Royal Navy

When it became clear that Adolf Hitler was rapidly increasing the size Germany's armed forces, new ships were ordered in 1937 but none were ready when the Second World War started in 1939.

Even so, the British naval forces were the largest in the world in 1939. By the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 15 large battleships, 15 heavy cruisers, 46 light cruisers, 7 aircraft carriers, 181 destroyers and 59 submarines. However, only about half had been modernized and the rest were deficient in horizontal armour needed for protection against modern, long-range shellfire.

The navy's main striking force was stationed at Scapa Flow, off the north coast of Scotland. From there ships could be used to help control both the North Atlantic and the North Sea. Another force of battleships and cruisers were based in Portsmouth.

The main strategy of the Royal Navy at the start of the war was to try and blockade Germany from the North Sea and to protect Britain's vital ocean trade routes. However, as the war progressed it was forced to concentrate on its defensive duties.

The French Navy had been responsible for containing the Italian Navy but after Henri-Philippe Petain signed the armistice with Nazi Germany in June, 1940, the British had to divert ships to the Mediterranean.

The German U-Boats now also had bases on the Atlantic coast which put them much closer to British trade routes. The Royal Navy used its older ships to protect the convoys bringing goods from the United States. From 1941 it was also able to use its growing number of corvettes.

On 18th May 1941 Germany's most powerful warship, the Bismarck and Prince Eugen left port. Three days later British intelligence was informed that the ships were refuelling in Bergen Fjord in Norway. Afterwards the ships headed for the Denmark Straits in an attempt to avoid the Royal Navy based at Scapa Flow. However, Admiral John Tovey had been informed of its position and he called up every available warship to destroy the Bismarck.

On 23rd May the Bismarck was spotted by the heavy cruiser Suffolk. Using its recently installed radar to track the German ship it was soon joined by the Norfolk. At the same time the Hood and Prince of Wales moved in from the other direction to tackle the German ships head-on.

The warships went into battle on the morning of 24th May. The engagement began when the Hood began firing at the more advanced Prince Eugen. When the Bismarck arrived it used its 15-inch guns and after taking several direct hits the Hood exploded before sinking. Only three out of a crew of 1,421 survived.

The two German ships now turned on the Prince of Wales and after being badly damaged fled from the area. The Bismarck was also damaged and had a ruptured fuel tank. This resulted in an oil leak and a reduction of her maximum speed. That evening the Bismarck was attacked by nine torpedo bombers and scored one direct hit.

It was decided that she was now vulnerable to attack and orders were given for her to return to the port of Brest. Steaming at moderate speed to conserve fuel it was sited by a British flying boat on 26th May. The aircraft followed the Bismarck until the light cruiser Sheffield took over that afternoon. It was soon joined by the Ark Royal and the Renown. Soon afterwards the Bismarck was hit which resulted in her steering gear being jammed.

Now severely disabled, the Bismarck was now surrounded by the King George V, Rodney, the Norfork and the Dorsetshire. After an hour and a half the Bismarck was a blazing wreck. At 10.36 a.m. the Bismarck sank killing all but 110 of her crew. The loss of its largest ship marked the end of the German Navy's incursions into the Atlantic.

The attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in the United States declaring war on Japan. The US Navy immediately helped the Royal Navy in the Atlantic. This enabled the British to send more ships to the Mediterranean and gradually took control of that area from the Italian Navy.

In the Far East the Royal Navy suffered at the hands of the Japanese armed forces. The Prince of Wales and Repulse were both sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10th December, 1941. It was not until the second-half of 1943 that the Royal Navy was able to re-establish itself in the East Indies.

The Allies gradually began to introduce successful anti-submarine strategies. This included the convoy system, long-range aircraft patrols, improved antisubmarine detectors and depth charges. By May 1943 German U-Boats were forced to withdraw from the Atlantic.

On 26th December, 1943, the Scharnhorst was sunk by the Duke of York and a strong complement of cruisers and destroyers. This marked the end to to the threat to the Russian convoys.

In 1944 the reduction of the naval war in Europe released the Royal Navy's major warships to join the US Navy in preparing the way for the final assault on Japan.

Primary Sources

(1) Winston Churchill, directive to his military commanders (6th March, 1941)

We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in the dock must be bombed. The Focke-Wulf and other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

(2) Anthony Eden, Memoirs: The Reckoning (1965)

The ability of the Royal Navy to escort the convoys upon which Britain's life depended was tried to the limit during this summer. Matters were made worse because the Government had not laid down any destroyers during 1938, apparently owing to Treasury pressure for economy which, almost unbelievably, was accepted. The United States Government were now straining neutrality in our favour and Mr. Churchill was continually pressing them to further efforts. He asked, among other things, for the loan of fifty or sixty destroyers, and this scheme was discussed between London and Washington.

The negotiations did not go smoothly, nor did I altogether approve of the details of the final settlement. At one time the suggestion was put forward in Washington that the entire British West Indies should be handed over for the cancellation of our war debts. I thought this less than friendly bargaining. At another, the destroyers were to be exchanged for a public assurance that the British fleet would sail to North American waters if Hitler gained control of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister rightly protested that such an announcement would have a 'disastrous effect' on British morale. The West Indian bases alone were certainly worth more than fifty or sixty old destroyers.

The sweeping nature of the first American demands caused some delay in the negotiations. Local patriotism in the West Indies was justifiably affronted. By August 14th, however, the agreement was settled, to be ratified at the beginning of the following month. Our desperate straits alone could justify its terms. The age and condition of the fifty destroyers made unexpectedly large demands upon our dockyards. Only nine ships were available before the end of 1940, by which time our own naval construction was catching up on our losses.

Help on a larger scale was soon to be forthcoming. Reelected President on November 5th, Mr. Roosevelt suggested almost at once plans to open 'the Arsenal of Democracy' for Great Britain. In March 1941 the cash-and-carry basis of British purchasing in the United States was abolished, and the principle of lend-lease sanctioned by Congress. Later the same month documents handing over bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the West Indies were signed.

(3) The Manchester Guardian (26th May, 1941)

An admiralty announcement on Saturday said that the battlecruiser Hood suffered an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up. It is feared that there will be few survivors. The 35,000 ton Bismarck, one of Germany's two newest battleships was damaged.

The two new German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz may both have been present, though only the Bismarck is mentioned in the official bulletin. Recently the German Admiralty was at pains to let the world know that both were completed and on service. They are reported to have been designed to steam at more than 30 knots, and if that is their speed the Hood should be the ship most likely to keep them within range in a running fight. None of our battleships can exceed 25 knots apart from the new King George V class, and we know nothing of their whereabouts.

The destruction of the Hood is surprising, for her design was based on the lessons of Jutland, where three battlecruisers were all destroyed by the blowing up of their magazines. The armour protection for the Hood was considered by the experts to be the most effective that could be devised. All the protection possible was provided in the gun turrets and ammunition trunks to prevent the flash of an explosion passing down the trunk into the magazine and the handling rooms - the cause of the destruction of the Queen Mary, the Indefatigable, and the Invincible at Jutland - and more than a third of the weight of the ship was devoid of armour.

(4) Commander in Chief of Coastal Command John Slessor, Coastal Command Review (June, 1943)

I wish to express to you and all under your command my admiration and warmest thanks for your achievements in the anti- U-Boat war during the month just ended. The brilliant success achieved in this field is the well deserved result of tireless perseverance and devotion to duty and is, I am sure, a welcome reward for the aircrews and others who have spared no effort during long months of arduous operations and training. Now that you have obtained this remarkable advantage over the U-Boats I know you will press it home with ever-increasing vigour and determination until, in conjunction with the Royal Navy, you have finally broken the enemy's morale.