Battle of Denmark Strait 10-08-1941

 

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August 1941, and the fleet has assembled in Norway to give it the best run at one of the Icelandic straits out into the North Atlantic. The entrance to the Denmark Strait is being patrolled by the Norfolk and Suffolk. The Yorck heads straight for the two cruisers, firing as it goes. The two cruisers turn tail and run, screaming for help. Fighting it out with a German battleship is not part of their orders. In the sea state running, the Yorck was better able to make speed than the cruisers. The Yorck closed the range and was soon hitting and having close misses alongside the cruisers spraying them with splinters. Hits aboard both cruisers slowed them down and brought them within close range of the deadly 13.8" guns. A gout of steam and the Suffolk slows right down and begins to drift. Norfolk is still running strongly but it is having problem maintaining its speed. Two hits from the latest salvo and it is clean up time for the Yorck. The Norfolk receives two more salvoes with hits and near misses opening the hull to the sea. The Norfolk slows and capsizes. The Yorck launches two boats to go to the assistance of the Norfolk's survivors. The Yorck turns back toward the Suffolk, but it to is sinking slowly by the bow, the stern slowly rising out of the sea. The Suffolk has launched its remaining boats and rafts and declines the 'do you require assistance' message from the Yorck. The Yorck returns to its boats with the Norfolk survivors aboard. Picks up its boats, returns to the sinking Suffolk, re-launches its boats with only the Norfolk survivors aboard, as from the messages on the airwaves and the strength of the signals, Allied shipping is getting close. Two Allied destroyers arrives an hour later, taking aboard all of the survivors.

Fifteen minutes later the call is heard 'aircraft to the southwest'. An unpleasant surprise. What it means for the Germans is that the cover force to the south has at least one aircraft carrier with it. The recon aircraft is a Blackburn Skua and can only be from a carrier. The Yorck heads west to draw the Allied force closer to the German force coming out of the Greenland Strait behind it.

So what are the opposing forces?

German Fleet:
1 x Yorck class (8x13.8")
4 x Scharnhorst Class (8x16.5")
1 x Graf Zeppelin (80air)
2 x Prinz Eugen class (12x8.2")
2 x Leipzig Class (12x5.9")
4 x Z25 Class (8x5.1")

A pretty well balanced fleet. Where the Germans cheated was to fill the Graf Zeppelin with FW190A fighters that could be fitted with bombs or drop tanks to make it a very versatile aircraft. Far superior to anything on the British carriers.

British Fleet:
2 x Illustrious Class (84air)
1 x Ark Royal class (64air)
2 x Majestic Class (12x15")
2 x King George V (9x15")
2 x Vanguard Class (9x16")
1 x Warrior Class (8x14")
2 x Lancaster Class (9x8")
2 x Exeter Class (9x8")
12 x JKLMN Class (6x4.5")
3 x Tribal Class (8x4.5")

The most powerful fleet the British had put together since the Grand Fleet of the First World War. It was felt that the seven British Capital ships would be enough to deal with the five German Capital ships. The three British carriers would overwhelm the one German carrier and slow and damage the rest of the German Fleet and allow them to be mopped up by the superior numbers of the British fleet. The best laid plans of mice and men do not always run smoothly.

This is where German lies and outright fibbing about the size and armaments of their ships came into play. The British were expecting the Scharnhorst class to be 37-38,000 ton ships with 8x16". Not the 44,000 ton, 8x16.5", monsters that the Germans really built. Those four ships were quite capable of taking on all six British ships and beating them. It was the 1,400kg (3,086lbs) armour piercing shells, designed for the 16.5", that would make the difference. These shells were only outperformed by the 18" guns/shells on the Yamato.

The British Vice-Admiral in command had a few decisions to make. Did he launch a full strike against the Yorck, without knowing where the enemy carrier(s) were?  Did he send the Warrior and a couple of cruisers after the Yorck, keeping the carriers aircraft for when the main German Fleet units are found. The British know the Germans are at sea, their recon aircraft have surveyed the Norwegian fjords without spotting any German ships. The various decisions are swirling around inside his head and he makes his decision. "Task the Ark Royal to attack, damage or destroy the Yorck! Send the Warrior and Northumberland toward the Yorck's position while the aircraft are on their way." The dice is cast.

The Warrior and Northumberland head off after the Yorck to mop up any crippled ships the aircraft may leave behind. The Ark Royal turns into the wind and the strike ranged on its flightdeck begin their takeoff runs. The Yorck has changed course and is heading directly for the rest of the fleet taking its shadow with it. Like the German Fleet of the First war, this German Admiral wants to surprise a part of the British Fleet and destroy it with little cost to itself. The object is the same only now it is to be able to do the same to your oppositions airpower. In flight time the Yorck and the main fleet are only 10 minutes apart. A flight of 3 FW190's stalk and shoot down the Skua shadowing the Yorck. The speed of aircraft makes it difficult to judge when your cover force should arrive so that it does not scare away the attackers aircraft. If there are forty aircraft hovering over the Yorck, then Ark Royal's attack force would turn round and go home. The flipside is that your ambush force cannot stay in the air forever either. After shooting down the Skua the three FW-190's stayed around as a Combat Air Patrol while the ambush force was assembled on the deck of the Zeppelin. Now the game of chicken starts. If the German Admiral launched too late he would lose the Yorck, if he launched too early his fighter force would run out of fuel before they could ambush any British strike force.

After 15 minutes the order is given "Starten" (launch). Forty fighters are sent up to cover the Yorck. They are to set up a perimeter two minutes from the Yorck while the CAP will warn of the approach of the attack force. The fifty strike aircraft from the Ark Royal come into view of the CAP and break into their attack units of torpedo bombers, dive bombers and the ten aircraft fighter cover force. The ambush force is called in. The turkey shoot starts. The ten fighters are overwhelmed and shot down, the torpedo bombers cling to the wavetops to no avail, the FW-190's are like wolves with sheep, the sheep are slaughtered. Only some of the fifteen Skua aircraft manage to attack the Yorck and hit it twice, causing little damage, before they too are shot down. A clean sweep for the FW-190's, fifty aircraft shot down in fifteen minutes. The attackers had been blindsided by a force of superior aircraft. Of the losses to the FW-190's, only four had been lost.

The British Admiral was not pleased with the results of the raid. The attack force had ceased radio contact and no aircraft had returned from the mission, not even any damaged aircraft. The Admiral now knew there was at least one if not two German aircraft carriers arrayed against his three. As far as he was aware he still held the advantage. No German recon aircraft had spotted his ships, there had been no U-boat reports to give his position away. More recon aircraft were launched to try to locate the German fleet. The Warrior and Northumberland are still ahead of the fleet and heading for the Yorcks last known position. They are the eyes of the fleet till the recon aircraft go past. The main fleet is traveling at 18 knots the Warrior and Northumberland at 28 knots.

The fleets are 120 miles apart and closing at 40 miles per hour. Cruising at 150mph the recon aircraft only take 45 minutes to fly that distance. But the area to be searched is large. After the recon aircraft have been up for an hour with no news the British Admiral is getting worried. "Where are they?". He is not to know that one recon aircraft has already been lost to the FW-190's up on Combat Air Patrol. Fifteen minutes later the news is in, the German fleet is about 110miles to the North-West. The Admiral is surprised they are so close. The order goes out "Full strike force - immediate". Illustrious and Formidable prepare the force and get them in the air. 140 strike aircraft. 60 torpedo bombers, 45 dive bombers and 35 fighters. All that is left behind is the ASW aircraft and the CAP fighters, just in case a German strike force is on its way.



A 100 miles away the German Admiral is counting. He has two trios of combat air patrol aircraft. That leaves seventy fully armed fighters, these are launched with a drop tank to add to their endurance in the air. It is time in the air rather than distance that is required. The Germans know the British strike force will be on its way. They must be ready. The torpedo bombers are the most dangerous foes. The fighters are split 40 to take the torpedo bombers and the other 30 to take the rest till the survivors of the first 40 can join in. The Yorck signals "Contact with 100+ aircraft passing my position now". Five minutes to go.

No bigger air battle has taken place since the Battle of Britain, with hundreds of aircraft wheeling and diving and searching for advantage. The first pass of the 190's on the torpedo bombers splashes half of them. Eight damaged torpedo bombers turn away and the Germans let them go. The second pass on the torpedo bombers shoots down a further twenty aircraft - just ten left. These ten bore on into the withering AA fire from the fleet, two more hit and damaged and drop into the sea to splash down. Ten 190's throw themselves in behind the remaining torpedo bombers and shoot down another six losing two of their own to 'friendly' fire. The remaining two have made it to a launch point, drop their torpedoes and turn away. In my AU, the torpedo bombers are a version of the Fairey Battle light bomber, a large improvement over the Swordfish, but still no match for the FW-190 fighter. In real life the Fairey Battle's took a hammering from the Me109 D and E models. As long as there were no fighter opposition the Swordfish was adequate. The Battle was ok if it had sufficient fighter cover. The AU fighter I use, the Gloster Griffon is good if it would have been facing the Me-109T, but the FW-190 was a step ahead of anything the Allies had at the time and it would be another 4-6 months before the Allies had a comparable fighter.

Two torpedoes are in the water. The order goes up the mast "Turn toward the south east" to parallel the tracks. The torpedoes run through the fleet with no damage caused.

The 190's reigned supreme. Twenty had been tasked with eliminating the Griffons and that was easily achieved, just four Griffons escaped in a damaged condition, to return to the fleet. The Skua's were almost ready to drop when the ten tasked to them and three CAP aircraft intercepted and a melee started. Six Skua's dropped away with the three CAP 190's in pursuit. Three shot down and one damaged, two left. They target the Graf Zeppelin, one misses, one hits. A 500lb bomb hit forward. It went through the flight deck but detonated on the armoured deck below. The hit would hamper flying off for the next hour but aircraft could still land on.

The eight damaged Battles turned away and headed back to the fleet. Only five minutes later the Yorck hove into view. The leader transmits "Let's get the Yorck!". Without any fighter opposition the Yorck is very vulnerable to attack from torpedo bombers. Four each from two different directions should guarantee a hit. It actually gave two hits. One in the bow was the one that hurt. The bow was opened to the sea. The other hit was on the armoured belt and did little damage. The Yorck was stopped in the water while a survey was undertaken. The damage control team shored up the bow damage and the Yorck headed for the fleet again at low speed. Like the torpedoes before it, the Yorck is ordered to pass through the fleet and is then ordered to head for Norway then to Germany for repair.

So in two strikes the British have sent out 190 aircraft, of which only 22 returned. For the British that is an unbelievable figure. Only six of those aircraft are undamaged and could be rearmed and flown off again. On the German side only 48 of the original 80 fighters remain. Concentrating on getting the torpedo bombers first meant that the escorting fighters had had a chance at the FW-190's and had taken their chances. But once the bombers were gone the Griffons stood no chance and had sacrificed themselves to let the remaining strike aircraft escape back to the fleet.

The British airpower is gone. No question of that. The forty odd fighters left to the Germans are superior to the remaining forty odd aircraft left to the British. But, and its a big 'but'. The  airpower superiority the Germans have is in fighters, not strike aircraft. The FW-190 could carry a 125kg (250lb) bomb for short distances. These bombs were useful against light forces, maybe cruisers and destroyers, but would not seriously damage the capital ships. The other half of the but is that with the bomb aboard the performance of the FW-190 would be much closer to the Griffon. For the British the nearest carrier reinforcements are with Force H at Gibraltar, but the aircraft aboard would be no better than those they already had, just more of them.

The British Admiral swallows the bitter pill and sends a concise report as to the state of play. His question, "Does he go after the German fleet with the battleships alone?". Six to four. The answer comes back "Fleet action granted, the Germans cannot be allowed to escape into the Atlantic and go after the convoys". The flags go up on the flagship. Form battle line! and Chase! The six battleships, two heavy cruisers and five destroyers head for the enemy position. Both fleets put recon aircraft up. The Germans CAP shoot down the British recon aircraft, the German recon aircraft are FW-190's and do their job. The British cannot afford the aircraft losses in trying to chase them away. The German fleet drops off the Graf Zeppelin one cruiser and the destroyers, the remaining cruisers and battleships go after the British fleet.

The Yorck passes through the fleet heading back through the Denmark Strait and to Norway. It has worked up a speed of 12 knots with the bow holding. Thirty minutes after leaving the fleet their is an explosion forward and the bow lifts to the explosion then drops down as the first 18 meters sheers off. The Yorck comes to a halt. What caused the explosion? Mine? Actually it was one of the torpedoes that had run through the fleet earlier that was floating on the surface and the Yorck had had the bad luck to run over. Another survey is undertaken while the ship slowly turns and heads in reverse to ease the strain on the bow section. The survey shows the massive split in the bulkhead and even with the ship going backwards that water is seeping through the crack. That bulkhead could go at any time. The damage control parties try to shore up the bow as best they can. Moving forward is easier and faster than backwards. The Yorck informs the Admiral of its predicament and the cruiser with the Graf Zeppelin is dispatched to give what aid it can.

The Warrior and the Northumberland are still hunting for the Yorck, in the hope of revenge for the Suffolk and Norfolk. The Warrior launches a Walrus recon/spotter aircraft in the hope of locating the Yorck. The Walrus knows where the main fleets are and skirts around the edges of that no go zone. Heading north and there the Yorck is. Heading backwards. Which fools the Walrus for a few minutes till it realises what is actually happening. Its report to the Warrior brings smiles all round. Only an hours hard steaming should bring the Yorck under the guns of the Warrior.

So much has happened in just one day, but it is only 3pm and night does not fall to 9-10pm in those latitudes. The Yorck is in trouble, it just does not know how much trouble yet. It had spotted the spotter and knew something big was in the area. The Yorck launches both of its Arado aircraft. The Yorck might not be there when they are due to land again. Also whatever is coming, the Yorck can use one of its aircraft for spotting for its own gunnery while the other one goes after the Walrus and tries to shoot it down. The Yorck is at action stations and waiting to see what happens. What happens is the cruiser Moltke turns up to give assistance. The Moltke is big enough to tow the Yorck if required. The Arado chasing the Walrus radios in that two British cruisers are heading for the Yorck and would be in contact in the next 30 minutes or so. The Moltke also has two Arado's on board and is told to launch them in 15 minutes. The Moltke is a big cruiser of the Prinz Eugen type but armed with 11" guns. Life for the Warrior and Northumberland could be interesting.

The Warrior and Northumberland come into view from the German ships at 34,000 yards. With four Arado's now in the air, the Germans control the airspace and will have the advantage. But the damaged Yorck has no maneuvering capabilities and will get hit regularly once the British ships get the range.

The longer ranged German guns fire first, Yorck at the Warrior, Moltke at the Northumberland. Eight minutes later the British open fire. Noticeable is that the Warrior is only firing six guns. One of the first salvoes from Yorck has knocked out the Y turret. Six guns is enough, almost from the start the Warrior starts hitting the crippled Yorck. Yorck's speed bleeds away further, till it is barely making steerage way. On the other side, the Northumberland is in trouble, the 11" shells are going straight through its armour and with the gunnery spotting the Moltke is hitting regularly. The Northumberland has a burst of steam out of the funnel as a boiler explodes and it falls behind as its speeds bleeds away to dead in the water. The Moltke switches targets to the Warrior, but it is too late for the Yorck. One of the quad turrets has been knocked out, fires are burning out of control, the ship is stopped in the water.

The Warrior goes to the aid of the Northumberland while the Moltke goes to help the Yorck. All the Moltke can do is to take off the crew of the Yorck and sink the wreck with torpedoes. The Moltke while a big cruiser is not built to face ships like the Warrior. The Northumberland manages to bypass the damaged areas and get some steam back on to the engines and limps away from the battle. The Arado's have been busy and a strike of twenty odd FW-190's with bombs aboard attack the Northumberland and sink it. The British have lost three heavy cruisers for the loss of the Yorck. Honours fairly even to that point.

The Moltke is given orders to rejoin the Graf Zeppelin. The Warrior is also ordered to join the British carriers. The sideshows are over, all that is left is the main event.

From the bridge of the Battleship Devastation:

August 1941, and the Devastation is heading north to join the fleet watching over the straits on either side of Iceland. Aboard the Devastation is the replacement Rear Admiral for the cruiser squadron to replace the previous one who had died of ill health while in command. Speed had been increased twice as the news from the battle of the Denmark Strait is happening. All aboard the Devastation are hoping to arrive in time to help sink German battleships. 28 knots and the Devastation is flying, only 30 miles behind the main fleet and catching up fast. "Contact" is heard over the battle channel as the main fleets come in sight of each other. The Admiral and Captain onboard Devastation look at each other and say "they had better leave one for us". The maneuvering of the two fleets for position allows the Devastation to come into sight of the battle, what is seen is not good.

The British Battle Line has been devastated. (Vanguard, Temeraire (9x16"), King George V, Prince of Wales (9x15"), Majestic, Bulwark (12x15")) The battle line had sailed toward the Germans sure of their superiority. In just ten minutes of thundering salvoes, huge splashes of the misses and the gouts of red explosions and billowing clouds of smoke from the hits, three British ships and one German ship are crippled and out of the fight. One ship, the Vanguard is a smoking hulk ready to sink. The command bridge superstructure is a smoking ruin with the Vice Admiral and Flag Captain dead, the Rear Admiral onboard the Devastation has suddenly found himself in charge of the remainder of the fleet. From 15 miles range Admiral Burnett starts rapping out the orders, Vanguard is lost, the cruiser Lancaster is ordered alongside to take off survivors and sink the wreck. The Captain D aboard the Eskimo is ordered to take one destroyer and try and sink the crippled Bismarck. The other three destroyers are to make a feint attack on the remaining three German battleships to keep them occupied and turned away while Admiral Burnett takes control of the remnants.

So what happened? Airpower happened. The German capital ships had the added advantage of spotters for their fall of shot. The other advantage the Germans had was the size of the shells coming out of the barrels of the 16.5" guns. The British 16" were firing 2200 pound shells. The German 16.5" fired 3050 pound shells. When those big boys hit the British ships they caused chaos. The Vanguard had taken ten hits and just fallen apart. The hit to the bridge superstructure blew it over the side, Admiral Holland did not survive. The Temeraire had received six hits and reeled out of the line with major fires amidships, A and B turrets dismounted and destroyed. The machinery systems had also taken damage and the ship was reduced to 12 knots heading away from the Germans. Prince of Wales, received eight hits and like the Temeraire had to withdraw from the battle line, all of its main armament had been knocked out. If it had remained it would just have been a target. The Majestic had done well, hitting and helping to cripple the Bismarck. But the return fire was devastating. The Majestic had been rebuilt during the wars with an upgrade to the deck armour from 2.5" to 5.5", but this might as well have been paper, the big 16.5" shells just went straight through. The engineering spaces had received two hits that wrecked them. Leaving the Majestic staggering out of the line. Two more hits and the Majestic was in real trouble, the aft superstructure, X and Y turrets were just gone. The King George V had received three hits but had not received serious damage so far. The only effective units in the British line were the King George V and Bulwark which was yet to be hit.

The German line was slightly better off with only one crippled ship, the Bismarck. The line had been, Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau. The British fire orders had been Vanguard and Majestic on the Bismarck, Temeraire and Bulwark on the Tirpitz, the King George V and Prince of Wales had one each of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. All three of the remaining German ships had damage, but they were still effective units. Tirpitz was down to three turrets, Scharnhorst had a fire aft, and only the Gneisenau was relatively undamaged.

The attack on the crippled Bismarck is beaten off by two German light cruisers with the loss of one J-K class destroyer. Captain D and Eskimo are damaged but return to the fleet. The Prinz Eugen is between the retiring three German battleships and the three J-K class destroyers making their attack. The Prinz Eugen is too much for the destroyers that fire a bank of torpedoes each then retire back to the fleet.

Admiral Burnett finally gets the Devastation to the head of the battle line with the King George V and Bulwark at the trail. The three German ships are now guarding the crippled Bismarck as there may be a chance of saving the ship. The Prinz Eugen is tasked with taking the Bismarck in tow. Both sides are outside effective firing range of their main armaments. But like caged tigers both sides are hoping for an opening to rip the throat out of their enemy. The Germans still hold airpower over the battle arena. Anything Admiral Burnett decides has to take that into account.

As long as Admiral Burnett holds his ground with his three battleships, then the Germans cannot pass without taking more damage to their ships. The less effective the German battleships become the more they will be unable to undertake their prime directive "sink convoys". Losing their main fleet units will not achieve that directive. The Germans also know that while they may have sunk one British battleship and damaged three more, there are still plenty more where those ones came from. Already the British had received one battleship reinforcement and the German Admiral was sure there would be more on the way. No matter whether his aircraft shot down all of the British recon aircraft that spotted and radioed in his position, his fleet could not hide. Keeping the crippled Bismarck under tow with the fleet was a calculated risk, but the fleet would take the most direct route back toward Norway.

The German Admiral gathers his fleet together and heads for the Iceland - Faeroes gap. The Germans are shadowed all the way by the British forces until the Germans come within range of land based German bombers. At that point two ocean going tugs take over the towing of the Bismarck.

Just like at Jutland, the German forces have assaulted their jailers but have had to return back to their cells. The Germans claim victory with the sinking of the Vanguard, but the damage to the Bismarck takes over 18 months to repair and it is not till 1943 that the German Fleet could have put to sea a comparable force to take on the British forces. By then the German airpower advantage has evaporated and all the advantages belong to the Allies.



Capsized and sinking hull of the Yorck.
 

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