The history and subsequent fate of the Royal Navy after the Great Escape of 1942 is the subject of much confusion. Even the identities of the ships that made the escape are not entirely clear; some ships listed as having taken part were actually already on foreign stations at the time while others not listed made the run across the Atlantic. Several other ships, especially those on Gibraltar Station made the runs across the Atlantic but were not formally part of the Great Escape. After the escape itself, several ships changed nationalities many times during the course of the post-war years. This short monograph attempts to shed some light on this confusing part of history.
The Royal Navy in 1942
After the Halifax-Butler Coup of June 19, 1940, the Royal Navy, in theory at least, reverted to a peacetime establishment. Many of the war-emergency construction programs were cancelled or placed on a very low level of priority. The fleet itself remained largely confined to port. This languor was, however, deceptive. The major members of the Commonwealth had already rejected the Armistice agreed to by Halifax and the ships on their stations remained operational. In the main, it appears that they were not considered threats by the Germans and even though they were technically enemy ships, the Germans declined to attack them. These ships included:
West Indies Station: 1 Hawkins Class cruiser, 2 E class cruisers , 6 R/S class destroyers
Falklands Station: 1 D class cruiser, 3 Shakespeare class destroyers.
China Station: 1 Hawkins Class cruiser, 2 Leander class cruisers (6" guns), 6 R/S class destroyers
Indian Ocean Station: 1 Hermes class carrier, Battleship Valiant, 2 County class cruisers, 1 Hawkins class cruiser, 4 C class cruisers, 12 V/W class destroyers
Pacific Station: Minelayer Adventure, 4 D class destroyers
South Africa Station: 1 County class cruiser, 2 York class cruisers, 3 Leander class cruisers, 12 V/W class destroyers
Gibraltar Station. Aircraft carriers Eagle and Ark Royal, Battleship Warspite, 4 county class cruisers, 4 Southampton class cruisers, 4 D-class cruisers, 2 Dido class cruisers, 8 K-class destroyers, 6 Tribal class destroyers, 8 I-class destroyers
The rest of the Navy was either part of the Home Fleet or was in home waters. At the time of the Armistice, this consisted of:
Battleships: Resolution, Revenge, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign, Barham, Malaya, Nelson, Rodney and King George V.
Battlecruisers: Hood, Repulse, Renown.
Aircraft carriers: Argus (training) Illustrious, Furious
Cruisers: 6 County class, 4 Arethusa class, 4 Southampton class, 1 Belfast class (+1 repairing), 4 Fiji class, 8 C class, 3 D class, 4 Dido class.
Destroyers. 90+ assorted.
It should be noted that the apparently impressive Home Fleet was divided out amongst a number of ports and was in several different operational groupings. In the two years that followed the Armistice, two more of the five KGV class battleships, three Illustrious class carriers, 3 Fiji class cruisers, 4 Dido class cruisers, 4 Abdiel class minelayers and seven L class destroyers were completed. In part, these were crewed by men who had been taken from the old early C class cruisers and a variety of older destroyers
A little over two years after the Armistice, the peace agreement collapsed and the UK was seized by the Germans. The Armed forces had anticipated this and plans had been made accordingly. The Army fought the invaders in a campaign intended to keep the German troops away from the major naval bases for as long as possible while the Royal Air Force provided as much cover as they could. In the meantime, the planned Royal Navy evacuation to the rest of the Commonwealth was undertaken. The Royal Family was spirited out of Windsor and hurried to Liverpool where they embarked upon HMS King George V for the run to Canada. Originally, it was planned that only three KGV ships should make the run, Anson and Howe being incomplete. However, at the urgent representations of their crews, the two incomplete ships made the break as well. This group of ships was the center of the escape attempt.
The Royal Group
Battleships: King George V, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Anson, Howe,
Carriers: Illustrious, Victorious, Formidable and Indomitable
Cruisers: 4 Southamptons, 2 Belfasts, 4 Fijis
Destroyers: 8 Tribals, 8 J-class, 11 G/H class
The Fast Group
Another group of key importance was the "fast group". This was loaded with what could be salvaged of Britain's gold reserves and a treasure house of scientific information plus prototypes, research papers and scientific personnel.
Battlecruisers: Hood, Repulse, Renown,
Minelayers: 4 Abdiel class
Cruisers: 6 County class, 8 Dido class,
Destroyers: 5 N class, 13 L/M class, 8 F class
The Slow Group
Perhaps the most unfortunate group were the slow battleships. Based in Portsmouth, they had the most dangerous run out, faced the heaviest opposition and lacked the speed to add distance quickly. Considerable thought had been given to blowing these ships up in port but, in the end, it was decided to give them a chance to either get clear or go down fighting.
Aircraft Carrier: Argus
Battleships: Resolution, Revenge, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign, Barham
Destroyers: 12 V/W class.
The Support Group
Another group was the center of a certain level of low comedy. Due to their low speed, 15 knots, a group of fast, modern depot and repair ships had also left port. In fact, these ships, Forth, Tyne, Maidstone, Adamant, Woolwich and Resource had all left port several hours ahead of the rest of the fleet and were heading west at maximum speed before the warships left port. As a result, they were actually in the lead for the first few critical hours.. These ships were worth their weight in gold, a fact well understood by the Germans as well as the British. However, the Germans apparently couldn't believe that a group of depot ships would be leading a major fleet operation and concentrated their search behind the lead warships. As a result, by the time the lead warships overtook the auxiliaries, they were clear of the worst danger. Of the depot ships, two were still fitting out on but were too valuable to leave unfinished or behind. The three submarine depot ships had extensive torpedo workshops, so the sadly defective USN torpedoes were been rebuilt, their faults corrected for RN service and the lessons learned passed back to the USN.
This left one last formation, an intermediate speed group that had the one advantage that it was based in the north. For want of a better name, it became known as the North Group.
Battleships: Nelson, Rodney, Malaya
Cruisers: 4 Arethusa
Destroyers: 8 E class, 10 A/B class, 12 other destroyers
On receiving word of the German assault, the Admiralty issued the following orders to the Fleet.
"All ships will immediately evacuate the United Kingdom and proceed at maximum speed to bases in the Commonwealth or other friendly countries. Then, under the direction of the governments of the Commonwealth countries, they will prosecute the war against Germany. Their overall directive is to sink, burn and destroy enemy forces and personnel without mercy until victory has been achieved. All signals, orders or communications directing a surrender or cessation of hostilities prior to the defeat of Germany being achieved are to be considered false and disregarded."
The fate of the groups was largely determined by their speed. The Fast Group made it across the Atlantic almost untouched, a few ships suffering minor strafing damage. The Royal Group was attacked by long-range Condor bombers on four occasions and by U-boats on one. KGV was hit by a 1,100 pound bomb that killed Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George V and mother of the present Queen Elizabeth) and severely injured Princess Margaret.
The Slow Group from Portsmouth never made it out of the Bay of Biscay. They were the first to be seen and were hammered by air attacks continuously. Then, as the air attacks slackened, the battered ships ran into concentrations of U-boats that picked the cripples off. Further airstrikes the next day finished the work of destruction. The North Group suffered most of its losses from submarine attack . Malaya was sunk, Nelson badly damaged. The rest made it.
After The Great Escape, the ships made it to ports up and down the American East Coast. The Royal Group went directly to Canada (initially pausing at Halifax just long enough to rename the city Churchill) but the rest of the ships pulled in at Canadian and American ports in varying states of damage and disrepair. The question then arose, what should be done with them. The Germans demanded they be returned along with their crews. The delight with which President Roosevelt sent his famous "Molon Labe" (if you want them, try and take them) can only be guessed at. The Royal Navy's orders weren't much real help either. They instructed the fleet to carry on the war but gave no indication as to how this was to be achieved. Should the ships in American ports be interned? Or sent on to Canada? What should happen to the three battleships? Nelson was badly damaged and aground in the New York narrows, Anson and Howe were undamaged but seriously incomplete. Anson had one complete quadruple turret forward , but the rest of her armament was incomplete. Howe was even worse off; she was effectively disarmed except for a few machine guns. Should these ships be repaired in American Yards? If the fleet was to disperse amongst the Commonwealth countries, who should get what? Negotiations quickly foundered and deadlocked. Despite that, some progress was made. The basis of the Navy outside the UK had remained the various Operational Stations. These had become de facto small navies of their host countries and, already by 1942, their hosts were getting quite fond of them. However, there was little doubt that they were ultimately the Kings in one way or another and the Great Escape actually aided things in that it brought about a return of Commonwealth naval coordination under the RN, and the disposition of ships in the accordance with some plan. That plan would reflect Commonwealth interests as a whole. The sheer size and power of the Royal Navy that had succeeded in escaping leant emphasis to this; it exceeded the German Navy substantially in size. It was a major player on the board; it transformed the Commonwealth from a group of survivors hanging together into a power or powers to be reckoned with.
Added into this was the changing nature of the Commonwealth itself. By 1939, it was already a lose confederation and the one aspect that tied it together most strongly was the naval side. There was no question that the various commonwealth Navies were a subsidiaries of the RN and operated in coordination with the Admiralty as a matter of course, not compulsion. Even if the Dominion governments had mixed feelings towards the re appearance of the central authority after they'd just had such a traumatic time adjusting to its loss, the Navies greeted the reappearance of the Admiralty with hosannas of joy, even if it was never going to be business as usual again. At last, they had the reappearance of a body that could unite those efforts without the degree of independent jealousy found in the governments and other militaries. The upper ranks of the Commonwealth navies were not just RN trained, they were RN body and soul, their greatest hurdle over the previous two years had been to find their own feet without being part of a greater whole.