11 October, 2010

Day 94 - Battle of Britain

As so often, the previous day had been the calm before the storm, the Luftwaffe stepping up its tempo over the night of 10/11 October. Göbbels remarks on the "ideal weather", recording that "we attack England and in particular London without pause, by day and night", causing "wild devastation" - a wider area than any previous raid, one in which the roof of St Paul's Cathedral is breached and the High Altar devastated. But, although many houses are wrecked, only one major fire is started.

While the German bombers are circling over London, RAF traffic is in the opposite direction. Despite Churchill's lament about its poor accuracy, in the early hours of this morning Bomber Command is again in action over Cherbourg - but with a difference. The aircraft are acting as spotters for the battleship HMS Revenge. Starting at half past three in the morning, for twenty minutes she fires 120 fifteen-inch and 800 4.7in shells into the port complex. "Very large fires" are reported, visible from 40 miles.

A 4.7-inch gun onboard HMS Jupiter firing on enemy shipping  in Cherbourg

This is operation Medium, which has the battleship escorted by seven destroyers and a similar number of motor anti-submarine boats, the group having sailed from Plymouth the previous evening. On the west flank, it is guarded by the light cruisers Newcastle and Emerald, with four destroyers. They had left Devonport on the 10th. To the east is the light cruiser Cardiff, plus two destroyers, which had departed from Portsmouth on the 9th.

Screened by gale force conditions, with heavy rain obscuring visibility, the warships had approached undetected. The presence of RAF aircraft overhead confuses the German defenders, who initially mistake the gunfire for bombing and respond only with anti-aircraft fire. When the first shells land, an RAF observer notes that they (the defenders) "didn't know whether it was Christmas or Easter. The searchlights went drunk, waving aimlessly about the sky. The guns kept firing but goodness knows what at. There was complete chaos down there."

Latterly, a shore battery (estimated up to 13-15in) returns fire, some salvoes falling so close to the ships that it is suspected that the Germans must be using gun-laying radar. However, none of the ships are hit. All return safely to their bases without further enemy intervention.

Come the morning though, there is less welcome news. At 09:20hrs, destroyer Zulu, fourth ship in a line, is damaged by an acoustic mine not far from Beamer Rock in the Firth of Forth. The mine explodes 40 feet off the starboard side abaft of the bridge. There are no casualties on the destroyer but there are many minor leaks, machinery defects and distortion of the bulkheads caused by the explosion. Then HM Patrol Yacht Aisha is sunk, with two wounded, and HMS Jersey is damaged in the Thames Estuary.  These too have succumbed to acoustic mines.

While this is happening, five German torpedo boats (type pictured below), Falke, Greif (leading in pic), Kondor, Seeadler and Wolf, slip out of Cherbourg Harbour, headed for the Isle of Wight and the convoys which assemble on the roads.

Late in the day, they are spotted by the anti-submarine trawler Warwick Deeping and the former French armed trawler Listrac, both of the 17th Anti Submarine Group. Although heavily outclassed, they engage the torpedo boats. Greif sinks the Listrac with a torpedo, the skipper and eleven ratings dying with their ship. Kondor and Falke then sinks Warwick Deeping with gunfire.

Past midnight, the German force runs into the French submarine chasers CH 6 and CH 7, both captained by British officers. Again the Germans sink the craft. Twenty from the two ships die and twenty are taken prisoner by the Grief.

Their sacrifices, however, have bought time for a response. Destroyers Jackal, Jaguar, Jupiter, Kelvin and Kipling come racing out of Plymouth and two destroyers depart from Portsmouth. At just after three in the morning, Jackal engages two of the German ships. They break off and turn for Cherbourg, arriving back mid-morning on the 12th.  They will be back.

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