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Monday, July 2nd 2018, 10:09am

HMS Magnificent, Scapa Flow, Monday 28 September

Admiral Syfret descended the gangplank to the waiting launch. Autumn had now closed in and a chilly wind was blowing across the open waters around his ships as they lay at anchor. His ships were only making a brief visit, he knew that Exercise WASHTUB was scheduled to begin in two days. He was hoping to be able to complete that exercise fairly quickly, perhaps about the time the Germans would be sailing home if they decided to take the northern route back. Already he had requested a submarine screen across the western end of the Iceland-Faroes gap, he wanted good warning of the approach even though he knew that given the weather conditions and shortening days that their job would be difficult. He stepped into the launch which whisked him away towards the shore.


Monday, July 2nd 2018, 7:46pm

The North Atlantic, Dawn, Monday, 28 September 1948

FO Bayard

At Admiral Bailly’s insistence, Capitaine de vaisseau Pierre Le Gloan had juggled FO Bayard’s air assets to maintain a relay of scouts tracking, if loosely, the position of Force Bleu. Those might not survive encounters with its combat air patrols which, he expected, would be launched as soon as the sun rose. On the decks of Zélé and Héros the deck crews made final preparations to launch the first wave of strike aircraft – a relatively small force of fighters and dive bombers that would hopefully distract the Germans and mislead them for a stronger second wave of torpedo bombers and their fighter escort.

Aircraft Carrier Wallenstein

It was shortly before dawn that Admiral Engel ordered his ships to activate their dradis systems, doubting that at this point the snooping French aircraft would have to be piloted by blind men not to find his ships. The first fighters launched from his carriers were swift to eliminate or chase off these persistent scouts but it was clear that he would be facing another series of air attacks which might last the day.

FO Bayard

Bailly ordered his ships to turn into the wind to launch the first, diversionary, strike. As soon as they were clear, FO Bayard returned to its intercept course, seeking to win a few more kilometres on their adversary. In the meanwhile, the decks of the carriers were respotted for the main strike; an hour later, the carriers were brought back into the wind while the second strike group took off and assembled. Now the die was cast.


Tuesday, July 3rd 2018, 11:04pm

The North Atlantic, Monday, 28 September 1948

The diversionary first strike from FO Bayard comprised sixteen Épaulard dive bombers with an equal number of Milan fighters. The former carried their normal load of practice bombs but the latter did not carry rockets, as they would under normal circumstances. Their mission was to tempt the Force Bleu combat air patrol to over-commit, to keep them occupied while the heavier second strike delivered a crushing blow. To this end they flew high, certain to be detected by the pair of air defence cruisers that accompanied the task force. They also deliberately kept poor wireless discipline in an attempt to convince anyone listening on their frequency to believe their numbers were greater than they were in fact. In this endeavour they were successful.

The slashing attacks of the Focke Wulfs of the combat air patrol were able to ‘shoot down’ several of the dive bombers before the mass of aircraft dissolved into a confused fur-ball of aircraft struggling to ‘destroy’ each other. Bombers shed their ordnance loads in exchange for added manoeuvrability, the airwaves were a cacophony of chatter as pilots of both nations tried to organise themselves.

Meanwhile the low flying second strike, torpedo bombers with fighter escort, flew an evasive course under wireless silence – pilots communicated by hand signals. They hoped that by doing so they might be able to deliver a surprise attack on the aircraft carriers that were at the core of the Alliance task force. Their faith was rewarded.

The Russian destroyer Pylkiy gave the first warning of the incoming torpedo bombers, opening fire with both her main and secondary batteries. As antiaircraft fire burst nearby the torpedo bombers split into two groups, each boring in on one of the German aircraft carriers. The defensive fire grew in intensity, and in the absence of Force Bleu fighter cover, the rocket-carrying Milans were able to ‘shoot up’ the vessels that stood in their way. The Pappenheim was subjected to a classic ‘scissors’ attack, with torpedo launched at her off either bow. The escorting frigate Stockach deliberately took one of the torpedoes aimed at her charge, but at least one torpedo found its mark in the carrier’s side. The Wallenstein too had to twist in evasive manoeuvres while the nearby cruisers Marseilles and Suffren threw up a ‘wall’ of antiaircraft fire.

The umpires would be forced to spend much time deciding which aircraft had been shot down or badly damaged before they delivered their torpedoes or rockets, and how many had escaped. So too would they require time as assess the damage done to the ships of the Alliance task force. For the pilots involved it meant a long flight back to Zélé and Héros, a shorter flight back to Wallenstein and Pappenheim. The commanders of both task forces were advised to hold their respective positions pending the scoring; something that would be alien in wartime, but acceptable for an exercise – particularly if there was a question of whether it would be able to be continued.


Wednesday, July 4th 2018, 7:50pm

Aircraft Carrier Wallenstein, The North Atlantic, Monday, 28 September 1948

Admiral Engel finally received the accounting from the team of umpires on the state of his task force after the savage French air attack. While his own ship had managed to avoid serious damage her sister, the Pappenheim, and been judged as having taken two torpedoes, leaving her heavily damaged and non-operational. The results of damage control exercises presently underway would determine whether she could be saved or not. The escorting cruiser Suffren had taken one torpedo, which for the moment reduced her speed to twenty knots. The frigate Stockach had been judged as sunk, while the frigate Mohlsdorf, the destroyer Skoryi, and the cruiser Lissa were scored as damaged in varying degrees. His air group had suffered additional losses, which combined with the aircraft marooned on the ‘damaged’ Pappenheim left him with little more than twenty fighters and a handful of scout bombers.

Force Bayard, The North Atlantic, Monday, 28 September 1948

The report Bailly received from the umpires at once heartened and dismayed him. The morning attack on the Alliance task force had caused heavy damage to one German aircraft carrier, sunk one frigate, and damaged several other of the escorting ships. Coupled with the four vessels previously detached as ‘sunk or damaged’, his air groups had whittled the opposition down by nearly half. But the cost had been heavy. His two aircraft carriers mustered between them little more than seventy operational aircraft, with losses judged to be very heavy among his strike aircraft. If he chose to mount a further strike against Force Bleu, and suffered the same level of casualties, he would have very little strength left. He still had to guard against the possibility of Engel forcing a surface engagement.

The Admiralstab, Berlin, Monday, 28 September 1948

Gerlach turned from the plotting table in the Operations Room to receive an intelligence report. He scanned it quickly and smiled.

“U-boats and long-range reconnaissance aircraft have detected the arrival in the Orkneys three battleships, two aircraft carriers, several cruisers and destroyers. It would seem as if the British have given up on monitoring Pegase and completed their anticipated redeployment.”

Bramesfeld nodded in agreement. “Excellent. Merten, has the exercise achieved its objective?”

“For the most part; only time will tell if all the objectives had been achieved. But I would recommend that at this point the exercise be concluded.”


Friday, July 6th 2018, 6:12pm

Aircraft Carrier Wallenstein, Brest, France, Friday, 1 October 1948

The ships of the Alliance task force rocked gently in the swells of the rade de Brest, the outer roadstead of the great French naval base. Supply craft brought out provisions and fresh water while small tankers replenished the fuel bunkers of the ships. Engel took the opportunity to begin to organise his notes on all that had transpired thus far during the course of the exercise; while is duel with Force Bayard was completed, the overall exercise would not be complete until he had brought his ships back to the Baltic.

He had been informed by the Admiralstab regarding the likely redeployment of the heavy units of the British task force that had been sent out to ‘observe’ the little game played by Engel and Bailly. These now appeared to have been based in the north of Scotland, which gave Engel pause on the choice of route for his return. He presently awaited approval from Berlin on his request; his ships could not depart until refuelled, and so, there was no need for haste at this time.


Thursday, July 12th 2018, 7:20pm

Aircraft Carrier Wallenstein, Brest, France, Sunday, 3 October 1948

Engel read the dispatch from Berlin, approving his suggestion for the task force’s homeward course, which also left the timing of their departure to his discretion. This last point was important, for the crews of the ships of the task force – German, Russian, and French – were enjoying their liberty in the Breton town, which had opened its arms to them. There had been an impromptu fete at which his crews were given tokens in recognition of their excellent performance – small embroidered patches which – to his surprise – the Admiralstab had authorised to be worn on their uniforms.

He liked it – Gules, a sword erect surmounted by wings Argent. He put down the patch he was admiring and took up a sheet of notepaper and wrote a quick thank you note to the commandant of the port, the officer, he was told, who had arranged on short notice their production.


Monday, July 16th 2018, 10:45pm

Aircraft Carrier Wallenstein, 48 dgs 32 min North 5 dgs 20 min West, Wednesday, 6 October 1948

Engel had led his reunited and resupplied task force out of the harbour of Brest that morning for their homeward voyage. At the moment their course was due north, with Ushant bearing to the southeast.

“Have we cleared Ushant?”

The navigator checked his charts for the third time. “Ten more minutes to assure we avoid any reefs Herr Admiral.”

Engel waited. He wanted to make certain that he had plenty of sea room to starboard before the task force changed course. He walked to the aircraft carrier’s open bridge and looked aft, smiling at the sight of German, Russian, and French men-of-war operating together and having accomplished a difficult assignment. He pondered what might lie ahead. Moments later he returned to the ship’s command centre.

“Signal to all ships. Execute Plan Emil Three.” By wireless, signal lamp, and signal flag the message was rapidly disseminated. The prows of the great ships turned to starboard and settled down on a north-easterly course, moving from the waters of the Atlantic to those of Le Manche.


Today, 4:04pm

Destroyer Pylkiy, 49 dgs 36 min North, 4 dgs 7 min West, Thursday, 7 October 1948

The Pylkiy was in the lead of the starboard column, her flotilla mates following in her wake. They were maintaining a steady twelve knots – there was no reason to speed in the busy shipping lanes of the Channel. To port the task force’s aircraft carriers and their immediate escorts formed the centre column, while the cruisers took position to port.

Captain Pavel Kozyukhin was on the bridge, aware that in their present location an encounter with a merchant vessel was not merely a possibility, but a near certainty. The danger was not so much in those ships going up or down the Channel, but from the smaller ferries that crossed the Channel on a daily basis. His lookouts were therefore on high alert, and the warning that a ship was approaching on an intersecting course was not a surprise.

“Signal the Serioznyi to warn the vessel off until the column passes. We need no collisions today.”

The cross-Channel ferry Winchester had left Southampton that morning for St. Peter Port, Guernsey, with her last load of holiday-makers. Her master had been told that there were warships coming up the Channel but he had not expected to encounter them. He saw one of the destroyers break from its position and turn in his direction.

“All stop!”

“All stop aye!”

The Winchester slowed as her screws ceased to turn. She was still two thousand yards distant, more than sufficient sea room, and the passengers crowded the rails to try to get a sight, or a picture, of the distant warships. The destroyer came alongside and its captain thanked Winchester for stopping to avoid an incident, and also apologising for the delay in the Winchester’s schedule. Whoever was speaking on the loud-hailer did so in good English, but with a definite Russian accent.