Whitby - Masters of the Channel Night

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HMCS Sioux in British waters, April 1944 (Photo by G.A. Miline, NAC PA 115559) 4 Masters of the Channel Night: The 10th Destroyer Flotilla's Victory off Ile De Batz, 9 June 1944 Michael Whitby I t was a dark and somewhat stormy night. In the western English Channel, off the Ile de Batz, twelve destroyers, eight Allied (including two Canadian} and four German, hurtled towards each other at a combined speed of 47 knots. Radar, penetrating the black murk ahead of the Allied ships, detected hos
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   HMCS Sioux in British waters, April 1944 (Photo by G.A. Miline, NAC PA 115559) 4  Masters of the Channel Night: The 10th Destroyer Flotilla's Victory off Ile De Batz, 9 June 1944 Michael Whitby I t was a dark and somewhat stormy night. In the western English Channel, off the Ile de Batz, twelve destroyers, eight Allied (including two Canadian} and four German, hurtled towards each other at a combined speed of 47 knots. Radar, penetrating the black murk ahead of the Allied ships, detected hostile contacts at ten miles range and the force deployed for action. Minutes later they opened devastating fire upon a startled enemy. The battle that ensued on the night of 9 June 1944 was the  raison d'etre  of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, a destroyer strike force based on Plymouth. When planning the Normandy invasion Allied naval commanders recognized that although  Kriegsmarine  surface forces represented only a limited threat to the beachhead, powerful destroyers based in Bay of Biscay ports could wreak havoc on vulnerable build-up convoys crossing the Channel. 1  But, because of the dominance of Allied air power, enemy destroyers came out only in the hours of darkness. Therefore, to win control of the western Channel, the 10th DF had to master the difficult art of night fighting. I S ailors have never been comfortable fighting at night. Quite simply, too much can go wrong. Command and control is confused, the risk of engaging friendly forces high, navigation imprecise, collision a constant worry and the chance of surprise from an unexpected quarter an ever-present danger. The famous fighting admiral, Andrew Cunningham, victor of a night battle at Matapan in 1941, summed up these hazards well for the Second World War era when he concluded that in no other circumstances than in a night action at sea does the fog of war so completely descend to blind one of the true realization of what is happening. 2 In the Channel, quite apart from the normal hazards, Allied naval leaders also had to face the fact that German destroyers had consistently bettered them at night fighting. A devastating example of this superiority occurred on 22/23 October 1943. While conducting an offensive sweep off Britanny, a British force consisting of the cruiser  Charybdis, two Fleet class destroyers and four less-powerful Hunt class destroyers, was attacked by five German fleet torpedo boats—small destroyers that packed a powerful punch. In what one British participant called the classic balzup of the war, 3  Charybdis  and a Hunt class destroyer were sunk by torpedoes while the Germans escaped unseen and unscathed. This defeat was painful proof that the Allies were a long way from the supremacy of the narrow seas required for the invasion. 4 The officer responsible for winning control of the western Channel was the C-in-C Plymouth Command, Vice-Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham, who had previously served as C-in-C East Indies and Vice-Admiral, Malta. The latter appointment had been particularly valuable as he had directed offensive strike forces in night operations against enemy shipping. 5  Since taking over Plymouth in August 1943, Leatham had pressed the Admiralty for ships to form a homogeneous 5  strike force to battle German destroyers but had been continually rebuffed. The  Charyhdis balzup changed everything. Admiralty staff officers agreed that the reasons for the defeat were that their ships had vastly different capabilities, had never been to sea together and had no night fighting experience. Their solution was to give Leatham the force he had pushed for. 6 Specifically, the C-in-C Plymouth wanted Tribal class destroyers. 7  The beautiful, powerful Tribals were the British answer to the super destroyers built by several navies during the 1930s. Boasting six 4.7-inch guns, two 4-inch High Angle guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes, the big 1850-ton destroyers had twice the firepower of conventional British designs. Sixteen were built for the Royal Navy (RN) and they attracted the attention of the Canadian naval staff, who convinced their government to order eight for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The RN Tribals saw much hard fighting during the war and, by the time Leatham requested them, twelve had been lost, most to air attack. Four RCN Tribals were also in commission but they, and the one RN ship not in refit or serving in another theatre, were needed on the Murmansk run. It was not until the surface threat to the Russian convoys diminished, with the destruction of the battlecruiser Scharnhorst   on Boxing Day 1943, that five Tribals—three Canadian and two British— became available for the 1 Oth Destroyer Flotilla, Leatham's strike force. 8 Equipment fitted in the Tribals, either before or after their arrival at Plymouth, was vital to their success at night. Foremost was radar. British and Canadian Fleet destroyers of the period received three types of radar; Gunnery (GA), Warning Combined (WC) and Warning Surface (WS). 9  For gunnery, all ships in the flotilla had Type 285P. Designed early in the war as a high angle set for use against aircraft, Type 285 had evolved into the standard fire-control set for destroyers. It provided excellent ranges, and was accurate enough to detect overs and unders and (to the mortification of operators) incoming rounds. The Type 285's  yagi dipole aerials were located atop the power-mounted director tower and echoes were displayed on an A-scope where they caused vertical deflections upon a horizontal trace. 10  For Warning Combined, each of the five destroyers had Type 291, another well-tried unit that could detect surface contacts at nine miles. The Type 291 aerial was power-rotated and used an A-scope display. The set's great disadvantage was that it could be easily monitored by the enemy and for this reason was seldom used until action was joined. The most effective search radars were the Warning Surface sets. Unlike Types 285 and 291 which operated on decimetric and metric wavelengths respectively, the WS sets were centimetric which gave far superior performance, particularly for surface search. HMCS  Athabaskan  and the two RN Tribals,  Tartar   and  Ashanti, were fitted with the recently developed Type 276 which could detect targets of destroyer-size out to about 12 miles. Power-rotation allowed consistent scanning and the antenna was mounted on a lattice foremast which ensured optimum range. Echoes were displayed on a Plan Position Indicator (PPI) which enabled operators to continuously monitor the positions of various contacts. This made it a far better search instrument than A-scopes which only displayed targets along any one bearing.  Haida  and  Huron  were fitted with the older and less effective Type 2 71Q. Performance was not too bad (a destroyer could be detected at approximately nine miles) but its antenna was manually rotated and, even though Type 271Q could utilize a PPI,  Haida  and  Huron  had A-scopes. Another drawback was that the aerial had to be mounted close to its power source, Opposite: Shown entering Plymouth in July 1944,  Huron displays her forward armament of two twin 4.7-inch turrets. Type 285P GA radar is mounted on the Director Control Tower at the back of the bridge (facing rearwards). TheX-shaped aerial at the top of the tripod foremast is the Type 291 WC, while the  perspex shield of her Type 271Q WS is visible behind the second funnel. (Note how it is wooded by the  forward superstructure.) (DND) which in the Tribals' case, meant that it was located in the searchlight position forward of the after canopy, only about forty-five feet above the waterline. This not only reduced range but the forward superstructure wooded the beam when it swept directly ahead. *' It was not until stronger lattice foremasts were fitted in the autumn of 1944 that the two Tribals could be equipped with the latest search radars. No matter what their relative merits, these systems removed much of the risk from operating at night. It is important to remember, however, that radar was still a relatively new, vacuum tube, technology. Breakdowns were common, especially under the pounding from hard steaming or shock from main armament blast, and performance was often impaired by 7 Commander DeWolf and Admiral Leatham in April 1944 upon Haida's return from the operation that resulted in the loss of Athabaskan. DeWolf is in his sea rig; layers of sweaters and a scarf around the neck to keep out the cool Channel air. He did not wear a tin hat in action. (NAC PA 180348)
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