"The wardroom of HMS Warspite, veteran of Jutland, and Britain's oldest battleship, was emptier than usual. In one corner, a game of chess was going on, with a little knot of officers looking intently over the shoulders of the players. But one missed the usual groups of officers standing around talking. Warspite was under way, moving very slowly, at a bare eight knots, towards a certain spot marked on a highly secret chart in the possession of the captain. The loudspeaker of the ship's broadcasting system croaked, gave a metallic cough, and announced in a matter-of-fact but de-humanised voice: "Hands will go to action stations in fifteen minutes time. Clear up mess decks for action. Provide lifebelts."
The 'certain spot' on the Captain's chart lay some miles off the coast of Walcheren Island. We had an urgent appointment to keep there with certain German shore batteries around Westkapelle and Domburg. There was another German battery, too, in a pocket of German-held land at Knokke, on the Belgian coast. But I tried not to think about that one. It had eleven-inch guns, four of them. And an eleven-inch shore gun has it all the time. It can shoot farther than a ship's gun of much larger calibre. It's liable to be more accurate, too. And on this occasion we were going to be within range of Knokke for a very long time.
People began to stroll in and out of the wardroom, struggling into duffel coats or oilskins, stuffing cigarettes and matches into their pockets in readiness for many hours of tense discomfort. An engineer officer in white overalls strolled through, a book under his arm. It was Carlyle's Essays , his stand-by to pass the time of waiting at his post at one of the damage control stations. A turret officer fumbled in his pocket to make sure that he had not forgotten a certain little box. That box contained tubes of morphia. If Knokke opened up, they might be sorely needed. In a corner, Magee sat nonchalantly screwing home a monstruous telephoto lens, which completely dwarfed the camera.
The loudspeaker croaked again; a 'G' call on the bugle; 'Action stations'. The wardroom emptied. The mess-decks emptied, too. Below decks men streamed up and down ladders, squeezed through the manholes of hatches, hurrying to their stations. Far below the water line, a solitary leading stoker made his way through the four shaft tunnels, checking the temperature of the bearings, entering it in his report. Like the rest, he wore anti-flash gear as he went his lonely round, cut off for the duration of the action from even the benefit of the commentary which from time to time the Commander broadcast to the ship's company.
An hour or so later I climbed up to the compass platform, the station of the Captain and a host of officers responsible for the handling and fighting of the ship. At this moment it was the most crowded, and the quietest, place on board. You could feel the quietness. It is not that a bridge is ordinarily so silent. But just then we were steaming parallel to the coast, working up to our firing position. Under a dawn which seemed grimmer than most dawns I have seen, we could make out the low-lying shore: we could see the screen of MLs which was protecting us. Astern came the monitors Roberts and Erebus, and between us and the shore, steamed innumerable landing craft, working their way along in readiness for the assault on the beaches.
Our fifteen-inch guns were trained in the direction of the Knokke battery. Here and there, there came a gun flash from the shore. They were firing at the landing craft and their escorts. But out where we were, all was still quiet. The Knokke guns were leaving us alone. It was not until some time afterwards that I learned that that battery, which could have caused us so much trouble, was captured by Canadian troops an hour or two before we came within its range (1).
There was a stir on the flag deck. A great White Ensign fluttered up to the peak, Warspite's battle ensign. Now we were going into action. The broadcast croaked once more: "We shall be opening fire with fifteen-inch in a few minutes." Everywhere in the upper parts of the ship, officers and men got out ear-plugs or screws of cotton-wool to protect the eardrums against the blast. Somewhere the fire-gong sounded twice. But I did not hear it. The next moment my tin-hat went flying off my head. I learned to listen for the warning of the fire-gong after that. It is rung from the transmitting station, deep in the depths of the ship. Here all the information needed by the guns, ranges, bearings, strength and direction of wind, and even the temperature of the cordite in the charges, are fed into a set of vast calculating machines.
The answer is given to the guns and, when all is ready, the gong sounds. Up in the director control tower, above the compass platform, the director officer makes an electric contact. The guns fire. In Warspite we are firing in salvoes of three. At each salvo the wind blows into our faces whiffs of ugly-brown cordite smoke. As the smoke clears, we hear the shells screaming towards their mark. Sometimes you can even see them for a second, if you happen to be in the right place. Just before they fire maybe you duck, hands to ears, against the blast. I am doing this when the captain sees me and grins. "Better take your pipe out of your mouth next time," he says. "It's much worse if it catches you with your mouth closed." You relax again and after many seconds the silence is broken by a buzzer. That is the 'fall-of-shot' buzzer, which is worked automatically, to warn the spotters when to look for the splashes. It saves a great deal of strain on their eyes.
From eight in the morning until after six at night Warspite lay off the Walcheren coast. We lay there and fired and fired - three hundred and fifty rounds of fifteen-inch shell, or a little more. I believe this sets up a record for any battleship during this war. It wasn't exciting shooting, because, for most of the time, we were without aircraft to spot for us. This was a terrible handicap, forced on us by bad weather, for we were unable to tell exactly how close our shooting was. But when we left, there was much smoke in our target areas, and many shore guns were silent." To underline the lack of excitement on that action Petty Officer Charles Pearson recalled that day as “foggy, dull and we didn't see much… We did our job and left.”
During the morning HMS Warspite engaged the Domburg battery (W17) with feasible shooting, which made it possible "to keep the enemy's 'head down'", and even to destroy one gun, but the absence of air spotting was keenly felt. A local Air OP endeavoured to assist with spotting for two or three salvoes, but his transmitting was too weak to work with. Contact was made, however, with a Forward Observer Bombardment (FOB), who initially had no target requests, but at 1300 hrs called for fire on guns close to the Westkapelle lighthouse. Capt. Kelsey: "With no knowledge of the situation ashore and having received no Sitrep this target appeared to me to be very adjacent to where I estimated our own troops might be and I accordingly asked the FOB to authenticate himself in the prescribed manner laid down in the orders. This he was unable to do and shortly afterwards he cancelled his request." After having heard from Pugsley that the FOB was genuine, there was occasional contact, but no further target requests came.
At 1340 hrs the first fast spotting aircraft, a Spitfire, arrived and was ready to observe, but reported he had only a few minutes petrol left, nevertheless was at the same time able to give valuable information that there was "no sign of life" in W17 and that Domburg itself was burning fiercely. From about 1500 to 1550 hrs intermittent fire was maintained on the Domburg battery (meanwhile the ship moved at 1520 hrs to a new position). Another aircraft, arriving at 1615 hrs, confirmed the first aircraft's reporting. The Warspite was then given a map reference for some machine guns in concrete pillboxes and an air-spotted shoot was commenced on them. Kelsey: "The results were highly satisfatory, a hit being obtained with the third salvo followed by seven more in rapid succession, making eight hits out of twelve salvoes - a clear indication of the value of good air spotting and personal acquaintance with the pilot who had worked with the ship on several previous bombardments." Or, as it was reported in Warspite 's 'Record of events on 1st Novermber 1944': "'Local base' aircraft took over spotting for us on two occasions but there is great diffference between the 'amateur' and 'professional' as can be seen from the last two shoots with 'Spitfire spotter' spotting; results prove this."
From then on it became a race against the fading light and target was shifted rapidly to the Domburg battery which had shown signs of renewed activity. Again a very satisfactory shoot ensued, a hit being obtained with the second salvo, seven hits being scored out of nine salvoes. In all, 353 rounds of 15" were fired with no delays. The communication aboard between the @ had been good throughout. Captain Kelsey: "Since D-Day for the invasion of Normandy some 1500 rounds of 15" had been fired off the beaches, at Brest, Le Havre and Walcheren, and not one round has been missed through faulty drill which is considered to be a great tribute not only to the young crews but also to the instructing officers and ratings.
A large proportion of the ship's company had never been to sea before D-Day and had actually joined the service only a few weeks before... I was, once again, very well satisfied with the Fire Control which was quite up to previous standard as soon as the air spotting was available. Even when spotting was direct, the fall of shot was unexpectedly good. In Operation Infatuate, accurate navigation formed the basis on which the success of the whole bombardment undertaking rested and the shoal and mined waters required the greatest vigilance in such a heavy draught ship as Warspite ."
At 1723 the light had failed to an extent which precluded any further spotting for the day. Although Kelsey feared a dusk enemy torpedo bomber attack, he remained in position as long as possible for the direly needed support of the forces ashore. Concern was uttered about the absence of fighter cover. About this a message was despatched from the Kingsmill at 1730 hrs reading: "Frequent reference on R/T by RAF controller to probable absence of fighter cover can but serve to draw attention of enemy to the fact. Recommend in your own interests this should cease forthwith." After having turned over the ships under command to the HMS Erebus , the HMS Warspite (accompanied by HMS Garth and HMS Cottesmore ) went ahead at 1730 hrs at 14 knots, shortly afterwards reducing to 8 knots because of possible presence of mines. An uneventful return passage to Deal was however made; only a jettisoned bomb of an overhead passing return flight of bombers fell wide of the port quarter of the Warspite. It had been the Warspite 's last action of its 30-year long existence. Going back to Rosyth and Spithead it was eventually paid off in reserve and scrapped.
2. An attempt at 1059 hrs by the Erebus to make contact also failed.
1. The battery in question was the Marine-Küsten-Batterie Schelde, which should have four 28 cm (11") guns, but the guns were never placed. This fact was not known to the naval forces, however, witness the fact that Capt. Kelsey expressed real fear in his report.