North Sea Sortie, 1939
By David H. Lippman
On September 26, 1939, with World War II not a month old, German reconnaissance planes are hard at work in the North Sea when they spot four battleships, a carrier, and the usual covey of escorts. The No. 1 Squadron of KG 26, the “Lion Geschwader,” sends in nine He 111s, followed by four Ju 88s of the “Eagle” Geschwader, to attack the British – 13 bombers against the Home Fleet.
The British are at sea with most of what they’ve got to rescue the submarine Spearfish, damaged in the Skagerrak and unable to dive. The British are also hoping they can lure the German Navy out for a rematch of Jutland, with better results. The battleships Nelson, Rodney, Hood, and Renown surround the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, which is also covered by her Skua fighters.
Ark Royal at sea, 1939.
In mid-morning, the British fighters spot a Dornier 18 flying boat, and Lt. McEwan of Squadron 803 swoops after it in Skua L2873. His gunner, Petty Officer Brian Seymour, fills the Dornier full of lead and the Do 18 flops into the water. There the German crew cut their engines and climb into their rubber dinghy, to be picked up by an escorting destroyer. It is the first enemy aircraft of the war to be shot down by British forces.
But the fact that a Dornier recce bird has turned up means the Luftwaffe will be back in force. Soon enough, Able-Seaman Nippy Parham, a steamroller driver in civilian life, points out to a range officer on Ark Royal, “Look, sir, a Jerry.”
“That’s a Hudson,” says the officer.
“What with bloody great kisses on!”
Someone yells, “It’s a Heinkel!” and the whole force opens up with AA guns. The Luftwaffe bombers roar in with Teutonic determination, and a Ju 88, flown by Lance Corporal Carl “Beaver” Francke, drops a 500-kg bomb in the general direction of Ark Royal. Francke owes his nickname to his well-kept beard.
A British officer on the carrier says, “Looks like my Austin Seven.” As the bomb comes closer, he says, “More like a London bus.” Ark Royal turns sharply to starboard and the bomb hits the water, sending a cascade of spray over the forward end of the carrier’s flight deck, also sending a plate of baked beans leaping from the wardroom table and into Lt. McEwan’s lap. Sailors are bounced around the carrier, the ship rolling and shuddering from the force of the bomb’s concussion.
Up above, Francke and his bomber crew try to figure out if their bombs have struck home. It’s difficult to tell. But Sgt. Bewermeyer yells, “Water fountain hard beside the ship!” Francke glances downward and sees the waterspout, and a flash. Is it a hit or a heavy flak gun? He can’t tell. He guns the engines to get away from the British.
Everywhere in the task force, guns go off in all directions. Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, commanding the force, signals, “For goodness sake, pull yourselves together!”
Bombs rain down on the British, and one narrowly misses Hood. The shock of the bomb peels paint off the battle cruiser’s side and reveals the red lead underneath.
Meanwhile, Francke radios his news to Germany, saying, “Dive-attack with two SC 500 bombs on aircraft carrier; first a near miss by ship’s side, second a possible hit on bows. Effect not observed.” When Francke lands at his base in Westerland, everyone thinks he’s hit and sunk Ark Royal. Everyone, that is, except the boss, Col. Siburg. He asks Francke, point-blank, “Did you actually see her sink?”
“No, colonel,” Francke says.
“In that case, my dear fellow, you didn’t hit her either,” Siburg says, grinning. A former naval officer, Siburg knows that a flash or smoke from a surface target is no proof of a hit by one’s own guns. But Berlin wants a report on the sinking of Ark Royal. Why hasn’t the report been sent?
“Because nothing about such a sinking is known here,” is the answer. Berlin is unhappy. More reconnaissance planes are sortied to find Ark Royal. They find the British task force – but no aircraft carrier. The reconnaissance planes are told to look for oil patches. Those, the Germans find.
The thin evidence is enough for Goering, Milch, Udet, and their flunkies. German radio propaganda claims to have sunk Ark Royal with a single bomb, and damaged a battleship for good measure. The British do not deny the claim, but Winston Churchill says the British are winning the U-Boat war.
Back at Westerland, Lance-Corporal Francke, a certified engineer in peacetime, is an unhappy and unlikely war hero. Goering promotes Francke all the way to lieutenant, and decorates him with the Iron Cross, First and Second Class. Francke babbles to his CO, “There’s not a word of truth in it. For God’s sake help get me out of this mess.” It’s too late. Goebbels’ propaganda machine works into overdrive, and Francke is the hero of the hour.
Goering’s newspaper, runs a headline, “Heart of Our Attack – The Aircraft Carrier,” with an artist’s impression of Ark Royal shattered and writing amid mountains of flame. In the bottom right-hand corner a battleship is shown enduring the same fate. Lurid pictures of “the end of the Ark Royal” are carried in the Reich’s magazines, and the wretched Francke is forced to sign his name to a thousand fictitious accounts of that afternoon in the North Sea. The Germans even put out a children’s book titled “How I Sank the Ark Royal,” complete with pictures.
Francke endures a tough war as a result of his “heroics.” The officers’ mess receives him with derision and makes his life a misery. He tells an American journalist that he is thinking of committing suicide. The American suggests that a quick way of doing this would be to make the truth available to the world’s free press. But Francke instead lives with his secret and attack of conscience, only to be killed later on the Eastern Front.
The undamaged Ark Royal returns to Scapa Flow on the 28th, having failed to lure the German Navy to its destruction. The British ships engage in intensive AA gun drill.
The British Admiralty announces that Ark Royal has returned undamaged to her base, and promises a photograph in the near future. The Germans counter by attacking the “tendentious” British announcement, insisting that a 1,000-pound bomb has hit the carrier. However, the German radio report no longer says that Ark Royal was “destroyed,” “sunk,” or “annihilated.” But the German newspapers continue to describe Ark Royal as being sunk.
Sink or defend Ark Royal in Second World War at Sea: Bismarck!
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.