HMS Nelson (BB-11)
Royal Navy Battleship of World War Two
By Stephen Sherman, June, 2007. Updated March 21, 2012.
26 May 1927 - Spectators on the Cornwall coast saw a weird ship doing her steaming trials over the Royal Navy's test course; unlike any ship they had ever seen before, clearly a warship, but all her superstructure was crowded aft, and only three large humps (for gun turrets to sit on) distinguished her very long forecastle. An odd-looking battleship indeed.
She was commissioned at Portsmouth on 15 Aug 1927, and Portsmouth remained her home port throughout her life. During gunnery tests, the new 16-inch guns had numerous teething troubles, and caused more blast damage than had been expected. Barrel life fell short of the proven 15-inch gun's endurance.
Nonetheless, in October 1927, the "Nellie" became the flagship of the Home Fleet, which she remained until 1941. Before the war she mostly served in home waters, but went to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean for annual naval exercises. She also ventured as far as the Baltic and the Pacific, on making her first transit of the Panama Canal. In 1932-33, she underwent modifications to her bridge, had two MK.V eight-barreled anti-aircraft guns added, and had multiple machine-guns fitted on the control tower.
The Nelson's most embarrassing moment came in January, 1934. As she steamed out of Portsmouth, she drifted out of the narrow channel and went aground on Hamilton Bank shoal. You can see pictures of her stranded and the efforts to free her here.
More Pre-war Improvements
Between 1935 and 1938, the Royal Navy continued modernizing Nelson. She participated in testing the experimental "Walrus" amphibian aircraft; she had horizontal armour was added; high angle gun-control was improved, and a crane was fitted in the port waist. As the Navy recognized the growing threat of airpower, even more anti-aircraft "pom-pom" guns were added near the funnel and on the quarterdeck.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Nelson was at Scapa Flow with HMS Rodney, HMS Royal Sovereign, HMS Ramillies, and much of the rest of the fleet. With the dangers of actual combat looming, the ship's holy relic, the actual uniform worn by Nelson at Trafalgar, was sent to the National Bank of Scotland for safe keeping. It is now at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. On the 26th, while shepherding the damaged submarine Spearfish off the coast of Norway, Nelson was attacked by German bombers. She fired her 4.7 AAA in anger for the first time. While Nelson was unhurt, but the weakness of her air defense was apparent. In October, she and Rodney made a fruitless attempt to intercept battle-cruiser Gneisenau and cruiser Koln off the Shetlands. After this mission, wary of submarine penetration into Scapa Flow, Nelson proceeded to a 'secret' base at Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland.
31 Oct 1939 - On board Nelson, The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, discussed the use of the main fleet bases at Scapa Flow, Loch Ewe and Rosyth. They determined to return to Scapa in the spring of 1940 when its defenses would be complete.
"Our Interesting Invalid"
On December 4, 1939 she Nelson routinely entered Loch Ewe at thirteen knots, when a tremendous explosion shook and lifted her hull. One of the thousands of magnetic mines planted by the German U-boats around British ports had passively struck a blow. While there were no fatalities, damage was extensive, including in the forward heads, where "many toilets shattered and their occupants suffered lacerations." The explosion tore open the ship's bottom in several places, pushed in a 70 feet length of bottom plating, and caused extensive flooding. (Nelson's uniform, safely ashore, was unharmed.) Winston Churchill dubbed her 'our interesting invalid.' She spent the next 8 months in dock being repaired and refitted.
While repairing the damage done by the mine, the Navy also improved Nelson's weaponry: three more pom-pom mountings, gun shields for the open 4.7s, an armored 'zareba' round the 4.7-inch gun deck, a 20 barrel 7" UP launcher on "C" and "B" turrets, and a Type 284 radar. This last was crucial: a 50cm fire control radar for the big guns, with a range of 10 nautical miles, it proved very successful. In late 1940, Nelson operated in the North Atlantic.
Mar 2 1941 - Nelson supported operation "Claymore", the first British amphibious operation of the war: the landings on the Lofoten Islands, in the approaches to Narvik. The raiders entered Vest Fjord during the night of Mar 3rd and achieved complete surprise. The landings were unopposed.
1941 - Her 16-inch guns were in the Mediterranean protecting the Malta convoys. Her presence kept away the Italian Fleet, but torpedo bombers hit her and put her out of action for several months.
August 9th 1942. - Nelson participated in the relief of Malta, "Operation Pedestal," consisting of 59 warships and 14 merchant ships. Joining Nelson were her sister ship "HMS RODNEY", and four large carriers, "HMS VICTORIOUS", "HMS EAGLE" and "HMS INDOMITABLE", and "HMS FURIOUS" (carrying 38 Spitfires for Malta). These warships protected 14 fast merchant ships and their 85,000 tons of cargo. An American ship, SS OHIO, especially prepared for this mission, her engines placed on rubber housings, and also given extra AA guns. She was loaded with 11,500 tons of kerosene and diesel fuels, enough to keep Malta's stoves and Spitfires going till December. If OHIO does not hadn't reach Malta, the island would have been forced to surrender.
HMS Nelson was one of over 5,000 ships took part in Operation Neptune, the Normandy landing. Six battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, over 4,000 landing craft, 1,000 blockships and coasters, 224 merchantmen plus numerous smaller ships participated. Losses to the enemy amounted to less than one percent of overall tonnage.
After the war against Japan ended on 15 August the main activity for Allied forces was to accept the Japanese surrender in the numerous areas where they had been in control. In many cases there was still the risk of continued resistance, particularly in Malaya. On 28 August a British Task Group under Vice Adm. Walker in NELSON, with HMS CEYLON, two escort carriers, three destroyers and two LSI`s arrived in Penang the next day. On 2 September the Japanese forces in Penang surrendered on board NELSON.
On 9 September Operation Zipper, the recapture of Malaya, was put into effect, but without any air or sea bombardment. Over 100,000 troops landed, escorted by NELSON, and many other RN warships. It was as well that no enemy resistance had to be coped with because conditions on the beaches were described as "chaotic".
After a brief time as a training ship, Nelson was de-commissioned at Portsmouth in 1947. Two years later, she was sold for scrap. As she lay in the Firth of Forth she was used for target practice by the Fleet Air Arm. They dropped their bombs on a deserted, silent hulk. By 1950, the shipbreakers work complete. HMS Nelson was only a memory. Read a more complete History of HMS Nelson, the primary source of this article.