It seems almost inconceivable now, but this short stretch of Cornish coast between Marazion and St Michaels Mount should have witnessed the death of one of the Royal Navy’s most famous battleships, H.M.S. Warspite, During her 32 years service she had endured bombing, shellfire, ramming, mines and a missile attack, and fought all over the world from Jutland in the Great War, to the Normandy Landings in the Second World War. Sailors often say that a ship embodies all their hopes, aspiration and experiences, and because of this, she becomes more than just an expression of sea power, or another collection of men, iron and steel. The Warspite was certainly much more than that, and became known to everyone who served on her as ‘The Grand Old Lady’.
Laid down in Devonport Dockyard Plymouth, in October 1915, she was launched into the River Tamar a year later. Her first Captain, Edward Phillpotts, took command when she commissioned in 1915. The Warspite was one of five Queen Elizabeth class Battleships which were built to combat the threat of new faster German battleships. She was 639 feet long, had a beam of over ninety feet with a draught of thirty feet six inches and a crew which varied in size from about 995 to 1200. Her initial armament consisted of eight 15inch guns in four twin turrets, fourteen single six inch guns, two single QF three inch anti aircraft guns, and four twenty one inch submerged torpedo tubes. When she was commissioned, she was one of the most powerful and flexible super dreadnoughts afloat.
In 1916, at the Battle of Jutland, the Warspite was attached to the 5th Battle Squadron under the overall command of Admiral Beatty. She managed to to score a direct hit on the German Battle Cruiser, Von der Tan, before a stray shell damaged her steering. By the time she was back to full readiness, the German High Seas Fleet had slipped away in the rain and mist. During the battle the Warspite was holed one hundred and fifty times and had fourteen of her crew killed, with another sixteen wounded. Although seriously damaged she was still afloat and was ordered back to Rosyth. On her way she was attacked by a German U boat which missed with all three torpedo’s. Shortly after this lucky escape, she was attacked again by another U boat, which she tried to ram. The submarine however, was too quick for her and managed to speed away undamaged. It must have been with a sigh of relief that the crew safely entered the port of Rosyth. The Warspite had a revenge of sorts, as at the end of the War, she was part of the force that escorted the surrendered High Seas Fleet into internment at Scapa Flow in 1918.
From 1919 to 1939, she joined the 2nd battle Squadron as part of the newly formed Atlantic Fleet. During this time the Warspite regularly showed the Flag all over the Mediterranean reinforcing the Royal navy’s supremacy as the worlds foremost sea power. After being rammed by a Romanian passenger ship off Portugal she had some minor repairs, but it was between 1934 and 1937 that she underwent major reconstruction, giving the Royal navy a virtually new ship with much enhanced capabilities. As the Second World War unfolded, the Warspite was in the thick of it, taking a significant role in the two battles of Narvik where she destroyed the Z13 Erich Koellner with broadsides and severely damaged the Z17 Dieter von Roeder, together with the Z12 Erich Giese. Between 1940 and 1941 she became engaged in several major sea battles. In 1940 she took part in the battle of Calabria against the Italian Navy (Regina Marina). It was during this battle that the Warspite achieved the longest range gunnery hit on a moving target in history, when she damaged the Italian battleship Giulio Cesare at a range of 26 KM (26000yards).
In mid August of the same year, she was involved in the Battle of Taranto, where she was slightly damaged by a single bomb during Operation Excess. In March 1941 Admiral Cunningham took his fleet to sea against the Regina Marina on board his flagship H.M.S. Warspite. The Italian navy was supporting the German Invasion of the Balkans and had sailed to intercept Allied convoys between Egypt and Greece. Cunningham caught up with them near Cape Matapan and ordered airstrikes on the Italian Battleships to save his Cruisers from their heavier gunfire. Meanwhile Warspite, Barham, and Valient closed on the heavy cruisers Fiume and Zara and destroyed them and two destroyers at point blank range. This battle destroyed the Regina Marina’s moral, and allowed the British to tighten their grip on the Mediterranean just in time for the German invasion of Crete. Here she was used as a floating anti aircraft battery, until a 500 pound bomb dropped by Oberleutenant Kurt Ubben damaged her four and six inch gun batteries, ripped open her side and killed thirty eight of the crew. The damage was too severe to be repaired at Alexandria so the Warspite was sent to Bremerton on the West Coast of the United States of America.
After her refit in 1942 the Warspite joined the Eastern Fleet, as the Flagship of Admiral Sir James Somerville, who had commanded her in 1927. Although she was involved in various operations in the Far East against the Japanese Navy, her role was largely uneventful, and she returned to England in 1943 in time for the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy, taking part in Operation Husky and covering the landings at Salerno. Although the Germans fought fiercely, the Italians had had enough, and on the 3rd of September signed an Armistice. Anxious to ensure that the Germans did not annex the Italian Fleet of two hundred warships, the Allies insisted that they sail for Allied ports. Later the Warspite met, and led elements of the Fleet into Malta for internment. On the 11 September, Warspite and Valiant were detached to provide support to the Allied forces at Salerno. Although the Italians had surrendered, the Germans were still determined to stop the Allied advance. Overnight the Fleet came under intense air attack, and later, three Dornier Bombers, attacked the Warspite with an early type of guided missile. This struck near the funnel, cutting through the decks, and making a twenty foot hole in the bottom of her hull. Nine of her crew were killed and fourteen were injured, but the Warspite was crippled. Escorted by elements of the Allied Fleet, and towed by tugs from the U.S.Navy, the Warspite was eventually safely docked in Malta for emergency repairs, before being towed to Gibraltar for more substantial repairs. She finally arrived back in England in March 1944 and went to Rosyth to complete her repairs.
At Rosyth, Warspite’s six inch guns were removed and a giant caisson covered the hole left by the German missile. One of the boiler rooms could not be repaired, but she had to be made ready as the main event of the War was about to begin. Every man and ship was needed for Operation Overlord, D.Day, The invasion of Europe. At 0500 H.M.S. Warspite was the first ship to open fire, bombarding the German Battery at Villerville to support the British landings at Sword Beach. After firing three hundred shells, she went back to Portsmouth to reload, and returned on 9th June to support American Forces at Utah Beach. Then on 11th June she took up position on Gold Beach to support the British 69th Infantry Brigade. By now having fired so many shells continuously the gun barrels were worn out, so she was ordered back to Rosyth, where she hit a mine twenty eight miles off Harwich, early on 13th June. Repairs to her propeller shafts took until early August when she sailed to Scapa Flow to recalibrate her armament. Used now as a floating gun battery she was sent to Ushant in time for the Battle for Brest. She shelled the towns of Le Conquet and Pointe Sainte-Mathieu before moving to the Scheld Estuary with the Monitors Erebus and Roberts. Here she cleared out the German strongholds and gun emplacements before bombarding targets on Walcheron Island. The next day she left for Deal, never to fire her guns again.
Although the War still raged, the Warspite’s part in it had ended. Time and the enemy had taken it’s toll, and newer, more modern ships were needed to continue the War in the Far East. Although there were proposals to keep her as a museum, the Admiralty finally approved her scrapping in July 1946 and she sailed from Spithead to Portsmouth to have her guns removed.
On a grey day in April 1947, the Warspite embarked on her last voyage from Portsmouth to Faslane on the River Clyde for scrapping. On the way she ran into a fierce storm, broke her tows and ended up on Mount Mopus Ledge near Cudden Point. On the next high tide she re floated herself, only to go hard aground a few yards away in Prussia Cove. The Skeleton crew of seven were all saved by the Penlee Lifeboat, but for the Warspite there was to be no reprieve. There were several attempts to re float her, but she was by now too badly damaged.
In 1950 a final attempt was made to re float her using two tugs and twenty four compressors to pump air into her hull. Watched by a large crowd the tugs were unable to tow her. One ended up on the rocks and the other got a hawser wrapped around her prop. By now it was obvious that the Warspite would never be taken to the Clyde for scrapping so it was decided to cut her up where she lay. For ease of access they manage to move her the short distance to a beach alongside St. Michael’s Mount. Over the next five years she was chopped up, until she disappeared from view.
The Walk Really this walk has two parts, and you don’t have to do then concurrently, but the distances are a bit long between the two areas, so nipping between the two by car is probably best as you can spend quite a bit of time at each, if the sun is shining. To give you an idea of where everything is have a look at this superb photo below. I did not take it unfortunately, I wish I had, and I don’t know who did, but it puts Prussia Cove, seen here in the forfront, and St. Michaels Mount in context.
Prussia Cove is a prime example of what the Cornish coast is all about, and why so many visitors come. It hasn’t changed much in years, and was once the home of the notorious smuggling, Carter family. One of then was known as the King of Prussia, and there are pubs dotted around named ater him, most notably the one on the waterfront at Fowey. There is car parking and toilets at the top and acces to the cove is by a steepish track. Takes about five mins to walk down and although there is no lifeguard, there is some life saving equipiment, so get in and have a lovely swim. There also is another momento of the Warspite at the top in the shape of a wooded spar from the ship stuck upright on the top.
Marazion is a small place but extremely picturesque, mainly because of the looming presence of St. Michael’s Mount, just a few hundred yards offshore. The town has plenty of galleries and craft shops to poke about in, and you can catch the ferry to the island from near the Goldolphin Hotel when the tide is in. Otherwise you can walk across the tidal causeway to the island, which is always something of a thrill. The island is run by the National Trust and it is well worth a visit to get to see the castle at the top. Also, from here you will get a panoramic view of where the Warspite was finally cut up.
Another reminder of those days is a memorial stone to H.M.S. Warspite on the coast path near the end of the causeway on the mainland.
There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Marazion, but two of my favourites are the Goldolphin Hotel which besides serving Doombar beer (my favourite), and great meals, has a stunning view of St. Michael’s Mount.
Another great pub is the Kings Arms, right in the middle of the town. Again the pub serves tasty meals and has Proper Job and Tribute beer. Between the two establishments you will be able to sample the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Cornish beer. Enjoy.