The Kriegsmarine Strikes

As the Wermacht and Luftwaffe were scoring victories in Poland, the Kriegsmarine sought glory for itself at sea.

HMS Ark Royal

On 14 September 1939, Gerhard Glattes of U-39 chanced upon the most formidable and modern aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy, the HMS Ark Royal, sailing alone and into the crosshairs of his periscope. She had turned into the wind to launch aircraft and as a result, had fallen four miles astern of her destroyers. Glattes quickly fired a fan of three torpedoes at the carrier.

The Ark Royal was struck amidships by one of the torpedoes, between the fuel bunkers and bomb store, and directly below the bridge island. The explosion caused Ark Royal to shake, hurled loaded torpedo-bombers into the air, and killed several crew aboard. A 130 feet (40 m) long by 30 feet (9.1 m) deep hole was created on the starboard side, which caused flooding of the starboard boiler room, main switchboard, oil tanks, and over 106 feet (32 m) of the ship’s starboard bilge. The starboard power train was knocked out, causing the rear half of the ship to lose power, while communications were severed shipwide.

Immediately after the torpedo strikes, Captain Arthur Power attempted to order the engines to full stop, but had to send a runner to the engine room when it was discovered communications were down. The hole in the hull was enlarged by the ship’s motion, and by the time Ark Royal stopped she had taken on water and begun to list to starboard, reaching 18° from center within 20 minutes. Water spread to the centerline boiler room, which started to flood from below, and power was lost shipwide when the boiler uptakes became choked; Ark Royal had no backup diesel generators. About half an hour after the explosion, flooding caused the angle of list to increase rapidly. Water had reached the boiler room flat, an uninterrupted compartment running the width of the ship.

The list reached 45° before Ark Royal capsized and sank. Witnesses reported the carrier rolling to 90°, where she remained for three minutes before inverting. Ark Royal broke in two, the aft sinking within a couple of minutes, followed by the bow.

HMS Courageous

Courageous served with the Home Fleet at the start of the Second World War with 811 and 822 Squadrons aboard, each squadron equipped with a dozen Fairey Swordfish. In the early days of the war, hunter-killer groups were formed around the fleet aircraft carriers to find and destroy U-boats. On 31 August 1939 she went to her war station at Portland and embarked on the two squadrons of Swordfish, having returning to Plymouth overnight she was at anchor when war was declared on 3 September 1939. Courageous left that evening for an anti-submarine patrol in the western approaches escorted by four destroyers. On the evening of 17 September 1939 she was on an anti-submarine patrol off the coast of Ireland. Two of her four escorting destroyers had been sent to help a merchant ship under attack and all her aircraft had returned from patrols. During this time, Courageous was stalked for over two hours by U-29, commanded by Captain-Lieutenant Otto Schuhart. Then Courageous turned into the wind to launch her aircraft. This manoeuvre put the ship right across the bow of the submarine, which fired three torpedoes. Two of the torpedoes struck the ship on her port side, knocking out all electrical power, and she capsized and sank in 20 minutes with the loss of 518 of her crew, including her captain. The survivors were rescued by the Dutch liner Veendam and British freighter Collingworth. While the two escorting destroyers counter-attacked U-29 for four hours, the submarine escaped.

HMS Royal Oak

Kriegsmarine Commander of Submarines Karl Dönitz devised a plan to attack Scapa Flow by submarine within days of the outbreak of war. Its goal would be twofold: firstly, that displacing the Home Fleet from Scapa Flow would slacken the British North Sea blockade and grant Germany greater freedom to attack the Atlantic convoys; secondly, the blow would be a symbolic act of vengeance, striking at the same location where the German High Seas Fleet had surrendered and scuttled itself following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Dönitz hand-picked Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien for the task, scheduling the raid for the night of 13/14 October 1939, when the tides would be high and the night moonless.

Dönitz was aided by high-quality photographs from the recent reconnaissance overflight, which revealed the weaknesses of the defenses and an abundance of targets. He directed Prien to enter Scapa Flow from its east via Kirk Sound, passing to the north of Lamb Holm, a small low-lying island between Burray and Mainland. Prien initially mistook the more southerly Skerry Sound for the chosen route and his sudden realization that U-47 was heading for the shallow blocked passage forced him to order a rapid turn to the northeast. On the surface, and illuminated by a bright display of the aurora borealis, the submarine threaded between the sunken blockships Seriano and Numidian, grounding itself temporarily on a cable strung from Seriano. It was briefly caught in the headlights of a taxi onshore, but the driver raised no alarm. On entering the harbor proper at 00:27 on 14 October, Prien entered a triumphant Wir sind in Scapa Flow!!! in the log and set a south-westerly course for several kilometers before reversing direction. To his surprise, the anchorage appeared to be almost empty; unknown to him, Forbes’ order to disperse the fleet had removed some of the biggest targets. U-47 had been heading directly towards four warships, including the newly commissioned light cruiser Belfast, anchored offshore of Flotta and Hoy 4-nautical-mile (8 km, 5 mi) distant, but Prien gave no indication that he had seen them.

On the reverse course, a lookout on the bridge spotted Royal Oak lying approximately 4,400 yards (4,000 m) to the north, correctly identifying it as a battleship of the Revenge class. Mostly hidden behind her was a second ship, only the bow of which was visible to U-47. Prien mistook it to be a battlecruiser of the Renown class, German intelligence later labeling it Repulse. It was in fact the World War I seaplane tender Pegasus.

At 00:58 U-47 fired a salvo of three torpedoes from its bow tubes, a fourth lodging in its tube. All three struck the battleship in quick succession amidships and detonated. The explosions blew a hole in the armored deck, destroying the Stokers’, Boys’ and Marines’ messes and causing a loss of electrical power. Cordite from a magazine ignited and the ensuing fireball passed rapidly through the ship’s internal spaces. Royal Oak quickly listed some 15°, sufficient to push the open starboard-side portholes below the waterline. She soon rolled further onto her side to 45°, hanging there for several minutes before disappearing beneath the surface at 01:11, 13 minutes after Prien’s strike. 833 men died with the ship, including Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the Second Battleship Division. Over one hundred of the dead were Boy Seamen, not yet 18 years old, the largest ever such loss in a single Royal Navy action. The admiral’s wooden gig, moored alongside, was dragged down with Royal Oak.

HMS Nelson

On 30 October 1939, the U-56 under Wilhelm Zahn spotted the battle group Nelson, Rodney and Hood. Carefully eluding the escorts, Zahn attacked and fired three torpedoes at Nelson, two torpedoes finding their mark and shattering the battlsheip’s hull below the waterline causing her to lose speed and commence a slow circle to port as explosions crumped within, developing a list to starboard. As she sunk beneath the sea, Zahn skillfully escaped dogged pursuit.

These attacks gave Hitler great pleasure while demoralizing the British public and granting the Royal Navy pause as they discovered their dominance at sea was being tested.


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