The Royal Navy’s Bad Day: The Impact of Airpower, 1941

H.M.S Warspite off of Crete

After being stymied by a suicidally aggressive Italian destroyer captain, Admiral Cunningham’s ships around Greece turned to support the Kiwi attack on Maleme airfield. But there was no proper naval gunfire support coordination between the Kiwis and the ships off shore so it was ineffective. Unfortunately, the late start to the ground attack meant the ships were caught in the waters around Crete at dawn. And the Luftwaffe savaged them.

The Luftwaffe attacks were so intense that two destroyers ran out of antiaircraft ammunition and resorted to firing star shells, and laying smoke and sailing in tight circles to distract the planes from the larger and slower ships. Both battleships were badly damaged and limped back to Egypt. Two cruisers were sunk and the remaining ships all damaged to varying degrees. Thousands were killed, wounded, or left in the water for the Italians to capture.

However, battleships were not obsolete as a measure of naval power just yet. Far to the north in the Norwegian Sea at Grimstadfjord near Bergen, the German battleship Bismarck and accompanying heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen stopped to refuel prior to their attempt to break out into the Atlantic. At 1300, they were spotted by a reconnaissance plane. At 1930, the RAF launched an attack, but by the time they reached the fjord the ships were already gone, but because it was dark they didn’t know it and bombed empty water. Since there were no secondary explosions the mission was labeled a failure.

The only bright spot for the day was the RAF mission that the Admiralty requested four days prior (I guess ATO cycles haven’t changed in 75 years) to bomb Brest to prevent the breakout of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Gneisenau was badly damaged and the Scharnhorst’s dry dock (she was refitting) was damaged. Neither would be able to rendezvous with the Bismarck.

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