A memorial stands near Prussia Cove in Southwest England, a small reminder of a ship that had served its purpose, defending a worldwide empire for 30 years and during some of its darkest days. It reads “HMS Warspite 1915 - 1945 Ran aground and broken up on these rocks 1947, her final haven. Known to all who served aboard her as The Grand Old Lady. May she with many gallant shipmates rest in peace.”
During this long episode we will discuss the entire life of the ship, from the design of the Queen Elizabeth class battleships that would be launched in 1915, through the First World War and Jutland, the great unknown of the interwar years, the refits of the 1920s and 1930s, into war once again in 1939, and then finally to Warspite’s final campaigns in 1945 as an old, battered, and broken ship.
On the eve of the First World War the Royal Navy would build a class of ships that would go on to play key rolls in not just one World War, but two. They were seen as a revolutionary change to the design and construction of capital ships, the first to mount 15 inch guns and the first battleships to match the speed of the battlecruisers. It seems unlikely that anybody involved with their creation would have believed that they would go on to become valuable assets to the Royal navy for the next three decades. One of the five ships of the class would go on to receive the most battle honors of any ship in the history of the Royal Navy. Jutland 1916, Atlantic 1939, Narvik 1940, Norway 1940, Calabria 1940, Malta convoys 1941, Matapan 1941, Crete 1941, Sicily 1943, Salerno 1943, Normandy 1944, Walcheren 1944, Biscay 1944, Mediterranean 1940-43. The ship’s name was the HMS Warspite, and this is her story. During this long episode we will discuss the entire life of the ship, from the design of the Queen Elizabeth class battleships that would be launched in 1915, through the First World War and Jutland, the great unknown of the interwar years, the refits of the 1920s and 1930s, into war once again in 1939, and then finally to Warspite’s final campaigns in 1945 as an old, battered, and broken ship. This episode of the History of the Second World War podcast is brought to you by all of the podcast’s amazing supporters on Patreon. If you currently support the podcast, have supported it in the past, or have considered doing it in the future, thank you.
As with most of the naval innovations after 1905, the Queen Elizabeth class battleships can be traced back to the introduction of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. It is challenging to put the revolution caused by the Dreadnought into proper perspective. The introduction of the ship came at a point where the Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy were in the early years of what would eventually become a full blown naval arms race. The German construction efforts made the Royal Navy feel under threat for the first time in many decades, even if those feelings had little basis in the actual ability of the German fleet to pose a serious threat. When Admiral Jackie Fisher was installed in the position of First Sea Lord he brought with him a sweeping series of reforms, that he hoped would bring the Royal Navy out of the 19th century and into the 20th. He also had a very specific vision of the future of Naval combat. Core to this vision was what would eventually come to be known as the battlecruiser. The two most important aspects of this new class of ship would be to take the guns of a battleship and match them with the speed of a cruiser. As with all designs, having the biggest guns, but also a high top speed, meant that there would have to be sacrifices in other areas, and in this case it would have to come at the expensive of protection. Fisher accepted this fact, and put faith in the greater speed of the ships to be able to disengage from any action that it did not wish to participate in. The new battlecruisers would when combined with the growing power of the torpedo, in Fisher’s mind, make the slow plodding battleships obsolete. Even if the battleship would eventually be obsolete, the Royal Navy would still need them in the near future to match up with other navies, and this fact would result in the Dreadnought. There were many revolutionary concepts involved in the Dreadnought’s design, the most noticeable were the guns. Before the Dreadnought most capital ships mounted a mix of gun sizes, for example they might mount 4 12 inch guns, 4 9 inch guns, and then several pieces of smaller caliber. The Dreadnought would remove much of this secondary armament to focus more space and more weight on only the guns of the largest possible caliber, in this case 12 inches. This gave the ship a much greater total hitting power when compared with any other ship afloat. There was also an emphasis on the speed of the ship, with a speed of 21 knots, a solid 2 knots faster than any other battleship afloat. It should come as no surprise that Fisher, who so highly valued speed in his battlecruiser concept, also believed that battleship speed was one of the most important aspects of naval design, one that was required if the Royal Navy wanted to be victorious in future naval battles. He would say “The sole reason for the existence of the old line of battleship was that ship was the only vessel that could not be destroyed except by a vessel of equal class. […] Fundamentally the battleship sacrifices speed for a superior armament and protective armour. It is this superiority of speed that enables an enemy’s ships to be overhauled or evaded that constitutes the real difference between the two. […] It is evidently an absolute necessity in future construction to make the speed of the battleship approach as nearly as possible that the armoured cruiser.” This speed was only achieved through the use of a geared turbine engine, the first to be mounted on a capital ship. In Admiral Bacon’s judgment “No greater single step towards efficiency in war was ever made than the introduction of the turbine. Previous to its adoption every day’s steaming at high speed meant several days’ overhaul of machinery in harbour. All this was changed as if by magic.” Turbines also provided a much greater endurance at maximum power, with the old reciprocating being limited to only very short bursts of top speed. Along with the Dreadnought would come the Invincible class battlecruisers, which would contain many of the same innovations, they would have a few less 12 inch guns, far less armor, but they would have a top speed of 25 knots, four more than the Dreadnought. These new battlecruisers were the first attempt at Fisher’s idea for the future and it would force a response from every other navy. The famous saying goes that when the Dreadnought was launched it made all other capital ships obsolete, which was somewhat true, even if many of those pre-dreadnoughts would see service into the First World War. It would also cause the Naval Arms Race that would eventually result in the Warspite become more intense. The Germans would copy many of the innovations found in the Dreadnought, and this also made the Royal Navy’s pre-dreadnoughts obsolete. This may seem obvious now, in the modern day when we see new technologies that seem to revolutionize industries all the time, but at the time of the Dreadnought its introduction was somewhat controversial. The Royal Navy had a completely insurmountable advantage in pre-dreadnought capital ships, almost more capital ships than the rest of the world combined, but in these new Dreadnoughts they had reset the counter at 1. This would greatly intensify the Naval Arms race with Germany in the years before the first world war because the German Navy saw a glimmer of hope that they were within striking distance of the Royal Navy, if not in total ship numbers, in this new type of ship which seemed to be far more powerful. While both navies began to build Dreadnoughts, they also did not stop innovating on the design, although in smaller ways. There were problems with some of the early ships, for example it would later be determined that the Dreadnought had went too far in terms of stripping secondary armament, which made it vulnerable to destroyer attack. This was rectified by adding back in some of those smaller guns, but without compromising the number of the larger weapons. On the side of the battlecruisers, which the Germans would also begin to build, it was understood that the early versions perhaps sacrificed too much armor to gain their speed, and so their designs would be evolved to try and compensate for this problem without removing their greatest asset.
The culmination of these evolutions would be the Queen Elizabeth class, which represented the first real combination of the battleship and battlecruiser and would be the zenith of pre-war designs. However, before these ships could become a reality the First Lord of the Admiralty McKenna was replaced by one Winston Churchill. Churchill would enter the Admiralty with the expressed objective of reducing naval spending, however during his time at the admiralty he would not accomplish this goal. From the very beginning he would lean heavily on Fisher, who had been removed from the Admiralty a few years due partially to the discontent caused by his many reforms. On his very first day Churchill would send a note to Fisher that read “My dear Lord Fisher, I want to see you very much. When am I to have that pleasure? You have but to indicate your convenience and I will await you at the Admiralty. Yours very sincerely, WINSTON S. CHURCHILL.” There are many criticisms that you can levy against Churchill, both at this time and throughout his life, but one personality trait that you cannot lay at his feet is a lack of excitement or a fear of getting involved in decisions. During his time at the Admiralty Churchill would, under the tutelage of Fisher, become involved in all kinds of discussions and decisions. He would play a role in a sweeping set of reforms for the living conditions aboard ships, and the treatment of the sailors on the lower decks. He would also oversee a pay increase for those sailors for the first time in decades. As one Royal Navy magazine would say “No First Lord in the history of the Navy has shown himself more practically sympathetic with the conditions of the Lower Deck than Winston Churchill.” In all of these changes Churchill was conversing with and influenced by Fisher, and they had incredibly frequent correspondence. When it came time for the 1912 Naval estimates, there was a new design that would incorporate many of the innovations that had been slowly building since the introduction of the Dreadnought. Many of these innovations would go on to be standard features of battleships until, well until they stopped being produced during the Second World War. The Neptune class introduced superimposed turrets, the Orion class put all of the turrets on the centerline, the King George V class added director control to the secondary batteries, the Iron Duke brought back 6 inch secondary armament and featured anti-aircraft guns. All of these innovations were occurring year after year because at the height of the Naval arms race with Germany the British would produce up to 6 capital ships every single year, even down years at this point would still see 3 ships laid down. This meant that innovations were coming incredibly quickly as every year designers were given the chance to make changes.
The Queen Elizabeth would bring all of these together, and add several more. Much like the Dreadnought the most noticeable innovation would be the guns. Previous Royal Navy classes had mounted 13.5 inch guns, and this was the original plan for the new ships as well. However, the United States and Japan announced around this time that they would begin using 14 inch guns on their ships, and the Royal Navy wanted to ensure that their new ships had the largest guns afloat. This resulted in the decision to include the first ever 15” guns on the new ships. Increasing the size of the guns had some clear benefits. With the size of guns measured in diameter, an increase in diameter of even a single inch could represent a massive increase in shell weight and power. A shell fired by a 12 inch gun weighed around 850 pounds, but a 15 inch shell was over twice that at 1,920 pounds. Much heavier shells meant a much greater hitting power as well, and a much larger total explosive force. The heavier 15 inch guns would fire shells with somewhere around 30% more explosive energy than the 13.5” guns that they were replacing. The larger guns would also mean a greater range, with the range of these new guns being 23,400 yards. This range was, at the time, mostly theoretical, because actually hitting something at those ranges in 1912 would have been almost impossible.The problem with the 15” guns is that, well they did not actually exist, or at least they had not been built and tested. There was also not a turret that could mount them, and instead the turrets that would be used were still in the design phase. The typical process for the Royal Navy was to build a test turret and fit the new guns in it, and then put that turret on a test ship to do some test firing before it mounted them on a new class of ships. Instead, these new guns would be expedited so as not to delay the construction of the new class of ships. This added a good amount of risk, and in fact the first time that the new turrets would be tested would only be after the new class of ships was launched. These large new guns and turrets would also force the ships to be larger and heavier, or as Iain Ballantyne would say in his excellent work Warspite “the bigger the guns, the bigger the ship, and these weapons would each weigh 100 tons. Basically made of two gigantic tubes – an inner and an outer, with 170 miles of steel wire sandwiched between – the turrets they would be mounted in each weighed 550 tons. If all that wasn’t enough, Churchill was informed that a full load of 900 15-inch shells to feed the new battleship’s eight guns would reach 1,000 tons”
The innovations did not end with the size of the guns. A core part of the new design was a jump in speed over previous classes, which would give these new battleships the speed of the British battlecruisers. To accomplish this a controversial change would have to be made. Up until this point in history the Royal Navy’s ships had been coal burning, just like every other navy. Britain had access to some of the world’s best coal, and it had been a key advantage for the nation over the previous decades. But as ships got larger, and as the steam engines aboard ship grew more and more powerful coal became a larger and larger problem. Loading coal on ships was time consuming, manpower intensive, and the coal itself just took up a lot of space. It also required a large number of crew members to simply move the coal through the ship from where it was stored to where it was needed. On the Lion class battlecruisers a hundred men were constantly involved simply in moving the coal to the engines. More importantly for the new battleships, it simply was not powerful enough. There were limits to how much heat could be generated by the coal aboard ship, and the Royal Navy was reaching the point where it could not extract more power from coal given the space constraints inherent with all naval construction. There was another option though, oil, and it would solve many of the problems present with coal. The ability of oil to produce heat was much greater than with coal, and the same volume of oil would produce drastically more steam than the same volume of coal. it was also easier to load and store aboard ship, and then to transport around the ship as required. Due to its greater efficiency it would also give ships much greater range, or in this case a much greater speed. Along with it being more efficient and easier to use oil would also save space aboard ship, allowing more boilers to be fitted and crew spaces to be expanded. It was in fact oil that would allow the Warspite to reach 25 knots. The switch of the Royal Navy’s largest and most powerful ships over to burning oil was controversial though, and brought with it some logistical problems. The British isles did not have any significant source of domestic oil. The British Empire did of course have access, and the Government would buy a controlling interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to ensure supply, so on a worldwide scale the problem was not access to oil. The major problem was that the oil had to be transported back to Europe, adding a good amount of risk to the ability of the Royal Navy to keep its ships fueled in times of war. This risk had never been present, and this would be the first time that an enemy could cut off the ships of the Royal Navy from the fuel it needed to function. Politically it as also seen as something of a betrayal of the British coal industry, and the miners that worked within it. Even with these problems it was difficult to argue with the vast technical benefits provided by the switch, and to manage the transition Churchill would bring Fisher back to the Admiralty.
Churchill would go before the House of Commons to gain support for the new Queen Elizabeth class ships, and he would need to justify their greater cost at a point where fiscal concerns about the spending of the Royal Navy, the benefits of the new design would be obvious. The final designed displacement of the Queen Elizabeth class was 31,500 tons, although the Warspite would come in at 33,410 tons. To achieve this weight without sacrificing speed the designers would remove one entire turret that had been present on previous designs. Even with 2 fewer guns, with the center turret removed, the 15” guns of the new ships would still output more total shell weight, which is just a testament to the power of the new larger guns. The larger final displacement of the ships, including Warspite, was caused by design changes that had to be made based on the speed of the ships, which required a greater stiffening of some areas on the front of the ships. Being overweight caused the ships to sit lower in the water than expected, which meant that some of the armor plating sat below, instead of on the waterline. This problem would not be addressed until torpedo bulges were added after the war. The Warspite would be laid down on October 31st, 1912 and would not launch until over a year later on November 26th 1913. The ship would then finally be commissioned in 1915 with a crew of 951. The introduction of the Queen Elizabeth class ships into the fleet represented an important shift for the Royal Navy. Before 1915 the battleships and battlecruisers had been separated by design decisions and their roles within the fleet had diverged. The battleships, with their greater armor and slower speed were seen as the hammer that would eventually strike the enemy fleet, meeting the enemy battlefleet in a slug match. The battlecruisers, with their lighter armor and higher speed, were seen as fleet scouts, which would sweet the enemy lighter ships from the sea. However, in the years before the First World War the temptation to use the battlecruisers as simply more guns for the battle line would prove to be irresistible. The battlecruisers were not fit to engage enemy battleships, their lighter armor would be a huge liability which would prove to be decisive during the war. But because they had the same size guns their role would shift over time and instead of staying away from the enemy battleships by 1914 the plan was to have the battlecruisers join the battleships once the two fleets came into contact. This transition of the role that the battlecruiser would play in the fleet would be solved by the new battleships, which had enough armor to stand up to the enemy battleships, but could serve the same purpose in terms of scouting as the battlecruisers. The planned introduction of the Queen Elizabeth class would also activate plans to begin to disband the battlecruiser squadrons in 1915. The existing battlecruisers would then be split up and put in cruise squadrons throughout the Navy, which would bring them back far closer to their original purpose of sweeping enemy cruisers from the sea. The start of the war in 1914 intervened, and instead the battlecruisers would say with the Grand Fleet throughout the war, with some disastrous consequences.
Warspite would join the fleet in early March 1915, and would receive her full crew complement a few weeks later. One of the new crew members would write “I immediately felt that I would be at home and happy. This happened to be so throughout the time I served in her. She was commanded by Captain Phillpotts and we were in good hands being commanded by such a gallant gentleman.” During trials in August the Warspite would reach a sustained speed of 24.5 knots. Then in mid-September the first of many accidents in the ship’s long life would occur when it ran aground off Dunbar in Rosyth. It was early on a foggy morning, and the ship’s crew were more concerned with enemy submarines than hitting bottom. The hull would be damaged to the point where it required two months in a floating dock for repairs. Then in December another accident would occur where the Warspite and her sister ship Barham would collide while on fleet exercises. The Warspite’s signal officers had misinterpreted Barham’s signals which reach to make 8 knots for 18 knots. This resulted in the two ships coming together and crushing the Barham’s bow and the shearing of Warspite’s port anchor. Both ships would eventually be repaired, although there was serious concern for Barham immediately after the collision. Before the fateful day at Jutland the Queen Elizabeth ships, which were all working together as the 5th Battle Squadron would be sent from the Grand Fleet to join Admiral Beatty’s battlecruiser squadrons. The battlecruisers had been moved from Scapa Flow to Rosyth earlier in the war to put them closer to the German coast to give them the ability to react to a German sortie in a more timely manner. However, the ability of the battlecruisers to practice their gunnery was somewhat limited, and so in 1915 with the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth ships a change was made. it was decided that the 5th Battle Squadron, including the Warspite, would swap placing with one squadron of Beatty’s battle cruisers. This would allow the battlecruisers some time in the north for exercises with the entire fleet without diminishing the power of Beatty’s command, and in fact increasing the overall power of his command. This would be the reason that the 5th Battle Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, was under the command of Admiral Beatty during Jutland.
The full story of Jutland is beyond the scope of this episode, but at a basic level the story of the battle is that the German fleet sortied out of base, and the Grand Fleet, warned by British signals intelligence sailed out to meet it. The speedier battlecruiser force under Beatty would be the first British ships to make contact with the enemy, and would begin a gun duel with the German battlecruisers. The two battlecruiser forces, joined by the 5th Battle Squadron, would begin a running battle as the German ships moved toward the main body of their fleet and the British chased them. It would be when the High Seas Fleet was encountered that the story would get really interesting for Warspite. To understand why it is important to give a bit of backstory. The two main British naval forces, the Battlefleet and the battlecruiser squadrons were led by two very different Admirals. Admiral Jellicoe, the commander of the battlefleet was an admiral that expected his captains to execute orders exactly as written. If an order was given to turn left and make 12 knots, you turned left and made 12 knots regardless of almost any other consideration. While this limited the decision making of the captains, it also gave them the assurance that if they were required to do something, they would be ordered to do so. Admiral Beatty was quite different, within the battlecruiser force there was the general expectation that Beatty would give the other ships an idea of what he wanted them to do, but they were given a good amount of latitude in terms of how they actually completed those tasks. It was expected that the battlecruiser captains, and especially the Admirals that led the squadrons, would use their own judgement to choose the best course of action. These two very different command styles had a long history in the Royal Navy, dating all the way back to Nelson and beyond and there had been quite a bit of arguing in the decades before 1914 about which one was optimal. Caught in the middle of this was Rear Admiral Evan-Thomas, who commanded the Fifth Battel Squadron and who was far more experienced with Jellicoe’s leadership style and had not been under the command of Beatty for enough time to properly acclimate. When Beatty’s ship encountered the German battle fleet, their scouting mission was accomplished and so their task was to run away from the German fleet at top speed. Beatty would then order his squadrons to turn away from the oncoming German ships. The battlecruisers would interpret Beatty’s order as doing an about face, with each ship turning immediately and then following the ship that had previously been behind them. Evan-Thomas would interpret the order to turn his squadron, but to maintain order. This meant that the first ship would execute the turn, and then each ship in order would turn in basically the same spot so that they maintained their previous position in line. At a theoretical level, these two types of turns were very much by the book and were both completely valid. However, in this case with an enemy fleet baring down on them, Evan-Thomas’s method put the 5th Battle Squadron at much greater risk. Evan-Thomas understood this fact, and he knew that executing the turn might prove problematic, but he believed that it was the order he was given, and that he should execute that order as given. This confusion, misinterpretation, or misjudgment would be well discussed after the battle was over, but at the moment it did not matter. As each ship executed the turn they would come under fire from the German ships in turn, with one crewman of the Warspite later recording that “Very soon after the turn I suddenly saw on the starboard quarter the whole of the High Sea Fleet; at least I saw masts, funnels, and an endless ripple of orange flashes all down the line, how many I didn’t try and count, as we were getting well strafed at this time, but I remember counting up to eight. The noise of their shells over and short was deafening… Felt one or two very heavy shakes but didn’t think very much of it at the time and it never occurred to me that we were being hit.“Fortunately for the men aboard Warspite the turn was made without the loss of a ship, although each ship would receive no small amount of enemy fire. When the 5th Battle Squadron was able to rejoin the rest of the fleet, Warspite would experience a problem that would haunt the ship for the rest of its life, but would also play a critical role in building the ship fame.
When it came time to turn to come back into line with the rest of the fleet Warspite would turn its rudder, and then it would jam. This resulted in the ship making two full circles before it could be corrected. Both of these full circuits were made within the range of German ships, and the Warspite would be hit by at least 13 heavy shells and several 6 inch shells while executing the turns. This turn also inadvertently distracted the German ships from their attacks on the armored cruiser Warrior which had been badly damaged by previous fire. The story would be told that the Warspite had purposefully distracted the Germans to save the smaller ship. This was not true, but it made for a very good story and would make the ship the ship famous. After the rudder was fixed, the damage caused by all of the German fire resulted in Evan-Thomas ordering the ship to proceed directly back to port, rather than continuing the fight. This surprised many in the crew, including those who had been manning the guns during the engagement. One part of the experience of being aboard these ships during fleet actions that is hard to properly convey is the complete lack of information that many on the ship had while the ship was fighting. For example those in the turrets, who had entered the battle ready and willing to finally get involved in a large fleet action, the battle had been a flurry of activity. But they were also in the most heavily armored piece of the ship, almost like armored cocoons and so after they disengaged from the battle, and the gunners were ordered out of the turrets they were shocked by the amount of damage that they found around them. But while the damage appeared at first glance to be extensive, it would not prove to be serious. When the ship arrived at Rosyth for repairs, the reception that it received was slightly confusing for the crew. What they did not know was that while they had been moving back to port news had preceded them that the Grand Fleet had suffered a huge defeat at the hands of the Germans. Midshipman Fell would later say that “We were received at Rosyth with very, very great disapproval by the local people. They were all in mourning black hats and black arm-bands. They all felt the Grand Fleet had suffered complete defeat and that some ships, like the Warspite, had run away.” Both of these assertions were of course not true, the British fleet had lost more ships and men than the Germans, including three battlecruisers, but they were far from having been decisively defeated. of course the Warspite had also not cowardly run away from the fleet in a time of need. When more information was known by the public the story of the Warspite shielding the Warrior from German fire would become the stuff of legend, that the story was not entirely true was far less important. There would be long and drawn-out discussions, committees, reports, grievances, and arguments about what happened at Jutland. There are many books and many pages written about the battle to this day that discuss the controversies involved with the fighting. While all of this swirled around the 5th Battle Squadron and how it was commanded, the fact remained that the ships had proven themselves in combat. The Warspite had displayed that it could dish out punishment as good as any other ship and they could also take the punishment and keep fighting. In many ways the weakness of the British battlecruisers when subjected to the fire of heavy guns just proved the fact that the design decisions that had led to the Queen Elizabeth’s were the correct ones. The Warspite would be under repair for two months after the battle, and would only rejoin the fleet at Scapa Flow at the end of July 1916. Her place in the battle would be worldwide news, for example in November 1916 Scientific American would print a story about the battle that would say “[At Jutland Warspite] was hammered unmercifully, and by all the rules of the game should have gone down, a hopeless wreck. But the Warspite did not sink. Very much to the contrary, under that tremendous fire her engineers set right he steering gear and she reached a home port practically intact so far as her vitals were concerned, and before long she returned to take her place in the first line.”
While there would be other near misses for fleet actions during the last two years of the war, Jutland would famously be the only time that the two rival fleets would come into contact. After the war Warspite, much like the rest of the Grand Fleet would participate in the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet and then when the war was over the Royal Navy would find itself in a challenging position both domestically and on the world stage. While the greatest challenger to the Royal Navy from before the war had been eliminated, two new nations were making it clear that they planned to start massive new naval construction projects. Both the United States and Japan had already started new expansion projects for their navies as the war came to a close, and it was a distinct possibility that these projects would result in another naval arms race during the 1920s. The British government, with the massive debt that the nation faced due to the First World War, found itself in a tough position. On the one hand the security of the empire and imperial prestige, which rested so heavily on the Royal Navy demanded that they answer the expansion of foreign navies. On the other hand fiscal reality meant that the empire simply was in no position to dive once again into an incredibly costly effort to out build other nations. This reality, and the resurgence of some level of isolationism in the United States would lead to the Washington Naval Conference. The resulting Washington Naval Treaty would be one of the most successful arms limitation treaties in history. It would place limits on the ability of all nations to build capital ships, battleships or battlecruisers, and it would put limitations both on the number and size of several other ship types. The United States and the Royal Navy would be given similar tonnage limitations, with the Japanese Imperial Navy given 60% of their total, other nations were given smaller amounts based on their existing naval tonnage. Working within these new limitations required the Royal Navy to scrap many older ships, which while perhaps troubling to national prestige was actually good for the Royal Navy and more importantly the British treasury. Many of the ships of the Grand Fleet that would be scrapped had experienced heavy usage during the war and would have required lengthy and costly refits to continue in service. Many of them were also by 1918 simply outdated. The only capital ships that had been a part of the Grand Fleet during the war which would survive long term would be the Queen Elizabeth’s and the Royal Sovereign class. For the Royal Navy, and for the Warspite, this agreement really set the stage for the interwar period. The British were not allowed to build a whole host of new capital ships, they were allowed to build what would become the Nelson and Rodney during the early 1920s, but those were just to replace some of the very old ships that the Royal Navy still had on the books. This meant that the Queen Elizabeth class ships would remain some of the most capable ships in the fleet until the late 1930s, behind only the Hood, Nelson, and Rodney. One of the main reasons that the ships maintained their position in the fleet was their guns, for all of their flaws the 15” guns that the ships could bring to bear would remain some of the largest afloat until 16” guns became more standard before the Second World War. Because the Royal Navy could not build new ships, the Warspite would go through two major refits during the interwar period, one starting in 1924 and the other in 1934. These were critical to keeping the ship at a point where it could still be an effective ship in the new naval environments, because even in 1920 some of the decisions that had been made in 1911 and 1912 were already looking outdated. The most troubling issues would be addressed as much as possible during the refits.
The first refit would begin in 1924 in Portsmouth. The most important change during this time was the addition of the torpedo bulges which would give the Warspite its well known hull shape. There were some discussions before the refit began about the best use of available funds. It was recognized that the ship had two great weaknesses that could be addressed, torpedo protection and deck armor. As aircraft began a greater threat, and as engagement ranges for surface ships increased, the thin deck armor of the ship became a greater and greater liability. However, there was only enough money to complete one upgrade and so the decision was made that the torpedo protection was more important. Torpedoes had proven during the war that they were a real danger to capital ships, and it was hoped that these new side bulges would provide much greater protection. It also had the side benefit of fixing the displacement issues that the ship had been saddle with due to its greater weight than originally designed. The torpedo bulges provided greater buoyancy which brought the ship back to the appropriate point in the water. The other noticeable change to the Warspite during this refit was a change in the design of the ship’s funnels to be trunked into one, which prevented some of the problems of smoke around the superstructure. There were of course many other smaller changes doe the ship, along with a full repair of many pieces that had been damaged or worn out during the war. After the refit was complete the Warspite would become the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, a position she would remain in until 1930. At that time the ship would come back home to join the Atlantic Fleet, which at the time was the strongest formation in the Royal Navy, containing all of the most modern and powerful ship like Rodney, Nelson, Hood, Repulse, and three refitted Queen Elizabeth class battleships.
It would be during its time in the Atlantic Fleet that the crews of the Warspite and other ships would experience the Invergordon Mutiny. This mutiny was caused by the fact that the Royal Navy wanted to cut the pay of sailors. In the aftermath of the First World War sailor pay had been increased, but by 1931, with the Great Depression in full effect, the decision was made to reduce the pay across the entire British military and for all public service workers. This had a greater effect on certain members of the navy who had been given a victory bonus after the First World War. Aboard the Warspite, and this was true among all of the ships, the mutiny did not involve any violence, and many of the officers were at least somewhat sympathetic to the concerns of the sailors. Chief Petty Officer Sidney Ramell would write “It was my opinion right from the word go that it was a disaster to cut sailors’ pay by a shilling a day. It was such a ferocious blow to them. It was like dropping an atomic bomb among them. They couldn’t believe it because, in those days, our sailors were terribly badly paid. Our fellas were like tramps and down-and-outs if you compare what they got with the money and amenities the American navy had.” While Royal Marine Norman Clements would record at this time that “There were no major speeches made on the Warspite. They was all arguing amongst themselves, some of them saying they wanted to get back to Portsmouth and sort it out from there. There was no violence whatsoever. No one tried to tell men they were being silly. We didn’t know what was happening on other ships. As far as we could tell all they were doing was spelling ship names out and coming out onto the upper decks and making a din. There was no threats or intimidation.” Robert Tyler, one of the men participating in the munity, would paint a somewhat rosy picture of events aboard the Warspite “They did exactly what they wanted to. The men sat on the upper deck playing euckers, dominoes, darts and kept brewing up tea by the gallon. But there were no organizers or protest leaders on our ship. We were totally apart from all that. There were no incidents of representatives going to see the Captain and certainly no sabotage on my ship, nothing whatsoever. In the Warspite the officers were quite in sympathy with us.” Eventually the ships would move back to Portsmouth and about 400 men would be removed from the Navy. However, the pay cut could be reduced, and the message was clearly given to the men of the fleet that further mutinous actions would be handled much more harshly.
In 1930 the Washington Naval Treaty would be extended, with a continued ban on capital ship construction. The new date for new capital ships would become 1937, which meant that the Royal Sovereigns and the Queen Elizabeth ships would start being scrapped in 1940 and 1942 respectively. With that being almost a decade in the future the conversation about further modernization for all of the ships with 15” guns began once again. It soon became clear that both the United States and the Japanese were going to begin a lengthy and costly series of refit for all of their existing capital ships and because of this it was seen as critical to the Royal Navy to bring the Queen Elizabeth ships in for another round of modernization during the 1930s. This set of changes would also be far more extensive than what had happened in the 1920s. It would result in the Warspite receiving changes that totaled 2.3 million pounds, which seems like quite a bit, and it was, but for comparison the King George V class which would be constructed just a few years later would cost over 7 million pounds each. Throughout this project the Admiralty would go to great pains to remind everybody who would listen that refits and modernization were not substitute for new construction which would have to be restarted as soon as the capital ship building holiday was over in 1937. The most drastic change for the Warspite would be the replacement of the ship’s machinery. By this point the machinery in the Warspite was 20 years old, and the age and mileage were really starting to cause problems. It was decided that the only way to make the ships last for another 10 years was to replace all of it. This brought many advantages beyond just having new bits in the ship. In the 20 years that had passed since the initial construction machinery technology had advanced greatly and it was possible to fit the same amount of power in a much smaller area, and at a much lower weight. The work required to replace everything was not easy though, and to replace the machinery the entire superstructure of the ship had to be removed. But the benefits of all of this work was a drastic reduction in the total machinery weight. The machinery weight was reduced by over 1300 tons, which would be used to make other changes to the ship. The new machinery was also much smaller which allowed the boiler rooms to be subdivided into more and smaller watertight areas, giving the ship greater survivability. Finally, the new machinery also made the ship more fuel efficient, with a reduction in fuel consumption at 10 knots of over 38%, which when combined with a slight increase in fuel storage would extend the ship’s range from 8400 nautical miles to over 14,000. One change that was not made at this point was any change to the pressure of the steam used by the ship. Higher steam pressures were being used in other ships to provide greater power, but in the Warspite many auxiliary systems were not being replaced and so a increase in steam pressure was not possible. when the superstructure was replaced it was also changed into a gas proof citadel type structure which had already been used on the Nelson class ships. This provided better protection, and a very noticeable change to the ship’s silhouette, although at least in my opinion it was not quite as pleasing to the eye. The equipment in the superstructure was also upgraded to give the ship greater ability to serve as a fleet flagship, which it would do for most of the Second World War. Changes were also made to the turrets, with the maximum gun elevation increased from 20 degrees to 30 degrees which increased the maximum range of the guns from 23,400 yards to 32,300 yards. The two surviving torpedo tubes, of which there had originally been four, were also removed at this time as they had proven to be of very questionable value. Anti-aircraft defenses would also be greatly increased, with new 2 pounder pom-poms and additional machine gun mounting fitted. The funnel shape was also once again altered, which allowed for a larger hanger for floatplanes, allowing the ship to carry two Swordfish floatplanes, which it would do for the opening years of the war. Even with all of these changes, and the massive weight savings in the machinery areas, the ship would still come out of refits with a greater displacement than when it arrived. Essentially all of the weight savings, plus about 500 tons, were put into increased armor, primarily to protect the dick from high angle threats like plunging gun fire and aircraft ordinance. When the refits were completed in 1937 the ship would go to sea in July to begin another set of acceptance trials and it was found that once again the ship had steering issues. Basically, the amount of force that was required to bring the rudder back from hard over while at high speed was simply more than could be provided by the steering. Eventually this problem would be solved, but then it was found that vibrations occurred due to the interaction between the inner and outer propellers while executing a hard turn at high speed. This would eventually be mitigated by altering the speed of the two propellers to be different during these turns, but the solution was at best a band aid and not a real resolution.
After Warspite’s modernization, two additional ships of the class the Valiant and the Queen Elizabeth would receive similar overhauls, although at that point the war would intervene to prevent additional work. When the war began Warspite was in the Mediterranean acting as fleet flagship stationed in Malta where it had been stationed since January 1938. However, unlike in the previous war Warspite, even with all of its interwar improvements, was far from the most powerful ship afloat it is entered its Second World War, but its large guns still made it a threat to even far more modern ships. In June 1939 the Mediterranean Fleet would come under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and a few months later the ships of the fleet would be in port waiting for the war to begin. During the early months of the war there were few actions that the Warspite participated in mostly due to the fact that Italy had not yet entered the war, during November she would sail across the Atlantic for convoy escort duty. At this time such powerful escorts were required due to the presence of German surface raiders that were present in the northern Atlantic. Ships like the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and even eventually the Bismarck would make their way into the Atlantic. This meant that the already thinly spread Royal Nay had to send some of its strongest ships to escort crucial convoys across the Atlantic. In fact, on this trip across the Warspite would leave its convoy to try and intercept those German battlecruisers after they had sunk a armed merchant cruiser. After Warspite arrived back in the home islands she would be made into the Home Fleet flagship to replace the Nelson which had hit a mine and was briefly out of action. This put the ship back at Scapa Flow, but the plan was to send her back to the Mediterranean to once again take over as flagship of that fleet, but then German troops invaded Norway in April 1940, causing Warspite to be redirected into Norwegian waters.
It would be in Norway that the ship would see its first major action of the war. On April 13th the Warspite would begin a journey to Narvik accompanied by several destroyers. On the way to Narvik one of the Swordfish aircraft spotted two German destroyers at Djupvik, and one of them, the Koellner would get the chance to launch torpedoes at the British battleship. Able Seaman Banks, a member of the A Turret crew, would later recount what happened next: “Warspite had immediately turned to starboard, suspecting the enemy’s intention would be to torpedo us as we passed. As we did so we saw the enemy torpedo tracks but, due to us turning towards them and presenting a much smaller target, they missed. In the next few seconds all hell was let loose. Both A and B turrets fired and we couldn’t miss from that range. Imagine if you can, four 15-inch shells each weighing a ton, packed with high explosive, hitting a thin skinned destroyer. The Koellner was ripped asunder, her remains rapidly sliding beneath the cold dark waters.” The Germans had several destroyers in Narvik, some of which had been damaged in action against British destroyers in the previous days. The British hoped to take advantage of this fact and Warspite would be joined by 9 destroyers to launch an attack against the German ships. Half of the German destroyers would try to make a run for it, but they were slowed by the fact that they would have to constantly weave and dodge the Warspite’s shells, because if even one of them hit a destroyer it would be damaged to the point of impotence. One German destroyer, the Giese, was damaged by British destroyers and after losing speed and steering it became a sitting duck for the Warspite’s big guns. The Warspite then shifted focus to the destroyers that were stationary in Narvik and the 15” guns would continue firing until British destroyers moved into the port to finish off what was left. It would be learned from a German prisoner that there had been a German submarine in Narvik when the attack began, and that it had escaped in the confusion, which caused Admiral Whitworth to be cautious and withdraw the Warspite to prevent it from being attacked. It would later return to gather up wounded sailors from damaged ships and to collect German prisoners. While Warspite and the Royal Navy could not prevent the German capture of Norway, but the beating that the Royal Navy gave to the German surface vessels, and especially to its smaller vessels, would limit the capabilities of the German navy for the rest of the war.
After Narvik Warspite would finally be sent back to the Mediterranean, just in time for Italy to enter the war on June 10th, 1940. It was already clear that Malta was not a suitable home port for the British Fleet due to its proximity to Italy and so the Fleet would move to its new home in Alexandria. There the British ships were joined by several French ships for the purpose of keeping the Mediterranean open to Allied shipping. This plan would of course fall apart very quickly first with Italy’s entry into the war and then the French surrender on June 22nd. The French Navy was a very valuable ally for the Royal Navy, and had been able to counterbalance the Italians quite well. Both the French and Italians had built their fleets with the other seen as the most likely enemy and so the French had provided the Royal Navy with the ability to simply guarantee success instead of having to carry the majority of the load in the Mediterranean. With the French no longer in the war it would fall to the Warspite and other British ships in the area to meet and beat the Italians. A problem for Admiral Cunningham that had to be solved first was what to do with the French ships that were in Alexandria at the time of the French surrender. Their captains were convinced to discharge their oil and then to disarm their weapons to surrender their ships to the Royal Navy. With this concern taken care of, the second and more important issue, the Italian fleet was considered. With the removal of the French the equations for the Mediterranean Fleet became very challenging, it was dangerously short of smaller support ships, and if the Italians had acted proactively during this period it is very possible that they would have been victorious. However, even from this point of weakness it was felt that the British ships could not just sit back and do nothing, to do so would have given control of the Sea over to the Italians and so during the following months, and after some reinforcements arrived, the most important job that the Royal Navy would do was to safeguard convoys, many of which were bound of Malta.
The need to protect such convoys would result in the action off of Calabria on July 9th 1940, the first major battlefleet action of the Second World War. Cunningham hoped to bring the Italian fleet into action using his force of Warspite, the un-modernized battleships Malaya and Royal Sovereign, the carrier Eagle, 5 light cruisers, and 16 destroyers. For this action it is important to remember that the Malaya and Royal Sovereign had not gone through any modernization work in the 1930s which put them at an extreme disadvantage, and as would soon become apparent made them almost useless in fleet actions. The Italians under Admiral Campioni would have a more powerful force comprised of 2 modernized battleships, the Cesare and Cavour, 6 heavy cruisers, 8 light cruisers, and 20 destroyers. Cunningham, in an attempt to pull the Italians into an attack split his fleet with Warspite and 5 destroyers in one group, and the Royal Sovereign, Malaya, Eagle, and 10 destroyers in another, and the five cruisers in a third group. As soon as the location of the Italian ships was identified the Eagle launched a strike, but would not be able to cause any real damage. Then at 3:08PM HMS Neptune, part of the cruiser force, signaled that the Italian ships had been sighted and the cruiser force was being engaged. Immediately Warspite rang up full speed of 24 knots to move to assist, but the other large ships rapidly began to fall behind. This put Cunningham in a bit of a dilemma, he could wait for the other ships to catch up and risk the cruisers, or push forward with just his fastest ships and risk being overwhelmed. He chose the latter course of action and the Warspite continued forward, finally at around 3:30PM the Italian cruisers would come within range but they would quickly pop smoke and flee from the larger British ship. The Warspite and other ships gave chase, although they would first slow to allow the Malaya to start to catch up, with the Royal Sovereign at this point being seen as a lost cause. About half an hour later the two Italian battleships were spotted and a gunnery duel began. Warspite was the only British ship with the range to engage the Italian battleships, with the range being about 26,000 yards. The first salvo from the Italian ships would straddle the Warspite but would not cause any damage, then Warspite’s first salvo would do much the same. Over the next half an hour Warspite would fire 17 salvos, and would register precisely 1 hit. This single hit would go down in history as one of, if not the, longest hits by a surface ship against a moving target at a range of about 26,000 yards, which is 24 kilometers, or about 14.7 miles, quite the distance. That one shell would put some of the Cesar’s boilers out of action, reducing her speed and would also cause 100 casualties. In reality the Warspite had simply gotten very lucky, but when it occurred the Italian ships decided to turn tail and run. Again the Italian ships would throw up a smoke screen and the British ships would slow out of fear of a possible surprise attack. When they finally resumed the chase they found that the Italian ships had vanished, disappearing into the straits of Messina. Cunningham would later write about the performance of the Warspite that “The Warspite’s shooting was consistently good. I had been watching the great splashes of our 15-inch salvos straddling the target when, at 4.00p.m. I saw the great orange-coloured flash of a heavy explosion at the base of the enemy flagship’s funnels. It was followed by an upheaval of smoke, and I knew that she had been heavily hit at the prodigious range of thirteen miles.” He would also later state that “The one 15-inch hit they sustained from the Warspite had a moral effect quite out of proportion to the damage. Never again did they willingly face up to the fire of British battleships..” The result of the battle was kind of disappointing for the Royal Navy, but it just once again put into sharp relief the challenges faced by surface ships when they were engaging each other during the Second World War. It was simply far too easy for a fleet, when it believed it was at a disadvantage, to run away.
Near the end of July Cunningham would receive news that he would be getting some much needed reinforcements in the form of the HMS Illustrious, a new aircraft carrier, and the HMS Valiant, Warspite’s modernized sister ship. Then in September another un-modernized ship, the Barham, was sent as well. The most important of these ships were the Illustrious and Valiant, and with three modernized large ships Cunningham was able to construct two different groups of ships. With the A Team being able to chase down the Italians and bring them to battle while the older ships, the Barham, Malaya, Ramilies, and Eagle still able to provide fire support if they were given the time to catch up. With this new striking power Cunningham really wanted to try and bring the Italian fleet out to battle, a confrontation that it was very likely that the British would win. The Italians of course knew the danger that they might be in, and so they refused to leave port and meet the British ships on the open sea. Eventually the idea would be put in place for a torpedo attack on the Italian base at Taranto. This attack had been first contemplated during the 1930s, and this seemed like the perfect situation to put it into action. On November 6th the ships would sail out of Alexandria, and after being harassed by some Italian air attacks they would launch an attack of Swordfish torpedo bombers at 8:40PM. The result was a success, the British would lose just 2 planes and they would disable 3 battleships, one of them for the remainder of the war. The attack was so successful that two of the un-modernized battleships, the Malaya and Ramillies, were sent back home to help escort Atlantic convoys. The reduction in threat from the Italians gave the British ships a much greater freedom of action however it did nothing to reduce the vulnerability of the ships to air attack. This was demonstrated on January 10th, 1941 when the Illustrious was hit by a Luftwaffe air attack and six 1,000 pound bombs would leave her badly on fire. She was able to make it back to Malta and then eventually onto the United States for repairs, but it was a close run thing.
By 1941 the war was already not going well for the Italians, they had already suffered defeats in Greece and Yugoslavia, and in both cases the Germans had come to bail them out. The British ships including Warspite were hard at work protecting the convoy route between Egypt and Greece. The Italians, under German pressure moved naval assets to try and interdict the flow of supplies. They would sortie out their new battleship Vittorio Veneto, 8 cruisers, and a dozen destroyers to a position south of Crete in late March. Cunningham and the British fleet knew about this sortie thanks to signals intelligence from London and so they moved to intercept. In the fleet at this time was the Warspite, Valiant, and Barham and then the HMS Formidable which had arrived to replace the Illustrious, they would also be joined by 9 destroyers. Unfortunately for the fleet, the Warspite would clog her condensers while leaving port, which meant the speed of the ships was reduced to just 20 knots, which would later cause problems. British cruisers were able to find the Vittorio Veneto at around 11AM and the Italian ship began firing at maximum range on the British ships. The Valiant would move ahead at full speed to try and catch the Italian ship while the Warspite was still trying to work out her problems.
Cunningham would order the Formidable to launch a torpedo attack, even though he would have preferred to wait until his large ships were closer to the Italians so that they were more likely to be able to take advantage. As soon as the Italian ship saw the air attack it turned away at fled at top speed. The Warspite would eventually solve the condenser problems and would join the Valiant at top speed, with both ships leaving the Barham behind. The Formidable would launch a second torpedo strike which claimed to hit the ship three times, although in fact only one torpedo was able to make contact, hitting the ship 15 feet below the waterline on the stern. The Italian ship was reduced to a top speed of just 15 knows and a thousand tons of water flooded in. While still trying to chase down the Italian battleship at about 10:30 in the evening the British ships would catch sight of two heavy cruisers, the Fiume and the Zara, which were both Zara-class heavy cruisers of 10,000 tons with 8 inch guns, along with several destroyers. The Italian admiral had sent these ships to assist the Pola, another Zara class cruiser which had been disabled by a British torpedo earlier in the day. However, the Italians greatly misjudged the location of the British fleet, believing that it was 90 miles away from where it actually was, a mistake that would lead to a disaster. The British were able to get very close to the Italian cruisers before opening fire, and death followed. Warspite illuminated them with searchlights and the big guns went to work. Five shells from Warspite’s first salvo hit the Zara, causing the ship to be in Cunningham’s words ‘hopelessly shattered.’ The second salvo hit Fiume, which quickly began listing and would sink just under an hour later. All three British ships would then fire at Zara, turning it into an inferno which would later have to be scuttled. Two escorting destroyers were also destroyed. Once again the men in the turrets did not have any real clear idea about what was happening, all they knew is that they were being asked to fire. Petty Officer Charles Hunter from Warspite’s X Turret would say “I stood on this platform between the guns. I couldn’t see outside, I had eyes only for the working chamber. My turret fired the most shells during Matapan. We fired six on the right gun and five on the left. Inside the turret during firing you just got a thud – the armour was a foot thick which acted as pretty good insulation. The turret was controlled from the bridge. We would follow a pointer – it moved, you turned your wheel and when the order came you fired.” The engagement with the Italian ships would be the last engagement of the night, and while the Formidable would send up scout planes to search for the Vittorio Veneto it would not be found. On their way back through the devastation of the earlier fighting the British ships would rescue 900 Italian sailors, although they had to evacuate the area due to reports of a flight of German torpedo bombers in the area. Before they left the British would send an open air radio signal to the Italians with their locations, and 200 more Italians would be rescued by a hospital ship. A total of 3,000 Italians would be lost during the action, with only 2 British airmen killed. The Italian navy, already a bit skittish about meeting up with the Royal Navy, would never recover.
After the success at Matapan, the next task of the Mediterranean Fleet was to try and assist in the North African campaign by attacking the port of Tripoli. The original idea sent from London was to have the Barham go on a suicide mission to block the port at Tripoli, to essentially scuttle itself in a position which would block the port from being used. This seems perhaps a bit desperate, and it was, but Tripoli was one of the primary supply ports used by Axis forces during the North African campaign. Cunningham refused to accept this plan, he did agree that a shore bombardment of the port by his three battleships could be done, although he felt that it put them in acute danger. In the early morning of April 21st the fleet moved in close to Tripoli, with Barham, Valiant, and Warspite ready to do some shore bombardment. An air raid from Malta dropped incendiary bombs and aircraft from Formidable dropped flares to illuminate the targets, and the firing began. The results were, really quite disappointing. The British battleships would fire hundreds of 15 inch shells and hundreds more from their 6 inch secondary guns and would only be able to sink a single supply ship and damage a few others. They were unable to inflict any meaningful damage to shore facilities, even though they were heavily targeted. In general it was incredibly difficult for the spotters aboard ship, or even in spotter aircraft, to determine where the shells were hitting. It was obviously dark, it being five in the morning, but also the smoke and debris caused by the bombing and the shelling obscured the port facilities. Fortunately the British ships were able to make their way back to Alexandria without being heavily attacked from the air which was Cunningham’s greatest fear. While the bombardment of Tripoli was largely a failure, it is worth noting that many such shore bombardment missions at this stage of the war would be equally disappointing. It was simply much more difficult than expected for naval ships to put their explosive power onto land based targets.
Up to this point in the war the actions that the Warspite had taken part in were largely successful, but they were also largely surface based actions, the types of tasks that the Admiralty had been planning to use their ship for. This would all change at Crete. After the Germans had assisted the Italians in their campaign for Greece, and they were in control of the mainland, they then set their eyes on the island of Crete. Crete is a large island south of the Greek mainland and was considered to be an important piece of real estate that the British would have to defend. If the Germans and Italians captured the island they would be one step closer to capturing Egypt. The Royal Navy would be called in first to help defend the island, and then to help evacuate what could be saved when it was clear that the defense would not be successful. This process would take almost two weeks and from May 21st to June 1st the waters around Crete would turn into a killing field for Royal Navy ships. Three cruisers, and six destroyers would be sunk, the Formidable, Barham, five cruises, and five destroyers would be badly damaged. On May 22nd Warspite’s luck would run out, and it would finally be hit. Shortly after 1:30Pm on that day, after having been attacked by wave after wave of aircraft three Me-109s would dive into an attack. Warspite would be able to dodge two of the bombs, but the third would hit the starboard forecastle. Anti-aircraft gunner Jack Worth would later recall “I remember looking forward from my position and seeing this Me109 diving towards us, and there was this chap on our B turret firing away at it with a machine gun. Then this blob came away from beneath the German plane and hurtled my way. It was a bomb and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. But it didn’t hit my position, it took out the 4-inch gun beneath me. I looked down, and really didn’t think much about it in the heat of the action, other than to mentally note that what had been there before was now gone, replaced by a gigantic hole and a mess of flames and wreckage.” The bomb would cause a fire in the starboard 6 inch battery, which began to rage out of control. 38 men were killed or would die of their injuries, 31 were injured. There was never a real threat of the Warspite sinking, but the damage that had been caused by the bomb was very problematic. It was simply too extensive for the repair facilities in Alexandria, and so it was decided to send the ship to America. The United States was still officially neutral in the war, but had been providing docking, repair, and refit services to the Royal Navy and the Warspite would be able to take advantage of this.
Warspite would leave through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, then to Manila in the Philippines, then Pearl Harbor, then finally to Vancouver and Bremerton Washington. Some of the men would stay with the Warspite while it was in port, although maybe would be transported back to Britain. Those who did stay would either be housed near the ship, in a nearby barracks, and some were even lodged with American families. Able Seaman Banks would discuss his view of the reception of the men in their new temporary home “I think every member of the Warspite’s crew had a home-from-home. Every day, at about 16.00 hours, a long queue of cars would form up outside the dockyard gates, waiting for British sailors to come ashore to invite them to their homes. There were also hundreds of applications from American families to entertain us when our leave was announced.” While the repairs were being made, improvements were also made to the ship, with new surface, air, and gunnery radars installed along with a large increase in the ship’s anti-aircraft armaments. During the ship’s time in America the war would expand, first with the attack on Pearl Harbor and then just a short while later the news would arrive of the sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse by Japanese aircraft near Malaya. The news that these two ships had been sunk was hard for the crewmen aboard the Warspite to hear. Ken Smith would write that “The American papers had these screaming headlines about it and it was all over the radio. When you are young you are gung-ho and your attitude is ‘right let’s go and get them and sort them out’. But the loss of these two ships sort of brought home the fact that war is not quite that simple, that it is a serious business in which the enemy is not to be taken lightly. You have to remember this was in the days of the British Empire which really meant something. But this was the end of it really. Perceptions were changed by the sinking of those two ships. The Royal Navy which protected that empire for so long was not invulnerable. It was because of the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales that we suddenly had a lot more Oerlikons put on the Warspite. We realized how vulnerable a battleship might be to aircraft.” On January 7th, 1942 a month after Pearl Harbor the Warspite would leave Bremerton. After some sea trials Warspite would head south along the American coast and then out into the pacific. On February 20th the ship would reach Sydney. The time spent in Sydney was an interesting time for the crew, they knew that they would be called upon to participate in the fighting, but with the recent examples of how battleships would fair under Japanese air attack there was great concern about what the future held. Ken Smith would write “It was a grim time – Singapore had just fallen and the Japanese were rampaging everywhere. We didn’t know what was happening to us and where we would go. I don’t think they had decided. The whole idea of sending a battleship without proper air cover anywhere near the Japanese was not on. It was a bit of a humiliating time really. The Aussies did feel let down but on the whole they treated us pretty well. In those days the Australian bars opened at six in the morning and closed at six at night so you can imagine people were well entertained. The defaulters line aboard ship was certainly long. I wasn’t much of a drinker so I went to the cricket and also sight-seeing.”
When Warspite joined the British ships in the Pacific the collected strength was, inadequate to say the least. With the losses that the Royal Navy had suffered during the first two years of the war, and what as still required in home waters to protect against possible German attacks, there simply was not much left available for service in the Pacific. Essentially every ship in the Eastern Fleet under Admiral Sir James Somerville was outdated and bordering obsolescent, with the exception being Warspite. However, it was also the only Royal Navy fleet in the region, and so it was important that it was not lost to a Japanese attack, which would have left the entire Indian ocean devoid of a Royal Navy presence. Much like what Cunningham had done in the Mediterranean earlier in the war, Somerville would separate his ships based on speed and capability. Force A was made up of the faster ships like Warspite, the carriers Indomitable and Formidable, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers. Force B was made up of four Royal Sovereign class battleships, the carrier Hermes, 3 light cruisers, and 8 destroyers. The Royal Sovereigns were similar in age to the Warspite, but they had not received the same extensive modernization during the 1930s which meant that they were slow and outdated. While these two forces did have some capabilities, the 40 fighters and 60 torpedo bombers that were available from the carriers paled in comparison to what the Japanese strength would be when they moved into the Indian Ocean under the command of Vice Admiral Nagumo. He would bring with him the Kido Butai, with five fleet carriers which could launch 100 fighters and 240 bombers. They were also piloted by some of the best and most experienced naval aviators in the world, veterans of the Pearl Harbor raid and other subsequent operations. They were also escorted by four battleships, all of which had received modernization refits much like the Warspite. The commitment of all of these ships into the Indian Ocean represented a massive Imperial Navy operation involved a large percentage of its total strength. Somerville had no hope of matching the Japanese, and in fact his entire goal was simply to survive. There was the small possibility, although a risky one, of striking the Japanese at night, and so on April 4th Somerville tried to get Force A into position to launch a night time torpedo strike on the Japanese ships. However, while repositioning, the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were spotted by Japanese scout planes. The results were, inevitable, and the two British cruisers were set upon by 88 Japanese aircraft and sunk. Luckily for the rest of the British force they were not found by the Japanese planes. A British Catalina flying boat would spot some ships moving toward Force A which allowed Somerville to move away, and the night time strike would be called off. Instead, Nagumo’s forces were already moving the opposite direction to launch an attack on Trincomalee where the British Carrier Hermes was in port. The resulting strike would sink the British ship and an Australian destroyers. The Japanese ships would soon leave the Indian ocean for other operations, and while they had failed to clear the Royal Navy from the region, they had pushed it away from the Japanese attacks in Indonesia. Warspite and other British ships would be moved further west, and Warspite would spend most of the following months at Kilindini near Mombasa halfway down the Eastern coast of Africa. Here the ship would lead a mostly uneventful life, although there was always a concern about an enemy attack. one of the facts about life aboard the Warspite during this time is that it was quite uncomfortable in the heat, here is Ken Smith again to describe what it was like: “She was a gigantic sweatbox. We’re talking extreme temperatures closed up at action stations in a 6-inch gun battery for hours. There was little or no ventilation – you just sweated and sweated. Hundreds of the crew went down sick – the sickbay was always full. You got dhobi itch, you got prickly heat, all sorts of lumps and bumps. It was those conditions that did for me ultimately. If you had any sense you got yourself a bucket and filled it with water from the shower room taps. That water was used for your first wash of the day and to bathe in later. Someone might give you a tot of rum to borrow it. You also used it for your dhobi. The bucket thing was against regulations, but, in such circumstances, a lot of things went by the board.” During early 1943 Warspite would once again be recalled into home waters. After Midway and some of the American attacks in the Pacific the risk from the Japanese navy to British possessions in the Indian ocean was reduced, and with the growing Allied strength in Europe and Africa it was determined that Warspite would to back to the Mediterranean to support the invasion of Sicily. A fun bit of info, taken from Warspite by Iain Ballantyne, about the journey back on in spring 1943: “During the voyage Midshipman Corbett had been tasked with calculating the miles steamed by Warspite since the beginning of the war. After arriving at Greenock he recorded the following figures in his journal: 1939 (from declaration of war in September) – 12,984 miles. 1940 – 43,978 miles. 1941 – 25,253 miles. 1942 – 61,481 miles. 1943 – 17,168 miles”
In the Mediterranean the Warspite and several other battleships under the name Force H would provide shore bombardment support for the invasion. Warspite would be joined by the Valiant, Nelson, and Rodney on the bombardment team while King George V and Howe were in reserve. On July 9th the ships were in position for their bombardment and two days later the landings on Sicily were underway. A few days later Warspite would call into Malta, the first Royal Navy battleship to do so in almost three years. During this period the British ships would spend most of their time south of Sicily to guard against the possibility of the Italian fleet launching an attack. However, they attack would never come and instead the ships would be subjected to several attacks from the air. Warspite would be called upon to bombard the Sicilian city of Catania, before withdrawing back to Malta at top speed. It would bein the aftermath of this bombardment that Admiral Cunningham, from his position on Malta, would message that Warspite that “Operation well carried out. There is no doubt that when the old lady lifts her skirts she can run.", which is where the Warspite would receive her most popular nickname, The Old Lady. Then on September 2nd at Reggio Force H would provide support for the invasion of the Italian mainland. On September 7th to the north they would provide support for the landings at Salerno. All of these bombardments were carried out successfully, and while there were many air attacks the Warspite would be able to avoid several torpedo and bombing attempts. On September 10th, with the surrender of the Italian government Warspite and Valiant would meet up with what was left of the Italian Fleet as it surrendered to the Royal Navy. They would take the surrender of five Italian battleships, nine cruisers, 14 destroyers, 19 torpedo boats, and 35 submarines. While this represented an important milestone for the Royal Navy, and the removal of the only real surface threat in the Mediterranean, the fighting for Italy was far from over, and in fact that landings at Salerno had been going pretty poorly. On September 14th Warspite and Valiant were back near the landing beaches to provide more fire support and once again they were focus of German air attacks. Then at around 2PM on September 15th Warspite’s luck finally ran out. Three glider bombs would make it through the efforts of the anti-aircraft guns, one would miss near the aft, one would impact the water near amidships ripping open the torpedo bulges, and one would hit amidships. Each bomb contained almost 3,000 pounds of explosives, with predictable devastation. Three American tugs started towing Warspite at four knots while inside Warspite’s men did all they could to keep the ship afloat. The machinery was not running, and so there was no power, but they did their best under the circumstances. 200 men were constantly required for bailing duty, while many others were busy with other repairs. Luckily the ship was not the target of any further air attacks while it was being slowly tugged back to Malta. After successfully making it to port Captain Packer would wrote “there was much fatigue, for no one had much stand-off during the past few days, and since the hit everyone was on their feet, either at the guns, hauling in wires, pumping, or shoring up…bailing out compartments with buckets in this heat is hard work…but they were marvelously cheerful, willing and fatalistic.” The facilities at Malta were totally insufficient to effect any real repairs of the ship, and so on November 1st Warspite began the slow journey to Gibraltar under tow. It would take a week for the ship to reach the Rock and be put into drydock, the whole time the Tugs and Warspite were covered by four destroyers with fighters on call to handle any airborne surprises. Just a few weeks later Warspite would be out of drydock and began some working up after having rotated out the entire crew. however, the ship would not be involved in any real action before heavy back to Rosyth in March 1944 for more extensive repairs.
By June 1944 the Warspite had been repaired as much as was really possible. She was an old ship and the years, the mileage, and the damage was catching up with her. X-turret had been permanently disabled, and a concrete caisson had been placed over the hole made by the bomb off Salerno. She was still capable of shore bombardment, which would be the role given to the ship during the invasions of Normandy. She would join the thousands of ships off the coast of the invasion beaches, with Warspite and the Eastern Task Force given the task of supporting the British at Sword Beach. Warspite’s target were the German guns near Le Havre, and she would be given the honor firing the first shell, with the whole bombardment beginning shortly thereafter. Throughout the day of the invasion Warspite was on call for fire support missions, and would fire at a variety of targets. There was some firing from German shore batteries, but no serious damage was caused. Over the course of two days 300 shells would be fired from the 15” guns, expending most of what was stored on ship and Warspite would move back to Portsmouth to reload. On June 9th Warspite would support American troops to relieve some of the American battleships which were also running low on ammunition and had moved back to England to restock. Warspite would receive high praise from the American commanders, and during on 2 hour period 96 rounds would be fired at German artillery positions. After these bombardment efforts Warspite was in desperate need of replacement guns, and so on June 12th she moved through the Straits of Dover on the way to Rosyth for replacements. During this transit, the first for a British battleship since the start of the war, a magnetic mine would explode near the ship causing serious damage to the steering. The helm would jam hard and the ship would turn wildly and several hundred tons of water would flood on board. With counterflooding and restarted engines the ship was able to limp north at 7 knots to arrive on Rosyth on June 14th. At Rosyth workers did the best they could on the ship, the largest issue was the shafts which needed straightening, but the workers did not want to fully remove them due to it being a lengthy process. At this point the ship was solely focused on shore bombardment and so as long as it could move at even a reasonable pace and the guns still worked it could fulfill that role and so quick repairs were done. By late August, with shafts in mostly working order and new guns, Warspite once again was off the French coast near the port of Brest. Warspite would fire over 200 shells into Brest to try and soften up the German defenses before the American attack which would finally capture the port. Then on September 10th she bombarded Le Havre in preparation for a British attack. In October she would be involved in her final fire missions off the Belgian island of Walcheren near Antwerp. There on November 1st at roughly 5:25PM she completed fire missions after firing 353 15” shells in support of the attack on the island. They would be the last shots fired by Warspite’s main guns.
In February 1945 Warspite was placed in reserves, being too old and far too battered for proper repairs and the refit that would be required to make the ship ready for further fighting in the Pacific. During this time the ship was moored at Spithead, and it was during this time that many of the remaining crew members who had served aboard the ship during its time in combat began to leave. Petty Officer Pearson would record that “I left in April 1945 lugging my kitbag, my toolbox and my hammock. Despite all that stuff, I somehow managed a turn at the bottom of the brow to give her a last look. I was a bit choked but glad to leave as well - if they no longer needed the Warspite then the war must be coming to an end.” 15 months later she was brought into Portsmouth Harbor to have guns and other equipment removed before being sold for scrap. There were some calls for her to be turned into a museum ship, but these were not successful. In September 1945 the ship’s battle ensign would be presented to the St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. In March 1947 tugs arrived to bring the Warspite to Garaloch for scraping, however in route a storm hit the channel, the tow lines broke, and the ship began to flood. A Daily Telegraph reporter would write that “I flew over the Warspite and her escort last night as they crept slowly along the Channel through heavy weather within sight of the shore twenty miles west of the Lizard. The tugs were straining at the tow ropes fore and aft, pulling almost at right angles to starboard, with the ship’s bows to the coast. Their position hardly changed as we circled, and the tugs appeared to be doing little more than hold the great battleship in the heavy seas. Both tugs were pitching so steeply that at times their screws were out of the water.” To avoid endangering those involved the decision was made to tug the ship into Mount’s Bay near Penzance to wait out the storm. However, during further storms in April Warspite’s anchor chain broke and the ship would run aground in Prussia cove. After some efforts to refloat the ship were unsuccessful it would not be until 1950 that what was left of the ship would be refloated. For some, this last act of defiance by the ship was welcome, Lieutenant Banks who had been on the ship in its last tour of the Mediterranean would say “I nearly wept with joy when I learned no further effort would be made to get her off. The Warspite’s epitaph was surely ‘she died as she lived – fighting!’.” But for others, like Petty Officer Charlie Pearson, a certain bit of perspective prevented any great emotional response to the ship’s end “At Salerno when she was hurt badly we all suddenly realized we might lose our home so we wanted the old girl to pull through with a passion. But when it came time to get rid of her, I can’t say any of us was out there waving banners. We were glad the war was over and wanted to get on with our lives. Had she been an American ship I have no doubt they would have preserved her as a museum and made a movie about her, the whole works. But not the British. Everybody loves our naval history except us. We truly are an unsentimental bunch. Sometimes it’s a pity, for some things, like the Warspite, are actually worth preserving.” A memorial to the ship now stands nearby, a small reminder of a ship that had served its purpose, defending a worldwide empire for 30 years and during some of its darkest days. It reads “HMS Warspite 1915 - 1945 Ran aground and broken up on these rocks 1947, her final haven. Known to all who served aboard her as The Grand Old Lady. May she with many gallant shipmates rest in peace.”