Convoy WS8B - Relevance to Bismarck

Discussions about the history of the ship, technical details, etc.
Como83
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Convoy WS8B - Relevance to Bismarck

Post by Como83 » Mon Jun 04, 2007 7:33 am

I’d like to contribute to this Forum, having served on HMS Exeter all those years ago. (Now 66 years on since those hectic days)

During the Bismarck episode, I was positioned on the bridge of Exeter, so became privy to most of the events going on around us.
Convoy WS8B, Britain’s biggest military convoy up to then, left the Clyde on May 21 1941, coincident with Bismarck in Norway. The enemy, who had broken Royal Naval codes, knew of our convoy and I with others, have always felt that part of their mission was to attack our convoy.
Eight Fleet Arm Arm ratings were assigned to Exeter for aircraft recognition duties, (Sorely needed incidentally). I was one, working with my mate, Harry, on the bridge each covering 90 deg sector, watch on and watch off.
Morning of May 24, Harry whispered, ‘Destroyer’s calling’. I stole a glance seeing one of the Tribal destroyer screen aft, flashing us. The Chief Yeoman came to the signal lamp on our side, and quickly answered. He then passed us going up front to the skipper, saying as though shocked, ‘By Christ, the Hood’s been sunk.’
We looked at each other, but nobody said anything, so later went down to the Seamen’s mess deck at noon wondering. The old Leading Seaman i/c our mess, who’d been on her for the Falklands action, was ‘our Dad’; so we told him all what had happened.
It produced horrified reaction – directed at us.
‘For Christ’s sake, don’t you know anything? Never say that again.’
Seamen in the mess alongside heard, so they lashed out too; ‘Bloody brats spreading f..ing buzzes.’ (we were both 17) : ‘Bloody Fleet air arm! What can you expect.’
We hung our heads as our Father lectured us, our mates also gave us dirty looks - in the dog house again.

I think it was the second Dog when the Skipper came on the Tannoy, ‘This is the Captain speaking. I regret to inform ship’s company that this morning Hood was sunk in surface action in the Denmark Straits. Heavy units of the enemy are now reported heading in a Southerly direction. That is all.’

No apologies, we didn’t expect any. Apart from the shock of loosing a Naval Icon, we were all more taken up with those two behemoths thundering down towards us.

Of course for WS8B, this was not the end of the affair .

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RF
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Post by RF » Mon Jun 04, 2007 9:59 am

As the German ships were being shadowed it was an easy matter to reroute convoys out of their path.

What sort of heavy escort did this convoy have?
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marcelo_malara
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Post by marcelo_malara » Mon Jun 04, 2007 3:43 pm

The old Leading Seaman i/c our mess, who’d been on her for the Falklands action
What action would be that?

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wadinga
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Welcome to the Forum Como83

Post by wadinga » Mon Jun 04, 2007 6:07 pm

Sir, :clap: :clap: :clap:

It's a great pleasure to have a real Veteran of the engagements we enthusiasts discuss to visit the website. I was at the Hood Association reunion weeknd before last and met again with Ted Briggs, the only living survivor of Hood's last engagement. Amongst others, there were two other gentlemen there with stories to tell, one survived the sinking of Eagle and the other was a Swordfish aircrewman from the Taranto raid.

It's so valuable to get your information into the public domain. The impact throughout the Royal Navy and the nation of the destruction of Hood cannot be underestimated. Your picture of the effect in your mess must have happened in RN ships and establishments around the world. There is very often no sympathy for the bringers of bad news.

For Marcelo and RF I think by Falklands our new friend means the action against Graf Spee in the River Plate. Exeter retired damaged to the Falklands. In Bristol at the SS Great Britain exhibition you can see where plates were taken from her wrecked hull to patch Exeter up for her steam home to Plymouth. Both Repulse and the new carrier Victorious were supposed to escort the convoy but were retasked to the Bismarck Chase. See viewtopic.php?p=8782&sid=57ad08dc3115e3 ... 5e55f10e31 for additional information

Admiral Tovey's despatch confirms http://www.hmshood.org.uk/reference/off ... tovey.html

I'm sure if you have more experiences you would like to contribute, we'd all like to hear them.

All the Best
wadinga
"There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"

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paulcadogan
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Post by paulcadogan » Mon Jun 04, 2007 6:26 pm

Hi Como,

Thank you so much for your post! It is always an honour for us to graced with the words of a veteran who was actually there when the events took place.

Yours is just another example of the terrible shock that Hood's sinking caused across the Royal Navy.

Now WS8B's heavy escort was supposed to consist of the Repulse and Victorious. We all know where they were sent so this left the brave Exeter as the convoy's largest escort. Suffice to say that no surface threats were encountered in the long voyage round the Cape of Good Hope and back up to the Middle East. But what about other threats such as U-boats? Como I hope you can give us more of your recollections.

Also, I believe one of the initial reasons Force H sailed from Gibraltar was to cover WS8B as it passed south against potential interference from Scharnhorst & Gneisenau from Brest. The British could not be absolutely certain of their condition despite the bombing they had given them.

Marcelo I think the Falklands reference may have meant Graf Spee as Exeter's squadron was based in the Falklands. OR was the old salt a WW1 veteran who had been around for the destruction of von Spee's ships. (Wow, great coincidence!). But Como said "in her for the Falklands"" which I take to mean Exeter, so it must be the former.

Regards,

Paul
Qui invidet minor est - He who envies is the lesser man

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paulcadogan
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Post by paulcadogan » Mon Jun 04, 2007 6:32 pm

Wow, Wadinga! You just beat me to it!

I think you and I were writing at the same time with the same thoughts! Makes me feel good because "great minds think alike" but then "fools seldom differ", but yours is most certainly a great mind, so I must be doing OK! :lol:

Paul
Qui invidet minor est - He who envies is the lesser man

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Post by Gerard Heimann » Mon Jun 04, 2007 9:10 pm

Dear Como, we all appreciate your taking the time to enrich our knowledge. On balance, the internet has been a great boon in sharing experiences. Your message today is a great example of that and helps memorialize precious history.

Gerard

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Post by Como83 » Thu Jun 07, 2007 10:46 pm

Gratified by Forum members response to my first post.
Thanks also to wadinga & paulcadogan for clearing up questions; they were very helpful.
Due to your interest I have attached below an account of how we came to Exeter and the bold attack on our Convoy by a German reconaisance aircraft. (Confirming to us that Berlin knew where we were)

After 6 weeks 'rest' at the Fleet Air Arm base, the 5 survivors of the previous draft together with the 3 replacements, plus 2 NCO's, received orders to leave. We caught the overnight train to Scotland; only knowing that we were going somewhere overseas, by ship.

Have vivid memory of the next morning in Scotland when a man got into our compartment; he was working class and spoke with a strong Scots accent. Eyeing us in our uniforms, he finally blurted out.
“You lot mus` be going to join that big Convoy waiting at Tail o‘ the Bank. All those ships ‘ll be sailing tomorrow morning!” We looked at each other, horrified to hear him speak openly like this; everyone knew that spies were around. If we‘d put in a complaint he would have been arrested in a flash.
From Glasgow we went to Greenock, then to the Jetty for the boat to our mystery ship; we still did not know which.
At last a naval pinnace came up for us; it carried a signboard ‘Exeter‘; we wondered were we going on that famous ship? Loading our kit we went out past many ships – this certainly was a big convoy alright. To where an eight-inch gun Cruiser, HMS Exeter, was lying at “Tail o‘ the Bank”…. Where the Clyde meets the sea ...A place always remembered.

Exeter was a Plymouth ship, manned by experienced West Country men; they quickly let us know that this was a real naval ship. Put in the Forward mess deck with the Seamen and given twelve hours to find our way around the ship, we were thrown, without delay, into the hurly-burly of life at sea, in war-time.
The ‘Fleet Air Arm kids‘ as we were called, were assigned as Bridge Lookouts, a vital task in wartime, which we would not disgrace. We were up there on lookout when Exeter sailed at dawn next morning, May 21st. She lead out a line – the cruiser ‘Cairo‘, carrier ‘Argus’, seven Tribal class destroyers and a procession of big ships including the liner ‘Georgic‘.
This was Convoy WS 8B, taking an armoured division to the Middle East, the largest to leave UK so far in this war. Many of these ships, including Exeter, would never return home. (WS meant a ‘Winston Churchill Special’)
Within a few hours of our sailing the mighty ‘Bismarck‘ would leave Norway, ‘To raid Atlantic Convoys‘. The enemy was breaking naval codes at this time, so they surely knew of WS 8B. Obviously our convoy was the prize she really came out after.
We soon settled into the routine, four of us on at a time just behind the Bridge; two on the Port side and two on the Starboard. Lee &
Wally one pair, Harry & I another. Binoculars were glued to our eyes, as we checked both the sea and the sky. Up on the bridge, we found we got the latest Gen and also a close up view of any Action when it developed. Our ship, Exeter, was at the centre of a vast convoy, with the escorting destroyers extending miles out from us. Working four hours on and four hours off – it wasn`t long before we felt the need for sleep; this need would increase as time went on.

The convoy sailed due West, then after two days turned to go South along the parallel. That morning Harry & I were on watch when about 0700 I spotted a speck coming out of the Eastern sky. At first I thought it a sea bird, but it kept straight on for us, at a low height. I then knew that I had seen that shape before; Harry confirmed that our binoculars showed a Fock Wulf Kurrier, a four engined enemy!
I called out to the officer of the watch my suspicions, but after looking through his telescope for some time, he said it looked like a Sunderland flying boat. I tactfully disagreed, telling him one of these had bombed then straffed us – to be sharply told my place.
We watched it come boldly straight on at about 200 feet height – Could even see the pilots in my binoculars. As it passed through the outer destroyer screen, two of them starting firing at this so-called Sunderland, they‘d seen the Nazi Crosses on it! Sudden Panic! The Marine bugler sounded off near us as Exeter went to action stations; our 4 inch HA and pom-pom guns then joining others in firing at the enemy. Harry and I had a ringside seat, seeing Exeter‘s shells bursting inside the fuselage, as she banked and turned.
A red glow came inside her, as she headed for a bright painted ammunition ship just a mile away….Tried to drop her load on it...but luckily for all nearby ships, missed. Finally splashing down in flames!
A destroyer signaled us that there were no survivors. No surprise, we‘d seen them steam very close to the wreckage to make sure.

The Kurrier’s crew had been very brave, almost suicidal in their action; but there was no sorrow on our part, our dead comrades of our last voyage had been avenged.
This incident left us with Suspicions; firstly re the aircraft knowledge of our officers, also how did that plane know so well where to find the convoy; coming like a homing pigeon straight to us, out of the East?


Como

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paulcadogan
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Post by paulcadogan » Fri Jun 08, 2007 5:43 am

Hi Como,

Once again THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing your story with us! :clap: :clap: :clap:

It helps to bring to life the operations and events we may read about on a simply factual level - putting on the human face.

One question - the attacking aircraft you called the FW "Kurrier" - was that the RN name for the plane? I think it must be the FW Kondor you are refering to - the big, long range (over 3500 km) 4-engined bomber.

That was an amazing account though and you're right, the Germans must have been paying close attention. One would think that the convoy's position must have been picked up by u-boats or other long range reconnaissance Kondors. Were there any U-boat attacks?

But you're continuing to whet our appetites! You said you were 5 survivors of a previous draft and that your dead comrades had been avenged I presume in the bombing and strafing you mentioned. Care to elaborate? Was that on another "Winston Special"?

Best wishes!

Paul
Qui invidet minor est - He who envies is the lesser man

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Post by Como83 » Fri Jun 15, 2007 6:57 am

Hi paulcadogan.
Thanks for comments.

You are correct; 'Kurier' or FW Kondor, was the large bomber (with a fantastic range). Not intended to attack well defended convoys such as ours; so this one paid the price.

Previous encounter was a small passenger liner 'Staffordshire' (sailing alone), that was attacked on March 28 1941, around 11.30 am. 400 nm SE of Iceland.
First attack used 'ship buster' bombs that set engine room on fire, also wiped out weak A/A on ship. Repeated attacks, smaller bombs then with cannon fire etc. Finally with ship disabled, on fire and taking water with a bad list; 'Abandon ship' called and ship's siren started mournful howling, (until steam pressure ran out).
Approx 4/5 lifeboats damaged, so remainder were crowded with many women & children - pax. Enemy flew low over us but did not fire, possibly cos women showed their faces then waved .
- Rowing for hours with Cold sleet showers.
- Obviously Survivors would never forget silhouette of that 'Kurier'.

After the FW Kurier & Bismarck (which came within 48 nm of us) there was an incident off the West African Coast; showing they were shadowing us.
Yes; the Kreigsmarine followed the voyage of WS8B, all the way round to Suez (Where it was actually bombed).

Como

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RF
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Post by RF » Fri Jun 15, 2007 9:34 am

The Allies were fortunate that the Germans never got the best out of the FW Kondor at sea - and that the Germans didn't also use the Italian SM 79 very much either over the Atlantic.
''Give me a Ping and one Ping only'' - Sean Connery.

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Post by paulcadogan » Tue Jun 19, 2007 3:40 am

Well Como, all I can say is that it boggles the mind of those of us who can only imagine what it was like, to hear stories like yours. Thanks again for sharing.

I didn't realize Bismarck came so close - if she wasn't making a bee line for France she could easily have intercepted! But that delay would have cost her - allowing KGV and Rodney to gain valuable ground and maybe cut her off when she turned back towards France.

Another interesting "what if" scenario would be if Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had entered the Atlantic undetected and found WS8B replete with Repulse and Victorious as escorts. Can you imagine Repulse and Exeter steaming out to meet them :?: - ironically both British ships being 25-35% smaller, with much weaker armour and mounting two less main guns than their German opposite numbers. How much Victorious' few planes could have done is questionable. I can imagine the convoy scattering, the Tribal class destroyers and the Piorun gallantly laying smoke and making feint torpedo attacks, coordinated maybe with the Swordfish from Vic. Would Lutjens have fought it out or would he have chosen discretion as the better part of valour and backed off?

By the way Como, how long was WS8B's voyage?

Regards,

Paul
Qui invidet minor est - He who envies is the lesser man

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RF
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Post by RF » Wed Jun 20, 2007 9:40 am

If in the above scenario Lutjens boldly attacked, then there is the possibility of Repulse suffering the same quick fate as the Hood.

On that basis Victorious would then come under attack from Bismarck's guns and the destroyer escorts would then have the problem of shielding a relatively fast Victorious (unless or until 15 inch fire impaired her speed) and at the same time cover the slower moving convoy ships. Would Lutjens split his force, given PE being vulnerable to torpedoes and fire from Exeter? Bismarck would probably draw the Exeter's fire and at long range PE probably would not have any effective targets.

Overall, with the combined defence of Repulse and Victorious, together with destroyer escorts, Lutjens almost certainly would not attack, but if Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were also accompanying Bismarck then he probably would.
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Post by Como83 » Wed Jun 20, 2007 11:36 pm

Interesting scenarios posed by Paul also RF. Think of the carrier Glorious, quickly sunk by Scharnhorst, at maximum range too. Victorious would suffer the same fate

Resuming my story, what happened after the sinking of Hood -
An air of tension gripped our ship knowing that the Bismarck was coming. Next day we overheard bad news on the bridge, that she`d slipped away from the ship shadowing her.
Later, talk of the many Naval ships out looking for her –Battleships, Aircraft Carriers etc. Later came reports they`d found her, and of Torpedo attacks on Bismarck by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish. The part I remember well was on the night of the 26th when the Captain came on again saying; “Bismarck is closing fast on this convoy from a Northerly direction. I expect contact about dawn, 0500. Exeter will engage her with guns and torpedoes to protect the convoy. If necessary I shall ram her!” (Obviously a suicide attack) That was in the late evening, and I was on watch until midnight. During that watch our escorting Tribal destroyers were sent off to attack Bismarck. While we went to our hammocks expecting to be woken for action stations, probably our last ever!

However we were dead tired so we slept away; then were woken for a normal watch call at 0345...relieved to know we would live a bit longer and wondering what exactly had happened. Then we heard that Bismarck had altered course during the night and therefore had missed us by a mere forty eight miles! Next morning a battle of giants raged to the East; dramatic news came, first that she was crippled; then Captain Bell told us that Bismarck was Sunk, her crew having fought to the bitter end. (Unspoken, was that they were brave seamen)
HMS Hood was avenged, and we were all very relieved.

Exeter’s crew were sure those two enemy warships came out to have ‘a go’ at WS8B. Afterwards, we were shadowed around to Durban where the convoy stayed for 3 days, then all the way up to Suez.
Here they mounted a daring night bombing attack, from Crete, on the anchored ships; the big liner Georgic was burnt out and became a total loss, Fortunately the troops had disembarked that day. I think that was at the start of July, so the voyage took under 6 weeks.
Image

One of two Photos I possess of my time on Exeter.
She rests, like Bismarck, down in Davy Jones Locker.

To Members of this Forum - I’m pleased to put this record in the public domain.
Como

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RF
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Post by RF » Thu Jun 21, 2007 9:32 am

Como83 wrote:Think of the carrier Glorious, quickly sunk by Scharnhorst, at maximum range too. Victorious would suffer the same fate.
But in a different scenario - Victorious was far better protected, including having an armoured deck. Bismarck can't fire on Victorious until Repulse is disposed of; yes PE can attack Victorious but Exeter can interpose that attack. The key point here is of how long Repulse lasts and of whether substantial damage is visited on Bismarck by Repulse.
And until the Victorious comes under serious fire her planes can be loaded for a torpedo strike on the German ships - and an enterprising captain would probably detail a couple of aircraft to swing on to PE as the more vulnerable target and potential liability to Bismarck.....

Referring to ''Hooky'' Bell he also intended to ram the Graf Spee at the River Plate battle if he had the oppportunity.....
''Give me a Ping and one Ping only'' - Sean Connery.

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