First Battle of Denmark Strait 20-05-1941
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With the completion of the (all Alternate ships)
Ark Royal and
Golden Hind, this allowed the Admiralty to put the
Inflexible through a much needed refit/rebuilding program. War broke out
while the ships were still in the builders yards and they were registered as a
double shift priority to get the work finished and the ships back to sea.
Illustrious went back to sea in June 1940, just in time to join Force H and take part in the liberation of the French Fleet.
Inflexible finished its workup period in March 1941 and joined the Indefatigable (9x16) and Renown (8x15) or (Courageous-17) covering the northern entrances to the Atlantic against the possibility of a breakout by German ships. The cruiser Norfolk reported being in contact and under fire by four German ships, identified as, (Alternate) Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (9x13.8), Lutzow (6x13.8) and Lutzow (12x8.2). The Task Force steered an interception course with the Inflexible launching sorties till the weather and night closed in. The attacks caused some minor bomb damage but nothing to stop the German ships moving forward. Norfolk had continued to pass radio position reports based on Radar observation till 3am when an explosion forward caused the Norfolk to slow and lose contact, the ship had been torpedoed. The German force did not even bother to take the time to close the Norfolk and finish it off.
With sunrise came an unwelcome sight with fog and low mist clouding the area where Admiral Holland expected to make contact with the German force if it had held its course. Recconaisance flights were launched from the Inflexible. The hope was that the weather would clear before the aircraft needed to be recovered otherwise it could be a one way mission. With a shock the first report came in within 2 minutes of the aircraft being launched. The German Force had been spotted less than 15 miles away. If it had been clear both sides would have been able to see each other. The second shock came seconds later as a German Arado came in sight of the fleet. Admiral Holland ordered the Inflexible (and its escorting destroyers) to steer directly away from the German ships at full speed while getting ready to launch air strikes as soon as they could be ranged on deck. Admiral Holland then ordered the Indefatigable and Renown on an interception course. Both sides were receiving position reports till a Gloster Griffon from Inflexible caught and shot down the Arado. At a range of 19,000 yards shapes could be discerned through the haze, which were instantly bathed in orange as the German ships opened fire. Admiral Holland ordered his two ships to open fire on the German battleships with their main guns and keep the other two ships occupied with secondary armament fire. It was at this stage that it was noticed that only three German ships were there. The Lutzow had broken away during the night and escaped into the Atlantic to go after the convoys while the others gave it cover.
At such a short range hits were obtained by both sides. It was now that the bigger shells of the British 15" and 16" caused mayhem on the German ships while the German 13.8" were effective against Renown but did little damage against the much bigger Indefatigable. With the weather clearing and the range shortening, Admiral Holland was forced to order Renown to change targets to the Prinz Eugen which was trying to get past the two British ships and go after the carrier. The Renown at this stage was down to six gun salvos as A turret had been knocked out. A hit on Prinz Eugen from a 15" shell, hit the cruiser forward and forced it to slow and abandon the chase after the carrier. This had allowed Gneisenau a perfect opportunity to fire at Renown unanswered and the ship took full advantage with two full salvos landing on or around the Renown. A cloud of steam erupted as a boiler exploded and tore out a large section of hull. The ship slowed and with only two remaining 15 inch guns limped slowly away as the battle left it behind.
This left the Indefatigable facing three German ships but the German ships had all been taking damage. The Scharnhorst had been hit by several 16" shells which had caused a lot of damage. A and B turrets were unavailable while damage control crews tried to repair the damage to get them back into action, while fires raged in several other sections of the ship. Gneisenau was the least damaged ship and was still fairly battleworthy but no match for the Indefatigable. It was at this stage that the German Admiral ordered his ships to head north and chase after the bad weather. Knowing that the carrier would be launching aircraft as soon as it could, the only thing that might save his ships was to get them under cover of the weather.
Running back into the haze the German ships braced themselves for both sea and air attack. The Indefatigable was still chasing hard but in the low visibility was only firing one or two guns at a time to remind the Germans it was still there. Admiral Holland was relying on air strikes to slow the Germans down to where the Indefatigable could finish them off in the clearer weather coming. In the haze the aircraft were at a disadvantage, the torpedo bombers could drop their torpedoes too high or too low and cause them to run wild or break up. The dive bombers could not see their targets till they were very close and frightened pilots were pulling out early and dropping their bombs on indistinct targets as their imagination had the sea rushing up to grab them. The fighters could only make nuisances of themselves and hope to draw fire away from the bombers.
The end came at 2pm when the Indefatigable launched 40 aircraft in clearing conditions where the German forces were heading. These aircraft caught the Germans with the Scharnhorst receiving three torpedo hits and the Prinz Eugen two. Bomb hits on all three ships started more fires. The German Admiral ordered the Gneisenau to head away at best speed and leave the rest behind. Out of the haze came the Indefatigable closing the range to where its 16" guns were most effective and in 30 minutes of firing completely wrecked both German ships. The Prinz Eugen sank slowly by the stern while the destroyer Milne was ordered up from its escort duties to Indefatigable to put three more torpedoes into the Scharnhorst which slowly rolled over and sank.
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