The War at Sea

By Francis E. McMurtrie
The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 134, Page 118, August 7, 1942.

Since my last article was written, the outstanding event at sea has been the brief and abortive excursion into the Barents Sea of the German squadron from Trondheim, comprising the 40,000-ton battleship Tirpitz, the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, and seven destroyers.

On July 6 this squadron was sighted emerging from the shelter of the Norwegian fjords by a Soviet submarine. Fortunately this submarine was commanded by an exceptionally daring and experienced officer, Commander Lunin, whose exploits had already gained him the distinction of "Hero of the Soviet Union," rather more than equivalent to our D.S.O. He succeeded in torpedoing the Tirpitz before the accompanying destroyers could intervene; though for a short time these hunted energetically for the submarine, they soon abandoned the chase in order to close more closely to the stricken ship. Next morning the entire squadron was sighted by Soviet reconnaissance aircraft steaming southward along the Norwegian coast, evidently returning to Trondheim.

Commander Lunin's prompt and skilful action is considered to have averted an attack by the enemy squadron on an Allied convoy which was then on its way to Murmansk, where it duly arrived in safety.

It has been pointed out that, since the Russian submarine would naturally have submerged immediately she had fired her torpedoes, the only indication of their having found a target would have been the sound of the explosion. It is suggested, therefore, that the ship struck may not have been the Tirpitz, but one of the destroyers.

While it is true that there must always be an element of uncertainty in an attack carried out in these conditions, the time which elapsed between the discharge of the torpedo and the sound of its detonation should give an approximate idea of the distance it has run. Presumably this would have been taken as a guide by Commander Lunin when he reported that in his opinion the Tirpitz was the ship hit. It seems only fair, therefore, to accept this conclusion in the absence of positive evidence to the contrary. A hasty German denial that the Tirpitz suffered any damage need not, of course, be taken seriously.

In the Baltic the Soviet submarine service has also been very active. Twice within recent weeks the regular ferry service between Sassnitz in Germany and Trelleborg in Sweden has had to be suspended on account of the presence of Russian submarines; and now the number of ships sunk or attacked has become so considerable that a state of emergency has been declared along the whole of the German and German-occupied Baltic coasts. No ships are allowed to put to sea without official permission, and arrangements are being hastily improvised to provide escorts wherever possible. This means that the busy iron-ore trade will be slowed up to allow vessels to proceed in convoy, with a detrimental effect on the supplies of ore upon which the enemy munitions industry depends.

A somewhat similar situation developed during the last war, when in 1915 British submarines under Commander (now Admiral Sir Noel) Laurence held up this same trade for weeks. In those days the Russian submarine service was far less efficient than today, and could afford the British flotilla little aid; but it has evidently digested the lesson and is putting it into practice.

Until recently far too little was heard of the constant patrols which are being carried out in the Channel and North Sea by what are officially referred to as our light coastal forces, an expression covering motor torpedo-boats, motor gunboats and motor launches. These never hesitate to take on superior forces of German craft of the same kind, which, for no particular reason, are referred to in Admiralty communiqués as "E-boats." It would had been less confusing to have employed the German term "S-boat," an abbreviation of Schnellboot, meaning "high speed boat."

On the night of July 9 two of our light coastal craft were on patrol off the French coast then they encountered six German minesweepers. Acting on Nelson's favourite signal, "Engage the enemy more closely," they pressed home their attack to point-blank range, sinking two of the minesweepers and damaging three others. Neither of our vessels suffered any casualties.

Less than a week later -in the early hours of July 15- a patrol flotilla under the command of Lt.-Cdr. R.P. Hitchens, R.N.V.R., intercepted a small enemy convoy off Cherbourg. This comprised of a laden oil tanker, escorted by two heavily-armed trawlers and at least three of the S-boats already mentioned. An attack on the escort was pressed home to about 100 yards, both German trawlers being severely damaged. Our forces thus burst through the enemy screen and attacked the tanker, which was set on fire from stem to stern and was later to be seen sinking. All our craft returned safely to port without any fatal casualties.

It is reported that fire from our 20-millimetre Oerlikon guns was particularly effective, one of the enemy craft being seen to burst into flames after being hit by Oerlikon shells at close range. She is believed to have become a total loss, but our two boats were too busy inflicting damage on the enemy to stop and investigate the results of their devastating fire. Low visibility alone enabled the enemy force to scatter and make good their escape after suffering severe damage and many casualties.

In the official report it is stated that the calmness and undisturbed efficiency of our crews in the face of intense fire enabled them to deal with the superior enemy force. Casualties on our side were slight.

Articles in the The War at Sea category