Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Battleships are cool (an occasional series)

HMS Warspite (pennant number 03) was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship of the British Royal Navy. She was launched on 26 November 1913 at Devonport Royal Dockyard. She was, and is, one of the most famous and glamorous of names in the Royal Navy. Warspite would, during World War II, gain the nickname "The Grand Old Lady", after a comment made by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham in 1943.

Warspite, and the rest of the class, was the brainchild of two men. One was Admiral Sir John 'Jackie' Fisher, who was First Sea Lord when the first all big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought, came into existence. The other was Winston S. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who was paramount in getting the Queen Elizabeths off the drawing board and into the water; but he was also influenced in a number of decisions about the Queen Elizabeths by Lord Fisher, who had been persuaded to come out of retirement by Churchill.

In 1916, Warspite, and the rest of the 5th Battle Squadron, were temporarily transferred to David Beatty's Battlecruiser Force. On 31 May, Warspite took part in her first, and largest, engagement in her career, the Battle of Jutland. Warspite received fifteen hits from main armament guns of the German capital ships, which resulted in considerable damage, so that she came close to foundering. Her steering jammed after she had attempted to avoid collision with her sister-ship Valiant. Her captain decided to stay on course, in effect going round in circles, rather than stop and reverse, a decision that would have made Warspite a sitting duck. These manoevres saved Warrior, for the Germans switched their attention from the badly damaged cruiser to the more tempting target of a battleship in difficulty. This gained her the eternal affection of the crew of Warrior, who believed Warspite's actions were intentional. The crew finally regained control of Warspite after two full circles, though the actions undertaken to stop her circling had the negative aspect of potentially taking her straight towards the German High Seas Fleet.The rangefinders and the transmission station were out of order and only "A" turret could fire, but under local control all 12 salvos fell short of their target. Midshipman Herbert Annesley Packer was promoted and mentioned in dispatches for his command of "A" turret. The Warspite was no longer a fighting force and therefore the order was given for Warspite to stop to allow repairs, after which she was underway once more. Warspite would, after the Battle of Jutland, be plagued with steering problems for the rest of her service life.

During the battle, Warspite suffered fourteen killed and sixteen wounded; among the latter was warrant officer Walter Yeo, notable as one of the first men to receive facial reconstruction via plastic surgery[4]. She sailed, despite considerable damage, for home after being ordered to do so by Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, commander of the 5th Battle Squadron. On her journey home, on 1 June, she came under attack from a German U-boat which unsuccessfully fired two torpedoes at her. A second attack occurred soon after, with another torpedo launched but again missing. Only a short while after that incident, Warspite confronted a U-boat directly in front of her; she attempted to ram the U-boat but failed. She safely reached Rosyth, where her damage was repaired.

During the summer of 1940, Warspite was transferred to the Mediterranean theatre and fought in several engagements. During the Battle of Calabria she was credited with achieving the longest range gunnery hit from a moving ship to a moving target in history. This was a hit on the Giulio Cesare at a range of approximately 26,000 yards (see also the Scharnhorst, which scored a hit on the Glorious at approximately the same distance, in June 1940).

From 27 to 29 March, 1941, Warspite took part as the flagship of Admiral Cunningham in the Battle of Cape Matapan, in which three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk in a night action

On 21 April, 1941, still under Cunningham's command, Warspite along with battleships Barham and Valiant, as well as the cruiser Gloucester and various destroyers, attacked Tripoli harbour.

Warspite also took part in the naval portion of the Battle of Crete, where she was badly damaged by German bombers.

Warspite's sister ships were all sunk or heavily damaged during their time in the Mediterranean. HMS Barham was torpedoed and sunk by a submarine, and Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both spent time resting on the bottom of Alexandria harbour after their hulls were holed in an attack by Italian frogmen. Warspite stayed afloat but was damaged several times. On 6 June 1944, Warspite took part in the Normandy Landings as part of the Eastern Task Force, firing on German positions to cover the landing at Sword Beach. She subsequently supported the Americans on their beaches. "X" turret, badly damaged by the FX 1400 attack, remained inoperative. She also helped support Gold Beach a few days later. Her guns worn out and she was soon sent to Rosyth to be regunned. On the way, she set off a magnetic mine, causing heavy damage, but made it to Rosyth safely. She received only partial repairs, enough to get her back into action for bombardment duties.

After repairs, she bombarded Brest, Le Havre and Walcheren, the latter of which was an assault on that island which began on 1 November, with Warspite providing support for the troops, in what was to be the last time she fired her guns. Largely inactive since Walcheren, Warspite was placed in Category C Reserve on 1 February 1945. Following the end of the war, there were pleas to retain Warspite as a museum ship like Lord Nelson's HMS Victory, but they were ignored and the ship was sold for scrap in 1947.

On the way to her scrapyard, after already experiencing trouble on the journey to the breakers due to a storm, she broke free of her anchor, subsequently running hard aground in Prussia Cove and she was towed to St. Michael's Mount, where the ship had to be scrapped in situ over the next few years.

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