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What Was Force Z in WW2? & Why Was HMS Electra So Spectacular?

What Was Force Z in WW2? & Why Was HMS Electra So Spectacular?

The HMS Electra had an amazing, but short, career, best known as the rescuer of survivors from the ocean liner Athenia on the first day of the war, as well as the HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales and many more ships. 

At the start of World War II, HMS Electra was attached to the 12th Destroyer Flotilla and on September 3, 1939, Electra took part in the rescue of survivors of the liner Athenia, which was torpedoed by the German submarine U-30. The captain of Electra, Lieutenant-Commander Stuart Austen was the Senior Officer present at the scene, so he took charge. He sent the destroyer HMS Fame on an anti-submarine sweep of the area, while Electra, her sister ship HMS Escort, the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the Norwegian cargo ship Knut Nelson, and the American tanker City of Flint rescued the survivors. Between the ships, about 980 passengers and crew were rescued. Only 112 people were lost, and Athenia sank the next morning.

Her next assignment was to escort a convoy out of Pentland Firth, along with HMS Exmouth and HMS Inglefield.  After a boiler cleaning at Rosyth in December 1939, Electra continued escorting convoys and hunting U-boats in the Western Approaches until April 1940. Some of the major convoys she escorted included ON 14, HN 14, ON 16, HN 16, ON 18, HN 18, ON 20, and HN 20.

In early April 1940, Electra escorted two convoys to Norway and back. The first trip, which also included HMS Escapade and the cruiser HMS Southampton. On the second trip, the convoy was attacked by German bombers, and an ex-Polish liner serving as a transport was sunk, but the rest of the convoy arrived safely. After the convoy was delivered Electra managed to shoot down a German bomber with her 4.7-inch guns.

A few days later, HMS Electra after being equipped with Two-Speed Destroyer Sweep minesweeping gear, was directed to lead the battleship HMS Warspite into Ofotfjord towards Narvik, clearing a path through the minefields for her. However, Admiral Sir William Whitworth decided to risk the mines and left Electra outside who guarded the entrance to the fjord. On April 24, Electra escorted HMS Vindictive from Bogen to Narvik to land the Irish Guards for the land campaign. Furthermore, on May 8, Electra returned to Scapa Flow for replenishment of supplies and ammunition.

On 13 June 1940, she escorted the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to launch an air attack on Trondheim, Norway. Electra and HMS Antelope got damaged in a collision and it took them four days to get back to Scotland at slow speed. She was repaired and refitted which took until the end of August. On the 31st of August, she joined the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla, Home Fleet, and was based at Scapa Flow.

Her first assignment was to escort the ships of the 1st Minelaying Squadron, along with the destroyers HMS Jackal, Versatile, and Vimy to lay a deep minefield in the North-Western approaches to the Irish Sea. After this, she was part of the escort of the battlecruiser Repulse in a hunt for the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst that had attacked Convoy HX 84 sinking the armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay and five ships from the convoy. HMS Electra later joined the search for survivors from the convoy.

In December, she was again on patrol seeking a German surface raider that had been reported as breaking out into the North Atlantic. The force consisted of the battlecruiser Hood, the light cruiser Edinburgh, and the destroyers Electra, Escapade, Echo, and Cossack. After spending a week at sea, the report turned out to be false, she returned to port on New Year’s Eve and the current Captain Buss was promoted to Commander and would transfer to the destroyer Punjabi so the ship received a new Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Cecil Wakeford May, who would be her captain until the end of her career. A few days after this, Electra was sent into the Arctic for a mission to find surface raiders and then returned through the Denmark Strait.

During the first four months of 1941, HMS Electra went on mostly convoy duty around the British Isles and Bristol Channel, in January, she escorted the Battlecruiser HMS Hood on operations, then provided cover for minelaying in the Northern Barrage by ships of 1st Minelaying Squadron. Starting on 23 January, Electra participated in Operation Rubble, the escape of several Norwegian merchant ships from Gothenburg, Sweden.

In February, she escorted Convoy WS6A during passage from the Clyde for two days, then in late February, she escorted the battleship Prince of Wales on her contractor’s trials. One of her other trips was as escort to convoy HX 122 which left Halifax on 20 April and arrived in Liverpool on 8 May, during this operation she rescued the crew of a Coastal Command Avro Anson patrol aircraft that had crashed into the sea. In March, Electra and Inglefield escorted the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth in another search for the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. In mid-May, Electra took part in escorting ships of 1st Minelaying Squadron to lay mines in the Northern Barrage.

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During May, the British Admiralty was on the alert that Bismarck might attempt to break out into the North Atlantic. As a consequence, Electra was ordered to Scapa Flow for possible deployment against her. Just after midnight on May 22, 1941, Electra sailed along with the destroyers Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, and Icarus to escort HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales to cover the northern approaches. The intention was that the force would refuel in Hvalfjord, Iceland, and then sail again to watch the Denmark Strait.

On the evening of 23 May, the weather worsened and at 2055 hrs Admiral Lancelot Holland aboard Hood signaled the destroyers “If you are unable to maintain this speed I will have to go on without you. You should follow at your best speed.” At 0215 on the morning of 24 May, the destroyers were ordered to spread out at 15-nautical-mile intervals to search to the north.

At about 0535, the Bismarck was sighted by Hood and shortly thereafter the Germans sighted the British ships.

Hood took a (15-inch) shell from Bismarck which caused a massive explosion, sinking the ship within two minutes. Electra and other destroyers were about 60 nautical miles away at the time. Upon hearing that Hood had sunk, Electra raced to the area, arriving about two hours after Hood went down. They were expecting to find many survivors. From the 94 officers and 1,321 enlisted men who were aboard Hood, only 3 survivors were found. Electra rescued these three and continued searching for Bismarck. Shortly thereafter, Icarus and Anthony joined in the search and the three ships searched the area for more survivors with no more survivors being found.

After dropping off the three survivors in Iceland, she refueled and then sailed immediately to escort the damaged Prince of Wales from the Battle to Rosyth for repair. Two weeks later, she would escort a troop convoy into the Atlantic.

After this, she went into refit for six weeks.

Then escorted a convoy to Sheerness. Just two days later she was on convoy duty again, escorting a convoy through what was called “Bomb Alley”. The convoy came under heavy attack by German aircraft, but suffered no losses. She then went on to Scapa Flow for her next assignment.

After arriving at Scapa Flow, she was detailed to serve as Senior Escort the first of the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union, called Operation Dervish, which consisted of six merchantmen, escorted by destroyers Electra, Active and Impulsive, three Algerine-class minesweepers, and three trawlers. The convoy kept well to the west of Norway to avoid the German bases in northern Norway, there were no losses on the trip to Russia, or on the return trip with the destroyer Active, cruisers HMS London and HMS Shropshire, and 11 merchantmen starting on 26 September, and arriving in England on 10 October.

Force Z

Assembled in 1941, the purpose of the group was to reinforce the British colonial garrisons in the Far East and deter Japanese expansion into British possessions, particularly Malaya and Singapore.

On Monday, October 20th, 1941, Electra got word that they, together with HMS Express, would be escorting HMS Prince of Wales to the Far East under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, where the ships would form a new Eastern Fleet intended to deter Japanese aggression. On the 25th of October, they sailed for the Far East. This force would be known as Force G until they reached the Far East then they would be re-designated Force Z. The ships were joined at sea by the battlecruiser Repulse which had sailed from Trincomalee to reinforce them. The force then set course for Singapore, where they arrived on 2 December.

Early in the morning of 8 December, Singapore came under attack by Japanese aircraft. Prince of Wales and Repulse shot back with anti-aircraft fire. No planes were shot down and the ships suffered no damage. After receiving reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Siam by the Japanese, Force Z was put to sea at 1730 hrs. on 8 December. Force Z at this time consisted of Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Electra, Express, Vampire, and Tenedos.

At about 1830 on 9 December, Tenedos was detached to return to Singapore, because of her limited fuel capacity. That night Electra sighted and reported a flare to the north. This caused the British force to turn away to the southeast. The flare was dropped by a Japanese aircraft over its own ships by mistake and caused the Japanese force to turn away to the northeast. At this point, the two forces were only about five miles apart.

At 20:55, Admiral Philips canceled the operation and ordered the force to return to Singapore. On the way back, they were spotted and reported by the Japanese submarine I-58. The next morning, 10 December, they received a report of Japanese landings at Kuantan and Express was sent to investigate the area, finding nothing. That afternoon, Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk off Kuantan by 85 Japanese aircraft from the 22nd Air Flotilla based at Saigon. Repulse was sunk by five torpedoes in 20 minutes, and Electra and Vampire moved in to rescue survivors of Repulse, while Express rescued survivors of Prince of Wales, which sank slowly following the attacks.

Electra sent out radio messages that Repulse and Prince of Wales had sunk and that Admiral Tom Phillips had gone down with them. Even after they were rescued, some survivors of Repulse manned Action Stations on Electra, to free Electra sailors to rescue more survivors. Repulse gunners manned the ‘X’ and ‘Y’ 4.7-inch mounts and the ship’s dentist of Repulse assisted Electra’s medical teams with the wounded. In total, nearly 1,000 survivors of Repulse were rescued, of which Electra saved 571, some of whom would later be captured at Malaya and the Dutch East Indies when both were surrendered by the British three months later, and some were lost aboard British ships sunk by the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and at the Battle of the Java Sea. Electra and the other destroyers returned to Singapore to drop off the survivors.

The next three weeks or so saw Electra escorting convoys, and resting in Singapore in between. She had ‘crossed the equator so many times that the crew stopped keeping count. One of her frequent consorts in these escort operations was the light cruiser HMAS Hobart. In the last week of January, Electra was part of the escort for a troop convoy, BM-11, consisting of the American transports USS West Point and USS Wakefield and the British ships Duchess Of Bedford, Empress of Japan, and Empire Star, which was carrying troops from Bombay, India, to Singapore. This convoy was brought into Singapore on the 29th of January.

Electra was known to have escorted convoyBM-9B, which left Bombay on 22 December 1941, carrying the vehicles and stores for the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade; Electra escorted this convoy from 3 January 1942 until its arrival at Singapore on 6 January. ConvoyBM-10, which left Bombay on 8 January 1942, with the 44th Indian Infantry Brigade Group of 6000 men, and vehicles and stores for the 18th Division, HMS Electra was part of the escort between 20 January and 22 January.

Convoy BM-11 which left Bombay on 19 January 1942 carried 5 light anti-aircraft batteries, 1 light tank squadron, and the 18th Division.  A total of 17,000 troops had Electra part of the escort from 24 January until its arrival at Singapore on 29 January. She was then part of convoy BM-12’s return trip to Bombay, Electra was part of the escort from 7 February to 9 February while the convoy went through the Sunda Strait. Then on the 3rd of February, they also had the task of towing the destroyer HMS Isis which had been undergoing refit from Singapore to Java. On the way, they were attacked by a Japanese high-level bomber but sustained no damage. Just before Singapore fell, Electra and other destroyers escorted the remaining merchant ships to Tanjong Priok in Java.

On 26 February 1942, Electra arrived at Surabaya from Tanjong Priok, along with HMS Exeter, HMAS Perth, the Dutch light cruiser Java, and the destroyers Jupiter and Encounter. HMS Dauntless. On 27 February, the striking force left Surabaya, the three British destroyers in the lead, with Electra in the center followed by the Dutch cruiser De Ruyter, HMS Exeter, USS Houston, HMAS Perth, and HNLMS Java; followed by two Dutch and four American destroyers.

The Altmark Incident

That afternoon, they made contact with the enemy. Electra managed to evade the shells and torpedoes in the first round. Then Exeter received a hit which destroyed a 4-inch gun mount and then exploded in a boiler room, causing her to lose speed, seeing that Exeter was in trouble, Electra headed toward the enemy ships, followed by the other two British destroyers, to cover Exeter’s escape. After several near misses from gunfire from the Japanese light cruiser Jintsū, Electra fired back, scoring several hits on Jintsū and the destroyer Asagumo disabling her engines, she also managed to score hits on destroyers Minegumo and Tokitsukaze.

During this slugging match, Electra sustained several hits, which knocked out her A and X gun mounts, wrecked the electrical system forward, cut off all communications, destroyed a searchlight platform, damaged the after boiler room, and ruptured the main steam line. Electra came to a total halt, she fired off her torpedoes and started to list to port. After a fire started under ‘B’ gun mount and ‘Y’ Electra ran out of ammunition then an abandoned ship was ordered. She sank shortly afterward on the afternoon of the 27th of February 1942, bow first with her White Ensign still flying.

In conclusion, the story of her survivors is shocking.

That night, about 0235hrs in the morning of 28 February, 54 survivors of the 173 men on board were picked up by the United States submarine S-38, and were taken to Surabaya. When the submarine surfaced in the middle of the survivors. One of the survivors died on the submarine on the way. After treatment in a Dutch hospital, 42 survivors were taken to Australia by the inter-island steamer Verspeck, where they arrived on 10 March. One more survivor died at the hospital, and 10 others in critical condition were left at the hospital.

After spending some time there recovering, many of the survivors were put on the liner Nankin, bound for Ceylon, and ultimately home to the United Kingdom. On the way, Nankin was attacked and sunk by the German raider Thor. The survivors, after spending seven weeks on the raider’s supply ship Regensburg, were handed over to the Japanese, where they spent the rest of the war with many dying in a Japanese prison camp.

Written by Harry Gillespie

What Was Force Z in WW2? & Why Was HMS Electra So Spectacular?

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What Was Force Z in WW2? & Why Was HMS Electra So Spectacular?