World War II in Pictures: Operation Juno: Kriegsmarine's Finest Hours

Monday, June 20, 2016

Operation Juno: Kriegsmarine's Finest Hours

The Kriegsmarine's Finest Two Hours

Operation Juno Scharnhorst Gneisenau
Scharnhorst firing at extreme range against HMS Glorious - notice how elevated her guns are.
Operation Juno is one of the least-publicized naval encounters of World War II in relation to the damage inflicted. This most definitely is because the damage inflicted was almost entirely upon the Royal Navy. Compared to Operation Juno, the Bismarck battle a year later was almost a sideshow; but, anyone with the slightest interest in World War II knows every detail about the sinking of the Bismarck, while the Juno operation gets short shrift. The lack of attention to Operation Juno must be ascribed to the fact that the battle's winner was the war's loser. This is not at all unusual, and perfectly understandable given how "history" works; but the battle now stands for that point as much as anything else.

Operation Juno Scharnhorst Gneisenau
A destroyer leads Scharnhorst, followed by Gneisenau, during the February 1942 Operation Cerberus.
There is the added element that the Admiralty's papers on the incident remain locked up under the infamous "100-year rule," which could be waived - but, for so embarrassing, nay humiliating an incident, will not be. The papers will remain secret until 2040, by which time pretty much everyone but people like us will have long forgotten the incident.

Operation Juno General Dietl
The underlying reason behind Operation Juno was to save this man, General Eduard Dietl, and his troops from defeat at Narvik.
Operation Juno was one in a succession of German naval sorties which sailed up the Norwegian coast. With many of the other operations, the objective was to break out into the Atlantic by circling around Great Britain; however, the objective of Operation Juno was to aid General Dietl at Narvik. Adolf Hitler was obsessed with Dietl's predicament, and the idea was to pound the Allied base at Harstad to prevent further Allied reinforcements.

The Objective

Since battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz were not ready, the Kriegsmarine sent its most reliable pocket battleships (really heavy cruisers): Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They were accompanied by heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and the destroyers Z20 Karl Galster, Z10 Hans Lody, Z15 Erich Steinbrinck, and Z7 Hermann Schoemann. Any surface sortie was dangerous, but the Germans had gotten away with it previously and this was a rare chance to use the surface ships to achieve a strategic purpose, as opposed to mere commerce raiding as with the Admiral Graf Spee.

Operation Juno Admiral Marschall
Admiral Wilhelm Marschall.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance reported that the Allies were evacuating from Harstad, which robbed the mission of its strategic impact. Operational commander Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, however, was an aggressive commander who had sunk HMS Rawalpindi in 1939 and was not one to waste an opportunity. Aboard the Gneisenau, he pressed ahead despite orders to avoid combat. Kriegsmarine surface sorties were rare opportunities for aggressive commanders and not to be wasted. Rather than head directly for its port at Trondheim, instead, Marschall stayed at sea and turned the operation into a naval raid.

Hunting Down Stragglers

Marschall had plenty of opportunities. With the Allies pulling out of Narvik, the sea lanes between there and Scapa Flow were crowded with Royal Navy vessels. First, heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper came upon troop ship Orama, tanker Oil Pioneer and minesweeping trawler Juniper - and dispatched all three. The Orama was a modern (1924) Orient Line passenger liner which had been impressed into Royal Navy service. She went to the bottom about 300 miles west of Narvik, but thankfully she was not full of troops and only 19 men lost their lives. Admiral Hipper took aboard 280 prisoners. To the Kriegsmarine's credit, there was an accompanying hospital ship, the Atlantis, which obeyed the rules of war by not radioing its position - and the Admiral Hipper let her go. After this, Admiral Marschall detached the Admiral Hipper with a couple of destroyers to make port in Trondheim.

Operation Juno British troops Harstad
British soldiers evacuating from Norway on 8 June 1940. That may be the Orama in the distance.
The sinking of the Orama and the others, however, was just the appetizer. Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes) left Harstad at 03:00 on 8 June 1940 bound for Scapa Flow, accompanied by destroyers HMS Arden and Acasta. Glorious had on board the Hawker Hurricanes from Bardufoss and a smaller-than-usual complement of its own planes in order to accommodate them. The Hurricanes were not equipped for naval landings and their pilots were not trained in operating from carriers, so the planes just got in the way. This made aircraft carrier Glorious vulnerable, and D'Oyly-Hughes requested, and received, permission, to return to Scapa Flow independently at full speed. Much is made of this decision in the critical commentaries on the incident, but in those times it was a well-regarded theory that the best protection for any ship was speed.

Operation Juno HMS Glorious
HMS Glorious was a converted Courageous-class cruiser, a veteran of World War I. She had been part of the RN operation to locate the Admiral Graf Spee in November/December 1939.
Accompanied by the destroyers, Glorious headed south. D'Oyly-Hughes made some critical mistakes: he failed to keep any aircraft in the air as a constant Combat Air Patrol, and he failed to post any lookouts in his crow's nest. The former error is somewhat understandable because he only had nine Sea Gladiators and five Swordfish on board (in addition to the land planes); failure to post lookouts, though, smacks of incompetence. The only explanation is that D'Oyly-Hughes simply discounted the possibility of any enemy surface ships, and figured that sheer speed and unpredictability would protect his ship. He was wrong; dead wrong.

The Kill

The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau spotted HMS Glorious and her escorts about 180-200 miles west of Norway at around 16:30. Admiral Marschall opened fire at maximum range. On the third salvo, six minutes after targeting the aircraft fire, Scharnhorst incredibly made a hit on the aircraft carrier's flight deck with an 11-inch shell at 24 km. Hits at such a range ar devastating because the shells come down almost vertically and plunge through the decks. The hit was on the forward part of the hangar, and there were no planes on deck. This damage prevented the Glorious from launching any aircraft and essentially sealed her fate.

Operation Juno HMS Glorioius
HMS Glorious in April 1940.
The two Royal Navy destroyers, Ardent and Acasta, laid smoke and closed on the two pocket battleships. This was a desperate maneuver, and everyone in the Royal Navy had the memory of HMS Glowworm in the back of their mind. The suicide mission paid off in part when one of Acasta's torpedoes (it launched four) hits the Scharnhorst, causing serious damage and killing 50 German sailors. The destroyers' 120 mm guns, however, caused little damage on the larger German ships, though Acasta did make one hit on Scharnhorst with a 4.7-inch gun. Both Ardent (151 dead, 2 survivors) and Acasta (161 dead, 1 survivor) soon were on the bottom (the former at 17:50, the latter at 19:20).

Operation Juno Scharnhorst Gneisenau
This is a picture taken from the Scharnhorst of Gneisenau firing on HMS Glorious at extreme range. Again, note the elevation of the guns.
HMS Glorious herself was never a factor after the initial hits. Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made hits, the Gneisenau striking the bridge and almost certainly killing D’Oyly-Hughes. Marschall ordered Scharnhorst to cease-fire against the sinking ship. Some survivors believed that about 900 men were in the water, but as the RMS Titanic sinking had shown in 1912, survival time in freezing northern waters was minimal. It went under at 19:10 taking approximately 1531 men, including 63 RAF pilots. Only 40 men total survived from the three Royal Navy ships.

Operation Juno HMS Glorious
Lieutenant D'Oyly-Hughes preparing for a secret - and successful - operation in France, August 1915.
It is typical to blame the entire catastrophe on Captain D'Oyly-Hughes, and indeed that is what almost all modern histories do. As noted above, he made several rookie mistakes, and the tendency forever after has been to paint him as a fool who did not understand naval operations. Among other things, D'Oyly-Hughes' submarine background is held against him. However, D'Oyly-Hughes was a D S O and Bar, D S C recipient, a Great War veteran who had shown great valor then as a Lieutenant in the submarine service and served with distinction during the inter-war period. Somewhat ironically on that score, his opponent, Admiral Marschall, himself was an old U-boat captain who even had won the highly coveted Pour le Mérite. D'Oyly-Hughes' errors off Narvik may have flowed from over-confidence, tiredness, or any number of other factors, and he shares in the blame, but simply being a noob and a boob was not one of them.

Operation Juno Gneisenau
The memorial in Morden, Dorset, to the parish's war dead, including the Captain of HMS Glorious, Captain Guy D'Oyly Hughes. Contributed by Vernon M.
However, the Royal Navy was over-stretched in early June 1940. The priority had been at Dunkirk, and the convoys also needed protection. If there had been more ships and RAF cover available for his own ship's protection, HMS Glorious would have been safe; but there weren't. The critical error did not lie with Captain D'Oyly-Hughes, but instead with a poorly conceived and executed British intervention in Northern Norway and an even more poorly planned evacuation. However, nobody ever wants to blame the Admiralty or Churchill for their strategic errors, and D'Oyly-Hughes did not survive, so he is the sump of all blame.

Operation Juno Scharnhorst Gneisenau

After the battle, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau headed for Trondheim themselves to rejoin Admiral Hipper. The Gneisenau was in bad shape, with flooding of 2,500 long tons and her aft turret out of action, but the Scharnhorst was untouched. In the long run, from a strategic sense, the damage to Gneisenau was annoying but not debilitating.

Operation Juno Gneisenau
This photo shows Gneisenau's major damage clearly on the starboard side. The torpedo pierced both sides of the bow. Temporary repairs are visible.
While the torpedo did a lot of damage, it did not pierce the central section of the ship which gave it buoyancy. Warships are designed to survive those kinds of hits to the stem or stern, though of course you never want damage of any kind. After temporary repairs in Norway, Gneisenau headed back to Germany for permanent repairs.

Operation Juno Gneisenau
Damage to Gneisenau on the port side from the torpedo hit.
Despite the victory, Admiral Raeder was displeased that Marschall had disobeyed orders to avoid combat. He demoted Marschall to Inspector of Naval Education, an obvious rebuke. This indirectly may have saved his life, because his replacement as Flottenchef, Admiral Günther Lütjens, went down with the Bismarck a year later. It is fair to notice that the kind of aggressive but cool-headed initiative displayed by Admiral Marschall is precisely the kind of spirit that the Kriegsmarine needed but too often lacked, but which the Royal Navy had it in abundance. It simply was not tolerated in the overly cautious Kriegsmarine.

Operation Juno HMS Glorious
HMS Glorious in her final moments.
Since every ship in the British flotilla went under, the Admiralty did not even know what had happened until German radio made a triumphant announcement on 9 June. Despite the reservations of some at the top, Operation Juno appeared to justify Admiral Raeder's confidence in the Kriegsmarine surface fleet. It had proven once and for all that, under the right circumstances, the Kriegsmarine surface fleet could be absolutely devastating.

Operation Juno HMS Glorious
This is the memorial at Trondenes Historical Centre in Harstad, Norway to HMS Glorious and her two escorts, sunk on June 8, 1940, and resulting in the loss of over 1500 lives. Photo by Peter Ashton.


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