Warship Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2022: Mines, Yes, but also U-Boats!
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Mar. 23, 2022: Mines, Yes, but also U-Boats!
Here we see the Royal Navy Halcyon-class “sloop minesweeper” HMS Sharpshooter (N68/J68) in September 1938, at around the time Hitler sent troops into the Sudetenland and a year before he was to send them into Poland, sparking WWII. Not a very imposing ship, some 80 years ago this week she would single-handedly send a Jerry U-boat to the bottom of the Barents Sea.
Based on the Grimsby-class sloops-of-war– a baker’s dozen 1,500-ton, 266-foot slow-moving (16 knots) sub chasers built in the early 1930s and capable of hauling almost 100 depth charges along with some light guns– the 21-unit Halcyon-class were slightly smaller, running 245-feet overall, and logically lighter at 1,400-tons. Outfitted with two QF MK V 4″/45 singles and a smattering of machine guns (both .50 cal Vickers and .303 Lewis guns), they shipped with manual sweep gear rather than ASW equipment.
The first five Halcyons (ordered 1933-35) were fitted with forced lubricating compound engines, and the next two with reciprocating steam (VTE) engines, while the latter 14 (ordered 1936-37 as Europe was ramping up for war) used Parsons steam turbines, with all versions being able to hit at least 16.5 knot-ish while the latter upgrades able to touch 17. All were named for Great War-era destroyers or minesweepers.
Our little sweeper, Sharpshooter, was of the latter “turbine” type and was laid down at HM Dockyard Devonport on 8 June 1936, the fifth (and as of 2022, the last) RN warship to carry the name dating back to a 12-gun Archer-class gunbrig of the Napoleonic era. Commissioned 17 December 1937 with pennant N68, this later shifted to J68.
Assigned to the 1st Minesweeping Flotilla based at Portland (soon shifting to Scapa) her pre-war service included searching for the lost T-class submarine HMS Thetis (N25), which sank during sea trials in Liverpool Bay in the summer of 1939.
Once the war began (see U-boat.net and Halcyon-class.co.uk for an extensive chronicle of her WWII service) Sharpshooter worked mine sweeping assignments in the North Sea and off Scotland, then in November transferred to Stornoway for Atlantic convoy escort duties with her Flotilla, then transferred to the 6th MS Flotilla in April 1940.
The seven sweepers of the 6th MSF, Sharpshooter included, moved to the Dover area in May, where, in response to the Blitzkrieg of the Lowlands, conducted sweeps of the coastal shipping routes off Holland. Often under German air attack on this detail, two units of the Flotilla (sisterships Hussar and Harrier) were damaged by Luftwaffe bombs before the month was up.
Called close to the beaches of Dunkirk on 28 May to help pull off members of the BEF desperate to escape the Fall of France, Sharpshooter arrived off the beaches at 0115 on 29 May and began putting boats in the water to fight the inshore surf and remove men directly from the sand—after all, she and her sisters could float in just 9-feet of water.
By noon on the 29th, she landed 100 soggy but safe soldiers at Dover.
On the 30th, she disembarked 273 troops at Dover, then, headed back to the beaches late that night, had a collision with the French steamer St. Helier which was pulling off French troops. This forced her to be towed back to Dover sans any more Tommys, facing a repair that would put her out of the war until mid-September.
Sharpshooter finished 1940 based at Scapa conducting fleet minesweeping/route clearance duties.
In January 1941, she was part of the sweeping screen to the north of Rockall for the battleship HMS King George V, which was taking Lord Halifax across the Atlantic to his post as the new British Ambassador at Washington.
Following that, Sharpshooter became a facet on North Atlantic convoy work, clocking on with HX 125, OB 334, PQ 8, PQ 9/10, PQ 12, PQ 13, QP 8, QP 9, PQ 18, QP 14, and QP 15 across 1941 and 1942, alternating with minesweeping operations in North Russian waters and off Allied-occupied Iceland. This duty usually consisted of riding shotgun on slow-moving Russia-bound convoys from Reykjavik to Murmansk/Archangel and back, being targets in the massive Barents Sea shooting gallery off German-occupied Norway which meant deadly threats from shore-based bombers, U-boats, and the bulk of the Kriegsmarine’s surface assets.
This brings us to Sharpshooter’s encounter with the Type VIIC submarine U-655 (KrvKpt. Adolf Dumrese) of Wolfpack Ziethen. Our minesweeper, part of Convoy QP 9 on a return run from Murmansk to Reykjavik, spotted Dumrese’s surfaced U-boat at very close range on the morning of 24 March 1942 south-east of Bear Island– and promptly rammed it.
U-655 turned over and sank without survivors while the minesweeper suffered no losses.
This required Sharpshooter to return to the dockyard for 10 weeks of repairs to her bow and post refit trials. Meanwhile, her skipper, LCDR David Lampen received the DSO on 25 August “awarded for skill and coolness in successful actions against enemy submarines while serving in HMS Sharpshooter.”
By April 1943, Sharpshooter was dispatched to the Mediterranean for minesweeping off the North African coast then, as summer went on, for the Operation Husky Sicily landings. She remained in the Med through most of 1944, where she reportedly suffered a partial (?) torpedo hit in April.
Arriving back in the UK in September 1944, she conducted sweeping off the coast of France and Belgium before switching to North Sea operations into early 1945.
A second career
With no shortage of minesweepers and proper sloops, and the war in Europe over, the Admiralty in April 1945 made the call to disarm Sharpshooter (along with her sister ships HMS Seagull, Franklin, and Scott) then convert them to survey ships.
Sharpshooter emerged with a white scheme in May 1946 and was soon dispatched for hydrographic duties in the shipwreck-plagued South Pacific, based in Singapore, later picking up the auxiliary pennant A310.
Returning to the UK in December 1948, she spent the next several years on surveys of the Home Islands’ West coast and, just in time for the 1953 Coronation Review, was renamed HMS Shackleton after the famed British explorer. She and her two sisters located and logged many war-time wrecks while re-surveying coastal Great Britain.
A familiar sight from Portsmouth to the Irish Sea, Sharpshooter/Shackleton was reduced to reserve status in 1961 and laid up at Devonport.
On the disposal list in 1965, she was sold to BISCO on 3 November for breaking up at Troon by the West of Scotland Shipbreaking Co. Ltd.
The Halcyons suffered terribly during WWII. Sphinx, Skipjack, Gossamer, Niger, Leda, Bramble, Hebe, Hussar, and Britomart were all sunk in enemy (or blue-on-blue) action off Iceland, Dunkirk, Normandy, the Barents Sea, and in Russia’s Kola Bay– all the same waters where Sharpshooter narrowly avoided destruction herself.
As peace settled into a frigid Cold War, these slow and well-worn sweeper sloops were not needed, and most were immediately laid up.
The Royal Navy sold almost all of Sharpshooter/Shackleton’s remaining sisters by the mid-1950s. The only outlier to this was HMS Scott, which had likewise been tasked with survey work, and was sold for scrap in 1965 along with Sharpshooter.
Sharpshooter, her name not since reused by the Admiralty, is at least remembered by a Displate.
While Shackleton, his name recently very much in the news, gets much more attention and maritime art exists of Sharpshooter in this post-war survey guise.
Displacement: 815 long tons std; 1,394 tons, full load
Length 245 ft 3 in
Beam 33 ft 6 in
Draught 9 ft
Propulsion: Two Admiralty 3-drum water-tube boilers, two Parsons steam turbines, 1770 shp, two shafts
Speed 17 knots
Range 7,200 nmi at 10 knots on 264 tons oil
Sensors (1944): Type 123 ASDIC, Type 271 RDF
2 x QF 4 in Mk. V guns, single mounts HA Mk.III
One quad QF 0.5 in Mk.III Vickers machine gun, HA Mk. I
Assorted .303 Lewis guns
1 x QF 4 in Mk.V guns, single mounts HA Mk.III
2 x 2 and 2 x 1 20mm/80 Oerlikon AAA cannons
Depth charges– two double depth charge chutes with two depth charges each, two single chutes with one depth charge each, and two throwers with 40 depth charges.
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