Читать онлайн "Torpedo: The Complete History of the World's Most Revolutionary Naval Weapon" автора Branfill-Cook Roger - RuLit - Страница 77

 
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MUTUAL DESTRUCTION IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

Following the alienation of the majority of the French fleet, through Churchill’s direct orders to Admiral James Somerville to open fire on their ships at Mers el-Kébir in July 1940, the over-stretched Royal Navy was left to bear the brunt of the battle for the Mediterranean, at least up until the arrival of US Navy reinforcements in late 1942. In three years of fighting the British and Italians lost dozens of warships sunk, and dozens more knocked out of action by serious damage that took many months to repair. The British could count on the vast resources of the US dockyards, but damaged Italian ships were often never repaired for lack of time or resources.

A still from the well-known film by Gaumont-British cameraman John Turner, showing HMS Barham capsizing after being hit by three torpedoes from von Tiesenhausen’s U 331. Seconds after this shot, as the battleship lay on her beam ends, the aft magazines detonated, tearing the ship apart and causing the deaths of 861 of her crew

The two sides sparred continually over resupply convoys: the British trying to cut the lifelines to the Italo-German forces in North Africa, and the Axis forces attempting to isolate and capture the strategic island of Malta. The losses on both sides were severe, and the majority of these losses were caused by the torpedo, whether launched by submarine, destroyer, aircraft or torpedo boat. So devastating were the Royal Navy’s depredations on the convoys to North Africa that a repeat class of Italian escort vessels, the Arietes, were rearmed with no less than six 18in torpedo tubes to try to counter their heavy opponents.

Torpedo hit on HMS Arethusa

In addition to the ships sunk, many Royal Navy warships suffered serious damage from torpedo hits.

Arethusa was lead ship of a class of 6650-ton light cruisers. In November 1942 she left Alexandria as part of the escort for a Malta convoy codenamed ‘Stonage’. As one of the four ships of the 15th Cruiser Squadron, Arethusa was the last ship in a diamond formation. On 18 November at sunset the cruisers and the fleet destroyers moved to the north of the convoy to guard against attack. An hour later they were attacked by torpedo bombers. One was heard, then seen coming in from the starboard bow. The ship went to starboard to avoid its torpedo, but a second aircraft came in from the port side and dropped a torpedo at close range, which could not be avoided.

Arethusa down by the bow after torpedo hit.
The Admiralty Damage Report drawing shows the extensive damage to Arethusa from the 18in The torpedo Italian torpedo. The cross-hatched area on the plan was severely damaged by fire. (The National Archives, Kew)
The torpedo hole seen in dry dock in Alexandria. (The National Archives, Kew).

The torpedo hit on the port side abreast ‘B’ turret, blowing a hole 53ft (16m) long and 35ft (11m) high in the ship’s side. Oil from her bunkers was thrown up inside the bridge structure and sprayed over the outside of the ship. When this caught fire the entire bridge was engulfed and her captain suffered burns. One officer and 155 men were killed in the explosion or died during the following night. By daybreak the survivors had brought the fire under control and stabilised the initial 15-degree list to port. The ship, however, was down by the head, and all possible loose gear, including spare torpedoes, was piled on the starboard quarterdeck to try to level the ship.

During the night Arethusa had made good a speed of 12 knots back towards her base in Alexandria, some 450 miles away, escorted by the destroyer Petard, and fighting off several air attacks. On the 20th Petard took her in tow going stern first, and that is how she finally arrived off Alexandria. As the tow was being transferred to two tugs, Arethusa drifted into a British minefield, and threatened to go ashore. When finally she was towed in and surveyed, the dockyard staff declared they did not know how she had stayed afloat. After temporary repairs, she sailed for Charleston Naval Yard where the damage was made good.

HMS Indomitable

Aircraft carriers were priority targets for air and submarine attack. The 29,730-ton (full load) aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable was providing air cover for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, in July 1943. On 16 July, just after midnight, her crew detected the sound of an approaching aircraft. From its engine note and its approach towards the stern of the carrier they took it to be one of their own Albacore torpedo bombers returning to the ship in difficulty. However, the aircraft then dropped something into the sea about 300yds off the port beam, opened up and flew directly across the flight deck just in front of the bridge. The object dropped was seen to be a torpedo, running on the surface, and the order was given to go full ahead and come hard to port to comb its track. When it was 50yds from the ship, it dived, and hit her on the port side amidships, where the port side hull had been widened asymmetrically to offset the weight of the island to starboard. Observers confirmed that the aircraft which had carried out the daring attack had been Italian.

The damage to Indomitable from an 18in aircraft torpedo, showing the armour plates displaced. (The National Archives, Kew)

Unlike the earlier Ark Royal, sunk by just one torpedo hit, Indomitable was able to return to Grand Harbour, Malta, at 11 knots, for temporary repairs. Fully repaired and refitted in the USA, she joined the Pacific Fleet a year later.

In the Mediterranean the Royal Navy lost to torpedo attack: two aircraft carriers, the new Ark Royal and the old Eagle; one battleship, the Barham; eight cruisers; twenty-two destroyers and a destroyer depot ship; one fast minelayer and two submarines — a total of thirty-seven vessels which would have in themselves constituted a sizeable fleet, and which would be sorely missed in the Far East for the defence of Singapore and Malaya.

In addition to the aircraft carrier Indomitable, and the Arethusa noted above, ten cruisers (Liverpool twice), and five destroyers were badly damaged by torpedo strikes and were out of action for lengthy periods.

Added to these losses by conventional torpedo attack, the rebuilt battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant plus the destroyer Jervis were damaged by Decima MAS SLC attacks, the two battleships, in fact, settling on the shallow bottom of Alexandria harbour; the heavy cruiser York was crippled by an MT-boat attack in Suda Bay, while the AA cruiser Delhi was seriously damaged by the blast from an exploding Linse motorboat in Split in early 1945.

In retrospect, it is true to say that, in return for these extremely heavy losses — added to the ships lost to bombs and mines — the Royal Navy not only saved Malta but made a major contribution to the ultimate defeat of Rommel’s attempt to capture Egypt and the Suez Canal. Nor would the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy have been possible if the British had lost control of the Mediterranean.

Italian losses to the torpedo

The Regia Marina, for its part, was decimated by torpedo attacks, many carried out by the small ‘U’-class submarines of the Royal Navy. In all, the victims of torpedo attack comprised: one rebuilt battleship, the Conte di Cavour, sunk and never repaired; a second rebuilt battleship, Caio Duilio, beached and repaired; one brand-new battleship the Littorio, sunk but repaired; three heavy cruisers and five light cruisers; eighteen destroyers and torpedo boats; and no less than thirteen submarines fell victim too. In addition, one light cruiser, Ulpio Traiano, was sunk by a Chariot/Maiale joint team. Ships damaged by torpedoes were two battleships, the Vittorio Veneto and the repaired Littorio, the heavy cruiser Bolzano which was later sunk in another torpedo attack, three light cruisers and two destroyers.

     

 

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