- Churchill, Peter, Lieutenant Commander, RN (Rtd) and Payne, Alan
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the meantime, a new Flag Captain had joined Somerville; Simeon of Renown had been promoted to Rear Admiral at the New Year (1940/41) and in his place, to the Admiral’s great satisfaction, had arrived Rhoderick McGrigor, known throughout the Navy as ‘Wee Mac’, who was to end his career as an Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord.
On 9th February 1941 the bombardment of Genoa was carried out by Force ‘H’ – Renown, Malaya and Sheffield, and it turned out to be a heart-warming success at a time when our naval fortunes in the Mediterranean had been at a low ebb with the arrival of the Luftwaffe on the scene. Winston signalled: ‘I congratulate you on the success of the enterprise against Genoa, which I was very glad to see you proposed yourself.’ On the way towards the Gulf of Genoa, over which the Italian Airforce should have been maintaining some sort of cover, Somerville was thinking to himself ‘I shall be very much in the papers or very much in the soup, and I shall be damned glad when the next twenty four hours are over.’
By 11th February Renown was back in Gibraltar, with hopes for a few days’ respite for men and machinery – but it was not to be; a radio distress came from a merchant ship in the Atlantic, who was being attacked by the German cruiser Hipper; Admiral Scheer was also roaming the oceans, but her precise whereabouts were unknown. So the evening of the 12th saw Renown, Ark Royal, Sheffield and five destroyers heading westwards into the teeth of a rising gale. For the next nine days Renown and Ark Royal filled the unfamiliar role of escorts to the convoy, before returning to Gibraltar where Sheffield and the destroyers had already returned.
During March and April, Renown and Ark Royal were involved in two more sorties – the first in the Atlantic for a vain search for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the second into the Mediterranean to escort Argus with her Hurricanes to Malta.
Their next job was to escort a convoy of five ships with tanks for the Army of the Nile in Egypt; in company with Renown were Queen Elizabeth, Ark Royal, Sheffield, Fiji, Gloucester; the convoy reached an area south of Sardinia on the 8th May without any interference from the enemy, but at 1345 that day there was the first air attack, by Italian aircraft. Low over the water, on the starboard side of Renown, eight twin-engined aircraft, each carrying two torpedoes, came skimming in to attack.
The destroyers on the screen opened up with a furious barrage, but straight for Renown and Ark Royal came the torpedoes dropped by the five aircraft that survived the screen’s barrage; the torpedo-tracks could clearly be seen. Handling their big ships with skill and sang-froid, Wee Mac and Maund swung them to ‘comb’ the tracks, the torpedoes ran harmlessly by – all but one which suddenly turned towards Renown. A hit seemed inevitable, breaths were held as the explosion was awaited; then it was seen that the torpedo had stopped at the end of its run, a few yards short of the ship’s side; it could be plainly seen as it sank down through the clear blue water -it seemed to have been a providential escape, and it added to the satisfaction of defeating the dangerous attack. The next day the convoy arrived south of Malta, with only the Empire Song missing (mined) and the New Zealand Star damaged, also by mines. Force ‘H’ returned to Gibraltar during the evening of the 12th May, tired but pleased with itself, having assisted so much in the success of the ‘Tiger’ convoy.
It did not seem at first as though Force ‘H’ was fated to be deeply involved in the operation to bring Bismarck to action. They were ordered to join a south-bound troop convoy as escort; then came the shocking news of the loss of Hood, and that Bismarck had given the slip to the shadowing cruisers. From all over the Atlantic the Admiralty began to call in battleships and cruisers and to place them at the disposal of the C-in-C Home Fleet, Sir John Tovey, who was at sea in his flagship King George V and in charge of the operations.
The elderly Renown was, of course, no match for the German battleship; although Somerville had already planned how to engage her if it became necessary, he did not demur when Admiralty ordered him not to do so unless Bismarck was actually being engaged by K.G.V. and Rodney. The chase and destruction of Bismarck was an episode in which there is no doubt that the laurels belong to Force ‘H’; the torpedoes from Ark Royal’s Swordfish which wrecked her steering-gear turned a British defeat into a triumph, and enabled the Home Fleet to snatch success out of failure. ‘Please allow me to congratulate your Force’ signalled Sir John Tovey, ‘on their excellent shadowing and very effective attack on Bismarck which was largely responsible for battleships getting their opportunity.’ It was by no means an overstatement.
On the evening of the day that Bismarck’s rudders had been damaged by Ark Royal’s aircraft, the carrier and Renown were returning to Gibraltar, without a destroyer screen (they had had to be sent back to Gibraltar for fuel the day before) when at 2000 a U-boat Commander, Lieutnant Wohlfahrt of U-556, his torpedoes all expended, watched them through his periscope, and swore with rage and frustration as they passed by, untouched.
The next operation in which Force ‘H’ took part was ‘Substance’, a complicated plan, in which the principal object was the safe passage of six transports to Malta, but to which was added the conveyance of nearly three thousand troops in cruisers and destroyers of the escort force, the passage from Malta to Gibraltar of a convoy of empty transports, the flying-off of a small force of Swordfish aircraft to Malta, and the safe return passage of the convoy escorts from Malta.
The ships involved were Renown, Ark Royal, Hermione (replacing Sheffield), Nelson; six transports, the troopship Pasteur, the personnel ship Leinster, Edinburgh, Manchester, and destroyers. Leinster, with 1,000 troops onboard, ran aground off the breakwater at Gibraltar during a levanter (a typical Gibraltar fog) just at the time she was due to sail, she had to be left, along with all her troops. Enemy agents in Algeciras, as always, alerted their masters, and the Italian submarine Diaspro sighted the ships off Bougie, but failed to realise that the merchantmen were included. Manchester and the destroyer Fearless were damaged by torpedoes, and when the convoy reached the Skerki Channel, the capital ships of Force ‘H’ had to return, as there was not enough searoom for Ark Royal to manoeuvre to operate her aircraft between the minefields thickly sown on either side of the channel. The Italian Fleet had remained in harbour, and the enemy relied solely upon ineffective air-attacks on the convoy. Hermione rammed and sank a submarine.
Renown, which had carried Somerville’s flag with such success and distinction for so long, had for some time been overdue for a refit – her anti-torpedo bulges had repeatedly torn away, and only temporary repairs were possible at Gibraltar. She was now ordered home, with the Admiral and his staff transferring to Nelson. Renown sailed for England on 8th August 1941.
In March 1942, Renown was involved in the search for Tirpitz, along with King George V, Duke of York, Victorious, a heavy cruiser and twelve destroyers; eventually Victorious’s aircraft made contact and carried out a torpedo attack, but it was, unfortunately, unsuccessful.
From February, the ship was under refit at Rosyth, Scotland, and from June to August of that year, she exercised and patrolled out of Scapa Flow with the Home Fleet. Between 29th August and 14th September, she was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she went to collect Winston Churchill and his staff after the Quebec Conference, and to bring them back to Greenock. Renown was quite unescorted across the Atlantic, and steamed at 25 knots, well above the speed that would have endangered her at the hands of any lurking U-boats. Renown was again selected to take the Prime Minister and his staff to their conference with the Allied leaders in the Middle East. She left Scapa on the 8th November, and after embarking the Prime Minister and staff left Plymouth on the 12th November for Gibraltar. Renown went on to Oran and Algiers, leaving the latter on the 28th for Rosyth, where she arrived on the 2nd December for docking.