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Bombardment - continuing life aboard the Queen Elizabeth

by CSV Solent

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
David W
Location of story: 
onboard the Queen Elizabeth
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4109753
Contributed on: 
24 May 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Marie on behalf of David and has been added to the site with his permission. David fully understand the site’s terms and conditions.

By 1945 the big gun battleship was as formidable a warship as had ever been developed. The aircraft carrier was coming into its own but aircraft weaponry was still poor. Guided missiles had yet to be developed for ship use. "Queen Elizabeth’s 15" guns were essentially the same as she had had fitted when first commissioned in 1915 as the flagship at Jutland. Steady development between the wars still had not given the full automation which the next 50 years have made normal so the quick and accurate response of the whole human team was vital.

Briefly, the target was chosen by the Gunnery Office, Lt Cdr Cartwright, in the control tower, high up in the ship, behind and well above the Bridge where the Captain would be. For a ship target the range and bearing would come from radar or visually and be passed down into the bowels of the ship to the Dreyer's Table, the mechanical calculator in the Transmitting Station or T.S.

A huge optical rangefinder spread out either side of us. The length from one optic to the one the other end, perhaps 10 metres, gave a binocular, angular separation. Lining up their two images allowed the tiny angle so created to be calculated and the range found. The massive linking tube passed under our seats. Capable of seeing the 20 miles to our horizon, it was so big that I could lie out on it sun bathing when closed up at Action Stations when we were threatened by Japanese bombers rather than bombarding. Indeed I was doing just that and listening to fighters being directed to Japanese 'bogeys' out on the edge of the force when I saw bomb splashes coming across the water gap between us and one of the small aircraft carriers in our group. High above us we could see our attacker who had slipped through undetected.

For bombardment the target's position would be read off a chart and at the start of a run the navigator would fix the ship's position to give an initial range and bearing for the T.S. The mechanical calculator, having digested this range and bearing, could then keep it updated automatically during the ship's firing run. Corrections for wind, air temperature, ballistics, even wear of our ancient guns all fed in to the Dreyer's Table and produced a bearing and elevation for trainers and layers in our four hydraulically powered turrets.

As each turret had completed loading its 1 ton shells and their huge cordite charges into both barrels and got into its correct position, the layer and captain of the turret would complete the firing circuit for his turret. When all who were to fire were ready in this way the T.S. would signal to all positions with a double bell stroke: 'ting ting'

Now it was the turn of the Control Top Layer to level his sight and press the trigger as the horizontal wire was about to cross the horizon. Sometimes this could be quite quick but on others he may just have missed the ideal moment and then we would all have to wait while our stately old lady gently rolled over to one side and then back again. This took on average 16 seconds which could seem like hours as we steeled ourselves for the stupendous blast to come.
At the beginning of a run the guns would be pointing at say 30 degrees from our line of advance and at maximum elevation of around 40 degrees. Our control position was well behind this and although there was a huge concussion as the shells were hurled anything up to 20 miles and our tower would vibrate for several seconds, it was bearable. However, as a run past a target progressed, so the guns would swing further and further out onto the beam and then towards the quarter. Towards the end of a run the muzzles of the guns in the forward turrets had swung round so that they were now pointing well aft and again at maximum elevation. This meant that we were looking some way into the mouth of the barrels as they fired.

Firing on these after bearings was not a happy experience for us high above them. The force that was propelling a ton of steel 10 to 15 miles had to disperse very rapidly and locally after the shell was on its way. The supersonic shock wave was terrifying and the choking gases from exploding cordite were hot and hideous. The charges had been wrapped in cloth and paper and we were showered with yellow fragments and smoke.

The first two rounds (jargon for 'shells') having been fired on the calculated range and bearing, a spotting aircraft watched for their fall some minutes later. His report would be plotted and corrections made. Once the target has been 'found' a full salvo could be fired - this was called 'rapid fire for effect'.

On 26th April we again sailed from Trincomalee. Typically, our targets were gun emplacements, ammunition dumps and airfields. Over one week in May 1945 we fired 504 shells at the Japanese occupying the Andaman and Nicobar islands north of Sumatra and south of Burma or, today, Myanmar. This so wore down the inside of our gun barrels that the shells were no longer spinning on their axis as spun by the rifling but tumbling head over tail as they neared their target. In fact after that operation QE never fired her main armament in anger again.

Back to Trinco, arriving on 9th May, the day after VE Day. Churchill had announced the defeat of Germany on the 8th. We celebrated after a fashion but even as we did so there was a change of mood - something was afoot. We ammunitioned at speed all night on one side, refuelled on the other. Rumour had it that a Jap cruiser was out and the men worked all night, magnificently. Early in the morning we sailed again and were clearly in haste.

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