D-Day Navies Pt2: HMS Rodney’s accidental bombardment

Fulfilling her role of heavyweight bombardment reserve, the battleship HMS Rodney trailed behind the first wave of invasion shipping. She was to hang back during D-Day and conduct a bombardment only if called in by assault force commanders. The way things turned out, however, her mighty 16-inch guns did roar after all, though not quite in the fashion anticipated.

The Germans had laid extensive minefields off the Normandy coast and channels had been swept clear at both the eastern and western ends of the invasion front. HMS Rodney ended up entering the eastern swept channel, heading for Sword sector but could not expect freedom of manoeuvre until she reached the more open areas, off the actual invasion beaches.

The 16-inch gun-armed British battleship HMS Rodney in her distinctive late WW2 paint scheme, around the time of the invasion of Normandy. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

Midshipman Roger Morris was closed up in the port fore 6-inch gun director and – with the ship getting closer to the invasion beaches – he and his shipmates found they could ‘pick out the warships all together in a group, [with battleship] Warspite prominent with her high bridge and large funnel. She appeared to be firing in a southerly direction at some target or other.’

Junior rating Allan Snowden, working on the upper deck, was thunderstruck, thinking: ‘the sheer volume of noise… the blast of the guns, was incredible and you could feel it through your body even if you were quite a distance from the gun actually doing the firing. A bit nearer the coast were these rocket ships, which were like huge landing craft. When they fired it was like Guy Fawkes’ night and you would see their rockets whooshing off into the air. You couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the guys on the receiving end.’ Adding to the cacophony were the roaring engines of wave after wave of Allied fighter aircraft zooming overhead, headed to rocket and strafe targets inland.

A convoy of landing vessels sails across the English Channel toward the invasion beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photo: US Coast Guard Collection/ US National Archives.

Exiting the swept channel, HMS Rodney shouldered her way through landing vessels, causing them to scatter in alarm. Seeing the huge, and unexpected, bulk of Rodney nosing in among the confusion of shipping, the commander of the Eastern Task Force, Rear Admiral Philip Vian, flashed a signal from the cruiser HMS Scylla to Rodney. He ordered the battleship to ‘get the hell out of it’ and head for Portsmouth to await further instructions.

Turning back into the swept channel, she passed some landing craft escorted by a frigate, being shelled by a shore battery situated near Le Havre, a couple of 5.9-inch shells falling short. The frigate made smoke, so the frustrated German gunners turned their attention to Rodney. This attempt to hit his ship was also observed by Midshipman Morris, who recalled: ‘they dropped one shell over and one short. Action stations were sounded off and we fired two rounds of 16-inch armoured piercing in the general direction of the battery. No further fire ensued…’

However, the swept channel did a dogleg and this prevented the ship from continuing to bring her guns to bear. Writing in his journal that night Midshipman Tony Robinson recorded his own perspective on this very short action: ‘I presume that the morale [sic] effect of having 16-inch guns firing back at him was too much and he gave up. But we had fired our first shots in anger at the invasion which pleased everyone tremendously.’

Allied mine-sweepers clear mines off a Normandy invasion beach on June 6, 1944. Photo: US National Archives.

Late on the evening of D-Day the battleship HMS Warspite pulled back from Sword sector and dropped anchor a few miles offshore. The following day Warspite fired against likely German troop, vehicle and gun positions.

Bit by bit the Nazi grip on Normandy was being loosened. Having fired more than 300 shells in just two days, the Warspite’s magazines were exhausted so she also retired across the Channel to Portsmouth to load up with more ammunition.

Iain Ballantyne’s books ‘Warspite’  and ‘HMS Rodney: Slayer of the Bismarck and D-Day Saviour’  are published by Pen & Sword Books.

D-Day Navies Pt1: Blasting the Atlantic Wall

The tendency among some accounts of the fighting that followed the D-Day invasion itself is to regard the struggle offshore as won after the troops got beyond the beaches. It does not reflect the fact that hundreds of vessels were engaged in providing a wide variety of support and in combat for some time afterwards.

They delivered supplies such as food and fuel, plus more troops and equipment while a variety of warships carried out bombardments of enemy formations inland and battered German coastal fortresses. They did all that while fending off determined enemy air and sea attacks.

Lunging out of a smokescreen laid by Allied vessels to protect their seaward flank off Sword Beach on D-Day itself were three German torpedo boats from Le Havre. Even though their crews were shocked and awed by the array of Allied firepower in front of them, these craft nevertheless launched 17 torpedoes.

Watercolour of HMS Warspite bombarding German troops and armour on D-Day. Specially commissioned for ‘Warspite’ by Iain Ballanyne. Illustration by Dennis Andrews.

The British warships reacted on seeing splashes from the tinfish as they went in the water, the battleship HMS Warspite raining every calibre of shell possible down on the enemy. The torpedo boats turned around and made a speedy retreat back through the smokescreen, passing three of their own armed trawlers coming out to have a go.

The shells of Warspite and from other Allied naval guns followed the torpedo boats back through the smoke. One of Warspite’s scored a hit and instantly sank a trawler. In the meantime, the German torpedoes claimed a Norwegian destroyer, HNoMS Svenner, but otherwise found no victims. One of the tinfish passed harmlessly between Warspite and battleship Ramillies. The old battlewagons had survived the only naval surface action of D-Day.

The Norwegian destroyer HNoMS Svenner, which was blown apart on D-Day by German torpedoes that missed HMS Warspite. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

A few Allied naval vessels would in weeks to come become victims of U-boat attack. For example, the frigate HMS Mourne, was hit by a torpedo from U-767 on June 15 while engaged in an anti-submarine patrol to the south-west of Cornwall. She sank in less than a minute, with only 30 survivors out of her crew of 140.

The same day HMS Blackwood also sacrificed herself to protect vital troop and supply convoys across to Normandy. She was torpedoed mid-Channel by U-674, the frigate’s bows blown off and suffering 58 of her 157 sailors killed. An attempt was made to tow Blackwood back to port, but she sank off Portland.

And still the casualties at sea came, including the valiant mine-sweepers HMS Hussar and HMS Britomart. As the Allied armies finally made their breakout from the beachhead, Hussar and Britomart set about clearing a fresh path in to the coast, so British warships, including the battleship HMS Warspite, could use their big guns to hit enemy troops at Le Havre.

Contemporary invasion map, showing how the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy was launched and German forces facing it. Image: US Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

Ironically both mine-sweepers were sunk on August 27 by their own side. RAF Typhoon ground-attack aircraft attacked them with rockets, in the worst recorded case of ‘friendly fire’ suffered by the Royal Navy in WW2. Hussar lost 55 out of 80 sailors in her complement, while Britomart suffered 22 dead.

But no one should forget the men in the vessels that delivered the troops and their equipment to the beaches themselves – the landing ships and other assault craft – including HMLCI(L) 132 and HMLST 404, both lost carrying out that vital mission. Enemy mines claimed their share of Allied ships in the coastal waters off Normandy too.

The successes achieved by the U-boats were, on one hand, surprisingly few – bearing in mind seas thick with targets – but on the other much as expected. There was by the summer of 1944 massive Allied superiority on and over the sea, via dozens of anti-submarine task groups and U-boat killing aircraft.

Between June 7 and the end of the month 23 U-boats were sunk, with 12 of them in the English Channel or the Bay of Biscay, and including one scuttled at Lorient as not worth repairing. Just sending a U-boat out seemed tantamount to suicide. By June 10, the U-boat Force command realised it was pointless to even try deploying non-snorkel submarines. Those boats were confined to base.

U-boats in the Bay of Biscay were advised to lie on the bottom to conserve battery power and await a chance to attack Allied shipping if further landings were made on the Biscay coast. Boats in the Channel were as matter of practice permitted to return home if enemy defences proved too tough.

Better times for Germany’s U-boat force: U-428 returning to Lorient on the French Atlantic coast, after hunting Allied merchant shipping off the east coast of the USA in 1942. By the summer of 1944 it was the U-boats that were the hunted. Photo: NHHC.

Having been forced to abandon regular wolf pack attacks against shipping in the North Atlantic, the U-boat Force now appeared to have lost the battle for the English Channel and Bay of Biscay. Only one U-boat got through to waters right of the invasion beaches to sink a vessel, a landing ship.

The so-called Grey Wolves, who had once ranged across the Atlantic to ravage convoys, were now reduced to skulking on the bottom of the sea within a few miles of their besieged bases which were under almost constant air attack.

• Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Warspite’  and ‘Rodney‘ both published by Pen & Sword Books. He is also author of ‘The Deadly Trade’  published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a history of submarine warfare including during WW2. It has been published in the USA by Pegasus Books as ‘The Deadly Deep

‘Bismarck was being mercilessly pounded’

As the sun peeped over the eastern horizon on 27 May 1941, to reveal a storm-tossed seascape, from his upper deck position aboard HMS Cossack, teenage rating Ken Robinson scanned his surroundings.

Aboard Ken’s ship and other destroyers in the 4th Flotilla, tired, red-rimmed eyes studied the horizon, trying to sight the enemy, who must be nearby but was not yet visible. This was most likely, so the destroyer men thought, because Bismarck was lurking in a squall and preparing to blow them out of water.

How the brutal final gunfight between Bismarck and the British warships unfolded. Image: Dennis Andrews.

Then the German battleship was spotted 8,000 yards dead ahead of HMS Zulu, so she and the other 4th Flotilla’s ships turned away to loiter at what they hoped was a healthier distance. From Cossack, Captain Philip Vian reported in a signal to Home Fleet boss Admiral John Tovey, at 7.01am, that Bismarck had opened fire, but failed to score any hits.

In the aftermath an eerie calm settled over the scene. The weather cleared to present what an officer in Zulu described as ‘a bright blue sky and a clear horizon had taken the place of the grey mists and driving clouds.’ In the German battleship, there was no pleasure taken in the same vista, for it meant the approaching enemy would have a good view to a kill.

The battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney soon arrived and the final battle began as their big guns roared, with Bismarck’s return fire inaccurate and causing no serious damage to any British vessel.

The battleship HMS Rodney closes in on the Bismarck, burning in the distance, during the final battle of 27 May 1941. Image: Dennis Andrews.

After her long dash north through heavy seas, bows plunging into gigantic waves and shaking them off before the ship hurtled on, the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire finally came within range of her quarry. George Bell waited on the Dorsetshire’s bridge to carry messages from Captain Benjamin Martin around the ship. Like every man in the British warship, George knew the task at hand was absolutely necessary: “We closed to open fire, for the last thing we wanted was to allow Bismarck under any circumstances to cause havoc among our convoys.”

Amid the bombardment by the big 16-inch and 14-inch guns of Rodney and King George V, rapid-fire salvoes of 8-inch shells from the Dorsetshire and also cruiser HMS Norfolk hurtled towards the German battleship, ripping her upper works to shreds. Some of the heavy shells, meanwhile, punched holes right through Bismarck, while others tore off parts of the superstructure or inflicted mortal damage.

From one of Rodney’s 6-inch gun turrets Royal Marine Len Nicholl looked on in fascinated horror: “I actually saw the back of the [Bismarck’s] B turret explode when one of the shells hit her. It just flipped up in the air, spinning like a penny.” He added: “I was on the port side of the ship. We’d go up the port side firing at her, turn around and then the starboard side would have a go at firing. We would be in a bit of a lull on the port side. I saw Bismarck burning from stem to stern and she was a beautiful ship, beautiful schooner bows on her.”

As the fight neared its end, Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal appeared overhead and, after being fired on in error by HMS King George V, were told to keep their distance and to not attack Bismarck with torpedoes.

Torpedo retained by its frustrated crew a Swordfish torpedo-bomber flies away from the scene of the Bismarck’s destruction. ++

The young aviators, including Terry Goddard, had launched from Ark Royal with their spirits high but what they saw below took the edge off any triumphalism they may have felt on take-off. “We were at about 2,000ft,” recalled Terry. “Bismarck was surrounded by battleships, cruisers and destroyers. She was being mercilessly pounded. Her A turret was gone. The after turrets were still firing. She was steaming at about seven knots, if that. The bridge was gone…there was just a big black hole billowing black smoke. She was a mess and the gunfire was just ceaseless…”

The final blows from the British were delivered by torpedoes after all, launched by HMS Dorsetshire, which went in close after the Rodney and King George V ceased fire. Bismarck survivors would later claim that they had scuttled the ship and this is what finally put their ship out of her misery, rather than the cruiser’s torpedoes.

The heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire launches a torpedo. Photo: Courtesy of the HMS Dorsetshire Association.

Either way, Capt Martin ordered a signal sent from Dorsetshire as ‘Most Immediate’, which told the world of the German battleship’s end and her bravery as she went down: ‘Torpedoed Bismarck both sides before she sank. She had ceased firing but her colours were still flying.’

The aftermath of Bismarck’s sinking saw desperate calls for salvation from hundreds of survivors fighting to stay afloat amid oil and debris in a strength-sapping cold sea. Capt Martin gave the order for Dorsetshire to stop by the biggest group and start rescuing them, despite fears of U-boat attack and the likelihood of a Luftwaffe assault.

George Bell later pondered how there never was any personal enmity for the foe: “When we went to pick up survivors, we did so because they were seamen doing their job of work, just like us. We had done our job, which was to sink the Bismarck and so now we offered them mercy.”

However, it all came to a halt 20 minutes after it started, when there was a submarine scare, Captain Martin giving the order for slow ahead to remove Dorsetshire from peril. The cruiser slid through floating knots of Germans who cried out in despair, faces etched with agony as their only means of survival pulled away.

Horrified British sailors staring over the side knew they were leaving fellow mariners to a slow, excruciating death. George brought orders from Capt Martin for them to throw lifebelts and anything else that would float overboard to give the Germans a chance to stay afloat.

Casting his mind back, Cossack’s Ken Robinson recalled that by the time the fighting was over that day, all he and his shipmates wanted to do was get some sleep. “What we needed above all was to get our heads down,” he recalled. “Cossack was always in the thick of it and it was only the latest episode in an exhausting war.”

• To read more of how a band of brothers took on the German battleship in the final battle of 26/27 May 1941 read ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ published by Agora Books and available via Amazon as a e-book or hardcopy in the UK  and also the USA 
• Iain Ballantyne tells the story of the Bismarck Action from various points of view across three of his books – ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, ‘Killing the Bismarck’ and ‘HMS Rodney’ (the latter two published by Pen & Sword). All three convey the stories of people in the big ships, along with major twists and turns, while also providing the perspective of destroyer and cruiser sailors, along with aviators. More information on Iain Ballantyne’s books here.
++ A composite image using a Swordfish photo by Jonathan Eastland http://www.ajaxnetphoto.com and the Paul Wright painting ‘The End of the Bismarck’ that features on the cover of ‘Killing the Bismarck’. More details on Paul’s work here http://www.battleshippaintings.com


Archive by month

Archive by year