This is the 4th in Dr Alex Clarke’s series of short papers about Tribal class destroyers, and it’s a really special one to him; HMS Tartar. As it was a book by Ludovic Kennedy outlining his experience of serving aboard Tartar which really pushed him to write these short’s, as it seemed a shame to him that the others in the class hadn’t their own writing. However, there was lots of Tartar’s story that Kennedy wasn’t there for, and whilst she is certainly not the most famous, and she never got to do a ceremony with the Tartar people as HMS Ashanti had with the Ashanti, but her motto was “Without Fear” and she definitely lived up to that.[i]
HMS Tartar would be a Tribal class survivor, but that was by no means ever a sure thing – she operated in every theatre of war and even at one point acted as taxi for Winston Churchill on his return from signing the Atlantic Charter. Covering all her story in anything less than a book would be impossible, but hopefully this selection gives a flavour of the experience, the service and the history that Tartar made, and roughly within the 2000 words which was the challenge.
“When T—– returned to harbour I packed my few belongings, said good-bye to my hosts and to Able Seaman Kelly, whom I happened to pass on the quarterdeck, and climbed down the gangway to the boat. I saw my ship for the first time alongside an oiler. She was a fine-looking vessel, with sloping bows and gracious lines. Her main armament of 4.7-inch guns stood out boldly against the evening sky; the White Ensign fluttered at her mainmast. I thanked God then that I had not been appointed to a drifter or a trawler as many of my messmates at King Alfred and Portsmouth had been. Here was a ship built to attack. Here were power and majesty and beauty; sleek, sharp lines and wicked-looking guns; bows which could cut through the water like scissors through paper; a streamlined bridge from which to command, and to control the power of forty-four thousand horse. Amidships were the tubes housing the ‘tin fish,’ those sinister weapons which speed through the water at forty knots and approach their target unseen, and often unheard.[ii]
This was the first impression of a Sub-Lieutenant Ludovic Kennedy on seeing HMS Tartar for the first time, during WWII.[iii] Her impressive standing living up to the ‘lucky Tartar’ she was christened by her flotilla mates. Probably earning such a moniker because despite taking part in many of the Royal Navy’s most high profile and risky operations, like Operation Husky, she always made it through and kept going.[iv] In fact Tartar’s involvement with Husky is a good point to examine her history from; as it shows so much of the utility the Tribal class, as well as facilities they offered thanks to functionality of their design.
It was D-2 when HMS Tartar joined Force H in a sweep of the Sicilian channel, a sweep which was entirely without incident baring a false ASDIC contact that resulted in a single depth charge being dropped.[v] Testimony to how successfully the RN had sanitized the Mediterranean by that point in the war – the Italian fleet was still around, but ‘mare nostrum’ had, as it had largely been since the battle of Trafalgar, become a decidedly RN body of water.
From D-1 Tartar was on amphibious duty, joining with the ACID assault convoy, on the night of D-Day she escorted in the landing craft, leading them to the correct position – despite the failure to pick up the sonic buoys placed by submarine.[vi] As the landing craft went in two powerful searchlights came on; Tartar immediately engaged them using all her guns to either by fright or by action ensure they were extinguished before they could be of use.[vii] She stayed on station till, providing supporting fire and air cover for the ongoing amphibious operation till D+2. This was until there was an air attack which unfortunately disabled her sister ship, HMS Eskimo; as a result Tartar was tasked with helping her make it to Malta.[viii] All these though were not the most important thing that Tartar did during this operation; and despite its success Husky was important for other reasons beyond its role in the war Mediterranean. It was a proving a ground were lessons were learned, especially key were the lessons it provided for Overlord. The value of these lessons are what make Tartar’s carrying of Major J. Michael Lind, the most important thing it did during the operation and possibly her most important single contribution to the war.[ix]
It was Major Lind’s report which emphasised the need to accustom “by practice to the motion of their craft” the troops who would be used in an assault during training; which would inform a lot of the pre-D-Day training.[x] In addition he recommended that it was necessary that those directing the guns and those firing them from the ships should have met each other in order to be able to better understand each other.[xi] This he drew directly from the experience of HMS Tartar, having watched the gun crews do their best to understand what was needed; when both sides of the conversation were not used to talking to each other. What is interesting, is that was a lesson which was forgotten very soon after WWII was over, and had to be relearnt in the Falklands war in 1982.[xii] Finally Lind enunciates clearly the difficulty of unloading merchant ships, and the potential consequences that would have occurred should the enemy have had more assets to use, especially artillery or aircraft.[xiii] These were all crucial lessons which would have an impact on D-Day, most significantly perhaps is that whilst Dieppe had shown the need for Mulberry, the experience of Husky drummed it in as being a priority that couldn’t wait for a week or even a day – it needed to be ready to go the moment the beaches were secured. This was of course not Tartar’s only involvement in D-Day, as the story of HMS Ashanti explained.[xiv] Furthermore, it was also not her only experience of carrying a very special passenger.
At her next amphibious operation, Baytown (a sort of part/precursor of Operation Avalanche), HMS Tartar was carrying Admiral Cunningham – who after Lind’s report, was interested his own up close assessment of the amphibious operations he was in large part responsible for as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet.[xvi] Tartar was the ideal vessel for this, as a destroyer she could get closer into shore and allow a better view, with her speed she allowed him to cover a wide area, and most importantly the space provided by the Tribal class design meant she could accommodate him and a small staff.[xvii] This report on Avalanche makes interesting reading, especially in light of D-Day, due to the commentary infused and the facts it gives.
Particularly pertinent is how despite having HMS Unicorn (acting in capacity of a Light Fleet Carrier, rather than the maintenance/support ship she had been procured as) and four escort carriers made available to support operations (Force “V”) – units which were in addition to existing two fleet carriers and battle ships (Force “H”) of the Mediterranean Fleet, the Gulf of Salerno was chosen over the Gulf of Geata because single seat fighters could get there from bases in Sicily.[xviii] In reality though, due to the Italian Armistice, Force H spent most of its time either covering the escape of the Italian fleet or providing air defence for Force V; which took the lead in providing essential combat air support.[xix] The problems it brings up with loading of stores, was something which would again be still experienced by naval forces in the Falklands war, although in the case of Avalanche it actually put four Landing Craft Tanks out of action, not just caused endless logistical issues.[xx]
Through all the details though, come as has been said, these little asides from Admiral Cunningham, for example in a section on Gunnery and Bombardment “33. The gunnery lessons learnt in this operation have been applied in operations in 1944 and 1945”, by this point Cunningham was First Sea Lord, the lessons he had drawn from his own observations and the reports of others, he had had time to push through.[xxi] This meant that the experience on Tartar had become all the more important, the first-hand knowledge helped him face the weighty decisions he had to make with more certainty.
HMS Tartar though did not go home after Baytown, and continued to be involved in Avalanche, she with her sister HMS Nubian and the other destroyers of 19th Flotilla were grouped with the 15th Cruiser Squadron into Force “K”.[xxii]. Force “K” was positioned as the ‘Supporting Force’, if there had been a fleet action they would have been recalled to Force “H”, if the assault forces needed fire support they were to charge in firing, basically these ships were grouped together as the ‘forward reserve’. This was of course a role the Tribals were eminently well suited for, and which would describe most of Tartar’s subsequent war experience; although in many ways she had already earned a rest.
This can be said as having been deserved prior to the events of 1943 that have been examined in this piece, Tartar had taken part in the pursuit of the Bismarck, she played host to Winston Churchill on his way back from meeting with Roosevelt for the Atlantic Charter, survived Operation Pedestal, was the destroyer that achieved both milestones of 200 days at sea and 100,000 nautical miles of WWII service first, and it was her crew which boarded the German weather ship Lauenburg to successfully seize it’s valuable codebook that helped crack the German operational signals.[xxiii] Those though are just the highlights of what had been by 1943 a very packed service career, as it had been in fact for all the Tribal class as this series is hopefully highlighting. It continued though. Even after supporting D-Day, Tartar would go on to serve in the Pacific, adding more experience, more duty, more luck in that theatre; and proving her nickname correct, she would do all this and still manage to become one of the only four of the RN’s sixteen Tribal’s to survive WWII.
However, through all these events, all this service, it is very hard to find better examples where the space, strength, and form of the Tribal design would have been better suited or could have been better served the missions she was assigned. It was a base design that had space to adapt and expand, their armament was modified, they were fitted with radar, they constantly getting their engines fixed, but they stayed the Tribal class. The quality of the design was as much about it’s ability to be adapted to the needs of the time, as in the strength it provided in its base form and how that performed in combat.[xxiv] A concept well understood in the 1930s with lessons of WWI, before the phrase “future proofing” had even been coined, and something which lucky Tartar and her sisters throbbed with in every ounce of steel that made their hull and structure stand so proud.
[ii] Kennedy, Sub-Lieutenant; a Personal Record of the War at Sea, 1942, p. 46. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Plevy (Destroyer Actions, September 1939-June 1940, 2008, p11) describes this meeting of Kennedy & HMS Tartar no less elegantly, but slightly differently: “…a little way downstream I glimpsed her for the first time – as sleek and elegant and powerful-looking ship as I have yet seen. From the bow there rose in successively higher tiers A gun, B gun, the convex armoured wheelhouse and – the high point of the ship – the open bridge, some forty feet above the waterline. At the back of the bridge was the foremast with its aerials, aft of that the raked funnel, and the in the waist of the ship the torpedo-tubes. Up again to the pom-pom and X gun and the down to Y gun, the quarterdeck and the stack of depth charges. The whole effect was one of symmetry and grace.”
[iii] Plevy, 2008, p. 11; Kennedy, Pursuit; The Sinking of the Bismarck, 1974; Kennedy, Sub-Lieutenant; a Personal Record of the War at Sea, 1942, p. 46
[iv] TNA – WO 204/7522, Experiences Operation Husky by Major J.M.Lind, 1943
[viii] TNA – WO 204/7522, 1943; Brice, The Tribals, Biography of a Destroyer Class, 1971, p. 120)
[ix] TNA – WO 204/7522, 1943
[xii] Clapp & Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands, 1997
[xiii] TNA – WO 204/7522, 1943
[xvi] Brice, The Tribals, 1971, p. 238; TNA – ADM 199/861, War History Case 7775 (Operation Avalanche), 1945
[xviii] TNA – ADM 199/861, 1943
[xix] TNA – ADM 199/861, 1945
[xx] TNA – ADM 199/861, 1945; Clapp & Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands, 1997
[xxii] TNA – ADM 199/861, 1945
[xxiii] Kennedy, Pursuit; The Sinking of the Bismarck, 1974; Kennedy, Sub-Lieutenant; a Personal Record of the War at Sea, 1942; Brice, 1971, p. 237; Smith, Pedestal, 2002