By now if you’ve read the previous instalments of this series and you will have an idea of its form and purpose, if not then please start with HMS Sikh – the series will as a whole it’s hoped shed some light on the lives and lessons learned of a class of destroyers, built in peace but conceived for war. Now though with this article there will be a change, because the story and especially the death of HMS Gurkha represents an opportunity to examine some wider history, as well as some ongoing lessons and debate – which hopefully serve to illustrate how history, can and should be used, not to predict the future, but to help individuals, governments or nations, better prepare for the futures possibilities and unknowns.
Short of naming a ship, HMS “Come On If You Think You’re Hard Enough” (which can’t be done, because it would be too long and the other ships would laugh at it), it is impossible to get a more battle orientated name than HMS Gurkha. She was named to fight, she was a Tribal class destroyer so it was certainly built to do so, so it is rather unsurprising that fight she most certainly did.[i] The sixth of her class to commission, she preceded all others in death.[ii] Before this though she had had an eventful war, starting in the Red Sea with the rest of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, however with Italy dallying around they were needed at home to assist with convoy duties and Home Fleet operations.[iii]
1940 had started well for Gurkha, she and HMS Nubian, another Tribal class destroyer, had repeatedly engaged in hunting U-Boats without any confirmed success. However, Gurkha was eventually, definitely, successful when partnered with the namesake of the French Le Fantasque destroyer class, Le Fantasque – sinking U-53 on the 21st February.[iv] Less than seven weeks after this accomplishment, whilst escorting the Home Fleet in tempestuous weather, she would meet her fate. At 14:00hrs, on the 9th April, the force came under attack by German Junker Ju-88 and HE-111 bombers, the weather made adequate AA defence difficult, so Ghurkha made the courageous move to alter course so as to attain better results – the new course though took her away from the rest of the screen.[v] This meant that not only was she better able to fire at the aircraft, thereby helping to drive off the attack, it also meant the aircraft were better able to attack her.[vi]
A single bomb struck home aft, causing a 40ft wide hole in the starboard side, causing the aft magazine to flood and fire to break out; soon this lead to 45° list to starboard and the stern was awash. By 19:00hrs she sank, but not before, the Arethusa class light cruiser, HMS Aurora had arrived to rescue her crew, of which 190 survived.[vii] Unfortunately, Gurkha’s loss to air attack, as has been illustrated already with Afridi, was not unusual for these ships[viii]. Although, as the story of the Gurkha highlights, they were actively used to confront the enemy, giving them more chances for victory, but also more chances for loss.
Such action in terms of responding to air attacks was not unusual at the start of the war; the debate had raged, and to extent still does to this day about how best ships, especially groups of ships, should respond to air attacks. The idea behind the aggressive response, was that by moving into the best position for their guns to bear on the targets, like with a surface combatant fight, they would have the best chance to shoot down enemy aircraft. Of course though such manoeuvring was predicated on the belief that the best method for stopping an enemy air attack was to shoot it down. The problem with this action is that such manoeuvring inevitably splits up a task force, moving ships beyond the ranges that they can provide mutual support. The other idea was considered more defensive, it was that the ships should stay together, presenting a joint wall of ‘fire’ that seeks to drive off enemy aircraft as much as it does kill them. This was the idea which ended up becoming the standard thinking, but it is interesting how much the experience of Gurkha and other ships which were lost filtered into this debate.
The first stage of that debate involving Gurkha was of course who was responsible, if any, for her loss – or whether it was just war. In his autobiography, the by then Admiral Philip Vian who had commanded(he was the Flotilla leader for 4th, the Mediterranean Tribal flotilla, Gurkha which belonged to 6th, the Home Tribal flotilla, had been attached for the operation) the destroyers on that day writes:
“One destroyer of the Flotilla, Gurkha, was commanded by a noted gunnery officer, Commander Sir Anthony Buzzard. After years of training, presented at last with live targets, he was excessively annoyed by his inability to hit them, and turned his ship away from the wind and sea, to better the conditions for the control and fire of the guns.
This involved leaving the cruiser screen, and I should have recalled him at once; but in those very early days of air attack on ships, the tactics to be pursued by surface forces were still being worked out, and there was no set policy. Buzzard’s manoeuvre cost him his ship, and very nearly the lives of his crew.”[ix]
From an officer who’s writing and service, suggest candour as their default this is an unusually hedged summation. Perhaps the reason why though is because up until WWII it had been theoretical, no one really knew, despite the many exercises carried out and quantity of ink, let alone air, expounded upon it, what it would be like. Just as with every war previously officers were quickly learning that the theory, the exercises, were all as good training as any could get – but in war, making the wrong decision can lead to a lot worse consequences than a dressing down. It’s worth noting that in the immediate aftermath that the Rear Admiral Destroyers, who had overall authority at the time, wrote:
“8. Captain (D) IV in paragraph 1 of minute II has generously accepted the responsibility for allowing GURKHA to become detached, but his minute was written on the 22nd April by which time all or most of us had realised that to remain concentrated was the best defence against air attack, whereas on the 9th April, when the attack took place this was not generally realised. Destroyers escorting Norwegian convoys when under air attack had often been out of supporting distance from each other and no harm had come to them. I knew this and had issued no instructions on the matter. I do not, therefore, consider that Captain (D) IV, is any more to blame than I am, except for the omission to notice that the GURKHA had detached herself completely as opposed to taking independent avoiding action.”[x]
Commander Buzzard in his own report sighted the maximum angle of elevation of the 4.7in guns as the reason for his manoeuvre; and 4in weapons with a far higher angle would replace X turret later in the war. However, he also claimed he was targeting a four engine bomber type aircraft; something which is disputed due to the fact the only German aircraft of that type, the FW200 Condor didn’t arrive in Norway for another week.[xi] It is though very easy to second guess someone, from peacetime at a distance of many hundreds of miles and fair few decades. It has to be that the decision was made at the time, but thanks to this and other experiences, was not something that would be repeated. Well in theory.
The experience of the Second World War though did not end this debate, it has not even ended today arguably. Most notably it arose again for the RN during the Falklands war; when the missile age brought with it new confidences and new complications. In a very similar scenario, where pickets were spread wide to provide protection against air attack the RN would suffer loss again.
On the 4th of May 1982 HMS Sheffield was one of the pickets put up threat to provide protection for the main force; she was deployed 20 miles up threat from the carriers, spread out in a long arc with two other Type 42 destroyers.[xii] Sheffield was the southernmost picket, and furthest from the Harrier Combat Air Patrol (CAP) which was positioned further up threat. Behind this line of pickets was another screen of five warships, providing a further AA screen and an Anti-Submarine screen; and the carriers themselves were each accompanied by a Type 22 ‘minder’, although of course Invincible had the same Sea Dart missile system fitted that the Type 42s carried.[xiii] A further passive defence for the carriers had been provided by the position a line of replenishment ships between the carriers and the screen. This was therefore a fairly comprehensive force arrangement.
Even with such thought though things do not always go to plan, the weakness of this force was that with no airborne radar to provide early warning, it was in many ways a relatively ‘higher tech’ version of the force Gurkha had been in WWII. They were forced to make extensive use of the Type 42’s radar in order to maintain an air defence image; something which also served to narrow down, although not necessarily reveal, the position of the task force to the Argentinians. So the enemy attack when it came, came in very low and very fast; low so as to try to get under the radars, and fast so as to get maximum time before the CAP could be directed to intercept. The Argentinian attackers were lucky, there had only been a fleeting detection of the Super Etendards before they launched their Exocet missiles. By coincidence firing when Sheffield was using its UHF communication system, when her own Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system was being disrupted and so she didn’t pick up on the launch. This meant virtually no warning from her own systems, no ability to do anything, and with only the Sea Dart system plus a 4.5in gun, Sheffield really didn’t have anything to do much with.
The lessons that are able to be drawn from the 4th of May are many, just as Gurkha’s loss teaches that ships should stay together in order to provide mutual support, the loss of Sheffield highlights the importance of airborne radar, and of close in protection. It’s no coincidence that after the Falklands war the Type 42s gained a pair of Phalanx self-guided automated gun systems, and the Sea King Mk7 with its radar bag entered service. Longer term it is no surprise that the successor class, the Type 45 destroyers have not only retained the Phalanx systems, but have gained a more comprehensive missile fit. Carrying both an area defence system like the Sea Dart, called Aster 30, and what is called a point defence system, a shorter range/faster reacting missile, called Aster 15 – both in service under the Sea Viper name designation. Giving each vessel in the class in effect, three organic layers of defence. The need for such complimentary systems, was realised during the war, and as the pickets had to be pushed out further to protect not just the carrier battle group, but also the amphibious operations around San Carlos and land operations ashore it led to its own affirmative experience.
The 25th of May, Argentina’s National Day – the RN were expecting trouble and so Admiral Woodward (commander Carrier Battle Group) and Commodore Clapp (commander Amphibious Task Group) prepared their forces as best they could. This included deploying what was termed a ‘Type 42/22 Combo’, the idea being the Sea Dart equipped Type 42 provided area defence and the Sea Wolf equipped Type 22 provided point defence. This ‘combo’ was position in the northern approaches to Falkland Sound, according to Admiral Hill providing three positive operational benefits; warning forces in the landing area of any impending attacks, engaged opposing aircraft either entering or leaving the landing area, and it was hoped they draw fire from both the landing area and the carrier battle group.[xiv]
They were very successful in the third positive, with the Argentines quickly spotting them, and despatching six sky hawks to attack – two had to turn around due to mechanical issues, but four continued on. This though is where the lack of peace time practice starts to show. The aircraft were detected in good time, but instead of letting the CAP intercept, HMS Coventry ordered them off and elected to engage with Sea Dart. Unfortunately the Sea Dart missiles missed; which meant it should have passed to the Sea Wolf. However, the earlier misfortune was compounded by the automatic targeting mode of the Sea Wolf system on HMS Broadsword. getting confused[xv] This meant they had to switch to manual, but as they did the evasive manoeuvring of Coventry blocked them. In a run of bad luck, following what was perhaps an over confident decision, three of four bombs dropped by the attackers hit Coventry causing her to capsize and sink in a little over a minute.[xvi] Perhaps to balance all this bad luck, Broadsword actually had a bomb pass through it, without going off an incredible fluke of good luck.[xvii]
Again parallels can be drawn with Gurkha, the confidence of a commanding officer in his weapons, leading to an action which in hindsight can be judged as not having been fully thought through. In the case of Gurkha it manoeuvring for a better firing position, in the case of Coventry it was confidence in the effectiveness of the ‘combo’. Confidence is good, but reality happens, the whole point, and principle lesson, about the layered defence is not to let enemies skip a layer – because even if it doesn’t stop an attack, it will weaken it, making it easier for the subsequent layers to stop it.
Air defence at sea has always, and will in all probability always be a complex task; in order to be successful it requires a multitude of factors to be correctly balanced. Leadership and training are key, but so is an appropriately deployed layered sensor and defence network – which means not only are the systems fitted to ships important, but so are the number of ships. It is difficult to think of the RN achieving the number of pickets today with its total force six Type 45s and thirteen Type 23s, that it did with the single Type 82, two Counties, five Type 42s, four Leanders, two Rothesay, two Type 22s and seven Type 21s that it was able to deploy as part of the Falkands War task force.[xviii] Yes the modern ships are better; but HMS Gurkha, just as HMS Sheffield & Coventry were, was amongst the best destroyers available in the world – the difference was that the RN started WWII with sixteen Tribal class vessels; so if it lost one it was more absorbable. A good thing, because the RN would lose twelve of its Tribals by 1942, many too air attack.[xix] Just as with the Type 42s, which lost two of their number in the Falklands, the Tribals loses can in part be explained because of their quality; they were the best available, and so they were what was sent, as they were the most likely to succeed given the scale of the tasks being asked of them. However, in the case of Gurkha it wasn’t quality of vessel, capability of crew, but development of theory in the face of experience; the theory proved wrong.
Consequently, although Gurkha was the first loss, the lessons learned in her loss were key to preventing the loss of others, including her sister ships on subsequent occasions; just as the losses in the Falklands have provided lessons. The problem with these lessons though is implementing them in a force which is increasingly shaped in size not by military, political or geopolitical factors, but by often short term economics. Something which can only be sustainable as long as governments get to choose the wars they fight, rather than getting them foisted upon them or even just having to react to deter them.
[ii] TNA – ADM 1/12287, 1942; Brice, 1971, pp. 128-9; TNA – ADM 187/7, 1940
[iii] Naval-History.NET, 2011 – http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-10DD-34Tribal-Gurkha1.htm
[iv] Brice, 1971, p. 128; Vian, 1960, p. 37
[v] Brice, 1971, p. 128; Vian, 1960, p. 37
[vi] Vian, 1960, p. 37
[vii] Friedman, 2010, pp. 156-62 & TNA – ADM 1/12287, 1942
[ix] Vian, 1960, p. 37
[x] Naval-History.NET, 2011 – http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-10DD-34Tribal-Gurkha1.htm
[xi] Naval-History.NET, 2011 – http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-10DD-34Tribal-Gurkha1.htm
[xii] (Hill, 1988, p. 102)
[xiii] (Hill, 1988, p. 102)
[xiv] (Hill, 1988, p. 105)
[xv] (Hill, 1988, pp. 105-6)
[xvi] (Hill, 1988, pp. 105-6)
[xvii] (Hill, 1988, pp. 105-6)
[xvii] (Hill, 1988, pp. 98-109)
[xix] Evans, 2010