“No Match for a Strong Enemy”– The R-Class Battleships
The Royal Navy began the war with twelve battleships. Five of were the Royal Sovereign (or “R”) ships completed in 1916 – 1917. They were well-armed with eight 15-inch guns each and had good armor protection, but their relatively slow speed, operational wear, and material defects would keep them from front-line service during the war. William Crawford, a staff officer of the Admiral 2nd in command of the Eastern Fleet to which these battleships were attached, viewed the R class battleships as “very weak and old.” He criticized them for “never really (having been) a very good design” and whose “engines were in an appalling state” which left them “no match for a strong (enemy) fleet.” 1.
“Thrilled To Be Able to Go to Sea”– Joining HMS Royal Oak
Charles Simpson of Portsmouth skipped three grades in school. By the time he was just 10 years old he had passed the exam to get into a secondary school. The school he attended was divided into two sections: Dockside that would lead students to careers in the military or the trades, and Latin that would lead students to professional careers or to further education at the university level. Simpson eventually wound up in the Dockside section for which he was grateful as it prepared him for the life he really wanted. When he turned 15, by which time he had already gained a full five years of post-elementary school education, he joined the Navy.
Young Simpson was easily able to pass the required national level exam for entry into the Royal Navy as an artificer apprentice. After signing on to serve for 12 years beginning with his 18th birthday, he trained at HMS Fisgard, the shore establishment consisting of a series of four training ships anchored at Portsmouth. As apprentice artificers, Simpson and his contemporaries were trained to be experts in naval weapons and electrical or mechanical systems for duty both at sea and ashore. According to Simpson,
An artificer is defined in the Bible as a worker in fresh metals. An artificer is a man who … was capable of making the most intricate things out of pure metal. So, a fitter and turner, which I became, was capable of manufacturing replacements for the machines used in Her Majesty’s ships from pure metal. If a replacement shaft was required, you manufactured it on board the ship. The apprenticeship was as lengthy as it was – four and a half years – because you progressed from a boy using a hammer and chisel to a fully qualified fitter and turner, or coppersmith, or blacksmith depending on the trade which after six months you were allowed to choose.2.
Simpson’s very first assignment, as a15 year old apprentice, was to take just two chisels and a hammer to shape a solid steel cylinder into a hexagon. He used a pair of socks as gloves in order to protect his hands while he worked. By the time he completed his apprenticeship he was capable of manufacturing objects by hand to the nearest 1/1000th of an inch. Unlike his rigorous technical training, his naval or seamanship training was minimal at best since, according to Simpson, his was a technical, rather than a military, branch of the service.
Simpson was assigned to HMS Royal Oak in 1930 and was “thrilled to be able to go to sea.” He thoroughly enjoyed being in the engine room of a real ship where he could dismantle something and then put it back together again. It was not all fun for the young artificer, however, as he was assigned to sling his hammock inside one of the battleship’s gun turrets. These were, unbeknownst to Simpson, extremely wet. When he tossed his clothing onto the deck before getting into his hammock one night, he found them floating in six inches of water the next morning.
Aboard Royal Oak, Simpson started off by following a senior artificer on large jobs to serve as his assistant. After being given thorough instruction about them, he was required to tend to boilers, engines, dynamos, refrigerators, air compressors, diesel generators, and all other manner of engineering equipment, large and small, in every technical detail. After a year, Simpson was rated leading seaman and fifth class engine room artificer; the lowest of artificer ranks. The path of advancement was a long one that could only be made through time, experience, and the consistent demonstration of competence and expertise.
The engineering department aboard the pre-war Royal Oak was described by Artificer Simpson as being overseen by the chief engineer whose rank was commander (E), where the “E” was the designation for engineering. The chief engineer’s role was comparable to that of a corporate CEO and the officer under him, the senior engineer, was the “hands on” head of the department. The remaining officers, all of whom had been selected through the Royal Navy’s very demanding system of training and advancement were eight lieutenants (E) and four warrant engineers. The enlisted men of the department, like the officers above them, were men who had been selected through experience, expertise, and exam. From top to bottom were the chief engine room artificer (ERA) followed by all the other artificers from first through fifth classes. During action stations the artificers’ primary responsibilities outside of engine room and boiler room duties were in the area of firefighting and damage control. 3.
“Keep Calm Boys … Everybody Will Be Alright”– The Loss of HMS Royal Oak
Of the five R-class battleships all but one, Royal Oak, would survive the war. The German navy was eager to demonstrate its value to the heavily land-oriented Hitler. Also seeking a morale lifting victory, it sent U-47 on a raid into Scapa Flow in October 1939. Previous aerial reconnaissance had shown that there were open spots in the otherwise carefully secured anchorage through which a submarine could gain clandestine entry. On arrival, the German submarine’s captain, Gunther Prien, was surprised to find most of the British fleet gone. Many ships had lifted anchor and steamed out to sea earlier in the day. Prien’s initial disappointment was reversed when, through his periscope, he saw the form of a battleship looming before him. He ordered torpedoes fired. One hit, but caused little damage.
Many of the crew aboard the battleship could not imagine enemy penetration into their base. They assumed that the torpedo’s impact was little more than a relatively minor internal explosion. Others of the crew thought that they might have been caught in an air raid. When Prien’s boat fired three more torpedoes, all hit. Flames reached a magazine and Royal Oak suffered a staggering explosion. The stricken battleship listed heavily and rolled over. Many men were killed by the explosions and fire. Others succumbed to hypothermia when they fell or jumped into icy waters. Still others were caught in and dragged down by the heavy oil that leaked out of the sinking ship. In all, 833 of Royal Oak’s men died that night. Prien and his crew escaped undetected to become heroes and celebrities in Germany. They were brought to Berlin, awarded medals, and introduced to a jubilant Adolf Hitler. As with so many of the German U-boat service, Prien, his boat, and the crew that remained with him did not survive the war. U-47 was sunk by depth charges in March 1941.
According to one of the Royal Oak’s 386 survivors, the night of 12 – 13 October 1939 was just an ordinary night on which the expectations of a submarine attack were essentially nil. The disbelief that a submarine could have penetrated British defenses was reflected in the surviving sailor’s statements about his experiences after the ship was first hit.
Well, I was down below when the first explosion took place and nobody knew exactly what had happened. I got dressed and went up to investigate and I finished up on the port side of the upper deck and while I was there I lit up a cigarette, and after about a quarter of an hour; nothing. Everything was still, nothing further had happened, so I thought, ‘Well; I’ll put my cigarette out and go down below again.’ And just as I … threw the cigarette over the side the next three torpedoes hit – on the starboard side, fortunately – away from me and the ship rocked and the showers of water came down and then the ship started to heel over almost immediately and it wasn’t long before it was obvious that she was going. 4.
When the three torpedoes struck home, a chain of frenzied activity started: destroyers went speeding around the harbor, depth charges were being dropped and detonating all around, and all manner of small craft went out looking to assist survivors in the water.
Another crewman who escaped that night remembered being in his hammock below decks when it became clear that a speedy exit would be necessary.
Almost immediately I felt the ship begin to list and the lights went off, and the public address … had failed, and I knew that we were in very, very deep trouble … I climbed out of my hammock, pulled on my trousers, slipped into my shoes, and headed for the nearest ladder leading to the upper deck in the darkness. And there was a chap showing tremendous courage – he was a petty officer – he was standing at the foot of this ladder … holding a torch … and he was guiding men up the ladder and saying to them quite firmly, ‘Keep calm, boys. Keep calm. Everybody will be alright, keep calm, just keep moving. Keep moving.’ And it was something of an inspiration to see this man who probably sacrificed his own life to save others.5.
Swimming in the water, another crewman remembered,
I thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is the end. I might as well say the Lord’s Prayer,’ and I did that. I started to recite the Lord’s Prayer and I heard the Marine that was with me … he joined in the prayer and halfway through (it) his voice stopped and I looked where he’d been and he had gone and that left me alone. Then I gave a last despairing look over my shoulder – and this is the last thing I recall – was seeing this … the bows of a very small craft coming right towards me, directly towards me and I lost consciousness at that stage and … must have been that someone virtually … run into me and someone (else) leaned over the side and dragged me out of the water. 6.
Almost immediately after the fact, speculation, theories, and rumors about how Royal Oak had been sunk became abundant. One of the most popular, but ultimately false, explanations was that a spy had helped by rendezvousing in a small boat with U-47 to guide it onto its target. A Court of Inquiry eventually determined that there were almost a dozen spots where a gap existed in the harbor’s defenses and that previous warnings of junior officers about them had been ignored by their superiors. The Court found that the Admiral Commanding the Orkneys and the Shetlands, Wilfred French, was to be held responsible. No allowances were made for the fact that French himself had earlier attempted to correct the defects. The Admiral was forced to retire and was posted to Washington D.C. as an administrative representative.
“You Name It, We Did It”– A Ship’s Cook Aboard HMS Ramillies
As a young man, Victor Stamp, who was born and raised in Plymouth, had no particular interest in military service. He enjoyed his student days, especially sports, but finished school at the leaving age of 14. He first went to work in a florist’s shop and later became a numbers runner for a local bookie. In September 1938, when he was 19, he and a friend decided, purely on a whim, to go to the local naval recruiter and join up. They passed the entrance exam, were told that the Navy needed cooks and, having no cause to object, they became sailors. Following an initial period of basic training that consisted mostly of digging defensive trenches in the face of the looming war, Stamp was sent to cookery school. The young sailor learned to make puddings, roast meats, stew meats, and, “you name it; we did it.” Years later, he would return to his former training school as a cookery instructor.7.
In August 1939 and about a year into his enlistment, Stamp was assigned to Ramiilies. The ship’s galley, serving 1,800 men, was coal fired. The galley ran the width of the ship and was located on the upper deck where working conditions were expected to be less hot than if placed below decks. Stamp remembered that the ship’s cooks would have to start preparing fish and chips for lunch at midnight the day before. Since breakfast was not taken by many of the men, lunch could usually be ready by the time it was needed. Breakfasts were made up of the usual dishes that included bacon and eggs, sausage and eggs, tomato on toast, and beans and toast. Beef, for dinner or lunch, was always popular. It was roasted, stewed, boiled, and almost always served with dumplings. One of the crew’s favorites was Manchester Tart which was a short crust pastry filled with raspberry jam and topped with dried coconut. Another favorite was steamed duff, a flour pudding that could contain almost any type of fruit or nut filling.8. Stamp found that working as the ship’s baker was particularly challenging. There were none of the appliances aboard the old battleship that are common in all kitchens and galleys today. Hundreds of pounds of dough had to be mixed and kneaded by hand. The task was made even more difficult because the coal used to heat the ovens needed to be carefully selected in walnut sized lumps. The water for making the dough also needed to be cooled to specific temperatures that could only be managed through the use of ice that had to be hand chipped from large blocks.
Whenever the ship was sent to the tropics cooks and stokers were given extra pay called ‘sweat money.’ Given in compensation for the hot conditions in which they had to work, it practically doubled the men’s pay. In spite of all his hard work and the constant criticism from the crew, some of it in fun and some serious, Stamp stated that he always enjoyed his time aboard ship. He was particularly proud of being able to bake bread, cakes, and even hot cross buns in the heaviest of seas.
Despite the obvious dangers of working on coal burning stoves in stormy weather, Stamp did not recall any major accidents. Vats of hot soup, he stated, represented the greatest threat, but they would be tightly lashed down and caused no real problems. The worst thing he remembered was the time a galley fire erupted when he went to pour additional oil into a large deep fryer. Unfortunately, the oil drum contained water instead of oil. When the water hit the hot grease, it splattered and set the entire galley ablaze. The fire was readily controlled and there were no injuries. Stamp speculated that the drum, which had been picked up in Malta, had probably been emptied and refilled with water by desperate Maltese dockworkers at the time when the population of the besieged island was subsisting on starvation rations. Stamp would not begrudge them for it, however.
One of the seagoing sailor’s staple beverages was a heavy, rich cocoa called Kai (alternate spelling: kye). It was smooth, thick, and not likely to spill even from an almost inverted cup. The chocolate came in big blocks which cooks like Stamp would break into pieces, blend with condensed milk, and thicken with what was called the “secret ingredient:” custard. Bridge watches and lookouts in ships large or small, especially at night and in the cold of the northern latitudes, were always grateful for plentiful rations of kai. It was particularly appreciated whenever it was fortified with rum or other spirits. Stamp also always took care to have an abundant supply of sandwiches on hand for watch standers. These included corned beef, pilchers (a type of tinned fish), or salmon. Stamp would also be sure to have gallons and gallons of pea soup, tomato soup, and beef stew soup going all night long; especially in cold weather. Tea, of course, was always available for the men to make for themselves.
Whenever the ship was about to see action Stamp’s station, once he had secured the galley, was on one of the ship’s six-inch secondary battery guns. Not being trained in gunnery, he, and many other ratings assigned to a gun, served as ammunition bearers. If they were not to carry the shells directly to the guns from a ready storage locker, they would work below decks in one of the shell and cordite charge handling spaces. Stamp often found himself in a shell room deep inside the ship. He would take shells one by one out of cases of eight to load onto slings which would convey them upwards to the guns. 9.
“This Ship Will Have No Hurt, Provided That the Captain Wears This Ma’ori Skirt”
Ramillies was unique for the traditional New Zealand Maori skirt that was kept aboard for the captain to wear. Called a piupiu in the native Maori language, it was presented as a gift to the ship on the occasion of her visit to New Zealand in 1940. Ramillies had docked at Wellington in preparation of escorting a convoy bearing the first contingent of New Zealand Army troops to the Suez. Members of the native Ngati’poneke Maori Club were invited to visit the ship. The group performed traditional dances, spoke of Maori culture and, as tokens of both friendship and good fortune, presented the ship with a sacred and specially blessed piupiu. A verse was coined to accompany the skirt:
In Wellington this ship is blessed in full Ma’ori tradition, Skirt of grass was given to her to guard her on her mission. In action and in battle sway, this ship will have no hurt Provided that the Captain wears this Ma’ori skirt.
When the ship pulled away from the dock at Wellington , a military band played the traditional Maori farewell, Po Ata Rau, rendered in English as “Now is the Hour.” The song, well known and beloved throughout New Zealand, left very few dry eyes as the battleship and the transports carrying their young men slowly headed out to sea and the war.10.
According to Ship’s Cook Stamp,
The famous Maori skirt … When we were in New Zealand … a load of Maoris come aboard and they did the Maori chanting dance with Maori girls with their baubles and all that and they presented the skipper … with a Maori skirt … and he was told that whenever the ship went into action, the captain had to wear that skirt. He wore it when we done Fort Capuzzo 11. and all that … but the major part was, on D-Day … the captain, on the way out, said, ‘I’m just going down below. I won’t be five minutes.’ And he come back up wearing the Maori skirt. Of course, they all started snickering … because the ship’s company that was on there when (it) was presented wasn’t on there then. (The captain) said, ‘Take that snickering off your face,’ he said, ‘Look. We been through five years of war and we haven’t lost one man in this ship, so there must be something in it,’ and he said, ‘I don’t intend to lose any.’ 12.
The piupiu was somehow misplaced after the war. A replacement, worn by an original member of the Maori dance group that performed on Ramilles in 1940, was located. The skirt is now held in trust by the Royal Marines Museum at Eastney, Portsmouth. 13.
“There Were Bullets Flying Everywhere”– A Midshipman Aboard HMS Resolution
One of HMS Resolution’s crewmen, Midshipman John Stedman, recorded some of his wartime exploits aboard the old battleship. Encouraged by his father to pursue a naval life, Midshipman Stedman was 18 years old when he first arrived aboard. He had spent the previous three years as a cadet aboard the training ship HMS Conway. As a cadet, Stedman studied a general education curriculum coupled with a naval one that included seamanship and navigation. In 1939 he found himself to be excited and looking forward to the war. He characterized the old R-class battleship as “out of date completely” with an “old fashioned” captain. According to Stedman, the captain followed the naval tradition of inviting newly arrived officers to dine with him. The captain, however, apparently deemed midshipmen as only worthy of his time at a breakfast rather than at a formal dinner. Stedman remembered that the breakfast to which he and his fellow midshipmen were invited was a painfully awkward affair. The midshipmen dared not speak before the captain did. The captain, for his part, said little except to curtly ask the most general of questions about the young men’s hometowns, schooling, and places of training.
In the early days of the war, when a German invasion could not be ruled out, Resolution was one of the Royal Navy’s ships used to carry British gold to safety in Canada. Midshipman Stedman thought that the loading process for the gold in England was lackadaisical. He remembered that only a few bored looking police officers stood around as several Bank of England employees casually watched while the ship’s sailors carried the boxes of gold bars up the gangway. When they arrived in Canada, however, Stedman noted that security for the gold was much more stringent. He saw large numbers of red-coated Mounties waiting on the dock to escort the boxes to wherever they were destined to go. Once the gold had been taken off in a convoy of stout looking trucks, Stedman took the opportunity to enjoy his time at Halifax. He was granted leave on which he ventured to try his hand at ice skating. He spent an afternoon under the tutelage of what he fondly remembered as a nicely shaped Canadian instructress. He quickly learned that it was more fun to remain unsteady on his feet and let her hold and guide him around the rink than to try too hard to actually skate.
The reality of war soon reached Stedman in early 1940 when Resolution was assigned to the relief of HMS Warspite in the Norwegian theater. The ship patrolled around the fjords, some of which still remained littered with the hulks of the German destroyers that had been wrecked by Warspite and her destroyer companions in the second Battle of Narvik. Resolution’s general mission while in Norway was to act as a base ship from which troops would be sent ashore to attempt to regain control of Narvik from the Germans. A secondary mission called for the battleship to provide anti-aircraft cover for British forces in the area.
The young midshipman remembered that Resolution used her heavy guns to engage in several duels against a heavy caliber German gun that was positioned ashore. The German artillery piece was concealed in a cliffside excavation from which it would be moved back and forth on rails. The gun would be run out from its hiding place to fire at Resolution which would fire back. The trading of gunfire was not considered too dangerous by the ship’s captain who wasa stickler for cleanliness and the smart appearance of his ship. He ordered painters over the side even as Resolution’s 15-inch guns were firing at the Germans. Neither German nor British gunners could manage a hit against one another.
Stedman’s most notable military action aboard Resolution came during the ship’s April 1940 foray into one of the fjords. The midshipman was assigned to take a party of French troops ashore from the battleship for an attack against some of the occupying Germans troops.
It was in our final days in Narvik that we were given one more task. That was to embark a number of French troops and take them … to a fjord where they would be landed … to (try to) drive the Germans further east and away from the coast … but we didn’t have any proper landing craft; we had to use the ship’s boats. I was put in charge of the ship’s 32 foot cutter. I came alongside the (Resolution’s) ladder and embarked far too many French troops … they tumbled into the boat in an excited way … with their guns … and there were far too many of them for safety but nobody was going to force them out again. I then made fast to the boom (extending from the ship’s side) and the idea was that I would be towed by the boom … until we reached a point as close to the beach as we could go. I would then order the troops to go. The tow to the beach was fairly hairy because the Res was going way too fast for this boat overloaded with soldiers … the boat almost went under … as we got to the beach and there appeared to be no activity … it was not quite daylight … we proceeded as best we could under oars another 100 yards or so. I thought (to) take a sounding to see if the soldiers would sink or swim as they jumped in … the water was about one fathom which was too much for a soldier with all his equipment. So we went on for another few yards and it appeared they would be to the tops of their knees so I gave the order to go, ‘Allez,’ and out they jumped, not one by one but practically all at the same time and this had the awful effect of rocking the boat until we shipped quite a lot of water … the soldiers by some miracle or other managed to scramble up to the beach. And then all hell let loose. The Germans had been holding their fire and they were there and bullets started flying everywhere and I got as low as possible in the boat as I could and so did everybody else. There was a nasty noise in the bows and a bullet had come straight through the bows and it made a very neat hole above the water. I turned as quickly as I could and made for the ship … I secured the boat to the boom … scrambled aboard … somebody had the nice manners to say,’ Well done’ and I scrambled along to the gun room and had a nice glass of whiskey … I was still shivering, not from cold as much as fear, I think.
A midshipman has little part in running the ship. We were invariably under instruction, learning subjects … so as a midshipman of the watch you were mainly there to try to be helpful and trying to be helpful you just got in the way. The most useful thing a midshipman did on the bridge was to make the ship’s cocoa which was so thick you could almost stand the spoon in it. If you didn’t do it properly you got ticked off for it. It was only this final operation of landing troops in Norway that I felt I was doing something useful … I think I did (it) quite well … it gave me a certain amount of self-satisfaction and I was happy about that.14.
Around the time of Stedman’s amphibious landing adventure, Resolution was attacked by German aircraft and hit by a bomb. The bomb penetrated the quarterdeck to detonate in the Royal Marine mess. Stedman watched as a Marine Sergeant mustered the injured troops and marched them in orderly fashion to the sickbay where the three ship’s doctors began to tend to them. Witnesses who were in or near the sickbay were suddenly horrified to see the injured men fall to the deck one by one. Unknown at the time, they were suffering from unseen brain damage caused by the concussion of the bomb blast. All of them, 38 Royal Marines, as Stedman recalled, died. The midshipman cried as his deceased and shrouded shipmates were slipped over the side for an at-sea burial.15.
“A Sad Situation”– The British Attack on the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir
After her bomb damage was patched up, Resolution was sent to join other Royal Navy ships offshore at the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir. She was under orders to assist in the July 1940 attack on the French Navy ships based there. The French fleet included the two pre- World War I battleships Bretagne and Provence, new battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, six destroyers, and a seaplane carrier. The French battlecruisers had commissioned only in 1937 and 1938 respectively. Among the Royal Navy’s greatest worries about the French ships were that they were faster than practically all of Britain’s capital ships and that they were even more powerful than Germany’s new battlecruisers.
Operation Catapult, as the action was called, had been reluctantly devised. Britain was fervently hoping to keep the French naval units in North Africa from falling under Axis control. The wording of France’s surrender document to Germany had stated that the French fleet was to be assembled at German and/or Italian ports for demilitarization. The British could not assume that the French ships would not instead be taken over to be rearmed as units of the German or Italian navies. Attempts to convince the French navy to join with the Royal Navy continued even as Resolution and other British warships steamed outside the French base. The crew of Resolution was kept apprised through regular announcements over the tannoy of how the tense and bitter negotiations were unfolding. If British terms could not be met, the French fleet would have to be destroyed. The local French naval commander ultimately refused British requests to either sail to a French port in Canada or the Caribbean, surrender his ships to the British, or to scuttle them. As it became increasingly clear that the British would have to open fire against their French ally, Resolution’s captain informed the ship’s company that he would forgive any of them who did not feel that they could participate in the pending action. The captain described the situation as ”sad.” Some accepted their captain’s offer. The ship was ordered to commence fire on the afternoon of 03 July.
Midshipman Stedman was on the bridge throughout the action that, by his estimation, lasted two hours. Resolution made at least one hit on the battleship Bretagne which, also hit by shells from other British ships, exploded and sank. The French returned fire and, using different colored dyes in their shells for spotting purposes, made several close misses on Resolution. The dye splashed onto the battleship and the captain, ever concerned with his ship’s appearance, turned to the navigator to ask, “Do you think the stuff will stain, Pilot?” He was assured that it would not and, satisfied, returned to directing his ship’s actions. The French made smoke screens and some of their ships slipped their moorings to make a dash for Toulon. The British force turned to pursue but, hampered by Resolution’s slow speed of just 18 knots, could not get into gunfire range. Stedman remained at his post on the bridge and, when not making and serving tea to the bridge personnel, tried to stay quietly out of the way. The British force turned back to Gibraltar on the following day. 16.
“We Gave the French an Ultimatum” – The Action as Seen From HMS Hood
Along with Resolution, the British force at Mers-el-Kebir included battlecruiser Hood, battleship Valiant, aircraft carrier Ark Royal, cruisers Enterprise and Arethusa, and 11 destroyers. Aboard Hood, Artificer Albert Pitman was at his action station in B turret. Although he did not see much except when he would look through the gun mount’s periscope, he offered the following perspective of the action:
We gave the French an ultimatum to either (surrender) their ships or come out and join us. And they refused … they said that if there was any chance of the Germans trying to take them over they would proceed to their American Station (Martinique in the Caribbean) … Admiral Somerville didn’t want to open fire on them nor did we for they were the Strasbourg and Dunkerque and Strasbourg had been our ‘chummy ship’ … we’d often been on patrol with her … and often under the command of her admiral who was senior to our admiral. But anyway, eventually, Winston Churchill ordered us to open fire and we killed a lot of Frenchmen that day.
I remember that the Strasbourg and Dunkerque got out and run for it … and I was looking out the periscope of the turret and I could see red splashes and green splashes and I knew the red splashes were from Dunkerque and the green from Strasbourg … and you have to remember that they were 13.5-inch shells that were falling … eventually we went after the Strasbourg and we turned and stripped a turbine blade and we had to stop chasing her and I think we were rather relieved that she got away … she’d been our ‘chummy ship.’ 17.
Pitman added that his station during the action was, “in the working chamber in case anything went wrong.” He recalled that the 15-inch guns did not make much noise, but gave off a “sort of concussion as they made a forceful ‘WHOOMPH!’” The greatest amount of noise was not from the guns going off, but from the shouted orders and the sounds of the machinery raising shells up from the magazines and from the gun breeches opening and closing. In any event, crewmen had little time to dwell on things other than their specific responsibilities. Pitman’s job was to remain out of the way of the actual operations of the turret until any part of it might malfunction or become damaged. He was then to step forward, inspect the damage, and make any needed repairs as quickly as possible. Little went wrong, although Pitman recalled that something would “get stuck” or “you might spring a leak” from time to time. B turret suffered no mishaps on the day of the attack on the French fleet. 18.
“It Was Murder”– France’s Sailors Remember
Andre Jaffre, was a French sailor aboard the hardest hit of the French ships: battleship Bretagne. Jaffre remembered that …
… (A) shell exploded underneath where there were munitions and a fuel store. I saw a friend who had his head blown off. His blood dripped on me. I wanted to be sick … (as the ship capsized) the water was black with oil that was smoking and bubbling, like a chip pan, and men were struggling and screaming in it. But I had to jump in. I fell into that oil and I let myself sink, sink, sink. I was so burned … (I) saw bodies all around me, stomachs blown open and severed heads. And the shells kept on falling and guys were shouting, ‘Finish me off! Kill me, kill me, please,’ because they were so badly burned, had lost limbs, everything. They were asking for the coup de grace. I swam underwater as far as possible from the ship and came up to the surface. But every time I came out of the water I came up into this burning oil. So I breathed in smoke and oil and I’d dive in again for as long as I could. At one point I came up in a spot with no oil and from there I saw an abominable spectacle. The Bretagne was capsizing. 19.
Prior to the commencement of fire, Jaffre had experienced a sense of optimism. Of the appearance of the British he said,
We were happy to see them. We shouted to each other, ‘The British have arrived! They have come to get us to continue the fight against the Nazis!’ 20.
A shipmate of Jaffre, Leon Le Roux added,
Only two weeks before we’d been with the British in Gibraltar, out on the town, and then suddenly they’re firing on us. It was unthinkable. Today we’re allies, tomorrow we’re enemies. The reasons for it? For that, see Sir Winston Churchill. 21.
Robert Philpott who was aboard Hood that day said of his post-action feelings,
It was shattering to see what we had just done. It was a scene of utter devastation. I don’t have any pride being part of it; only great sadness — Churchill was in control, not our Admiral (Somerville). If it had been our Admiral, we’d never had done it. But he had a direct order to, ‘do it now.’ 22.
Throughout the course of the earlier negotiations, many on the British side, from Admiral Somerville on down, did not believe that some sort of agreement would not be ultimately managed. Philpott added,
We all firmly believed that the French ships would come out and join us. 23.
Even into the 21st century there is an enduring French resentment about the attack. Le Roux said,
What do you want the French to think? It’s a betrayal yes, but not only a betrayal, it was murder. A crime. Yes, a real crime. 24.
Jaffre was not as angry or resentful as his shipmate. He said of the incident,
It’s not betrayal. It was war with all that unfolds, and the consequences of a war. Let us say I was deeply saddened to know that our English friends had sunk us, but what can you do? I speak as an equal, from a French sailor to a British sailor. And let us be honest, have you ever seen an intelligent war? 25.
In all, 1,297 French were killed and over 300 wounded. Over the course of the war Britain’s fears that French naval ships would fight against the Royal Navy were not realized.
“The British Sailor With the Eye Patch”– Further Adventures for Midshipman Stedman
In September 1940, Resolution was on hand for Operation Menace, the invasion of Vichy French Dakar, West Africa (Senegal). The operation was undertaken by combined British and Free French forces led by General Charles DeGaulle. The hope was to quickly oust the Vichy by persuasion rather than by force and to replace them with the Free French. A less publicized justification for the operation on the British side was the long-term security of the 1,500 tons of French, Belgian, and Polish gold stored at Dakar. It had been evacuated in front of Germany’s invasion of Europe, but before the fall of France.
Midshipman Stedman was temporarily detached from Resolution to board a Free Polish transport ship. From there, he was to take the helm of a landing craft filled with Free French troops. He recalled watching DeGaulle make a rousing and reassuring speech to the landing party assembled on the deck of the Polish ship. They were promised by the future president of France that they would be in no harm. He confidently assured them that, rather than resistance, they would be met with open arms. The landing craft were lowered to the water. Stedman formed up not far behind DeGaulle’s own landing craft to follow it towards the beach. Near shore, Stedman watched DeGaulle stand up, wave his arms over his head, and shout, “I am General DeGaulle and I have come to liberate you. Join with us, the Free French.” This was greeted by a hail of bullets. DeGaulle quickly ducked down and called the landing off. He was not willing to have Frenchmen shed the blood of other Frenchmen. The Allied naval forces remained offshore to shell the harbor and its shore defenses. The new French battleship Richelieu was in port and contributed counter fire against the Allies. As she patrolled offshore, Resolution was torpedoed by a Vichy submarine and had to be towed back to Freetown. None of her men were killed by the attack. Overall, the operation against the Vichy was not successful. Elements of the Vichy air force bombed Gibraltar in retaliation. The bombing did little damage and Dakar remained firmly under Vichy control.
Resolution sat at Freetown for about three months as her crew wrestled with the hole in her hull and a 15-degree list to port. Repair experts from Britain failed to arrive when the ship bringing them to Africa was torpedoed and sunk. Midshipman Stedman remembered that the ship’s company spent a miserable time in Freetown. The ship’s ventilation system was not functioning and all spaces below decks became unbearably hot. When replenishment ships did not appear, food stores ran low, and the men subsisted on local bananas and sweet potatoes. The crew choked on the fumes of oil and fuel that hung in the hot, heavy air. They could only walk about the ship with an uncomfortable lean as her list could not be corrected. Although they were on ‘Tropical Routine’ which meant having to work only until one o’clock in the afternoon, there was little to do in the area. According to Stedman, the main recreation was to visit a local beach or go into town to drink “horrible beer and get thoroughly drunk.” They were finally saved by one of the ship’s cooks who had been an underwater welder before the war. The cook volunteered his services and was able to make the ship seaworthy. On 08 December 1940, she steamed out to sea, turned into the cooling Trade Winds, and headed on to Gibraltar.
At Gibraltar, the ship took a number of British ex-patriate refugees on board from southern France where they were being harassed by the Vichy. Stedman found their attitudes hard to take as most were under the impression that the Royal Navy was there to cater to their every whim. He characterized them as, “a horrible lot.” Many were wealthy and several, among them the writer W. Somerset Maugham, were of celebrity status. Midshipman Stedman found his meeting and personal dealings with the renowned writer less than memorable. Maugham turned out to be “ultra-demanding.” The writer insisted on fresh water showers when there were none available, demanded a private cabin, and refused to accept the fact that he and his male companion could not always be served tea punctually and regularly. Unable to contain himself, Stedman boldly confronted Maugham one day by stating, “Sorry sir. We are not a passenger ship. You’ll have to take the rough with the smooth.” Maugham was much taken aback, but was more cordial towards the crew from that point on. All the while, Stedman and the other midshipmen continued with required classroom lessons in French, mathematics, and physics.26.
As Resolution remained under repair at Gibraltar in January 1941, Stedman was once again detached to another ship. This time he was to serve for a while aboard a Royal Navy destroyer. The duty was meant to expand his still very limited naval horizons and experiences. Once aboard, he recalled being told, in very polite terms, to stay off the bridge and out of the way. Added to this admonition was the suggestion that he could likely do best to stay aft to make sure that things would go well there. There was little for him to do on the ship except to go along for the ride. When the destroyer steamed off shore at Genoa, Italy to shell it, Stedman remembered thinking that “it was rather a nasty thing to do.”
We arrived off Genoa not having been detected by the Italians at about five in the morning. We opened fire and woke up all the poor Italians who were in their beds. What good it did, I can’t think … we had targets, but Genoa did not seem to have any tremendous sort of wartime importance; just a few factories that made a lot of silk and things … we were just firing our … guns into an area … as far as I know there were no Italian warships in Genoa. I think we thought afterwards that it was rather a nasty thing to do … just firing into a seaside port … then we returned to Gibraltar. I think it was just to keep the ships busy and to get the ship’s company to think they were doing something.27.
Back in Gibraltar, the work on Resolution was still not quite complete. The midshipmen were taken to a barracks that had been vacated when the British troops once garrisoned there had been recalled home. The soldiers had left their horses behind, however, and these needed to be exercised. Stedman, who had ridden as a boy, thought the job would be a pleasant one. Things changed when the Resolution’s navigation instructor took it upon himself to keep the young officers-in-training sharp as they worked with the Army’s horses. He took them to the local race track where he climbed into the stands. From up high, where he could be clearly seen, he made hand held flag signals to the mounted trainees below. Each midshipman was to maneuver on horseback in response to the signals as if he were navigating a ship at sea.
It was ultimately determined that Resolution needed far more work than could be provided at Gibraltar, so she was sent to the US Navy Shipyard at Philadelphia. As the ship approached the American coast, it was asked to please discharge all shells and cordite that were still in the ammunition hoists for the 15-inch guns. When this was done, Stedman was hit in the eye by a hot piece of residue that flew out of a gun’s breech as it opened. Normally a blast of compressed air was sent through the still closed breech to rush along the length of the gun barrel from which it would vent all residual gasses. Hot bits of cordite such as struck Stedman would also have been vented out. The air pressure must have been insufficient on this occasion and Stedman was unfortunate enough to be in the way. He was led to sick bay where the surgeon took a look. The medic then gave him the gloomy report of, “Good, God!” The young sailor suffered from great pain and was transferred to the US Naval Hospital at Philadelphia which he described as “very splendid.” Stedman commented that his room was so nice and the food was so good that he would have really enjoyed himself there if it had not been for his eye. Over a period of about a week, his eye improved and a patch was placed over it. He began to receive many American visitors who made “the British sailor with the eye patch” something of a celebrity.
When his eye had fully recovered, Stedman was transferred to the lend-lease US Coast Guard cutter HMS Sennen. The midshipman helped sail the ship from New York back to England. Sennen would go on to participate in two of the three convoy battles that have been considered as turning points in the war against the U-boats in the Atlantic. Stedman eventually completed his Lieutenant’s course and enjoyed a long naval career. He retired from the Royal Navy in 1965. 28.
“Load! Load! Load!”– Gunfire Support Off the Beaches of Normandy
Following a lengthy yard period and several months on trade defense duty in the Indian Ocean, battleship Ramillies was ordered back to England in January 1944. She received an additional refit along with system upgrades. She was to be operated by a reduced crew that meant only two of her four 15-inch turrets could be manned at any given time. Nonetheless, the ship was assigned to provide gunfire support along the British landing zones on D-Day. The ship’s sector of responsibility lay between the towns of Arromanches and Caen. Seaman Harry Staff described the conditions within one of Ramillies main battery turrets as the big guns fired against the shore.
When Colours were sounded on the morning of the 6th we raised two enormous battle flags; the White Ensign and the Union Jack. (We were) praying that we had not been spotted by the German shore batteries. Suddenly the order was given, ‘With AP and HE shells and a full charge; Load! Load! Load!’ Instantly the turret was (filled) with the sounds of breeches, cages, and rammers followed by (the sounds of) the training engine. Nobody spoke, the indicator lights glimmered; the only noise now was the gun layers applying the required range … Approximately at 0530 the standby two bells sounded. Almost immediately our guns erupted and from then on we were loading and firing as fast as possible. The smell of burning residue crept into the gunhouse and it became very warm. The lads tied the top half of their overalls around their waist. Due to the concussion some of them developed nose bleeding. Being the least occupied I went around with a bucket of water, flannel, and towel. As the day went on we all developed nausea and headaches. After 48 rounds a Walking Pipe (hydraulic) Valve burst. The gun crew immediately transferred to “B” Turret. During the action we were kept informed of some of the events to date; the progress of the landing craft, the landing, and … the positioning and sinking of the block ships in preparation for the Mulberry Harbors (large structures towed in to serve as docks and wharves).
At about 1100 hours the Gunners Mate suggested that I go looking for food and drink (and) anything else I could purloin … at the galley corn beef sandwiches were available … and tea … they were hauled up into the gunhouse. I then went exploring … the shoreline was a mass of smoke and flame, the noise from all the guns around was horrendous, everything seemed to be vibrating, everywhere I looked smoke was coming from guns. The sea was a mass of ships of all shapes and sizes; landing craft with troops, tanks, guns, and all manner of equipment were heading for the beaches. On our port side a landing craft full up with wounded requested our assistance but they were directed to a hospital ship … My return to the turret was even more welcome than the food. Passing the Regulating Officer I observed that rum was being issued. On being asked which mess I came from, I explained that the “A” Turret crew were (shut in) and could not get to their messes. Much to my amazement, I was given a liberal supply.29.