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Operation Duck

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Suffolk pre-war
Suffolk pre-war
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This article was written by Eric Schwarz.

Following the German occupation of the main Norwegian ports and the airfield at Stavanger-Sola April 9, 1940, the Norwegian government rejected German terms of limited occupation having received assurances of swift and effective intervention by Great Britain and France. The British and French decided to land forces north and south of Trondheim, from these positions they would assault the port in a pincer move while their naval forces blockaded the small isolated garrison. At Bergen they intended to seal off the harbour with minefields and later engage the German garrison in conjunction with Norwegian forces that held excellent defensive positions and controlled the coastal waters. The initial landings around Trondheim of Marine shore parties would be supplemented by a rapid build-up of forces. However, from the first day of the conflict, the Luftwaffe had harassed enemy warships off the coast and made operations difficult. Coastal and Bomber Command had initiated air strikes against the airfield, but were severely restricted in the deployment of sufficient numbers of aircraft to achieve their objective. To assist in suppressing the German aerial efforts to screen their garrisons and interfere with additional Allied landings, the Royal Navy had planned a bombardment by naval units in coordination with aerial support at Stavanger-Sola airfield.

The plan was for a cruiser and 4 destroyers to proceed off Skudesnesfjorden and bombard the airfield with the cruisers main armament, with 2 destroyers sweeping for mines and 2 destroyers keeping anti-submarine watch. A submarine would be stationed as a marker for the operation, and 18 Group Coastal Command was to provide both fighter escort and artillery observation. Bomber Command was to mount 2 air strikes in support - the first, a force of 12 Wellingtons to attack before dawn to disrupt the base and start fires to illuminate the target area. This would be followed by a mid-day strike by 12 Blenheims to suppress the expected retaliation sorties and keep the fighter defences occupied in defending their own base. Winston Churchill, who had been pressing for its execution, endorsed this operation.

The operation got off to a bad start. Twelve Wellingtons from Nos. 37 and 38 Squadrons were sent to attack Stavanger-Sola; most encountered poor weather and were unable to locate their targets. Two Wellingtons did locate the airfield, however they failed to attack as they observed only damaged hangars.

Suffolk (Captain J.W.Durnforth) and destroyers Kipling (F), Juno, Janus and Hereward met the submarine Seal at 0414/17 and the heavy cruiser catapulted one of her 2 Walrus (Petty Officer Airman V.Redgrave) seaplanes for spotting purposes and proceeded to locate the bombardment position.

Artillery observation was arranged with 18 Group through 2 Hudsons from No. 233 Squadron - but they also were plagued with trouble. One of the aircraft had to return to base shortly after taking off due to electrical trouble. The other Hudson (Flight Officer G.Edwards) arrived over Stavanger and began familiarizing himself with the area. Suffolk catapulted its other Walrus (Lt. (A) W.MacWhirter) for additional assistance because the situation became unclear - warning rockets and light flack rose around the port as the German defences detected the first 2 British aircraft. Also, the heavy cruiser spotted a torpedo passing 20 yards astern from starboard to port. No destroyers made contact, but the situation was intensifying.

Suffolk attempted for some time to obtain radio contact with the Hudson, but was unable. The sun was beginning to lighten the horizon and time was critical. Observation would be troublesome without aerial assistance as there was a light fresh covering of snow in the area, giving a camouflage effect.

Fire was eventually opened at 0515 to 20,000 yards until 0604 when the sunrise made observation impractical. 202 rounds of 8-inch were fired.

In the meantime the Hudson was engaged in an inconclusive skirmish with a Junkers Ju88C-2 (Oberfeldwebel Jeschke) fighter from Z./K.G.30. Edwards had already dropped his 25-lb incendiary bombs on the airfield to illuminate it for the ships. By chance he hit a Ju52/3 from Stab/K.G.30 and destroyed it by fire. But the burning failed to be identified by Suffolk and she mainly shelled the seaplane base at Sola-See. Even the 2 Walrus were ineffective in bringing the cruisers fire onto the airfield. The damage at the seaplane base was significant and severely disrupted operations - 4 He115C from 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106 and 4 He59D transport seaplanes from K.GrzbV. 108 were destroyed and installations were damaged. However, the airfield was for the most part undamaged. Following the bombardment, the Hudson and the 2 Walrus headed west and returned safely to the UK.

The original plan for withdrawal was to head west at high speed and to receive fighter escort from 18 Group. However, the day before, a Hudson from 18 Group had reported 5 German destroyers near Stadlandet headed north. Two RN cruisers were sent to intercept and it was decided that Suffolk and destroyers should now sweep north and catch the enemy in case they withdrew to the south. However, 18 Group was not informed of this change of plan.

Coastal Command had arranged for the fighter cover with 3 Blenheim IVF from No. 254 Squadron and a search effort for the reported German destroyers by a pair of Hudsons from No. 224 Squadron. 18 Group was still unaware that Suffolk had been diverted north; they were expecting to meet west of Stavanger.

The weather initially near the coast was very cloudy with poor visibility - but clearing totally to the west. Suffolk continued north, and was expecting her fighter escort to have been directed to her new course. As it turned out the report of the German destroyers was false.

The German response was direct. Initially they sent 10 He111 from I/K.G.26 at Stavanger-Sola followed by 2 He115 armed with torpedoes from 3./Kü.Fl.Gr. 506 against the force at 0847. The He115 were unable to attack due to unfavourable weather conditions. To maintain contact 10 Do18 reconnaissance seaplanes from 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 106 and 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406 spread out in the North Sea. In addition both K.G. 4 and K.G.30 were alerted and dispatched aircraft. The weather was clearing and the sun rising for excellent visibility to the west in the North Sea.

From 0830 to 0934 the group came under attack from the 10 He111 of I/K.G.26. Eight of the bombers attacked Suffolk and 2 the destroyers from high altitude in horizontal approaches. The only damage was to Kipling (Commander A.St.Clair Ford) from 2 SC500 bombs that detonated underwater alongside the destroyer disabling her after torpedo mount and cracking her machinery mounts. But the attacks did convince Suffolk's commander to discontinue his sortie north and head for Scapa Flow. Durnforth repeatedly requested fighter escort throughout the day and signalled his location.

What of the 5 Coastal Command aircraft? Only 2 Blenheims of the planned 3 had been deployed. They were searching in the Haugesund area and actually joined company briefly with the 2 Hudsons. The 4 flew south looking for the reported enemy destroyers, turned north together and parted company to search. One Hudson (Flight Lt. Wright) surprised U.59 on the surface in Bjørnafjorden and attacked unsuccessfully, one Blenheim swept through Bergen harbour at low level and strafed 3 He59D at the seaplane base of Kristiansholmen, and the remaining Blenheim was attacked by 2 Bf110C from I/Z.G.76 north of Bergen and withdrew to base. All four aircraft returned safely without sighting the Suffolk. Three more Blenheims and 3 more Hudsons were dispatched from 18 Group but also failed to locate the group. However 2 additional Hudsons on routine patrols did individually encounter the warships while they were under attack but were unable to intervene.

Which brings us approximately to the time of the planned Blenheim attack at Stavanger as a follow-up. The 12 Blenheim bombers while approaching their target came upon the Suffolk and 4 destroyers. The Blenheims were carrying 250 and 40 lb bombs for the attack and were from No. 107 Squadron (Wing Commander B.Embry). Embry sighted several German aircraft in the area of the British warships and proceeded to engage them in a mock attack - feigning Blenheim IVF fighters. He led 3 sections of Blenheims into the fray, but the fourth section maintained course to Stavanger. The German aircraft scattered into the clouds, but this action delayed and separated the British attack. At 1130/17 Stavanger-Sola came under attack from the first section of 3 Blenheims (Squadron Leader Meagher) from 18,000 feet. Following the bombing 1 Bf110C from 1./Z.G.76 and 1 Ju52 were destroyed and 2 ground personnel killed. Over an hour later Embry followed with 9 aircraft and attacked from 1,500 feet in 3 sections. Heavy antiaircraft fire affected their accuracy and no targets were hit. While withdrawing to the west, one section was bounced by Bf110 from I/Z.G.76 and lost 2 a/c (Flight Lt. Warne and Flight Officer Poltock), with the third crash landing at base badly shot up.

K.G.30 dispatched 28 Ju88A bombers to attack the naval forces. Starting at 1000/17 some of the aircraft from K.G.30 spotted Suffolk. Of the 28 original attackers, K.G.30 reported that 12 actually made contact. Yet of those 12, only 10 carried out attacks as 2 of them had to return to base with mechanical troubles. It was these 10 Ju88A that inflicted the most damage. They attacked individually or in sections of 3 from 12,000 to 15,000 in steep dives. But their attacks were spread out over the next 3.5 hours as their formation was widely scattered and their endurance allowed them ample search and approach time.

At 1037 Suffolk was approached down sun by a single Ju88A from K.G.30 at 10,000 feet. Previous attacks during the day were from the He111 in horizontal approaches and Captain Durnforth presumed this was also the case now. He turned his ship on beam to bring weapons to bear when the Ju88A dove at 65 to 70 degrees, down to a release point of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. One SD1000 bomb struck the heavy cruiser just forward of X-turret, penetrating the upper, main, lower, and platform decks. It detonated near the after engine room and X-shell room. The explosion spread to the X-Cordite handling room where it triggered a further explosion that vented into X-turret gun house and lifted the turret roof. The flames shot through the engine room exhaust trunks and hatches from the wardroom flat, causing a column of flame to reach up the mainmast destroying the ensign. Severe structural damage was incurred and splinter damage was extensive- a small hole being blown in the ships side and in 20 minutes 1,500 tons of water entered. Both aft 8-inch turrets were disabled and speed reduced to 18 knots. 32 men were killed and 37 wounded. Radio communication was disabled and messages were passed via signal to Kipling who then transmitted them onward.

By this time C-in-C Home Fleet informed Durnforth that he had ordered 2 battle cruisers plus an antiaircraft cruiser with destroyers to assist the besieged squadron. Suffolk's commander responded that he felt supporting warships would only find themselves at risk under the circumstances of unchallenged Luftwaffe supremacy. He continued to request fighter cover repeatedly.

By now the conditions for air attack were exceptional - blue sky, a bright sun, and patches of white clouds at around 8,000 feet. Sporadic Ju88 attacks continued as the group headed west. At 1325 while the steering motor was temporarily out of action, a Ju88A from K.G.30 dived at the ship in a 70-degree dive from starboard, strafing the seaplane hangar and dropping 2 SD1000 bombs. They detonated on impact 15 to 20 feet starboard just aft of X-turret causing extensive splinter damage. This caused the after end of the ship to become flooded completely.

K.G.4 was also dispatched with 22 available He111 and were about to enter the scene.

As the beleaguered squadron headed west, there had been urgent requests for fighter cover. Thus far, of 8 aircraft Coastal Command had employed, none had found their charges. The Fleet Air Arm had 3 squadrons of Skuas available, but had been deploying them in the Bergen area in anti-shipping strikes. As it was, 2 Skuas from No. 800 Squadron were reconnoitring Bergen and had located and unsuccessfully attacked a German minelayer. A strike force of available Skuas was awaiting results of this sortie to launch an attack, but at 1200 they received orders to proceed as fighter cover for Suffolk and escort her to Scapa Flow immediately. Soon 9 Skuas were airborne from Nos. 801 and 803 Squadrons headed east. In addition, 18 Group continued to try and help, sending 3 more Hudsons.

Around 1330 the 3 Hudsons from No. 233 Squadron located Suffolk and attempted to close and set up protective escort but were met with antiaircraft fire and were unable to approach to identify themselves. Some 30 minutes later the first 3 Skuas of 9 dispatched arrived and were also met with recognition difficulties from the British warships. Yet soon all was rectified and fighter patrols established.

By this time, a few of the K.G.4 He111s had located the targets. 11 found the squadron and were able to drop only 4 SC250 bombs from 5,200 to 9,000 feet. The Skuas and Hudsons chased several bombers unsuccessfully, but achieved their objective of deterring the attacks. One shadowing Do18G from 1./Kü.Fl.Gr. 406 was shot down by 3 Skuas from No. 801 Squadron (Lt. Commander P.Bramwell). Unfortunately for Suffolk it was not completely over. At 1430/17 a single He111 from K.G.4 got a near miss with an SC250 bomb alongside the aft boiler room that blew in the lower deck scuttles. Additional flooding occurred. Luckily for the British this was to be the end of damage to the ship. The last attack took place around 1500/17.

The fighter patrols were maintained from then on by Skuas and the 3 Hudsons and were eventually supplemented when in range by 3 Sea Gladiators from No. 804 Squadron.

In summary, the bombardment was carried out without effective aerial cover and under difficult artillery spotting conditions. The objective of Stavanger-Sola airfield was not interfered with. Though there was extensive damage at the seaplane facilities and 8 aircraft lost, the primary target was not engaged. Through faulty intelligence information the squadron was diverted in a direction that severely delayed its withdrawal from an area where air attack was expected. Air cover was not re-directed for this alteration. Shortcomings in nautical navigation and coordination between Coastal Command and the Royal Navy contributed to the available air escort being unable to locate the warships.

Suffolk - quarter deck awash in Scapa Flow after Operation Duck
Suffolk - quarter deck awash in Scapa Flow after Operation Duck
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Suffolk was a lone heavy cruiser carrying 8, 8-inch guns to bombard the airfield. Her deck armour and antiaircraft armament of 4, 4-inch guns were moderate. Certainly deploying a Southampton-class light cruiser with their 12, 6-inch main armament and far superior rate of fire would have potentially inflicted greater damage; given their increased antiaircraft outfit of 8, 4-inch guns they were much more capable of repelling air attack. Although under attack for some 8 hours, Suffolk received only 1 direct and 3 near misses while recording a total of 33 attacks (21 horizontal high-altitude and 12 dive) and 88 bomb splashes. The Luftwaffe for its part deployed at least 60 bombers of which around 23 located and attacked the squadron. Two Kriegsmarine torpedo seaplanes were deployed but failed to make contact along with 10 reconnaissance seaplane of which 1 was shot down and another lost through engine failure. None of the attacking aircraft were lost. The German pilots were never able to concentrate their attacks or engage in multi-directional attacks. The result was a badly damaged heavy cruiser and a destroyer disabled for 3 months - in a situation that heavily favoured the Luftwaffe.

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