November 19th, 1941
10 Downing Street
By late evening Prime Minister Churchill had been informed of the German sortie of nearly half dozen major combatants. He did not hesitate to call an emergency meeting consisting of the top men in the Royal Air Force and Navy. It took less than 20 minutes before the First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound, The Lord of the Admiralty Mr. Albert Alexander & Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris were in session at the Prime Minister’s residence. It was Prime Minister Churchill who spoke first.
“Gentlemen I am glad that you are all here. Each of you by now should be aware of the sortie by the German Navy. What I would like to know is what the Germans are up to and why didn’t our agents in Germany get wind of this sortie.”
“Mr. Prime Minister I think that we have two possible directions the Germans may take.”
“And what are those Mr. Alexander?”
“Well sir, I that is the First Sea Lord and I believe that either the Germans will be heading North along the Norwegian coast to settle in some fiords so as to pose a threat to our convoy’s to Russia or they may attempt a breakout into the Atlantic somewhat reminiscent of what the Bismarck & Prinz Eugen attempted to do earlier this year.”
“There is another possibility” interjected the Air Chief Marshall “ and that is perhaps to raid our shipping in the channel before heading for bases in France. This may be remote but it would account for the buildup of German aircraft in France and Belgium.”
“I don’t think that is the case air Marshall” replied The First Sea Lord, “it would be risky as it would expose those ships to air attacks by our own air forces. Plus it would risk the ships to surface action with the Home Fleet. No I think our original assessment is correct, they will either go north or attempt a breakout into the Atlantic.”
“Alright if this is so then what forces do we have available to us to counter them?”
“Not much I’m afraid, right now we are spread a bit thin. With the addition of the Duke of York recently to the fleet we do have 3 modern battleships in the fleet but as of yet she has not been completely worked up. To prevent a repeat of what happened with the POW I suggest that we not send her into action until she is. With that said we do have both the POW & the KGV available as both have already completed repairs. The Nelson & Rodney are both in the states undergoing sorely needed refit and don’t expect to have them back before March of next year. The 4 ships of the Revenge class are available if needed but all are in desperate need of overhaul and some modernization.
For carriers we are in somewhat better shape Prime Minister. We have the new fleet carriers Ark Royal & Indomitable right now in home waters. The carrier’s Furious & Victorious are at Gibraltar and the Illustrious is currently enroute at sea escorting a convoy. As far as cruisers are concerned we have about a dozen mix bag of heavy & light cruisers also available in home waters, the rest I’m afraid are spread around the Empire with some searching for German and Italian surface raiders such as the Emden. The only battle cruiser that is available to us right now the Repulse and she is currently in Canadian waters, of course if needed we can reactivate the Tiger but she also would be in need of refit.”
“What of submarines” asked Churchill.
“Well sir” replied the First Sea Lord “we have several right now patrolling the North Sea with several more that just returned to Scapa & Rosyth. I imagine that we can have them ready for sea in short order.”
“Make it so First Sea Lord, I want as many subs patrolling that area as we can send out, the more eyes we have out there the better.”
“Air Marshall Harris what aircraft can we put up that will help in the search and determine just what the Germans have in mind.”
“Well Sir, in addition to the Catalina’s that the Royal Navy can put aloft I can reallocate some squadron’s of Beauforts, Hudson’s & Mosquito’s also perhaps a squadron or two of Wellington’s. These same aircraft can be armed as attack aircraft if need be.”
“Sir shouldn’t the American’s be notified of the German sortie?”
“In due time but first we need to determine just what the Germans intent is. If they go north they pose a threat to the convoys and would be in range of attack of our long-range bombers as well. In the event that they go south and attempt to break out into the Atlantic then the threat would be that much greater six-fold. Of the two I perceive the second as the greater threat of the two. All right gentlemen this is how we will handle it; we will assume that the Germans will attempt a second breakthrough into the Atlantic and act accordingly. Timetable wise I expect this to happen sometime early next morning so as of now we are on full alert.
Notify what ships we have available in the area to prepare for a possible engagement with the Germans. The POW & the KGV will be reinforced by the Duke of York and will be the first line of defense. The carriers Ark Royal & Indomitable will back them up & provide both search & attack missions. The RAF will also provide search aircraft and will have aircraft standing by to assist the Navy in the event that some German ships get past the battleships. Our ships should be able to handle this small German Fleet however in the event that some do make it past our ships it would be wise to have units of the American Navy backing us up.
Before I go ahead and contact the American President I need to know if what forces the Americans will have to support us. This information I trust is available to you First Sea Lord?”
“Yes Mr. Prime Minister to better coordinate the naval activities of our two nations I have been in constant contact with the American Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Stark. Just a few days ago I was informed of the strength of the US Atlantic Fleet. At last count they have seven battleships of which five can be relied upon plus three carriers in the Atlantic. The battleships North Carolina & Virginia like the KGV & POW had just completed repairs and are now undergoing post repair trials off the American Coast. Battleships South Dakota & Indiana are also off the east coast completing training exercises. These last 2 are follow-ups to the previous class the North Carolina’s and are slightly superior and are more then a match for the Tirpitz. The battleship Mississippi is currently assigned to the same convoy that the Ark Royal is with and should arrive in England in two days.
The other two American battleships Texas & West Virginia, of which the West Virginia is on temporary assignment to the Atlantic Fleet from the Pacific Fleet are now currently stationed in Gibralter as per your request with the American President. Originally the New Mexico was scheduled for this assignment but she developed some minor engine trouble and since the New York was lost the Atlantic Fleet was short a battleship. Of the five American battleships the last three US battleships mentioned are of the same generation as our Queen Elizabeth class but all have been upgraded and rebuilt nearly 6 years ago. Each is capable of taking on the Tirpitz yet alone any of the other German ships in a naval engagement.
The locations of the American carriers are a bit sketchy right now but at last report the Ranger is at the US naval base in Norfolk, Washington. The Wasp is steaming with the two North Carolina class battleships and the Hornet is undergoing her own workup somewhere off Puerto Rico. The number of cruisers available is quite similar to what we have available about a dozen or so.”
“Very well I will contact the US President as soon as this meeting is concluded. Gentlemen and I stress this most urgently none of those German ships are to get past our ships and out into the shipping lanes is this understood?”
“Yes Mr. Prime Minister” came the reply unanimously.
November 19th, 1941
Fifteen minutes ago President Roosevelt concluded his trans-Atlantic phone with Prime Minister Churchill. The message left a chill running up the President’s back. Six powerful German ships let lose in the Atlantic Ocean with any direction they chose to go could be costly to the US even more so then perhaps the u-boat threat. There was also the possibility that one or even two may make the attempt to get into either the Indian or for that matter the Pacific where they could virtually get lost. They had to be found and sunk and he could not rely on the British Navy to do it alone, which is why he called Admiral Stark immediately after ending the phone call with the British Prime Minister.
“Admiral Stark I have just received some disturbing news from the British Prime Minister. It seems that the Germans may attempt another breakout into the Atlantic Ocean but this time with at least six powerful ships not just two. From what I have been told the German force will consist of the battleship Tirpitz, the battle cruisers Scharnhorst & Gneisenau, two pocket battleships and a heavy cruiser.
To counter this threat they have gathered three battleships and a number of cruisers plus two carriers for support. They also have several squadrons of attack aircraft & bombers standing by in case they are needed. The British Navy has informed us to provide what forces we have available to assist in tracking them down and destroying them should some manage to get by their forces. My question to you would be the same and how fast can we gather them?”
Startled by this news it took Admiral Stark a few seconds to gather his thoughts but he did manage to answer the President’s question. “Well Mr. President to answer your question we have battleships North Carolina & Virginia along with the carrier Wasp off the North Carolina coast undergoing a minor shakedown cruise. Battleships South Dakota & Indiana have just completed their workups and are available. The battleship Mississippi is providing support for a convoy that is just a few days out of England. The battleships Texas & West Virginia are now in Gibraltar with several cruisers and a division of destroyers. The carrier Ranger is in Norfolk and the carrier Hornet along with two cruisers & three destroyers is off the coast of Puerto Rico where her pilots are undergoing bombing training.
However Mr. President we were not expecting this breakout of German ships and for the British to be shorthanded as they are”.
“Well sir with an influx of new ships into the Atlantic Fleet orders have been drawn up to transfer the North Carolina & Virginia to the Pacific Fleet. This addition would give the Pacific Fleet a formidable surface action group in case of any Japanese aggression”.
“Couldn’t the existing ships cope with any problem in this area Admiral Stark. By removing those 2 ships you are reducing the Atlantic’s Fleet capabilities not to mention removing a seasoned battle force”.
“True enough to some extent Mr. President. Admiral Phelps who will be assuming command of the Task Force is more than capable of doing Admiral Rearson’s job and as I said earlier the 2 South Dakota class battleships which will replace the North Caroloina’s are more than a match for any German yet alone Italian ship. The battleships that were transferred from Pearl Harbor to Gibraltar were determined more than a match for any German or Italian battleships if their recent rebuilds and upgrades are taken into consideration however only the West Virginia can be deemed an equal match for the Tirptiz.
So to answer your question Mr. President the first ships that I could dispatch would be the battleships South Dakota, Indiana and the carrier Wasp, the Ranger would be ordered to sea soon thereafter with orders to join them. The battleships West Virginia & Texas would have to be recalled as well as the carrier Hornet with orders to rendezvous somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. The only ship that that I would not recall would be the Mississippi, instead I would signal her of the impending threat and if at all possible to join the British battle group. If not possible then she would have orders for her and her escorts to engage any German ships that approach the convoy she is protecting.”
“How soon can this be done Admiral?”
“As soon as I hang up Mr. President.”
“Then do it.”
“One thing further Mr. President I could hold up the transfer of the North Carolina’s per your orders if you think that their presence in the Atlantic theater is necessary”.
“That won’t be necessary Admiral Stark as I trust your judgment, proceed with the transfer however in the future advise me if any additional transfers are needed. But don’t worry I will not reverse your decision as to which ships you wish to transfer”
“Yes Mr. President.”
November 19th, 1941
Bridge of the USS North Carolina
“Excuse me Admiral but we’ve received an urgent message from headquarters.”
“What does it say Lieutenant Hanson?”
“It’s for your eyes only Sir.”
“Alright then give it here.”
Admiral Rearson once again on the bridge of his flagship took the message from the Lieutenant and quickly read it, not only once but twice. It was a message that like the President sent a chill down his back. The message read as follows:
DATE: NOVEMBER 19TH, 1941
FROM: ADMIRAL STARK, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS
TO: ADMIRAL REARSON, CO TASK FORCE 24
SUBJ: RE-ASSIGNMENT TO PACIFIC FLEET
1) YOU ARE HEARBY ORDERED TO RETURN TO NORFOLK TO RELINQUISH COMMAND OF TASK FORCE 24 TO ADMIRAL PHELPS WHO WILL ASSUME COMMAND IMMEDIATELY.
2) THE NORTH CAROLINA AND VIRGINIA WILL STAND DOWN FOR A PERIOD OF 48 HOURS BEFORE BEING DEPLOYED TO THE PACIFIC FLEET. THE SOUTH DAKOTA AND INDIANA HAVING JUST COMPLETED TRAINING AND GUNNERY EXCERCISES WILL BE ASSIGNED TO TASK FORCE 24.
3) YOUR GROUP WILL HEAD TO THE NAVAL BASE AT SAN DIEGO WHERE YOU WILL ACQUIRE ADDITIONAL ESCORTS. ONCE YOUR GROUP DEPARTS SAN DIEGO YOU WILL THEN MEET UP WITH THE SARATOGA AND HER ESCORTS AND PROCEED TO PEARL HARBOR.
ADMIRAL STARK, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS
A second message was sent soon after to Admiral Phelps at his headquarters.
[b]DATE: NOVEMBER 19TH, 1941
FROM: ADMIRAL STARK, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS
TO: ADMIRAL PHELPS
SUBJ: CHANGE OF COMMAND, TASK FORCE 24
1) INFORMED BY THE PRESIDENT THAT THE BRITISH SUSPECT BREAKOUT OF GERMAN NAVAL FORCES SOMETIME EARLY NEXT MORNING.
2) YOU ARE HEARBY ORDERED TO PROCEED TO NORFOLK WHERE YOU WILL RELIEVE ADMIRAL REARSON OF TASK FORCE 24. ONCE YOU HAVE DONE SO YOU WILL DEPART NORFOLK AND IF POSSIBLE RENDEVOUS WITH THE BRITISH HOME FLEET TO PREVENT SUCH A BREAKOUT.
3) IF BREAKOUT OCCURS BEFORE RENDEVOUS AND GERMAN FORCES EVADE THE BRITISH FLEET YOU ARE ORDERED TO TRACK THEM DOWN AND USE WHATEVER FORCES YOU HAVE AVAILABLE TO DESTROY AND SINK THEM.
4) THE CARRIER RANGER WILL SET SAIL FROM NORFOLK IMMEDIATELY WITH ORDERS TO JOIN YOU.
5) ANOTHER BATTLE GROUP CENTERED ON THE WASP ALONG WITH IDAHO WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR SUPPORT AS SOON AS THEY JOIN UP.
6) THE PRESIDENT EXPRESSES THE IMPORTANCE AND URGENCY THAT ALL GERMAN SURFACE UNITS BE ACCOUNTED FOR BEFORE THEY MANAGE TO ENTER THE SHIPPING LANES AND OR DISAPPEAR INTO THE ATLANTIC.
ADMIRAL STARK, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS[/B]
November 22nd, 1941
USS North Carolina, Norfolk Naval Base
It was an early Saturday morning right before sunrise. The air was chilly and a little damp more than likely as a result of the season, late fall as it were. Winter was just around the corner. Overhead clouds were beginning to form and it looked as though it might rain despite the weather reports calling for a clear skies. Alongside pier 3 where the North Carolina was berthed sailors could be seen from the bridge forming up into working parties. Instructions could clearly be seen given to those in the working parties by a naval officer or senior chief. When the instructions were completed the working parties broke up into individual teams. Some went to the various bollards holding the mooring lines. Others went to the fore and aft brows, while others went over to the shore line power cables.
Meanwhile aboard ship set the special sea detail was called over the 1MC, and no sooner than it was called sailors began to rush to their assigned working stations. Most were young boatswain ratings and ordinary seamen. Here and there were senior petty officers giving orders to those handling the lines at the ships capstan’s, fore and aft brows and finally the power lines. Amongst the sailors were junior naval officers from the ship’s deck department taking orders from the bridge and repeating them to the petty officers. On the ships stern was a rating by the jack staff standing by to haul down the ensign as soon as the ship got under way. Scheduled departure time was 0730 and it was now 0715 all the men could do was wait.
On the bridge of the North Carolina Admiral Rearson was sitting in the Admiral’s chair drinking his standard cup of strong black coffee, the ship’s captain was giving orders to several officers in charge of the special sea detail. Over at the navigator’s table the navigator was going over the chart for the departure channels of the Chesapeake Bay. Already lookouts were taking up their stations on the port and starboard bridge positions. The helmsman and lee helmsman were already at their respective stations standing by for orders. The ships talker was just putting on his set of headphones after receiving instructions from the Boatswain of the watch. For this evolution there was no need for a harbor pilot and so none were aboard.
At exactly 0730 the order was given to get underway. First the ship to shore power lines were disconnected, and when this was done the ship was on internal power. Deep inside the ship were the rumbling sounds of the ships engines as they slowly started to turn. Astern of the ship the wash of the propellers were beginning to be seen. Next the brows were removed and finally each mooring line was removed from its bollard and brought aboard ship. Slowly the ship began to back out from the pier into the bay. The flag on the Jack staff was lowered while almost at the same time the Ensign was raised on the Mainmast signifying that the ships was now underway. Up on the Bridge orders were being relayed amongst bridge personnel.
“Lee helm all back slow”
“All back slow aye sir” Came the response.
“Helm stand by for a 20 deg turn to starboard”
“Standing by for a 20 deg turn to starboard aye sir” the helmsman responded.
In the meantime over at pier 4 the Virginia was undergoing the same evolution and would soon follow the North Carolina out into the Chesapeake Bay. Outside of the bay in the Atlantic about 3 miles offshore were 5 destroyers standing by to escort the battleships to the Panama Canal. This would be no ordinary departure as it would have been 7 months ago, since the action in the North Sea all major ports were patrolled by at least two naval ships on the lookout for German U-boats. Today would be no exception as the destroyers were actively pinging with their sonar looking for submarines. As the ship traveled backwards the lookouts reported its position to Captain Strikes. Carefully noting the ships position as it moved the Captain acted.
“Helm 20 deg to starboard”
“Helm aye sir 20 deg to starboard” came the expected response.
Slowly the ship responded to the commands by both the Helmsman and Lee Helm. As the ship moved backwards careful note was given of its position by the navigator. At a given point Captain Strikes gave the follow up anticipated orders.
“Helm come to course 090 deg”
“Lee Helm ahead slow”
“Aye sir” came the response from both of them. Slowly the ship responded to both commands and began to slowly move ahead setting on the course given. As the ship inched its way forward it began to pick up speed and little by little began to pass both ships and piers at the Naval Base. Passing the now moving Virginia the North Carolina headed for the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. At around 0805 both ships were clear of the docks and well into the channel, at this point speed was increased.
“Lee Helm increase speed to ahead 1/3”
“Ahead 1/3 Aye sir” repeated the Lee Helmsman as he moved the levers to ahead 1/3 on the ships annunciator.
To the naked eye it seemed as though the two ships picked up speed quickly as they moved from slow ahead to ahead 1/3. But in actuality it takes time to move something weighing over 50,000 tons so looks were a bit deceiving. The naval base was about 47 miles from the entrance to the bay, so it would take a little over 5 hours before the ships reached the Atlantic Ocean if the ships maintained their current speed.
Normally these waters would have some commercial traffic this early morning, anything from ocean going merchant ships to boats fishing for Maryland blue crab that ply these waters for a living. This morning was no exception. No sooner than the battlewagons had gotten underway then their respective lookouts began reporting the various ships in the area. Down in Combat this was also repeated on the early radar screens that the ships carried. Aboard the merchant ships crews would gather to watch as the battlewagons would pass them occasionally giving a cheer while above in the masts the ships horn would blow giving the battlewagons a salute. This form of salutation was not limited to the large merchant ships as the smaller ships including the crabbers did what they could do in the form of cheering. The servicemen on the battlewagons from the lowly seaman recruit and marine to some of the senior officers returned these same cheers and both battlewagons returned the horn salute with one of their own. Clearly it was a good day to be an American.
Several hours later both the North Carolina & Virginia were now approaching the destroyers. Some three miles out the two battleships changed course to a southerly one as they began to hug the coastline. Rather than trail the North Carolina the Virginia pulled up on the portside of the North Carolina and executed a maneuver that would see them separated by a distance of 1,500 feet while trailing by 750. Since the two battlewagons were hugging the coastline this maneuver allowed two destroyers to be place on the portside, with the others trailing and one leading respectively. It also allowed only one destroyer to be placed on the starboard side, but it was thought that no German U-Boats would be this close to the shore and so it would be safe. However Admiral Rearson using his gut instinct ordered all ships to zig zag.
Up on the bridge of both battleships changing of the watch was taking place, where those on the Special Sea Detail were being relieved by the 1200 to 1600 watch. Here and there the current watch standers were briefing their reliefs. It was a custom going back to the days of Nelson. Soon the oncoming watch were on station and Captain Strikes made one more move. He walked over to the oncoming OOD and spoke with him.
“Commander Abrahams you now have the Bridge”
“Aye Sir” responded Commander Abrahams “I now have the Bridge.” Picking up the mike for the 1MC Commander Abrahams announced “This is the OOD set Condition III throughout the ship, the smoking lamp is out”
The trip to the Panama Canal would take about 3 ½ days at their current speed and would prove to be uneventful. Occasionally there would be reports of U-Boat sightings in the area and ship sinking’s but none were close enough to this small task force..
“At once Admiral”