Warship Wednesday, May 27, 2020: The Showboat and the Speedboats
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, May 27, 2020: The Showboat and the Speedboats
Here we see the lead ship of her class of “treaty-era” heavy cruisers, HMS York (90) looming out of the fog in Vancouver, British Columbia, 10 August 1938.
Sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral” class cruisers, York and her near-sister HMS Exeter (68) were essentially cheaper versions of the Royal Navy’s baker’s dozen County-class cruisers, the latter of which were already under-protected to keep them beneath the arbitrary 10,000-ton limit imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Weighing in at 8,250-tons, the Yorks were intended not for fleet action but for the role of sitting on an overseas station and chasing down enemy commerce raiders in the event of war.
York mounted six 8″/50 (20.3 cm) Mark VIII guns in three twin Mark II mounts. Fairly capable guns, they could fire a 256-pound SAP shell out past 30,000 yards at a (theoretical) rate of up to six rounds per gun per minute. Importantly, they carried 172 rounds per gun, up from the 125-150 carried by the preceding County-class, a factor which allowed a slightly longer engagement time before running empty.
Rounding out the cruisers’ offensive armament was a half-dozen deck-mounted 21-inch torpedo tubes and a battery of DP 4-inch guns and Vickers machine guns to ward off aircraft, the latter of which was apparently never installed. Built with overseas service in mind, they could cover 10,000nm at 14 knots. Able to achieve 32.3-knots due to having 80,000-shp via Parsons geared steam turbines, they sacrificed armor protection for speed and magazine space, with just 1-inch of steel on their turrets and a belt that was just 3-inches at its thickest.
As noted by Richard Worth in his excellent tome, Fleets of World War II:
In trimming down the County layout, designers managed to retain several features, though sea keeping suffered. Protection also received low priority; the armor scheme (similar in proportion to the County type) included some advances, but all in all, the Yorks seemed even more vulnerable, especially in the machinery spaces.
Ordered 1926 Build Programme, York was the ninth such RN vessel to carry the name since 1654 and was constructed at Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company, Jarrow. Commissioned 1 May 1930, she was a striking vessel for her age. A true peacetime cruiser.
York’s motto was Bon Espoir (“Good Hope”) borrowed from Edmund Langley, First Duke of York, and she exemplified that for her early career.
For the next decade she would embark on a series of “waving the flag” port visits around the globe as she shifted between North America and West Indies Station to the Mediterranean Fleet. A beautiful ship, she was often the subject of amazing period photos and newsreel footage.
In the summer of 1939, York would receive a new skipper that would see her throughout the war, CAPT Reginald Henry Portal, DSC, RN, a naval aviator turned surface warfare officer who earned his DSC in 1916, “For conspicuous gallantry during a combat with an enemy aeroplane in the Dardanelles.”
Deployed with the 8th Cruiser Squadron on the America and West Indies Station when Hitler marched into Poland in 1939, York made for Halifax and by 15 September was escorting convoys going across the Atlantic from Canada to Europe. Before the end of the year, she would be a part of a half-dozen Halifax (HX) convoys, keeping an eye peeled for German raiders.
By February 1940, she was reassigned to 1st Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, and worked with the Northern Patrol looking for Axis blockade runners trying to make it back to the Fatherland. With a degree of success in the latter, she sent the 3,359-ton German freighter Arucas to the bottom of the Atlantic off Iceland on 3 March.
April through June saw her extensively involved in the Norway campaign from supporting landings at Andalsnes to the evacuation of Narvik.
Transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet in August, she ran the gauntlet from Alexandria to Gibraltar for the next several months, escorting UK-to-Egypt troopship convoys, and often brushing up against the Italian fleet. Once such instance found York stumbling upon the Italian Soldati-class destroyer Artigliere, stopped, and on fire after the Battle of Cape Passero on the morning of 12 October.
Artigliere struck her flag, cleared her crew, and was promptly finished off by a brace of torpedoes from York.
A lucky ship thus far in the war, York screened the carrier HMS Illustrious during the famous Operation Judgement airstrikes on Italian Fleet at Taranto and increasingly became a player in the actions off Crete, as well as keeping the supply lines open to Malta. This saw her in 1941 start to fend off sustained air attacks by German aircraft.
In March, she took part in Operation Lustre, the move of Allied troops from Egypt to Greece, shepherding fast 3-day convoys from Alexandria to Piraeus. This left her in Suda Bay, Crete with the bulk of the Mediterranean Fleet cruiser force, safely behind a triple torpedo net array that left her impervious to attack from the sea.
Enter Xª Flottiglia MAS
On the night of 25/26 March, the old Italian destroyers Francesco Crispi and Quintino Sella hove to some 10 miles out from Suda Bay. Using special cranes, they deployed LT (Tenente di Vascello) Luigi Faggioni of the 10th MAS Flotilla and his five shipmates. Faggioni & Company each helmed an 18-foot Motoscafo da Turismo (Modified Tourism Motorboat).
Not intended to be a suicide craft, akin to the Japanese Shinyo/Maru-ni, the operator ideally would bail out over the back of the boat on the final leg of the attack run, and paddle to safety on their backrest which, predating today’s air travel briefing, doubled as a flotation device.
To make a long story short three MT boats managed to penetrate the harbor and braved the near-freezing water to make the final attack just before dawn. Two boats, piloted by future admiral Angelo Cabrini and petty officer Tullio Tedeschi, hit York’s portside– although it should be noted that numerous wartime reports are that just one boat struck the British cruiser. The third boat, piloted by Emilio Barberi, hit the 8,324-ton Norwegian tanker Pericles. Faggioni’s boat hit a pier.
The 1954 Dino De Laurentiis action film, Siluri umani, released as “Human Torpedoes” in English-speaking markets, highlighted the MTMs of Xª Flottiglia MAS and the Suda Bay raid.
The highly dramatized meat and potatoes of the raid starts at about the 1:16 mark
York, crippled, was beached with two of her crew dead, five men injured, and most of her below deck machinery spaces full of water.
The British continued to use York as a AAA battery for another two months with her hull resting on the bottom of the Bay as her engineering gang tried to pump out and shore up her spaces in the hope of putting to sea for Alexandria and more repairs.
To provide power to her ship’s systems, the submarine HMS Rover tied up alongside and arranged electrical lines enough to work the big ship’s guns and communications. This, however, left her in a fixed position in an increasingly German part of the globe, which left her a target.
Various sources list a range of German air attacks by JU-88 bombers on 12, 21, 22, and 24 April– two of which caused further damage to the ship– with one such raid leaving a pair of divers working over the side on her broken hull dead from a near miss.
At the same time, some of the ship’s company were detailed to provide beach parties for the evacuation of Greece.
On 18 May, the party was over and York was hit and seriously damaged by a German JU-87 dive-bomber attack, ending her usefulness, at the time the largest surface ship chalked up by Stuka pilots (Hans-Ulrich Rudel would later be able to claim a kill on the Great War-era Soviet Battleship Marat/ex- Petropavlovsk in Leningrad in November).
With the endgame in Crete being written and the German airborne invasion starting on the 20th, York was abandoned and blown up in place on the 22nd, her remaining crew withdrawn to Egypt where the understrength Mediterranean Fleet was licking their wounds.
By June, the Italians outnumbered the British in the Eastern Med four operational battleships to two and with 11 cruisers stacked up against three, nonetheless, this would soon be rectified by coming events after December.
Sir Henry, York’s skipper, would go on to become commander of the battleship Royal Sovereign, serve as an ADC to King George VI, become a member of the Bath in 1946, and retire as an admiral in 1951.
As a result of her damage from the Luftwaffe, the Germans claimed to have destroyed York in battle for the remainder of the war, although the Italian Navy cited their own MTM attack as her principal method of death. Half a dozen of one, six of the other, I suppose.
Both countries circulated images of her smashed hull and deck spaces for their own purposes.
After the war, the rusty hulk of York was raised and towed to Bari, where it was scrapped by an Italian shipbreaker in March 1952.
Her boat badge is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
She was also remembered in maritime art and several scale model companies over the years have recreated her in plastic.
Her only sister, Exeter, would famously go toe-to-toe with the “pocket battleship” KMS Adm. Graf Spee in December 1939 and be left nearly crippled after seven 11.1-inch shells found a home in her spaces. Patched up, she would be sunk at the Java Sea by 8-inch Japanese shells in 1942.
York’s name was recycled in 1981 for a new Batch III Type 42 Destroyer, HMS York (D98), the last of her class. She was decommissioned in 2012 after more than three decades of hard service to the Crown and is the 12th in an exceptionally long line of HMS Yorks.
As for the MTM drivers, the six Italian frogmen were picked up floating around Souda Bay by the British, and kept as POWs until after the Italian armistice in 1944 although they would be decorated in absentia with the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare, Italy’s highest military honor. Faggioni would become an admiral, working with COMSUBIN commandos after the war, and died in 1991.
Tullio Tedeschi was launched in 2019 by Tullio Tedeschi’s daughter, Rosangela Tedeschi.
8,250 long tons (8,380 t) (standard)
10,620 long tons (10,790 t) (deep load)
Length: 575 ft
Beam: 57 ft
Draught: 20 ft 3 in
Propulsion: 8 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, Parsons geared steam turbines, 4 shafts 80,000 shp
Speed: 32.25 knots
Range: 10,000 nmi at 14 knots
Belt: 3 in
Decks: 1.5 in
Barbettes: 1 in
Turrets: 1 in
Bulkheads: 3.5 in
Magazines: 3–4.375 in
Aircraft: FIVH style catapult, one Fairey IIIF seaplane (1930-) Walrus flying boat (1936-)
3 × twin 8-inch (203 mm) guns
4 × single QF 4-inch (102 mm) anti-aircraft (AA) guns
2 × single 2-pounder (40 mm) AA guns
2 × triple 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
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