Ship Maintenance in the North Atlantic
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
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
Fine watercolor by Edward Tufnell of
two notorious “dockyard queens”
— battle cruiser Renown and battleship Malaya.
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
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.
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.
How ships get damaged. Battleship Barham plows through moderate seas.
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.
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.
Another Tufnell watercolor, this time
of battle cruiser Hood.
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.
here to order Bismarck: Commerce Raiding
in the North Atlantic!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.