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October-December 1939: The Not-so-Phoney War at Sea & in Poland and Finland.   Leave a comment

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Above: HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937

The Royal Oak & the Graf Spee; Orkney to Montevideo:

Eighty years ago, On 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, when she was torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s submarine U-47. It got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship, of which three hit the ship, capsizing it. After the sinking of HMS Courageous the previous month, this was an almost equally spectacular symbolic success for the Kriegsmarine. Of Royal Oaks complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed, 810 in only thirteen minutes that night, the others dying later of their wounds.  While the loss of the outdated ship, the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in the Second World War, did little to affect the numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies, the sinking had a considerable effect on wartime morale. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had considered the naval base at Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, and U-47s raid demonstrated that the German Navy was capable of bringing the war to British home waters. The shock resulted in rapid changes to dockland security and the construction of the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow.

002 (2)One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could be done by low-flying Heinkel He-IIIS and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats, shown in the painting on the right) and destroyers. Lacking a large surface fleet, the German Navy used small vessels for fast hit-and-run attacks.

By the end of November, these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered ways of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’ field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.

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The map above shows the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1941, with the green line showing the areas of severe U-boat impact. While in the U-boat Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon and it also had three purpose-built ‘pocket-battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, launched early in the war, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, as in the First World War, Germany was once again made use of its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. Its formidable capital ships were used as raiders against British commerce. Tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British resources. It was the spotting, disabling and forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the RN’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South American coast, Captain Hans Lansdorff’s ship had enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war, sinking ten ships totalling more than fifty thousand tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading, however, since although a limit of ten thousand tons had been imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six eight-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again.

In the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December, off the coast of Uruguay, the German ship took on the eight-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the six-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships. However, she was eventually outfought by the three British cruisers and was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received. Langsdorff then magnanimously released the Allied sailors he captured from ships he had sunk, who reported they had been well-treated. Then, mistakenly trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff then sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo  harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over twenty thousand spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically participated in releasing a giant ‘fake news’ story. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Back to Europe: Poland, the Baltic States & Finland:

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Meanwhile, in Poland, by 5 October, resistance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact forces had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. Seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers lay wounded. A hundred thousand Poles in the Russian ‘sector’ were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops. Then, on 10 October, Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in January 1940. At that point, Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

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