In late 1940 the German Navy wanted to send two surface raiders – the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into the Atlantic to attack Allied convoys. Operation ‘Berlin’, as the attack was called, commenced on 28 December 1940 when both ships attempted to breakout into the Atlantic but the operation had to be postponed due to the ships suffering storm damage with Gneisenau returning to Keil and the Scharnhorst to Gotenhafen (Gdynia).

 

In late 1940 the German Navy wanted to send two surface raiders – the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into the Atlantic to attack Allied convoys. Operation ‘Berlin’, as the attack was called, commenced on 28 December 1940 when both ships attempted to breakout into the Atlantic but the operation had to be postponed due to the ships suffering storm damage with Gneisenau returning to Keil and the Scharnhorst to Gotenhafen (Gdynia).

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Scharnhorst on 6 March 1941

during Operation Berlin

 

On 22 January 1941 they sailed for the second time in an attempt to embark on the Atlantic anti-convoy operation. Admiral Günther Lütjens flew his flag on the Gneisenua and after two RAS’s with German naval tankers the two raiders sailed out into the Atlantic.

 

Convoy HX106 was sighted but the Admiral Lütjens found it was protected by the British battleship HMS Ramillies and so he did not attack.

 

ramillies

HMS Ramillies

 

Attacks on other convoys commenced and 22 ships were sunk or captured. RAS’s with German tankers were undertaken on a number of occasions.

 

On 15 March an unescorted convoy of several tankers was detected and was attacked by the two German raiders with a number being sunk. Three tankers were however captured and with prize crews put on board were instructed to sail to Bordeaux. Of these three ships only one reached port. The other two were intercepted by the British Battleship HMS Renown and were scuttled by their prize crews.

 

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HMS Renown

 

While the two German battleships continued their attacks on Allied shipping in the Atlantic Admiral Cunningham, in command of Force ‘H’, directed that RFA Cairndale, then at Gibraltar, should discharge its cargo and sail under the covert escort of two submarines as a decoy to trap one or both of the German raiders.

 

 

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RFA Cairndale

 

Cairndale was at sea as a decoy for a total of three weeks during early and mid April on a triangular course through the mid Atlantic where Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had operated. The submarines HMS/m Pandora and HMS/m Otus kept her under constant submerged observation. At no time did either of the German ships appear – they had berthed at La Pallice, an outer port of La Rochelle, France on 22 March.

 

RFA Cairndale returned to Gibraltar and entered dry dock on the 28 April 1941 for her hull to be cleaned.

 

On 19 May 1941 the German pocket battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sailed from Gotenhafen (Gdynia) to attempt to break out into the Atlantic as part of Operation Rheinübung. The Operation was to attempt to intercept and destroy Allied convoys between North America and Great Britain. The ships were detected by British cruisers in the Denmark Strait and brought to battle. HMS Hood was sunk. Force ‘H’ in Gibraltar sent HMS Ark Royal to join units of the Home Fleet to stop the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen.

 

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HMS Ark Royal

 

RFA Cairndale was once more sent out as a decoy protected by two submarines and four destroyers. Before sailing she was fitted with two scuttling charges in the propeller shaft tunnel. Her planned course was similar to previously.

 

As aircraft from Ark Royal disabled the Bismark and Prinz Eugen escaped a decision was taken on 29 May 1941 to withdraw the four destroyers from Cairndale’s protection and for her to return to Gibraltar. The two submarines were also withdrawn but six inshore defence ships sailed from the Rock to meet the Cairndale which was some 160 miles out in the Atlantic sailing unprotected.

 

On 30 May 1941 shortly after 0800hrs Third Officer Galloway raised the alarm when he sighted a torpedo which crossed the Cairndale’s bows. A second torpedo hit the engine room, while a third hit the pump room. Four of the crew – all from the engine room were killed. The Captain and the rest of the crew managed to reach the life boats and RFA Cairndale sank into the Atlantic Ocean within four minutes of the torpedoes hitting.

 

RFA Cairndale had been torpedoed by the Italian submarine Guglielmo Marconi which was under the command of Lieutenant Marlo Paolo Pollina.

 

The RFA’s crew were rescued by the inshore defence ships and were landed at Gibraltar.

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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