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 is a destroyer which has captured more than historians imaginations, model makers seem rather keen to, and as a bonus provide captivating artwork that helps historians|
HMS Eskimo had a long war, she had joined 6th Destroyer Flotilla (6th DF) the Home Fleet Tribal destroyer flotilla just in time for the 1939 combined fleet exercises at Gibraltar – where the RN tried to buy time for diplomacy in the traditional way, by highlighting the strength of the fleet.[i] After Easter leave, she with her sisters Ashanti and Matabele on a good will visit to Cherbourg, again Royal Navy (RN) diplomacy at work – although this was more about the soft power building of relationships, than the hard power display that had happened at Gibraltar.[ii] After this her continued its activity unabated, Eskimo was involved in the Thetis disaster, and almost fought a battle with HMS Faulknor, Foxhound and Firedrake during a night passage to Scapa Flow in September 1939 – with her draw to action, it’s unsurprising she was there when the first air raid took place on the 17th of October.[iii] Action of course didn’t stop there, and after a winter of patrols, convoys and maintenance she was refitted just in time for the Norway campaign.
When discussing Norway and destroyers, there is one word which almost always gets the most discussion, Narvik. There were three battles, in one the Norwegians were overwhelmed, one ended in a draw with the RN losing some good ships, and one ended in annihilation with the Kriegsmarine literally beaching destroyers so their crews could run away, the Tribals were involved in the third.[iv] So far though, Narvik is something this series has skirted, largely because it is examined in detail in the journal article which this research first produced, and which is still going through the submission/editing/publication process – but the story of Eskimo cannot be told without discussing the first time she lost a bow in combat.[v] Which means Narvik must now be examined; so please forgive any ‘gaps’ they will not be pertinent to Eskimo’s story, but are left so that the reviewers smile kindly on the journal article.
Eskimo was one of three Tribal class destroyers that were deployed as part of the British Task Force, centred on the Queen Elizabeth class battleship HMS Warspite, they were a third of the nine destroyers that made up the force’s majority – in numbers if not displacement.[vi] Narvik in all its battles, was dirty, fast and hard – they were destroyer fights, battles which if replicated by men in armour on horseback would not have looked out of place during the hundred year’s war. The problem for the Germans was that these were the battles for which the Tribal class had been built for. They were the fighting cover to allow their more conventional destroyer sisters to get close enough to launch that massed torpedo attack that according to theorists of the age would decide a battle. So for the ships of this class the swirling mixture of smoke, metal and fire was their metier. Eskimo was at the forefront of all this, so much so that she lost her bow, in fact her whole front forward of “B” gun position, although the proverbial Monty Python Black Knight she kept on fighting.[vii]
In contrast to this forwardness Eskimo had been the last to join the force as it was being amassed, and almost immediately took up a station in the starboard line (relative to Warspite), with her sisters Punjabi and Bedouin (Cossack was in the port line, with two non-Tribal destroyers, Kimberley and Foxhound).[viii] During transit these lines were closer into the battleship, but once Ototfiord was reached they were thrown forward for optimum offensive position. First blood went to Eskimo and her sisters in the starboard line, thanks in large part to Warspite’s swordfish aircraft – which had spotted the Erich Koellner loitering with intent just inside the entrance of Ballengenfiord.[ix] This turned a potential ambush, into an outmatched duel. The three Tribals guns enveloped the Erich Koellner in such fire that it had no chance to avoid the torpedo fired by Bedouin which disabled it, let alone mount a proper return.
The fight continued all the way up Ototfiord, as more German vessels joined the fray only to be forced back under weight of fire – something which more conventional designed RN destroyers could not have achieved in these numbers, but for which the design of the Tribals made them more than capable of. During one part of this phase of the battle it’s similarities to medieval mounted combat stand out most strongly. It was during this period that Eskimo and the Herman Künne veered off from the main fight (the German vessel was most likely seeking to work around the British destroyers and either make a run for the Warspite or the open sea) and pretty much engage in one on one duel.[x] Swirling through the water while blasting away with everything they had, as each sought the advantage, the winning blow, it ended suddenly with Eskimo emerging victorious and the Herman Künne sunk by a torpedo in Herjangsfiord – but the crew of the Herman Künne had certainly acquitted themselves with honour.[xi]
It was after this action that the fight really reached Narvik proper, and it was there that the British destroyers divided almost into two groups, one led by Eskimo’s sister Cossack, rammed its way into Narvik (in Cossack’s case literally), while the other with Eskimo in the lead continued chasing the retreating Germans.[xii] The battle was now it’s final phase, and although Eskimo and her crew didn’t know it, she was surging towards a meeting with a torpedo herself. Surging up Rombaksfiord after the remaining German destroyers, Eskimo, Bedouin, Hero, Icarus and Forester came to the point, two thirds of the way up it, where it narrows suddenly before opening up again. The British destroyers knew it would be a trap, it was perfect for it, but they were still going in.
Eskimo went first, with Forester and Hero following close behind – Eskimo acting in a role for which her class had been built, providing cover so the conventional torpedo orientated destroyers could get closer to the enemy. This she succeeded in doing, shepherding her little force through the narrows and beginning the end of the end of the battle. As with earlier the British destroyers pushed the Germans on under a remorseless hail of fire, with the Germans responding as they could; one of their number, the Georg Thiele had been quickly turned into a blazing wreck, but in a last act of fighting crew, she launched her torpedoes as she rolled over and sank.[xiii] These torpedoes were lucky for the Germans. Eskimo, along with her charges were already avoiding some launched by the Hans Lüderman, and Eskimo was actually in the process of trying to fire her last torpedo when one of the Georg Thiele’s struck her forward.
The torpedo struck as if it was Thor’s hammer, taking off in one go the entirety of Eskimo’s bow section up to “B” mounting, obliterating “A” mounting and its crew. The strength of the design and the Tribal class crews though is revealed in what happened next. Eskimo didn’t stop, she completed her turn, fired her torpedo, “B” mount kept on firing until they had no more ammunition.[xiv] The crew then went to work lightening the upper works especially and shoring up the bulkheads so that they could get Eskimo home. This was the end of the battle, the German ships not sunk by this point had been beached by their crews, and the RN destroyers, as efficient and thorough as ever were busy making sure those were properly wrecked and that no other useful shipping would be salvageable within the fiords. Eskimo didn’t really take part in this, instead managing to pull herself out of the fiord in reverse, before being escorted back to the UK by her sister Bedouin, with two other destroyers, Hostile and Ivanhoe.[xv] So ended Narvik, the most well-known of the WWII Norway campaign destroyer operations.
|These are just some of the photos which illustrate the damage suffered at Narvik by HMS Eskimo – the fact that she carried on fighting, that ‘B’ position continued to engage the enemy is testimony to the strength of the ship and the crew.|
There is though, another operation, which if perhaps not in terms of fighting, certainly in strategic importance should rank alongside Narvik; this is the March 1941 Lofoten raid/Operation Claymore.[xvi] Claymore, like so many military operations conducted in the 20th Century, was about oil – although not the crude stuff, the fishy stuff. Fish oil was a key requirement for many of the munitions and lubricants that the Nazi war machine depended upon, and Lofoten was a critical point in the chain of production for those supplies. It was though a long range gamble, the force would have no air cover, no land aircraft would be in range and no aircraft carriers were available, it would have no ships larger than a destroyer. The force was going to have to be entirely self-reliant, ‘organic’ to use modern phraseology, in operation.
It was for this reason that the Tribals provided 80% of the total fighting force, sporting by this time a 4in Anti-Aircraft gun in place of “X” mounting, they were judged capable of mounting a good defence against anything.[xvii] Although, in deference to the converted passenger ferries acting as infantry landing ships, they were to be supplemented by HMS Legion which had 4in guns fitted in all mountings – making her in theory at least an anti-aircraft destroyer.[xviii] Factually though, the 4in gun was an interesting weapon, as whilst it was orientated for AA work, much the same as the 4.7in the Tribals were armed with was orientated for anti-surface work, it was still a fairly effective general purpose weapon, especially against lighter faster craft such as E-Boats – just as the 4.7in was a fairly effective anti-aircraft weapon, as long as the aircraft weren’t attacking from too close to vertical. This combination of weapons and ships was to prove important to operational success.
Operation Claymore had the potential to cause trouble, even beyond the usual dependence upon allied co-operation; the force would refuel from the War Pindari, at Skalafjorour, in the British ‘occupied’ Danish Faeroe Islands. [xix] More importantly it would be an attack on a key Norwegian industry and if improperly handled had the potential to cause not only reprisals (economic or even worse) on Norwegian civilians by Nazi authorities, but actual deaths at British hands as well with attendant political consequences.[xx] Due to this reason that the rules of engagement were tight; the fact that it was also to be the first major commando raid of WWII and would set the formula for many operations to come, also added to the pressure. To complicate matters the landings were not concentrated, some troops were going to Stamsund on the island of Vestvagoy, to the islands of Henningsvaer, whilst others were dispatched to Svolvaer on Austvagoya and still more to Brettesnes on Stormolla.[xxi] This was by definition therefore a distributed operation, something which in the pre-helicopter assisted era of amphibious warfare was an even bigger risk than it would be today, as there was no quick way to concentrate ground forces should unexpected resistance be met. Those ground force dependence therefore upon the warships supporting them was absolute if such circumstances had arisen.
Luckily that wasn’t put to the test, but such a possibility does make the division of warships very logical, it was Legion which escorted the commandos to stamsund – the attack taking place furthest from the mainland and therefore least likely to have surprises.[xxii] In contrast, the commandos for Hennigsvaer, Svolvaer and Brettesnes were escorted by Eskimo, Tartar and Bedouin respectively – with Somali going from port to port to provide support whilst acting as both naval and military command post, having embarked the Brigadier.[xxiii] It was Somali which actually got the most action of the operation, when she encountered the Kleb, an armed trawler; although the German vessel only managed three shots before being permanently silenced.[xxiv] Bedouin intercepted the unarmed coastal ferry, Mira, however she didn’t stop when ordered to – this was because the officer in charge of the German equivalent of an ENSA (military entertainment unit) put a gun to the head of the ship’s captain.[xxv] So Bedouin had to sink her, then rescued the survivors. Tartar continued the tradition of efficiency established during Narvik, merrily working through the valuable merchant shipping, including the 9,780 ton Hamburg (a refrigerated fish factory ship) which the naval demolition party had fancied as their ride home, but had also forgotten to tell anyone this.[xxvi] Eskimo had nothing to do, even the opposition that had been expected didn’t materialise at the level expected.
This was most true of the air threat, which had been feared the whole way through planning, but in the only materialised at the end when a lone reconnaissance aircraft got in range. However, it never got within range of the task force’s guns, but they didn’t manage to get a report off either as Bedouin jammed their signal.[xxvii] No further aircraft appeared to follow up the sighting and the force made it home successfully. This could have been considered anti-climactic, if it had been a movie script – for real life it was an excellent operation. The weapons had provided confidence to the force, as well as the necessary firepower for all that was needed. The ships, and just as importantly their crews, had proved up the requirements, in a mission which traditionally would have been conceived as a cruiser based operation; but which was judged achievable because of the capabilities of the Tribal class destroyers that made up the force, and most importantly was successful in large part because of those capabilities. Lofoten was definitely not the last time these capabilities would be called upon either, in fact long range independent operations would be a feature of the Tribal class service throughout their war service.
To be continued…
[i] (Brice, 1971, p. 116)
[iii] (Brice, 1971, p. 116)
[iv] (Haarr, 2013; Haarr, 2010, pp. 3-33; Cope, 2015)
[v] (TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[vi] (TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[vii] (TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[viii] (Brice, 1971, p. 90; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[ix] (TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[x] (Brice, 1971, p. 91; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[xi] (Brice, 1971, p. 91; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[xii] (TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[xiii] (Brice, 1971, p. 92; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[xiv] (Brice, 1971, pp. 92-3; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[xv] (Brice, 1971, pp. 92-3; TNA – ADM 199/473, 1940)
[xvi] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xvii] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xviii] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xix] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xx] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxi] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxii] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxiii] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxiv] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxv] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxvi] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)
[xxvii] (TNA – CAB 121/447, 1941; TNA – DEFE 2/140, 1941; TNA – PREM 3/328/7, 1941; TNA – ADM 1/20611, 1947; Brice, 1971, pp. 94-5)