My Time in HMS Warspite
By Anthony F. Balch, R.N.
HMS Warspite, the 7th navy vessel to carry the name was a battleship. She was of the Queen Elizabeth class built and launched in 1913 one of the oldest warships in the navy and by far the most famous. She had been all over the world and had fought in many naval engagements in WWI and WWII.
She weighed around 33,000 tons, carried a crew of about 1,100 officers and men and her main armament was eight 15" guns. This class of battleship was the first naval warship to be powered by oil - as opposed to coal - and the first warships to be fitted with 15'' guns. The First Lord of the Admiralty was responsible for both of these innovative ideas and he was at the time a gentleman by the name of Winston Churchill.
The 15'' guns were carried in four turrets, two barrels to a turret with two turrets in the bow of the ship labeled A and B and two turrets in the stern X and Y. It has been a tradition for many years that X turret on a major war vessel will be manned by Royal Marines - those special service men who are half soldiers and half sailors - on D-Day however only three turrets were usable as X turret had been damaged in a previous action and was beyond repair. There were of course many other weapons of various sizes as well as a Walrus seaplane used for spotting and reporting the fall of shot. In many pictures of Warspite firing her mighty guns at D-Day, it can be clearly seen that X turret gun barrels are pointing fore and aft indicating they were not in use.
As young telegraphists we were assigned to the communication department of the ship and we were expected to perform our duties just the same as other members of the staff. These duties consisted of receiving morse signals from a radio receiver that carried operational information relevant to the ships duties. I was 17 years and 3 months on boarding the ship for the first time and I was carried on the ship's books as Boy Telegraphist Anthony Balch and that was my official rate until I reached the age of 18.
The three months leading up to D-Day were spent in working up the ship. This is an expression that describes the many exercises and drills that had to be practiced over and over again in readiness for action stations. These included firing of all guns to check for accuracy and drilling the guns crews to perfection, speed trials, training for officers on the bridge, fleet manouevres and so on. The first time I heard (and felt) the big guns firing was a special occasion. As was required during action stations members of the crew wore overalls and a sort of balaclava headdress (called anti-flash gear) that covered the nose and mouth.
Because Warspite was an old ship the ventilation system was primitive by modern standards and consisted essentially of wooden or light metal ducts that relied either on fans to provide air circulation or the natural air flow of the ship under way and they were less than efficient. Consequently when the big guns fired the fumes from the cordite charges used to expel the shells from the barrels spread throughout the ship via the air vents. This smell was unpleasant and pervasive, but was something we became used to when we were at bombarding stations. There had long been talk among the crew of the impending invasion and finally on the 2nd of June we received instructions from the Admiralty that seemed to suggest this was the moment.
We sailed from Greenock (a naval port in Scotland) at 7 pm on the 2nd June in company with another battleship HMS Ramillies, five cruisers and a number of destroyers including one from Norway a beautiful brand new warship called HNoMS Svenner. The group was designated Bombarding Force D and was scheduled to sail directly to the bombarding station off the French beachhead. However as we all know now the invasion was postponed for 24 hours due to bad weather. During the passage south through the Irish Sea our commanding officer Captain Kelsey had announced over the ships loud hailer system that we were now part of a huge naval operation code-named Neptune and that indeed this was part of the invasion force.
On the 4th June the group arrived off Portsmouth. On the 5th June a flotilla of 40 minesweepers swept ahead of all the invading forces to clear the channel of mines and the bombarding force took up positions off the Eddystone lighthouse. Allocated to Sword area Warspite picked up the buoy marking the start of the swept channel at 0120 on the morning of the 6th. At 0430 Bombarding Force D was in position and preparing to engage enemy shore batteries. Approaching the coast of France at 0500 Warspite was stopped in position eleven miles to seaward of Le Havre and opened fire almost immediately on the Benerville battery - her primary target. I believe it was a further distinction for this famous battleship to have had the honour of firing the first salvo against the enemy in the greatest invasion ever to be undertaken.
Early on the morning of the 6th June despite the bad weather and the poor visibility I took the opportunity to go up on the upper deck to have a look. In the very early light of that fateful day I witnessed the most amazing sight - all around the ship in every direction the sea was black with ships of all shapes and sizes. Later I learned that there were over 4,200 of them.
At 0510 NE of Sword beach approximately 11 miles west of Le Havre (at this time Le Havre was cut off from the invasion fleet by a smoke screen that had been laid by the RAF aircraft of 88 Squadron) Warspite opened fire on the Villerville battery at a range of 26,000 yards (approx 24 kms). The Villerville battery contained six 155-mm guns, weapons of a size that could do a great deal of damage whilst in action.
At 0515 almost simultaneously with opening fire the bombarding force was attacked by the German 5th Torpedo Boat Flotilla - also known as E-boats - out of Le Havre and appearing out of the smoke screen. The E-boats fired 18 torpedoes, one of which passed between Warspite and the other battleship Ramillies However one of the torpedoes struck the Norwegian destroyer I mentioned earlier - the Svenner - amidships and she sank almost immediately. We learned later that most of her crew had been picked up.
At 0612 it was reputed that Warspite sank an attacking German patrol boat. For the rest of the day until just after 1800 warspite engaged all three shore batteries Villerville, Benerville and Goneville. And at times as directed columns of enemy vehicles and other targets of opportunity. Although there were three enemy batteries they only once managed to straddle Warspite causing minor splinter damage, but no casualties. Of the 73 shells fired at the Villerville battery 9 were direct hits.
To give you some idea of the destructive power of a 15 inch shell I should explain that each one weighs almost a ton and stands as tall as an average man. With high explosive content they are capable of delivering enormous damage on any target. The German batteries were often disguised to look like a farm house or building, but they were protected by reinforced concrete emplacements. Thus it was essential to score a direct hit in order to put them out of action.
Fire from the batteries east of the River Orne was directed mainly against the bombarding ships with Warspite being the main target, after being straddled by shells from the Benerville battery, which caused no damage, she moved position. A wise move as the third shot might hit the target. I should mention a message that Captain Kelsey announced to the ship's company just prior to opening fire on the morning of D-Day. It gives an indication of the determination of our commanding officer and it is a measure of the man himself. This is what he said.
"if warspite is damaged and appears to be in danger of sinking i shall drive her on to the beach of normandy and continue firing from there"
Captain Kelsey later retired after the war as Vice-Admiral Kelsey. D.S.C.
At 11 pm Warspite anchored for the night out in the channel about four miles off shore, having fired some 300 rounds of 15 inch shells in addition to some small arms fire. The ship's company throughout action stations had been in two watches that is four hours on duty and four hours off. Because all hands had special duties during action the normal meal times were suspended and we survived on kye - a very thick cocoa drink and a meat pasty known by sailors as a tiddey hoggie. This is claimed to have originated in Cornwall and can be found in Wikipedia under Cornish pasty if anyone is interested.
The 7th June was spent engaging targets of opportunity such as aa batteries and mobile guns bought up to replace the shattered shore batteries. Other targets included enemy troop concentrations strong points vehicles and guns. Between 1650 and 1715 one of our bombardments was in support of 45 Royal Marine commandos on their attempt to take Franceville. At the end of the second day she had carried out 20 shoots and fired 354 15 inch shells, 181 rounds of high explosive and 133 round of armour piercing.
At 1900 Warspite sailed from the beachhead for Portsmouth to replenish with ammunition. At 0330 on the 8th June Warspite arrived off Portsmouth and moved into the harbour in the afternoon and commenced re-ammunitioning. On the 9th June we sailed from Portsmouth at 0800 with orders to assist the western task force off the Cotentin Peninsula where we were to relieve the U.S. battleship Nevada who needed to re-ammunition at Plymouth.
At 1600 we arrived off Utah Beach and between 1615 and 1815 hours fired 96 rounds of 15 inch at a German artillery position located on a narrow neck of foreshore. This shooting was later highly praised in a signal from American commanders. We continued our bombarding role until the 12th June when we once again returned to Portsmouth to re-ammunition. However it was decided this time that our guns were so worn that they needed replacement and since the nearest replacements were at Rosyth (another naval port in Scotland) we were ordered to proceed there and at 1800 we sailed for Rosyth.
15 inch gun barrels are made up of a number of steel tubes each heat sweated inside the other by which means any inaccuracies in straightness in any of the tubes would be cancelled out. There are many other technical reasons for this method of construction of which I know nothing. An individual barrel weighs about 100 tons and is about 54 feet long. A full crew for each turret consists of a total of about 70 officers and men.
To return to the passage from Portsmouth to Rosyth. At around 4 in the morning of Tuesday 13th June (an auspicious date) Warspite passed through the Straits of Dover the first warship to do so since February 1942. The straits are twenty-two miles wide and are the narrowest section of the English Channel separating England from France. The German coastal batteries on the French coast opened fire on us, but the jamming of the German radar was highly effective and Warspite successfully ran the gauntlet of the German fire.
At 0815 we were passing through the swept channel twenty-eight miles east of Harwich when an influence mine detonated under her stern on the port quarter. Her steering jammed she veered off to starboard took a sharp list to port and had all four propeller shafts put out of action. After counter flooding, the list was rectified and one starboard shaft started to work to be followed a little later by the other.
At 0920 Warspite managed to get under way again and at 7 knots continued on to Rosyth. Great work by the engine room staff to get us moving again in just over an hour from striking the mine. At 9 pm on the 14th June we arrived at our destination and as Warspite sailed up the the Firth of Forth we passed the battleships Anson and Howe, they and all the other warships off Rosyth cleared the lower decks and cheered the Warspite in.
As to my personal reactions to this historical event I must say at no time did I feel fear. I was far too excited to be part of such a famous ship and to be able to practice the skills that I had spent nearly 17 months acquiring. There were six other boys from my class in the crew and we shared all our day to day events. As juniors we had our own dining and sleeping area and were chaperoned most of the time by a senior petty officer. I guess young people in their ignorance believe they are indestructible and none of us felt that we could be in danger. The sight and sound of the big guns was an incredible experience the first time they were fired. Some idea of their power can be gauged by the fact that Warspite actually rocked slightly in reaction to the recoil of a 3 gun salvo.
In a narrative such as the above there is a need to provide statistics and historical detail to provide continuity and I must go on record as stating that most of the statistics and some of the details in the above account has been extracted from official records and I must emphasize that I claim no originality for their use. Please make what use you wish of the above but please be conscious of the dangers of copyright infringement.
-Anthony F. "Tony" Balch 2014
Page published Feb. 2, 2014