Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ration books and the Bismarck

There's been a lot on BBC Radio 4 recently about the Second World War, and the Blitz in particular. One woman was describing watching the Battle of Britain when she was about six. It seems so extraordinary, but my father was talking of similar experiences last time I saw him. He was older, around ten or eleven, so more able to appreciate what was going on, but there was no question he got a thrill from watching German bombers raiding along a valley below Beverley in the North East of England where he was living at the time.

All this talk makes me think about time and its passing. When I was growing up the war was all about me - on television, on the radio, in peoples' conversations. It seemed like ancient history to a young child, and it was only when I was in my twenties when time began to accelerate that I appreciated how shortly after the war I was born. If I had lived through a war only thirteen years ago I'd be thinking of it as happening yesterday. Sweet rationing only ended in 1953, the year before my brother was born. Meat came off the rationed list in 1954.

Catalina flying boat
I was thinking about all this when writing about Castle Archdale on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Castle Archdale was the base for Catalinas and Sunderlands, the RAF flying boats that patrolled the North Atlantic searching for German U-boats. In the early days of the war pilots had to navigate north and then go west – they were not allowed to fly over the neutral airspace of the Irish Free State. They could give some protection to the shipping convoys coming to the UK from Canada and the USA but there was a protection gap in the mid-Atlantic that gave the U-boats free rein to do their worst. Hundreds of Allied merchant ships carrying essential supplies were being lost to the U-boats.
Huge pressure was put on Eamonn DeValera and his government from both the British and the Americans to allow British military aircraft to pass through Irish air space, and eventually a secret agreement between DeValera and Sir John Maffey, Britain’s representative to Ireland, brought into being the Donegal Corridor, a strip of Irish air space between Lough Erne and the Atlantic. Catalinas and Sunderlands changed their course, and possibly the course of the War. It was a Catalina that spotted the Bismarck, the formidable German battleship.
Photo taken by the Spitfire on 21 May 1941. The Bismarck is on the right.
On 18 May 1941 the Bismarck had left its berth in Gotenhafen (now Gdynia) along with a fleet including the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen and three destroyers. Their mission was known as Operation Rheinübung and they aimed to prevent essential supplies getting to Britian by sinking the merchant ship convoys coming in from North America. The Bismarck and Prince Eugen hoped to reach the Atlantic without being spotted by the British. They headed north through the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark.
Their hopes to pass undetected were frustrated: they were spotted both by members of the Norwegian resistence and the Swedish cruiser Gotland. The German warships stopped briefly in the Korsfjord on 23 May to wait for darkness, but a British Spitfire sent out to look for the fleet discovered and photographed them here. That evening they headed north along the coast, the Bismarck and Prince Eugen splitting from the three destoryers to set a northwest course in worsening weather to continue their mission.
There was heavy fog which allowed the German ships to travel undetected as far as the ice-edged Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. It was here that the British battlecruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales caught up with them. The guns were out and the Battle of the Denmark Strait began. It was short and sharp, lasting just over fifteen mintues, but resulted in the sinking of Hood with the loss of all but three of its crew of 1,418 men. The Prince of Wales was damaged, as was Bismark. Only the Prince Eugen remained unscathed. The German ships headed for port and repair while the Prince of Wales retreated into the fog, but the British were hugely indignant at the sinking of Hood, one of their finest battleships, and wanted revenge. The chase was on to find and sink Bismark.
At first shadowed by British ships and attacked by aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier Victorious, Bismark changed course to allow Prince Eugens to escape, then changed course again under darkness to lose its stalkers. On 26 May Bismark was well on the way to port in France and receiving congratulations for sinking Hood when two Catalina flying boats took off from Castle Archdale to continue the search. One of them was successful. At the controls as co-pilot was Leonard ‘Tuck’ Smith from Higginsville, Missouri who was not supposed to be there at all: it would be six months before the USA would officially enter the war. Smith was on loan to the British to oversee the pilots who would be flying the US-made Catalinas, given to the British as part of a Lease-Lend programme.
The weather was atrocious with gale force winds, Bismarck was closing on the French shore, there were no British ships within range of the German battleship and it was getting dark. The only chance was to disable Bismarck with aircraft fire to reduce her speed. An aerial attack was launched from the Ark Royal. Torpedo strikes hit and damaged both rudders: Bismarck was unable to manoeuvre and British destroyers closed in. Bismarck kept them off all through the night until the arrival next morning of British battleships Rodney and King George V. They were joined by heavy cruiser Devonshire and more fighter aircraft. At 10.30 am Bismarck capsized and sank.

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