XI: 1. Opening Salvos: Operation White Eagle and Operation Catherine, February 1942
Call Kenny Loggins, you're in the DANGER ZONE...
- Dec 5, 2008
1. Opening Salvos: Operation White Eagle and Operation Catherine
Operation White Eagle--the German invasion of Poland--was largely the Heer’s show, but that didn’t preclude the Kriegsmarine from trying to gain some glory for itself. While not decisive, it did set the stage for the actions around Denmark that so radically changed the face of the Royal Navy--indeed, that virtually ripped its heart out. The engagement should not have been equal: the British navy had virtually all of the experience and the infrastructure of a mature naval power. The Kriegsmarine had virtually none of that, but what they did have was the pressure of a chief in the mold of Tirpitz: Admiral Raeder.
A review of the relative strengths of the British and German fleets.
As the invasion of Poland began, the Baltic fleet--centered on the oldest vessels in the Kriegsmarine, the pre-dreadnaught battleships Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesien, as well as the light cruiser Emden--was tasked with supporting the destroyers in restricting the ability of the Polish navy to interfere with Germany’s commerce to the Scandinavian nations or to escape to British ports. Further afield, this force was supported by the Marinekampfgruppe (MKG, a surface action group) Marschall centered on the three heavy cruisers of the Deutschland-class and the three original K-class light cruisers. Raeder, ever the cautious calculator, sought to avoid the sortie of his prized battlecruisers for what he considered a side show.
The Royal Navy had been unable to grow their large surface combatant fleet in the interbellum period. Problems with constant bickering in Whitehall about the direction what little funding the senior service would be able to wrest from the penny-pinching of Westminster meant that most work focused on cheap escorts and transport vessels while the five battleships of the King George V-class and the Ark Royal-class aircraft carriers were laid down, construction proceeded so slowly that they were more charitably described as “make work” rather than serious efforts to expand the fleet; indeed, HMS Ark Royal would only commission in 1940, and HMS King George V in 1942. [NOTE: As part of the reevaluation of the direction that I took in 1943, I’m saying that they were laid down but were not in the build queue from the AI at this point. Work then proceeds until such time as they actually are constructed and commissioned.] For their part, Poland had invested heavily into the construction of additional destroyers in the interwar period, much to the detriment of its Army. The original Royal Navy plan had been similar to their plan for the previous war: a distant blockade of the German nation, as well as commerce protection for their merchant fleet. First Sea Lord Baron Ernle Chatfield, had been Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Flag Captain during the previous war’s Battle of Jutland and embodied the notion of what Winston Churchill had said of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe when he had commanded the Grand Fleet: he couldn’t win the war, but was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”
Baron Ernle Chatfield. His inability to convince Parliament to part with
more funds to rapidly procure advanced large surface combatants led
to the severe pain inflicted upon the Royal Navy in 1942.
Unfortunately for Baron Chatfield, the acquiescence of MacDonald’s government to the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and their weak-willed lack of heavy funding for the Royal Navy put him in a position that he was forced balancing against an expansionist power in all three regions where the Royal Navy maintained significant interests. This conflict led to the drastic decision to concentrate the battlefleet against the Germans first, and then turning against the more distant powers in turn. Germany was largely expected to stick with its strategy from the Great War: much like Tirpitz, to maintain the Fleet in Being and thus more for show than any actual threat to the British Empire. It also ignored three key changes from the previous war: first, the pressure put upon Raeder for having demanded and received the investment of combat power centered in the battle fleet needed to be repaid with actual action. Second, the Danes and Norwegians fell well within Germany’s sphere of influence without being actual allies. Third, previous agreements to allow the Royal Navy to share the cost burden of opposing the threats to their empire had collapsed because of the British failure to recognize internal discontent in Paris and Washington which in their turn affected those governments’ support.
Pressures upon Baron Chatfield to do something to support Poland came from both within and without. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had demanded action upon a half-remembered plan advanced by his idol, Admiral of the Fleet Jackie Fisher, the “Baltic Project” which now became Operation Catherine. The first phase saw a small carrier task force dispatched to pick up the Polish destroyers and assist their withdrawal to support the Royal Navy. Phase two would be an attempted ambush by the heavy units of the Royal Navy of the Kriegsmarine when they inevitably sortied to destroy such a small task force.
The Kriegsmarine’s surprise at such a bold maneuver was telling. The scramble to ready the fleet for the pursuit of such a small squadron in what amounted to Germany’s home waters demonstrated how far OKKM had come in developing a battle-ready force in the previous six years. The first surface engagement came very late on 9 February, just hours after the commencement of combat operations against Poland. The bulk of Polish destroyers had slipped out to sea before the MKG Ostsee could invest the ports of Danzig and Gdyna but were sighted by reconnaissance aircraft deployed from the catapults of the Deutschland-class heavy cruisers of MKG Marschall in the Southern Baltic. The Polish vessels attempted to escape back deeper into the Baltic, but the two oldest Wicher-class destroyers could not outrun their opponents and instead turned to attack, sacrificing themselves so that the Grom-class vessels might successfully accomplish their mission. The heavy 11” guns of the Admiral Scheer put paid to the two vessels and the engagement ended on 10 February when the ships lost sight of one another in the darkness.
Art of the battlecruisers Scharnhorst, Von Der Tann and Gneisenau in line ahead.
The next day, the hapless Polish destroyer fleet attempted to take revenge against the Kriegsmarine’s MKG Ostsee with an early morning torpedo strike on 11 February. Unfortunately, the destroyer screen, led ably from Emden by Admiral Bohm, disrupted their attacks and the Emden’s guns disabled and eventually sank two of the destroyer groups. When Emden later withdrew to rearm on 14 February, the two final Polish destroyer groups emerged from their hiding holes in Finland and attempted a desperate attack again, but this time they ran smack into the guns of the Schleswig-Holstein and Zerstörergeschwader 2, which cleared the ocean of the remaining Polish surface fleet.
HMS Hermes in better days.
While those series of engagements were developing, the British had rapidly formed a carrier task force centered on the light carrier HMS Hermes, escorted by two heavy cruisers HMS Berwick (Kent-subclass of the County) and HMS Frobisher (Hawkins-class), and three light cruisers Cairo, Achilles, and Dunedin; the Polish submarine squadron was in the area but did not contribute to the engagement. The task force was formed out of the ships which had just finished a training cycle and were thus notionally the best prepared vessels in the Royal Navy. They were wholly unprepared for the Kriegsmarine forces which deployed into the Kattegat: all six of the Scharnhorst- and both of the Blucher-class battlecruisers supported by the eight Leipzig- and four Stettin-class light cruisers.
The two heavy cruisers of the British task force were operating forward of the main force, while the three light cruisers screened the carrier. With this formation, the commander of the force, Admiral Henry Harwood, had expected at least part of his command to be able to escape or inflict some surprise loss upon any German vessels they encountered. Aircraft were kept down on the decks, mostly with an eye to the weather (as was typical in the Baltic in winter, it was dismal) as well as more realistic constraints (the constricted waters of the Kattegat prohibited an ability to turn into the wind for flight operations at will to keep i). The Kriegsmarine formation was led by MKG Saalwachter, which centered on the two Bluchers supported by the four Stettins, followed up by MKG Bachmann, which was Pommern, Bismarck and Tirpitz escorted by Leipzig, Albatross, Konigsburg and Mainz. The third group, MKG Warzecha, did not manage to make their way into the engagement as the trail of the fleet.
A video camera of some of the impacts from 15” shells near
Thus, when the two heavy cruisers identified several silhouettes from their Type 273 radar, they only had brief moments before the horizon flashed out with fires from the guns of the two Bluchers. After only a few salvoes, the German vessels had the range and a 15” shell from Hindenburg impacted the Frobisher, detonating her magazine and sending her to the bottom, and other shells reduced Berwick to a flaming wreck, which was finished off by a torpedo spread from Leipzig. The action forced the carrier and escorts to turn away and sprint out, where they were approached later in the day by the same force. This time, however, they managed to send aloft the Hermes’ air group, and the torpedo attacks of the Swordfishes damaged the Dresden and severely crippled the Linz. In the confusion, HMS Cairo had strayed out of formation to try and assist the two heavy cruisers, but this put her in range of the trailing group of battlecruisers. Gneisenau’s guns smashed the Cairo’s bridge and rapidly put most of her guns out of action when the captain ordered her abandoned and scuttled. While the two forces continued to sight one another, the distance was too great and the carrier force withdrew. The first phase of the battles around Denmark had ended with a bloody nose for the British and failed to extract the Polish navy.
*****Author's Note: Well, here we go into the naval pron that will make up much of the next few updates! @Axe99 will be enjoying this, at least somewhat, and I'm sure @El Pip will be stomping around about how pitiful the Royal Navy's showing is for now.