Re-fighting the battle for Convoy PQ13 in Atlantic Fleet
Of all the many dramatic photographs taken of the war at sea, some of the most haunting are of the last moments of what maybe minutes before was a fine warship in fighting trim. Pictures like this well-known shot of a Japanese escort sunk by skip-bombing. The crew cling to the capsizing vessel as what appears to be another bomb, dropped by the aircraft from which the photo was taken, splashes across the water towards the stricken ship like a stone skipped on a pond.
Back in the 1990s I coveted but never obtained a rather expensive book from the alas long-departed Military Book Club, War at Sea 1939-45 by Kreigsmarine veteran Jurgen Rohwer. This was a large-format book with a short narrative account written around an excellent series of photographs, many of which I haven't seen before. When, just recently, I picked up this book second-hand, I was just as struck as I had been many years ago by its cover photo, one of a series a wrecked and apparently abandoned German destroyer.
At the time I realised the pictures were indeed of a German destroyer, taken from an enemy ship. But what ship was she, what happened to her crew, and how did she come to be one of the very few ships photographed so very closely by those who had sunk her?
The historical battle
Long before I got the book, I had discovered that the sinking German destroyer was the Z 26, lost during a confused battle in Arctic waters on 29th March 1942. By that time, Royal Navy was running a series of convoys - the PQ series, later changed to JW - to help keep the Soviet Union in the battle against Nazi Germany. The most famous Arctic convoy action is PQ17, which scattered after inaccurate reports that it was about to be intercepted by a force including the battleship Tirpitz and was then devastated by air and U-Boat attack. Other famous Arctic convoy-related actions were the Battle of the Barents Sea in December 1942, where the failure of the German force to get to grips with the convoy had Hitler pushing for the scrapping of the surface fleet; and the Battle of the North Cape a year later, when Scharnhorst was lost in action during an abortive sortie against Convoy JW55B. Throughout, the merchant, naval and aircrews of all sides had to endure exposure to some of the worst weather in any theatre of war, with frequent heavy, freezing seas in which survival time was low indeed.
By the time in early 1942 that Convoy PQ13 sailed for Murmansk, the Kriegsmarine was still in the middle of redeploying its remaining seaworthy heavy units to northern waters, primarily to interdict the Arctic convoys, in co-operation with U-boats and bombers. Just three destroyers participated in the attack on PQ13 - Z 24, Z 25 and Z 26. They were all from a class which had begun to be laid down before the battle by whose name the class was commonly known - Narvik. Not an auspicious name - as one author put it, " 'Lost at Narvik' was the epitath of the Leberecht Mass and Deither von Roeder classes", ten of the big destroyers having been smashed in two fights in Narvik Fjord with the Royal Navy during 1940, like Bernd von Arnim, below.
The Narvik class were big and with 5.9 inch guns, very heavily armed for destroyers, though not all shipped the twin forward turret intended for the class - they all do, in Atlantic Fleet.
PQ13's nineteen merchant ships - most of them US and British Merchant Navy vessels - had already suffered some losses from aircraft. And severe weather had dispersed the ships, two groups re-forming and the rest proceeding independently. At this point, the German destroyers arrived, and after sinking a merchantman, ran into the convoy's close escort, headed by the cruiser HMS Trinidad, supported by RN destroyers and later by one of the Soviet destroyers which had sortied to meet the convoy. Z 26 was hit hard, mainly byTrinidad; Z 24 and Z 25 disengaged after rescuing around 90 of her crew, but about 240 never made it.
The PQ13 action in Atlantic Fleet
You don't need to use Atlantic Fleet's custom battle generator fo fight this one - it's included with the large set of historical battles that come with the game. Here's the intro screen. As usual, there's no 'fog of war' - less relevant anyway, in an historical mission - so you can see exactly who's on each side. You can choose to play for either navy - or to take the turns for both sides, by setting the 'Player 2' option to 'ON'.
I have opted to play for the Kriegsmarine, and we have the initiative (= first turn). As well as the 6-inch gun Fiji (or Crown Colony) Class cruiser Trinidad, we are up against three Royal Navy destroyers - the inter-war types Eclipse and Fury, and the War Emergency Programme Oribi, the latter distinguisable by having just the one funnel, compared to two for the others. Six merchantmen are in the part of the convoy that we have come upon. The weather is poor, cloudy and with rain or snow.
Here's the position at the moment the battle begins. Our three destrovers are, realistically, line abreast, in the sort of formation that would be used to sweep for the enemy. Trinidad herself is the only ship we have been able to identify visually at this stage; the others are just radar contacts.
Clearly, it's time to get busy!
...to be continued!
A Royal Navy campaign in Killerfish's peerless WW2 naval wargame!
In my first campaign mission report with Atlantic Fleet, I played for the German Kriegsmarine, and in the dynamic version of the AF campaign. This time, I'm playing for the other side, the Royal Navy (whose signature march is 'Heart of Oak', hence this mission report's title). And I'm playing the 'static' campaign. This is a fixed set of fifty missions, whose difficulty increases as you go, inasmuch as the opponents gradually become more numerous, more dangerous, or both. Knowledgeable enthusiast Ramjb has already released a long series of gameplay videos featuring this same campaign, but this report is the (illustrated) book of that movie, as it were; starts at the beginning; and is more in the nature of a taster, than a replay.
Of AF's two campaign types, the dynamic variant - dubbed appropriately 'Battle of the Atlantic' - is my favourite - for the German side. It is dynamic in several respects, starting with the objective. This is not to win battles as such, but to win a tonnage war, German subs and surface raiders against British convoys and warship patrols.
Merchant shipping tonnage sent to the bottom, or getting through, is what counts towards victory, over an extended period. And that victory, if and when it comes, I find is immensely satisfying...and announced in style.
Losses are also cumulative - lose a ship and it's gone, with replacements only available within the other, real-life members of the class, if any sister ships there were. And your choice of ships to send to sea as the war progresses is limited to those available when they actually entered service. Real-life events affect the battle, for example the conquests of Norway and France giving the Germans additional bases, at about the correct period of the war.
Damaged ships can be docked for repairs, but may be damaged again in bombing raids. The tonnage war is not entirely reliant on the player's efforts - in the background, the underlying wargame may generate battles and losses in which the player does not participate.
However, playing from the Royal Navy side, I find that of the battles I DO see, far too high a proportion are U-Boat 'area ambushes' against groups of warships in open waters. Rare exceptions notwithstanding, the latter is simply not where submarines managed to attack warships outside of convoy escorts. With a maximum surface speed about the same as most warship's cruising speed, it's not surprising successful encounters were rare, for subs against warships. And when they did happen, generally did so in choke points, not the open sea encounters we see in AF. Maybe every third or fourth battle in AF's dynamic campaign for the RN, the warships I have painfully built up are ambushed by typically three subs, at least two in good firing positions and some inside 'guaranteed hit' range, firing before I can even move or shoot. Yes, depending on your chosen view options, you can often spot those torps that could be evaded and yes, a friendly destroyer - if not hit immediately - can often hit back by pulling off a party trick of its own, a torpedo salvo that is unrealistically effective.
An upcoming patch might somewhat lessen this problem, by allowing a longer start range to be set. This should at least give the player a chance to react...as in, like Brave Sir Robin, bravely running away, my preferred tactic in such cases. But in its present form, I dislike these unrealistic ambushes so much I'm just not finding the RN dynamic campaign much fun. And 'fun' is what AF delivers everywhere else, by the big gun broadside, so for my RN campaign fix of said fun, I'm glad I can get this from the static campaign alternative. Here's how my latest try went!
...to be continued!