Another month, and hopefully another interesting Tribal ‘short’ from Dr Alex Clarke that you’ll find enjoyable, this is the 5th of the series. HMS Somali didn’t survive World War II, but she definitely fought it. Taking on missions in some of the hardest most inhospitable climates and operating circumstances imaginable – she would push her luck time and time again, surviving operations Claymour and Pedestal only to fall in the Arctic during a Russian Convoy. Somali was a ship which never really got the fame of some of her sisters, like Afridi though she was a leader, she set the tone for her flotilla, and the example she set was high.
HMS Somali was the eighth of the Tribal class to be commissioned, and the first to be commissioned to the Home Fleet Tribal Destroyer Flotilla; the flotilla that HMS Ashanti and HMS Tartar started their career with.[I] As such it was Somali which set the standard and the culture for this flotilla, for these ships and the rest that would serve with her. With such a duty, and the responsibility of being the Flotilla Leader, it is unsurprising that even pre-WWII, Somali enjoyed an eventful life. On the 3rd of February, 1939, she, along with the submarines HMS Porpoise & HMS Starfish, and the Town class cruisers HMS Southampton & HMS Sheffield, visited Lisbon.[ii] With the aim of supporting the traditional alliance, but also giving a show of strength to their neighbours Spain – this was a successful mission, as Portugal maintained what could be argued a beneficial neutrality throughout the course of WWII, including allowing the British to establish airbases on the Azores. Unfortunately for HMS Somali much of her war service was in decidedly colder climates, and included a raid, which to this day is a textbook perfect example of how to carry out a long range independent amphibious operation.
|Figure 1. HMS Somali escorting a Russia bound convoy|
The Lofoten Raid, Operation Claymour, on the 4th of March 1941.[iii] The purpose of the raid was the damaging of the supply of fish oil and glycerine which the German war economy was dependent upon – something it succeeded at in a most spectacular fashion.[iv] It was an also an operation which generated a lot of benefits for not much fighting; the Germans were faced with the same problem as the French during the Napoleonic wars – a long enough coastline cannot be guarded against a strategically aggressive amphibious force, meaning anything that made them try to do so would be a waste of their resources.[v] There were again four Tribals involved, HMS Somali led the operation, with Bedouin, Eskimo and Tartar, supplemented by a “L” class post-treaty era destroyer(launched in December 1939, commissioned December 1940), HMS Legion, and two Landing Ship Infantry (LSI), HMS Princess Beatrix and HMS Queen Emma loaded with 3rd and 4th Army Commandos.[vi]
This was another operation though where the Tribals were ideally suited, due primarily to their increased gun armament in comparison to other destroyers, but thanks also to their larger size. At 04:30hrs, on the 4th February, the force arrived off the Lofoten Islands and split up: Eskimo and Legion took Princess Beatrix to Vest Vargo, where the LSI lowered her landing craft, with one wave being led to Henningsvaer by Eskimo, and the other being led by Legion to Stamsund; as this was taking place on, Somali, Bedouin and Tartar led Queen Emma to Holen, from where some of the LSI’s landing craft were escorted by Tartar to Svolvaer, before the force moved to Lille Molla from where Bedouin escorted the remained of the landing craft to Brettesnes; with this all in progress, Somali, which as well as Captain Caslon’s Flotilla staff aboard, also carried Brigadier J.C. Haydon and his staff, commenced a ‘tour of inspection’.[vii]
It was during this tour, that at 06:20hrs, Somali met the 300 ton German Trawler Krebs.[viii] Armed with just a single gun in the bow the trawler fired just three rounds before Somali silenced her with three 4.7in shells; hitting the Krebs wheelhouse, boiler room, and ready-use locker, while killing her Captain and 13 of her crew.[ix] After this Krebs ran aground, at which point 5 crew jumped overboard and were retrieved by Somali.[x] Other actions were even more one sided as in the case of Tartar which, much to the distress of the Naval Demolition Party (that had planned to sail it home, but unfortunately not told anyone of such plans) sank the 9,780ton refrigerated fish-factory ship, the Hamburg.[xi] Tartar managed to make it up to the NDP by finishing off the Persajes and Felix Heumann after they had failed to do so with their charges.[xii] There was slightly more excitement for Bedouin, she chased the Norwegian coastal steamer the Mira. She fired a warning shot but the Mira didn’t stop as a German officer was holding a pistol to the Captain’s head.[xiii] Bedouin’s next two shells hit Mira’s bow and boiler room, stopping and sinking her; at this point Bedouin rescued the survivors.[xiv] For Bedouin though the excitement still wasn’t over, as the commandos and ships were withdrawing a German reconnaissance aircraft spotted the force. While it was out of range of their guns, Bedouin managed to jam the aircraft’s sighting radio signal, buying precious time for the force to get away.[xv] A little less than a year later, still in cold waters Somali would again find herself in a close run thing.
It was in January 1942, HMS Somali and her sister ship HMS Matabele were part of the escort of Arctic convoy PQ8, the convoy had almost reached safety, when the merchant ship SS Harmatris was torpedoed by a U-Boat, Kapitanleutnant Hacklander’s U454.[xvi] The SS Harmatris was then taken in tow by HMS Speedwell, a Halcyon-class minesweeper, and as the rest of the convoy was sent ahead to reach port, the two Tribal class vessels were left to escort the tow.[xvii] They were the vessels judged most capable of getting the SS Harmatris and most importantly her cargo to destination. They succeeded but at a loss, in the night HMS Matabele was sunk by another torpedo from U454, and unfortunately only two crew survived.[xviii] Unfortunately this proved to be an omen of things to come in another convoy, taking place in warmer water later that year, success but at a cost.
This convoy was Operation Pedestal, the August 1942 resupply of Malta, which involved not only HMS Somali to represent the Tribal class. In fact the heavy covering group, Force Z, included also HMS Tartar and HMS Eskimo, whilst the primary escort group included HMS Ashanti.[xix] Coincidentally by that time, the last four ships remaining from the pre-war Home Fleet Tribal Flotilla – all four of them would play their parts in the battle, both individually and collectively, for its entire span.[xx]
Conceived out of the failure of Operation Harpoon, Pedestal was the largest convoy operation ever undertaken by the RN; involving a force built around four aircraft carriers, and arguably the service’s two most powerful battleships, the sisters HMS Nelson & Rodney.[xxi] The four carriers though were the real key, and the largest concentration of those vessels the RN had till that point achieved. HMS Furious was transporting spitfires for Malta, but the other three, the still relatively new ‘armoured’ carriers HMS Indomitable & Victorious, and the smaller venerable, but proven, HMS Eagle were loaded to the brim. Between these three ships, they carried a total of forty-six Sea Hurricane fighters, sixteen Fulmar fighters, and ten Martlet MkII (modified F4F-3 Wildcats – the newest, and arguably best fighter the RN were operating at this time), along with a complement of Albacores for torpedo strike.[xxii] This was a significant capability, which would (in theory) provide when coupled with radar interdiction, deterrence, maybe even destruction or disruption of enemy air attacks.[xxiii] The RN were not placing all their ‘eggs in the fighter basket’ though, and the force in addition to the four Trbals, also contained no less than thirty destroyers, seven cruisers, four corvettes and four minesweepers.[xxiv] It was a huge proportion of the RN’s available forces at the time; a level of commitment commensurate not only with the importance of the mission, but also the level of opposition expected.
They would not be disappointed in terms of the opposition; Pedestal would feel the full might of the European theatre Axis powers air arms, along with the debut of some very potent new weaponry. Critically though, thanks to a wider operation, a maskirovka for want of a better phrase, perpetuated by the RN the Italian naval surface units were deterred from interfering.[xxv] This was convoy was therefore a battle which would truly test the ideas of Douhet and the claims of Trenchard.[xxvi] The force would endure two days of constant harassment, threat of battle and all-out attack (see figure 2); but before this even began a stroke of fate, meant that a German submarine, U73, was in the right place, at the right time, and manage to sink HMS Eagle – at a stroke removing a critical unit from the force along with twelve of the sixteen essential Hurricanes she carried.[xxvii] The force carried on though, and soon the real battle began.
|Figure 2. Operation Pedestal, from the map shown on pages 164 & 165 of Britannia Naval Histories of World War II (2013) work ‘Between Hostile Shores’|
The first enemy attack was launched from Sardinia, and arrived just before night fall on the 11th. By this time the convoy was formed up rather like the pre-war exercises had envisaged a battle group; with the merchantmen ships in the middle, replacing battleships, with the latter instead reinforcing the cruisers providing an inner layer of defence, the carriers behind to allow them the freedom of manoeuvre needed to launch or recover aircraft, the destroyers arrayed outside of this providing an anti-submarine/anti-aircraft screen around the whole thing, the only thing missing was the line of scout cruisers.[xxviii] The scout cruisers were in theory to be replaced by aircraft from the carriers and from Malta, as well as a warning line of submarines, in practice the commanders were always unsure what would be over the horizon. This of course had its own impact on the operational thinking, as in terms of surface threats it in effect turned the force into a heavily armed box that could only react to what the enemy threw at it, having not the ability to really interdict and adapt. By doing this though, it freed up the forces aviation component to interdict and react, with a solid base of fire at their back the fighters were able to be that much more aggressive in their engagements. This had the benefit that even though there were few fighters in the Fleet Air Arm’s inventory that really matched the performance of the aircraft they were to be pitted against, they could do their best to put themselves into the most advantageous positions for any engagements.[xxix] The destroyers were the key for this, their manoeuvrability combined with their firepower and numbers were what gave the force its resilience to try all this.
The fighting was fierce, and just kept getting harder, the destroyers fulfilling their role in the thick of it. HMS Somali was fully engaged, but her time to shine in the operation came when she was detached from Force Z (the covering force, which by then were heading back) late on the 12th, along with her sister Eskimo and the Dido class cruiser HMS Charybdis to join the escort force which was running the remaining merchant ships into Malta.[xxx] Both before and after they arrived the convoy was hit hard by E-Boats carrying out a pincer movement.[xxxi] It was during the first attack of the night that HMS Manchester, a Town class cruiser, was damaged – in the second the by then three Tribal class destroyers, Ashanti (by this point Admiral Borough’s flagship), Eskimo and Somali acquitted themselves well[xxxii]. The two Tribal sisters that joined from Force Z were dispatched at dawn to find her, judged the most viable vessels to succeed; unfortunately she was already sunk, but they picked up the survivors from her, as well as from the merchant vessels Almeria Lykes and Wairangi.[xxxiii] Then made their way to Gibraltar independently, surviving an attack by a single Ju.88 which managed to get pretty close to Somali.[xxxiv]
The lessons of Pedestal are many, but perhaps surprisingly correlate strongly with the lessons of Claymour; these operations couldn’t be more different in aim or in resourcing – one being stuffed with as many units as available, the other being kept light and fast. For both though the flexible capabilities of the Tribal class destroyers, as exemplified by HMS Somali, were key force enablers – their general purpose nature allowing them to both be effective solo, as a small group acting independently or as part of a larger task force. For Claymour at Lofoten it meant they could provide the numbers and capability which gave the ground forces the strength (both in terms of design and crew) to make it to the target, the fire support to succeed and the speed to withdraw afterwards. For Pedestal that strength meant they could keep on fighting, their fire power meant they could take on air and sea threats with an almost equal footing; although it can be argued the 4in mount that had replaced the original 4.7in in the X position had boosted anti-air capability at the expense of anti-surface, but these guns were still used against the torpedo boats effectively. Furthermore, it was their speed, their manoeuvrability, which gave them the edge when it came to being redeployed from force to force, positioned where the commanders needed them to be. This was what the Tribal’s had been built for, they were general purpose ships that enabled others to be specialists; the ships commanders could send in when they weren’t sure what the threat would be, or when the threat would be everything. They did this well, for Claymour, for Pedestal, for countless other battles, operations, and engagements which would never be named but were vitally important while they were being fought.
[ii] Brice, The Tribals, Biography of a Destroyer Class, 1971, p
[iii] (TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941)
[iv] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941)
[v] (Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, 2004; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941)
[vi] Smith, Fighting Flotilla; RN Laforey Class Destroyer in World War II, 2010, pp. 49-70 & 222: and, TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5
[vii] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[viii] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[ix] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[x] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xi] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xii] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xiii] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xiv] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xv] (TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xvi] Wadsworth (2009), pp.71-9, Brice (1971), pp.168-70, Evans (2010), pp.88-9, and Woodman (2007), pp.56-9
[xvii] Woodman, 2007, pp. 56-9: The Halycon class were built on very similar lines to the Grimsby class sloop, of which today, HMS Wellington survives on moored the river Thames in London, as the HQS Wellington, she’s painted white and serving as the Headquarters of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners now, but a strong feel of the WWII classes which shared this design still survives (The Honourable Company of Master Mariners, 2016).
[xviii] (Pearson, 2007, p. 22)
[xx] (Brice, 1971, pp. 52-4, 118, 234 & 238)
[xxi] (Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 229-40)
[xxii] (Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 229-40)
[xxiii] (Friedman, 2016, p. 114)
[xxiv] (Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 229-40)
[xxv] (Vian, 1960, p. 98)
[xxvi] (Douhet, 1998; Churchill Archives – Roskill: 7/193, 1968; Churchill Archives – Roskill: 7/197, 1973; TNA – ADM 116/3615, 1933; TNA – Air Ministry: 20/379, 1921-40; TNA – T 161/243 (25613f), 1924/25)
[xxvii] (Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 166 & 229)
[xxviii] (Churchill Archives – Roskill: 7/163, 1964; TNA – ADM 1/17590, 1937-45; TNA – ADM 1/9942, 1939; TNA – ADM 116/3872, 1933-38; TNA – ADM 116/3873, 1937-39; TNA – ADM 186/145, 1929; TNA – ADM 203/84, 1924; TNA – ADM 203/90, 1929; Brice, 1971, p. 53)
[xxix] (Friedman, 2016, p. 114)
[xxx] (Brice, 1971, p. 54; Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 174-5)
[xxxi] (Brice, 1971, p. 54; Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 174-5)
[xxxiii] (Osborne, 2015, p. 103; Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, pp. 174-5 & 180-1)
[xxxiv] (Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, 2013, p. 181)