Allied Warships

HMS York (90)

Heavy cruiser of the York class


HMS York before the war

NavyThe Royal Navy
TypeHeavy cruiser
ClassYork 
Pennant90 
Built byPalmers Shipbuilding & Iron Co. Ltd. (Jarrow-on-Tyne, U.K.) 
Ordered21 Oct 1926 
Laid down16 May 1927 
Launched17 Jul 1928 
Commissioned1 May 1930 
Lost26 Mar 1941 
History

HMS York (Capt. Reginald Henry Portal, DSC, RN) was badly damaged on 26 March 1941 by 2 Italian explosive motor boats in a dawn attack at Suda Bay, north Crete. The motorboats, each packed with 300-kg (667 lb) charges in the bows, were piloted by MMI Lt. Cabrini and Tedeschi, impacted her amidship, flooding both boiler rooms and one engine room, causing her to settle on the bottom in shallow water.

The British submarine HMS Rover was dispatched from Alexandria to supply electrical power, but on 24 April the submarine was severely damaged by an air attack and the decision was taken to abandon any attempt at salvage. Wrecked by demolition charges on 22 May 1941, scrapped in loco 1952.

 

Commands listed for HMS York (90)

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CommanderFromTo
1Capt. Reginald Henry Portal, DSC, RN10 Jul 193922 May 1941

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Notable events involving York include:


1937

HMS York entering New York harbour around 1937 / 1938.

Photograph with thanks to William Bell whose father Chief Petty Officer Thomas Bell served aboard HMS York at that time. (1)

1 Oct 1939

1 October 1939, an enemy raider reported in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean.
The chase of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee

Movements of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee 21 August 1939 – 13 December 1939.

Before the Second World War had started, on 21 August 1939, the German ‘pocked battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee departed Wilhelmshaven bound for the South Atlantic. On 1 September the Admiral Graf Spee was off the Canary Islands where she made rendes-vous with the supply ship Altmark and supplies were transferred.

On 11 September another rendes-vous was made with the Altmark in the South Atlantic. The Admiral Graf Spee had launched her Arado floatplane to scout in the area as supplies were transferred. The aircraft spotted the British heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN). The German ships then immediately parted company and cleared the area at high speed. Two days later, on the 13th, the ships again met and fueling was completed. The Admiral Graf Spee was still under orders to remain unseen.

On 20 September 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee and Altmark met again to fuel. On the 26th the Admiral Graf Spee was ordered to start raiding the British trade lanes. She then proceeded towards the Pernambuco area.

On 30 September 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee found her first victim, the British merchant vessel Clement (5050 GRT, built 1934) that was en-route from New York, U.S.A. to Bahia, Brasil. She then sank the ship in position 09°05’S, 34°05’W. The Admiral Graf Spee then proceeded eastwards and found three more victims between 5 and 10 October. On the 5th she captured the British merchant Newton Beech (4644 GRT, built 1925) in position 09°35’S, 06°30’W. This ship was en-route from Capetown to the U.K. via Freetown. On the 7th she sank the British merchant Ashlea (4222 GRT, built 1929) in position 09°52’S, 03°28’W. This ship was en-route from Durban to Falmouth. The crew of the Ashlea was transferred to the Newton Beech. The next day both crew were transferred to the Admiral Graf Spee and the Newton Beech was scuttled. On 10 October the Admiral Graf Spee captured the British merchant Huntsman (8196 GRT, built 1921) in position 08°30’S, 05°15’W. This ship was en-route from Calcutta to the U.K. On 15 October 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee met the Altmark again to receive supplies and fuel. On the 17th the crew of the Huntsman was transferred to the Altmark and the ship was scuttled in approximate position 16°S, 17°W. The next day the crews of the Newton Beech and Ashlea were also transferred to the Altmark and the German ships then parted company.

On 22 October 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her next victim, the British merchant Trevanion (5299 GRT, built 1937) which was en-route from Port Pirie (Australia) to Swansea. This ship was sunk in position 19°40’S, 04°02’E. On 28 October 1939, near Tristan da Cunha, the Admiral Graf Spee once more refuelled from the Altmark. The Admiral Graf Spee then set course for the Indian Ocean.

On 15 November 1939 she sank the small British tanker Africa Shell (706 GRT, built 1939) in position 24°45’S, 35°00’E. This ship was in ballast and en-route from Quelimane (Portugese East Africa now called Mozambique) to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo, also in Portugese East Africa / Mozambique). Next day the Admiral Graf Spee stopped the Dutch merchant Mapia (7188 GRT, built 1923) but had to let her go as she was a neutral ship. The Admiral Graf Spee then set course to return to the South Atlantic where she met once more with the Altmark on 27 November 1939 and the next day she fuelled from her about 300 miles from Tristan da Cunha.

On 2 December 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her largest victim, the British merchant Doric Star (10086 GRT, built 1921),in position 19°15’S, 05°05’E. This ship was en-route from Auckland, New Zealand to the U.K. The next morning the Admiral Graf Spee sank the British merchant Tairoa (7983 GRT, built 1920) in position 19°40’S, 04°02’E. This ship was en-route from Brisbane, Australia to London. On 6 December 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee refuelled once more from the Altmark. She then set course to the River Plate area where the British merchant traffic was the thickest. She was to sink more ships there and disrupt British shipping movements in that area before returning to Germany.

On 7 December 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee sank what was to be her last victim, the British merchant Streonshalh (3895 GRT, built 1928) in position 25°01’S, 27°50’W. This ship was en-route from Montevideo to Freetown and then onwards to the U.K.

Then in the morning of 13 December 1939, her smoke was sighted by three cruisers from the South America Division. More on this in the article ‘The Battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939’.

British Dispositions in the South Atlantic / South America area

Shortly before the outbreak of the war the South America Division of the America and West Indies Station was transferred to the newly formed South Atlantic Station. The South America Division at that moment consisted of the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (Capt. F.S. Bell, RN, flying the flag of Commodore H.H. Harwood, OBE, RN) and the light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN). In late August 1939 HMS Exeter was at Devonport with her crew on foreign leave when she was recalled to South American waters. On 25 August 1939 she sailed from Devonport. HMS Exeter arrived at Freetown on 1 September 1939. Commodore Harwood then met the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic Station, Vice-Admiral G. D’Oyly Lyon, CB, RN. Later the same day HMS Exeter sailed for Rio de Janeiro.

Meanwhile four destroyers from the 4th Destroyer Division, Mediterranean Fleet, the HMS Hotspur (Cdr. H.F.H. Layman, RN), HMS Havock (Lt.Cdr. R.E. Courage, RN), HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicholson, RN) and HMS Hunter (Lt.Cdr. L. de Villiers, RN) had left Gibraltar on 31 August 1939 for Freetown.

HMS Ajax was already on station off the coast of South America. Shortly after noon on 3 September she intercepted the German merchant vessel Olinda (4576 GRT, built 1927) in position 34°58’S, 53°32’W. This ship was en-route from Montivideo to Germany. As HMS Ajax had no prize crew available the ship was sunk by gunfire a few hours later. In the afternoon of the next day, the 4th, HMS Ajax intercepted another German ship, the Carl Fritzen (6594 GRT, built 1920) in position 33°22’S, 48°50’W. This ship was en-route from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires. This ship was also sunk with gunfire.

On 5 September two of the destroyers from the 4th Destroyer Division, HMS Hotspur and HMS Havock departed Freetown to join the South America Division. They were ordered to examine Trinidade Island on the way. On 8 September 1939 the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) departed Freetown to join the South America Division as well. This cruiser came from the Home Fleet and had arrived at Freetown on the 7th.

On 7 September 1939, HMS Exeter entered Rio de Janeiro where Commodore Harwood had a meeting with the Brazilian Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs and H.M. Ambassadors to Brazil and Argentine. HMS Exeter departed Rio de Janeiro the next day. Later that day Commodore Harwood was informed by the Admiralty that the German merchant ships General Artigas (11343 GRT, built 1923), Gloria (5896 GRT, built 1917) and Monte Pascoal (13870 GRT, built 1931) were assembling off the Patagonian coast. He decided to move both HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax south, and ordered the Ajax to meet him at 0800/9. They actually made rendezvous at 0700 hours. The Commodore considered it possible that the German merchant ships might embark German reservists and raid the Falkland Islands therefore he decided to sent HMS Ajax there. HMS Exeter proceeded to the Plate area to cover that important area.

On the evening of the 10th, Commodore Harwood was informed that the transportation of German reservists by the three German merchant ships was very unlikely but as it appeared probable that the German ships were converting themselves into armed raiders the Commodore decided to start short distance convoys from the Santos-Rio and Plate areas. He therefore ordered HMS Cumberland to refuel at Rio de Janeiro on her arrival there and to organize and run ‘out’ convoys in that area with HMS Havock as A/S escort. The convoys were to leave at dawn and be protected against submarines and surface raiders until dusk. The ships were then to be dispersed so that they would be far apart by dawn the next day. At the same time the Commodore ordered HMS Hotspur to join him in the Plate area after refuelling at Rio de Janeiro, so that similar convoys could be started from Montevideo. If one of the German ‘pocket battleships’ was to arrive of South America, HMS Cumberland was to abandon the convoy sheme and join HMS Exeter in the Plate area. Also on the 10th, Commodore Harwood was informed by the Admiralty that the German merchant Montevideo (6075 GRT, built 1936) was leaving Rio Grande do Sul for Florianopolis but decided not to intercept her as this would divert HMS Exeter 500 nautical miles from the Plate area.

On the night of 12 September 1939 the Commodore was informed by the British Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that a concentration of German reservists was taking place in southern Argentina with the Falklands as a possible objective. He therefore ordered HMS Ajax to remain in the Falklands till the situation cleared, and the Commodore then proceeded south of the Plate area to be closer to the Falklands himself and yet remain in easy reach of the Plate area. During the next few days HMS Exeter intercepted several British and neutral vessels.

In view of a report that the German merchant vessels Porto Alegré (6105 GRT, built 1936) and Monte Olivia (13750 GRT, built 1925) were leaving Santos on 15 September 1939 Commodore Harwood decided to start the short distance convoys from Montevideo as soon as possible. HMS Cumberland had meanwhile arranged a twelve-hour convoy system from Santos. Ships from Rio de Janeiro for Freetown would sail at dawn on odd numbered days, and ships for the south on even numbered days with HMS Havock as anti-submarine escort and HMS Cumberland in distant support. HMS Cumberland left Rio de Janeiro on 16 September and during the next eight days sighted 15 British and neutral ships while on patrol.

On 17 September 1939, HMS Hotspur joined HMS Exeter in the Plate area. HMS Exeter then made a visit to Montevideo and resumed her patrol off the Plate area on the 20th. Fuelling was done from the oiler RFA Olwen (6470 GRT, built 1917, Master B. Tunnard) in the mouth of the River Plate. Soon after leaving Montevideo on 20 September Commodore Harwood learned from the British Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that the local German authorities were endeavoring to inform German ships at sea that the British merchant Lafonia (1872 GRT, built 1911) was on her way to the Falklands with British reservists for the Falkland Islands defence force. It was also reported that on 17 September an unknown warship had passed Punta Arenas eastwards. In view of these reports and of other pointing out that German merchant ships in southern waters were being outfitted as armed raiders the Commodore ordered HMS Hotsput to escort the Laofona to Port Stanley. As the volume of trade in the Plate area was greater than in the Rio de Janeiro – Santos area, HMS Havock was ordered to proceed southwards to the Plate area.

The first local convoy outward from Montevideo sailed on 22 September 1939. It consisted of the British merchant ships Sussex (11062 GRT, built 1937), Roxby (4252 GRT, built 1923), El Ciervo (5841 GRT, built 1923) in addition to the earlier mentioned Lafonia, and was escorted by HMS Hotspur. HMS Exeter met this convoy during the forenoon and covered it throughout the day. At dusk the merchant ships were dispersed on prearranged courses while HMS Exeter remained within supporting distance and HMS Hotspur escorted the Lafonia to Port Stanley.

On 24 September 1939, Vice-Admiral Lyon (C-in-C, South Atlantic) and Commodore Harwood learned from the Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that ‘according to a reliable source’ arrangements had been made for a number of German ships and a submarine to meet near Ascension on 28 September 1939. HMS Cumberland was ordered to proceed there and HMS Ajax was ordered to leave the Falklands and take up her place in the Rio de Janeiro area. HMS Neptune (Capt. J.A.V. Morse, DSO, RN) was also ordered to proceed to the area off Ascension with the destroyers HMS Hyperion and HMS Hunter which departed Freetown on the 25th. No German ships were however encountered off Ascension and all ships then proceeded to Freetown where they arrived on 2 October 1939 with HMS Cumberland low on fuel.

While HMS Cumberland left the station to search for the German ships, HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax were sweeping of the Plate and Rio de Janeiro – Santos area respectively. On 27 September 1939, HMS Havock escorted a convoy made up of the British merchants Miguel de Larrinaga (5231 GRT, built 1924), Pilar de Larringa (7352 GRT, built 1918) and Sarthe (5271 GRT, built 1920) out of the Plate area. The next day another convoy, made up of the British merchants Adellen (7984 GRT, built 1930), Cressdene (4270 GRT, built 1936), Holmbury (4566 GRT, built 1925), Lord Byron (4118 GRT, built 1934), Ramillies (4553 GRT, built 1927) and Waynegate (4260 GRT, built 1931) left the Plate area escorted by HMS Havock and with cover from HMS Exeter.

At daylight on 29 September 1939 HMS Ajax was off Rio de Janeiro ready to escort ships sailing northward. She sighted none until the early afternoon when she met the Almeda Star (12848 GRT, built 1926) and a few hours later the tanker San Ubaldo (5999 GRT, built 1921). That night several neutral steamers were sighted off Rio de Janeiro and the next day the British La Pampa (4149 GRT, built 1938) was met and escorted during daylight on her way to Santos. So far on the work of the South American Division during September 1939. The ships assigned to Commodore Harwood had been busy patrolling and escorting ships near the focal areas.

A surface raider reported, 1 October 1939.

When a report that the British merchant Clement had been sunk on 30 September 1939 by a surface raider off Pernambuco was received by the Admiralty in the afternoon of October 1st, the C-in-C, South Atlantic was informed that he should retain the 4th Destroyer Division and that his command would be reinforced by the cruisers HMS Norfolk (Capt. A.G.B. Wilson, DSO, RN), HMS Capetown (Capt. T.H. Back, RN), HMS Effingham (Capt. J.M. Howson, RN), HMS Emerald (Capt. A.W.S. Agar, VC, DSO, RN) and HMS Enterprise (Capt. H.J. Egerton, RN). Also the battleships HMS Resolution (Capt. C.H. Knox-Little, RN), HMS Revenge (Capt. E.R. Archer, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN) were to proceed to either Jamaica or Freetown. These dispositions however never materialised being superseded on 5 October 1939 by a more general policy (the institution of hunting groups) which cancelled them.

The institution of hunting groups, 5 October 1939.

On 5 October 1939 the Admiralty formed five hunting groups in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean of sufficient strength to destroy any ‘pocket battleship’ or Hipper-class cruiser. These were;
Force F; area: North America and West Indies.
HMS Berwick (Capt. I.M. Palmer, DSC, RN),
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN),
Force G; area: S.E. coast of South America.
HMS Cumberland,
HMS Exeter
Force H; area: Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
HMS Sussex (Capt. A.R. Hammick, RN),
HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN),
Force I; area: Ceylon.
HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hamill, RN),
HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.S.C. Martin, RN),
HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN),
Force K; area: Pernambuco, Brazil.
HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN),
HMS Ark Royal (Capt. A.J. Power, RN),
Force L; area: Brest, France.
Dunkerque (Capt. J.L. Nagadelle, replaced by Capt. M.J.M. Seguin on 16 October),
Bearn (Capt. M.M.A. Lafargue, replaced by Capt. Y.E. Aubert on 7 October),
Georges Leygues (Capt. R.L. Perot),
Gloire (Capt. F.H.R. de Belot),
Montcalm (Capt. P.J. Ronarc’h),
Force M; area: Dakar, Senegal.
Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury),
Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu),
and Force N; area: West Indies.
Strasbourg (Capt. J.F.E. Bouxin),
HMS Hermes
.

The institution of the hunting groups were not the only measures taken. The battleships HMS Resolution, HMS Revenge and the light cruisers HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise were ordered to proceed to Halifax, Nova Scotia to escort homeward bound convoys. Light cruiser HMS Effingham was to join them later. The battleship HMS Ramillies (Capt. H.T. Baillie-Grohman, DSO, RN) left Gibraltar on 5 October for the same duty but was recalled the next day when the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. I.B.B. Tower, DSC, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (Capt. G. D’Oyly-Hughes, DSO and Bar, DSC, RN) were ordered to leave the Mediterranean and proceed to the Indian Ocean where they formed an addition hunting group, Force J which was to operate in the Socotra area off the entrance to the Gulf of Aden.

Now back to the South Atlantic, on 9 October 1939 the C-in-C, South Atlantic had informed the Admiralty and Commodore Harwood that he intended to co-ordinate the movements of ‘Force G’, ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’. As this would entail long periods of wireless silence in ‘Force G’ he proposed that Commodore Harwood should transfer his flag to HMS Ajax, leaving Capt. Fallowfield of HMS Cumberland in command of Force G. The Admiralty approved of this. Commodore Harwood stated that it was his intention to transfer his flag from HMS Exeter to HMS Ajax in the River Plate area on 27 October. He also stated that the endurance of HMS Exeter was only half the endurance of HMS Cumberland and that this would prove problematic when they were to operate together and he proposed that the Exeter would be relieved by another 10000 ton cruiser but for the moment no suitable cruiser was available to relieve her.

On 12 October 1939 the first of the hunting forces arrived on their station when HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal reached Freetown that morning coming from the U.K. They were soon followed by three more destroyers of the H-class coming from the Mediterranean; HMS Hardy (Capt. B.A. Warburton-Lee, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Hostile (Cdr. J.P. Wright, RN). On 13 October 1939 the cruisers HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire arrived at Simonstown from the Mediterranean and one day later HMS Hermes arrived at Dakar from Plymouth.

The South America Division during the first half of October 1939.

When the news of an enemy raider in the South Atlantic reached the C-in-C at Freetown on 1 October 1939 he immediately suspended sailings from Pernambuco and Natal and he ordered HMS Havock and HMS Hotspur to escort British ships clear of the area. But next morning he cancelled these dispositions and ordered Commodore Harwood to concentrate HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and the two destroyers off Rio de Janeiro. By this time, however, the raider was far away from the South American coast. On 3 October 1939 the Commodore signalled the C-in-C that he intened to concentrate the Exeter and Ajax off Rio and have the Hotspur to cover the Rio – Santos area and keep the Havock off the Plate but upon receiving the orders from the C-in-C to concentrate he ordered to destroyers to join the cruisers after fuelling but not later then 0800 hours on 4 October. Reports that the enemy raider was not a ‘pocket battleship’ however kept coming in and the Commodore decided that he could not leave the heavy traffic in the Plate area without some form of protection and he ordered HMS Havock to return there but when a report coming in from Bahia, Brazil confirmed that the Clement had been sunk by the ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer the Commodore once more ordered HMS Havock to join him. In the end HMS Ajax joined HMS Exeter at 1700/3, HMS Hotspur at 0500/4 and finally HMS Havock at 1300/4.

The Commodore was also informed by the Admiralty that the New Zealand cruiser HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, RN) would join his station coming from the west coast of South America. HMS Cumberland left Freetown at 1900/3 to join the Commodore in the Rio de Janeiro area as well.

Commodore Harwood’s policy against enemy raiders and a new raider report coming on on 5 October 1939.

Commodore Harwood had decided to keep his forces concentrated and as no new raider reports had come in to patrol the Rio de Janeiro area in accordance with the C-in-C, South Atlantic’s order. If he met a ‘pocket battleship’ he intended to shadow it until dusk. He would then close and attack in the dark hours. If, on the other hand, he made contact at night, his destroyers would at once close the enemy’s beam and attack her with torpedoes.

On 5 October 1939, the British merchant Martand (7967 GRT, built 1939) informed HMS Cumberland that a German armed raider had attacked an unknown ship, this unknown ship was in fact the Newton Beech that was attacked about 900 nautical miles away. This information was not acted upon by the Commanding Officer of the Cumberland. The Captain of the Cumberland assumed the raider report would have been intercepted by other ships and passed on to the C-in-C, South Atlantic. He considered it was important to keep radio silence and decided against breaking it. The Admiralty however later was of the opinion that the report should have been passed on to the Commander-in-Chief.

By 5 October 1939, the Exeter, Ajax, Havock and Hotspur were concentrated in the Rio de Janeiro area ready to engage the raider if she came south from the Pernambuco area. HMNZS Achilles was on her way round Cape Horn.

When HMS Ajax visited Rio de Janeiro on 7 October 1939, Commodore Harwood directed her to suggest to the Consular Shipping Advisers there, and at Santos, that, owning to the small volume of shipping leaving these ports, the local convoy systems, which had been instituted on 22 September against armed merchant raiders, should be suspended, and Allied merchant ships be routed independently.

The Commodore intended to meet HMS Cumberland at 1700/8, but at 1600/7 he received a message from the Consular Shipping Adviser at Rio de Janeiro in which he desired an escort for a 13 knot convoy that was to sail at 0430/8 and that had received much local publicity. The Commodore thought that this publicity might draw the enemy raider to the area and he therefore took his entire force back towards Rio de Janeiro and sent HMS Hotspur ahead to make contact with the convoy, while keeping his other ships in support. The convoy consisted of the British merchants Highland Chieftain (14131 GRT, built 1929), Nariva (8723 GRT, built 1920) and the French merchant Alsina (8404 GRT, built 1922).

Meanwhile the Commodore had directed HMS Cumberland to meet him at dawn on October 9th. When the convoy was dispersed at 1800/8 the Exeter and Ajax steered to meet her while the Havock was detached to fuel at Rio de Janeiro. At 2200/8 HMS Ajax was detached. HMS Cumberland made rendezvous with HMS Exeter at 0500/9. They were ordered by the C-in-C, South Atlantic to make a sweep northwards but this could not be carried out as HMS Exeter was short of fuel. The Commodore therefore decided to make a sweep southwards towards the Plate area where HMS Exeter could refuel. He also decided to keep HMS Hotspur with the two cruisers as long as possible.

On 12 October 1939, Rio Grande do Sul reported that the German merchant Rio Grande (6062 GRT, built 1939) was about to sail. The Commodore at once ordered HMS Cumberland to proceed there and intercept. She arrived off Rio Grande do Sul at 1600/13 but on finding it all quiet in the harbour she shaped course for the Plate area at nightfall. Meanwhile the Commodore had ordered HMS Hotspur to fuel at Montevideo when HMS Havock left that port early on the 14th.

about this time RFA Olwen informed the Commodore the the German merchant Bahia Laura (8611 GRT, built 1918) was leaving Montevideo at 1000 next morning and might protest if HMS Havock sailed the same day. Instead, therefore, of entering Montevideo HMS Hotspur at once fueled from the Olwen and then remained out on patrol. The Bahia Laura however, showed no signs of leaving and at 0800/14, HMS Havock put to sea. At 1200 hours HMS Hotspur entered Montevideo. Later that day HMS Exeter and HMS Cumberland fueled from the Olwen in San Borombon Bay at the southern entrance to the Plate estuary. At 1430 hours they were joined by HMS Havock. Commodore Harwood then ordered her to patrol off Montevideo to watch the Bahia Laura. When HMS Exeter finished fueling she immediately put to sea. HMS Cumberland rejoined him next morning at 0700 hours. HMS Havock was then ordered to join the cruisers. On 16 October the commodore learned that the Bahia Laura had sailed at 1015 hours the previous day. By the time the signal reached him the German ship was far out at sea well past his patrol line. But as the whole area was enveloped in dense fog the Commodore decided against trying to catch her.

The South America Division during the second half of October 1939.

Meanwhile Commodore Harwood had informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic on 13 October that as HMS Exeter required certain minor repairs he proposed to proceed to the Falklands on the17th and then return to the Plate area on the 27th. The Commander-in-Chief replied that he preferred that HMS Exeter would stay in the Plate area till the Commodore would transfer his Broad Pendant to HMS Ajax on the 27th. As HMNZS Achilles was due in the Plate area on this day also, she and HMS Cumberland could then operate as ‘Force G’ during the Exeter’s absence. This would mean that there would be no cruiser in the Rio de Janeiro area until HMS Exeter would return from her repairs at the Falklands. The Commodore therefore ordered HMS Havock to sail on 21 October for a four day patrol in the Rio – Santos Area, where HMS Hotspur, which could remain at sea until 2 November, would relieve her. From that date until the relief of HMNZS Achilles there would be no warship in this area. The Commodore therefore asked the Commander-in-Chief to allow ‘Force G’ to operate in that area from 2 to 10 November. When HMS Hotspur joined the Exeter and Cumberland from Montevideo on 17 October the Commodore ordered her to patrol off Rio Grande do Sul to intercept the German ships Rio Grande and Montevideo if they would come out, and sent HMS Havock to patrol inshore with orders to anchor the night clear of the shipping route.

This proved to be the last duty of these two destroyers with the South America Division. On 20 October the Admiralty ordered their transfer to the West Indies. Three days later the Commodore sent them into Buenos Aires to refuel, and as the distance to Trinidad, 4000 miles, was at the limit of their endurance, also obtained permission to refuel them at Pernambuco. They both left Buenos Aires on the 25th and, bidding the Commodore farewell, proceeded northwards. They sailed from Pernambuco on 1 November but on the 3rd HMS Havock was diverted to Freetown with engine trouble. The two remaining destroyers of the 4th Division, HMS Hyperion and HMS Hunter, had left Freetown with convoy SL 6 on 23 October. Off Daker their escort duty was taken over by the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin (Capt. J.M.C. Trolley de Prevaux). The destroyers then fueled at Dakar on the 27th and sailed for Trinidad early on the 28th.

Meanwhile HMS Cumberland had entered Montevideo at 0800/26. At 0900/26 HMNZS Achilles joined HMS Exeter in the Plate area and after fueling from RFA Olwen sailed to meet HMS Cumberland off Lobos the next day and then patrol with her as ‘Force G’ in the Rio – Santos area. The Olwen was now nearly out of fuel and filled up HMS Ajax ,which had arrived from the Rio area on the 26th, with her remaining fuel minus 500 tons for her passage to Trinidad. In the morning of 27 October, Commodore Harwood transferred his Broad Pendant to HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter then parted company to proceed to the Falklands for repairs.

Meanwhile the newly formed ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ were busy on the other side of the South Atlantic. ‘Force H’, made up of HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire had reached the Cape on 13 October. As HMS Cumberland had not passed on the report of the Martland, no news on the raider had reached the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief since October 1st. On 14 October ‘Force H’ sailed to search for her along the Cape – Freetown route as far as the latitude of St. Helena. That day ’Force K’ (HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown) left Freetown with HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero (Cdr. C.F. Tower, MVO, RN) and HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN) to search westwards towards St. Paul Rocks, the direction of their sweep being determined by the complete lack of any further raider information.

Finally a raider report on 22 October 1939, Sweeps by ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’.

The three weeks old ‘mystery’ of the raiders whereabouts was partially solved on 22 October when the British merchant vessel Llanstephan Castle (11293 GRT, built 1914) intercepted a message from an unknown ship ‘Gunned in 16°S, 04°03’E’ at 1400 G.M.T. There was however no immediate confirmation of her report and the Commander-in-Chief ordered ‘Force H’ to sail after dark on the 27th to sail for the latitude of St. Helena. At noon on 31 October this Force was in 15°S, 02°51’E, the north-eastern limit of it’s patrol, when a Walrus aircraft failed to return to HMS Sussex from a reconnaissance flight. It was never found, though the two cruisers spend over three days searching for it. Being short of fuel they then returned to the Cape by the same route they had used outwards.

Sweep by ‘Force K’, 28 October – 6 November 1939.

To cover the northern end of the route from St. Helena onward, HMS Neptune and the destroyers HMS Hardy, HMS Hasty, HMS Hero and HMS Hereward had left Freetown on 28 October. HMS Neptune was to sweep independently from position 03°20’S, 01°10’W and then through 14°30’S, 16°50’W back to Freetown. On 30 October a report from Dakar stated that the German merchant Togo (5042 GRT, built 1938) had left the Congo on 26 October, that the German merchant Pionier (3254 GRT, built 1934) had sailed from Fernando Po (now called Bioko Island) on 28 October and that five German ships had left Lobito (Angola) the same day. When the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers, received this information her detached HMS Hardy and HMS Hasty to sweep north-westward for the Pioneer, while ‘Force K’ and the remaining two destroyers searched for her to the south-westward. Both searches were unsuccessful. Meanwhile a message from Lobito had stated that the five German ships that were stated to have left the harbour were still there. On 5 November the German merchant vessel Uhenfels (7603 GRT, built 1931), that had left Laurenco Marques (now called Maputo, Mozambique) on 16 October was sighted by an aircraft from HMS Ark Royal. Only energetic action from HMS Hereward saved her from being scuttled in position 06°02’N, 17°25’W. She was brought into Freetown on 7 November by HMS Herward, a few hours behind ‘Force K’.

’Force H’ and ‘Force G’, first half of November 1939.

The first half of November was relatively quiet on both sides of the South Atlantic At the start of the month ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ were still on the shipping lane between Sierra Leone and the Cape. On 3 November 1939 the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic that all German capital ships and cruisers were apparently in home waters. It appeared therefore that the pocket battleship, which was still thought to be the Admiral Scheer, had returned home and that the raider reported by the Llangstephan Castle on 22 October was nothing but an armed merchantman. Here was a good opportunity for resting the hunting groups and on 4 November the Admiralty issued orders that ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’ should exchange areas. This exchange would not only give ‘Force G’ an opportunity of resting and refitting at the Cape, but would also provide Commodore Harwood with the hunting group of long endurance that he desired.

The Commander-in-Chief had planned that ‘Force H’ which had returned to the Cape on 7 November would then sweep towards Durban, arriving there on 16 November. However on the 11th they were ordered to sail for patrol in the Atlantic and on the evening of the 17th, while west of St. Helena, exchange patrol areas with ‘Force G’. The exchange of areas however did not take place as ‘Force G’ was delayed due to HMS Exeter being damaged while casting off from the oiler in heavy seas. Before the exchange now could take place it was cancelled.

South America Division, first half of November 1939.

After hoisting Commodore Harwood’s Broad on 27 October the HMS Ajax had swept the Plate focal area. When the Commodore received the signal of the Commander-in-Chief on the 5th regarding the changeover over patrol areas between ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’, he ordered HMS Cumberland to proceed to the Plate at 20 knots to refuel. About this time a message reached him from Buenos Aires that the Argentinian Foreign Minister had drawn attention to cases of fueling in the Plate by HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax. Although the Argentinian Government had no apparent intention of raising the issue he decided to cut down the fuellings in the inshore waters of the Plate as much as possible. He therefore cancelled the fuelling of HMS Exeter, due to take place on 7 November from the oiler RFA Olynthus (6888 GRT, built 1918, Master L.N. Hill), which had relieved RFA Olwen. He ordered HMS Cumberland to fuel at Buenos Aires on 9 November. HMS Exeter which had arrived at the Falklands on 31 October for repairs, sailed again on 4 November to meet up with HMS Cumberland off the Plate on 10 November, but the Commodore ordered her to enter Mar del Plata for a 24-hour visit on the 9th. As this gave her some time at hand, he ordered her to cover the Plate while HMS Ajax visited Buenos Aires from 6 to 8 November during which the Commodore discussed the question of fuelling his ships in the River Plate Estuary with the Argentine naval authorities. During his visit to Buenos Aires, the Commodore discussed the matter of fuelling his ships of English Bank with the Argentinian Minister of Marine and his Chief of Naval Staff they both suggested that he should use San Borombon Bay which was most acceptable. He had in fact been using it for some time.

When HMS Ajax left Buenos Aires on 8 November she patrolled the Plate area. HMS Exeter arrived at Mar del Plata the next day but fuel could not be obtained there. She was ordered to fuel from RFA Olynthus in San Borombon Bay on the 10th and then meet up with HMS Cumberland off Lobos Island at 0600/11. On the 10th HMS Ajax also fueled from RFA Olynthus as did HMS Exeter after her while HMS Ajax was at anchor close by. However weather quickly deteriorated and the Olynthus was forced to cast off, damaging the Exeter in doing so. Besides that she was still 600 tons short of fuel. As she could not reach the Cape without a full supply the sailing of ‘Force G’ to exchange areas with ‘Force H’ was delayed. The Exeter finally finished fuelling on the 13th and sailed with HMS Cumberland for Simonstown. Before the exchange of areas could be effected, however, a raider was reported in the Indian Ocean and the order was cancelled.

Another raider report, 16 November 1939.

On 16 November 1939 the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Simonstown, reported that the small British tanker Africa Shell ( GRT, built ) had been sunk off Lourenco Marques the previous day by a raider identified as a pocket battleship. After the usual conflicting reports from eye-widnesses during the next few days, however, it was doubtful how many raiders there were or whether they were pocket battleships or heavy cruisers.

The presence of an enemy heavy ship in the Mozambique Channel called for new dispositions. When the raider report reached the Admiralty on 17 November they immediately cancelled the exchange of areas between ‘Force G’ an ‘Force H’. ‘Force H’ was ordered to return to the Cape and ‘Force G’ was ordered to return to the east coast of South America. They also ordered the dispatch of ‘Force K’ towards the Cape with instructions to go on to Diego Saurez in Madagascar. That morning a report reached the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic that the German merchant vessels Windhuk (16662 GRT, built 1937) and Adolph Woermann (8577 GRT, built 1922) had left Lobito. He at once ordered ‘Force H’, which was at that moment west of St. Helena in the approximate latitute of Lobito to spend three days searching for them.

Next day, 18 November 1939, ‘Force K’ left Freetown together with HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero and HMS Hostile to sweep west of St. Helena through position 16°30’S, 10°W and thence on to Diego Saurez. The destroyers parted company at 2300/18 to search for the German ships. On 20 November 1939, the Commander-in-Chief ordered ‘Force H’ to return to the Cape of nothing of the German merchant vessels had been sighted. HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire did so on 23 November.

The Adolph Woermann had not escaped. Early on 21 November 1939, the British merchant Waimarama (12843 GRT, built 1938) reported her in position 12°24’S, 03°31’W. At 1127/21, ‘Force K’ (HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown) was in position 05°55’S, 12°26’W, altered course to close, and HMS Neptune, which was still with them, went ahead at high speed. Shortly after 0800/22 she made contact with the Adolf Woermann in position 10°37’S, 05°11’W and went alongside. Despite efforts to save her the German vessel was scuttled and when HMS Neptune returned to Freetown on 25 November 1939 she had 162 German survivors on board.

’Force H’ and ‘Force K’, second half of November 1939.

As the search for the Adolf Woermann had taken ‘Force K’ nearly 200 miles to the eastward, the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers decided to proceed to the Cape by the route east of St. Helena to save fuel. In hindsight this might have saved Altmark for being intercepted as she was waiting for the Admiral Graf Spee in the area ‘Force K’ would have otherwise passed through. On 23 November 1939, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, ordered ‘Force H’ to sail from the Cape the next day and patrol the ‘diverse routes’ as far as 33°E until 28 November.

At the northern end of the South Atlantic station HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero, HMS Hostile, HMS Hasty and the submarine HMS Clyde (Cdr. W.E. Banks, RN) had established a patrol between 22 and 25 November 1939 to intercept escaping German merchant ships or raiders. No ships were however sighted and they were recalled to Freetown on 30 November.

In the meantime the Admiralty had ordered, ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ to conducted a combined patrol on the meridian of 20°E. The two forces met early on 1 December. The plan, according to the Commander-in-Chief, appeared to be a good one in theory but was found unsuitable in practice that on account of local weather conditions. These permitted flying off aircraft from HMS Ark Royal only once in five or six days, so that the patrol could not be extended far enough to the south to intercept a raider bent on evasion. In fact, only once, on 2 December weather was suitable for flying off aircraft.

South America Division, second half of November 1939.

After HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter (‘Force G’) had sailed from San Borombon Bay for Simonstown on 13 November 1939, HMS Ajax patrolled the Plate area and escorted the French Massilia ( GRT, built ) that was bound for Europe from Buenos Aeres with French reservists. After parting from the Massilia she closed Rio Grande do Sul and ascertained that the German merchant vessels Rio Grande and Montevideo were still there. For the next two days she patrolled the normal peace time shipping routes.

When the Admiralty cancelled the exchange of ereas between ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’ on 17 November, Commodore Harwood sent ‘Force G’ to cover Rio de Janeiro. He ordered HMNZS Achilles to fuel off the Olynthus in the Plate area on 22 November and then relieve ‘Force G’ in the Rio area as HMS Exeter would need to refuel in the Plate area again on 26 November. HMS Cumberland was to remain with the Exeter to keep ‘Force G’ together so she could refuel from the Olynthus as well. They were then to patrol the Plate area so that HMS Ajax could visit the Falklands.

On 18 November the Commodore was informed that the German merchant Ussukuma ( GRT, built ) might sail from Bahia Blanca for Montevideo at any time. He at once ordered the Olynthus to watch for her between Manos and Cape San Antonio and took the Ajax south to the same vicinity.

On 22 November 1939 HMNZS Achilles heard the German merchant Lahn (8498 GRT, built 1927) calling Cerrito by wireless, and when HMS Ajax arrived half an hour later a search was carried out. It was insuccessful for both cruisers but both the Lahn and another German merchant the Tacoma (8268 GRT, built 1930) reached Montevideo safely during the forenoon.

HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles then both fuelled from the Olynthus at San Borombon Bay during the next afternoon. The Achilles the sailed for the Rio de Janeiro area. She had orders to move up to Pernambuco and show herself off Cabadello and Bahia as a number of German ships in Pernambuco were reported ready to sail to Cabadello to load cotton for Germany. She was to return at once to the Rio area if any raiders were reported in the South Atlantic.

HMS Ajax left the Plate area on 25 November 1939 and sent up a seaplane to reconnoitre Bahia Blanca. The Ussukuma showed no signs of sailing so HMS Ajax proceeded to the Falklands, arriving there on the 27th. By this time HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter were in urgent need of refits after long periods at sea, and Commodore Harwood ordered the Exeter to proceed to the Falklands forthwith. She arrived at Port Stanley on 29 November 1939 and her defects were immediately taken in hand as far as local resources permitted.

8 December 1939 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Falklands, and thinking the enemy might attempt to avenge the defeat, the Commodore ordered HMS Cumberland to patrol off the Falklands as of 7 December for two days after which she too was to enter Port Stanley for rest and refit.

French Forces at Dakar in November 1939.

During November them most important event at Dakar, where the French were maintaining a number of more or less regular patrols, was the reorganisation of ‘Force X’. On 1 November 1939 the large destroyer L’Audacieux (Cdr. L.M. Clatin) sailed from Dakar to the westward to 26°W and thence south-west to search for the German merchant Togo. She returned to Dakar on 4 November having sighted nothing. That day the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin sailed to sweep round the Cape Verde Islands and then on to St. Paul Rocks. She returned to Dakar on 10 November. The old ‘Force X’, the Strasbourg (Capt. J.F.E. Bouxin), Algerie (Capt. L.H.M. Nouvel de la Fleche) and Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury) sailed on 7 November to sweep west of the Cape Verde Islands. It returned to Dakar on 13 November 1939. Meanwhile French submarines based at Casablanca were maintaining a continuous patrol round the Canary Islands between 25°N and 30°N.

On 18 November a new ‘Force X’ was formed, now made up of the Dupleix and her sister ship Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu) and the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. On 21 November the Strasbourg, Algerie and the destroyers Le Terrible (Cdr. A.E.R. Bonneau) and Le Fantasque (Capt. P.A.B. Still) left Dakar to return to France. The next day the new ‘Force X’ sailed with the destroyers Milan (Cdr. M.A.H. Favier) and Cassard (Cdr. R.A.A. Braxmeyer) to cruiser towards 08°N, 30°W. That day L’Audacieux departed Dakar with a convoy for Casablanca.

On 25 November, the Duguay-Trouin sailed to patrol the parallel of 19°N, between 25° and 30°W. Two days later the British submarine HMS Severn (Lt.Cdr. B.W. Taylor, RN) docked at Dakar. On the 30th the Dupleix and Foch returned from patrol being followed the next day by HMS Hermes and her escorts Milan and Cassard.

Dispositions of South Atlantic Forces at the beginning of December 1939.

At the beginning of December 1939, HMS Ark Royal, still flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, and HMS Renown (‘Force K’), were patrolling the meridian of 20°E, south of the Cape together with HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire (‘Force H’) to intercept the raider reported in the Mozambique Channel on 15 November 1939.

In the north the light cruiser HMS Neptune with the destroyers HMS Hardy, HMS Hero, HMS Hostile and HMS Hasty and the submarine HMS Clyde were returning to Freetown after patrolling between there and Cape San Roque for escaping German merchant ships or raiders. The French cruiers Dupleix and Foch and the British carrier HMS Hermes (‘Force X’) and their two escorting destroyers Milan and Cassard were approaching Dakar. The French cruiser Duguay-Trouin was patrolling the parallel of 19°N, between 25° and 30°W. The British submarine Severn was refitting at Dakar. Across the South Atlantic, Commodore Harwood, in HMS Ajax was at Port Stanley as was HMS Exeter. HMS Cumberland was patrolling of the Plate area and HMNZS Achilles was off Rio de Janeiro.

Forces ‘H’ and ‘K’, 1 – 13 December 1939.

No further reports have been received of the raider which had sunk the Africa Shell off Laurenco Marques on 15 November and it seemed clear that she had either gone further into the Indian Ocean or doubled back into the South Atlantic by going well south of the Cape. On 2 December 1939 the Admiralty ordered ‘Force K’ and ‘Force H’ to their patrol line south of the Cape after refueling, and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic at once ordered them to proceed for the Cape ports to fuel. That day a reconnaissance aircraft of the South African Air Force reported a suspicious ship south of Cape Point at noon. HMS Sussex intercepted her but her crew set her on fire. She proved to be the German merchant Watussi (9521 GRT, built 1928). She was eventually be HMS Renown. Her survivors were taken on board HMS Sussex and were landed at Simonstown.

No news of the missing raider had been coming in since 16 November but then the mistery shrouding her whereabouts was again partially solved. At 1530/2 a raidar signal ‘R.R.R., 19°15’S, 05°05’E, gunned battleship) reached the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. It came from the British merchant Doric Star. As this signal placed the raider in the South Atlantic he immediately ordered to abandon the patrol south of the Cape and ordered ‘Force H’ to cover the trade routes between the Cape and the latitude of St. Helena at 20 knots on completion of fuelling. As it was too late for ‘Force K’ to reach the Freetown-Pernambuco area in time to intercept the rainder if she was to proceed to the North Atlantic he proposed the Admiralty that ‘Force K’, after fuelling should sweep direct from the Cape to position 20°S, 15°W. This was changed at the request of the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers to place his force in a more central position for proceeding to Freetown, to the Falklands or to Rio de Janeiro. At 1030/3 a report reached the Commander-in-Chief that the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer had been in 21°20’S, 03°10’E at 0500 hours, clearly indicating that the raider was moving westwards, clear of the Cape-Sierra Leone trade route. ‘Force H’ left Simonstown at 1700 that afternoon and ‘Force K’ sailed from Capetown at 0915/4.

The Commander-in-Chief estimated that if the enemy was proceeding northwards to the North Atlantic she would cross the Freetown-Pernambuco line between 9 and 10 December. He therefore arranged that ‘Force X’ should take HMS Neptune and her destroyers under her orders and patrol the parallel of 3°N between 31° and 38°W from 10 to 13 December. ‘Force K’ would meet HMS Neptune and the destroyers on the 14th and then return with them to Freetown to refuel. The destroyers of the 3rd Division of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (HMS Hardy, HMS Hostile and HMS Hero) left Freetown on 6 December with the oiler RFA Cherryleaf ( GRT, built ). They had orders to meet the Dupleix, Foch, HMS Hermes and their escorting destroyers Milan and Cassard and HMS Neptune in position 03°N, 31°W on 10 December. On 7 December ‘Force X’ left Dakar for the rendez-vous. That day the submarine HMS Clyde left Freetown to patrol between 03°N, 23°W and 03°N, 28°W and thence to 05°15’N, 23°W between 9 (PM) and 13 (AM) December.

On the evening of 8 December 1939 the German merchant ship Adolf Leonhardt (2989 GRT, built 1925) sailed from Lobito for South America. ‘Force H’ which was by then between St. Helena and the west coast of Africa, was at once ordered to intercept her. The Walrus from HMS Shropshire made contact at 0952 hours next morning and alighted alongside in position 13°S, 11°44’E. At 1250 hours HMS Shropshire arrived at that position but the German ship was scuttled by her crew and could not be saved. ‘Force H’ then returned to the Cape to refuel where they arrived on 14 December.

At 0800/11 the submarine HMS Severn left Freetown for Port Stanley. She was to protect the whaling industry in South Georgio and was to intercept hostile raiders or supply ships. The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, which arrived at Simonstown from Colombo on the 9th to finally relieve HMS Exeter in the South America Division left Simonstown on 13 December for Port Stanley. She was to call at Tristan da Cunha on the way. On that day, 13 December 1939, was fought the action between the British South America Division and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, known as the Battle of the River Plate.

The South America Division, 1 to 13 December 1939.

At the beginning of December 1939, HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter were at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. HMS Cumberland was off the River Plate and HMNZS Achilles was patrolling the Rio de Janeiro area. On 2 December HMS Ajax left Port Stanley for the Plate area. That evening the Commodore learned that the Doric Star had been sunk by a raider to the south-east of St. Helena. Two days later the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic informed him that HMS Dorsetshire would arrive at Port Stanley on 23 December to relieve HMS Exeter which was then to proceed to Simonstown for a much needed refit.

Early on 5 December the British Naval Attaché at Buenos Aires reported that the German merchant Ussukuma had left Bahia Blanca at 1900 hours the previous evening. The Commodore immediately ordered HMS Cumberland which was on the way south to the Falkland Islands to search for her. Meanwhile HMS Ajax turned south and closed the Argentinian coast in case the Ussukuma, which was known to be short of fuel, should attempt to reach Montevideo inside territorial waters. At 1910/5, HMS Ajax sighted her smoke to the north-north-east but the Germans managed to scuttle their ship and despite the efforts to save her she sank during the night. At 0615/6, HMS Cumberland came up and embarked the German survivors and made off for the Falklands. HMS Ajax then refuelled at San Borombon Bay from the Olynthus.

About the same time the Brazilian authorities asked that HMNZS Achilles should not refuel in any Brazilian port at an interval less then three months. The Commodore, therefore, ordered her to return south and refuel at Montevideo on 8 December. HMNZS Achilles then joined HMS Ajax at 1000/10 in position 35°11’S, 51°13’W, 230 miles west of English Bank. At 0600/12 they were joined by HMS Exeter in position 36°54’S, 53°39’W.

Ever since the beginning of the war Commodore Harwood’s cruisers had worked off the east coast of South America either single or in pairs. The concentration of these three cruisers off the River Plate on 12 December 1939 was, however, no mere matter of chance.

Concentration of British Force in the River Plate area, 12 December 1939.

When a pocket battleship was located in position 19°15’S, 05°05’E on 2 December by the sinking of the Doris Star, her position was over 3000 miles from any of the South America focal areas. The Commodore however recognised that her next objective might be the valuable shipping off the east coast of South America. He estimated that at a cruising speed of 15 knots the enemy could reach the Rio area on 12 December the Plate area on 13 December and the Falklands on 14 December. As the Plate area was by far the most important of these three focal areas he decided to concentrate all his available ships off the Plate on 12 December.

The three cruisers then proceeded together towards position 32°N, 47°W. That evening the Commodore informed the Captains of his cruisers that it was intention that if they met a pocket battleship to attack immediately, by day or by night. By they they would act as two units, the light cruisers were to operate together and HMS Exeter was to operate diverged to permit flank marking. By night the ships were to remain in company in open order.

At 0614/13 HMS Ajax sighted smoke bearing 324° in position 34°28’S, 49°05’W and Commodore Harwood then ordered HMS Exeter to investigate it.

What then followed can be read in the article ‘The battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939’ which can be found on the pages of HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and HMNZS Achilles. (2)

3 Mar 1940
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN) intercepts the German passenger ship Arucas (3359 GRT, built 1927) of the south-east coast of Iceland in position 63°08'N, 14°42'W. However before the German ship can be captured she is scuttled by her own crew.

Photos with thanks to Bill Murray.

16 Apr 1940
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Effingham (Capt. J.M. Howson, RN), HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, RN) and HMS Ashanti (Cdr. W.G. Davis, RN) departed Scapa Flow for Norwegian waters.

Late on the same day they were ordered to proceed to Aandalsnes to prevent the Germans from landing troops there as 5 German destroyers were reported by aircraft.

They found nothing and were later ordered to proceed northwards to provide cover for the landings at Namsen Fjord. (3)

24 Apr 1940
HMS Manchester (Capt. H.A. Packer, RN) departed Rosyth loaded with troops for Molde. Passage north was made with HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN) and HMS Birmingham (Capt. A.C.G. Madden, RN) that were also loaded with troops but these were to be landed at Aandalsnes. Escort was provided by the destroyers HMS Acheron (Lt.Cdr. R.W.F. Northcott, RN), HMS Arrow (Cdr. H.W. Williams, RN) and HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN). (4)

30 Apr 1940
Evacuated Franco-British troops from Namsos, Norway, with HMS Devonshire, French cruiser Montcalm and 3 French transports. On conclusion of the Norwegian Campaign went to the Mediterranean and joined the 3rd Cruiser Sqn.

21 Jun 1940
HMS Manchester (Capt. H.A. Packer, RN), HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Sheffield (Capt. C.A.A. Larcom, RN) and HMS Birmingham (Capt. A.C.G. Madden, RN) departed Rosyth escorted by the destroyer HMS Gallant (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, RN) to rendez-vous with HMS Sussex (Capt A.R. Hammick, RN) and HMS Newcastle (Capt. J. Figgins, RN) at sea and then to join HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN), HMS Repulse (Capt. Sir W.G. Tennant, CB, MVO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, RN), HMS Zulu (Cdr. J.S. Crawford, RN), HMS Maori (Cdr. H.T. Armstrong, RN), HMS Mashona (Cdr. W.H. Selby, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Escort (Lt.Cdr. J. Bostock, RN) and HMS Diana (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Le Geyt, RN).

The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst had been sighted leaving Trondheim southwards escorted by four destroyers and four torpedo-boats. The Germans however retreated inside the fjords and the British ships were recalled. (5)

8 Oct 1940
Operation MB-6;

A British convoy with the merchants
Memnon (7506 GRT),
Lanarkshire (11275 GRT),
Clan Macauley (10492 GRT) and
Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT)
left Alexandria for Malta on 8 October 1940. This convoy was escorted by the British Anti-Aircraft cruisers
HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN),
HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN)
and the Australian destroyers
HMS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN),
HMS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN),
HMS Waterhen (Lt.Cdr. J.H. Swain, RAN)
and the British destroyer
HMS Wryneck (Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN).

Cover was provided by the Mediterranean Fleet (Admiral Cunningham) with the British battleships
HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN),
HMS Valiant (Capt. H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN),
HMS Malaya (Capt. A.F.E. Palliser, DSC, RN),
HMS Ramillies (Capt. H.T. Baillie-Grohman, OBE, DSO, RN),
the British aircraft carriers
HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, DSC, RN),
HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN),
the British heavy cruiser
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN),
the British light cruisers
HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN),
HMS Liverpool (Capt. P.A. Read, RN),
HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN),
HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN),
the Australian light cruiser
HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN)
escorted by the British destroyers
HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN),
HMS Havock (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC, RN),
HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN),
HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN),
HMS Hasty, (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN),
HMS Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC, RN),
HMS Imperial (Lt.Cdr. C.A.deW. Kitcat, RN),
HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN),
HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN),
HMS Juno (Cdr. W.E. Wilson, RN),
HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN),
HMS Dainty (Cdr. M.S. Thomas, DSO, RN),
HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN),
HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN)
and the Australian destroyers
HMAS Vampire (Cdr. J.A. Walsh, RAN) and
HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades RAN).

The convoy was not spotted and arrived safe at Malta on 11 October. The only damage sustained was to the destroyer HMS Imperial that was mined off Malta and was out of action for over 6 months.

While on the return trip the Mediterranean Fleet was sighted by an Italian aircraft. The Italian Navy tried to intercept them in the Ionian Sea. In the night of 11/12 October the first Italian torpedo boat flotilla with Airone, Alcione and Ariel attacked HMS Ajax. The attack failed and Ajax sank Airone and Ariel, Alcione escaped. A little while later the Italian 11th destroyer flotilla, with Artigliere, Aviere, Camicia Nera and Geniere arrived at the scene. They were surprised by the radar-directed gunfire from HMS Ajax. Artigliere was heavily damaged and Aviere was slightly damaged. Camicia Nere tried to tow Artigliere away but she was sighted by a British Sunderland aircraft that homed in 3 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious. However, the torpedoed they fired didn't hit the Italian ships. Later the British heavy cruiser HMS York arrived at the scene. Camicia Nera quickly slipped the towing line and sped off. After her crew had left the ship Artiglire was sunk by York.

While the Mediterranean Fleet was still on the return trip aircraft from HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle attacked Leros and in the evening of the 14th the British light cruiser HMS Liverpool while south-east of Crete was hit in the bow by a torpedo from an Italian aircraft. The cruiser was heavily damaged and was repaired at the Mare Island Navy Yard in the USA. HMS Liverpool was not operational again until January 1942.

6 Jan 1941

Operations Excess and Operation M.C. 4.

Convoy operations in the Mediterranean.

Timespan; 6 January to 18 January 1941.

The principal object of this operation was the passage of a convoy of four ships (five were intended, see below) from Gibraltar to Malta and Piraeus (Operation Excess). One of these was to unload her stores at Malta, the other three had supplies on board for the Greek army.

Three subsidiary convoys (Operation M.C. 4) were to be run between Malta and Egypt. These consisted of two fast ships from Malta to Alexandria (convoy M.E. 5½), two fast ships from Alexandria to Malta (convoy M.W. 5½) and six slow ships from Malta to Port Said and Alexandria (convoy M.E. 6).

Composition of the convoys and their escort.

The ‘Excess convoy from Gibraltar’ was made up of one ship that was to proceed with stores to Malta. This was the Essex (11063 GRT, built 1936). The three other ships were to proceed with stores to Piraeus, these were the Clan Cumming (7264 GRT, built 1938), Clan Macdonald (9653 GRT, built 1939) and Empire Song (9228 GRT, built 1940). It had the light cruiser HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) and the destroyers HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN), HMS Hereward (Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN) and HMS Duncan (A/Capt. A.D.B. James, RN) as close escort (‘Force F’). A fifth merchant ship was to have been part of this convoy and was to hve proceeded to Malta with stores and troops. However this ship, the Northern Prince (10917 GRT, built 1929) grounded at Gibraltar and was not able to join the convoy. The about four-hundred troops now boarded HMS Bonaventure for passage to Malta.

The most dangerous part of the ‘Excess convoy’ would be the part between Sardinia and Malta. For a stretch of about 400 nautical miles ships were exposed to enemy air attack from bases in Sardinia and Sicily less then 150 nautical miles away from the convoy’s track. Also submarines and surface torpedo craft were a constant menace. An attack by large enemy surface forces was thought less likely although this was potentially more dangerous.

’Convoy M.W.5 ½ from Alexandria to Malta’ made the passage westwards at the same time as the Mediterranean fleet moved westwards (see below). This convoy was made up of HMS Breconshire (9776 GRT, built 1939) and Clan Macauley (10492 GRT, built 1936). These ships were escorted by HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN), HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN) and HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr .P.A. Cartwright, RN).

’Convoy’s M.E. 5½ and M.E. 6’ that sailed from Malta to Egypt will be dealth with later on.

Cover forces for these convoy’s

At Gibraltar there was ‘Force H’ which had the following ships available for the operation.
Battlecruiser HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN and flagship of Vice-Admiral J.F. Sommerville, RN, KCB, DSO, RN), battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. A.F.E. Palliser, DSC, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN), light cruiser HMS Sheffield (Capt. C.A.A. Larcom, RN) and the destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Firedrake (Lt.Cdr. S.H. Norris, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Fortune (Lt.Cdr. E.N. Sinclair, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. G.H. Peters, DSC, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN) and HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN).

’Force H’ was to provide cover for the ‘Excess convoy’ from Gibraltar to the Sicilian narrows.

South-south-west of Sardina ‘Force H’ was to be reinforced by ‘Force B’ which came from the eastern Mediterranean and was made up of the light cruisers HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E. de F. Renouf, CVO, RN), HMS Southampton (Capt. B.C.B. Brooke, RN) and the destroyer HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicholson, DSO and Bar, RN).

Further cover was to be provided by ‘Force A’, this was the Mediterranean fleet based at Alexandria. This force was made up of the following warships.
Battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, KCB, DSO, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN) and the destroyers HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Juno (Cdr. St.J.R.J. Thyrwhitt, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall-A’Deane, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Gallant (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, RN) and HMS Dainty (Cdr. M.S. Thomas, DSO, RN).

During the passage of the ‘Excess convoy’ three submarines were stationed off Sardinia. HMS Pandora off the east coast and HMS Triumph and HMS Upholder were stationed to the south of Sardinia.

Chronology of events

The actual ‘Excess convoy’ and it’s escort (Force B) departed Gibraltar before dark in the evening of January 6th. Course was set to the west as if to proceed into the Atlantic. This was done to deceive enemy spies based in Spain. They turned back in the night after moonset and passes Europa Point well before daylight next morning. At dawn the next morning HMS Bonaventure parted company with the convoy to make rendez-vous with ‘Force H’ which departed Gibraltar around that time. All that day the ‘Excess convoy’ followed the Spanish coast so as if to make for a Spanish port. During the night of 7/8 January the convoy crossed over towards the coast of North-Africa and steered eastwards towards the Sicilian narrows while keeping about 30 nautical miles from the shore of North Africa. ‘Force H’ overtook the convoy during the night and was now stationed to the north-east of it to shield it from Italian air attack. If Italian naval units were reported the plan was that he would join the convoy.

In the morning of the 8th, HMS Bonaventure rejoined the actual ‘Excess convoy’. Late in the afternoon of the 8th HMS Malaya escorted by HMS Firedrake and HMS Jaguar parted company with ‘Force H’ and joined the ‘Excess convoy’ very early in the evening.

At dawn on the 9th ‘Force H’ was ahead of the convoy. At 0500/9, while in position 37°45’N, 07°15’E, HMS Ark Royal flew off five Swordfish aircraft for Malta which was still some 350 nautical miles away. All of which arrived safely. ‘Force H’ then turned back and joined the ‘Excess convoy’ at 0900/9 about 120 nautical miles south-west of Sardinia. HMS Ark Royal meanwhile had launched several aircraft, one of her reconnaissance aircraft reported at 0918 hours that it had sighted two enemy cruisers and two destroyers but this soon turned out to be Rear-Admiral Renouf’s ‘Force B’ which was to join the Excess convoy for the passage through the Sicilian narrows. They joined the convoy about one hour later.

’Force B’ had departed Alexandria in the morning of the 6th with troop for Malta on board. They had arrived at Malta in the morning of the 8th and after disembarking the troops sailed early in the afternoon. At 0900/9 ‘Force B’ was sighted by an Italian reconnaissance aircraft. This aircraft soon made off when being fired at. One hour later another Italian reconnaissance aircraft was however sighted. It was engaged by the fighter patrol from HMS Ark Royal but managed to escape. At 1320 hours, while in position 37°38’N, 08°31’E, Italian bombers arrived on the scene and made their attack on the convoy.

The convoy of the four merchant ships was steaming in two columns in line ahead, 1500 yards apart. HMS Gloucester and HMS Malaya were leading the columns while HMS Bonaventure and HMS Southampton were the sternmost ships. The seven destroyers were placed as a screen ahead of the convoy. ‘Force H’, with HMS Renown, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Sheffield and their five escorting destroyers were on the convoy’s port quarter, operating in close support. The mean line of advance was 088° and the ships were zigzagging at 14 knots.

The enemy consisted of ten Savoia bombers. HMS Sheffield detected them on her radar about 43 nautical miles off, this was the maximum range of her radar equipment. They were fine on the starboard bow and came into sight fourteen minutes later, flying down the starboard side of the convoy out of range of the AA guns at a eight of about 11000 feet. At 1346 hours, when they were broad on the bow, they started their attack. They came in from 145°, which was the bearing of the sun. All the ships opened up a very heavy fire and the enemy was diverted of their course. Eight of the aircraft were seen to drop bombs, some of which fell close to HMS Gloucester and HMS Malaya but no damage was caused. The other two bombers were seen to turn away during their approach. Both were shot down by a Fulmar fighter from HMS Ark Royal. Three men from their crews were picked up from the water. Another bombers is thought to have been shot down by HMS Bonaventure. The other seven are thought to have got away.

Nothing more happened during the afternoon of the 9th. Reconnaissance showed that the Italian fleet was not at sea so at dusk, while in position 37°42’N, 09°53’E, some 30 nautical miles west of the Sicilian narrows and north of Bizerta, Tunisia, ‘Force H’ parted company with the ‘Excess convoy’ and set course to return to Gibraltar. Rear-Admiral Renouf in HMS Gloucester meanwhile continued eastwards with the convoy with his three cruisers and five destroyers of forces ‘B’ and ‘F’.

They had a quiet night, passing Pantelleria after moonset. They remained in deep water to reduce the danger of mines. Next morning, at dawn on the 10th at 0720 hours, they encountered two Italian torpedo boats in position 36°30’N, 12°10’E. HMS Jaguar, the port wing destroyer in the screen, and HMS Bonaventure, stationed astern of the convoy columns, sighted the enemy at the same time. Initially thinking they might be destroyers from the Mediterranean Fleet, which the convoy was due to meet. British ships reported the contact by signal to Rear-Admiral Renouf. HMS Bonaventure challenged the ‘strangers’ and fired a star shell and then turned to engage the enemy working up to full speed. Rear-Admiral Renouf meanwhile turned away with the bulk of the convoy. HMS Southampton, HMS Jaguar and HMS Hereward hauled out from their stations on the engaged side of the convoy and made for the enemy. HMS Bonaventure meanwhile was engaging the right-hand ship of the pair. When the other three ships arrived on the scene Bonaventure shifted her fire to the other enemy ship which came towards her at full speed to attack. The enemy fired her torpedoes which HMS Bonaventure avoided. The four British ships now quickly stopped the enemy but she did not sink. In the end HMS Hereward torpedoed the damaged Italian torpedo boat some 40 minutes later. The other Italian torpedo-boat meanwhile had disappeared. [The Italian ships were the torpedo-boats Vega, which was sunk, and the Circe. HMS Boneventure had sustained some superficial damage from splinters during the action.

Enemy air attacks during 10 January.

At 0800/10, Admiral Cunningham arrived on the scene with ‘Force A’ before the fight was finished. ‘Force A’ turned to the south-east in the wake of the ‘Excess convoy around 0830 hours. While doing so, the destroyer HMS Gallant hit a mine and had her bow blown off. [This was a mine from the Italian minefield ‘7 AN’]. HMS Mohawk took the stricken destroyer in tow towards Malta escorted by HMS Bonaventure and HMS Griffin. They were later joined by HMS Gloucester and HMS Southampton. While HMS Mohawk was passing the towline two Italian torpedo planes attacked but they had to drop their torpedoes from long range and they missed. Between 1130 and 1800 hours, as the tow crept along at five or six knots, with their escort zig-zagging at 20 knots, they were attacked or threatened by aircraft ten times. Nearly all German high level bombers, which came in ones, twos or threes. The enemy dropped bombs in five out of the ten attempts but no hits were obtained. At 1300 hours German dive bombers arrived an obtained a near miss on HMS Southampton causing some minor damage.

At 0500/11, when about 15 nautical miles from Malta, all was going well and Rear-Admiral Renouf made off with for Suda Bay, Crete with HMS Gloucester, HMS Southampton and HMS Diamond. This last ship had joined the evening before. HMS Gallant, still being towed by HMS Mohawk and escorted by HMS Bonaventure and HMS Griffin arrived at Malta in the forenoon. At Malta, HMS Bonaventure disembarked the soldiers she had on board. [HMS Gallant was further damaged by bombs while at Malta and was eventually found to be beyond economical repair and was cannibalized for spares.]

Meanwhile, Admiral Cunningham in ‘Force A’ had a similar experience on a larger scale. He had sailed from Alexandria on the 7th and enemy aircraft spotted his force already on the same day. During the afternoon of the 10th heavy dive bombing attacks were pressed home by the emeny with skill and determination. The main target was HMS Illustrious. Had the enemy attacked the convoy itself the four transports would most likely all have been sunk, instead the Ilustrious was disabled and she would be out of action of many months.

At noon on the 10th the transports were steering south-eastward, zigzagging at 14 to 15 knots with an escort of three destroyers. At 1320 hours, HMS Calcutta joined them. HMS Warspite, HMS Illustrious and HMS Valiant were steaming in line ahead on the convoy’s starboard quarter, course 110° and zigzagging at 17 to 18 knots. These ships were screened by seven destroyers. The weather was clear, with high cloud.

The fleet was in position 35°59’N, 13°13’E some 55 nautical miles west of Malta when the battle began with an air attack by two Savoia torpedo planes which were detected six nautical miles away on the starboard beam at 1220 hours. They came in at a steady level, 150 feet above the water and dropped their torpedoes about 2500 yards from the battleships. They were sighted a minute before firing and the ships received them with a barrage from long- and short-range guns, altering course to avoid the torpedoes, which passed astern of the rearmost ship HMS Valiant. Five Fulmar fighters from the Illustrious had been patrolling above the fleet. One had returned before the attack being damaged while assisting to destroy a shadower some time before the attack. The other four aircraft chased the torpedo aircraft all the way to Linosa Island, which was about 20 miles to the westward. They claimed to have damaged both the enemy machines.

Directly after this attack, while the ships were reforming the line, a strong force of aircraft were reported at 1235 hours, coming from the northward some 30 miles away. The Fulmars, of course, were then a long way off, flying low and with little ammunition remaining. Actually two were even out of ammunition. They were ordered to return and the Illustrious sent up four fresh fighters as well as reliefs for the anti-submarine patrol. This meant a turn of 100° to starboard into the wind to fly off these aircraft. The enemy aircraft came into sight in the middle of this operation which lasted about four minutes. All the ships opened fire. The fleet had just got back to the proper course, 110°, and the Admiral had made the signal to assume loose formation, when the new attack began. The enemy had assembled astern of their target ‘in two very loose and flexible formations’ at a height of 12000 feet.

They were Junkers dive bombers, perhaps as many as 36, of which 18 to 24 attacked HMS Illustrious at 1240 hours, while a dozen attacked the battleships and the destroyer screen. They came down in flights of three on different bearings astern and on either beam, to release their bombs at heights from 1500 to 800 feet, ‘a very severe and brilliantly executed dive-bombing attack’ says Captain Boyd of the Illustrious. The ships altered course continually, and beginning with long-range controlled fire during the approach, shifted to barrage fire as the enemy dived for attack. The ships shot down at least three machines, while the eight Fulmar fighters that were up shot down five more, at the coast of one British machine. Even the two Fulmars that were out of ammo made dummy attacks and forced two Germans to turn away. But, as Captain Boyd pointed out ‘ at least twelve fighters in the air would have been required to make any impression on the enemy, and double that number to keep them off’.

HMS Illustrious was seriously damaged. She was hit six times, mostly with armour-piercing bombs of 1100 pounds. They wrecked the flight deck, destroyed nine aircraft on board and put half the 4.5” guns out of action, and did other damage, besides setting the ship on fire fore and aft and killing and wounding many of the ship’s company (13 officers and 113 ratings killed and 7 officers and 84 ratings injured) . The Warspite too, narrowly escaped serious injury, but got away with a split hawsepipe and a damaged anchor.

As HMS Illustrious was now useless as a carrier and likely to become a drag on the fleet Captain Boyd decided to make for Malta. The Commander-in-Chief gave her two destroyers as escort, one from his own screen and one from the convoy’s (these were HMS Hasty and HMS Jaguar) and she parted company accordingly. She had continual trouble with her steering gear, which at last broke down altogether, so that she had to steer with the engines, making only 17 to 18 knots. Her aircraft that were in the air also proceeded to Malta.

A third attack came at 1330 hours. By this time HMS Illustrious was 10 nautical miles north-eastward of the battleships which, due to the manoeuvres during the previous attack, were nearly as far away from the transports. The enemy came in again with high level bombers. Seven machines attacked the Illustrious and seven more the battleships. They were received with heavy AA fire. All the bombs they dropped fell wide. HMS Calcutta claimed to have destroyed one of the attackers.

More serious in it’s results was a second dive-bombing attack upon HMS Illustrious at 1610 hours. There were 15 JU-87’s Stuka’s escorted by 5 fighters. Actually 9 of the Stuka’s dropped their bombs, the other 6 were kept at bay due to heavy AA fire from the Illustrious, Hasty and Jaguar. One bomb hit and two near misses on the Illustrious were obtained by the enemy for the loss of one of their aircraft which was shot down by the Illustrious and the Jaguar. A few minutes later the 6 Stuka’s that had been driven off attacked the battleships but they again retired after fire was opened on them.

At 1715 hours, 17 more Stuka’s attacked the battleships. Again they were received with heavy AA fire. The enemy dropped their bombs from a greater height and non of them hit although splinters from a near miss killed a rating on board HMS Valiant and a bombs fell very near HMS Janus but it did not explode. The ships may have destroyed one aircraft with their AA fire. Three of the Fulmars from the Illustrious came from Malta and destroyed three of the attackers.

This turned out to be the end of the ordeal for the ‘Excess Convoy’ and its supporting ships of war, but not for HMS Illustrious which had one more encounter with the enemy before she reached Malta. At about 1920 hours, a little more then an hour after sunset and in moonlight, some aircraft approached from seaward when she was only five nautical miles from the entrance to Grand Harbour, Malta. She had received warning from Malta that enemy aircraft were about and she sighted two – probably torpedo planes. Illustrious, Hasty and Jaguar fired a blind barrage on which the enemy disappeared. Directly afterwards HMS Hasty obtained an Asdic contact and attacked it with depth charges, but whether it was a submarine remains uncertain. HMS Illustrious finally entered harbour at 2100 hours accompanied by HMS Jaguar which had passengers to land.

Movements of the actual ‘Excess Convoy’.

In the meantime, after the mild attack at 1340/10, the convoy went on its way unhindered. Its movements then became involved in those of the Malta to Egypt convoys, which were to sail under cover of the main operation with the special support of Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell’s ‘Force D’ which was made up of the cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN) and HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN). The first of these convoys, the two ships of M.W. 5½ (see above), had left Alexandria for Malta on 7 January, some hours after Admiral Cunningham sailed westwards with ‘Force A’ to meet the ‘Excess Convoy’. Both ships of this convoy reached Malta without adventure in the morning of the 10th escorted by HMS Calcutta, HMS Diamond and HMS Defender. On arrival HMS Calcutta joined the six slow ships which made up convoy M.E. 6 which was bound for Port Said and Alexandria. The ships in this convoy were the; Devis (6054 GRT, built 1938), Hoegh Hood (tanker, Norwegian, 9351 GRT, built 1936), Pontfield (tanker, 8290 GRT, built 1940), Rodi (3220 GRT, built 1928, former Italian), Trocas (tanker, 7406 GRT, built 1927) and Volo (1587 GRT, built 1938). They were escorted by four corvettes; HMS Peony (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) M.B. Sherwood, DSO, RN), HMS Salvia (Lt.Cdr. J.I. Miller, DSO, RN, RNR), HMS Hyacinth (T/Lt. F.C. Hopkins, RNR), HMS Gloxinia (Lt.Cdr. A.J.C. Pomeroy, RNVR). At the end of the searched channel this convoy was joined by ‘Force D’. HMS Calcutta was then ordered to join the ‘Excess Convoy’ and arrived in time to defend it from the Italian bombers as already described.

The last convoy, M.E. 5½, two fast ships (the Lanarkshire (8167 GRT, built 1940) and Waiwera (12435 GRT, built 1934)) bound for Alexandria, also left Malta in the morning of the 10th under escort of HMS Diamond. They were to join the ‘Excess Convoy’ until they were to turn to the south to clear Crete and then proceed to Alexandria. The ‘Excess Convoy’ would then proceed to Pireaus, Greece. The two convoys met that afternoon. The transport Essex then left and proceeded to Malta escorted by HMS Hero. After the Essex was safely inside Grand Harbour, HMS Hero joined the fleet.

Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell stayed with convoy M.E. 6 until dark on the 10th. As ‘Force A’ was somewhat behind due to the air attacks and Admiral Cunningham ordered Vice Admiral Pridham-Whippell to position HMS Orion and HMAS Perth to the north of the convoy to be in a good position in case of an attack by Italian surface forces. ‘Force A’ made good ground during the night and was some 25 nautical miles north of the convoy by daylight on the 11th at which time Orion and Perth joined ‘Force A’. Their forces stayed within a few miles of the convoy until the afternoon when they turned back to help HMS Gloucester, HMS Southampton which had come under air attack (see below). In the evening the ships destined for Alexandria left the convoy, while HMS Calcutta went ahead to Suda Bay to fuel there. The three ships and their destroyer escort continued on to Pireaus where they arrived safely next morning, at 1000 on the 12th.

HMS Ajax and HMS York had been ordered to join convoy M.E. 6. HMS Ajax however was ordered to proceed to Suda Bay soon after she had joined the convoy. In the morning of the 11th therefore, Rear-Admiral Renouf in HMS Gloucester and with HMS Southampton and HMS Diamond in company, was ordered to overtake the convoy and support it. They were at that moment steering for Suda Bay having left the disabled Gallant off Malta some hours before. Rear-Admiral Renouf altered course accordingly and made 24 knots against the convoys 9 to 10 knots. He also send up a Walrus aircraft to find the convoy.

The sinking of HMS Southampton.

At 1522 hours, when his ships were some 30 nautical miles astern of the convoy, and in position 34°56’N, 18°19’E, they were suddenly attacked by a dozen German Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers. Fortune was against them. The attack came as an entire surprise and according to Captain Rowley of the Gloucester the ‘aircraft were not sighted until the whistle of the first bomb was heard’. Six machines attacked each cruiser, diving steeply from the direction of the sun, releasing a 550-lb bomb each, at heights of around 1500 to 800 feet. The ships opened fire with 4” AA guns and smaller AA guns. They also increased speed and altered course to avoid the attack but two bombs, perhaps three hit HMS Southampton causing disastrous damage. Another hit and some near misses did some damage to HMS Gloucester. Half-an-hour later seven high-level bombers attacked but they were detected in time and taken under fire as a result of which all bombs fell wide. During the attack the Walrus from HMS Gloucester returned and ditched alongside HMS Diamond which took off the crew and then scuttled the aircraft.

Rear-Admiral Renouf immediately reported the damage to his cruisers to Admiral Cunningham who went to their aid. He send Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell ahead with the Orion, Perth, Jervis and Janus. From Malta HMS Griffin and HMS Mohawk were sent. Before they arrived however, Rear-Admiral Renouf reported that the Southampton must be abandoned and that he would sink her. HMS Gloucester took on board 33 officers and 678 ratings of which 4 officers and 58 ratings were wounded while HMS Diamond took on board 16 wounded ratings. Upon this signal the battleships turned east again. HMS Southampton had cought fire badly upon being hit. For a time the ships company fought the fire successfully and kept the ship in action and under control but in the end the fire got out of control. Also it was found that some magazines could not be flooded. In the end the crew had to give it up and was taken off. A torpedo was fired into her by HMS Gloucester but it did not sink her. Soon afterwards Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell arrived on the scene and his flagship, HMS Orion then scuttled her with three more torpedoes (four were fired).

Further proceedings of the convoys and the fleet.

Next morning, the 12th, HMS Orion, HMS Perth, HMS Gloucester, HMS Jervis and HMS Janus joined Admiral Cunningham’s Force off the west end of Crete meeting there also A/Rear-Admiral Rawlings (‘Force X’) in HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN) and with HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, CBE, RN), HMS Ajax and their destroyer screen made up of HMAS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMAS Vampire (Cdr. J.A. Walsh, RAN), HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhodes, RAN), HMAS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN) and HMS Wryneck (Lt.Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN). These ships were to have begun a series of attacks on the Italian shipping routes but the disabling of HMS Illustrious put an end to that part of the plan so Admiral Cunningham took HMS Warspite, HMS Valiant, HMS Gloucester and the destroyers HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Greyhound, HMS Diamond, HMS Defender, HMS Hero and HMAS Voyager straight to Alexandria where they arrived in the early morning hours of the 13th.

HMS Barham, HMS Eagle, HMS York, HMS Orion, HMS Ajax, HMAS Perth, HMAS Stuart, HMAS Vampire, HMAS Vendetta, HMS Wryneck, HMS Griffin and HMS Mohawk then proceeded to Suda Bay to fuel where they arrived around 1900/12.

After fuelling at Suda Bay, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell took HMS Orion, HMAS Perth to Pireaus where they arrived at 0230/13. There they took some troops from the ‘Excess Convoy’ on board and departed for Malta at 0600/13, a task the Southampton was to have done. They arrived at Malta around 0830/14. After unloading HMS Orion departed for Alexandria later the same day together with HMS Bonaventure and HMS Jaguar. They arrived at Alexandria in the morning of the 16th. HMAS Perth remained at Malta due to defects.

Meanwhile the six ships of convoy M.E. 6 arrived safely at their destinations on 13 January.

HMS Barham, HMS Eagle, HMS Ajax, HMAS Stuart, HMS Juno, HMS Hereward, HMS Hasty and HMS Dainty departed Suda Bay for operations south-west of Crete early in the morning of the 13th. The destroyers HMS Ilex, HMS Wryneck, HMAS Vampire and HMAS Vendetta also departed Suda Bay to conduct a sweep in the Kythera Channel. They joined ‘Force X’ around noon but Vampire and Vendetta were soon detached to investigate explosions which turned out to be underwater volcano activity. Meanwhile Ilex and Wryneck were also detached for a sweep towards Stampalia.

’Force X’ returned to Suda Bay in the afternoon of the 15th and departed from there on the 16th for Alexandria where they arrived on the 18th.

Not a single of the 14 merchant ships in the convoys was lost but the fleet paid a heavy price for this loosing a light cruiser and a valuable aircraft carrier out of action for many months. As there were now German aircraft based in Italy future operations for the supply of Malta would be extremely difficult and dangerous. (6)

22 Jan 1941

Operation MBD 2 (also called operation Inspection).

Extraction of the damaged HMS Illustrious from Malta.

Timespan; 22 January to 25 January 1941.

Having arrived at Malta in the evening of January 10th, HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN) underwent temporary repairs there. However the enemy soon noticed this and commenced a series of heavy air attacks with the object of destroying the crippled carrier. It soon became obvious that the Illustrious had to leave Malta as soon as possible.

While at Malta HMS Illustrious was damaged further in these air attacks. She was hit again on the 16th but this caused no serious damage. On the 17th she was hit again on the quarterdeck but again this caused no serious damage. On the 19th she was hit yet again and now more serious damage was caused causing the operation to move her to be delayed. At 1927/20 Vice-Admiral Malta reported that HMS Illustrious would be ready to sail after noon on the 23rd at a speed of about 20 knots.

Departure of HMS Illustrious from Malta.

At 1930/23 HMS Illustrious departed Malta escorted by HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Juno (Cdr. St.J.R.J. Thyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall-A’Deane, DSO, DSC, RN). During the night of 23/24 January the Illustrious made better speed then anticipated (about 24 knots).

A cover force, ‘Force B’, made up of HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN), HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN) and HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN), which had departed Suda Bay around dawn on the 23rd, failed to make contact with her.

However in the forenoon ‘Force C’ made up of HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hereward (Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, RN) and HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN), which had departed Alexandria around noon on the 22nd, joined her.

HMS Illustrious was detected by enemy aircraft twice but no air attacks on her developed. ‘Force B’ however came under heavy air attack. Torpedo bombing, high-level bombing and dive-bombing attacks were carried out. HMS Hero became detached due to a breakdown in her steering gear and was singled out for a specially heavy attack. There were many near misses no ship was actually hit, although HMS Ajax sustained some minor damage from a near miss. At least one enemy aircraft was shot down by AA gunfire.

All forces involved arrived at Alexandria on the 25th. (7)

10 Feb 1941
The destroyers HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN) departed Suda Bay for a sweep through the Scarpanto Straits and around Stampalia. Cover was provided by the cruisers HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN). (8)

12 Feb 1941

Operation Shelford.

Clearence of Benghazi harbour.

12 February 1941. At 0730/12, HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN) and HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN) departed Alexandria to make rendez-vous in position 34°00'N, 21°00'E with the Aegean Force.

The Aegean force, made up of HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN), HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN) departed Suda Bay at 1700/12 to make this rendez-vous.

The whole of this force was to cover the entry of the Inshore Squadron into Benghazi, advancing into the Gulf of Sirte at night and to retire towards Crete by day.

HMS Aphis (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) J.O. Campbell, DSC, RN) entered Benghazi during daylight on the 12th.

HMS Chakla (Cdr. L.C. Bach, RD, RNR), HMAS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMAS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN), HMAS Vampire (Cdr. J.A. Walsh, RAN), HMS Fareham (Lt. W.J.P. Church, RN), HMS Peony (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) M.B. Sherwood, DSO, RN) and HMS Hyacinth (T/A/Lt.Cdr. F.C. Hopkins, DSC, RNR) left Tobruk at 0730/12 to reach Benghazi early on the 13th. (9)

14 Feb 1941
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN), HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN) arrived at Suda Bay around 1800/14.

HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN) and HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN) had parted company 1100/14 to proceed to Alexandria. This order was however later cancelled and they were ordered to proceed to Suda Bay instead where they arrived around 1800/15. (10)

16 Feb 1941
Around 1030/16, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) and HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN) departed Suda Bay to patrol north of Crete.

For the daily positions of these ships during 16/18 February see the map below (positions taken from the log of HMS Bonaventure).

(9)

18 Feb 1941
Around 1000/18, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) and HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN) returned to Suda Bay from a patrol to the north of Crete. (9)

6 Mar 1941
Shortly after noon this day, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) departed Alexandria with troops for Pireaus, Greece. (11)

7 Mar 1941
Shortly bofore noon, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) arrived at Pireaus where they immediately disembarked the troops.

They departed again for Alexandria around 1430 hours. (11)

8 Mar 1941
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) returned to Alexandria around 1400 hours. (11)

9 Mar 1941
Around noon, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) departed Alexandria with troops for Pireaus, Greece. (11)

10 Mar 1941
Around 1100 hours, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) arrived at Pireaus where they immediately disembarked the troops.

They departed for Suda Bay around 1800 hours. (11)

11 Mar 1941
Around 0700 hours, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) arrived at Suda Bay.

They departed again around 1430 hours to patrol in the western Aegean. (11)

13 Mar 1941
Around 0700 hours, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) arrived at Suda Bay from patrol in the Aegean.

They departed later the same day, together with the destroyers HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), to provide cover for convoy operations. (11)

16 Mar 1941
Around 0700 hours, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) arrived at Suda Bay from their convoy protection duties.

Around 1830 hours, HMS Gloucester and HMS Bonaventure again departed Suda Bay for patrol duties. (12)

Sources

  1. Personal communication
  2. ADM 186/794
  3. ADM 53/112135
  4. ADM 53/112663 + ADM 186/798
  5. ADM 53/112665 + ADM 199/361
  6. ADM 199/414 + ADM 199/656 + ADM 223/679 + ADM 234/335
  7. ADM 199/414
  8. ADM 199/414 + ADM 53/113721
  9. ADM 53/113721 + ADM 53/115234
  10. ADM 53/113721 + ADM 53/114820
  11. ADM 199/414 + ADM 53/114343
  12. ADM 199/414 + ADM 53/114343 + ADM 53/115235

ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.


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