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The Iron Sea
How the Allies Hunted and Destroyed Hitler's Warships
By Simon Read
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Two of the German warships in this book, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, are—depending on the source—alternatively referred to as battlecruisers or battleships, the primary difference being that cruisers sacrificed armor for speed and maneuverability. To keep things simple, I refer to both vessels as battleships.
THE KILLING SEAS
The bombers flew through pitch-black skies.
The British crews stared into darkness as a blacked-out Germany passed beneath them. All appeared quiet in the predawn hours of April 6, 1940. For the crews in the twin-engined Wellingtons and Hampdens, the night’s operation was an exercise in futility: dropping propaganda leaflets urging the German people to surrender. String secured the leaflets, printed by the Ministry of Information, in heavy bundles of 1,500. A crewmember would cut the binding over the target area and shove the bundles down the aircraft’s flarechute. Caught in the bomber’s slipstream, the leaflets would scatter into the night and litter the towns below.1
The gunners in their turrets maintained their lonely vigil, while the navigators studied their charts and relayed coordinates to the pilots. All appeared routine until a curious site presented itself against the obsidian void below. The yellow glare of numerous headlights, making up what appeared to be a large motor convoy, could be seen moving rapidly between the port cities of Hamburg and Lübeck. Over Kiel, the crews saw “great activity among shipping under the glare of brilliant arc lamps.”2
The crews returned to their bases as dawn began to break and made their reports. “The Germans,” the Air Ministry subsequently noted, “made no pretense of concealment. When all is on the hazard they rarely do, believing that speed is more important than secrecy.” A Royal Air Force (RAF) reconnaissance flight dispatched later that afternoon to investigate photographed the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau anchored off Wilhelmshaven.3
Two of the Royal Navy’s most wanted, each ship—steeled in Krupp armor—displaced 32,000 tons and bristled with nine 11-inch guns set in triple turrets, two forward and one aft. Secondary armaments included fourteen 4.1-inch and sixteen 1.5-inch antiaircraft guns, and twelve 5.9-inch guns. With a top speed each of 31 knots, they were faster than any British ship. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, well aware of this fact, deemed them “targets of supreme consequence.”4
The previous November, the two ships had slaughtered the British patrol vessel Rawalpindi, sending the 16,000-ton ship and 238 members of her crew—including the captain—to the icy depths between Norway and Iceland. They retreated in the aftermath to the German port of Kiel and spent the winter frozen to their moorings.
That winter proved a savage one. A contagion of ice and snow swept across Europe, as temperatures plunged to their lowest in nearly a century. Six inches of snow fell on Rome, the city’s heaviest snowfall in recorded history. The mercury in Spain and France dropped below freezing. An eight-mile stretch of the river Thames in London froze over. Ice choked the Danube, used by Germany to import shipments of Baltic oil, metal, and grains to feed its hungry war machine. “News of the appearance of ice in the stream,” reported the New York Times, “was greeted with joy by Allied diplomats.”5
Further north, where the Finns waged their fierce defense against the invading Red Army, there was little cause for jubilation. “The cold numbs the brain in this Arctic hell,” noted one war correspondent. “Snow sweeps over the darkened wastes, the winds howl and the temperature is 30 degrees below zero. Here the Russians and Finns are battling in blinding snowstorms for possessions of ice-covered forests.” At the scene of one battle, the corpses, it was reported, were “all frozen in fighting attitudes.… Their bodies were like statues of men throwing all their muscles and strength into some work, but their faces recorded something between bewilderment and horror.”6
For the men on board Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the blistering season was “a time of boredom”—a mundane, frigid existence of waiting. When conditions allowed, they ventured into the North Sea for training exercises—but nothing more. Granted leave, the men could “walk ashore over the frozen surface of the anchorage.”7 It offered no reprieve from the overwhelming sense that the war, somewhere beyond the ice, was passing them by.
Then slowly, the days lengthened; the temperature gradually warmed and, at long last, released the ships from their frozen captivity. Now anchored in Wilhelmshaven, they lay in wait for orders to commence their next lethal run. They didn’t have to wait long. On April 7, the day after being photographed by RAF reconnaissance, the two battleships put to sea as part of the German invasion of Norway.8
Iron-ore mined in Sweden passed through Norway on its way to Germany. Merchant ships from the Reich carried the precious metal from the Norwegian port of Narvik. Churchill, having long wanted to choke Germany’s supply chain, urged the War Cabinet to allow the Royal Navy to mine Norwegian waters. The War Cabinet gave its approval on April 3. Royal Navy ships mined the approaches to Narvik five days later. Landings by British and French troops were to follow at Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, and Stavanger—but the Germans moved first.9
Now, on that bright April morning, as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau powered their way north from Wilhelmshaven, crews with No. 107 Squadron at RAF Wattisham in southeast England “stood by for striking duties.” At 10:45 a.m., the squadron received coordinates of the ships’ latest sighting and orders to immediately attack. At 11:30 a.m., twelve Blenheim bombers led by Wing Commander Basil Embry took off in two formations of six to intercept the German warships.10
The bombers flew in a cloudless sky with visibility stretching out thirty miles. The North Sea passed beneath them gray and endless in all directions. As the two formations closed in on their targets, the weather began to deteriorate. The sky darkened and gathering clouds cut visibility down to five miles.11 Embry and his men nevertheless had no problem spotting their quarry off the coast of Denmark.12
From their cockpits and gun turrets they could clearly see “seventeen ships of the German navy, including Gneisenau and Scharnhorst,” their white, foaming wakes scarring the surface of the sea. It was, noted Embry, “a very grand sight.”13 The bombers wheeled in the sky and positioned the pale sun behind them, attacking out of its cold glare in groups of three from 6,000 feet.14
The first wave, achieving surprise, thundered over the ships and dropped twelve 250-pound armor-piercing bombs, hitting nothing but water. As the second and third waves swooped in, the enemy fleet came to life in a violent spectacle of muzzle flashes and smoke. Flak and pom-pom fire forced the bombers to break formation.15 “When they shot at me,” wrote one pilot, “it was like lightning flashing in daylight all around me.”16 The aircraft dropped their payloads, which fell harmlessly into the churning sea. The bombers turned for home and left the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the rest of the fleet to carry on its way.17
Attacks from the sea and air in the days and weeks that followed failed to sink or inflict damage on the two battleships, which came at great cost to the Royal Navy. At 4:45 p.m. on June 8, a lookout on Scharnhorst spotted what appeared to be a tendril of smoke twenty-eight miles off the starboard bow.18
The crews on both German ships, now sailing without escorts, ran to battle stations. At 5:10 p.m., Scharnhorst’s chief gunnery officer phoned the bridge from the foretop to report sighting a “thick funnel, and mast with turret. Probably also [a] flight deck.” For the German fleet commander, Vice Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, an aircraft carrier was a target worthy of his ships’ stature—unlike the outgunned Rawalpindi. The target took on a greater luster when the gunnery officer eyed the masts of two escorting destroyers.19
Across the gray stretch of sea, Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes on board the 22,500-ton carrier HMS Glorious received word of the approaching German hunters. Accompanied by the destroyers Acasta and Ardent, the Glorious had on deck and in her hangar more than fifty fighters and torpedo bombers. Launching them would require the ship to “turn into wind” and place her on a collision course with her pursuers. Seeing no other alternative but to attempt an escape, Captain D’Oyly-Hughes ordered Glorious to full speed. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau gave chase.20
Hunter and hunted soon closed within striking distance. At 5:32 p.m., from a range of 28,000 yards, Scharnhorst opened fire. It took fifty-two seconds for the shells to fly their violent arc toward the target and fall short.21 Angle and trajectory corrected, the guns roared again and found their mark. The carrier’s bridge disappeared in a ball of flame. One salvo punched a hole through the flight deck; another pierced the engine room. From the deck of Scharnhorst, “the glow of fire was to be seen in the Glorious.”22
The carrier was a flaming pyre within minutes but somehow remained afloat. The distant roar of explosions as aircraft succumbed to the flames drifted across the water like muted thunder. The carrier began to list. Through his range finder on the bridge of Scharnhorst, Marschall watched burning Hurricanes and Gladiators slide off the carrier’s punctured, sloping deck and fall into the sea. “Slowly,” noted one German sailor, “Glorious began to turn on her side. Pouring out flames and smoke, she drifted with the wind. A moment later, she sank.”23
While the Ardent fell victim to enemy fire early in the engagement, the Acasta proved a stubborn adversary. Her guns booming, she sought temporary cover in a smoke screen. On board, the captain passed a message to all battle stations: “You may think we are running away from the enemy. We are not. Our chummy ship [Ardent] has sunk, the Glorious is sinking. The least we can do is make a show. Good luck.”24
Acasta emerged from the thick haze, turned to starboard, and fired two torpedoes from her port side. The crew roared its approval as the ominous wakes bubbled up and away from the ship. “I’ll never forget that cheer that went up,” remembered Leading Seaman Cyril Carter, who manned the aft torpedo tubes. “On the port bow of one of the ships [Scharnhorst] a yellow flash and a great column of smoke and water shot up from her.”25
The torpedoes slammed into Scharnhorst “just below the after triple gun turret.” A column of flame leapt from beneath the three massive guns and knocked them out of action. The torpedo ripped “a great hole” in her side, flooding her lower compartments in a nightmare of water and oil from a ruptured fuel tank. Forty-eight men died in the carnage.26
Scharnhorst hammered away with her secondary armaments even as she began to list. Hopelessly outgunned, Acasta once more disappeared behind her smoke screen. She altered course, broke cover, and emerged into a crucible of fire. “The enemy let us have it,” Carter wrote. A shell ripped through the destroyer’s engine room. The fiery blast threw Carter from his control seat and killed the crew working the aft torpedo tubes. Carter lost consciousness but soon came to and discovered the ship had stopped and was listing sharply to port. He got to his feet and staggered back to his battle station, fighting against the deck’s precipitous incline.27
Through smoke and haze, he saw the blurred outlines of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. “I fired the remaining torpedoes,” he later wrote. “No one told me to. I guess I was raving mad.” The battleships unleashed another volley of steel and fire. An explosion rocked the destroyer with such force Carter believed the ship momentarily left the water. It was then the captain gave the order to abandon ship.28
The men on Scharnhorst could not help but admire the tenacity of Acasta’s crew. “The [Acasta] did not give up. Our guns silenced her forward guns, but the aft guns continued firing,” remembered one German sailor. “More salvoes from our guns, and the enemy was at length silenced. The destroyer was in flames and slowly began to sink. Steam arose, probably through the boilers bursting. Then the waves closed over these brave opponents, too.”29
Of Acasta’s 138-man crew, only Leading Seaman Carter survived; the rest went down with the ship or died in the water and lifeboats of exposure. “I will always remember the surgeon lieutenant,” Carter later wrote, “his first ship, his first action. Before I jumped over the side, I saw him still attending to the wounded, a hopeless task, and when I was in the water, I saw the captain leaning over the bridge, take a cigarette from a case and light it. We shouted to him to come on our raft, he waved ‘Good-bye and good luck’—the end of a gallant man.”30
A frigid wind soon carried away the smoke and noise of battle, leaving behind the ceaseless waves and the floating detritus of shattered men and ships. The blood toll proved high, with 1,474 officers and men of the Royal Navy and 41 men of the Royal Air Force lost to enemy fire and the sea. The Germans pulled six survivors from Glorious out of the water.31 Three days later, a Norwegian steamer found another 39 men—nearly frozen to death—clinging to rafts and floats.32
Scharnhorst, her starboard propeller ripped from her hull and with 2,500 tons of water in her bowels, made her way to Trondheim for temporary repairs before braving the open sea back to Germany.33 To focus British attention elsewhere, Gneisenau ran a diversionary sortie toward Iceland. The Royal Navy, fearing the battleship was attempting to break into the North Atlantic, took the bait. On the night of June 20, the submarine HMS Clyde located the German vessel.34
Scanning the moonlit waters from the bridge of Gneisenau, Captain Harald Netzbrand saw “a torpedo track on starboard beam approaching from astern at about 300m.” Two additional tracks sliced the water just ahead of the ship. “Hard to port!” Netzbrand yelled, but it was too late. The torpedo ripped a hole in Gneisenau’s starboard side “slightly abaft bow anchor.”35 Water stormed her lower decks; black oil bled from her wound into the sea. The ship was hurt—but not mortally—and managed to limp back to the safety of Trondheim. From there, she soon joined Scharnhorst for repair work in Kiel.
Damage suffered in the Norway campaign kept the two ships out of action for six months. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, a hard man to please, dismissed the sinking of Glorious as “target practice, so hardly to be termed a momentous victory.” It was, he argued, hardly worth the wounds inflicted on his ships. He relieved Marschall as fleet commander and replaced him with Vice Admiral Günther Lütjens.36
A man of fierce reputation and supremely confident in his abilities, Lütjens saw no reason to explain his decisions. He expected nothing but total loyalty from those beneath him and offered the same to those he served. He followed orders whether he agreed with them or not—a trait that would prove his undoing. In late January 1941, he returned the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to sea.
Lütjens’s orders were clear. He was not to engage enemy battleships. His sole purpose was to sink convoys and drain Britain’s lifeblood. The two ships broke into the North Atlantic on what would prove to be their bloodiest run. In the two months that followed, they sank or captured more than 115,000 tons of Allied shipping. On March 15 and 16 alone, they sank thirteen ships and captured another three.37
“This mortal danger to our lifelines,” noted Churchill, “gnawed at my bowels.”38 Each successful conquest put Lütjens and his men under more pressure, as the Royal Navy scoured the waves for its tormentors.
The ships retreated to the French port of Brest on March 22. Raeder, “radiant with joy,” congratulated Lütjens on a job well done. In their wakes, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had left a cold, wind-swept sea of unmarked graves. Even docked in Brest, the ships posed a major threat to Britain’s lifeline to the United States and the Allied war effort. The Royal Navy may have been the most powerful maritime force on earth, but Britain’s struggle for survival in the North Atlantic had stretched its resources thin.
The threat against merchant shipping, Churchill noted, “compelled the employment on convoy duty of nearly every available British capital ship. At one period the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet had only one battleship in hand.”39 While the situation benefited Germany, her surface fleet was nevertheless miniscule by comparison. She had the 14,000-ton heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, and her sister ships the Prinz Eugen and Blücher. Her two pocket-battleships—the 12,000-ton Lützow (formerly the Deutschland) and the Admiral Scheer—were merely heavy cruisers equipped with large-caliber guns.40 A third ship in this class, the Graf Spee, was lost to the British in December 1939.
The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, ordered by Hitler in June 1934, were the only two modern capital ships in the Nazi arsenal at the outbreak of war. Each represented a “brazen and fraudulent violation” of the Treaty of Versailles, which limited German warships to a maximum displacement of 10,000 tons. In 1935, London and Berlin signed off on the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which allowed Germany to build warships displacing up to 35,000 tons.41 The nearly completed sister ships Bismarck and Tirpitz would violate the agreement in spectacular fashion with a displacement of 42,500 tons. Once at sea, wrote Churchill, they would “be the strongest vessels afloat in the world.”42
Together, these four ships—Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Bismarck, and Tirpitz—posed a mortal threat to Britain’s survival, killers ready to sever the nation’s vital arteries to its empire and the United States. Convoys were Britain’s lifeblood, helping sustain its heavily rationed population and its war machine with food, equipment, and raw materials. Likewise, convoys sailing from Britain supplied Allied armies fighting overseas and, eventually, the Russian war effort—but the Atlantic would prove to be the crucible of the Royal Navy’s epic struggle to secure the waves.
The German ships and the imposing threat of their running rampant across Britain’s sea-lanes plagued Churchill from afar. “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war,” he later wrote. “Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with hope or apprehension.”43
That Britain is an island proved a blessing and a curse. It saved the nation from Hitler’s blitzkrieg in the desperate summer of 1940 but left it vulnerable in other ways. A minimum of 23 million tons of supplies a year had to be shipped across the Atlantic to keep Britain fighting.44
With Western Europe under the Nazi heel, German aircraft operating from France and the Low Countries could easily bomb and strafe convoys in the Channel destined for Britain’s southern and eastern seaports. Hitler’s surface ships, U-boats, and the long-range Focke-Wulf Fw 200 savaged her western approaches.45 Every precious ton delivered to a British port was a hard-won victory. The convoys crossed the ocean at a sluggish pace, forced to go no faster than their slowest ship. The savagery of the sea, the freezing conditions, and the psychological strain of attacks from above and below the waves put the merchant sailors, in the words of one, through “sheer unmitigated hell.”46
Britain’s survival and ultimate victory meant supremacy in the Atlantic. It was not merely to ensure the vital delivery of food and materials of war—but the safe transport of Allied armies across the waves. “When we think of the great struggles of those years,” notes one historian, “our minds generally turn to the Blitz, El Alamein, Anzio, Arnhem, Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Berlin… those battles could not have been fought, let alone won, without the Allied victory in the Atlantic.”47
Victory in the Atlantic was not merely dependent on destroying the U-boat menace or the threat from long-range German air patrols, it also meant smashing Hitler’s surface fleet and consigning its capital ships to the ocean floor. Britain’s lifelines remained in stark peril as long as Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Bismarck, and Tirpitz remained afloat.
Their destruction would become Churchill’s obsession.
IN SEARCH OF PREY
Beneath an early morning sky the color of dark slate, Pilot Officer Gordon Green trudged across the sodden grass of the airfield to his waiting Spitfire. Clad in a wool-lined leather jacket and boots, a parachute pack strapped to his chest, he pulled himself up onto the fighter’s wing and opened the cockpit canopy. The date was March 28, 1941, the airbase RAF St. Eval in Cornwall.1
Green, a pilot with the Royal Air Force’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, lowered himself into the cockpit and buckled the harness over his legs and shoulders. He pulled on his helmet and plugged its radio cable and oxygen tube into their respective sockets. Reaching forward, he turned the master switch to ON. “Contact!” he yelled in warning to the ground crew. He pressed the starter button and pushed in the priming pump handle. The Merlin engine roared and brought the instrument panel to life, its many needles dancing in their gauges. He checked fuel and oxygen, magneto drop, revs, boost, break pressure, oil, and air readings. Satisfied all was well, Green flashed a thumbs-up to his crew and signaled “Chocks Away.”
The morning’s target was the French port of Brest. Reconnaissance flights out of St. Eval covered Western France and “the full length of the Franco-Spanish frontier.”2 It was a hazardous and solitary undertaking—“the ideal job,” in the words of one reconnaissance pilot, “for a loner.”3
Green knew full well the dangers that lay in wait over Brest. The port’s antiaircraft fire could be devastatingly accurate, having—on one occasion—knocked a reconnaissance flight from the sky at 30,000 feet.4 A continuous patrol of Bf 109s in the vicinity of Ushant, an island off the Brittany coast at the southwestern end of the English Channel, intensified the peril. Green personally knew five pilots lost over the target, but had little time to dwell on such matters as he guided the Spitfire across the grass.5
He glanced at the windsock above the control tower and turned the fighter’s nose into the damp wind. With final clearance for takeoff, he released the break lever, opened the throttle, and gently pushed the control column forward. The machine gathered momentum, the power of its engine creeping up Green’s arms, the pressure against his body intensifying as the plane left the ground. Through the canopy, as the Spitfire climbed higher, Green watched the lanes and rooftops of Cornwall recede and merge into a larger patchwork of fields and villages.
He shot over England’s southwest coast in turbulent skies and crossed the Channel in ever-thickening cloud. In the wings of his fighter were two cameras, each one equipped with a 20-inch-focal-length lens. Visibility dwindled to nearly nothing as he approached the French coast, yet he still checked the small mirrors on either side of the canopy to ensure he left no vapor trail in his wake.6 Beneath him, the English Channel churned cold and unforgiving.
Reconnaissance pilots had to wait three hours past daybreak for “first photographic light,” when the sun burned away shadow and haze, for optimal conditions. Such outings necessitated maximum vigilance and a high threshold for discomfort. The freezing temperatures at high altitude could drop as low as -50 C and bleed through the pilot’s thick leather jacket, gloves, and boots. The cold was but one concern. “Perhaps the most important survival requirement on photo reconnaissance operations throughout the war,” recalled one pilot, “was the ability to keep a really effective lookout for all enemy aircraft.”7
Photographing a target was an art unto itself and required the pilot to know—almost by instinct—where the cameras were aimed. “One flew alone to the general area of the target,” Green remembered, “and then tipped the aircraft on its side to check one was properly lined up.”8 Such maneuvering could prove a challenge even in mild weather, let alone gray and turbulent skies. Green, staring out of the cockpit at the rolling bank of cumulus beneath him, saw through the overcast a sudden flash of color. The clouds had parted, if only briefly.
- "Simon Read's The Iron Sea is a wonderful, rip-roaring account of one of the greatest hunts in history - the pursuit of Hitler's warships. You'll feel the lash of salt spray, the thunder of depth charges, the immense tension of the chase. A superb addition to the annals of naval WWII history."—Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of The Liberator and The Longest Winter
- "Prepare to journey back in time to the perilous early years of the Second World War, where Britain's lifelines depended on the destruction of four mighty German surface ships. Simon Read brilliantly retells the stories of the hunt for Hitler's warships in a single volume, which is crisply researched and brimming with vivid prose."—Patrick K. O'Donnell, bestselling author of Washington's Immortals and The Unknowns
- "Winston Churchill's greatest fear in World War II was of losing the battle of the Atlantic and Britain being starved into surrender. I felt tingles down my spine when I read of the feats of so very many ordinary men and women from so many walks of life who sank Hitler's battle fleet, and stopped that from happening.... Read's Iron Sea, with its scholarly research and scintillating prose style, will leave you full of pride for that extraordinary generation and their staggering achievement."—Andrew Roberts, award-winning and bestselling author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny
- "Simon Read's The Iron Sea is a riveting fast-paced drama about the havoc Hitler's surface fleet caused the Allies in World War II. Expertly researched and finely written this is a major new contribution to WW2 military history. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
- "In The Iron Sea Simon Read brings readers straight into the heart of the tumultuous battle to control the Atlantic. Swarms of dive-bombers, lines of torpedoes cutting through inky black waters, the shrill cries of officers and sailors, the plumes of smoke and fire--all come viscerally to life in this narrative thriller."—Neal Bascomb, New York Times bestselling author of The Winter Fortress and Faster
- "Drawing on firsthand accounts from Allied and German sources, Read recreates the demise of each German warship in gripping, often poignant, prose. WWII buffs and naval history fans will be spellbound."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "A vivid and detailed analysis... The fast-paced narrative draws on a solid foundation of primary sources and moves easily from meta-themes of strategy to the experiences of the sailors and airmen of Allied and Axis powers... an engaging history recommended for all U.S. history and WWII collections"—Library Journal
- “[A] pulse-pounding narrative . . . A suspenseful, well-wrought account of battling ships at sea and grave wartime conditions.”—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books