In this latest Tribal Class Destroyer article Dr Alex Clarke gives us the story of HMS Eskimo. Many ships loose a bow in their career, especially smaller warships which are involved in the melee; few loose it three times in a career – even in World War II. Such colour certainly serves to make history interesting, although it is not, or rather not just, because of facts like this that led to her selection for this series. HMS Eskimo’s story is so wide an complex that it could not be limited to one part, and when combined with the life of Admiral John Eaton, then it expanded even more and has therefore made itself hopefully the perfect Christmas/New Year series within a series to read.
|Slightly less militant, but no less captivating this is another of the model HMS Eskimo’s that can be procured…|
It was while serving in the Far East, that three of the remaining Tribal sisters, Tartar, Nubian and Eskimo became involved in the appropriately named Operation Irregular, just over a year after their action off Ille de Bas during the D-Day operations.[i] Irregular was an aggressive patrol in the area between Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait, specifically between the Nicobar Islands and Sabang(an island off the coast of Indonesia); an area which was directly in line from the main Indian Ocean base of Trincomalee to Singapore.[ii] The purpose of this mission was to find the enemy, and destroy them so as to prevent resupply of island garrisons; or for that matter any operation of forces, in an area which an amphibious assault force heading for Singapore would have to navigate through.
This the flotilla did, at 05:26hrs on the 12th June 1945, near the island of Rondo (which is just to the north of Sabang), two small radar echoes were detected and six minutes later visual confirmation was made.[iii] Before intercept though, the destroyers engaged and drove off an aircraft, reportedly a ‘Tess’ (a Japanese domestically produced version of the Douglas DC-2 airliner), which alerted the enemy ships to their presence.[iv] This though did not stop the intercept, and at a range of 6,500 yards, at 05:52hrs, the three Tribals opened fire on what proved to be an enemy Landing Ship, Tank (LST), and a sub-chaser of the P.C. 40-44 class.[v] The Japanese vessels tried to run, then they tried to fight, when more enemy aircraft started to appear on the radar the decision was made to use torpedoes as well, and by 06:19hrs, less than an hour after first contact, Eskimo had finished off the LST with torpedoes, while the sub-chaser was despatched with gunfire from Nubian.[vi] By 08:45 the destroyers had managed to lose the aircraft harassing them, a successful mission behind them.[vii]
Operation Irregular is an illustration of how Tribals were able to be used, and how they were used, it wasn’t the only mission accomplished in the Far East by the class. It was a mission without much fanfare. However, if the war had gone on longer, then the operation to recapture Singapore would have been launched. Under those circumstances the softening up and weakening of the Japanese island defenders by the erosion of their resupply/manoeuvre enablers would have severely impeded their ability to defend them. Therefore Irregular could well be said to be the opposite of the German 8th Destroyer Flotilla’s mission in Normandy when the Tribal’s had intercepted them.
Once again it is worth noting how tough, versatile and well used the Tribal destroyers were: even discounting Operational Irregular, with a career like Eskimo’s, she really should have featured in Evan’s Destroyer Downs; An Account of HM Destroyer Losses 1939-1945 (2010). [viii] As has been previously mentioned she lost her bow at the Second battle of Narvik (she lost it for a second time later in the war, in a collision with HMS Javelin), took part in Lofoten raid and the Bismarck affair, received major bomb damage in 1943, sank a U-boat, and battled many ‘light craft’.[ix] Even a bullet point review of her career demonstrates it was one of always pushing her luck in any action that was going; including (along with Ashanti & Tartar) Operation Torch, Operation Husky and Operation Neptune.[x] She was the ultimate proof in many ways of the general purpose nature of the Tribal class design, being used for such a vast array of missions and tasks that she really was the WWII RN’s Swiss army knife destroyer. Eskimo epitomised the fighting spirit associated with the Tribals as had been demonstrated by Sikh at Sirte and Cossack at Narvik. The spirit of resilience, persistence and leadership which were the hallmarks of the class’s service are constant themes of Eskimo’s existence. Although in a class such as this putting one above the others is difficult, as they all achieved so much.
What they achieved though was in part as much down to the crews and leaders who were drawn to them. Philip Vian is the name most often given as an example, but there is another, John Eaton – who is just as deserving of the connection, as he commanded three Tribals during WWII, starting with HMS Mohawk(October 1939-April 1941), the HMS Somali(March 1942 – July 1942) and finally HMS Eskimo(November 1942 – August 1943).[xi] During these roughly twenty two months in charge of Tribal, he fought at Mattapan with Mohawk, Artic Convoys PQ 15 & 17 as well as Operation Pedestal with Somali and with Eskimo he would command the destroyer screen for Force H as part of Operation Torch, led in Operation Retribution and was damaged during Operation Husky. This was though just the middle of his long career in the RN, a career which during its early phases allowed the opportunities for experience that enabled him to achieved commands, and which in its post-WWII phase would both build upon and utilise the experience of command he had acquired with Tribal destroyers.
|HMS Eskimo… with bow intact courtesy of http://www.naval-history.net/Photo10ddEskimo1NPMarkTeadham.JPG|
Born in the township of Hartley, in what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1902, John William Musgrave Eaton spent his childhood years traveling the bush-veldt with his surgeon father who was part of the colonial service. [xii] Although from 7 he was at preparatory school in England, later going to Osborne at 13 to begin his naval training, before Dartmouth and finally the Temeraire, finally joining the battleship HMS Barham in 1919 as a midshipman. [xiii] Apart from this time, three years in submarines, a short period on the battleship HMS Malaya and ending his sea career on HMS Sheffield, he would specialise in destroyers for all his service – as “little ships” were his main interest. [xiv] He was in his own words, “a salt-horse”. [xv]
With all this experience it’s unsurprising that Tribal’s were not Eaton’s first commands, after starting out as a young officer in WWI, he would achieved command in the interwar period, his first vessel being the WWI built ‘W’ class destroyer, HMS Westminster, which was given to him in 1935 – when he’d served nineteen years. This by modern standards would not have been considered an auspicious posting, as Westminster was at that point a reserve ship, still he did well, and in 1936 was given command of the 1930 built ‘B’ class destroyer HMS Boreas, which he would command till 1939. This was an important command, as Boreas was a regular part of the British commitment to the Spanish blockade that was the international community’s response to the Spanish Civil War. It was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, requiring a commander to exercise diplomacy with understanding whilst still enforcing rules with power – it was a constant struggle, not just in terms of dealing with the combatants, but also managing the crew and maintaining moral in what was in many ways a trail blazing operation.[xvi] Eaton’s approach to this task is possibly revealed in an interview he gave years later to Australian radio, in it he states “Four things make up the moral of a fighting service, self-pride, good discipline, good conditions of service and last but not least tradition”, with moral being crucial to the mission, it would seem logical he focused on these touchstones of leadership.[xvii] After doing very well in this duty, it was perhaps unsurprising that with WWII beginning the then Commander Eaton found himself assuming command of HMS Mohawk, becoming the second and last officer to hold that responsibility in her career.[xviii]
Her first commander, Commander Jolly had died after bringing his ship into shore whilst suffering from terrible wounds received during the first German air raid of the UK during WWII. The German planes had managed to get close, as due to reports of RAF planes in the area, the destroyers (who were returning from convoy escort) had held their fire. They were actually inside the Firth of Forth when the attack happened.[xix] Despite a terrible stomach wound, Jolly had stayed awake and in command of his ship for 80 minutes, to get her safely back to shore – this was not out of ego, he had watch as fifteen of his crew were killed and thirty injured, mostly not from bombs but the machine gunning of the upper decks.[xx] The people most exposed had been the executive, or bridge crew, and the fo’c’sle team; there was no one else to take his place so he got his ship to safe harbour through difficult congested waters, before collapsing and being rushed to hospital in South Queensbury where he died five hours later. This was the character of the officer who Eaton had to follow and fill the shoes of.
From his own words we know Eaton was not an orator or given to speeches (although he often had to deliver them especially as he rose he rank, these were always thoroughly prepared, researched, redrafted many times and quite possibly practiced), and as of yet no diaries have been found so how went about successfully assuming command we cannot be certain.[xxi] However, what is certain is that in the case of a crew which regarded themselves as (and were considered by outsiders to be) an elite, as any Tribal destroyer crew did, if Eaton had simply relied upon the authority of uniform his order would have been obeyed, it would not have maintained the esprit de corps which was as important to the class’s success as their design.[xxii] The ship’s subsequent service record is a testimony to that having been maintained though. So the question is how? The answer is not certain because no adequate source is yet known, but there are perhaps some clues, which can offer an insight into how he did so.
Mohawk had been damaged, not severely in comparison to Eskimo at Narvik, but still damaged and most importantly had lost a lot of her executive crew.[xxiii] This would have put extra pressure on her new commander, not only in finding and integrating new officers into the wider crew, but also in doing extra duties normally done by more junior officers till they arrived. This would have allowed him far more opportunity for meeting the crew and going all over his ship than a regular change of command would have facilitated in war time. Furthermore, Eaton his whole life had a reputation for leading from the front, setting the example and encouraging others to live up to it, he was not only good at commanding a team, but at building and maintaining one. Furthermore, if we consider his description of Nelson that he gave in 1953 to the Trafalgar night dinner in Sydney, an insight is offered into his own command style which:
We can learn much from Nelson too in his singleness of purpose. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and would never be deflected from his main purpose by side issues. What is more he was precise and clear in his orders to his subordinates in regard to the accomplishment of that aim. Not that Nelson’s instructions were ever rigid and over detailed. He put his Captains clearly in the picture and left them to use their own initiative. The result was every one under his command knew exactly where they were. That state of affairs is just as important today as it was then. No one ever has any time for a fuss-pot and a man who changes his mind every time the bell strikes.[xxiv]
This is a style of leadership which could sum up the essence of the Tribal crew’s that Eaton and others commanded, ‘no time for fussing… complete commitment to the mission’ – the cost, the risk didn’t matter, what mattered was the objective, the aim was achieved. These were skills which would come in handy when helping to set up NATO many years later, but which in 1939 would have allowed him to forge a new crew from the remains of the old.[xxv] However, he went about it, it was undoubtedly a challenge, but one Eaton rose to, and luckily it seems in short order.
Unsurprising Mohawk was not of action for long, in fact Eaton had barely left the yard where her damage had been fixed on the 14th of December, when his ship, and another destroyer HMS Kelly (also leaving the yard after repairs) were despatched to secure two tankers having trouble off the Tyne.[xxvi] Both tankers were found to have been mined, although at first it was presumed torpedoed, and whilst Eaton proved lucky manoeuvring Mohawk in to rescue survivors, Kelly’s commander was not so blessed. She was caught by a mine herself and put out of action, so Mohawk went back and took her under tow.[xxvii] Luckily she didn’t have to act as tug the full journey home, a proper tug turned up for that, but she continued to escort them both in case of further attack – retracing her route to the shipyard she had just left. In a way though it was an omen of things to come for Kelly, as Mohawk would prove to be her bad omen, in May 1940 when they were assigned together again she would get torpedoed by an E-boat – she survived, but suffered heavy damaged.[xxviii]
For Eaton his time with Mohawk was one of constant action – nineteen months of North Atlantic, North Sea, Norway and Mediterranean; including some rather specialist missions. For example in May 1940 when he took Eaton to shell the Dutch coast so as to prevent the Germans landing transports on the beaches in the Dutch Army’s rear.[xxix] Another being when they recovered British diplomats from The Hague, at the Hook of Holland, whilst part of the force that covered the extraction of the Dutch Royal Family.[xxx] These were just two of the earliest missions of Eaton’s first Tribal destroyer command. Unfortunately though that came to end for Mohawk in spectacular fashion in the Mediterranean, but in a sign of confidence it would be less than a year before the by then Captain Eaton got a new command.[xxxi]
To be continued once more…
[ii] (TNA – ADM 1/30452, 1945; TNA – WO 203/4780, 1945)
[viii] (TNA – ADM 1/15795, 1944; TNA – ADM 1/15791, 1944; TNA – ADM 267/21, 1944)
[ix] (Brice, 1971, p. 123; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940; TNA – ADM 234/509, 1941; TNA – ADM 267/21, 1944; TNA – ADM 1/15791, 1944; TNA – ADM 1/15795, 1944)
[x] (Brice, 1971, pp. 116-26)
[xi] (Brice, 1971, pp. 126, 190 & 234)
[xii] LHCMA – Eaton III
[xiii] LHCMA – Eaton III
[xiv] LHCMA – Eaton III
[xv] LHCMA – Eaton III
[xvi] In terms of previous experience there was perhaps the much shorter Abyssinian crisis, and before that it was the counter slavery patrols off the West Coast of Africa; so the RN really did not have a lot of experience to draw from in terms of how to manage the force and act in the role when conducting what was in effect a de-facto blockade against a nation that Britain was not at war with. As such it was a steep learning curve that required a lot from ships and crews, but perhaps even more so from the officers in command, whom were burdened with trying to implement what was written as a very black and white policy in an extremely grey situation.
[xvii] LHCMA – Eaton I
[xviii] (Brice, 1971, p. 190)
[xix] (Brice, 1971, pp. 179-81)
[xxi] LHCMA – Eaton I, II & III
[xxiii] (Brice, 1971, p. 180)
[xxiv] LHCMA – Eaton I
[xxv] LHCMA – Eaton III
[xxviii] (Brice, 1971, p. 181)
[xxxi] (Brice, 1971, p. 190 & 234)