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.
|HMS Eskimo taking part in Operation Pedestal|
Captain Eaton’s new command was HMS Somali, and he assumed it just in time for taking part in convoy PQ15.[i] Artic convoys are legendary for a reason, there was not a single ‘easy one’ – fighting the German forces was often secondary to fighting the forces of Mother Nature. Which could not be eluded or defeated, only endured. For Eaton though this was more than just a challenge of his crew leadership skills, Somali was the flotilla leader, and he combined the role of Captain of ship with command of the flotilla or Captain(D) as it was known in the RN parlance of the time. In comparison to other convoys PQ15 was though relatively straightforward, although this did not mean it was without incident, in fact one involved Eaton personally – as remembered by John Buckeridge, the flotilla signal officer:
“The Germans operated long range aircraft which circled the convoy out of the range of our guns, homing the torpedo bombers and U-Boats on to the convoy. They were seldom able to make a surprise attack as we kept watch on their frequencies and could estimate within minutes when the attack was due, based on the build-up of their transmissions. This was a godsend as it meant that action stations need not be sounded until just before the whistle went. An interesting moment occurred when I reported to Captain D in his sea cabin that the time had come, and found that something was on fire. The ‘something’ was me – I was wearing a heavy kapok suit and had leant against his radiator. As the attack came in D was wrapping his flaming signal officer in a blanket.”[ii]
It was the events though before this rather unique and unintended version of shooting the messenger went on which had made PQ15 ‘straightforward’ passage possible; events which illustrate how important Narvik had been. These events had happened to QP11, the return convoy which had left Russia a little before PQ15 left for Russia. This convoy had faced significant surface attacks, attacks which caused the loss of the Town class cruiser, HMS Edinburgh (HMS Belfast’s batch sister).[iii] Although the final blow was actually given by a British destroyer so that the enemy couldn’t board her… the Germans had failed to do this, because they’d mistaken minesweepers for destroyer, categorising them in order of threat Tribal, Jervis, F or H classes and one American.[iv] These Germans had felt comfortable attacking a cruiser, but a Tribal class destroyer, with friends, was a justifiable reason for withdrawing. As for PQ15 straightforward did not mean safe, there were still air attacks which sank three merchant ships and submarines to contend with, but it was the weather and ‘friendly fire’ which accounted for the loss suffered by the escorts.[v] HMS Eskimo & Somali’s sister ship, HMS Punjabi collided with the battleship HMS King George V and was sunk.[vi] From then on though the operations of Somali under Eaton’s command only got harder, including the legendary for all the wrong reasons PQ17 and Operation Pedestal in the Mediterranean; her crew, her captain, her flotilla would get through it all in style.
It was wearing though, Eaton had been from one battle to the next, one responsibility to the next, and it is very plausible that the claim in Brice’s work The Tribals, that he was relieved on the 30th of July 1942 due to illness is correct.[vii] Information on this is scarce though, all that is known is that when Somali sank less than two months later, on 24th of September 1942, during PQ18, she was commanded by Lt Cdr Maud, who had relieved a Cdr Currey only a little more than three weeks previously.[viii] His time in the artic though left an indelible impression on Eaton, often using it provide the imagery to back up his point, for example:
“One is tempted to think perhaps that the machine plays the most important part. I don’t believe that. On the front page of the Naval War Manual, a publication which deals with the war at sea in all its aspects, is a photograph of a sailor, cold and tired but alert, peering through his binoculars at the misty horizon of the arctic sea, from the corner of the ice covered bridge of a destroyer. Underneath the photograph is written ‘The greatest single factor’. How true that is. The greatest singe factor in the winning of wars is still ‘The Man.’”[ix]
It was hardly much longer than Eaton was back at sea, in command of another flotilla and another Tribal destroyer, Eskimo.[x] During his time with Eskimo, as was said in Part II, he played an important role in Operation Husky – an operation covered in more detail in Tartar’s story.[xi] Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa is well known, and besides Operation Retribution is far more revealing of Eaton and of the style of officer the RN encouraged in its destroyers in the 1930s, a style which reached its zenith in the Tribals.
Militarily, Operation Retribution was a flop, the enemy didn’t show up – to use a modern analogy it was the taking of Casterly Rock in Game of Thrones.[xii] All normal rules of war said that the Axis forces must seek to evacuate their remaining troops from Tunisia. That when the light forces prevented the merchant ships from getting through, the Italian Battle Fleet must sally forth to attempt to blast a passage. After all this is what Britain had done at Dunkirk, had done for their forces deployed to Norway and Crete; to the British mind not going to retrieve those soldiers was an anathema. Perhaps it was the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy, total war as was fought in the world wars requires total commitment, but perhaps in a democracy troops could not be so easily sacrificed, as the support of the electorate matters that much more directly. Whatever the case, the big battle didn’t happen, but the operation did.
“I regret that this patrol did not yield more substantial results, but I feel it was of high nuisance value and strongly discouraged enemy yachtsmen”
Eaton’s diarised remarks above illustrate some the frustration felt by the officers involved.[xiii] Even though the patrol captured several useful prisoners, including Chief of Staff of a Panzer division, it was not the battle, not the prize they yearned for. [xiv] To officers like Eaton therefore, no matter what success achieved, it was a disappointment. As an operation therefore in many ways it was a rerun of the Spanish Civil War, lots of hurry up, lots of picking up people in small boats and not much action of the sort expected.[xv] It was again therefore an issue of maintaining moral, and rather than the words of Admiral Cunningham on commanding the operation, “Sink, burn and destroy. Let nothing pass.” it was a case of patrol, engage and pick up.[xvi] While the desire might have been for more action in Operation Retribution, in the next operation Eskimo and her flotilla were involved in Eaton will have been wishing for as little as possible.
Between Operation Retribution and Operation Husky, Eaton’s Flotilla was charged with a very special mission, escorting the Arethusa class light cruiser HMS Aurora or rather her special cargo.[xvii] Aurora was carrying King George VI, who had decided to visit the George Cross Island, Malta.[xviii] This was important, and whilst Admiral Cunningham had by this point (June 19th-21st) declared the Mediterranean safe – that safe was relative, and when it came to the King’s safety, nothing less than the best was going to be called for, Eaton and his flotilla were the best Cunningham had.[xix] The mission went off without a hitch, leaving Tripoli, the King spent a day touring the island, before returning to Tripoli overnight. Having disembarked the King, the force returned to Malta to take part in Operation Husky.
Operation Husky was the end of Eaton’s time in command of Tribals, after it was over he was given staff appointments co-ordinating destroyers and operation planning for the rest of the war, only getting command of the Town class cruiser HMS Sheffield after the war was over.[xx] The ‘Nelsonian’ approach to command as discussed in the previous section, is revealed in the standing orders he issued while captain, for example:
“The Duties of the P.C.O. and O.O.W. at Sea
The presence of the P.C.O. of the Watch on the Compass Platform does not relieve the Officer of the Watch in any way of his responsibilities for the safety of the ship or of his general duties as laid down in K.R. and A.I., Chapter 32.
2.- at the same time the Officer of the Watch will appreciate that the P.C.O. is an officer of greater experience and he should take advantage of his advice during such times as he may be present.
3.- The P.C.O.’s primary responsibility is with the armament and readiness of the ships for action according to the degree of readiness ordered. His is to recommend to me any changes in the latter that he thinks the situation warrants.
4.- The P.C.O. should not normally interfere with the functions of the O.O.W., but by virtue of his presence on duty on the bridge is authorised to take charge of the ship in a navigational emergency should he deem it desirable. In so doing it is to be understood that with the first order he gives for the handling of the ship he has automatically assumed the role of O.O.W. with the responsibilities so entailed. The subsequent return of the deck to the previous O.O.W is only to be effected when the danger or emergency has passed.
5.- The O.O.W. must remember, however, that the P.C.O. is not always on the Compass Platform itself. The O.O.W. therefore must not assume that in every emergency the P.C.O. will take charge.
6.- The situation is somewhat different in cases where, in the opinion of the P.C.O., the manoeuvring of the ship is required in order to develop a maximum offensive or defensive efficiency (e.g. the starting or stopping of Zig-Zags, alterations of course to avoid a torpedo, altering course to open A.A. ‘A’ arcs, etc.). On such occasions the P.C.O. is to act as the Commanding Officer for the time being until I am on the Bridge; and the O.O.W. is to conform accordingly.
7.- In either of the cases above I am to be informed immediately of the P.C.O.’s assumption of the powers referred to.”[xxi]
These are clear instructions that provide a very effective frame work for officers. It defines both the roles of junior and senior officers, the relationship and their responsibilities to each other. However, it is in no way prescriptive – it doesn’t require the O.O.W to ask the P.C.O. what do in an emergency, in fact it encourages them to act on initiative and if available use the P.C.O. as a source of advice/information. Furthermore it doesn’t require the P.C.O. to take charge, but again gives him the authority to act if on his initiative he judges it necessary. This is therefore not only encouraging officers in plain language to use their initiative, but it is a visible declaration of their Captain’s trust in them doing so. It continues on through a similar vein of the duties of the navigation officer ect, but it’s how it ends that really sets the tone, typed in all capitals long before the age of texting decided that was shouting:
“I WISH TO IMPRESS ON ALL P.C.O.’S AND O.O.W.’S THAT I DON’T MIND HOW OFTEN I AM CALLED OR HOWEVER TRIVIAL THE MATTER MAY APPEAR TO BE. ALWAYS CALL ME WHEN IN THE SLIGHTEST DOUBT OR DIFFICULTY. IN THE EVENT OF EMERGENCY RING THE BELL TO MY SEA CABIN – IN OTHER CASES USE THE VOICE PIPE” [xxii]
A summation perhaps of Eaton’s entire leadership style, ‘if you need me, call me’; it’s also another act of trust, he has faith in his officers that they won’t call him unless he’s needed – otherwise he’d never get any sleep, but they will call him when’s he’s needed. For this officer though Sheffield was to be his last ship, but not his last command.
To be continued once more…
[i] Artic convoys have a simple naming system, in the first Series PQ were to Russia, QP away from Russia; in the Second it JW and RA. However, that did not mean that PQ15 was therefore the 15th convoy to Russia of the War, in fact it was the 16th, thanks to there being both a PQ7A & a PQ7B, the combining of PQ9 & PQ10 and the running of Operation Dervish.
[ii] (Kent, 2004, p. 136)
[iii] The Story of HMS Edinbugh’s last battles illustrates well the focus there was on QP 11, this focus was what gave OP 15 its ‘straightforward’ run. HMS Edinburgh was not alone escorting QP11 – in addition to her there were destroyers, HMS Beagle, HMS Bulldog, HMS Amazon, HMS Beverley, HMS Forester and HMS Foresight along with corvettes HMS Campanula, HMS Saxifrage and HMS Snowflake, along with some Russian Destroyers. This was not the strongest group, and considering what was found out later, significantly there was neither a Tribal nor a “J” class in attendance to strengthen the destroyers/supplement Edinburgh. This had the consequence that despite carrying an important load herself (Gold from Russia to pay for American weapons), on the 30th of April, due to alerts of enemy activity (primarily an intercept of a U-Boat sighting report) Vice-Admiral Bonham-Carter & Captain Faulkner had taken Edinburgh 16/20miles ahead of convoy, where she zigzagged at highest speed possible in the sea state whilst maintaining a lookout for enemy activity. This was a very exposed and risky position for a cruiser to be in, especially alone with no destroyer to support it, but as has been said options were limited; and the RN has always understand, possibly more than any other navy, that warships are built by the state to be risked, if the operation is necessary then the risk is justified. At 16:07 Edingburh’s luck ran out and she was engaged by U-456 (Kapitanleutnant Max Tiechert) after it had stalked her for four hours. Three torpedoes were fired, two hit starboard side, one abaft the bridge within the area covered by the armoured belt, the second to the rear where there was no armour. U-456 didn’t press the attack, and despite being damaged (later losing the stern beyond “Y” turret as well as the two inner propellers), listing heavily, she survived and aimed herself for Kola inlet – Forester, Foresight and the Russian destroyers were detached to assist her getting there. This little force was eventually joined by a Russian tug and some RN minesweepers, HMS Gossamer, HMS Harrier, HMS Hussar and HMS Niger, it was with her efforts, as well as those of the two destroyers that good progress was made and Edinburgh was, despite air attacks, well on way when at 06:00hrs on the 2nd of May 3 German destroyers appeared out of the mist. These vessels were Z7 Hermann Schoemann (a 1934A type), with Z24 & Z25 (both 1936A types), a very capable surface force, attacking when the Russian destroyers were away for fuel – yet still with those advantages they did not have the attack their own way. They actually got repeatedly driven off, with even HMS Edinburgh firing – and successfully to, in fact the Hermann Schoemann was sunk by fire from her “B” turret, the fire of which was being directed by Captain Faulkner shouting at Lieutenant leaning out of a turret hatch from the bridge. However, such success did not last, and eventually at 06:52hrs, four torpedoes were launched at her – she dodged two, the third passed aft, but the fourth hit opposite where the first of U-456’s successful torpedoes had struck. The damage mounted again and this time there was no chance, so two minesweepers were called alongside, and between them Gossamer and Harrier, managed to get off 800 personnel. Still though Edinburgh wouldn’t sink, Harrier tried (under orders from Bonham-Carter) to hasten her end with 4in shells and depth charges on shallow settings. This though didn’t work. So in the end, Foresight, her erstwhile protector and savior was called upon to render the blow with her last torpedo. This fourth such weapon to hit her proved the final blow, and upon its impact she rolled over to starboard before sinking stern first beneath the waves. The end to a very valiant ship. (McCart, 2012, pp. 262-70; A Naval Staff History, 2007, pp. 24-6; Friedman, 2010, pp. 178-85 ; TNA – ADM 1/9360, 1933; TNA – ADM 1/9390, 1936)
[iv] (A Naval Staff History, 2007, p. 25)
[v] (Brice, 1971, p. 233)
[vii] (Brice, 1971, p. 234)
[ix] LHCMA – Eaton I
[x] November 1942 (Brice, 1971, p. 126)
[xii] (Roskill , 2011; Brice, 1971, pp. 118-9; Eisenhower, 2011; Tomblin, 2004, pp. 119-21)
[xiii] (Brice, 1971, p. 119)
[xvi] (Brice, 1971, p. 118)
[xvii] (Brice, 1971, p. 119)
[xix] (Eisenhower, 2011; Roskill , 2011; Brice, 1971, p. 119)
[xx] LHCMA – Eaton III
[xxi] LHCMA – Eaton I
[xxii] LHCMA – Eaton I