Under Hostile Skies

If you're reading this and you are 'dark blue', I'm probably about to say some things you won't agree with. But you'll be in good company; it's become very en vogue of late to suggest that had the RAF failed to keep control of British skies, the Royal Navy would have made sure that not a single jackboot touched the sands of Hastings Beach.

I can hear the matelots fuming as I type, so first some clarifications; that the RN was critical in securing Britain's supply chain is beyond doubt. Churchill was famously more worried about the U-Boat menace than almost anything else, and in this regard the Senior Service was clearly the first and primary line of defence (although of course air power had a big part to play in later years). But, had the Luftwaffe wrested control of the Channel skies from the RAF in late 1940, would the Home Fleet alone have been able to prevent invasion?

Here's where I'm going to disagree with recent revisionists. Unprotected by an umbrella of friendly air superiority, the RN would have suffered badly in the confined and shallow waters of the Channel. But what's the evidence behind such a statement? In my view the best kind; the first-hand experience of Britain's Navy fighting under the constant threat of German air attack - the Norwegian campaign of April / May 1940.

When German forces landed in Norway, it signalled the first ever joint operation of its kind. Confident in their superiority at sea, the Royal Navy's Home Fleet, just 24hrs sailing time away, was eager, ready and prepared for action. Their opponent, the Kriegsmarine, was a vastly smaller force, but had launched the invasion in conjunction with the Luftwaffe.

Admiral Hipper landing troops (1)

One Hundred Bombers

Disappointingly, I cannot recall the naval historian's blog to which I took particular exception, so the poor chap has no chance to defend himself. But I do remember the (in my view) casual single-sentence-assessment that I thought must be an over-simplification of the real story:

A hundred German bombers were able only to sink a single Destroyer.

This statement started me on a fact-finding mission that, several kindle purchases later (all referenced at the end of this article), revealed to me that the Norwegian campaign is in fact a fascinating case study in 'what might have been' had the RN been called upon for home defence with the skies above dominated by the enemy.

Firstly, the 'hundred' German bombers were in fact eighty-eight strong, drawn from two Kampfgeschwaders. Secondly, while this attack (which lasted several hours) indeed sank only one Destroyer, numerous other vessels were so badly damaged that they had to return to Scapa Flow and would take no further part in the campaign before its conclusion. I would argue that a ship taken out of the fight is, in the short term, as valuable a success as a ship sunk.

For example, a separate attack, again by the same bomber wings, targeted the County-Class Cruiser HMS Suffolk. She was bombed some 33 times, and although she survived, would not return to war until April 1941. Notably, it was not only the few direct hits that caused the damage; impacts close aboard caused hull punctures which led to considerable flooding.

HMS Suffolk pictured on the Tyne (2)

While there is plenty of other evidence of damage and losses at the hands of air attack (all of which I'm afraid is not cited here - look out for my forthcoming essay on the subject), there was one particular 'narrow escape' that caught my attention. As an alternate history student I am always on the lookout for disasters averted, or successes borne by fortune alone - events that could easily have 'gone the other way'. The following example is such a 'near miss':

Attack on the Rodney

HMS Rodney (seen here in November 1942) (3) was the flagship of the Home Fleet in April 1940 and one of only two Nelson-Class Battleships planned and completed. The two gigantic vessels were commissioned prior to the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty, and thereafter no more of this size would follow. When the RN responded to the German invasion of Norway, Rodney was duly despatched.

Aboard her was Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, C-in-C Home Fleet, along with 1,360 other sailors. Rodney was present at the very same 'hundred bomber' engagement alluded to by the historian who launched me on this 'quest', but the innocuous sentence seems not to address the fact that a Ju-88 was successful in releasing an armour-piercing bomb that impacted the giant warship.

Rodney’s Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Commander John Boord, recalled the moment the ship was struck:

“It landed on the boat deck and we were extremely fortunate because it was a big bomb, and on the boat deck was the 4.7 inch anti-aircraft battery and each gun, three each side, had one armoured ready-use locker and two un- armoured ready-use locker.” (4)

Had the bomb struck one of these un-armoured lockers, the result could have been disastrous. In fact there was an even more serious danger, as recalled by Leading Seaman Len Walters, who had been instructed by his Warrant Officer to leave an armoured hatch open during the action:

“I worked the chains to open the hatch and, as he clambered up the ladder he told me to leave the hatch open, as he would be back soon. While he was away, we were hit by the bomb… Had it exploded, the Rodney could well have been another Hood,⁠ as the open hatch invited the flash to possibly reach the Shell Room and the Magazine below.” (4)

In Rodney's case, by good fortune the bomb had broken up on impact, separating the detonator from the body. The testimonies of Boord and Walters demonstrate clearly that the result could have been far worse.

Rodney’s lucky escape was not lost on Admiral Forbes, who decided that the fleet could not operate without air superiority, and therefore the battle in the waters of southern Norway would be prosecuted by submarine forces only.⁠ This conclusion was noted later in the Naval Staff History records:

“After the air attack on the Home Fleet in the first afternoon of the campaign, it was speedily recognised - at least in the Fleet - that ships could not operate with a reasonable chance of success in proximity to shore bases operating air forces virtually unopposed in the air.” (5)

And so we see that there is much more to the story than 'a hundred bombers sinking one Destroyer'. Rodney’s demise would have been a devastating blow to both fighting strength and morale. If, as Leading Seaman Len Walters describes, the bomb had detonated and the flash had reached the magazine, it is entirely feasible that destruction of the scale which befell HMS Hood in 1941 could have followed. When the Hood was destroyed by a hit to her magazine, only three of the 1,418 sailors aboard survived.⁠

The sinking of HMS Hood (6) - could the Rodney have suffered the same fate in April 1940?

Had C-in-C of the Home Fleet Admiral Charles Forbes been killed, the Germans would have enjoyed a propaganda boon, and the revealed potency of maritime air attack might have brought the obsolescence of the battleship forward by over a year. Alternatively, had he survived, his view that “ships could not operate with a reasonable chance of success” would doubtless have hardened into an even starker assessment, surely influencing defensive strategy in the event of a German invasion under the threat of Luftwaffe air superiority. After all, Britain had an Empire to defend against attack in addition to the British Isles.

There are dozens more examples of Luftwaffe successes against RN warships during the Norwegian campaign, and I certainly promise to reveal further detail in forthcoming work. Of course there were also many examples of German failures in the maritime interdiction role, and once control of the air was contested by carrier borne aircraft, RN losses decreased dramatically. But the value of assets must be considered; a Cruiser is somewhat harder to replace than a single Ju-87, and the Luftwaffe was able to inflict serious damage for the loss of around 180 attack aircraft. Many thousands would later be fielded against Britain.

The bottom line is that the RN would have been horribly exposed in a Channel undefended by the RAF - Norway provides the example, and C-in-C Home Fleet was clearly very concerned about the danger posed by air attack. We are to this day thankful that such a desperate defence did not come to pass, and grateful to both the airmen of the RAF and the sailors of the Royal Navy for ensuring that.

Image credits and reference works:

1. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-757-0037N-26A / Lange, Eitel / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5477752

2. By Royal Navy official photographer - This is photograph FL 3942 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2483173

3. By James, P G (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//18/media-18043/large.jpgThis is photograph A 15836 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25257096

4. Iain Ballantyne, Warships of the Royal Navy - HMS Rodney (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2008), Location No. 3058.

5. David Brown, Naval Operations of the Campaign in Norway April-June 1940 (Abingdon, UK: Frank Cass, 2004), Location No. 1222.

6. By J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt - Courtesy of the U.S. Army Chief of Military History.U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. (link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=395101

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