From Acts of War
1330 Local (1030 Eastern)
Whether or not Eric was all right was likely a matter of opinion. He wasn’t flying anymore, as the weather conditions had started to become much worse since he’d left Ranger’s deck that morning. The base of the clouds had once again descended, and he estimated that the ceiling was well under ten thousand feet. At sea level, visibility was under ten miles, and an approaching squall promised to make it less than that very soon.
I don’t blame the Brit pilots for nixing the thought of flying reconnaissance in this, Eric thought. Yet for some reason I’d still rather take my chances in that soup than be on this ship right now. She’s definitely going into harm’s way, and fast.
The heavy cruiser’s deck throbbed beneath his feet, and the smoke pouring from her stack and stiff wind blowing onto her bridge told him that Exeter had definitely picked up speed.
“Sir, I’ve brought Leftenant Cobb,” Adlich said, causing Captain Gordon to turn around. Exeter’s master had obviously been mollified by the worsening conditions, as he gave Eric a wry grin when the American officer stepped up beside him.
Whoa, it’s cold out here, Eric thought. As if reading his mind, a petty officer handed him a jacket.
“We remove the windows when we’re getting ready to go into action,” the man said. “Lesson learned after River Plate.”
“Thank you,” Eric said. “I guess the windows would be a bit problematic in a fight.”
The petty officer gave a wan smile, pointing to a scar down his cheek.
“Glass splinters are a bit sharp, yes.”
“Your squadron commander was either a very brave man or a much better pilot than anyone I know,” Gordon said solemnly from behind the ship’s wheel.
Or alternatively, Commander Cobleigh was an idiot who didn’t check with the meteorologist before we took off.
Eric was about to reply when the talker at the rear of the bridge interrupted him.
“Sir, Hood should be coming into visual range off of our port bow,” the rating reported. “Range fifteen thousand yards.”
“Thank you,” Gordon replied. The captain then strode to the front of the bridge, stopping at a device that reminded Eric of the sightseeing binoculars atop the Empire State Building. Bending slightly, Gordon wiped down the eyepieces, then swiveled the binoculars to look through them.
“Officer of the deck,” Gordon said after a moment.
“Yes, sir?” a Royal Navy lieutenant answered from Eric’s right. Roughly Eric’s height, the broad-shouldered man looked like he could probably snap a good-sized tree in half with his bare hands.
“Confirm with gunnery that the director’s tracking Hood’s bearing to be three one zero, estimated range fourteen thousand, seven hundred fifty yards.”
“Aye aye, sir,” the officer replied. Eric heard the RN officer repeating the information as Gordon stepped back from the sight and turned to look at him.
“Well, if you want to see how the other half lives, Leftenant Cobb, feel free to have a look.”
Eric hoped he didn’t look as eager as he felt walking forward towards the bridge windows. Bending a little further to look through the sight, he pressed his face up against the eyepieces. Swinging the glasses, he found himself looking at the H.M.S. Hood, flagship of the Royal Navy. With her square bridge, four turrets, and rakish lines, the battlecruiser was a large, beautiful vessel that displaced over four times the Exeter’s tonnage. Black smoke poured from her stack, and her massive bow wave told Eric that she was moving at good speed.
“You can change the magnification with the switch under your right hand,” Gordon said, startling Eric slightly. He followed the British master’s advice, continuing until he could see the entire approaching British force as it closed. Destroyers were roughly one thousand yards in front of and to either side of the Hood. Behind her at one-thousand-yard intervals were two large vessels, either battleships or battlecruisers, with another one starting to exit the mist like some sort of great beast stirring from its cave. After a moment, Eric recognized the distinctive silhouette as that of a Nelson-class battleship.
“That is the King George V, Prince of Wales, and Nelson behind her. Warspite should be next.”
Eric nodded at Gordon’s statement, continuing to watch as the final battleship made its appearance. A moment later, Gordon starting to give orders to the helmsman. Exeter’s bow began to swing around to port, causing Eric to step back from the sight with a puzzled expression.
“We’ll be passing between the destroyer screen and the Hood to take our place in line,” Gordon said. Eric turned back to the device, continuing to study the British battleline. A few moments later, there was the crackle of the loudspeaker.
“All hands, this is the captain speaking,” Gordon began. “Shortly we will be passing by the Hood. All available hands are to turn out topside to give three cheers for His Majesty. That is all.”
Eric stepped back from the sight, his face clearly radiating his shock. Gordon smiled as he came back up towards the front of the bridge with the officer of the deck.
“The King is going into battle?” he asked incredulously. “Isn’t that a bit…”
“Dangerous?” Gordon finished for him. “Yes, but much like your situation, circumstances precluded His Majesty’s transfer to another vessel.”
“What? That doesn’t make any…”
“His Majesty was apparently aboard the Hood receiving a briefing from the First Sea Lord when the Queen Mary was torpedoed,” Gordon said, his voice cold. “We were not expecting the German surface units to be as close as they were, and it was considered imprudent to stop the Hood with at least two confirmed submarines close about. Is that sufficient explanation to you, or would you like to continue questioning our tactics?”
Eric could tell he was straining his host’s civility, but the enormity of what was at risk made him feel he had to say something.
“I’m no expert at surface tactics…”
“That much is obvious,” Gordon snapped.
“…but the Hood is a battlecruiser,” Eric finished in a rush. “While I didn’t get a great look at the Germans before they shot up me and my commander, Rawles saw at least two battleships.”
“Your concern is noted, Leftenant Cobb, but I think that you will see the Hood is a bit hardier than a dive bomber.”
Okay, I’m just going to shut up now, Eric said. I may have slept through a lot of history, but I seem to recall the last time British battlecruisers met German heavy guns it didn’t go so well. A quote about there being problems with your “bloody ships” or something similar comes to mind. The Battle of Jutland hadn’t been that long ago, as evidenced by the Warspite still being a front-line unit. Eric sincerely hoped Gordon’s confidence was well-placed.
“Sir, we are almost on the Hood,” the officer of the deck interrupted. Eric turned and realized that the lead destroyer was indeed almost abreast the Exeter, with the Hood now a looming presence just beyond.
“The Hood, after her refit, is the most powerful warship in the world,” Gordon continued, his voice a little less frigid. “The Bismark and Tirpitz have only recently gone through refit, while the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau have not been in the open ocean for almost six months. There should not be any major danger.”
If you’re looking around the room and you can’t find the mark, guess what? You’re the mark. Eric’s father’s words, an admonishment to always be suspicious of any situation that seemed too good to be true, came back to him with a cold feeling in his stomach.
The Germans would not be out here unless they had a plan, Eric continued thinking. Somehow I think that, much like the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy is about to receive a rude shock.
“All right lads, three cheers for His Majesty,” The loudspeaker crackled. “Hip…hip…”
As the Exeter’s crew yelled at the top of their lungs, Eric studied the Hood in passing. The two vessels were close enough that he could see a party of men in white uniforms standing on the battlecruiser’s bridge and the extraordinarily large flag streaming from the Hood’s yardarm. Picking up a pair of binoculars resting on a shelf near the bridge’s front lip, he focused on the pennant.
“That’s the Royal Standard,” Gordon said after the last cheer rang out. The device consisted of four squares, two red with the other pair gold and blue, respectively. The two red were identical, forming the top left and bottom right portions of the flag. Looking closely, Eric could see elongated gold lions or griffins within the squares. The gold square had what looked like a standing red lion within a crimson square, while the blue had some sort of harp.
“What do the symbols mean, sir?” Eric asked. Gordon shook his head.
“Leftenant, I could probably remember if I thought hard enough about it, but I do not think that is very important right now.”
Eric nodded, placing the binoculars back down as the Exeter continued to travel down the battleline. After Warspite, there were two more British heavy cruisers. At Gordon’s command, the Exeter finished her turn, taking her place behind the other two CAs. Satisfied with his vessel’s stationing, Gordon began dealing with the myriad tasks that a warship’s captain was expected to perform before battle. Eric observed these with a sense of detachment, noting that the bridge crew operated like they had been there dozens of times. Mentally, he compared the men to those he had observed aboard the American heavy cruiser Salt Lake City.
Things are so similar, yet so different. You can tell these men have been at war for over three years, Eric thought, feeling strangely comforted by the obvious experience in front of him. The feeling was fleeting, however, as the talker at the rear of the bridge broke the routine.
“Sir, Hood reports multiple contacts, bearing oh three oh relative, range thirty thousand yards,” the talker at the rear of the bridge said. It was if his words touched off a current of electricity around the entire compartment, as each man seemed to stiffen at his post.
“Well, glad to see that she’s got better eyes than we do,” Gordon muttered under his breath. “Pass the word to all stations.”
Eric saw motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see the Exeter’s two forward turrets training out and elevating.
“Flag is directing a change in course to one seven zero true,” the talker continued. “Vessels will turn in sequence. Destroyers are to form up for torpedo attack to our stern.”
Gordon nodded in acknowledgment, and Eric could see the man was obviously in pensive thought. After their earlier exchange, Eric had no desire to attempt to discern what he was thinking. Judging from the look on the man’s face, it was probably nothing good. Looking to port, Eric could see the British destroyers starting to steam past for their rendezvous astern of Exeter, a scene that was repeated a moment later on the starboard side.
Is it my imagination, or is it getting a little bit easier to see again? Eric thought. If so, is that a good or a bad thing?
“Enemy force is turning with us,” the talker said quietly.
Now that is definitely a bad thing.
Eric had a very passing familiarity with radar, as he had been the target dummy for Ranger’s fighter squadron to practice aerial intercepts. It was obvious, given the visibility, that the Hood hadn’t sighted the enemy with the naked eye. Unless the Germans had a team of gypsies on their vessels, it appeared that they also had the ability to detect ships despite the murk.
Explains how they were able to shoot down Commander Cobleigh, Eric thought, feeling sick to his stomach. My God, they probably knew we were there long before we came out of the cloudbank but wanted to make positive identification.
The visibility was definitely starting to get better, at least at sea level. With only the distance of the British line to judge by, Eric guesstimated that visibility to the horizon was somewhere around twenty thousand yards.
Well within maximum range of everyone’s guns, he thought. I hope someone on this side knows what size force we’re facing, as I doubt the Germans are idiots.
“Sir, the Hood reports she is…”
With a roar and spout of black smoke from her side, the British flagship made the talker’s report superfluous. The rest of the British battleline rapidly followed suit, the combined smoke from their guns floating backward like roiling, black thunderheads.
I can’t see what in the hell they’re shooting at, Eric thought, searching the horizon as he felt his stomach clench.
In truth, Hood and her counterparts had only a general idea of what they were engaging. Indeed, if the commander of the opposing force, Vice Admiral Erich Bey, had actually followed his orders to simply compel the Home Fleet to sail a relatively straight course while avoiding contact, there would have been no targets for them to engage. Instead, Bey had decided to close with the last known position of the Home Fleet in hopes of picking off the vessel or vessels the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats had allegedly crippled that morning. Regardless of his reasoning, Bey’s aggressive nature had inadvertently led to his superiors’ worst nightmare—the hastily organized Franco-German force being brought into contact with the far more experienced Royal Navy.
Admiral Bey, to his credit, played the hand he had dealt himself. Moments after Hood’s initial salvo landed short of his flagship, the KMS Bismarck, the German admiral began barking orders. The first was for the radar-equipped vessels in his fleet to return fire. The second was for the entire column to change course in order to sharpen the rate of closure and allow the Vichy French vessels, limited to visual acquisition, to also engage. The final directive was for a position report to be repeatedly sent without any encryption so that nearby U-boats could immediately set course in an attempt to pick off any stragglers.
“Well, looks like the other side is game,” Captain Gordon drily observed as multiple waterspouts appeared amongst the British battleships. A moment later the distant sound of the explosions reached Eric’s ears.
“Looks like they’re over-concentrating on the front of the line though,” Eric observed.
Gordon turned to look at the American pilot.
“Would you prefer they spread their fire more evenly so we can have a taste, Leftenant?”
“No sir, not with the shells that are being slung out there.”
Gordon brought his binoculars back up.
“Still can’t see the enemy yet, but that’s why the boffins were aboard during our refit,” Gordon said. The man turned to his talker, jaw clenched.
“Tell Guns they may fire when we have visual contact or the enemy reaches nineteen thousand yards, whichever comes first,” Gordon said, his voice clipped. “Inform bridge of the eventual target’s bearing so we may get a look.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
Gordon turned back towards Eric and opened his mouth when he was interrupted by the sound of ripping canvas followed by the smack! of four shells landing between Exeter and the next British cruiser in front of her. A moment later, a bell began ringing at the rear of Exeter’s bridge. Eric was about to ask what the device signified when the heavy cruiser’s forward turrets roared, the blast hitting him like a physical blow. The look of shock was obviously quite apparent, as Gordon gave Eric an apologetic smile.
“Sorry, guess I should have…”
Exeter’s captain was again interrupted, except this time by two bright flashes aboard the cruiser forward of her the British battleline. The other vessel was visibly staggered by the blows, with a fire immediately starting astern.
“Looks like Suffolk has worse luck than we do,” Gordon observed grimly. The British heavy cruiser’s turrets replied back towards the enemy, but it was obvious, even to Eric, that their companion vessel was badly hit.
“Guns reports target is at bearing two nine zero, range twenty thousand yards…”
The bell ringing cut the rating off, as it was followed immediately by the Exeter unleashing a full broadside. Gordon had already begun to swing his sight around to the reported bearing, and bent to see what his guns were up to. Eric, looking past the captain, saw Suffolk receive another hit, this one causing debris to fly up from the vicinity of her bridge. He suddenly felt his mouth go dry.
Someone has the range, he thought grimly.
“Bloody good show Guns!” Gordon shouted into the voice tube near his sight. “Give that bastard another…”
The firing gong rang again, Exeter’s gunnery officer apparently already ahead of Gordon. Eric braced himself, the roar of the naval rifles starting to cause a slight ringing in his ears. He turned to look towards the horizon, following the direction of Exeter’s guns.
“These will help,” the officer of the deck said from beside him, handing him a pair of binoculars.
“Thank you,” Eric said, turning towards the officer only to see the man go pale.
“Oh bloody hell! Look at the Hood!”
Eric turned and looked down the British line, noting as he turned that the Suffolk was heeling to Exeter’s starboard with flames shooting from her amidships and rear turret. Ignoring the heavily damaged heavy cruiser, he brought up his binoculars as he looked towards the front of the British line. In an instant, he could see why the officer of the deck had made his exclamation. The battlecruiser’s guns appeared frozen in place, and oil was visibly gushing from her amidships. As Eric watched, another salvo splashed around her, with a sudden flare and billow of smoke from her stern indicating something serious had been hit.
“Captain, the Hood is signaling a power failure!” the officer of the deck shouted. Eric turned to see the man had acquired another set of eyeglasses and was also studying the flagship.
Gordon nodded, stepping back from his captain’s sight and brought his own set of binoculars up to study the battlecruiser. Eric quickly handed his over before the OOD could react.
“It would appear that our Teutonic friends can shoot a bit better than we expected,” Gordon said grimly.
Admiral Bey would have agreed with Gordon’s assessment had he heard it, as he too was pleasantly surprised at how well his scratch fleet was performing. Unfortunately for the Germans, however, the British could shoot almost as well, their guns seemed to be doing far more damage, and they had much better fire distribution. The only British capital ships with major damage were the Hood, set ablaze and rendered powerless by the Tirpitz and Jean Bart, and Nelson due to hits from the Bismarck and Strasbourg. Among the cruisers, only the Suffolk had been hit, being thoroughly mauled by the KMS Hipper and Lutzow. In exchange, only the Jean Bart, Gneisenau, and Bismarck remained relatively unscathed among his battleline. Of the rest of his vessels, the French battlecruiser Strasbourg had been thoroughly holed by the H.M.S. Warspite’s accurate shooting, Tirpitz was noticeably down by the bows, and Scharnhorst had received at least two hits from Prince of Wales in the first ten minutes of the fight.
Bey’s escorts, consisting of the pocket battleship Lutzow and a force of German and Vichy French cruisers, had arranged themselves in an ad hoc screen to starboard. The fact that they outnumbered their British counterparts had not spared them from damage, albeit not as heavy as that suffered by the Franco-German battleline. Moreover, while Exeter’s shooting had set the lead vessel, the French heavy cruiser Colbert, ablaze and slowed her, this was more than offset by the battering the Suffolk had received from the Lutzow, Hipper, and Seydlitz. As that vessel fell backward in the British formation, the remaining cruisers split their fire between the Exeter, Norfolk, and the destroyers beginning their attack approach.
Word of the British DDs’ approach caused Bey some consternation. While it could be argued that his force was evenly matched with the British battleline, the approaching destroyers could swiftly change this equation if they got into torpedo range. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Bey ordered all vessels to make smoke and disengage. It was just after the force began their simultaneous turn that disaster struck.
The KMS Scharnhorst, like the Hood, had begun life as a battlecruiser. While both she and her sister had been upgraded during the Armistice Period with 15-inch turrets, the Kriegsmarine had made the conscious decision not to upgrade her armor. The folly of this choice became readily apparent as the Prince of Wales’ twentieth salvo placed a pair of 14-inch shells through her amidships belt. While neither shell fully detonated, their passage severed the steering controls between the light battleship’s bridge and rudder.
The Scharnhorst’s helmsman barely had time to inform the captain of this before the second half of PoW’s staggered salvo arrived, clearing the battleship’s bridge with one shell and and hitting Scharnhorst on the armored “turtle deck” right above her engineering spaces with a second. To many bystanders’ horror, a visible gout of steam spewed from the vessel’s side as all 38,000 tons of her staggered like a stunned bull. Only the fact that her 15-inch guns fired a ragged broadside back at the British line indicated that the vessel still had power, but it was obvious to all that she had been severely hurt.
One of those observers was the captain of the KMS Gneisenau, Scharnhorst’s sister ship and the next battleship in line. Confronted with the heavily wounded Scharnhorst drifting back towards him, the man ordered the helm brought back hard to starboard. In one of the horrible vagaries of warfare, the Gneisenau simultaneously masked her sister ship from the Prince of Wales’ fire and corrected the aim of her own assailant, the H.M.S. Nelson. No one would ever know how many 16-inch shells hit of the five that had been fired at the Gneisenau, as the only one that mattered was the one that found the German battleship’s forward magazine. With a massive roar, bright flash, and volcanic outpouring of flame, the Gneisenau’s bow disappeared. Scharnhorst and Jean Bart’s horrified crews were subjected to the spectacle of the Gneisenau’s stern whipping upwards, propellers still turning. The structures only glistened for a moment, as the battleship’s momentum carried her aft end into the roiling black cloud serving as a tombstone for a 40,000-ton man-of-war and the 1,700 men who manned her.
“Holy shit! Holy shit!” Eric exclaimed, his expletives lost in the general pandemonium that was Exeter’s bridge.
“Get yourselves together!” Gordon roared, waving his hands. As if to emphasize his point, there was the sound of ripping canvas, and a moment later, the Exeter found herself surrounded by large waterspouts.
“Port ten degrees!” Gordon barked, the bridge crew quickly returning to their tasks.
“Sir, Nelson is signaling that she is heaving to!”
“What in the bloody hell is the matter with her?!” Gordon muttered, a moment before Exeter’s guns roared again.
“Guns reports we are engaging and being engaged by a pocket battleship. He believes it is the…” the talker reported.
Once again there was the sound of ripping canvas, this time far louder. Eric instinctively ducked just before the Exeter shuddered simultaneously with the loud bang! just above their heads. Dimly, he saw something fall out of the corner of his eye even as there was a sound like several wasps all around him. Coming back to his feet, Eric smelled the strong aroma of explosives for the second time that day, except this time there was a man screaming like a shot rabbit to accompany it.
“Damage report!” Gordon shouted. “Someone shut that man up!”
Feeling something wet on his face, Eric reached up to touch it and came away with blood. He frantically reached up to feel if he had a wound, and only came away with more blood. Looking around in horror, he suddenly realized that the blood was not his, but that of a British rating who was now missing half of his head, neck, and upper chest. Eric barely had time to register this before a litter crew came bursting into the bridge. The four men headed to the aft portion of the structure, obviously there for the man who had been screaming before a gag had been shoved in his mouth. Eric followed the litter team’s path, then immediately wished he hadn’t as his stomach lurched. The casualty’s abdomen was laid open, and Eric saw the red and grey of intestine on the deck before turning back forward.
Oh God, he thought, then had another as he thought about the injured man’s likely destination. I hope Rawles is okay.
“Hard a starboard!” Gordon barked. Eric braced himself as the Exeter heeled over, the vessel chasing the previous salvo as her guns roared back at the German pocket battleship. He noticed that the guns were starting to bear even further aft as the cruiser maneuvered to keep up with the remainder of the British battleline. Looking to starboard, Eric saw the battleship Nelson drifting past them on her starboard side. The vessel’s forward-mounted triple turrets, still elevated to port, fired off a full salvo once Exeter was past, but it was clear that the battleship had suffered severe damage.
“Sir, we took one glancing hit to the bridge roof,” the OOD reported, pointing at the hit that had sprayed splinters into the structure. Eric was amazed at the man’s calm. “We took another hit aft, but it detonated in the galley.”
“King George V signals commence torpedo attack with destroyers,” the talker interrupted. “All ships with tubes to attack enemy cripples.”
Six waterspouts impacted approximately three hundred yards to port, and Eric found himself questioning the wisdom of staying aboard the heavy cruiser after all.
“Well, looks like this ship will continue her tradition of picking on women bigger than her,” Gordon observed drily. “Flank speed, port thirty degrees. Get me the torpedo flat.”
Eric looked once again at the hole in the bridge roof.
A step either way and I’d probably be dead, he thought wildly. Or worse, if that shell had it full on we’d all be gone. Shaking his head, he turned to look off to port as the throb of Exeter’s engines began to increase.
“You ever participate in a torpedo attack during your summer cruise, Mr. Cobb?” Gordon asked after barking several orders to the helm.
“No sir,” Eric croaked, then swallowed to get a clearer voice. “Our cruisers don’t have torpedoes. I’m familiar with how to do one theoretically…”
Exeter’s guns banged out another salvo, even as the German pocket battleship’s return fire landed where she would have been had the cruiser continued straight.
“Well, looks like you’re about to get to apply some of that theoretical knowledge,” Gordon said, bringing his binoculars up. The man scanned the opposing line.
“The three big battleships are turning away under cover of smoke along with the majority of the cruisers. That Frog battlecruiser looks about done for, and that pocket battleship and heavy cruiser will soon have more than enough to deal with when the destroyers catch up,” Gordon said, pointing as he talked. Exeter’s master turned to give his orders.
“Tell Lieutenant Commander Gannon his target is the pocket battleship! Guns are to…”
The crescendo of incoming shells drowned Gordon out, this time ending with the Exeter leaping out of the water and shuddering as she was hit. Once again the bridge wing was alive with fragments, and for the second time Eric felt a splash of wetness across his side. Looking down, he saw his entire left side was covered in blood and flesh. For a moment he believed it was his, until he blissfully realized that he felt no pain.
“Damage report!” Gordon shouted again. “Litter party!”
“Sir, I believe I am hit,” the OOD gasped. Eric turned to see the man’s arm missing from just below the elbow, blood spraying from the severed stump.
“Corpsman!” Gordon shouted angrily, stepping towards the lieutenant. The captain never made, it, as the OOD toppled face forward, revealing jagged wounds in his back where splinters had blasted into his body.
“Helmsman! Zig zag pattern!” Gordon barked. “Someone get me a damage report! Midshipman Green, inform damage control that we need another talker and an OOD here!”
“Aye aye, Captain!”
“Yes sir?” Eric asked, shaking himself out of stupor.
“It might be prudent for you to go to the conning tower,” Gordon said.
“Sir, I’d prefer to be here than in some metal box,” Eric said. “With the shells that bastard’s tossing it won’t make a lick of difference anyway.”
“Too true,” Gordon said. “Looks like the heavy cruisers and that pocket battleship are covering the bastards’ retreat.”
Gordon’s supposition was only partially correct. In truth, the pocket battleship Lutzow had received damage from the Exeter and Norfolk that had somewhat reduced her maximum speed. This had prevented her from fleeing with the rest of the screen, their retirement encouraged by a few salvoes from the Nelson. Realizing that she could not escape the closing British destroyers, Lutzow’s captain had decided to turn and engage the smaller vessels in hopes of allowing Scharnhorst to open the distance between herself and the British. Unfortunately, Lutzow had failed to inform the heavy cruiser KMS Hipper, trailing in her wake, of her desire to self-sacrifice while ignoring Admiral Bey’s signal to retire. Thus the latter vessel, her radio aerial knocked out by an over salvo from the Nelson’s secondary batteries, found herself committed to engaging the rapidly closing British destroyers along with the larger, crippled Lutzow.
The British destroyers, formed into two divisions under the experienced Commodore Philip Vian, first overtook the damaged French battlecruiser Strasbourg. Adrift, afire, and listing heavily to port, the Strasbourg wallowed helplessly as the British destroyers closed like hyenas on a paralyzed wildebeest. Just as Vian was beginning to order his group into their battle dispositions, flooding finally compromised the battlecruiser’s stability. With a rumble and the scream of tortured metal, the Strasbourg rotated onto her starboard beam and slipped beneath the surface.
That left the crippled Scharnhorst, the Lutzow, and the hapless Hipper. Still receiving desultory fire from Nelson and Warspite, the trio of German vessels initially concentrated their fire on the charging Exeter and Norfolk. After five minutes of this, all three German captains realized Vian’s approaching destroyers were a far greater threat. The Lutzow and Hipper turned to lay smoke across the retreating Scharnhorst’s stern, the maneuver also allowing both vessels to fire full broadsides at their smaller assailants. The Hipper had just gotten off her second salvo when she received a pair of 8-inch shells from the Norfolk. The first glanced off the heavy cruiser’s armor belt and fell harmlessly into the sea. The second, however, impacted the main director, blowing the gunnery officer and most of the cruiser’s gunnery department into disparate parts that splashed into the sea or onto the deck below. For two crucial minutes, the Hipper’s main battery remained silent even as her secondaries began to take the approaching British destroyers under fire.
The respite from Lutzow’s fire had arrived just in time for Exeter, as the pocket battleship had been consistently finding the range. Staggering to his feet after another exercise in throwing himself flat, Eric looked forward to see just where the heavy cruiser had been hit this time. His gaze fell upon the devastation that had been Exeter’s “B” turret, where a cloud of acrid yellow was smoke pouring back from the structure’s opened roof to pass around the heavy cruiser’s bridge. Damage control crews were rushing forward to spray hoses upon the burning guns, even as water began to crash over the cruiser’s lowering bow.
“Very well then, flood the magazine!” Gordon was shouting into the speaking tube. “Tell the Norfolk we shall follow her in as best we can.”
Looking to starboard, Eric could see the aforementioned heavy cruiser starting to surge ahead of Exeter, smoke pouring from her triple stacks and her forward turrets firing another salvo towards the Hipper.
“We are only making twenty-three knots, sir,” the helmsman reported.
“Damage control reports heavy flooding in the bow,” the talker stated. “Lieutenant Ramses states we must slow our speed or we may lose another bulkhead.”
Gordon’s face set in a grim line.
“Torpedoes reports a solution on the pocket battleship,” the talker reported after pausing or a moment.
“Range?!” Gordon barked.
“Ten thousand yards and closing.”
“Tell me when we’re at four thousand…”
The seas around the Exeter suddenly leaped upwards, the waterspouts clearing her mainmast.
“Enemy battleship is taking us under fire!”
Looking over at Norfolk, Eric saw an identical series of waterspouts appear several hundred yards ahead of their companion.
“Two enemy battleships engaging, range twenty-two thousand yards.”
“Where’s our battleline?” Gordon asked bitterly. “Report the news to the King George V.”
Another couple of minutes passed, the Exeter continuing to close with the turning Lutzow. Four more shells exploded around the Exeter.
“The Nelson is disengaging due to opening range,” the talker replied. “The remaining ships are closing our position to take the enemy battleship under fire.”
Again there was the sound of an incoming freight train, and the Exeter was straddled once more, splinters ringing off the opposite side of the bridge.
“Corpsman!” a lookout shouted from the crow’s nest.
Okay, someone stop this ride, I want to get off, Eric thought, bile rising in his throat.
“Commodore Vian reports he is closing.”
“Right then, continue to attack!” Gordon shouted. Eric winced, convinced he was going to die.
Unbeknownst to Eric, the Bismarck and Tirpitz had only returned to persuade the British battleline to not pursue the Scharnhorst. Finding the two British heavy cruisers attacking, Bey had decided some 15-inch fire was necessary to discourage their torpedo run as well. In the worsening seas the German battleships’ gunnery left much to be desired, but still managed to force the Exeter and Norfolk to both intensify their zig zags.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the decision to concentrate on the heavy cruisers meant that Commodore Vian’s destroyers had an almost undisturbed attack run. Vian, realizing that he would not be able to bypass the aggressively counterattacking Hipper, split his force into two parts. The lead division, led by himself in Somali, continued after the crippled Scharnhorst. The second, led by the destroyer Echo, he directed to attack the Hipper in hopes that the heavy cruiser would turn away.
The German heavy cruiser reacted as Vian had expected, switching all of her fire to the approaching Echo group. For their part, the British ships dodged as they closed, the Echo’s commander making the decision to close the range so that the destroyers could launch their torpedoes with a higher speed setting. Seeing the German cruiser starting to turn, Echo’s commander signaled for his own vessel, Eclipse, and Encounter to attempt to attack from her port side, while the Faulknor and Electra were to move up to attack from starboard.
Discerning the British destroyerman’s plan, Hipper’s captain immediately laid on his maximum speed while continuing his turn towards port. Ignoring those vessels attempting to move in on her starboard side, the German vessel turned her guns wholly on the trio of British destroyers that was now at barely seven thousand yards. With a combined closing speed of almost seventy knots, there was less than a minute before the British destroyers were at their preferred range. In this time, Hipper managed to get off two salvoes with her main guns and several rounds from her secondary guns. Her efforts were rewarded, the Echo being hit and stopped by two 8-inch and four secondary shell hits before she could fire her torpedoes. That still left the Eclipse and Encounter, both which fired their torpedoes at 4,000 yards before starting to turn away. The latter vessel had just concluded putting her eighth torpedo into the water when the Hipper’s secondaries switched to her as a target, knocking out the destroyer’s forward guns.
Pursuing the Hipper as the German cruiser continued to turn to port, the Faulknor and Electra initially had a far longer run than their compatriots. However, as the German cruiser came about to comb the Echo group’s torpedoes, the opportunity arose for the two more nimble vessels to cut across her turn. Hitting the heavy cruiser with several 4.7-inch shells even as they zigzagged through the Lutzow’s supporting fire, the two destroyers unleashed their sixteen torpedoes from the Hipper’s port bow. Belatedly, the German captain realized that he had placed himself in a horrible position, as he could not turn to avoid the second group of torpedoes without presenting a perfect target to the first.
It was the Eclipse which administered the first blow. Coming in at a fine angle, one of the destroyer’s torpedoes exploded just below the Hipper’s port bow. The heavy cruiser’s hull whipsawed from the impact, the explosion peeling twenty feet of her skin back to act as a massive brake. The shock traveled down the vessel’s length, throwing circuit breakers out of their mounts in her generator room and rendering the Hipper powerless. Looking to starboard, the vessel’s bridge crew could only helplessly watch as the British torpedoes approached from that side. In a fluke of fate, the braking effect from Eclipse’s hit caused the heavy cruiser to lose so much headway the majority of the tin fish missed. The pair that impacted, however, could not have been better placed. With two roaring waterspouts in close succession, the Hipper’s engineering spaces were opened to the sea. Disemboweled, the cruiser continued to slow even as she rolled to starboard. Realizing instantly her wounds were fatal, the Hipper’s captain gave the order to abandon ship. The order came far too late for most of the crew, as the 12,000-ton man-o-war capsized and slid under the Atlantic in a matter of minutes.
“Well, the destroyers just put paid to that heavy cruiser! Let’s see if we can get a kill of our own!” Gordon said, watching the drama unfolding roughly twelve thousand yards to his west. Another salvo of 15-inch shells landed to Exeter’s starboard, this broadside somewhat more ragged due to the heavy cruiser’s zig zagging advance.
“Battleships are returning to aid us.”
“About bloody time!” Gordon snapped.
When the Warspite’s first salvo landed just aft of Jean Bart, Admiral Bey had more than enough. Signaling rapidly, he ordered the Scharnhorst and Lutzow to cover the remainder of the force’s retreat. Firing a few desultory broadsides, the Franco-German force reentered the mists.
Eric watched through his binoculars as Lutzow gamely attempted to follow Bey’s orders, slowly coming about so she could continue to engage the destroyers closing with Scharnhorst. Barely making fifteen knots, the pocket battleship was listing slightly to port and down by the bows. Just as Lutzow finished her turn, several shells landed close astern of the German vessel.
“King George V is engaging the pocket battleship.”
“Good. Maybe she can slow that witch down so we can catch her.”
“Warspite and Prince of Wales are switching to the closest battleship.”
Gordon nodded his assent, continuing to watch as Lutzow attempted to begin a zig zag pattern.
“Destroyers are running the gauntlet,” Gordon observed drily, pointing to where the Lutzow was engaging the five destroyers passing barely eight thousand yards in front of her. Eric nodded grimly, then brought his attention back to Lutzow just in time to see the King George V’s next salvo arrive. Two of the British 14-inch shells slashed into the pocket battleship’s stern, while a third impacted on the vessel’s aft turret with devastating effect. Eric was glad that Exeter was still far enough away that he could not identify the contents of the debris that flew upwards from the gunhouse in the gout of smoke and flame, as the young American was sure some of the dark spots were bodies.
“Looks like you got your wish, sir,” Eric observed as the Lutzow began to continue a lazy circle to port. There was a sharp crack as the Exeter’s secondary batteries began to engage the pocket battleship, leading to a disgusted look from Gordon.
“Tell Guns we may need that ammunition later,” he snapped. “I’m not sure those guns will do any damage, plus she’s almost finished.”
I was wondering what good 4-inch guns would do to a pocket battleship, Eric thought. Especially when Norfolk is pounding away with her main battery and a battleship has her under fire.
“King George V is inquiring if we can finish her with torpedoes?”
Gordon looked at the pocket battleship, now coming to a stop with fires clearly spreading.
“Report that yes, we will close and finish her with torpedoes, she may assist in bringing that battleship to bay,” Exeter’s master stated.
“Norfolk is firing torpedoes,” the talker reported.
Eric brought up his binoculars, focusing on the clearly crippled Lutzow. As he watched, one of the German’s secondary turrets fired a defiant shot at Norfolk. Scanning the vessel from bow to stern, Eric wondered if the gun was the sole thing left operational, as the pocket battleship’s upper decks were a complete shambles. Looking closely at the Lutzow’s forward turret, he could see two jagged holes in its rear where Norfolk’s broadsides had impacted. The bridge was similarly damaged, with wisps of smoke pouring from the shattered windows, and the German vessel’s entire amidships was ablaze. The vessel’s list appeared to have lessened, but she was clearly much lower in the water.
“Should be any time now,” Gordon said, briefly looking at his watch. “Tell guns to belay my last, we’re not wasting any more fish on her than necessary.”
Eric turned back to watching the Lutzow, observing as Norfolk hit the vessel with another point blank salvo an instant before her torpedoes arrived. Given that the Lutzow was a stationary target, Eric was surprised to see Norfolk’s torpedo spread produce only a pair of hits. It was still enough, as with an audible groan the Lutzow’s already battered hull split just aft of her destroyed turret. Five minutes later, as Exeter drew within five hundred yards and Eric could see German sailors jumping into the sea, the Lutzow gave a final shuddering metallic rattle then slipped stern first into the depths.
“Stand by to rescue survivors,” Gordon said, dropping his binoculars. “How are the destroyers doing with that battleship?”
The answer to Gordon’s question could be summed up with two words: very well. The Scharnhorst had briefly managed to work up to sixteen knots, and had Lutzow’s fire been somewhat more accurate, may have managed to escape the pursuing destroyers. However, as with the Hipper, Vian’s destroyers split into two groups even as Scharnhorst’s secondaries increased their fire. Another pair of hits from Prince of Wales slowed the German light battleship even further, and at that point the handful of tin cans set upon her like a school of sharks on a lamed blue whale.
Like that large creature, however, even a crippled the Scharnhorst still had means to defend herself. As the Punjabi closed in from starboard, the battleship’s Caesar turret scored with a single 15-inch shell. The effects were devastating, the destroyer being converted from man-of-war to charnel house forward of her bridge. Amazingly, Punjabi’s powerplant was undamaged by the blast, and the destroyer was able to continue closing the distance between herself and the larger German vessel. The timely arrival of a salvo from Warspite sufficiently distracted the Scharnhorst’s gunnery officer, preventing him from getting the range again until after both groups of destroyers were close enough to launch torpedoes.
Severely damaged, Scharnhorst still attempted to ruin the destroyers’ fire control problem at the last moment. To Commodore Vian’s intense frustration, the battleship’s captain timed his maneuver perfectly, evading twelve British torpedoes simply by good seamanship. Had Scharnhorst had her full maneuvering ability, she may have then been able to pull off the maneuver Hipper had attempted by reversing course. Whereas geometry and numbers had failed the German heavy cruiser, simple physics served to put the waterlogged battleship in front of three torpedoes. Even then, her luck remained as the first hit, far forward, was a dud. Then, proving Fate was indeed fickle, two fish from the damaged Punjabi ran deep and hit the vessel just below her armored belt. Finishing the damage done by Prince of Wales’ hits earlier, the torpedoes knocked out the German capital ship’s remaining power and opened even more of her hull to the sea. Realizing she was doomed, her captain ordered the crew to set scuttling charges and abandon ship.
“King George V is inquiring if any vessels have torpedoes remaining.”
Gordon gave the talker a questioning look.
“I thought Commodore Vian just reported that the enemy battleship appears to be sinking?” Gordon said, his voice weary. “No matter, inform King George V that we have all of our fish remaining.”
Wonder what in the hell that is about? Eric thought. Looking down, he realized his hands were starting to shake. Taking a deep breath, he attempted to calm himself.
Well, this has been a rather…interesting day. I just wish someone would have told me I’d get shot down, see my squadron leader killed, and participate in a major sea battle when I got up at 0300 this morning.
“Leftenant Cobb, are you all right?” Gordon asked, concerned.
Eric choked back the urge to laugh at the question.
“I’m fine sir, just a little cold,” he said, lying through his teeth. The talker saved him from further inquisition.
“King George V is ordering us to come about and close with her. She is also ordering Commodore Vian to rescue survivors from Punjabi then scuttle her if she is unable to get under way. Norfolk is being ordered to stand by to assist Nelson.”
“What about the Germans?” Gordon asked.
“Flag has ordered that all other recovery operations are to cease.”
There was dead silence on Exeter’s bridge.
“Very well then, guess the Germans will have to come back for their own. Let’s go see what King George V has for us,” Gordon said.
Eric was struck by just how far the running fight had ranged as the Exeter reversed course. From the first salvo to the current position, the vessels had covered at least thirty miles. The King George V was a distant dot to the south, with her sister ship and Warspite further behind.
No one is going to find any of those survivors, Eric thought. Especially with this weather starting to get worse. He could smell imminent rain on the wind, and even with Exeter’s considerable size he could feel the ocean’s movement starting to change.
“I hope this isn’t about to become too bad of a blow,” Gordon observed, looking worriedly out at the lowering sky. “Not with the flooding we have forward.”
“If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to avoid going swimming again today,” Eric quipped.
“Wouldn’t be a swim lad. If we catch a big wave wrong, she would plow right under,” Gordon replied grimly. “What has got King George V in such a tussy? She’s coming at us full speed.”
Eric looked up and saw that the battleship was indeed closing as rapidly as possible. As she hove into visual range several minutes later, the King George V’s signaling searchlight began flashing rapidly.
DO YOU READ THIS MESSAGE? DO YOU READ THIS MESSAGE?
“Acknowledge,” Gordon said. A few moments later Eric could hear the heavy cruiser’s signal crew employing the bridge lamp to respond to the King George V.
YOU WILL PROCEED TO HOOD. ONCE ALL SURVIVORS ARE OFFBOARD, YOU ARE TO SCUTTLE.
“What in the bloody hell is that idiot talking about?” Gordon exploded. He did not have time to send a counter message, as the King George V continued after a short pause.
YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES TO REJOIN. FORCE WILL PROCEED WITHOUT YOU IF NOT COMPLETE. TOVEY SENDS GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
“God save the…oh my God!” Gordon said.
Eric looked at the Exeter’s captain with some concern as the man staggered backward, his face looking as if he had been personally stricken.
“Ask,” Gordon began, the word nearly coming out as a sob before he regained his composure. “Ask if I may inform the ship’s company of our task?”
Three minutes later, the King George V replied.
AFFIRMATIVE. EXPEDITE. HER MAJESTY’S SAFETY IS THIS COMMAND’S PRIMARY GOAL.
“Acknowledge. Hand me the loudspeaker,” Gordon said, his voice incredibly weary. Eric could see tears welling in the man’s eyes.
This is not good, Eric thought. This is not good at all. Although he was far from an expert on British government, he dimly remembered seeing a newsreel when Ranger had been in port where the Royal Family had been discussed. He felt his stomach starting to drop as he began to process what the King George V had just stated.
“All hands, this is the captain speaking,” Gordon began. “This vessel is proceeding to stand by the Hood to rescue survivors. It appears that His Majesty has been killed.”
Holy shit, Eric thought. Isn’t Princess…no, Queen Elizabeth barely sixteen?
Eric looked around the bridge as the captain broke the news to the Exeter’s crew. The reactions ranged from shock to, surprisingly, rage. As Exeter’s master finished, the young American had the feeling he was seeing the start of something very, very ugly for the Germans.
I would hate to be someone who got dragged out of the water today, he thought. That is, if any Germans get saved. Eric’s father had fought as a Marine at Belleau Wood. In the weeks before Eric had left for the academy, his father had made sure that his son understood just what might be required of him in the Republic’s service. One of the stories had involved what had befallen an unfortunate German machine gun crew when the men tried to surrender after killing several members of the elder Cobb’s platoon. Realizing the parallels to his current situation given the news he had just heard, Eric fought the urge to scowl.
Looks like you don’t need a rope for a lynch mob, Eric thought as he reflected on the “necessity” of leaving the German and French sailors to drown. He was suddenly shaken out of his reverie by the sound of singing coming from below the bridge.
“Happy and glorious…long to reign over us…”
The men on the bridge began taking up the song, their tone somber and remorseful.
“GOD SAAAAVEEE THE QUEEEEENN!!”
Almost a half hour later, the Exeter sat one thousand yards off of the Hood’s starboard side, the heavy cruiser’s torpedo tubes trained on her larger consort. The Hood’s wounds were obvious, her bridge and conning tower a horribly twisted flower of shattered steel. Flames licked from the vessel’s X turret, and it appeared that the structure had taken a heavy shell to its roof. Further casting a pall on the scene was the dense black smoke pouring from the Hood’s burning bunkerage, a dull glow at the base of the cloud indicating an out of control fire. The battlecruiser’s stern looked almost awash, her bow almost coming out of the water with each swell, and as Eric watched there was an explosion of ready ammunition near her anti-aircraft guns.
Might be a waste of good torpedoes at this point, Eric thought. He realized he was starting to pass into mental shock from all the carnage he had seen that day.
“I’m the last man, sir,” a dazed-looking commander with round features, black hair, and green eyes was saying to Captain Gordon. “At least, the last man we can get to.”
“I understand, Commander Keir,” Gordon said quietly. “I regret we do not have the time to try and free the men trapped in her engineering spaces.”
“If we could have only had another hour, we might have saved her,” Keir said, his voice breaking. It was obvious the man had been through hell, his uniform blackened by soot and other stains that Eric didn’t care to look into too closely.
It’s never a good day when you become commander of a vessel simply because no one else was left. From what he understood, Keir had started the day as chief of Hood’s Navigation Division. That had been before the vessel took at least three 15-inch shells to the bridge area, as well as two more that had wiped out her gunnery directory and the secondary bridge.
Captain Gordon was right—she was a very powerful warship. Unfortunately that tends to make you a target.
“Commander, you are certain that…” Gordon started, then collected himself. “You are certain His Majesty is dead.”
“Yes sir,” Keir said. “His Majesty was in the conning tower with Admiral Pound when it was hit. The Royal Surgeon positively identified His Majesty’s body in the aid station before that was hit in turn. We cannot get to the aid station due to the spreading fire.”
“Understood. His Majesty would not have wanted any of you to risk his life for his body,” Gordon said.
“I just…” Keir started, then stopped, overcome with emotion.
“It is not your fault lad,” Gordon said. “Her Majesty will understand.”
Gordon turned and looked at the Exeter’s clock.
“Very well, we are out of time. Stand by to fire torpedoes.”
“Torpedoes report they are ready.”
“Sir, you may want to tell your torpedo officer to have his weapons set to run deep,” Keir said. “She’s drawing…”
There was a large explosion aboard Hood as the flames reached a secondary turret’s ready ammunition. Eric saw a fiery object arc slowly across, descending towards the Exeter as hundreds of helpless eyes watched it. The flaming debris’ lazy parabola terminated barely fifty yards off of Exeter’s side with a large, audible splash.
“I think we do not have time for that discussion,” Gordon said grimly. “Fire torpedoes!”
The three weapons from Exeter’s starboard tubes sprang from their launchers into the water. Set as a narrow spread, the three tracks seemed to take forever to impact from Eric’s perspective. Exeter’s torpedo officer, observing Hood’s state, had taken into account the battlecruiser’s lower draught without having to be told. Indeed, he had almost set the weapons for too deep a run, but was saved by the flooding that had occurred in the previous few minutes. In addition to breaking the battlecruiser’s keel, the triple blow opened the entire aft third of her port side to the ocean. With the audible sound of twisting metal, Hood started to roll onto her beam ends. She never completed the evolution before slipping beneath the waves.
If you like what you’ve read, try the full Acts of War here.