Warship Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018: Churchill’s best Boxing Day gift
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018: Churchill’s best Boxing Day gift
Here we see the King George V-class dreadnought battleship HMS Duke of York (17) in heavy seas, often captioned as firing her 14-inch guns at the distant German battleship Scharnhorst during the Battle of the North Cape, some 75 years ago today– Boxing Day, 1943. Her broadside of 10 BL 14-inch Mk VII naval guns could throw almost eight tons of shells at once.
Part of a class of five mighty battleships whistled up as Hitler was girding a resurgent Germany, Duke of York was ordered 16 November 1936, just eight months after the Austrian corporal-turned-Fuhrer violated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact by reoccupying the demilitarized Rhineland. Built at John Brown and Company, Clydebank (all five KGVs were constructed at different yards to speed up their delivery), she commissioned 19 August 1941– as Great Britain remained the only country in Western Europe still fighting the Blitzkrieg. What a difference a few years can make!
Some 42,000-tons, these 745-foot long ships were bruisers. Capable of breaking 28-knots, they were faster than all but a handful of battleships on the drawing board while still sporting nearly 15-inches of armor plate at their thickest. Armed with 10 14-inch and 16 5.25-inch guns, they could slug it out with the biggest of the dreadnoughts of their day, possibly only outclassed by the American fast battleships (Washington, SoDak, Iowa-classes) with their 16-inch guns and the Japanese Yamatos, which carried 18-inchers.
Her first assignment, once she was commissioned, was to carry Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill to the United States in mid-December 1941 to confer with London’s new ally, President Roosevelt.
By March 1942, she was active in the Battle of the Atlantic, sailing from Hvalfjord northwards around Iceland to provide distant cover for convoy PQ 12 against the threat posed by German heavy cruisers (Hipper, Prinz Eugen, Scheer), and battleships (Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau) possibly operating from Norway.
With the planned Torch landings in North Africa, in October 1942, Duke of York was sent to Gibraltar as the new flagship of Force H, from where she would lend her might to the Allied effort in the Med.
From there, she was later involved in the Operation Husky landings in Sicily in July 1943, again as flagship. She would end up escorting the Italian fleet to Alexandria, Egypt after their surrender in September.
With no rest for the weary, Duke of York was then again off Norway, this time screening the carrier Ranger on her raids there— the only time American carrier aircraft would strike Europe during the War.
Remaining on-call for convoy escort, Duke of York would be screening JW 55B on the Russian run past Norway when she would meet her biggest boogeyman.
The German battleship Scharnhorst at the time was the only serious naval asset the Kriegsmarine had at the time as Bismarck had been sunk in May 1941, the pocket battleship Graf Spee run to ground in 1939, Scharnhorst‘s sister Gneisenau crippled by a British air raid in 1942, the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in Wilhelmshaven for major overhaul, Tirpitz left nearly condemned after a British X-Craft mini-submarine raid in Sept 1943, and the pocket battleship Lutzow in Kiel under repair until after the new year. The two remaining Hipper-class heavy cruisers were likewise deployed to the Baltic in support of operations against the Soviets.
With that, the epic 11-hour running fight that was the Battle of North Cape stretched out between the guardians of JW 55B (Duke of York along with heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk, light cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica, and the destroyers HMS Savage, Scorpion, Saumarez, Opportune, Virago, Musketeer, Matchless, and HNoMS Stord) and the unescorted Scharnhorst.
While the German battlewagon parted Duke of York‘s hair so to speak with her own 11-inch guns– passing shells through her masts, severing wireless aerials– the British battleship, in turn, used her own radar-controlled guns to get deadly serious with 52 salvos on her opponent, straddling her on 31 of them and inflicting terrific damage.
In the end, it was too much for any ship and Scharnhorst, crippled, blind, burning, and outnumbered 13-to-1, was sunk by a brace of 19 torpedoes fired by the British destroyers Opportune, Virago, Musketeer, and Matchless at near point-blank range. Just 36 of her nearly 2,000-man crew was saved. As far as I can tell, it would be the last significant British surface action to involve battleships.
Admiral Fraser reportedly told his officers after the battle, “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today.”
Given a refit for service in the Pacific, Duke of York would sail in April 1945 for the Far East, arriving in Sydney on 29 July.
She would move to Japanese Home waters for the final push and helped screen Allied carrier task forces in the weeks before VJ Day.
In the end, she was one of 10 Allied battleships— eight American and her sister HMS King George V (41)— in Tokyo Bay during the Japanese surrender ceremony, 2 September 1945.
The above photo was immortalised by martime artist Charles David Cobb
Retiring to Hong Kong, she was present there for the reoccupation of the colony from Japanese forces.
Returning to the UK, Duke of York deployed as Home Fleet Flagship until 1949 then became Flagship of the Reserve Fleet for two years until reduced to Reserve status in November 1951.
Laid-up in the Gareloch, she was placed on the Disposal List and sold to BISCO for scrapping, arriving at Faslane on 18 February 1958, less than 22 years after she was ordered. Her three surviving sisters (sister Prince of Wales was sunk by the Japanese in December 1941 in the South China Sea) were likewise disposed of at the same time.
Displacement:42,076 long tons (42,751 t) deep load
745 ft 1 in (overall) 740 ft 1 in (waterline), Beam: 103 ft 2 in
Draught: 34 ft 4 in
Installed power: 110,000 shp (82,000 kW)
8 Admiralty 3-drum small-tube boilers
4 sets Parsons geared turbines
Speed: 28.3 knots
Range: 15,600 nmi at 10 knots
Complement: 1,556 (1945)
1 x Type 273/M/P Surface search
1 x Type 281 Long range air warning
6 x Type 282 Pom-pom directors
1 x Type 284/M/P Main armament director
4 x Type 285/M/P/Q HA directors
( Radars added between 1944–1945)
2 × Types 277, 282 and 293 radars added.
10 × BL 14 in (360 mm) Mark VII guns
16 × QF 5.25 in (133 mm) Mk. I DP guns
48 × QF 2 pdr 40 mm (1.6 in) Mk.VIII AA guns
6 × 20 mm (0.8 in) Oerlikon AA guns
Main Belt: 14.7 inches
Lower belt: 5.4 inches
Deck: 5–6 inches
Main turrets: 12.75 inches
Barbettes: 12.75 inches
Bulkheads: 10–12 inches
Conning tower: 3–4 inches
Aircraft carried: 4 × Supermarine Walrus seaplanes, 1 catapult
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