The Royal Navy - an Aircraft Carrier Too Far.

David with missile against Goliath.

In 1941 the Battle Cruiser HMS Hood was the pride of the British Fleet, with a crew of more than 1,400 men and, in company with another Capital Ship, Prince of Wales, she confronted in battle the Battle Cruiser Bismarck and the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen. The British Pair were thought to be at least a match for their German counterpart.


On 24th May 1941, out of an early morning mist in the North Atlantic, Battle was Joined. The following day, all over our country, the polished boots of the Telegram Boys clattered on the pavements outside 1,400 houses, (including our neighbours house  where sixteen year old Ordinary Seaman Sturgis had lived)

HMS Hood had blown up, there were only three survivors.  The Prince of Wales had been significantly damaged and had to withdraw, leaving the German Nation to celebrate the greatest maritime victory of the Second World War.  The German ships were almost unscathed. Neither the Newspapers or the Radio were given this awful news.

The Royal Navy rushed together a large number of ships from the Home and Mediterranean Fleets and with the greatest good fortune, a small Naval aircraft torpedoed the rudder of the Bismarck before she could reach the safety of the Port of Brest. The British Fleet moved in for the kill and although the German Ship fought gallantly she was massively outnumbered and was destroyed. The Battleship King George V fired not less than 1,000 heavy shells at the ship which also received nine torpedoes into her hull.

In 1937 the admiralty had decided to scrap the Hood, but two years later they changed their minds having convinced themselves and the Nation that after all, she was the Greatest Ship afloat.  She was refitted at great expense at the Boston Navy Yards, the Americans at that time being Neutral, they were forbidden to give assistance or credit, so the British Nation had to pay cash already on deposit in US Banks.  It should be remembered that on 3rd September1939 Britain and France Declared War on Germany, two days later the United States  Declared themselves a Neutral Nation.

Had the Hood been scrapped and its crew transferred to our Coastal Fleet, they could have manned ninety Armed Anti Submarine Trawlers, making a significant  effect on dealing with Submarine warfare and saving at least a thousand lives. However the Admiralty, then as now, were hooked on Capital Ships, each with an Admirals separate Bridge and, separate and lavish accommodation on board.  An additional staff of three hundred and fifty, an Admiral’s dining room to seat  fifty  to eighty guests, and a large contingent of Royal Marine Bandsmen to entertain them at Dinner.

It is surely bad enough to have the death of 1000 men for our Nation to mourn, without the incumbent Admiral adding his ‘comfort forces’ to the tally.   Did the Admiralty learn from this folly? In 1954 I  served in the Mediterrean on the Cruiser, HMS Sheffield  which was part of a Squadron of four Cruisers - our ship  carried an Admiral, so one could expect a few extra Officers to keep him company.  Not a bit of it, our compliment of 750 men rose to 900 overnight and yes he had extra Bandsmen to serenade him at dinner.

Battleships were to fare badly in the Second World War, whether German, French, American, Japanese or British.  They were sunk at will by Enemy Aircraft, by Submarines, or Mines, even by Frogmen.  The British had the greatest number of Battleships, so they had the greatest losses.

These leviathans were no deterrent to those well educated, motivated, brave young men on the other side, who would sooner give up their lives, than shy away from these colossal Prizes of War.  Yet the Admiralty, then as now, continued to think big and continued to find crews for these Targets.

The War was not won with any of our battleships taking  part in it’s winning.  The Stuckas and Hurricanes, the ‘U’ Boats  and the Armed Trawlers, the Fierce Enemy and the Lancaster Bomber, the Home Front and the Merchant Marine - these were the important players which allowed our Nation, after due time and much sacrifice, to commit our Soldiers with the enormous Armies of our friends, to march over their lands and  finish the job.

Forty years later, Cruisers became  Destroyers, and Destroyers become Frigates.  Aircraft Carriers lose half their size and can launch only one type of  Sub Sonic aircraft. Battleships became…. just History.

Alas our 6,000 Royal Navy Fleet of Armed Trawlers were sold off  at the end of the War to a willing fishing fleet who set about feeding the Nation’s people.  It is worth remembering that Churchill’s promise of carrying on the War from the Dominions, could not have been fulfilled without those small ships making the Atlantic crossing to Canada. Most of the British Fleets would stay behind.

Nevertheless two Generations later, our Country felt confident enough with our tiny Navy to wage war against the moderate forces of Argentina.

As we have seen, a single Swordfish by-plane (known as a ‘string bag’ since it’s wings were covered by canvass), had found and attacked the Bismarck, flying at a pedestrian speed and through a torrent of anti aircraft fire, had managed to bring about the most important blow in the sinking of the most powerful  battleship ever built.

The Argentinean Pilots were just as determined as those British ones - they too were fighting for a cause they believed in, and even though their aircraft were all over twenty five years old, even the Super Entendard aircraft first flew twenty-six years before the British Armada came over the horizon. They were young pilots and they would give a brilliant account of themselves. At least one of these flyers had rehearsed his plan of attack against a type 42  Destroyer, which had previously been sold to his country by Britain - it was the same type as HMS Sheffield.

Unaware yet of his starring role in the Falklands War, this young man, now well trained in attack tactics against a type 42, prepared to strike what turned out to be,  a mighty blow. Hugging the land to avoid Radar contact, he crossed the coast and dropped down to wave top height. His Super Entendard aircraft, carrying a type AM 39 Missile locked under the starboard wing, sped toward the Exclusion Zone which excluded all but the British Fleet.  The Missile had a 360 pound high explosive charge within its casing. Flying so low as to be hidden below the curvature of the earth the aircraft could not be detected by British Radar.

However it’s own radar, (Agave type) was shown in trials to be almost 100% successful in plotting Range and bearings in this type of attack,  the pilot pulled the  ‘stick’ back and the plane was thrown upward, he immediately picked up a significant radar echo, which because of the Exclusion Zone, marked it as a British Ship.  Three seconds later he was back below the line of detection, the radar co-ordinates of the target were transferred to his Exocet Missile. Within seconds the missile was armed and sent on it’s way, thundering across the ocean at a rate of one mile every 5 seconds, when ten miles from the target the projectile lifted it’s nose took another radar fix then locked on. It smashed into the side of the ship causing massive damage and uncontrollable fire.

In the time taken from the pilot’s initial radar sighting to his  missile’s impact, HMS Sheffield had move less than one mile.  In that position in the South Atlantic, to the amazement and shock of the whole world, she sank. Mercifully, the Exocet’s explosive charge did not detonate, had it done so, the whole ships company would probably have been lost.

The Task Force had an impressive array of anti aircraft missiles to protect it’s ships. The much praised SAM system, the SEA CAT, SEA DART (fitted to HMS Sheffield), SEA SQUA, and the brilliant SEA WOLF (so clever, it could hit a 4” shell in flight.) As one Senior Officer put it as the Armada left Portsmouth;  “The British Sam System alone affords the Task Force complete protection against attack”.

If the sinking of the Sheffield was a shock to Admiral Woodward, what came next would have given any Admiral nightmares. The largest ship in the Fleet, steaming less than twenty miles from the Flagship, was the Atlantic Conveyor.  Whilst not the only ‘stores ship’, she did carry all the Golden Eggs in her massive holds.

This huge ship was again sunk by Exocet missiles, again the Aircraft remained over the horizon and unseen by Radar.  It was reported that the missiles were heading for the Flagship, but at the last moment the ship’s automatically fired Corvus Chaff Rockets were deployed which deflected the missiles from their intended target   The missiles had time to re-acquire a new target which turned out to be the Atlantic Conveyor, which was destroyed.

Obviously there was no ‘Complete protection against attack’, the Sheffield had been lost, now most of the stores had joined her at the bottom of the Atlantic….. How close the Argentineans had come to Victory and the taking of the Falklands we shall never know, had the Flagship been sunk with her aircraft and possible huge loss of life…. ?  

Admiral Woodward  promptly dispersed his Fleet and sent most of them to the north east and out of range of the enemy, he brought them back when needed to protect the infantry landings.  It was inevitable that more good men and fine ships would be lost as they came within range of short range bombers.

Most of the Argentinean planes were flying at there extreme range , needing ’drop fuel tanks’ to be fitted to cover such a distance.  Their available time over the targets was only a few minutes, many ran out of fuel on the way home, they had no equipment to enable them to fly at night and of course none of the sophisticated ‘counter measures‘, also no help from France or the US. which was secretly available to the British.   Nevertheless a significant number of our ships were hit, sunk or put out of action.

After 100 years of Air War, it is time for our Politicians to learn the lessons from WW2 and the War in the Falklands.  Large ships with large crews will always succumb to aircraft attack pressed home by determined pilots.  The Bismarck had no defence against a lone defenceless canvass covered by-plane, Will our new Aircraft Carrier fare any better?  Almost all aircraft carriers ever built have been sunk or put our of action by Aircraft using weapons of the day.

Some months ago I was able to go on board one of the Navy’s billion Pound Frigates, I met a charming young serviceman who lost no time in telling me that not only could they defend the ship against an Exocet missile, they could defend her against 40 of them all attacking her at once; and he really believed that.

I  answered,  “Making missiles is a very large business using the greatest available brains and making huge profits for their manufacturer‘s. If they can not sink your ship, then she must be unsinkable."

Unfortunately in war and peace The Royal Navy can no longer serve a useful roll,  its Officer Corps even now lacks local Command and is hugely disproportional. 

It is an historic fact that  very few Battleships, Cruisers and Destroyers  ever sunk anything, but their crews enormously inflated our casualty figures as many thousands of their good men were lost.

Returning to HMS Hood 1,403 men died, (almost two full Regiments  of trained men), she never carried out a Kill on the Enemy and wasted our Country’s  meagre resources during time of War.

Whereas,  HMS Cayton Wyke , one of the six thousand small Fighting Trawlers, each with an 18 man crew (including my Father,  John T.Cook DSM RN), did sink the second Submarine of the War and did rescue 603 men off of the beaches at Dunkirk and return them to England to survive and fight again, did patrol our coast night and day in all weather, did sweep the Mines to allow shipping (including Royal Navy vessels) to enter and leave port, and did most of the Convoy Escort duty, both around our coastline to bring food to our people and those North Atlantic Convoys which brought weapons of war to our Russian Allies.

However, the New Aircraft Carrier will be built (for the same cost as 150 Fighting Trawlers) and she will no doubt be sunk by a determined Pilot; the Falklands can no longer be protected against  South American determination, however Politicians waffle and dream.  The 6,000  'Cayton Wykes’ which at little  cost to our Nation, could and did protect us in War.     Would do the same in peace.

John Cook, Secretary.  Coastal Motorboat Heritage Trust