The Home Fleet Before the Bismarck Breakout II


On 2 December 1940, on a cold and windy day in Rosyth, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes hauled down his flag as commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet and handed over both his command and his flagship Nelson to Admiral Sir John Tovey. The new fleet commander had just returned from the Mediterranean, where he’d served as second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, under Admiral Cunningham. The following day, Nelson sailed for Scapa Flow, where Tovey was better placed to control his fleet and deal with any German sorties. The first of these – the breakout of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – came soon after the New Year, and Tovey was caught on the wrong foot by his opponent Admiral Lütjens. As we’ve seen, the two German battlecruisers evaded all British attempts to intercept them, and after a successful Atlantic cruise they made it safely into Brest. This was undoubtedly a trying experience for Tovey, but he was determined that if his chance came again, he would bring the enemy to battle.

Tovey had a powerful fleet at his disposal, and on paper it looked like he had everything he needed to do just that. The trouble was, many of his ships were fairly old, and some even dated from the previous war. When he took command, Nelson and Rodney were the most modern battleships in the navy, and both of them were 13 years old. With a top speed of just 23 knots they were far too slow to catch the new generation of German capital ships like Scharnhorst or Bismarck. Still, if they did manage to, they carried nine 16in. guns in three triple turrets, and their hulls were well armoured. If they could actually bring these German warships to battle then they had a good chance of destroying them. The nine other battleships in the navy were all of World War I vintage. In fact, in 1916 five of them fought in the Battle of Jutland. Another Jutland veteran, the Royal Oak, had been sunk in October 1939.

What made them useful was that they all carried eight 15in. guns apiece. Some of the Queen Elizabeth class had been modernised, and with decent fire control systems and modern radar they still proved themselves useful. During 1940, several of them had seen action in the Mediterranean – in fact, most of them had seen service with the Home Fleet earlier in the war – and by the spring of 1941 all five were either serving with the Mediterranean fleet or were undergoing repairs.

By 1941, the four remaining battleships of the Royal Sovereign class were relegated to second-line duties such as escorting convoys or shore bombardment. With a top speed of just 23 knots – and most were now slower than that – they were of little or no use as front-line warships. So, that left Tovey with just two ageing but well-armed battleships to confront the most powerful warships in the German fleet.

Less well armoured were his battlecruisers. When it was first dreamed up before World War I, the idea of the battlecruiser made some sense: it was a ship that was as well armed as a dreadnought battleship but as fast as a cruiser. In effect, it was a sort of super cruiser, designed to hunt down enemy cruisers. This was achieved by doing away with decent armour, a sacrifice that resulted in the loss of three British battlecruisers at Jutland. The trouble was, with such a powerful armament the temptation to use battlecruisers to fight other equally powerful warships was simply too great. The Germans had a less unbalanced design and so they only lost one battlecruiser as a result of the battle. While Jutland should have marked the end of the battlecruiser experiment, new ones were already under construction, with the result that although earlier ones had been scrapped soon after World War I, these new battlecruisers were still in service in 1941.

The Renown and Repulse entered service soon after Jutland. Both carried six 15in. guns, in three twin turrets, but their main armoured belt was just 6in. thick – less than half that of the fleet’s new dreadnought battleships. Still, their 15in. guns meant they were still considered useful, and during the inter-war years another 2–3in. of armour was added to protect the ships’ most vulnerable parts – their magazines and engine rooms. Other modifications were made, too, so that by 1941 they were still considered effective warships, particularly because they had a top speed of 30 knots. Thus it was that in the spring of 1941, Renown was the flagship of Force H, based in Gibraltar, while Repulse formed part of the Home Fleet.

Then there was the Hood. She had been laid down four months after Jutland, the first of a class of four powerful battlecruisers, although all the others had been cancelled while still on the stocks. She was launched in August 1918, three months before the end of World War I, and finally entered service in 1920. She was a large and beautiful ship, 860ft long, armed with eight 15in. guns, in four twin turrets. Her elegant lines and impressive size meant she was perfect for ‘showing the flag’, and for almost two decades she did exactly that. If any warship could be seen as the floating symbol of the Royal Navy, and of the might of the British Empire, it was the Hood. During her career, she had been seen by millions of people and was probably the best-known warship in the world.

When World War II began, Hood was attached to the Home Fleet, although the following summer she was briefly attached to Force H, for the bombardment of the French fleet based at Oran in North Africa. In early 1941 she joined the hunt for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. By then, though, she was more than two decades old and was showing her age; her value as a floating advert for the Royal Navy meant she hadn’t undergone the extensive modifications that the other two battlecruisers went through. So, although she now carried slightly more modern secondary guns and anti-aircraft weapons, and a fire control radar, her main armament was the same as it had been when she first entered service 20 years previously. Just as importantly, she carried the same armour, too. She had a respectable 12in. armoured belt, but her main deck was only protected by 1–3in. of armour, with just 2in. of steel plate over her magazines. Still, with a speed of 32 knots, the Hood was one of the few British capital ships fast enough to overhaul the Scharnhorst or the Bismarck.

Then, in January 1941, just weeks after Tovey took command, the battleship King George V joined the Home Fleet. The first British battleship to enter service in a decade and a half, and the namesake of what would become a class of five, the arrival of King George V marked a turning point for Tovey’s battle fleet. Now it had some real teeth. The second battleship in the class, the Prince of Wales, would join him in May. Each of them carried ten 14in. guns, in two quadruple turrets fore and aft, and a third twin turret superimposed behind the larger forward turret. This strange configuration was due to the limits of the various inter-war naval treaties, which also explained why the British had left it for ten years before ordering these new capital ships. However, they were well protected, with a 14–16in. main belt, and 5–6in. deck armour. They could also make 28.5 knots, which gave them a fighting chance of intercepting Scharnhorst and Bismarck.

They had issues, though. In the Kriegsmarine, a new capital ship would go through a rigorous set of sea trials, followed by an equally lengthy period of crew training. The British couldn’t afford that luxury; with Bismarck and Tirpitz nearing completion, these new battleships were needed right away. So, after cursory sea trials they were sent to join the fleet, and the crew had to learn on the job. By the time the Bismarck sortied, the King George V was fully operational. In fact, in April 1941 Tovey shifted his flag into her.

The Prince of Wales was more of a problem. In August 1940, she was nearing completion in Birkenhead when a German air raid struck Merseyside and she was badly damaged. This delayed her completion, but she still sailed for her trials on schedule, in January 1941. However, two of her three main turrets were not functioning, and only half of her crew were on board.

The real snag was that her newly designed quadruple turrets didn’t work. They were still having serious teething problems, and as the sea trials continued, civilian workmen continued to try to get them fixed. Still, on 31 March she was officially declared ‘complete’, and handed over to the Royal Navy. Several key tests hadn’t been carried out, but the Admiralty were so keen to get her operational that these had been waived. By then, she was in Scapa Flow, where working-up exercises continued through April and May, and the work on her faulty turrets continued. It wasn’t until 26 April that Vickers-Armstrongs – who built her guns – finally approved the work, and she could begin her gunnery trials. Even then, a group of Vickers-Armstrongs technicians stayed on board to iron out a long list of last-minute hitches. They were still on board her when she steamed off to fight the Bismarck.

Despite the issues, one thing that gave British warships like the Prince of Wales an edge over the Germans was what we now call radar, although in 1941 the British still called it Radio Direction Finding (RDF).20 While the Germans had their own Seetakt sets, these were neither as effective nor as efficient as the British system. Also, by 1941 the British had a range of different sets, used to detect both aircraft and surface targets, and to help direct the guns. For example, in May 1941 Prince of Wales carried Type 281 early warning radar, which could detect approaching aircraft over 100 miles away. Various other sets were used to control the fire of the ship’s main guns and her anti-aircraft batteries. King George V had a similar suite of electronics. Even older ships like Rodney and Hood carried radar – a Type 279 air warning set in Rodney, and a Type 284 fire control radar in Hood. This all helped the British search for the enemy, and hit them once they were within range.

The other big advantage Tovey enjoyed over his German rivals was the aircraft carrier. It was the British who first perfected this type of warship during World War I – in fact, in 1917 the first successful carrier landing took place in Scapa Flow. The big fleet carriers of 1939–40 were formidable weapons of war, capable of carrying a mixed bag of fighters and multipurpose bomber and torpedo planes. Although most carried the antiquated Fairey Swordfish as their main strike aircraft, this biplane was still effective. Affectionately known as ‘Stringbag’, the Swordfish could carry a torpedo or bombs, or simply act as a reconnaissance plane, which made it extremely versatile, albeit slow and with a limited strike range. Still, in December 1940 both the fleet carrier and the Swordfish demonstrated their effectiveness at Taranto in southern Italy when they put most of the Italian battle fleet out of action.

So, all things considered, these fleet carriers were powerful naval assets. The trouble was that there simply wasn’t enough of them. Two had been lost in 1939 and 1940, which, apart from two light carriers serving overseas, only left Ark Royal and Furious. Then, in 1940, the first two Illustrious class fleet carriers entered service. A third – Victorious – joined the fleet in the late spring of 1941. However, in May 1941 Ark Royal was in service with Force H in Gibraltar, and Furious, Illustrious and Formidable were in the Mediterranean. That just left Victorious. She departed the Vickers-Armstrongs yard in Tyneside in April 1941, and in mid-May, after her sea trials, she joined the Home Fleet, accompanied by a ship’s company and airmen who were both inexperienced and whose training was still incomplete. Still, she was all there was, and Tovey had little option but to press her into service, ready or not.

As well as these capital ships, Tovey had at his disposal a powerful force of cruisers and destroyers. The cruisers were his ‘eyes and ears’, whose main job was to maintain the patrol line running between Greenland and Shetland. They consisted of 8in. gun heavy cruisers and 6in. gun light cruisers, but in the event of a German sortie both cruiser types had the same job. They lacked the firepower and armour to take on a German capital ship, but they had radar, and radios. So, once the enemy were spotted they could shadow them and send Tovey regular reports, which would allow him to dispatch his capital ships to intercept the enemy. This of course was a dangerous game: one false move and they could be blown apart by heavy German guns.

As for the destroyers, their main role was to protect larger warships from enemy U-boats. They could also join the patrol line, though, and by May 1941 most of them were fitted with a search radar. This meant that they could actually augment the cruiser patrols, making sure nothing slipped through the British net. Also, when the need arose and in the right circumstances, they could carry out high-speed torpedo attacks. On the downside, their effectiveness was reduced by their limited range and their inability to operate effectively in extremely rough seas. The first problem was solved by the proximity of refuelling bases in Iceland, but the latter was entirely dependent on the weather.

So, in summary, Admiral Tovey’s Home Fleet comprised an assortment of ships. He had a few battleships and battlecruisers, both old and new, most of which had some form of limitation to them – be it age, speed, crew experience or persistent technical problems. His one carrier was a great asset, but her raw air crew needed time to learn their job. These were the ships that would have to take on the Bismarck if she tried to make a sortie. Supporting them was an equally varied selection of cruisers and destroyers, whose main role was to locate and shadow, not to fight. That was the job of Tovey’s capital ships. Above all, though, the whole thing centred around intelligence reports. Once Tovey knew the Germans were making their move, he could do something about it. Until then, he simply had to remain at anchor in Scapa Flow and wait for that green telephone to ring.