrecked by bombing and abandoned when Crete was evacuated in May. 31st - Cruiser BONAVENTURE with a Mediterranean Fleet cruiser force escorting a convoy from Greece to Egypt, was torpedoed and sunk to the southeast of Crete by Italian submarine Ambra.

28th - Mines laid by submarine "Rorqual" west of Sicily on the 25th, sank two Italian supply ships the next day and torpedo boat "CHINOTTO" on the 28th. 31st - Continuing her successes, "Rorqual" torpedoed and sank submarine "CAPPONI" off northeast Sicily.

28th, Battle of Cape Matapan (see map above) - As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered troop movements to Greece, 'Ultra' intelligence was received reporting the sailing of an Italian battlefleet with one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers to attack the convoy routes. On the 27th, Vice-Adm Pridham-Wippell with cruisers Ajax, Gloucester, Orion and the Australian Perth and destroyers sailed from Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Adm Cunningham with carrier Formidable and battleships Warspite, Barham and Valiant left Alexandria on the same day to meet the cruisers. Around 08.30 on the 28th, south of Crete, Adm Pridham-Wippell was in action with an Italian cruiser squadron. Just before noon he found himself between them and the battleship "Vittorio Veneto" which had now come up. An attack by Swordfish from "Formidable" failed to hit the Italian battleship, but enabled the British cruisers to extricate themselves. Mediterranean Fleet heavy units arrived, but their only chance of action was to slow down the Italians before they could reach Italy. A second Swordfish strike at around 15.00 hit and slowed "Vittorio Veneto", but only for a short while. At 19.30 a third strike southwest of Cape Matapan stopped heavy cruiser "Pola". All this time, RAF aircraft were attacking without success. Later that evening (still on the 28th), two more heavy cruisers - "Fiume" and "Zara with four destroyers were detached to help "Pola". Before reaching her, Adm Cunningham's ships detected them by radar and "FIUME", "ZARA" and destroyers "ALFIERI" and "CARDUCCI" crippled by the close range gunfire of "Barham", "Valiant" and "Warspite". All four Italians were finished off by four destroyers led by the Australian "Stuart". Early next morning on the 29th, "POLA" was found, partly abandoned. After taking off the remaining crew, destroyers "Jervis" and "Nubian" sank her with torpedoes. The Royal Navy lost one aircraft.

Yugoslavia - On the 25th Yugoslavia joined the Tripartite Pact, but two days later an anti-Nazi coup toppled the Government.

North Africa - In command of German and Italian troops, Gen Rommel started his first offensive with the capture of El Agheila on the 24th. Within three weeks the British and Dominion forces were back in Sollum on the Egyptian side of the border.

Malta - Late in the month a small Malta convoy sailed from the east covered by the Mediterranean Fleet. These were the first supplies to arrive since the January 'Excess' operation. In the intervening two months Malta had been heavily attacked by the Axis air forces hoping to neutralise the island as a base for air and sea attacks against the supply routes to Libya.

East Africa - British forces were transported from Aden to Berbera in British Somaliland on the 16th. From there, they advanced southwest into southern Ethiopia. To the north, Keren fell to the attacking Indian troops and the road was opened to the Eritrean capital of Asmara and Red Sea port of Massawa.

Monthly Loss Summary: 2 British or Allied merchant ships of 12,000 tons.

 

APRIL 1941

German Aircraft Attacks, Atlantic and Europe - In April 1941, aircraft sank 116 ships of 323,000 tons, the highest rate for any month of the whole war. In the first six months of 1941 alone the losses totalled 294 ships of 811,000 tons. These were not only due to the long-range aircraft operating off Ireland from bases in France and Norway, but to attacks in coastal waters where the defences were still weak. More AA weapons were needed for merchantmen, more and better controlled shore-based fighters in coastal areas, and ship-borne aircraft were vital out at sea. The needs were recognised as the Battle of the Atlantic Directive made clear, but would take many months to meet.

ATLANTIC - APRIL 1941

4th - Armed merchant cruisers again suffered heavy losses at widely scattered locations and in different circumstances. On the 4th "VOLTAIRE" was sunk in a gun duel with German raider "Thor" west of the Cape Verde Islands. 6th - Only two days later, "COMORIN" caught fire and finally went down west of Ireland - the rescue of her crew and passengers in raging seas an epic in its own right. 13th - "RAJPUTANA" of the Northern Patrol was lost in an attack by "U-108" in the Denmark Strait separating Greenland and Iceland.

5th - Slow Halifax/UK convoy SC26 was attacked by U-boats for two days and lost 10 merchantmen. On the 5th, "U-76" was sunk by escorting destroyer "Wolverine and sloop "Scarborough" south of Iceland. 28th - Fast Halifax/UK convoy HX121 lost four ships but "U-65" was sunk in return by corvette "Gladiolus", like "U-76", south of Iceland.

German Raiders - "Thor" now returned to Germany after an absence of 11 months, having accounted for 11 ships of 83,000 tons plus AMC "Voltaire". Pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" also got back to Germany after five months in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans credited with 16 ships of 99,000 tons and the "Jervis Bay".

Battle of the Atlantic - Over the next few months a number of long awaited ship types and weapons started to be introduced. These contributed significantly to the eventual defeat of the U-boat. (1) The first Auxiliary Fighter Catapult Ships flying the White Ensign and equipped with a single 'one-way' Hurricane was ready in April 1941. They shot down their first Kondor in August. In May a Hurricane was successfully launched from a Red Ensign Catapult Armed Merchantman (CAM), but they did not claim their first victim until November. CAM-ships were eventually superseded in 1943 by Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs) - merchantmen with full flightdecks, but sailing under the Red Ensign and also carrying oil or grain. (2) The final step in the introduction of ship-borne aircraft into the Battle of the Atlantic came in June when the first escort carrier was ready for service. HMS Audacity, converted from a German prize, had a short life, but proved the great value of these vessels. (3) New scientific developments also started to play their part. In May the first high definition, 10cm radar (Type 271) was installed in a corvette. Later still, high frequency, direction finding (HF/DF or 'Huff-Duff') was introduced to supplement the work of the shore stations. It was many months before either system was widely in service, and not until 1942 did they claim their first U-boats. (4) Inter-service co-ordination was further improved when RAF Coastal Command was placed under operational control of the Admiralty.

Monthly Loss Summary: 48 British, Allied and neutral ships of 282,000 tons in the Atlantic from all causes, 3 armed merchant cruisers; 2 German U-boats

EUROPE - APRIL 1941

German Heavy Ships - The arrival of battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" in Brest led to a long series of heavy RAF bomber raids. These did not end until the Channel Dash in February 1942. During this time both ships sustained varying amounts of damage. On the 6th April "Gneisenau" was torpedoed and badly damaged by an RAF Beaufort of No 22 Squadron, Coastal Command. Flg Off Kenneth Campbell RAFVR, Canadian pilot of the Beaufort, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Monthly Loss Summary: 40 British, Allied and neutral ships of 99,000 tons in UK waters.

MEDITERRANEAN - APRIL 1941

Mediterranean Theatre -Yet more areas in the region erupted in April: Yugoslavia and Greece - Germany invaded both countries on the 6th. By the 12th they had entered Belgrade and within another five days the Yugoslav Army surrendered. Greek forces in Albania and Greece suffered the same fate. Starting on the 24th over a period of five days, 50,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops were evacuated to Crete and Egypt in Operation 'Demon'. The Germans occupied Athens on the 27th. North Africa - Germans entered Benghazi on the 4th and by mid-month had surrounded Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border. Attacks on the British and Australian troops defending Tobruk were unsuccessful, and an eight-month siege began. Middle East - A pro-German coup in Iraq on the 1st threatened Allied oil supplies. British and Indian units were entering the country through the Persian Gulf by the middle of the month. The campaign continued through May.

East Africa - On the Red Sea coast of Italian East Africa, the capture of Eritrea was completed when Asmara was occupied on the 1st and the port of Massawa on the 8th. Two days earlier, Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, had been taken. Italian resistance continued mainly in the north of Ethiopia. 3rd - Leading up to the capture of Massawa, the surviving eight Italian destroyers and torpedo boats were lost or scuttled. On the 3rd, five seaworthy destroyers sailed to attack Port Sudan, Sudan further north along the Red Sea shore. Shore-based Swordfish from carrier Eagle sank "MANIN" and "SAURO". 8th - Before the final scuttling at Massawa, Italian MTB MAS-213 torpedoed and damaged cruiser Capetown escorting a convoy off Massawa. Four Italian submarines did manage to escape and eventually reached Bordeaux, France after sailing right round Africa.

16th, Action of Sfax, Tunisia - Capt P. J. Mack with destroyers "Janus", "Jervis", "Mohawk" and "Nubian" sailed from Malta to intercept a German Afrika Korps convoy of five transports escorted by three Italian destroyers off Kerkennah Islands, east of Tunisia. All Axis ships were sunk including the destroyers "BALENO" (foundered next day), "LAMPO" (later salvaged) and "TARIGO". In the fighting MOHAWK was torpedoed by "Tarigo" and had to be scuttled.

Malta - In the first week of April, Ark Royal escorted by Force H sailed from Gibraltar and flew off 12 Hurricanes for Malta. Three weeks later the operation was repeated with 20 more aircraft. From the other end of the Mediterranean, Alexandria-based battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite together with carrier Formidable covered the movement of fast transport "Breconshire" to Malta. On the 21st they bombarded Tripoli on the return.

27th - As units of the Mediterranean Fleet carried out the Greek evacuation, destroyers DIAMOND and WRYNECK rescued troops from the bombed transport "Slamat", but were then sunk by more German bombers off Cape Malea at the southeast tip of Greece. There were few survivors from the three ships.

Monthly Loss Summary: 105 British, Allied and neutral ships of 293,000 tons from all causes

 

MAY 1941

May 1941 included a breakthrough in the capture of German Enigma coding material, the hunt for and sinking of the "Bismarck", the fearful Royal Navy losses off Crete, continuing confirmation that Russia was about to be attacked by Germany, further deterioration in relations with Japan. One can only imagine the thoughts and feelings of Prime Minister Churchill and his senior advisers as they responded day-by-day to these momentous developments.

ATLANTIC - MAY 1941

8th - On patrol north of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, heavy cruiser "Cornwall" found and sank German raider "PINGUIN", the first raider to be hunted down, after accounting for 28 ships of 136,000 tons.

9th, Capture of "U.110" and the German Enigma - South of Iceland, "U.110" (Lt-Cdr Lemp of the "Athenia" sinking) attacked Liverpool-out convoy OB318 protected by ships of Capt A. J. Baker-Creswell's escort group. Blown to the surface by depth charges from corvette "Aubretia" on the 9th, "U-110's" crew abandoned ship, but she failed to go down. A boarding party from destroyer "Bulldog", led by Sub-Lt Balme, managed to get aboard. In a matter of hours they transferred to safety "U-110's" entire Enigma package - coding machine, code books, rotor settings and charts. The destroyer "Broadway" stood by during this hazardous operation. Two days later "U-110" sank on tow to Iceland, knowledge of her capture having been withheld from the crew and Lt-Cdr Lemp dying at the time of the boarding. The priceless Enigma material represented one of the greatest intelligence coup ever and was a major naval victory in its own right. "U-110's" capture was far and away the most successful of the attempts to capture Enigma codes. In the March 1941 raid on the Norwegian Lofoten Islands, spare coding rotors were found. Then two days before the "U-110" triumph, a cruiser force had tried to capture the weather trawler "Munchen" off Iceland. At the end of the coming June a similar operation was mounted against the "Lauenberg". In both cases useful papers were taken but the real breakthrough only came with "U-110". Included with the material captured were all rotor settings until the end of June 1941. A number of codes were used with Enigma. The U-boat one was 'Hydra', also used by all ships in European waters. From the end of June, Bletchley Park was able to decipher 'Hydra' right through until the end of the war. Unfortunately the U-boats moved off this version to the new 'Triton' in February 1942. The big ship 'Neptun' and Mediterranean 'Sud' and 'Medusa' codes were also soon broken.

13th - Armed merchant cruiser "SALOPIAN" on passage to Halifax after escorting convoy SC30 was torpedoed a total of six times by "U-98". She eventually went down southeast of Cape Farewell, the sad but appropriately-named southern tip of Greenland.

18th-28th, Hunt for the "Bismarck"

Phase 1 - On the 18th, new German 15in battleship "Bismarck" and heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" sailed from Gdynia in the Baltic for the Atlantic via Norway. A simultaneous sortie by the battlecruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" from Brest was fortunately prevented by the damage inflicted by the RAF. On the 20th, they were sighted in the Kattegat by a Swedish warship. 21st - In the evening the German ships were sighted in a fiord south of Bergen, Norway. Two of the Home Fleet's capital ships, Hood and Prince of Wales (the latter not fully complete and still working up), sailed from Scapa Flow towards Iceland to support the cruisers on Northern Patrol.

22nd - "Bismarck" was reported at sea and the main body of the Home Fleet under Adm Tovey left Scapa Flow and headed west. Battleship King George V, fleet carrier Victorious, cruisers and destroyers were later joined by battlecruiser Repulse. "Victorious" was also a recent addition to the Fleet and still working up. 23rd - In the early evening, heavy cruisers Suffolk and shortly Norfolk sighted the German ships north west of Iceland and shadowed them southwestwards through the Denmark Strait separating Iceland from Greenland to the west. "Hood" and "Prince of Wales" pressed on to intercept west of Iceland. 24th - That morning the big ships met and opened fire. Around 06.00, after firing two or three salvos, "Bismarck" hit HOOD which blew up with only three survivors. Now it was Prince of Wales turn to be the target. After being hit several times she turned away but not before damaging "Bismarck" and causing her to lose fuel oil to the sea.

Phase 2 - German Adm Lutjens decided to make for St Nazaire in France, with its large dry-dock, and headed southwest and later south out of the Denmark Strait. The two Royal Navy cruisers, and for a while the damaged "Prince of Wales", continued to shadow. Adm Tovey hurried west with the rest of Home Fleet. With "Hood's" loss, Force H (Adm Somerville) with battlecruiser Renown, carrier Ark Royal and cruiser Sheffield sailed north from Gibraltar. Battleship Ramillies, released from convoy escort duties, and Rodney, then to the west of Ireland, headed towards "Bismarck's" expected track. "Ramillies" played no part in later operations. At 18.00, still an the 24th, "Bismarck" feinted north towards her shadowers, long enough to allow "Prinz Eugen" to get away. (The cruiser went south, later refueled from a tanker and cruised for three days before reaching Brest on 1 June. There she joined the two battlecruisers under heavy RAF attack until the Channel Dash of February 1942.) Around midnight, southeast of Cape Farewell, Swordfish from Adm Tovey's "Victorious" got one hit on "Bismarck" after she had resumed her southerly course. The damage was negligible. Shortly after in the early hours of the 25th, she altered course to the southeast for France and the cruisers lost contact. At this point Adm Tovey's heavy ships were only 100 miles away. 25th - "Bismarck" held her southeasterly course, but broke radio silence. Unfortunately the British direction-finding service put her on a northeasterly heading. Adm Tovey sailed in that direction for a while before turning to the southeast in pursuit. Now he was well astern of his quarry. Only by slowing her down could destruction become possible. In the meantime, Force H continued to sail north to take up a blocking position between "Bismarck" and her new goal of Brest.

26th - After a 30-hour interval, "Bismarck" was once more sighted, this time by a RAF Catalina of No 209 Squadron, and only 30hr from home. In the afternoon a Swordfish strike from Force H's "Ark Royal" attacked cruiser "Sheffield" in error. They missed. A second strike took place in the evening by 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons with 15 Swordfish led by Lt-Cdr Coode. They torpedoed "Bismarck" twice and one hit damaged her propellers and jammed the rudder. As "Bismarck" circled, destroyers of the 4th Flotilla (Capt Vian) came up around midnight, and made a series of torpedo and gun attacks but with uncertain results. Capt Vian's "Cossack", "Maori", "Sikh", "Zulu" and Polish "Piorun" had been detached from troop convoy ("Winston's Special") WS8B, an indication of the seriousness of "Bismarck's" threat. By this time Adm Tovey's force of heavy ships had lost "Repulse" to refuel, but had been joined by "Rodney". They now came up from the west but did not attack just yet. 27th - "King George V", "Rodney" and the still circling "Bismarck" all opened fire around 08.45. Only the German ship was hit and by 10.15 she was a blazing wreck. Heavy cruiser Dorsetshire, having left convoy SL74 the previous day, fired torpedoes to finish her off. "BISMARCK" sank at 10.36 to the southwest of Ireland. Shadowing cruiser Norfolk was there at the end. 28th - The many warships deployed from all parts of the North Atlantic returned to other duties. As they did, heavy attacks by German aircraft sank destroyer MASHONA off the west coast of Ireland.

Battle of the Atlantic - Total U-boat strength was now over 100 with 30 operational and the rest undergoing training or trials. Most were active in the North Atlantic, but a small number were concentrated against the weakly-defended shipping off Freetown, Sierra Leone and between there and the Canary Islands to the north. In this area "U-107" (Lt-Cdr Hessler) sank 14 ships of 87,000 tons on one patrol. Other U-boats did almost as well. Royal Navy escort groups could provide cover from UK bases out to 18W, and those from Iceland the mid-Atlantic gap to 35W. With the opening of an Escort Force base at St John's, Newfoundland by the Royal Canadian Navy, the rest of the North Atlantic convoy routes could now receive protection. However, continuous escort across the Atlantic was not yet available. Then, around the 20th, unescorted convoy HX126 from Halifax, Nova Scotia was attacked at 40W and lost heavily. Steps were immediately taken to extend protection and HX129 sailing at the end of the month was the first of the UK-bound convoys to receive regular and continuous cover.

Monthly Loss Summary: 60 British, Allied and neutral ships of 336,000 tons in the Atlantic from all causes, 1 battlecruiser, 1 destroyer, 1 armed merchant cruiser; German battleship "Bismarck" and "U-110"

EUROPE - MAY 1941

Britain - Heavy raids on Belfast in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Clyde, Liverpool and especially London on the night of the 10th/11th marked the virtual end of the Blitz. The bulk of the Luftwaffe was now transferring east for the attack on Russia. RAF raids on Germany continued, and would grow as a major plank in British and Allied strategy for the defeat of Germany.

Germany - Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, flew to Britain on his self-appointed peace mission. He was imprisoned in Britain and disowned by Germany

Monthly Loss Summary: 99 British, Allied and neutral ships of 101,000 tons in UK waters. 

MEDITERRANEAN - MAY 1941

Late April/early May - Two submarines operating out of Malta were lost, possibly due to mines - USK in the Strait of Sicily area and UNDAUNTED off Tripoli. "Usk" may have been sunk by Italian destroyers west of Sicily while attacking a convoy.

2nd - Returning to Malta with cruiser Gloucester and other destroyers from a search for Axis convoys, JERSEY was mined and sunk in the entrance to Valletta's Grand Harbour.

Royal Navy Operations in the Mediterranean - Early in the month, Force H and the Mediterranean Fleet carried out another series of complicated supply, reinforcement and offensive operations. Five fast transports sailed from Gibraltar with tanks and supplies urgently needed for the Army of the Nile (Operation 'Tiger'). Four arrived safely. On passage they were accompanied by battleship Oueen Elizabeth and two cruisers sailing to join the Mediterranean Fleet. Two small convoys were escorted westward from Egypt to Malta. Other units of the Mediterranean Fleet shelled Benghazi, Libya on the night of the 7th/8th. After covering the 'Tiger' convoy, Ark Royal joined by carrier Furious, was once again south of Sardinia and flying off a further 48 Hurricanes to Malta on the 21st. Five days later, "Ark Royal's" Swordfish were crippling "Bismarck" in the North Atlantic!

Malta - The transfer of many German aircraft from Sicily for the attack on Russia brought some relief to Malta.

North Africa - A British offensive started from the Sollum area on the 15th in an attempt to relieve Tobruk (Operation 'Brevity'). Two weeks later both sides were back to their original positions. The first of many supply trips to besieged Tobruk were made by Australian destroyers "Voyager" and "Waterhen" and other ships of the Inshore Squadron. 25th - Sloop "GRIMSBY" and the supply ship she was escorting on the Tobruk run were sunk by bombers northeast of the port.

18th - On patrol south of Crete, AA cruiser Coventry was heavily attacked from the air. + Petty Officer Alfred Sephton continued to carry out his duties in the director after being mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. 

21st May-1st June, Battle for Crete - On the 21st, in the opening stages of the attack on Crete, cruiser minelayer "Abdiel" laid mines off the west coast of Greece, sinking Italian destroyer "MIRABELLO" and two transports. Most of the Mediterranean Fleet with four battleships, one carrier, 10 cruisers and 30 destroyers fought the Battle for Crete. For the Navy there were two phases, both of which took place under intense air attack, mainly German, from which all losses resulted. Phase One was from the German airborne invasion on the 20th until the decision was take on the 27th to evacuate the island. During this time the Mediterranean Fleet managed to prevent the sea-borne reinforcement of the German paratroops fighting on Crete, but at heavy cost. Most of these losses happened as the ships tried to withdraw from night-time patrols north of the island out of range of enemy aircraft. Phase Two was from 27th May to 1st June when over 15,000 British and Dominion troops were evacuated. Ten thousand had to be left behind - and again the naval losses were heavy.

21st - In the morning, destroyer JUNO was sunk and cruiser Ajax slightly damaged as they withdrew southeast of Crete. Later that evening "Ajax", with Dido, Orion and four destroyers, savaged a German troop convoy of small craft. More such vessels were sunk over the next few days off the north coast. 22nd - Early that morning another force of four cruisers and three destroyers swept to the north and was attacked on their return. Cruisers Naiad and Carlisle were damaged, and as they reached their support force to the northwest, battleship Warspite was badly hit. Later destroyer GREYHOUND was caught on her own in the same area and soon sent to the bottom. Other destroyers went to rescue her survivors, covered by cruisers "Gloucester" and "Fiji". As the cruisers withdrew, first GLOUCESTER  (right - NavyPhotos) was sunk northwest of Crete by Ju87s and Ju88s. Three hours later FIJI was surprised by a single Me109 fighter-bomber and sank to the southwest. All ships were short of AA ammunition by this stage. 23rd - Withdrawing from the usual night-time patrols led to the loss of two more destroyers. Capt Lord Louis Mountbatten's five ship flotilla was attacked to the south and KASHMIR and KELLY sunk. Over the next few days the north coast sweeps continued and supplies and reinforcements brought into Crete. 26th - Carrier Formidable, accompanied by battleships Barham and Queen Elizabeth, flew off aircraft from a position well to the south for an attack on the Scarpanto Island airfields. In the counter-attack "Formidable" and destroyer "Nubian" were damaged. 27th - As Barham covered a supply mission, she was hit to the northwest of Alexandria.

28th - The decision to evacuate was made, and cruisers and destroyers prepared to lift off the troops. As they approached Crete, cruiser Aiax and destroyer "Imperial" were damaged to the southeast. 29th - Early in the morning, 4,000 men were lifted off from Heraklion on the north coast. As they did, the damaged IMPERIAL had to be scuttled, and HEREWARD was hit and left behind to go down off the eastern tip of Crete. Shortly after, cruisers Dido and Orion were badly damaged to the southeast. 30th - Early in the day, more troops were lifted from the southern port of Sphakia by another cruiser force. Well to the south, Australian cruiser Perth was bombed and damaged. 1st June - As the last men were carried from Crete, cruisers "Calcutta" and Coventry sailed from Alexandria to provide AA cover. CALCUTTA was sunk north of the Egyptian coast. Some 15,000 troops were saved but at a cost to the Royal Navy of 2,000 men killed. Total warship casualties, all from German and some Italian bombing were:  

Warship types

Sunk 

Badly damaged

Total 

Battleships 

-

2

2

Carriers 

-

1

1

Cruisers 

3

5

8

Destroyers 

6

5

11

Totals 

9 

13 

22 

Royal Navy Submarine Operations - "Upholder" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn) attacked a strongly escorted troop convoy off the coast of Sicily on the 24th May and sank 18,000-ton liner "Conte Rosso". + Lt-Cdr Malcolm Wanklyn RN was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for this and other successful patrols in "Upholder".

Middle East - British bases in Iraq were besieged as British and Dominion forces advanced on Baghdad from Jordan and the Persian Gulf. An armistice was signed on the 31st May and Baghdad occupied the next day.

East Africa - The remaining major Italian forces in northern Ethiopia surrendered at Amba Alagi on the 19th. Some resistance continued until November.

Monthly Loss Summary: 19 British or Allied merchant ships of 71,000 tons.  

 

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