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Warspite: the very name is evocative of tales of daring and Royal Navy grandeur. There have been eight ships called Warspite in the Royal Navy, but to most, the name is associated with the 7th ship, the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Warspite, arguably the best battleship to ever serve in the Royal Navy.
The Name Warspite
The name Warspite’s origins are cloudy and uncertain. It may well have been 'War(spight)', itself a contraction of 'despight', meaning contemptuous defiance; another explanation is that it was originally 'Woodspite', a woodpecker - a bird which punched holes in wood with it’s beak much as a wooden warship would punch holes in the wooden sides of the opposition with it’s cannon. The woodpecker was part of Warspite’s unofficial crest.
The first Warspite - Launched in March 1596 (or thereabouts), she was some 650 tons, with 36 guns and a crew of 12 in harbour, but 300 at sea. In June of 1596 she took part in the attack on Cadiz by 150 of Elizabeth I's ships. Her captain was Sir Walter Raleigh. The first Warspite appears in a very early ‘navy list’ dated 1603.
Her last action was in March 1627, when along with 83 other ships they embarked 10,000 men and sailed from Stokes Bay to support the Huguenots in Western France. This poorly trained-for expedition was a failure. In 1634, Warspite had been cut down to a hulk for harbour use.
The second Warspite - In 1666, the name was revived with a new ship launched at Blackwall. She was of 64 guns and was commanded by Robert Robinson as a new ship. That same year, she played a part in the capture of the French ship Rubis (900 tons, 54 guns). In May 1672, she was seen in action against the Dutch off Southwold in the Battle of Sole Bay. In 1678, peace once more returned, and the navy declined as a result. Warspite took part in the siege of Cork in September 1690. 1692 saw her at the Battles of Barfleur and the Hague. These victories over France secured the throne for William, and a pleasant outcome for sailors was that the palace at Greenwich was converted into a hospital for sick and injured seafarers.
In 1701-2, Warspite was rebuilt at Rotherhithe and reappeared as a ship of 952 tons and 70 guns whence she joined Sir Cloudsiley-Shovell’s squadron in the war against Spain. In August 1712, Warspite was paid off in Woolwich, and went into reserve. She was sold off in 1715 when she was renamed Edinburgh, under which name she survived until being scrapped in 1771 at the ripe old age of 105.
The third Warspite - Launched in 1758, of 1,580 tons and 74 guns, she was a third rate ship costing £9,440 12s 11d, a new type of ‘line of battle’ ship. She was commanded by Captain John Bentley. In those days, a ‘74’ was the backbone of the fleet, rather like a modern cruiser.
In 1778, she was turned over to become a hospital ship, and in 1783, she became a receiving ship. In 1800, she was sold out of the navy, becoming the Arundel, but only survived one year before being scrapped.
The fourth Warspite - Also a 74-gun ship, but was far larger at 1,890 tons. She also cost a lot more at £59,725. At her commissioning in 1807, she was commanded by the Honourable Henry Blackwood. Blackwood had been aboard the Victory with Nelson in action against the French and Spanish in October 1805 and was greatly respected by Nelson.
In 1846 the fourth Warspite was paid off into reserve and was loaned to the Marine Society in May 1862 as a training ship for boys. She was still serving as a training ship in 1876 when she was destroyed by a fire.
The fifth Warspite - Originally named Conqueror, a second rate ship of 2,845 tons built in 1833. Renamed Warspite in 1876, she was lent to the Marine Society to carry on their good work.
The fifth Warspite was the first with the name to have steam engines developing 500 ihp. Sail was, however, her main means of propulsion. Her armament was still very much the same as that of the ships that fought at Trafalgar, being armed with smooth bore muzzle loaders. In 1918 she followed her predecessor into a fiery grave.
The sixth Warspite - An Imperieuse-class armoured cruiser launched at Chatham on the 29th January 1884, and commissioned in 1886. She was of 8,400 tons and was originally a fully rigged ship, but was cut down to military masts. With 8,000 ihp, she could attain 17 knots. She was 315 feet long with a beam of 62 feet. She was armed with four 9.2 inch breech loaders, one forward, one aft, and one on either beam, and a secondary battery of ten 6 inch guns, all mounted singly on the broadside.
Initially, she took part in naval manoeuvres in home waters for the first two years of her life, from 1890 to 93. She was flagship of the Pacific Station during this commission. The ships mascot, a llama, approached the Admiral from behind during a church service, and took a bite out of his left epaulette. Apparently, dignity was only maintained with great difficulty.
On her return from this command Warspite was flagship at Queenstown until 1899 when she returned to the Pacific Station. In 1904 she was put up for sale, and on the 4th April 1905 she was sold for scrap to T. W. Wards of Preston. She was broken up at Preston starting in the October of that year.
The seventh Warspite - The Queen Elizabeth-class battleship and the subject of this article.
The eight Warspite - A Valiant-class nuclear attack submarine, launched in 1965. She was the second and final boat in the class.
The decision to build the Queen Elizabeth-class of so-called 'super-dreadnoughts' stems from rumours that the Germans were planning an increase in gun calibre for their next class of ships. In 1912 it had been intended to build three battleships of an improved Iron Duke-class and a single battle cruiser, but worries over Germany, and the certainty that both the American and Japanese navies were building ships with 14” guns, prompted Britain to go one better with the 15” gun. Vickers, the gun manufacturer, had assured the Admiralty that the 15” gun with a 1920 lb shell was perfectly feasible. With this confidence, plans for a new class of ship were rushed forwards. This was initially a modified Iron Duke with five twin 15” turrets.
However, this proved to be a much larger, heavier, and more costly vessel. It was then accepted that an eight-gun ship with four turrets, each gun firing a 1,920 lb shell, had a broadside weight of 15,360 lbs, whereas ten 13.5” guns firing a 1,400 lb shell each had a broadside weight of 14,000 lbs, less than the eight 15”, and thus the four-turret design was accepted. Another advantage of the four-turret ship was that the space occupied by the Q turret amidships could be used for more powerful engines and the necessary boilers to power them.
Although the navy had fast battlecruisers, it was now thought that fast battleships would be safer: not only would they have the speed to run down an enemy they would have the armour to protect them in battle, unlike a battlecruiser. To obtain a speed of 25 knots, coal-firing would no longer be able to provide the power without taking up too much internal space with the large number of boilers needed, so the greater thermal efficiency of oil-firing was accepted. The only drawback to this was that, while Britain had plentiful stocks of good steam coal, she had little oil of her own. To get around this, Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, bought a large number of shares in the Iranian Oil Company, thus assuring a plentiful supply of oil. One failure with the oil-firing of these ships was the decision to stay with large tube boilers; small tube boilers would have delivered the power they really needed, and also saved weight.
The 1912 order-books now consisted of four fast battleships, the battlecruiser being replaced by a fourth battleship. The Federated Malay States then offered to pay for another ship so the four became five. Their names were in future build order : Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, Barham, Valiant, and Malaya, named in honour of the Malay States who paid for her construction. A sixth ship was to be the Agincourt. She was to have been built by the Portsmouth dockyard but was cancelled on 26th August 1914 before she was laid down.
Although a highly successful design and a great step forward from previous designs, too much had been attempted on too small a ship, so that a number of compromises had to be made. Horizontal protection against plunging fire and bombs, although improved, was still lacking, and the design was rather badly overweight, making achieving the design speed difficult, if not downright impossible.
Little information remains on the construction of Warspite due to the destruction of the records office at Devonport by a World War II bomb, and no records exist at all of her sea-trials.
Warspite’s keel was laid at HM’s Devonport Dockyard on the 31st of October 1912 by Mrs. Stokes, the wife of the Dockyard Superintendent. While the hull was under construction at Devonport, the machinery was being built by Hawthorn Leslie at Newcastle on Tyne, the gun mountings by Vickers at their Elswick shops. As for the guns themselves, four were constructed by the Vickers River Don works in Sheffield and the other four at William Beardmore’s Parkhead works outside of Glasgow.
Her launch date arrived on the 26th of November 1913, and was conducted by the construction manager, Mr. A. E. Richards. The ceremony itself was performed by Mrs. Austen Chamberlain and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The crowd of onlookers was estimated at 30,000. Apart from her weight of 12,000 tons at launch, Warspite was of a new design, more powerful than any other battleship of its day, and the class were the first wholly oil-fired battleships in the world. In fact, this was the first oil-fired ship built by Devonport. The launch went perfectly, even though the great weight of the ship was of concern, and she was brought up, using her own anchors, in the Hamoaze prior to tugs moving her to the North yard for completion.
Lord John Fisher at this time was doing everything he could to reduce the weight of the ship through the removal of what he termed 'luxuries' so that she could make a better speed. He wanted Warspite and her sisters to be able to keep up with the battlecruisers, but his efforts were in vain: Warspite never bettered (or even reached) her design speed of 25 knots; on trials she reached 24.5 knots.
On the 8th of March 1915, Warspite was commissioned into the Royal Navy with Gunnery Specialist Captain E. M. Philpotts in command. Her Executive officer was Commander H. T. Walwyn (latterly Vice-Admiral Sir Humphrey Walwyn KCSI, KCMG, CB, DSO). Her crew boarded on the 5th of April 1915, and she arrived at Scapa Flow on the 13th of April 1915 to join the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet.
Warspite was the second ship of the five Queen Elizabeth battleships, and when they were all complete they served in the 5th Battle Squadron, which had been formed specially for them.
Length: 644’ 07”
Beam: 90’ 06”
Draft: 34’ 2.5” at full load.
Displacement: 27,500 tons standard and 33,410 tons full load (as built).
In the 1924/5 refit, anti-torpedo bulges were added to the ship. These covered a large proportion of the length of the ship, starting approximately 90 feet from the bow and stern. They increased her beam to 104 feet, and at this time her two funnels were also trunked into a single larger funnel.
Machinery (as built): Quadruple screws driven by Parsons direct drive steam turbines developing a maximum of 75,000 shp at 300 rpm. These were supplied with steam at 285 psi from 24 Yarrow large tube boilers, split into four separate groups of six boilers each.
Fuel capacity: 3,300 tons of oil and 100 tons of coal, her range was about 8,500 miles at 10 knots and 4,000 miles at 21 knots.
Electrical power: Two 450 KW and two 200 KW alternators, and an emergency diesel alternator of 200 KW.
The original layout of the turbines was very similar to that of the preceding Iron Duke-class with the HP turbines driving the wing propeller shafts and the low pressure turbines driving the inner shafts. Cruising turbines were fitted by way of a gear drive to forward end of the of the HP turbines.
During the 1934-37 rebuild her boilers and main engines were replaced with six Admiralty three-drum boilers with super-heaters, the four propellers now driven by single reduction Parsons geared turbines of 80,000 shp. Due to additional weight gained during the refit, her speed was now 23.5 knots and the modified bunker capacity of 3,500 tons of oil gave her a range of 7,400 miles at 12 knots.
Main Battery Armament
The Queen Elizabeth-class were built at great risk: the normal proving of a new gun was bypassed to allow the guns to be made in time for them to be fitted. If this had not been done then they would have had to be fitted with the 13.5” weapon fitted to the preceding Iron Duke-class. The man responsible for this great rush was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who wanted the ships built quickly and to be armed with the 15” gun, and the man who made it happen was Rear Admiral Gordon Moore, the Director of Naval Ordnance.
The main battery consisted of eight mighty breech loading 15”/42 Mark 1 guns in four twin Mark 1 turrets. The 15” gun was without a doubt the finest naval gun ever produced by the UK. It was first test fired for the Queen Elizabeth-class in 1912, and its last firing was on the Vanguard in 1954. Vanguard was fitted with the 15” turrets and guns originally intended for the 1916 Glorious-class battlecruisers – it was often said that she was the best battleship but was fitted with her great-aunt's teeth!
The 15” gun fired an armour-piercing shell weighing 1,920 lbs out to approximately 23,400 yards at 20 degrees elevation, using 428 lbs of MD 45 propellant in four quarter charges contained in 'Shallon’ silk bags. During the 1937 refit, the guns were given 30 degrees elevation, and were designated Mark 2 guns with a new shell weighing 1,938lbs and using a charge of 432 lbs of propellant. They now had a range of 32,500 yards. A shell covering this distance would take slightly over a minute to arrive at its target.
While very powerful, the gun also had a very good wear rate, and could fire 330 to 340 rounds with a full charge before needing relining. They were constructed of a steel liner inside a steel inner or A tube over this to reinforce the gun. 185 miles of thin flat wire was wound at a set tension. Over the wire winding, a steel jacket was shrunk on. The entire gun was 54 feet long and weighed about a hundred tons. The entire two-gun turret weighed a total of 770 tons.
This excellent shot shows the 15" X and Y turret guns of the Warspite, the built up nature of the barrels can be clearly seen. From the NH website.
Operating The 15" Gun
One cannot leave these guns without describing how the 70-man crew of each turret operated them. The request to load would come down from the director officer to the guns giving the shell type : Armour Piercing Capped (APC), Common Percussion Capped (CPC or Semi AP), or High Explosive (HE).
These shells would be picked from their stowage in the shell room located above the treble bottom – British warships stowed them horizontally and the USN vertically – by a pair of hydraulic grabs, and transported by overhead rails to a pair of bogeys. These bogeys could be either locked to the rotating turret trunk or locked to the ship. The shells would be placed into them whilst locked to the ship. The bogies were then unlocked and rotated so that the shell aligned up with the flash proof access doors to the trunk and the bogies relocked to the rotating turret trunk.
The shells were then rammed through flash tight doors into the lower sections of a pair of three-tiered hoists to take them up to the shell handling room located below the guns themselves. At the same time, in the magazines located above the shell rooms, the magazine crew would remove eight quarter charges from their storage canisters and pass them through flash tight doors into the turret trunk, were they would be hoisted in the upper sections of the hoists to the shell handling room.
In the shell handling room, the shells and charges would appear through another set of flash tight doors in the floor. They were then rammed from the shell hoist into the gun loading cage, and the hoists sent back down to reload. The shells were rammed into the top level of three in the gun loading cages, the quarter charges were loaded two to the second and two to the third level of the cage, and the loading cage would then be sent up through another set of flash proof doors into the gun house itself. The gun would have its breech open, and the breech would be locked (with something like a huge door bolt) to stop the gun moving during the loading process. The loading tray which connected the loading cage to the gun breech would be down.
The upper level of the loading cage would be stopped at the tray and the shell rammed home into the gun barrel by a chain rammer. The rammer would then withdraw and the cage move up to the second level where the rammer would ram home the two quarter charges (108 lbs each). The process would be repeated for the next two quarter charges, and the loading cage would be sent down to the handling room for the next round. The loading tray would retract and the breech would slam shut. The breech lock would release and the gun layers would, if in director control, align the gun to match the director pointers, or aim the gun at the target if in local control. As soon as the gun is ‘on’ the electric circuits would be closed and the gun ready light would come on in the director tower.
Guns were then usually fired in salvoes: normally all four left guns would fire followed by all four right guns. This allowed for adjusting the guns by the fall of shot from the previous salvo. Range correction was thus faster than firing eight guns together and waiting for the reload. This was the normal daylight method of firing; at night, it was usual to fire eight gun broadsides as the fall of shot could not be seen.
When all four (or eight) guns were ready, with the lights on, the directing officer would sound the warning bell and fire the guns. If this seems complex, imagine repeating it every 45 seconds. The guns were supposed to fire two rounds a minute, but in reality it was just under a minute per round.
Warspite was fitted with fourteen 6”/45 Mark 12 guns arranged singly in casemates: six per side under the foc'sle deck, and another two similar guns in shields above the casemate battery at the aft end on the foc'sle deck. These were also of wire wound construction, similar to the main battery.
They fired a 100 to 112 lb shell out to around 13,500 yards using a separate single bagged charge of 27 lbs. The rate of fire was around 6 rounds per minute. The low range was due to the guns only having a maximum elevation of 14 degrees.
These were not a successful weapon by most accounts, the casemate mounts were low in the hull and thus were very wet. In fact, they could not be used in rough weather, they could not be used against anything other than a surface target, and even if they could have been used against aircraft they were too slow in rate-of-fire and training to be of much use anyway.
The original anti-aircraft outfit was just two 3” guns. These were the late model 12-pounder Mark 1 gun, the first such gun designed as an AA weapon, but only two would not be of much use.
In the 1924/5 refit, the four boat deck 6” and the two 3” AA guns were replaced with four single 4” Mark 5 guns, an improvement but not by much.
In the 1934/7 refit, the 6” battery was reduced to 8 guns in the forward casemates, and four twin 4” HA guns were fitted in place of the single 4” on the boat decks. The AA outfit was further increased by the fitting of four eight-barrelled 2-pounder Mark 6 'Pom-Poms'. Also fitted at this time were four of the useless quad 0.5” Vickers machine guns, two each on B and X turret tops.
In a 1939, a single 3.7” howitzer was added for reasons I cannot understand. Later in 1941, the quad 0.5” MG’s were replaced with thirteen single 20 mm Oerlikon guns, and in 1942 this outfit was increased again to 29 guns.
In June 1944, the final eight 6” were removed and the light AA outfit was altered to four twin and 27 single 20 mm Oerlikons.
Due to the start of World War II and lack of time, only the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant were given the major refit that Warspite had. In these refits, the threat of air attack was at last given serious recognition and all the 6” guns were landed and the hulls plated over, allowing room for twenty 4” HA guns in 10 twin mounts; a far more satisfactory arrangement.
Originally Warspite was fitted with four beam-firing submerged 21” torpedo tubes with 20 torpedoes. They were located one pair abreast the A turret and the other abreast Y turret.
In 1930-31, the aft pair were removed, and the forward pair went the same way in the 1934-37 refit.
Service History (World War I)
The new Warspite had arrived in Scapa Flow on the 13th of April 1915, and she spent the whole of that month and May working up both at sea and in port. Her first sortie with the Grand Fleet was between the 11th and 14th of June 1915, that first summer was busy with sweeps of the North Sea. 16th September brought her first misfortune: on approaching Rosyth from Scapa Flow in misty weather, she sighted land on an unexpected bearing and promptly ran aground at 14 knots off Dunbar. Speed was high because of the possibility of submarines, and the damage was substantial but not severe. On the 22nd of September, she entered the Smiths Docks floating dock on the Tyne for repairs, these took until the 20th of November 1915 to complete.
On the 2nd of November, the 5th Battle Squadron was formed under Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas, and on the 2nd of December, Warspite joined up with the Queen Elizabeth and the Barham (Malaya and Valiant where still incomplete). The very next day, the Warspite misread a signal for eight knots as eighteen, and collided with the stern of the Barham, luckily without much damage being done to either ship, and on the 9th of December, the Warspite found herself on the way to her home port of Devonport–Guzz for repairs and leave. Sadly for her crew, Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe was not going to be deprived of one of his most important assets and repairs were rushed through, and on Christmas, Warspite was back on duty at Scapa Flow.
On the 18th of February, Malaya, and then on the 3rd of March 1916, Valiant joined up and the 5th Battle Squaron was at full strength; a formidable force of forty 15” and eighty 6” guns on modern, fast hulls. Warspite managed to keep herself out of trouble during these times. If it seems that Warspite was a troublesome black sheep and not liked by her crew, then this was not the case: one of Warspite’s greatest attributes was the wonderful morale of her crew. Throughout her life, the Warspite was a precocious and troublesome command, but never did this dampen the spirit on board. Life remained relatively quiet for the 5th Battle Squaron until the 31st of May 1916, when four of them (Queen Elizabeth was in dry dock for repairs) were involved in the Battle of Jutland.
The Battle of Jutland
Admiral David Beatty’s six battlecruisers (1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons) were supported by Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron. Initially, Beatty, in his 'let's-get-at-them' attitude, with his greater speed left Evan-Thomas’s ships behind, and was taking a severe mauling from Admiral Franz von Hipper's five battlecruisers. The tables were turned somewhat when Evan-Thomas arrived, and the immense fire power of the four Queen Elizabeths caused heavy damage on the German ships. It was in this action that Beatty lost the two battle cruisers, Queen Mary and Indefatigable, and about which he made the famous comment "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.".
Hipper’s comment on the involvement of the 5th Battle Squadron: "The new enemy fired with extraordinary rapidity and accuracy, and only the poor quality of the British ammunition saved us from disaster." – Sadly, British ammunition at this time was of very poor quality, especially the bursting charges which were Lyddite, with shells breaking up on the German armour rather than penetrating and detonating behind the armour.
Although things were now going better for the British ships, Evan-Thomas’s 5th Battle Squadron came under heavy fire. Whilst making a turn to starboard to join Jellicoe's main fleet, Warspite's troublesomeness now made a re-appearance: to avoid a collision with the Malaya, Warspite used counter rudder to port. The steering jammed and she turned, out of control, in front of the entire German High Seas fleet, who did not miss an opportunity. Warspite only regained control after two complete turns, and was steering straight for the enemy when she regained control. She was hit by at least 15 heavy and 14 medium calibre shells. At one point she was just 8,000 yards from her assailants. Damage was substantial, and with a maximum speed of only 16 knots (any more may have caused extensive flooding), Warspite was released from the battle line to steam for Rosyth.
On her way back to Rosyth, Warspite had patched up some of the holes and was now steaming at nearly full speed, which ensured that two torpedoes fired at her by a lurking U-boat missed. Warspite tried to ram the submarine, but with her steering not properly working, she narrowly missed the U-boat. She also opened fired with her 6” batteries, but the submarine escaped again.
On arrival, Warspite’s draft was found to be 35’ 06” four feet deeper than normal. Considering the damaged she received, Warspite’s structure protected her men well: only 14 were killed and 17 injured. She remained under repair until the 4th of July 1916. Holes and damage were plated over, but it was not until her refit in 1934-36 that the full repair of the damage was completed. Even then, some of the damage remained with her for the rest of her life. Men passing through her aft compartments near the steering gear may not have realised that the unevenness of the decks were a result of Jutland, and her steering troubles were to rear their heads again and again, much to her future captains' anxiety.
Post-Jutland, things were now fairly quiet for the 5th Battle Squadron and Warspite. In February 1917, Beatty succeeded Jellicoe as Admiral of the Grand Fleet, and his flag was hoisted in the Queen Elizabeth as the flagship. This started a tradition of either the Queen Elizabeth or the Warspite flying the white flag with St. George's Cross of a full admiral, being Commander-in-Chief of either the Home or Mediterranean Fleets, which lasted until 1941.
On the 18th of August 1917, one month after rejoining the 5th Battle Squadron, Warspite was at sea for a night exercise when her rudder jammed again. Fortunately, control was soon restored, but in the dark and at close stations with her 5th Battle Squadron sisters it caused a lot of worry. Then, a few days later, while returning to her berth in Scapa Flow, her steering once more jammed and she collided the Valiant, which was underway for exercises. Damage was serious, a court-martial held both ships to blame and were reprimanded. Captain Philpotts's reprimand was later annulled. She sailed immediately for repairs which lasted until the 29th of September 1917. On the 19th of December, Philpotts was relieved by Captain C.M. de Bartolome.
In 1918, Warspite, along with 30 other battleships, four battlecruisers, twenty-six cruisers and eighty-four destroyers, put to sea to attack Admiral Reinhard Scheer’s High Seas Fleet, which had put to sea to attack a convoy. Fortunately for Scheer, his fleet had cancelled the operation and was already returning to base, so no action took place. The rest of the war was spent with Warspite and her sisters carrying out sweeps and operations from Scapa Flow.
On the 21st of November 1918, the German High Seas Fleet steamed to Rosyth to surrender at 0230 hours. Warspite, now under the command of Captain Hubert Lynes, had left Rosyth with the rest of the fleet and formed up into two giant columns of thirty to forty capital ships, and at 0900 went to action stations with their guns trained onto their former enemy. The light cruiser Cardiff made initial contact, and at 0930, led the German fleet between the two British lines. By noon, the High Seas Fleet was anchored off Rosyth. The war was over.
Service History (Interbellum)
In 1918, Warspite was fitted with flying-off platforms. These were simply a short take-off runway fitted to the superfiring B and X turrets. Take-off was achieved by simply pointing the gun into the wind and hoping the low take-off speed of the aircraft then used – Sopwith Strutters or similar – would be attained in the 75 feet available. The planes were intended to be used as observation craft for spotting the fall of shot and would land ashore after use.
Postwar, major changes in the fleets occurred. In April 1919, Beattie’s flag came down for the last time on the Queen Elizabeth’s mast, and the Grand Fleet ceased to be, the ships being dispersed to peaceful flag showing missions around the world. With the demise of the Grand Fleet, the two principal fleets were the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets. Warspite served with the Atlantic fleet from 1919 to 1926, and 1931 to 1933.
The Royal Navy went through large changes in these years. Economy was now needed, which hastened the demise of many old ships. This scrapping of ships was increased by the 1921 Washington Conference, in which Britain accepted parity in naval strength with the United States in the numbers of capital ships. However, knowing her needs to protect her Empire, Britain kept her cruiser strength. These negotiations were mainly the responsibility of Admiral Beattie who became First Sea Lord on the 1st of November 1919.
In 1919 and the following two years, Warspite participated in a spring cruise to the Mediterranean to conduct manoeuvres with the Mediterranean fleet before returning to Northern waters. 1921 and the national coal and rail strikes saw Warspite in the Clyde as a show of force. However, the crew spent a lot of time tactfully playing football with the strikers.
1924’s spring cruise to the Mediterranean saw Warspite’s first visit to Malta, a port with which she would be well-acquainted in the coming years. She returned home in July 1924 for the Spithead review, where approximately 200 Royal Navy ships took part, including most of the Queen Elizabeth-class. The ships were arranged in ten columns, with the two battleship columns lead by the Queen Elizabeth and the Barham, Warspite was third in line astern of Barham. Following this, Warspite was Guardship at the Cowes Week yachting regatta before she was then paid off at Portsmouth for a major refit.
During the 1924-26 refit, to counter the increased threat of torpedo attack, the ship was fitted with anti-torpedo bulges. These ran for virtually the length of the hull, from just short of the keel to six feet above the water line. These water tight compartments were meant to explode the torpedo away from the main hull. As well as being split into many fore and aft compartments, they were split in two horizontally to restrict flooding. The bulges further reduce her speed to 23.5 knots. The rather useless aircraft platforms were removed and the four boat deck 6” guns were exchanged for four single 4” HA anti-aircraft guns. she was also fitted with two 2-pounder 'pom-pom' light anti-aircraft guns. Her displacement rose from 27,500 to 31,300 tons.
Warspite recommissioned into the Mediterranean Fleet at Portsmouth on the 6th of April 1926, with 54 officers and 871 crew under Rear Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. She joined the Mediterranean fleet with all four of her sisters, and formed the newly re-instated 1st Battle Squadron. Before sailing for the Mediterranean, Warspite once again found herself involved in a strike. The general strike broke out on the 3rd of May. and she sailed for Greenock where her crew guarded Princes Dock. On the 12th of May, the strike ended and she sailed for the Mediterranean.
Warspite spent the next eighteen months as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet before handing over to the Queen Elizabeth, and became a private ship with Captain James F. Somerville in command. Times were now much quieter for her, but on the 12th July 1928 she hit an uncharted rock in the Aegean, off Skiathos, and she returned home for repairs. An inquiry acquitted her officers of any blame, as the charts in use were ‘imperfect’, being based on an 1887 survey.
On the 22nd of January 1929 she recommissioned into the Mediterranean Fleet again, but although due to assume the flag once more, engine problems delayed this until the 18th of November, when Admiral Sir Frederick Field hoisted his flag. This turned out to be short-lived and the Queen Elizabeth took over again. In May 1930, Warspite, Valiant, and Barham now joined the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet. Spring and summer were routinely passed on fleet manoeuvres in the Mediterranean for a number of years until the 21st of March 1933. Warspite, with the Valiant astern, was returning home to Portsmouth from Gibraltar. Steaming through dense fog off the River Tagus, Warspite was rammed on the starboard side by the Rumanian steamer Peles. The damage was mainly above water, and a cofferdam was built around the damage to allow her to continue to Portsmouth.
In May 1933, Warspite returned to service with the 2nd Battle Squadron, but in just six months she was sent to reserve. Major funds had been allocated to update the major units of the Royal Navy/ Under the treaties of the early 1920’s, the Royal Navy was permitted to have 15 capital ships. The Nelson and Rodney were the only new ships built, and only the five ships of the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge-classes remained along with the three battlecruisers – Hood, Renown, and Repulse. Rather than build new ships, it was decided to save money and rebuild the existing ships. Warspite and Renown were to be the first ships to undergo this rebuilding.
Now nearly 20 years old, Warspite had virtually all structures apart from the gun houses above the upper deck removed. Next, all boilers and main machinery were removed. The engine rooms were now subdivided into eight separate spaces and the boiler rooms divided longitudinally into six spaces. The inner bottoms were also completely rebuilt - another first for Warspite and the Admiralty. The 24 Yarrow boilers were replaced with just six new Admiralty type boilers. New Parsons geared turbines replaced the old, the original two funnels were also replaced with a single large funnel to give more room for anti-aircraft weapons. Armour plating was improved, the decks now being 5 1/2 inches thick over the machinery and magazines.
Whilst all this was going on, the guns were modernised by Vickers Armstrong. To permit removal of the guns, the turret roofs were removed and guns lifted out. To increase the elevation, and thus the range of the guns, the trunnions were raised, permitting an elevation of 30 degrees and a new maximum range of 32,000 yards. New shells were also designed to overcome earlier deficiencies and these were more streamlined to help increase their range.
The secondary batteries were also greatly modified. Half the 6” casemate-mounted guns were removed, leaving just the midships four on each side. The single 4” guns were also removed, but replaced with four twin 4” AA mounts, two on each side, above the 6” batteries. To further increase the anti-aircraft capabilities, two platforms were built on each side of the funnel, and a total of four eight-barrelled 2-pounder 'pom-poms' installed. These guns were nicknamed 'Chicago Pianos' by the seamen who manned them. On the roofs of B and X turrets were mounted two quadruple 0.5” Vickers machine guns. New fire control equipment was also installed. Elliots of Lewisham made the equipment for the 15” and 6” batteries, and Vickers Armstrong at Barrow that for the anti-aircraft batteries. The immense amount of new electrical equipment resulted in the entire ship being rewired.
Aft of the new funnel, two hangers were built along with a single cross-ship catapult for two Fairey Swordfish spotter floatplanes. To recover the planes, two deck cranes were installed. The planes were manned by the Fleet Air Arm. A new impressive citadel-type bridge structure similar to that of the Nelson-class was also constructed. This entirely altered the look of the ship and provided space for the needs of a flagship and for the new weapons system controls. It was also gas-proof.
On the 8th of March 1937, Warspite left the shipyard to begin an exhausting series of trials. Just four days later, steaming at full speed during engine trials, her helm jammed hard a-starboard again. Although a new steering system had been installed her capriciousness was unchanged. Her trials produced just over 80,000 shaft horse power and 23.84 knots .
On the 18th of March, her wicked fairy re-appeared. She was conducting main battery trials: these were initially at maximum depression, followed by maximum elevation to test both the gun mountings and the ship's structure. During the maximum elevation shoot, two of the eight 15” rounds, weighing close to a ton each, landed virtually alongside a Royal Mail liner. She was 16 miles away but remained unseen in the misty weather. The liner's captain reported that this event caused alarm amongst her 800 passengers.
On the 29th of June she recommissioned, her original crew of 993 men now numbered 1,183. The roominess that the class were renowned for somewhat diminished. War was to see this number rise still further to 1,218 men. Captain V. A. C. Crutchley was now in command. His predecessor, Captain F. H. W. Goolden, had advised of Warspite’s steering problems, so Crutchley carried out his own tests at full speed, and sure enough, the helm jammed yet again. However, the wicked fairy was not satisfied with this, and on return to port, grinding noises were heard from a set of turbine gearing. Further repairs and tests took until January 1938.
The crew of Warspite were drawn from Chatham, but the ship was based at Portsmouth. This, along with the prolonged hard work of the extended trials, added to the hardships of the ship being in port (Portsmouth), but not the home port of the crew. This made home leave difficult and gave fuel to a small minority of the crew to stir up trouble. Although this was sorted out onboard, details were leaked to the press. Once this occurred, the Admiralty had to act, and Admiral Max Horton conducted an inquiry. The inquiry was quite far-reaching, and as a consequence, the Commander, 1st Lieutenant, and the Captain of the Marines were relieved. In addition, three ratings were discharged and ten other men sent to other ships.
Additional pressure had been placed on the ship, as she was due to take over as flagship on arrival in the Mediterranean, thus giving the crew a tremendous task of cleaning and painting a ship that, in reality, was in a serious mess due to the extended repair and rebuilding. The pressure here was from Admiral Dudley Pound, who wanted his recalcitrant flagship on station. Her new crew now numbered 1,248: there were 260 in the engineering branch, 480 in the seaman’s branch, who, along with 143 in the Royal Marines, were responsible for the manning of the guns. The remainder belonged to diverse departs such as catering, torpedomen (who bizarrely looked after the electrical equipment – Warspite carried no torpedoes at this time), signalmen, telegraphists, Fleet Air Arm, Paymaster's staff, etc.
On the 5th of January 1938, Warspite finally left Portsmouth for Malta, with only a brief two hour pause at Gibraltar, arriving on the 14th of January. She then commenced a two week working-up period. In spite of the shortness of time, she acquitted herself very well and it became obvious to all that she was not only a very smart but very efficient ship. However, her wicked fairy made another appearance: at the end of a series of anti-aircraft firing tests she was returning to port when the plane towing the target flew past the ship still towing the target. A very green midshipman on one of the pom-poms opened fire on his own accord. Unfortunately, the plane was between the ship and Malta. Luckily the shells missed Valetta, but did nothing for inter-navy and army cordiality, as they peppered a platoon of the Green Howard’s on a rifle range. Fortunately, no injuries or damage resulted, and a visit of apology closed the matter. On the 6th of February 1938, Pound boarded his flagship for the first time and in his speech was plain angry, but this did not dismay the Warspite’s crew; it just made them more determined to prove him wrong.
In March, Warspite sailed as flagship with the Mediterranen Fleet on exercise and a cruise of the Mediterranean. Whilst at Gibraltar, the men of Warspite provided the entertainment in the form of a review title “What’s The Delay?”, a satire on her turbulent arrival in the Mediterranean. This went down very well and amused the whole audience greatly, although it was a little harsh on the dockyard. Over this period of enjoyment hung the stormclouds of the future. Hitler had annexed Austria on the 11th of March, and the fleet continued with almost continuous exercises over the next weeks and months.
In August, Warspite took part in a fleet gunnery exercise. She launched her spotter plane, sighted the target, and opened fire at 21,000 yards. Reports from the plane indicated the shots went just over. Warspite corrected, then fired 40 salvoes, shredding both targets. During this time, she also successfully engaged towed targets with her anti-aircraft armament. Pound was delighted with his flagship and the good gunnery of Warspite was established.
In September, cruises to Greece were cancelled, and the fleet assembled at its war base at Alexandria. The Munich agreement was signed on the 30th of September 1938, and the fleet relaxed a little. In June 1939 due to the illness of Sir Roger Backhouse, Pound returned to Britain to take over as First Sea Lord The next day Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham (or 'ABC' as he was known) hoisted his flag on the Warspite. Cruises of the Mediterranean continued but on a wary footing .
On the 1st of September 1939, the fleet held it’s annual pulling regatta. It ended on the day war broke out. Warspite’s log gives details of the regatta but does not mention the war.
Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham - 'ABC'
Service History (World War II)
Warspite’s motto, "I despise the hardships of war", was to be sorely tested over the next years of her life. 1939 and the beginning of World War II saw her in the Mediterranean, with Captain Crutchley in command. She was Admiral Cunningham’s flagship with the 1st Battle Squadron, comprising the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships Warspite, Barham, and Malaya along with the aircraft carrier Glorious, three heavy and three light cruisers, and three destroyer flotillas. At this time Italy was still sitting on the fence but greatly overshadowed the British fleet, especially in the numbers of cruisers and destroyers. Although the Mediterranean Fleet was outnumbered, events with the Home Fleet had also left if severely overstretched, so in early November 1939, Cunningham lost his only modern battleship. First Sea Lord Admiral Pound apologised for taking his flagship, to which Cunningham replied: "Losing her is a blow, but not un-expected".
Via a dry-docking in Malta, Warspite set off to join the Home Fleet. Her first task was to escort a convoy across the Atlantic. This was a time when the risk of German commerce raiders was at its height, and several attacks on convoys were prevented by the presence of a battleship. On the return journey with convoy HX9 from Halifax to the UK, the Rawalpindi was attacked on the evening of the 23rd of November 1939 by what she thought was an armoured cruiser of the Deutschland-class, but was actually the two sister battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. On the 24th, Warspite was ordered to leave the convoy and search for the enemy forces. On this occasion, better intelligence allowed the battlecruisers to evade the British patrols.
Warspite then sailed for Portsmouth, but en route on the 4th Decembe, Admiral Forbes's flagship of the Home Fleet, HMS Nelson, set off a magnetic mine in the entrance to Loch Ewe, and was put out of action. Thus, Warspite was diverted to Greenock, where Forbes hoisted his flag on the Warspite. Thus, in the space of 3 months, she had been flagship to both major fleets.
On the 7th of April, Warspite was on her way back to the Mediterranean when she was diverted back north. The Germans had invaded Norway and she was ordered back to take part in the counterattack. Two days later, the first Battle of Narvik took place between 5 British destroyers and ten larger, more heavily armed German destroyers. This battle was equal in ships lost: two German destroyers were sunk and two damaged, but the Hardy and Hunter were lost. In addition, six enemy cargo vessels were also sunk.
After a failed air attack, Warspite with nine destroyers, led by Vice Admiral W. J. Whitworth, went into Ofotfjord (Narvik Fjord) with the objective of finishing off the remaining eight destroyers. The date was Saturday, the 12th of April 1940, normally a cleaning day and famously the order ‘clean up mess-decks and flats’ was amended to 'clean up mess-decks and fjords'.
Once well in the fjord, Warspite catapulted off her Swordfish spotter plane. This turned out to probably be the best use of a spotter plane in any fleet action: an enemy destroyer was hidden up a side creek of the fjord, ready to use her torpedoes as the fleet passed by. However, the Swordfish signaled this back to the flagship, and the unfortunate destroyer ended up on the receiving end of the entire fleet's guns. This was the first time Warspite’s guns had been fired in anger since the Battle of Jutland back in 1916. The aircraft also spotted the U-boat U-64 and sank her with a bomb, the first U-boat to be sunk by air attack.
The attack was a typical destroyer action: fast and furious, with Warspite steaming around in the smoke of battle, engaging whenever a target appeared. All eight destroyers were sunk or destroyed, with Warspite firing 64 salvoes (32 rounds per gun). Only two British ships, the Eskimo and Cossack were damaged. The Kriegsmarine lost the Georg Thiele, Hans Ludemann, Hermann Kunne, Diether von Roder, Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Giese, Erich Koellner, and Bernd von Arnim. One of Warpsite’s gun crew reported the only difficulty in the battle was that every time their turret fired, the tea kettle kept hot on the electric radiator in the turret had to be lifted off to prevent it spilling.
On the 27th of April 1940, Captain D. B. Fisher took over from Crutchley, and she sailed from Scapa Flow to Greenock were she took on stores and sailed for the Mediterranean. On the 10th of May, after a worrying passage through the Mediterranean, she arrived at Alexandria. The next day, Cunningham re-hoisted his flag on his beloved Warspite. Pound wrote “You must be glad to find yourself back in Warspite again, I have not envied your position for the last eight months but I do now”. Although pleased to have his flagship and a modernised battleship back under his command, Warspite badly needed docking and immediately went into dry-dock. She was ready for service on the 24th of May, which was fortunate for, on the 11th of June, Italy declared war on the UK.
Warspite’s next major action took place in early July 1940. Cunningham had sailed from Alexandria with virtually his entire fleet to cover two convoys from Malta to Alexandria. The fleet was split into three parts: Cunningham in Warspite with five destroyers, Vice Admiral J. C. Tovey with five 6" gun cruisers and a single destroyer, and finally Rear Admiral Pridham-Wippell with the battleships Malaya and Royal Sovereign, the aircraft carrier Eagle, and ten destroyers. It soon became apparent from British submarine reports that the Italian fleet of two Conte di Cavour-class 12” gun battleships, six 8" and ten 6" gun cruisers plus 32 destroyers were going to attempt to interfere with these convoys. Although Britain had three battleships to the Italians' two, the Malaya and Royal Sovereign had never been modernised, and were considerably slower (especially the latter) than Warspite. Their gun range was also only 23,500 yards compared to Warspite’s 32,000. The carrier Eagle was also sadly lacking, having only a handful of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers and just two Gloster Sea Gladiator fighters with which to defend the fleet.
The fleet was first attacked by Italian land-based bombers, who gleefully broadcast that they had heavily hit and set fire to a British battleships. This caused great amusement in the British fleet, as the ship 'on fire' was in fact the Royal Sovereign, doing her best to keep up and producing huge volumes of smoke into the bargain. First contact between the fleets was marked by the cruiser Neptune’s signal “Enemy battle fleet in sight.” It was the first time since Southampton at Jutland in 1916 that this signal had been made by a British ship, and the last time this signal had been made in the Mediterranean was in Admiral Horatio Nelson’s days.
Tovey was now in a very difficult situation, with the entire horizon covered by Italian ships, all concentrating on the five light cruisers at 1526. Warspite, now well ahead of Pridham-Wippell in Malaya and the Royal Sovereign, opened fire on the lead Italian battleship. Warspite’s 15” salvos caused the Italian cruisers to turn away under smoke, and undoubtedly saved Tovey's cruisers from serious harm.
For a while, firing ceased due to the smoke. Then at 1550, Warspite re-opened fire on an Italian battleship at 29,000 yards, and a few minutes later hit the Giulio Cesare at a range of 26,000 yards. This hit remains the longest range hit on a moving target achieved without the use of radar. The effect on the Giulio Cesare was substantial: the shell caused severe damage to her anti-aircraft armament on the upper-decks and penetrated several decks into a boiler room, were it put four boilers out of action, reducing the battleship to 18 knots.
At once, the enemy turned away under smoke. At this time, Britain could read the Regia Marina's codes, and understood this manoeuvre was to lure the British ships into the smoke and a submarine-led torpedo attack. Cunningham therefore did not fall for this ruse, apart from a few small skirmishes between the Italian light forces as they appeared through the smoke-screen and the British fleet. During this period, the Malaya had finally caught up with Warspite and joined in but with little effect.
On the way back to their respective bases the British and Italian fleets were both attacked with impartiality by the Regia Aeronautica, and the angry intercepted signals from the Italian admiral greatly cheered the British ships. Warspite alone counted 300 misses by bombs, but the fleet and the convoys arrived at Alexandria safely.
In August 1940, Warspite was at sea with newly rebuilt sister-ship Valiant and the carrier Illustrious when a flight of planes was sighted. Warspite’s Air Defence Officer reported "Aircraft on Red 30 are friendly" when one of her air lookouts reported "Friendly aircraft Red 30 – friendly bombs released". In spite of the serious situation, this caused great amusement to all on board.
Cape Matapan, 1941
The following months were spent on convoy escort duties with occasional shore bombardments. The next fleet action took place on the 28/29th of March 1941, south west of Crete, off the island of Gavdo and Cape Matapan, Greece.
In this action called the Battle of Cape Matapan, Warspite, Barham, and the Valiant under Cunningham, along with light forces again under Pridham-Wippell, attempted to bring the Italian fleet under Admiral Iachino to battle. Whilst this did not come to pass, during a brilliant night manoeuvre Valiant’s new radar set was used to full advantage, and the three Battleships crossed ahead of two Italian heavy cruisers and four destroyers ('crossing the ‘T’'). In the space of just a few minutes, three of the Italian ships were reduced to sinking wrecks. The two cruisers, Zara and Fiume, sank quickly, and the destroyer Alfieri was finished off by a torpedo from the destroyer Stuart.
This action was confusing for both sides. Initially, the Pola, another heavy cruiser, had been damaged and stopped by a torpedo from Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers. Iachino had sent the Zara and Fiume (her sister ships) plus the destroyers back to assist the Italian ships. He had not the slightest idea that Cunningham was anywhere in the area. The Italians had not contemplated a night action and their guns were not manned
Cunningham however was intending a night time action and was searching for the stopped ship believing it might have been the Italian flagship Vittorio Veneto, a modern battleship which had been damaged earlier by Albacores from Formidable. Unfortunately for the Italians, they did not see the British battle squadron until they opened fire. Warpite's action report is both amazing and shocking in the speed and severity of the attack:
2225 & 30 secs -The Italian ships were sighted at 2225 &30 secs fine on the starboard bow, and the course was altered to port to cross ahead of the Italian ships steaming in line ahead.
2227 & 15 secs - All guns, 15" & 6" plus searchlights were trained on the targets.
2227 & 45 secs - The destroyer Greyhound illuminated the hapless Italian ships.
2227 & 55 secs - Order given: open fire.
2228 & 00 secs - Warspite opens with a six gun salvo at 2,900 yards and scores either 5 or 6 hit. The lead enemy cruiser bursts into flame from the bridge to the aft gun turret.
2228 & 10 secs - First 6" gun salvo. Valiant continued to fire on the first ship.
2228 & 40 secs - Warspite fires second broadside of eight 15" AP. Most of these hit; target destroyed and on fire. Fire shifts to second cruiser.
1029 & 18 secs - Eight-gun AP broadside fired at second cruiser at a range of 3,500 yards. Most of these hit and target bursts into flame.
A general melee of firing at the following destroyers followed. In all, Warspite fired 40 rounds of 15" AP and 44 rounds of 6" HE.
Two Italian destroyers were finished off by the British destroyers, as was the damaged heavy cruiser Pola, while Cunnigham broke off the action to resume his search for the Vittorio Veneto. Unfortunately she had returned to port, so Cunningham retired to Alexandria, being ineffectually bombed by the Luftwaffe on the way.
Post-Matapan, Cunningham’s fleet, including Warspite, carried out several shore bombardments. These carried a grave risk of damage or loss due to the proximity of the enemy air forces. An example of such a bombardment was Tripoli: between 0503 and 0524 on the 21st of April 1942, Cunningham’s force unloaded 530 tons of explosives onto the port. Warspite alone fired 135 rounds of 15” and 106 rounds of 6” shells. The targets were shipping in the port and the port facilities. Although much damage was done to the town, just a single ship was sunk. The effect on morale is unknown, but a bombardment of that ferocity in just 21 minutes must have been terrifying.
In early May 1941, while running a convoy through the Mediterranean, the opportunity was taken to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet, and Warspite’s newly reconstructed sister-ship Queen Elizabeth helped fight one of the convoy’s through. She was a great addition, as she was as fast as Warspite and had the same 32,000 yard gun range. Cunningham shifted his flag to the Queen Elizabeth at this time.
Crete, 1941, and Refit in the United States
This increase in strength of the Mediterranean fleet was not to last long, for on the 20th of May, Germany commenced its invasion of Crete. The Luftwaffe now attacked the fleet whenever possible, and on the 22nd of May, after two virtually continuous days of air attack, three Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter-bombers were sighted 2000 yards ahead of Warspite at an altitude of 800 feet. Due to the smoke from gunfire and previous attacks, they had manage to close on the ship without being seen.
Warspite turned hard to port, and two bombs narrowly missed her, but the third hit the forward starboard twin 4" AA gun on the foc’sle deck, abreast the funnel. This 250 kg (551 lb) semi-armour piercing bomb did a great deal of damage: the entire 4” mount was blown over the side. The resulting explosion, probably made worse by exploding ammunition, blew a large hole in the battery deck and pierced the deck below into the communications ratings mess-deck. A dangerous fire was started in the 6” battery which put out of action all four of the 6” guns. The blast further distorted the deck around the aft starboard twin 4” AA gun, placing that out of action, and smoke temporarily shut down one boiler room.
Fire parties swiftly controlled the blaze, but 137 men had been killed and another 31 wounded. The casualty figure was high partly due to off-duty ratings in the Communications Mess who had, against regulations, removed their anti-flash gear due to the heat. Although badly damaged, Warspite stayed with fleet, which then lost the destroyer Greyhound, and the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji, and on the 23rd, the famous Kelly and her sister Kashmir.
On the 24th of May, Warspite reached Alexandria, landed her wounded, and carried out temporary repairs. At this time Cunningham re-hoisted his flag in his battered flagship. It was at this time that Warspite’s final nickname was contrived. Daniel Reardon, a CPO and a veteran of Narvik who lost a leg in the bombing, added that his last look at the 'Famous Old Lady' was from a stretcher. Warspite now became the ‘Old Lady’.
Whilst receiving temporary repairs at Alexandria, Warspite was again attacked by air. On the night of the 23/24th of June, a near miss destroyed a motor boat lying alongside her starboard side. With typical stoicism a sailor remarked – “well that’s one less to hoist anyhow”
On the 26th of June, Warspite left Alexandria and passed through the Suez Canal, calling at Colombo, Singapore, Manila, Honolulu, and Esquimalt before arriving at the US Navy repair yard at Bremerton, Seattle on the 11th of August 1941. Wherever she went, immense interest was shown in her and great kindness was shown to the crew by their new American friends.
Warspite's refit needed great co-ordination: most of her 15” guns needed replacing due to barrel wear, so these great guns, weighing 100 tons each, had to specially crated and shipped singly to the United States – the risk of losing them was too great to ship them together. Once in the USA they were carried by rail to Seattle.
The opportunity was taken to give Warspite as thorough a refit as possible, and also to rest her crew, 600 of whom were sent home from Seattle. Thus, she did not return to service until January 1942.
Eastern Fleet, 1942
After recommissioning on the 21st of December, two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Warspite worked up in Canadian waters before sailing for Sydney on the 22nd of January 1942. For once, she was a lucky ship: she crossed the International Date Line on Friday the 13th of February, so officially that day did not exist; a good omen for the sailors on board.
Arriving in Sydney on the 22nd of February, Warspite carried out further exercises and training before sailing for Trincomalee, arriving on the 22nd of March. On the 27th, Captain Fisher was relieved by Captain F. E. P. Hutton, and Admiral Sir James Somerville hoisted his flag on her. Warspite, now 27 years old, became the flagship of the Eastern Fleet.
The fleet looked large on paper – five battleships, two heavy cruisers (Dorsetshire and Cornwall), five light cruisers, and a mixed bag of sixteen destroyers, plus two large and one small aircraft carrier. However, four of the battleships were the four remaining Revenge-class; slow, unmodernised, and quite unsuitable for modern warfare. Against them the Imperial Japanese Navy had five large fleet carriers, with ample heavy and light support forces.
On the 5th of April 1942, the fleet's base, Colombo, was attacked by the Japanese carrier force. Damage was small but the two heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall were caught and sunk. At this time, Somerville was using the secret base of Addu Atoll, and so the main fleet escaped greater harm. The Japanese carrier fleet then struck Trincomalee, catching the light carrier Hermes and sinking her, as well as badly damaging the port. Although Somerville had carried out air searches for the Japanese fleet to carry out a night attack, it is fortunate that the weak Eastern Fleet did not find its target. These were the very last ships Britain had to spare and would have almost certainly been lost if they had encountered the Japanese fleet. The British fleet did not return to Colombo until the Americans eradicated the Japanese carrier force at Midway in June 1942.
Warspite remained in the Indian Ocean, helping to keep the Indian Ocean convoy routes open, and in February 1943 she was part of the escort for the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, carrying the Australian Division home from the Middle East.
In March 1943, with the Indian Ocean now quiet, Warspite sailed for home, stopping off at Durban. Captain Hutton was relieved by Captain H. A. Packer. Packer had been a subbie in the Warspite’s gun room all the way back in 1915.
Return to the Mediterranean, 1943
In June 1943, Warspite was exercising in Scapa Flow, including a lot of bombardment training in readiness for the invasion of Sicily. On the 17th of June, she sailed to support Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and was once more a part of the 1st Battle Squadron. She called at Gibraltar and hoisted the flag of Rear Admiral A. W. la T. Bissett, who was second-in-command of Force H. At the end of June, Warspite shifted to Algiers. Later, she joined Valiant and Formidable at Alexandria on the 5th of July, ready for the attack on the 10th of July.
Next, the division of three ships moved to Malta, and on the 17th July sailed for Catania to bombard the shore batteries there which were causing the 8th Army problems. Valiant fouled the anti-torpedo netting and had to be left behind. Running late, Warspite worked up to her maximum speed, now 23.5 knots, and promptly suffered another steering failure, narrowly missing an escorting destroyer. Warspite finally arrived off Catania, 13 minutes late at 1843, and promptly commenced her bombardment. Ahe maintained a salvo every minute until just after 1900. Although the battery responded, it failed to hit Warspite before she silenced it. Her bombardment completed, she returned to Malta.
On the 2nd of September, Warspite and Valiant shelled shore batteries south of Reggio, in readiness for the crossing of the Straits of Messina. The Canadians landed on the next day to find the battery out of action, with seventeen shell craters around the battery. Blast and splinters had destroyed the guns.
The Italians had signed an armistice on the 3rd of September, but the announcement was not made until the 8th. In her finest hour, on the 10th of September, Warspite, at the head of the British fleet, received a part of the Regia Marina as they surrendered in Malta. On the 11th, she sailed out from Malta to meet more of the Italian fleet, including the Gulio Cesare which she fought and hit at Calabria two years ago.
Proud in her achievements, Warspite (her guns in the foreground) and Valiant lead the Italian fleet into surrender at Malta. US NH image.
On the 14th of September, Warspite, once more with Valiant and Illustrious, sailed for the Gulf of Salerno. Heavy German reinforcements were giving the American 6th Army Corps a hard time. Arriving in the midst of an air attack on the 15th, at 1752 Warspite commenced her bombardment. The American forces were very impressed with accuracy of this bombardment. All that night, Warspite was at action stations under constant air attack, and early on the 16th she moved close in-shore again.
Just after noon, Warspite opened up on enemy traffic and ammunition dumps. She was now only half a mile from the shore. At 1400, she was leaving the area when she was attacked again by 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109s. These did no damage, but they did, however, distract her from another attack at 1430. These were three planes spotted at 6,000 feet and thought to be high level bombers. They were, in fact, three FX 1400 ('Fritz X') anti-ship guided bombs. They resembled small aircraft, each weighing 3,000 lbs, dropped from Dornier Do 217 bombers.
Once directly overhead the three weapons then plummeted vertically at their target. The first bomb hit close to the funnel and entered the No. 4 boiler room. It penetrated six decks, a total of nearly 7 inches of armour, before detonating on her inner bottom. The No. 4 boiler room was totally destroyed. Flooding immediately started through a 20 x 14 foot hole in the hull, with four of the remaining five boiler rooms flooding as a consequence. Of the other two bombs, one near missed to starboard, causing flooding of the anti-torpedo bulges. The third bomb was also a near miss on the starboard side aft.
On-board Warspite, the shock of the bomb hit was massive, which gave rise to thoughts that she had broken her back. All steam and power was lost, yet amazingly, only nine men were killed and fourteen injured. The Bosun recalled amusingly being in the heads when the bomb hit and being unable to escape. He told himself to calm down and unlock the door first. 5,000 tons of water had flooded into the ship and her draft was now around six feet deeper, at 38 feet.
The light cruiser Delhi stood by to protect the now defenceless battleship while preparations were made to tow her to safety. At 1615, the American tug Hopi was connected up and moving Warspite slowly out of Salerno Bay. Soon, two more tugs were helping and speed was up to 4 knots.
Conditions on board were dire, no lighting, no water, no food, and worse, no ventilation; the heat below decks was stifling. By the next morning, her diesel generators were providing power for lighting and guns. Thankfully, no further air attacks were made and Warspite arrived at Malta on the morning of the 19th of September.
This scan of a clipping kept by my father shows Warspite arriving in Malta under tow on the morning of the 19th of September 1943; the degree of flooding is shown in her lack of freeboard.
Some temporary patching-up was done at Malta, and on the 1st of November, drawing nearly 40 feet and displacing nearly 40,000 tons, she left under tow of the tugs Restive, Jaunty, Nimble, and Orana for Gibraltar. Initially, Warspite tried to assist by steaming on one shaft at dead slow, but soon lost all steam again and had to rely on the tugs. She arrived after a tow of 1,035 miles on the 8th of November.
Initially tying up on the outer mole, she spent the 12th of November until the 28th of December in the dry-dock, but did not finally leave Gibraltar for Rosyth until the 9th of March. She was part of a convoy, who were grateful for her presence, but with just the partial use of the two forward turrets and with her speed limited, she was not what she seemed to the rest of the ships in the convoy.
Rosyth did what they could for the 'Old Lady' but she was needed for further duties, so she sailed out on just five boiler rooms. No. 4 was never repaired, and X turret remained out of action. Warspite would remain a six gun ship throughout the rest of her life.
Throughout April 1944, she carried out bombardment practices off the Firth of Forth, and in early May, she returned to Scapa Flow, ready for further duties. She managed on trials to reach 21 knots, even in this battered state.
Warspite under tow from Malta for Gibraltar, early November 1943 - tugs Restive, Jaunty, Nimble, and Orana - Warspite is powerless owing to the bomb damage received at the Salerno landings.
Normandy and Walcheren, 1944 - Warspite's Swansong
To protect the landings on the beaches of Normandy, silencing of the heavy gun emplacements on the Atlantic Wall, protected by reinforced concrete, was essential. Bombs were too inaccurate, but directed naval gunnery, with the high terminal velocity and the ability to correct the fall of shot, could destroy the heavy fortifications.
On the eastern side of the Normandy landings lay the batteries at Villerville, Benerville and Goneville. Assigned to the destruction of these batteries were the 15” gun monitor Lord Roberts, and the battleships Ramillies and Warspite, along with five cruisers and 15 destroyers under Rear Admiral W. R. Patterson, part of Rear Admiral Sir Phillip Vian’s Eastern Task Force. On the evening of the 2nd of June, Warspite sailed from Greenock for the Channel, and joined up with the rest of the Task Force. On the 5th of June, she was off the Eddystone lighthouse.
Allocated to Sword Beach, Warspite picked up the buoy marking the start of the swept channel at 0120 in the morning of D-Day, the 6th of June 1944. Preceded by 40 minesweepers, the battleship approached the coast of France. At 0525, she was stopped in position, eleven miles seaward of Le Havre, and opened fire almost immediately on the Benerville battery, Warspite’s primary target. At 0604, Warspite fought off an attack by torpedo boats and was narrowly missed by a torpedo. At 0612, she sank an attacking German patrol boat.
For the rest of the day, until just after 1800, she engaged all three shore batteries and at times, as directed, columns of enemy vehicles. Although there were three enemy gun batteries, they only once managed to straddle Warspite, causing minor splinter damage but no casualties. Of the 73 shells fired at the Villerville battery, 9 were direct hits. At 2300, she anchored for the night.
The 7th of June was spent engaging targets of opportunity, such as anti-aircraft batteries and mobile guns brought up to replace the shattered shore batteries. In the afternoon, the Benerville battery became active again and Warspite put eight four-gun salvoes into it, silencing the battery again. Following this, she returned to Portsmouth to replenish her ammunition.
On the 9th of June, she was back at the landing areas, and as the American bombardment ships were running low on ammunition, she was assigned to assist on the west side. Here, the German battery was on a narrow neck of land with a lagoon behind and a very difficult target. Firing blind without air-spotting, Warspite fired 96 rounds and silenced the enemy guns, earning a compliment on her shooting from the American forces.
On the 11th of June, she was off Gold Beach, and was requested to fire on a concentration of enemy troops in a wood. By now, the Germans, wise to these bombardments, would scatter then reform when they were finished. To circumvent this, Captain Kelsey of the Warspite gave what must be a fairly unique order for a battleship: fifty rounds, rapid fire. The British army ashore were exceedingly impressed by this trick.
The above picture shows Warspite in the opening days of the Invasion of Normandy (6th/7th June 1944) shelling the batteries of Villerville, Benerville. and Goneville. X turret is clearly shown out of action and still trained aft. Her catapult is clearly empty, so her aircraft is aloft, most likely spotting the fall of shot. A scan of a photo belonging to my late father.
On the evening of the 11th Warspite once again returned to Portsmouth to load more ammunition , but wearing of her gun barrels dictated that this be cancelled and she was sent to Rosyth for the barrels to be changed thus Warspite became the first battleship to traverse the Dover Straits since the ignominious ( for the British) passage of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau back in February 1942. Although the German batteries opposite Dover opened fire Warspite passed through unscathed however early in the morning on the 13th June she was in the swept channel 28 miles to the East of Harwich when she detonated what may have been a pressure mine which exploded under her stern. Her steering jammed she veered off to starboard and came to a stop with all four shafts out of action, thankfully none of her crew were killed. An hour later she was underway at just 7 knots, initially for the Tyne, but the River authorities feared she might sink in their river so denied entry she made for Rosyth arriving on the evening of the 14th and drawing 42 feet aft. At anchor were the new battleships Anson and Howe, they and all the other warships off Rosyth cleared the lower decks and cheered the ‘Old Lady’ in. Desperate to get her back in service the normal repair method for bent propeller shafts of withdrawing them to machine shops was ignored and instead the shafts were heated using a large number of blow-lamps and straightened with hydraulic jacks, a statement by captain Kelsey revealed her state on sailing, “we had one good shaft, one fairly good shaft, one wobbly shaft and one still seized solid” she could now manage just 15 knots, so the Old lady with just three guns and now three shafts returned to service. On the 25th August she was off Brest and at 32,000 yards across the Ushant Peninsula she fired 147 rounds of HE and 66 of AP shells at a gun battery giving the American army problems, although the battery returned fire she was only hit by splinters. On the 10th September she bombarded gun batteries off Havre, this contained three 6.7” guns and had been very troublesome, at a range of 32,000 yards using aircraft spotting the battery was silenced at last. With the fall of Paris on the 25th August and Brussels later on the 03rd September the allied supply lines were now very stretched and the port of Antwerp was now needed to shorten this line, blocking the approaches to the River Scheldt was the fortified Walcheren Island , At 0815 on the 01st November ,now 29 years old, Warspite along with two 15” gun monitors commenced firing at the fortifications on the island, late in the day Warspite ceased fire and returned back across the channel to anchor off Deal, during the Normandy and Walcheren campaigns she fired 1,500 rounds from her 15” guns and after Walcheren they fell silent for good.
Warspite was now desperately in need of a massive and long refit but with the war drawing to a close it was obvious to all that her life was drawing to it’s end , on the 01st February1945 a signal was received on board ordering her to pay off into reserve and around the 15th February she moored up to the reserve fleet buoy off the Mother Bank off Spithead were she lay until the last day of March 1945 –the day of the last entry in her logbook, Warspite spent the rest of 1945 in category ‘C’ reserve – the lowest of all, On the 27th September 1945 Admiral Andrew Cunningham was installed as Knight of the Thistle in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, at this time he handed over her ensign to the Cathedral for safe keeping, this was ABC’s final tribute to his beloved flagship and ensured at least one small reminder of the Grand Old Lady remained. “Approval to Scrap” the final stamp on Warspite’s log was made on the 31st July 1946, she was once more moved up Portsmouth harbour, but by tugs not her own power, to be stripped of her guns and anything useful, There was a public outcry but sadly not enough to save her and on the 12th march 1947 the tug Volatile which had helped damaged ships back from the battle of Jutland connected up to her equally elderly big sister and commenced the tow out of Portsmouth to Spithead to hand Warspite over to Metal Industries, for the tow to the scrap-yard she was insured for the princely sum of £150,000 – or about the costs of her original 15” guns. In April she left Spithead under tow for the Clyde with a towing crew of just eight men, down the English Channel the weather was quite severe and on the 20th April 1947 Warspite in what some see as her last act of capriciousness broke free from the tow and drifted northwards towards the Cornish coast, she anchored for a while but in the severe weather she dragged ashore in mounts bay on the 23rd April
I will now use the words of another member TREEVE, for Raymond describes Warspite’s end very well – for more details see his website ttp://freepages.family.rootsweb.com/~treevecwll/visitorshw.htm (Hearts of Oak)
HMS WARSPITE On the 23rd April 1947, she went aground in Mounts Bay, Cornwall, en route to the breakers. Minus her guns, WARSPITE was under tow from tugs BUSTLER and METINDA III, heading from Portsmouth to the breakers yard on the Clyde.
A southwest gale swept up on the 21st April. BUSTLER’s hawser parted, just to the south and fifteen miles off Wolf Rock Lighthouse. The storm raged, and the three vessels ( battling for 20 hours already ) drifted closer in towards Mount’s Bay. At noon, METINDA III had to slip her hawser.
The crew on WARSPITE dropped anchor. It did not hold.
Fifty minutes later she was on Mountamopus Ledge, a mile to the southwest of Cudden Point. The 30,000 ton battleship had been driven about thirty miles by the raging sea and high winds. Penlee lifeboat attended and advised that the flood tide would refloat WARSPITE; the lifeboat returned to Newlyn harbour as the seas were too rough for a return to the lifeboat house.
Huge waves of thirty feet swept over the battleship, taking her closer to the shore, and driving her on to the rocks at Cudden Ledges, Prussia Cove. The lifeboat returned and managed to get into the narrow 40 yard channel to the landward port side of WARSPITE, and got two lines aboard, the lifeboat rising and falling twenty feet with the waves. It was impossible to stand on deck; the boat crew had to kneel. The lifeboat engines were continually being set full ahead and full astern, to keep the lines, and to prevent the lifeboat from being thrown on the rocks.
It took 35 minutes to get the eight man towing crew (including Captain Baxter) off WARSPITE; it was 8 o’clock when the arrived at Newlyn harbour. The storm had done more damage to WARSPITE than she had received in the two World Wars. It was decided to dismantle her where she lay.
However, after she had been partially dismantled and then lighter, she was eventually moved, towed by tugs ENGLISHMAN and BRAHMAN, and beached at Marazion, and it took ten more years to demolish her; some parts of her remain to this day.
But that is not the end of the story, for on 5th July 1950, the trawler BARNET (part of the salvage team of vessels) was holed overnight, whilst tied up alongside the WARSPITE. Admiraly tug FREEBOOTER came to assist, but could not stop the invasion of water.
Then on 11th November 1950, in a SW gale, Falmouth tug MASTERMAN, also involved with the salvage operation, struck Hogus Rocks, in heavy seas. Her sister tug TRADESMAN, towing MASTERMAN free, received damage, and she had to be towed back by tug SUPERMAN.
There are some excellent but very sad photographs of Warspite on Treeve’s website which are well worth looking at
'Warspite ready for the tow to the scrapyard - notice the lack of any armament The other Queen Elizabeth class behind Warspite looks like the QE herself and the ship behind her is a Revenge class battleship, although the picture is not clear she appears to lack her main armament indicating that this is the Revenge herself ( her guns had been removed in 1944 as spares for the ships bombarding Normandy).
Warspite ,when built, cost £2,524,148, the cost of her re-building over the years is unknown but surely that two and a half million pound plus whatever the rebuilding costs were was the best spent money in all of Britain’s vast military expenditure for all time. Sadly all that history and hard work was not enough to save her for the nation which held her in great affection she would have been a fitting memorial to the great ship building skills that Britain possessed and the great traditions of the Royal navy. Even in a hard pressed Britain desparate for raw materials 32,000 tons of scrap were surely not that important.
Bibliography and photograph credits
Bibliography: IWM and Stephen Roskill - HMS Warspite
Warspites scrapping By Treeve : http://freepages.family.rootsweb.com/~treevecwll/visitorshw.htm
Completed by Steve Woodward 09th August 2007