Ship Maintenance in the North Atlantic
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2023

Players knowledgeable of the dispositions of British capital ships in the first two years of the war may question the absence of some of these ships from scenarios in the Second World War at Sea game, Bismarck. The reason in almost every case for a ship’s absence was lack of maintenance. A ship undergoing maintenance or in a state of disrepair awaiting maintenance was unavailable and many major warships, especially those based in Britain, were often in just such a state.

Several factors contributed to the poor maintenance condition of many of the ships in the British Isles during World War Two. First was the harsher operating environment of the Atlantic, where rough seas and cold temperatures resulted in more than normal wear and tear on equipment and necessitated more frequent maintenance. Even new ships suffered; the aircraft carrier Victorious, on her first wartime mission during the Bismarck chase, sprang so many leaks that she developed a 4.5-degree list and her captain, H.C. Bovell, grew concerned over her ability to operate aircraft.

Fine watercolor by Edward Tufnell of two notorious “dockyard queens” — battle cruiser Renown and battleship Malaya.

Thanks to naval limitations treaties signed after the First World War, Britain’s major warships were either very new or very old. The two new battleships of the King George V class, the class namesake and Prince of Wales, had serious defects in their main weapons and Prince of Wales sailed after Bismarck with civilian shipfitters from Vickers still trying to make her big guns work properly (in the event, they failed as did those of King George V).

The only two British battleships carrying 16-inch guns, Nelson and Rodney, had been built to the treaty limit of 35,000 tons by reducing an earlier design for a 48,000-ton battleship. As a result, many shortcuts had been taken to save weight. Rodney had been on her way to the United States for a major refit when Bismarck broke out, and was diverted to join the Home Fleet. When she opened fire on the German battleship, water and steam pipes burst throughout the ship, all of her toilets and urinals exploded, tile flooring on her decks shattered, and even structural beams cracked.

Other British battleships were even older. The five battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class had been laid down in 1912 and 1913, and the five of the Revenge class in 1913 and in January 1914. The battle cruisers Hood, Repulse and Renown had all been laid down during the course of the First World War, and all three had been very lightly built (in this case, for the sake of speed rather than treaty limits). Denied proper care during peacetime, these elderly ships then went into heavy use as soon as war broke out.

Ship maintenance comes in several varieties. Most important is refit or major maintenance, which is generally to replace or repair those more fragile components, such as heat exchanger tubing (thin-walled to be more efficient) and boiler linings (bricks to retain the heat) and the complex mechanical equipment, such as engines, electrical generators, training gear and instrumentation that are necessary to the operation of the ship’s engineering plant and weapons systems. Obviously this type of work requires a period in a naval shipyard, something not occurring as needed before the war due to budget constraints and after the war began due to other pressing priorities.

How ships get damaged. Battleship Barham plows through moderate seas.

Second was the already generally poorer state of most of the ships assigned to the Home Fleet or the many other commands in England and the North Atlantic as the more modern ships were typically dispatched overseas for the very reason that their maintenance burden on a distant station with minimal facilities would be less than that of an older ship. Many of the large warships in Britain had been “modernized” in the 1920s, but this had consisted only of converting their combination coal- and oil-burning power plants exclusively to oil and little else had been updated on these, by 1940, quarter-century-old warships. The Revenge class battleships, as an example, had been designed to reduce weight and as a consequence could not have their major machinery replaced due to lack of space. What’s surprising is not that British battleships performed so poorly, but that they performed at all — the “black gangs” worked miracles coaxing their aged charges to sea.

Third was the heavy workload in English shipyards at this time. The war had quickened the pace of new construction of all types. That and the fitting out and conversion of warships being brought out of inactive reserve and merchant shipping being modified for wartime use resulted in everything resembling a shipyard having more work than it could handle. The choice faced was that of preparing for service many small ships or performing the refit of a single major warship and since the U-boat menace was feared a great deal more than the German surface fleet, the choice rarely favored the larger units. Thus the scheduled maintenance of major warships was often a distant third on the priority list and ships sitting idle due to major equipment failure (usually boilers) were often unavailable for significant periods of time. Needless to say, the Admiralty did not announce these problems. President Roosevelt’s decision in April 1941 to make American shipyards available to refit British warships provided an enormous relief, but this factor had not made itself felt by the time Bismarck broke out a month later.

Another Tufnell watercolor, this time of battle cruiser Hood.

Despite concerns that distant stations lacked maintenance facilities, there were a few bright spots, specifically Alexandria where a large floating dry-dock had been towed immediately prior to war breaking out. This meant that even the largest unit in the Mediterranean could be regularly docked and without much of the other work swamping British shipyards, the Mediterranean repair facilities were able to better maintain their charges.

Unlike other games in the series, Bismarck includes a Machinery Failure special rule — players who run their ships too hard for too long risk major breakdowns, resulting in loss of speed. The Allied player gets to share Admiral Jack Tovey’s frustration, staring at the ranks of supposedly powerful playing pieces rendered helpless.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.

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