Allied Warships

HMS Ajax (22)

Light cruiser of the Leander class


HMS Ajax before the war

NavyThe Royal Navy
TypeLight cruiser
ClassLeander 
Pennant22 
Built byVickers Armstrong (Barrow-in-Furness, U.K.) 
Ordered1 Oct 1932 
Laid down7 Feb 1933 
Launched1 Mar 1934 
Commissioned12 Apr 1935 
End serviceFeb 1948 
History

HMS Ajax started the war on the South America station. She was damaged by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939. Repaired and refitted at Chatham Dockyard from December 1939 until July 1940. After repairs she went to the Mediterranean. She was refitted at Chatham dockyard between May and October 1942. She returned to the Mediterranean upon completion of her refit and was almost immedeately badly damaged by bombing on 1 January 1943. She went to the United States for repairs at the New York Navy Yard and was out of action until October 1943. She again returned to the Mediterranean but was recalled to home waters for the Normandy invasion in June. Once again she returned to the Mediterranean for the invasion of southern France in August. She remained in the Mediterranean for the remainder of the war.

HMS Ajax was decommissioned in February 1948. Initially intended to be sold to Thailand but this deal did not materialize. She arrived at Newport for breaking up on 18 November 1949.

 

Commands listed for HMS Ajax (22)

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CommanderFromTo
1Capt. Charles Henry Lawrence Woodhouse, RN9 Oct 193722 Apr 1940
2Capt. Edward Desmond Bewley McCarthy, RN22 Apr 194027 Nov 1941
3Capt. Stuart Latham Bateson, RN27 Nov 194126 May 1942
4Cdr. Ralph Heathcote, RN26 May 19422 Jul 1942
5Cdr. Richard Graham Stewart, RN2 Jul 194219 Sep 1942
6Capt. James Joseph Weld, RN19 Sep 194216 Sep 1944
7Capt. John Wilson Cuthbert, RN16 Sep 194419 Mar 1946

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Notable events involving Ajax include:


3 Sep 1939
HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN) intercepts the German merchant Olinda (4576 GRT) off the coast of Uruguay in position 33°50'S, 53°30'W. The German ship is sunk by gunfire.

4 Sep 1939
HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN) intercepts the German merchant Carl Fritzen (6594 GRT) in the South Atlantic off the coast off Uruguay in position 34°19'S, 48°29'W. However before the ship can be captured she is scuttled by her crew.

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. (1)

5 Dec 1939
The German passenger ship Ussukuma (7834 GRT) is intercepted in the South Atlantic off Bahia Blanca, Argentina in position 39°25'S, 57°15'W by the British heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) and the British light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN). However, before the German ship can be captured she is scuttled by her own crew.

13 Dec 1939

Battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939.

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

The battle, first phase.

When Commodore Harwood detached HMS Exeter (Capt. F.S. Bell, RN) at 0614 hours to investigate smoke bearing 324° his squadron was in position 34°28’S, 49°05’W in single line ahead in the order HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN, flying the flag of Commodore H.H. Harwood, OBE, RN), HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, RN) and HMS Exeter, events followed quickly. Two minutes later the Exeter signalled ‘I think it is a pocket battleship’ and two minutes after that the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire on her, now there was no doubt anymore.

When the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles increased speed and turned to 340° to close the range and engage the enemy from the eastward. At the same time HMS Exeter turned westward at full speed to engage her from the southward and to carry out the Commodore’s plan off attacking simultaneously from widely different bearings.

When he commodore signaled that his policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship was to act as two units, on divergent courses to permit flank marking he apparently intended the Exeter to take station on a line bearing from the enemy at approximately right angles to the line of fire of both light cruisers.

To put this into effect HMS Exeter first intention was to engage the enemy on her port bow. Seeing that this might hamper the two light cruisers, however, she turned to 280° and at 0620 hours opened fire to starboard from 18700 yards with her foremost two 8” gun turrets. These tactics were most effective. With two or more targets to engage, an enemy will always have to choose between engaging one ship or dividing her armament amongst them, no matter what formation the target ships are in. The difficulty that enhanced in this case was the wide dispersion of targets. The enemy having to choose between leaving one of the British units disengaged with her main armament or dividing it between them. The enemy choose for the latter and opened fire with one main gun turret on HMS Exeter and with the other on HMS Ajax. The salvoes from the Exeter however soon worried the enemy and the enemy once or twice concentrated both 11” turrets on her and quickly straddled. At this time the after gun turret on HMS Exeter also opened fire on the enemy.

At 0623 hours, a 11” shell from the third salvo from the Admiral Graf Spee, bursting short amidships, killed the crew of HMS Exeter’s starboard torpedo tubes and damaged her search lights, communications, funnels and aircraft. One minute later, when HMS Exeter had fired eight salvoes, another 11” shell knocked out her ‘B’ turret. Its splinters swept the bridge, killng or wounding all the bridge personnel except Captain Bell and two others. It also wrecked the wheelhouse communications. She was no longer under control from forward and Captain Bell made his way aft. He had hardly left the bridge before her head began to swing rapidly to starboard. Although her lower conning position at once took over the steering, she was in danger of masking her after turret. The torpedo-officer, Lt.Cdr. C.J. Smith, RN, had been momentarily stunned, but recovered in time to get an order through to bring her back on a westerly course. By this time she had received two more direct hits forward and damage from shells bursting short. Her aircraft were extensively riddled. Petrol from the port machine was spraying over the after conning position. There was a serious danger of fire and both aircraft were jettisoned.

Captain Bell then arrived aft only to find communications broken down between the after conning position and the steering flat. He was obliged to pass his orders through a chain of messengers. In a ships as heavily engaged this was a task of extreme difficulty, but it was successfully accomplished till Captain Bell was forced to break off the action due to amount of damage sustained.

While the Admiral Graf Spee was fiercely engaging HMS Exeter with 11” gun salvoes she was firing alternately at HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles with her secondary armament. Some of her 5.9” salvoes fell very close but none actually hit. Meanwhile HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles were hitting back hard with ‘concentrated fire’ at a rapidly closing range. Their shooting was effective, for at 0630 hours, the Admiral Graf Spee shifted one of her main turrets to HMS Ajax, halving the heavy volume of fire against HMS Exeter. At 0631 hours three 11” salvoes straddled the Ajax and both light cruisers then turned away a point or two to confuse the enemy’s fire. Three minutes later, however HMS Ajax turned back to port to close the range. At 0637 hours she catapulted her aircraft.

Meanwhile the Exeter had fired her starboard torpedoes in local control, and at 0637 hours the Admiral Graf Spee apparently finding the British attack too hot, turned 150° to port and retired to the north-westward under cover of a smoke screen. Both light cruisers then immediately hauled round at full speed, first to the north and then to the west to close the range and regain bearing. Three minutes later HMS Exeter turned several points to starboard to bring her port tubes to bear. At 0643 hours she fired her port torpedoes. She then steered north-east to close HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles but at 0645 hours she turned back once more to a westerly course to keep within range. By this time she had received two more direct 11” hits, one of them on ‘A’ turret, and was showing signs of acute distress. Both her foremost turrets were out of action and she was burning fiercely amidships. Her one remaining 8” turret was in local control. Her compasses were destroyed.

Meanwhile the Admiral Graf Spee was heavily engaging the light cruisers. At 0640 hours, a 11” shell bust on the water in line with the bridge of HMNZS Achilles. It killed or seriously wounded four ratings in her director control tower, stunned the gunnery officer, Lt. R.E. Washbourn, and slightly wounded Captain Perry. Her director tower, however was undamaged and her rate of fie unaffected as she was in concentration firing. At 0646 hour her fire control wireless set broke down, and she carried on in individual control. She had great difficulty at first in finding the range and her first salvoes fell short. Reports of these salvoes were transmitted by the aircraft from HMS Ajax. The Ajax however, not knowing the the Achilles was no longer in concentration firing, accepted them as referring to her own salvoes and corrected accordingly. At this time the enemy was making a smoke screen and spotting conditions were extremely bad. As a result the salvoes from from HMS Ajax fell far beyond the enemy. The range was not found again until 0708 hours.

At 0650 hours, HMS Exeter was steering west with her remaining 8” gun turret still in action. She had a 7° list to starboard and several forward compartments flooded. At 0656 hours the light cruisers hauled round to the north-westward and for a while the Admiral Graf Spee kept altering course frequently to confuse their fire. At 0710 hours the range was still 16000 yards. To shorten it HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles turned westwards at full speed. At 0716 hours the enemy made a large turn to port under the cover of a smoke screen steering straight for HMS Exeter in an apparent attempt to finish her off. The light cruisers immediately turned to the rescue, firing so accurately that the enemy was set on fire amidships and was forced to turn back to the north-west to re-engage HMS Ajax which was immediately straddled at 11000 yards by three 11” salvoes although the enemy’s secondary armamanet was shooting wildly.

At 0725 hours an 11” shell knocked out Ajax’s after turrets. She at once retaliated by turning to starboard and firing four torpedoes from 9000 yards. The Admiral Graf Spee avoided them with a large turn to port but almost immediately turned back to the north-west in an apparent attempt to close the light cruisers. At 0728 hours they turned to 280° to close the range still further. At 0731 hours the aircraft from Ajax reported ‘torpedoes approaching, they will pass ahead of you’. Commodore Harwood decided to take no chances and turned south and engaged the enemy on it’s starboard side with the range still closing rapidly. One minute later the Admiral Graf Spee turned westwards under the cover of yet another smoke screen to confuse the accurate gunfire of the light cruisers. At 0736 hours the enemy turned south-west, again bringing all her guns to bear. Two minutes later one of her salvoes brought down the topmast and wireless aerial of HMS Ajax from a range of 8000 yards.

Meanwhile HMS Exeter was dropping slowly astern with her after turret still firing. At 0730 hours pressure in this turret failed. She could keep up no longer and at 0740 hours turned slowly south-east to repair some of the damage.

About this time a report reached the Commodore that only 20 percent of Ajax’s 6” ammunition remained. With HMS Exeter out of action and with both the after turrets of HMS Ajax out of action and he decided that the action had to be broken off. The enemy was still firing accurately and appeared little damaged so the Commodore decided to break off the fight until dark when there would be a better chance to get close to a range in which his lighter armament and torpedoes would be effective. At 0740 hours the light cruisers turned away to the east under the cover of smoke. Thus ended the first phase of the battle. It had laster one hour an twenty-two minutes.

The battle, second phase.

When the Ajax and Achilles turned away at 0740 hours, the Admiral Graf Spee did not follow them. After opening the range for six minutes under cover of smoke Commodore Harwood turned back to the west. The action now developed into a procession, the Admiral Graf Spee in the van steering at 22 knots straight for the River Plate with both light cruisers about 15 miles behind with HMNZS Achilles on the starboard quarter and HMS Ajax on the port quarter.

At 0800 hours, HMS Ajax was in position 34°25’S, 49°29’W. Seven minutes later and afterwards every hour the cruisers broadcasted the enemy’s position, course and speed to warn merchant vessels to keep out of danger. By 0814 hours the Exeter was out of sight and Commodore Harwood ordered the aircraft from Ajax to tell her to close. At 0910 hoursm, the aircraft informed him that the Exeter, though badly damaged, was joining him as best she could. Two minutes later HMS Ajax recovered her aircraft. The Exeter was however unable to gain contact. Captain Bell decided to slow down to allow her to be brought to an even keel and bulkheads to be shored up. He then turned westwards for the nearest land. At 0946 hours, Commodore Harwood signalled HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) which was still at Port Stanley to proceed towards the Plate area at full speed. This signal took some time to get through. When HMS Cumberland sailed at 1200 hours she did so at the initiative of her Commanding Officer. When the signal from the Commodore finally reached him he increased to full speed.

Shortly after 1000 hours HMNZS Achilles had closed the Admiral Graf Spee to 23000 yards, having over estimated the speed of the enemy, was taken under fire by her when the enemy suddenly turned. Her first salvo was short but the second fell almost alongside. HMNZS Achilles then turned away at full speed behind a smoke screen to resume shadowing from a safe distance and the enemy ceased fire.

The next hour was uneventful. Then at 1104 hours, HMS Ajax sighted the British merchant Shakespeare (???? GRT, built ????) laying stopped near the Admiral Graf Spee. A few minutes later the enemy asked both cruisers to pick up the lifeboats from the British steamer. When they however reached her they found her in no need of assistance.

At 1105 hours HMS Exeter signalled that though she was flooded forward and had all her turrets out of action she could still steam 18 knots. Some time later she was able to report that one of her after turret guns could be fired in local control. It was clear, however, that she had no further fighting value and at 1340 hours the Commodore ordered her to make for the Falklands so at 1510 hours she turned south.

Meanwhile the early afternoon had passed quietly for both cruisers that were shadowing the enemybut then at 1543 hours HMNZS Achilles signaled ‘enemy in sight bearing 297°. Shortly afterwards she identified this new enemy as an 8” gun cruiser. The alarm fortunately turned out to be false as both cruisers were in no condition to take on an additional enemy. At 1559 hours the approaching vessel was identified as the merchant Delane (6054 GRT, built 1938). Her streamlined funnel had given the appearance of a ‘Blücher’ class cruiser at long range.

Shadowing then continued without further incident until 1900 hours. By that time the intention of the enemy to enter the River Plate was becoming clear. At 1902 hours Commodore Harwood signalled to the Achilles that she was to follow the enemy if she went west of Lobos Island.

At 1915 hours the enemy turned and fired two salvoes at HMS Ajax from 26000 yards. The first salvo was short but the second salvo fell in her wake as she turned away behind a smoke screen. HMNZS Achilles, too, turned away on seeing the gun flashes but soon resumed her westerly course. At 2000 hours Ajax turned south to frustrate a possible attempt by the emeny to double back and shake off the shadowing cruisers. They were now in position 35°08’S, 54°49’W about 50 nautical miles east of English Bank.

For more then twelve hours the Admiral Graf Spee had been closing the Plate at a steady speed of 22 knots with the two light cruisers on her tail. As soon as she passed Lobos Island the whole duty of shadowing her developed upon HMNZS Achilles. At 2014 hours Captain Perry increased speed to close before dusk. In half an hour he had reduced the distance to 23000 yards. At sunset, 2048 hours, the enemy, apparently as a counter to the shortening of the range, turned and fired three salvoes. The first two fell short and as the Achilles turned away at full speed, the third salvo fell only just astern. Two minutes later the Achilles turned northward to keep the full advantage of the after glow, and at 2054 hours fired five salvoes which appeared to straddle. She then turned west once more and increased to 30 knots to keep in touch. Between 2130 and 2145 hours the enemy fired three final salvoes from her after turrets. All three salvoes fell short, and the Achilles, not wanting to give away her position, did not return fire.

By 2200 hours, she had closed within 5 nautical miles, but finding it increasingly difficult to see the enemy. So she altered course at 2213 hours to silhouette her against the lights of Montevideo. She continued her westerly course for another hour. Then at 2317 hours the Commodore ordered her to withdraw. Shortly after midnight the Admiral Graf Spee entered Montevideo. Thus ended the second phase of the Battle of the River Plate.

The watch on the River Plate, 14 – 17 December 1939.

When commodore Harwood recalled the Achilles at 2317 hours the intention of the Admiral Graf Spee was quite clear. She was going to enter Montevideo. The main question was how long she would stay there. It was also of the utmost importance that the British cruisers should keep to seaward of her if she came out. It was equally important that they should not be caught against the light of dawn. At 2350 hours, therefore, both cruisers withdrew temporarily from the Plate. Achilles was to patrol the northern area between the Uruguayan coast and a line of 120° from English Bank while Ajax patrolled the southern area. The night passed without incident. Both ships moved back towards Montevideo as soon as the danger of the dawn light had passed.

For the moment these two small British cruisers stood alone between the enemy and the open sea. Both had been heavily engaged the previous day and were short of fuel. They had no hope at all to destroy the enemy unless they were concentrated, nor were the geographical factors in their favour. From the River Plate estuary, which is 120 miles wide between Cape S. Antonio and Lobos Island, run three widely separated deep-water channels. The difficulties of the situation were great and the Commodore could look for little immediate assistance.

On the morning of 13 December 1939, the day of the battle, ‘Force H’ (HMS Sussex (Capt. A.R. Hammick, RN),
HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN)) were sweeping off Lobito, on the west coast of Africa, 4000 nautical miles away from the Plate Estuary. ‘Force I’ of the East Indies Station (HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hamill, RN) and HMS Gloucester (Capt F.R. Garside, RN)) were at Durban. ‘Force G’ (HMS Cumberland) was at the Falkland Islands, 1000 nautical miles to the South. This was the closest ship to reinforce the cruisers of the Commodore. ‘Force K’ was the most powerful force on the South Atlantic station (HMS Ark Royal (Capt. A.J. Power, RN) and HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN)). This force was off Pernambuco, 2000 nautical miles to the north. ‘Force X’ (the French cruisers Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury) and Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu) with the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN)) were off St. Paul Rocks, even further to the north. The British light cruiser HMS Neptune (Capt. J.A.V. Morse, DSO, RN) and the British destroyers HMS Hardy (Capt. B.A. Warburton-Lee, RN), HMS Hostile (Cdr. J.P. Wright, RN) and HMS Hero (Cdr. C.F. Tower, MVO, RN) were with them. The submarine HMS Severn (Lt.Cdr. B.W. Taylor, RN) was now halfway between St. Helena and Bahia, she was on the way from Freetown to the Falkland Islands. The submarine HMS Clyde (Cdr. W.E. Banks, RN) was approaching Dakar from a patrol off St. Paul Rocks.

Throughout 14 December 1939 HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles kept a constant watch over the mouth of the River Plate estuary as they possibly could. That night they received a much needed reinforcement as HMS Cumberland arrived from the Falklands at 2200 hours. She had made the passage north in 34 hours. This enabled Commodore Harwood to watch all three deep water Channels throughout the night. The Cumberland was placed in the centre, Achilles to the north and Ajax to the south.

Next day the problem of refuelling had to be faced. Fortunately RFA Olynthus was at hand and the Commodore ordered her to meet HMS Ajax in San Borombon Bay. HMS Cumberland closed them to provide cover in case the Admiral Graf Spee came out to attack them. Weather was bad and the lines which hold the ships together parted but despite this HMS Ajax was able to take on board 200 tons of fuel. She then proceeded to join the Cumberland.

Shortly after this the Commodore learned that the Admiral Graf Spee, which had been hit between 60 and 70 times, and was more extensively damaged then at first thought, had been given permission to remain in Montevideo for another 72 hours to make herself seaworthy. There could be no guarantee however, that she would stay there, so the British cruisers were in no way able to relax their instant readiness for action.

Thus, when just for dawn the next morning HMS Ajax, HMNZS Achilles and HMS Cumberland were concentrated off San Antonio in the southern part of the estuary, HMS Ajax flew off her aircraft for a reconnaissance flight. It returned at 0830 hours with a report that though visibility was extremely bad it had been fired on near the whistle buoy. This indicated that the enemy might be leaving and the three cruisers went to action stations. It was a false alarm as the enemy was soon reported to be still in the harbour. The day passed without further incident. The squardron spent the night patrolling north and south 5 miles east of English Bank.

Next morning, 17 December 1939, HMS Ajax and HMS Cumberland coverered HMNZS Achilles while she refuelled from the Olynthus off Rouen Bank. The whole squardron then cruised in company throughout the afternoon ready to take up its night patrols at dusk.

British Forces close the Plate Estuary, 13-17 December 1939.

While the cruisers of the South America Division were watching the Plate between 13 and 17 December strong British forces were steadily closing in on Montevideo.

On the afternoon of 13 December 1939, the day of the battle, the Admiralty placed ‘Force I’ that was at Durban at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. He immediately ordered them to proceed to the Cape ports with all despatch. They sailed the next morning, but the Admiralty soon placed them back under the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies for work in connection to Australian and New-Zealand troop convoys. The Commander-in-Chief, East Indies immediately ordered them to return to Durban where they arrived on the afternoon of the 15th.

On the afternoon of 13 December 1939, ‘Force H’ were on their way south from the neighbourhood of Lobito Bay towards Cape Town. They had still some 400 nautical miles to go when at 1752 hours when to Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered them to proceed with all possible speed and refuel. Next morning he instructed them to sail to Freetown when they had completed fuelling but when ‘Force I’ was ordered to return to Durban they were ordered to remain at the Cape. At 1745/15 the Admiralty ordered HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.S.C. Martin, RN) which had arrived at Simonstown from Colombo on 9 December to proceed with HMS Shropshire to the River Plate steaming at 20 knots as to arrive off Montevideo on 23 December. HMS Sussex proceeded from Cape Town to Simonstown that day. She was kept at short notice to sail into the South Atlantic in case the Admiral Graf Spee cleared the River Plate. HMS Dorsetshire had orders to call at Tristan da Cunha on the 16th but the Admiralty cancelled these on the 15th and ordered her and HMS Shropshire on the 17th to close the Falklands at 25 knots to counter any attempt by the Admiral Graf Spee to escape to the southward. This was later changed to proceed to the Falklands at economical speed. Shortly after that order they were placed under the orders of the (now) Rear-Admiral South America Division (Commodore Harwood had been promoted to Rear Admiral) to intercept the German merchant the Tacoma (8268 GRT, built 1930) in case she might break out of Montevideo.

’Force K’ had left Cape Town on 4 December to sweep through position 28°S, 15°W. By 13 December they were near Pernambuco en-route to meet up with HMS Neptune and her destroyers near St. Paul Rocks. As HMS Renown had barely enough fuel on board to reach the Plate estuary they were to make rendez-vous as soon as possible and then proceed to Freetown to refuel. Early next morning the Admiralty ordered ‘Force K’ to proceed to the Plate Estuary which they did at 20 knots. Later the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered them to proceed to Rio de Janeiro to refuel, on which they increased speed to 25 knots. They reached Rio at 0600/17. HMS Ark Royal left at 1800/17, having finished fuelling, for the Plate area at 25 knots. HMS Renown and HMS Neptune, which had now also arrived with her destoyers, were ordered to follow as soon as possible. Just before midnight however the Vice-Admiral Aircraft Carriers on board the Ark Royal ordered them and the destroyers to meet him at 1800/18 in position 22°50’S, 40°W.

The end of the Admiral Graf Spee

At 1540 hours on 17 December 1939, Rear-Admiral Harwood, learned that the Admiral Graf Spee was transferring 300 to 400 men to the German merchant vessel Tacoma. At 1720 hours he received a message that over 700 men with baggage and provisions, were being transferred and shortly after that he learned that the enemy was weighing anchor. He immediately increased speed to 25 knots and turned to close the whistle buoy and flew off the aircraft from HMS Ajax to report the enemy’s position.

The Admiral Graf Spee left the harbour at 1815 hours and was followed by the Tacoma. They steamed slowly westwards. The British cruisers were in state of instant readiness. At 2054 hours the aircraft from the Ajax reported that the enemy was in shallow water six miles south-west of Montevideo and then made the dramatic signal ‘The Admiral Graf Spee had blown herself up !’.

The British cruisers then steamed towards Montevideo, passing the burning wreck of the German warship in the darkness. It was ablaze from stem to stern with flames reaching as high as the top of the control tower, a magnificent sight. (1)

5 Jan 1940
HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN) made rendez-vous in the Plate area with HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, CB, RN, flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir H. Harwood, KCB, OBE, RN) and HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, CB, RN). HMNZS Achilles then took over as flagship of the South America division as HMS Ajax was to return to the U.K. to refit soon. (2)

9 Jan 1940
In the early evening, HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN), made rendez-vous with HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, CB, RN). They then coninued their patrol in the 'Rio de Janeiro area'. (2)

12 Jan 1940
After gunnery exercises, in the early evening, HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, CB, RN) parted company with HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN). HMS Ajax set course to proceed to Freetown and eventually the U.K. where she was to refit. HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Shropshire continued their patrol. (2)

8 Oct 1940

Operation MB 6.

Convoy MF 3 from Alexandria to Malta and MF 4 from Malta to Alexandria.

8 October 1940.

Around 0900 hours, the Mediterranean Fleet made up of the 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), aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, DSC, RN), HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), heavy cruisers HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), light cruisers HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN), HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN), HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN). They were escorted by the destroyers HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Havock (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN), HMS Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC and Bar, 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), HMAS Vampire (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN) and HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades RAN).

When the fleet was clear of the swept channel gunnery exercises were carried out. On completion of these exercises the fleet proceeded to the north-westward divided into several groups.

At 2000 hours, the merchant vessels Memnon (7506 GRT, built 1931), Lanarkshire (11275 GRT, built 1940), Clan Macaulay (10492 GRT, built 1936) and Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT, built 1938), which made up convoy MF 3 departed Alexandria for Malta. They were escorted by HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN), HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN), 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 HMS Wryneck (Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN).

At midnight the main body of the fleet was in position 31°58’N, 27°33’E steering 350°.

9 October 1940.

At 0524 hours, in position 33°11’N, 27°20’E, HMS Nubian, obtained a contact. HMS Hyperion then reported that a torpedo was approaching HMS Malaya. An object, possibly a torpedo at the end of its run, was sighted moving slowly and emitting small columns of smoke.

At 0550 hours, A/S patrols were flown off. These were maintained throughout the day.

At 0800 hours, the main body of the fleet was in position 33°33’N, 26°47’E. At 1000 hours, HMS Liverpool (Capt. P.A. Read, RN) and HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN), who had been delayed in sailing from Alexandria, joined the fleet.

At noon the fleet was in position 33°51’N, 26°32’E, steering 280°.

At 1600 hours, the convoy was in position 34°18’N, 25°06’E making a good 13 knots. During the day three A/S contacts were made. One of the contacts warranted a depth charge attack by HMAS Vendetta.

At 2200 hours, the fleet altered course to 320°.

At midnight the fleet was in position 34°41’N, 23°23’E.

10 October 1940.

There were no incidents during the night and at 0400 hours the fleet changed course to 300°.

At 0600 hours, aircraft were flown off the search between 270° and 340°.

At 1030 hours, a new air search was started between 240° and 340°, also a course change was made to close the convoy.

The first air search located a submarine on the surface in position 36°31’N, 20°20’E. Two aircraft were sent out to attack this submarine. Both depth charges that were dropped failed to explode. Other aircraft were then sent but the submarine was not found as she must have submerged. Two A/S contacts were made by the destroyer screen during the forenoon.

At 1330 hours, the fleet was in position 35°36’N, 20°42’E, steering 270°. The convoy was at this time 22 nautical miles astern of the fleet.

At 1400 hours, a final air search was launched.

At 1432 hours, one of the search aircraft reported an enemy submarine submerging 20 nautical miles ahead of the fleet. HMS Jervis, HMS Juno and HMS Ilex were sent ahead to hunt this submarine but with no result. Later a report was received that the aircraft had straddled the submarine with four bombs.

At 1600 hours, HMAS Vampire, the port wing destroyer in the screen, obtained a contact and made four depth charge attacks on it. She rejoined the screen at 1745 hours.

Late in the afternoon HMS Ramillies, HMS Nubian, HMS Hero and HMS Hereward were detached to fuel at Malta as were HMS Hyperion, HMS Hasty and HMS Ilex shortly afterwards. Also late in the afternoon the cruisers HMS York, HMS Gloucester and HMS Liverpool were detached to join the convoy.

At 1825 hours, HMS Defender attacked a suspected A/S contact with depth charges.

At 2000 hours, the main body of the fleet was in position 35°52’N, 18°55’E, course 300° which was changed to 270 at 2200 hours.

11 October 1940.

Again there were no incidents during the night.

At 0630 hours, aircraft were flown off to search the sector between 000° and 070°, keeping clear of the land. No enemy forces were sighted.

At 0800 hours the main body of the fleet was in position 35°30’N, 15°39’E. Around this time HMS Ajax was detached to join HMS York, HMS Gloucester and HMS Liverpool near the convoy.

At 0915 hours, HMS Decoy was detached to fuel at Malta and HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN) joined the screen coming from Malta.

At 0942 hours, HMS Imperial was detached to fuel at Malta.

At 1105 hours, HMS Imperial reported that she had hit a mine in position 35°34’N, 14°34’E. She was able to proceed at slow speed to Malta with HMS Decoy standing by. She finally entered Malta at 1600 hours being towed by Decoy. It was estimated that repairs would take at least four months.

During the forenoon several floating mines were sighted and HMS Coventry cut one off with her paravanes in position 35°30’N, 14°28’E so it was evident that there was an enemy minefield in this area.

At noon the main body of the fleet was in position 35°14’N, 14°50’E.

At 1450 hours, HMS Vampire was detached to Malta. During the afternoon the fleet remained approximately 20 nautical miles to the south-west of Malta while the destroyers refuelled.

At 1600 hours, the convoy arrived safely at Malta.

At 1800 hours, HMS Nubian, HMS Hero and HMS Havock rejoined and HMS Dainty, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond were detached to refuel at Malta.

At 2100 hours, HMAS Vendetta, who had reported that she had one engine out of action, was detached to Malta where she would remain for repairs.

At 2230 hours, Convoy MF 4 departed Malta for Alexandria. This convoy was made up of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Plumleaf (5916 GRT, built 1917) and the transport Volo (1587 GRT, built 1938). The river gunboat HMS Aphis (Lt.Cdr R.S. Stafford, RN), which had been refitting at Malta, was also part of this convoy. Escort for this convoy was provided by HMS Coventry, HMS Calcutta, HMS Wryneck and HMAS Waterhen. HMAS Stuart remained at Malta for a much needed refit.

Due to the weather conditions the British ships remained undetected by enemy aircraft.

12 October 1940.

At 0230 hours, HMS Ajax reported that she was engaging three enemy destroyers in position 35°57’N, 16°42’E and that she had sunk two of them. She then reported two cruisers in position 36°00’N, 16°53’E at 0306 hours. At 0333 hours she reported that she had lost touch with them.

At 0400 hours, the bulk of the fleet was in position 35°10’N, 15°45’E, approximately 70 nautical miles to the south-west of Ajax.

At 0600 hours, aircraft were flown off to search between 340° and 070°.

At 0645 hours, HMS Orion reported that one enemy ship was still burning in position 35°47’N, 16°25’E at 0510 hours.

At 0710 hours, a flying boat reported two enemy destroyers in the same position. One on fire being towed by the other. On receipt of these reports a striking force of four aircraft was flown off. The fleet altered course to 010° to close.

At 0716 hours, HMS York, HMS Gloucester and HMS Liverpool reported they were closing to investigate smoke on the horizon. When closing they were obviously sighted by the enemy destroyer that was towing which then casted off the tow and retired to the north-westward at high speed. She was attacked with torpedoes by the air striking force but no hits were obtained. In the meantime the cruisers had closed the crippled destroyer which had hoisted the white flag. The survivors were ordered to abandon ship after which she was sunk by gun and torpedo fire from HMS York. Rafts were thrown in the water for the survivors. Later a few survivors were picked up by HMS Nubian and HMAS Vampire. They reported that the enemy destroyer sunk was the Artigliere.

At 0930 hours, the bulk of the fleet was in position 35°47’E, 16°42’E, steering 120°.

Between 0915 and 1034 hours, HMS Orion, HMAS Sydney and HMS Ajax rejoined the bulk of the fleet. HMS Ajax reported that following her action D/G, RD/F and one 4” gun were out of action. She had also two officers killed and one seriously wounded. Also she had lost ten ratings killed and twenty minor casualties.

At 1000 hours, HMS Dainty, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond rejoined the fleet from Malta as did HMS Revenge that was escorted by HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Hereward and HMS Decoy.

At 1150 hours, a flying boat from Malta reported three Italian heavy cruisers and three destroyers in position 36°10’N, 16°02’E. They were steering to the north-westward. This flying boat did not shadow and no further reports on this force were received. HMS Liverpool, HMS Orion, HMAS Sydney and HMS York were ordered to proceed to cover convoy MF 4 which was then in position 35°15’N, 16°22’E, 55 nautical miles to the southward of the enemy cruisers. In the meantime the fleet had been located by enemy aircraft and one shadower was shot down by Fulmars at 1145 hours.

At 1232 hours, the fleet was attacked by eleven enemy aircraft but only a few bombs were dropped. At 1345 hours the fleet was again attacked, this time by five aircraft which dropped eleven bombs near HMS Eagle. During this time Fulmars prevented other enemy aircraft from attacking.

At 1440 hours, when in position 35°30’N, 17°50’E, course was altered to 200° to close the convoy and at 1630 hours when in position 35°23’N, 17°20’E (080°, 21 nautical miles from the convoy), course was altered to 090°.

The weather deteriorated rapidly during the day and aircraft from the final search had to be homed in by D/F. The last aircraft was landed on in the dark at 1850 hours.

At 2000 hours, the fleet was in position 35°25’N, 18°10’E still steering 090°. At 2200 hours this was altered to 070°.

13 October 1940.

At 0100 hours, the fleet was in position 36°02’N, 19°23’E and course was altered to 120° and at 0400 to 160°.

At 0600 hours, aircraft were flown off to search between 280° and 310°.

At 0700 hours, HMS Ajax, HMS Jervis and HMS Janus were detached to join convoy AS 4 which sailed from the Gulf of Athens around that time. From convoy MF 4 HMS Coventry was also detached later to join this convoy.

At 0800 hours, when in position 36°00’N, 21°04’E, course was altered to 240° to close convoy MF 4. At 1307 hours they sighted the convoy in position 35°46’N, 20°32’E. The convoy was steering 095° making a good 9 knots. As the transport Volo was able to make 12 knots she was ordered to proceed ahead escorted by HMS Wryneck.

At 1120 hours, HMS Illustrious, HMS Gloucester, HMS Liverpool, HMS Nubian, HMS Havock, HMS Hero and HMS Hereward were detached to carry out a night attack on Leros.

During the rest of the day the course of the fleet was adjusted to remain close to convoy MF 4.

At 1800 hours, the fleet was in position 35°42’N, 22°24’E and changed course to 140° doing 14 knots.

At midnight the fleet was in position 34°35’N, 23°42’E.

14 October 1940.

At 0300 hours, the fleet altered course to 090°.

At 0600 hours, HMS Eagle launched aircraft to search between 270° and 330°.

At 0800 hours, the fleet was in position 34°24’N, 25°37’E.

At 0840 hours, the Illustrious-force rejoined. They reported a very successful attack on Port Lago. Complete surprise had been achieved. Fiveteen aircraft took part in the attack. They dropped 92 250-lb bombs. Hangars at Lepida Cove were set on fire, workshops and probably a fuel tank hit at San Georgio. All aircraft had returned safely.

At 0900 hours, HMS York, which was short of fuel, was detached to Alexandria together with HMS Defender.

At 0945 hours, aircraft from HMS Eagle reported that both convoys MF 4 and AS 4 were together about 10 nautical miles east of Gavdo Island at 0830 hours, making good 10 knots. Volo and HMS Wryneck were 60 nautical miles ahead.

At 1132 hours, HMAS Vampire and HMAS Vendetta obtained an A/S contact and attacked with depth charges firing a total of three patterns.

At 1230 hours, HMS Ajax rejoined the fleet which had remained near position 34°35’N, 25°37’E to provide cover for the convoys.

At 1435 hours, the fleet was attacked by five enemy aircraft which dropped their bombs outside the destroyer screen after having been attacked by AA gunfire.

At 1442 hours, a second attack was made by three aircraft, their bombs landed between HMS Warspite and HMS Illustrious.

At 1600 hours, the fleet was in position 34°13’N, 25°54’E, steering 130°.

At 1902 hours, HMS Valiant and HMS Illustrious opened a heavy barrage of AA fire and later Valiant reported that she had shot down an enemy aircraft.

At 1911 hours, HMS Liverpool reported that she had been struck by a torpedo in position 33°58’E, 26°20’E at 1855 hours. She was heavily on fire and required assistance.

HMS Decoy and HMS Hereward were sent to stand by her.

At 2345 hours, the tug HMS St. Issey was sailed from Alexandria.

At midnight the fleet was in position 32°40’N, 27°38’E and course was altered to 310° to cover the passage of HMS Liverpool to Alexandria.

15 October 1940.

At 0100 hours, it was reported that HMS Liverpool was being towed by HMS Orion in position 33°57’N, 26°33’E making good 9 knots on a course of 135°. The fire was under control.

At 0630 hours, when the fleet was in position 33°36’N, 26°20’E, course was altered to close HMS Liverpool.

At noon, HMS Liverpool was in position 32°50’N, 27°31’E. By this time the tow from HMS Orion had parted. HMS Liverpool’s bow was hanging down and acted as a rudder. HMS Liverpool had three screws in action.

At 1432 hours, the towline had again been passed and the damaged portion of the full forward of ‘A’ turret had broken off and this simplified towing.

The fleet remained in close company until dusk and then proceeded to Alexandria. HMS Mohawk was detached to take of the escort duties wit convoy AS 4 from HMS Jervis and to escort this convoy to Port Said.

16 October 1940.

The fleet arrived at Alexandria around 0100 hours.

HMS Liverpool and it’s escort arrived in the harbour around noon.

Convoy ME 4 arrived at Alexandria later in the afternoon. (3)

29 Oct 1940

Operation BN.

Landing of British troop on Crete.

29 October 1940.

By 0130 hours the Mediterranean Fleet had left Alexandria Harbour. For this operation the fleet made up of the 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), aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, DSC, RN), HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), heavy cruisers HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), light cruisers HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN), HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN), HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN). Escort was provided by the destroyers HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Havock (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN), HMS Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Dainty (Cdr. M.S. Thomas, DSO, RN), HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN), HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN), HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN), 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 Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN).

On clearing the swept channel the fleet set a course of 315° at 15 knots.

At 0700 hours, A/S patrols were flown off.

At noon, the fleet was in position 32°32’N, 27°30’E.

At 1350 hours, the fleet altered course to 350°.

At 1400 hours, a convoy carrying troops, made up of Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers Olna (7073 GRT, built 1921), Brambleleaf (5917 GRT, built 1917), the armed boarding vessels HMS Chakla (Cdr. L.C. Bach, RD, RNR) and HMS Fiona (Cdr. A.H.H. Griffiths, RD, RNR), departed Alexandria for Suda Bay. They were escorted by the AA cruisers HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN), HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN), net tender HMS Protector (Cdr. R.J. Gardner, RN), the destroyers HMAS Vampire (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN), HMS Waterhen (Lt.Cdr. J.H. Swain, RAN), HMS Wryneck (Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN) and the minesweeper HMS Fareham (Lt. W.J.P. Church, RN).

At 1800 hours, the fleet altered course to 290°.

At midnight the fleet was in position 34°10’N, 25°04’E.

30 October 1940.

There were no incidents during the night. A/S patrols and aircraft to search a sector 270° to 000° to maximum depth were flown off.

At 0800 hours, the fleet was in position 35°00’N, 22°50’E, course 310°, speed 16 knots. Visibility was poor and the earlier launched air search sighted nothing.

At 1130 hours, HMS Dainty obtained an A/S contact. Later an Italian report was picked up that the fleet had been sighted by either an aircraft or a submarine at 1120 hours.

At noon, the fleet was in position 35°20’N, 22°00’E.

At 1230 hours, a second air search was launched but again these sighted nothing.

At 2000 hours, the fleet was in position 36°35’N, 20°43’E steering 340°.

31 October 1940.

At 0330 hours, when in position 38°18’N, 19°25’E the fleet altered course to 160°.

At 0430 hours, HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN), departed Alexandria with troops for Suda Bay.

At 0645 hours, an air search was flown off to search between the Greek coast and 270°.

At 0800 hours, the fleet was in position 37°22’N, 20°35’E steering 090°. The air search did not sight the enemy but three Greek destroyers were sighted.

At 1020 hours, HMS Warspite catapulted her Walrus aircraft to take the Fleet Gunnery Officer to Suda Bay.

At 1150 hours, the fleet was sighted and reported by an enemy aircraft.

At noon, the fleet was in position 37°02’N, 21°25’E. During the afternoon the fleet proceeded to the southward.

At 1600 hours, the fleet was in position 36°17’N, 21°37’E. A second air search during the afternoon had sighted nothing.

At 1450 hours, HMS Juno and HMS Defender were detached to Suda Bay to refuel.

At 1530 hours, HMS Nubian and HMS Mohawk rejoined the fleet having been detached late in the morning to investigate Navarinon Bay.

At 1630 hours the convoy arrived at Suda Bay less Olna escorted by Calcutta and Wryneck, these ships arrived at 0630/1.

At 1830 hours, when the fleet was in position 36°15’N, 21°30’E course was changed to 280°.

At 2300 hours, the fleet altered course to 100°.

At midnight the fleet was in position 36°20’N, 20°25’E.

1 November 1940.

At 0100 hours, the fleet changed course to 120°.

At 0630 hours, A/S and search aircraft were flown off. The search was to take place between 270° and the Greek coast.

At 0650 hours, HMS Ajax arrived at Suda Bay.

At 0700 hours, HMS Juno returned from fuelling at Suda Bay. With her was HMAS Voyager. She would take the place of HMS Defender who had fouled the nets at Suda Bay.

At 0800 hours, the fleet was in position 35°23’N, 22°38’E steering 280°. The fleet remained west of Crete to cover the Suda Bay operations.

At 1020 hours, the fleet was reported by an enemy aircraft and at 1155 hours an enemy aircraft was shot down in flames by the fighter patrol.Another Italian aircraft was damaged by them.

At noon, the fleet was in position 35°43’N, 22°00’E steering 130°.

At 1630 hours, the Commander-in-Chief, in HMS Warspite and with HMS Illustrious, HMS York, HMS Gloucester, HMS Jervis, HMS Hero, HMS Hereward, HMS Hasty and HMS Ilex split off and proceeded towards Alexandria.

At midnight, the Commander-in-Chief (HMS Warspite) was in position 33°52’N, 24°25’E.

2 November 1940.

At 1340 hours, the group of ships not with the Commander-in-Chief were attacked by four Italian torpedo bombers in position 32°39’N, 27°11’E. All torpedoes however missed astern.

At 1900 hours, the Commander-in-Chief, in HMS Warspite, arrived at Alexandria.

HMS Orion and HMAS Sydney arrived at Alaxandria shortly before midnight.

The remainder of the fleet did not enter the harbour during the dark hours due to the weather conditions. They arrived at Alexandria in groups the next day. (3)

4 Nov 1940

Several operations in the Mediterranean.


Operation MB 8, convoy operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Operation Coat, transfer of reinforcements from the Western Mediterranean to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Operation Crack, air attack on Cagliary, Sardinia.

Operation Judgment, air attack on Taranto.

4 November 1940.

Convoy AN 6 departed Port Said / Alexandria today for Greece. The convoy was made up of the following tankers; Adinda (Dutch, 3359 GRT, built 1939), British Sergeant (5868 GRT, built 1922), Pass of Balhama (758 GRT, built 1933) and the transports Hannah Moller (2931 GRT, built 1911), Odysseus (Greek, 4577 GRT, built 1913). Several more transports (probably Greek) were also part of this convoy.

The Pass of Balhama sailed from Alexandria, the others from Port Said.

The convoy was escorted by the A/S trawlers HMS Kingston Crystal (Lt.Cdr. G.H.P. James, RNR) and HMS Kingston Cyanite (Skr. F.A. Yeomans, RNR).

HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN) and HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN) both shifted from Alexandria to Port Said on this day. At Port Said the were to embark troops for Crete.

Owning to breakdowns in Kingston Crystal and Kingston Cyanite, HMS Dainty (Cdr. M.S. Thomas, DSO, RN), HMS Kingston Coral (Skr. W. Kirman, RNR) and HMS Sindonis (Ch.Skr. G. Rawding, RNR) departed Alexandria late on the 4th to rendez-vous with convoy AN 6.

5 November 1940.

Convoy MW 3 departed Alexandria for Malta. This convoy was made up of the transports Devis (6054 GRT, built 1938), Rodi (3220 GRT, built 1928, former Italian), Volo (1587 GRT, built 1938), Waiwera ( 12435 GRT, built 1934) and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Plumleaf (5916 GRT, built 1917).

Escort was provided by the AA cruisers HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN), HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN), HMAS Vampire (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 minesweepers HMS Abingdon (Lt. G.A. Simmers, RNR).

Also sailing with this convoy were the transport Brisbane Star (12791 GRT, built 1937) and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker (5917 GRT, built 1917), the the armed boarding vessels HMS Chakla (Cdr. L.C. Bach, RD, RNR) and HMS Fiona (Cdr. A.H.H. Griffiths, RD, RNR), net tender HMS Protector (Cdr. R.J. Gardner, RN). They were to sail with this convoy until off Crete when they were to proceed to Suda Bay.

HMS Ajax and HMAS Sydney departed Port Said for Suda Bay with Headquarters, 14th Infantery Brigade, one light and one heavy AA battery and administrative troops.

6 November 1940.

Vice-Admiral light forces, in HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), left Alexandria for Pireaus to consult with the Greek authorities. Also some RAF personnel was embarked for passage.

At 0600 hours, convoy AN 6 was in position 34°40’N, 22°20’E.

The Commander-in-Chief departed Alexandria with the 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, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral A.L.St.G. Lyster, CB, CVO, DSO, RN). They were escorted by HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, 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 Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN) and HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN).

The Rear-Admiral 1st Battle Squadron sailed with HMS Malaya (Capt. A.F.E. Palliser, DSC, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Ramillies (Capt. A.D. Read, RN). They were 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), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN) and HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN). HMS Eagle had defects and was unable to proceed to sea with this group as had been originally intended. Three aircraft from Eagle were embarked on Illustrious.

The heavy cruiser HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN) and the light cruiser HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E. de F. Renouf, CVO, RN) also departed Alexandria for these operations.

The fleet was clear of the harbour by 1300 hours, and then proceded on a mean line of advance of 310° until 1800 hours when it was changed to 270°. At 2000 hours, course was changed to 320°.

7 November 1940.

There were no incidents during the night.

At 0800 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 34°15’N, 24°47’E.

Around 1000 hours, the Vice-Admiral light forces, arrived at Pireaus in HMS Orion.

At noon, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 34°26’N, 23°43’E. At this time the mean line of advance was changed to 320°.

At 1300 hours, aircraft were flown off to search a sector 300° to 360°. Nothing was however sighted by this search.

At 1700 hours, HMAS Sydney joined the Commander-in-Chief from Suda Bay. She reported that ships for Suda Bay had all arrived according to plan and that stores and troops had all ben landed by dark on 6 November.

At 1800 hours, the position of convoy MW 3 was 35°44’N, 22°41’E and shortly afterwards the convoy altered course to 290°.

At 2000 hours, the position of the convoy was 35°48’N. 21°45’E, course was now altered to 320°.

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At 1800 hours, ‘Force H’ departed Gibraltar for ‘Operation Coat’ and ‘Operation Crack’. ‘Force H’ was made up of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Sommerville, KCB, 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, DSC, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Fortune (Cdr. E.A. Gibbs, DSO, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. G.H. Peters, DSC, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN), HMS Duncan (Cdr. A.D.B. James, RN) , HMS Isis (Cdr. C.S.B. Swinley, DSC, RN). Also part of this force were a group of warships that was to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet. These were the battleship HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN), heavy cruiser HMS Berwick (Capt. G.L. Warren, RN), light cruiser HMS Glasgow (Capt. H. Hickling, RN) and the destroyers HMS Gallant (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, RN), HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall A'Deane, DSC, RN) and HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN). These ships carried troops for Malta as well as three of the destroyers from ‘Force H’, HMS Faulknor, HMS Fortune, HMS Fury. A total of 2150 troops were embarked as follows; HMS Berwick 750, HMS Barham 700, HMS Glasgow 400, and the six destroyers had each 50 troops on board.

8 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 36°36’N, 21°08’E, the mean line of advance was 280°.

At 0400 hours, the mean line of advance was changed to 220°.

At 0645 hours, an air search was flown off to search a sector 310° to the Greek coast. It sighted nothing.

At 0900 hours, when the Commander-in-Chief was in position 36°40’N, 18°50’E course was changed to 180° to close the convoy.

At noon, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°57’N, 18°46’E. The convoy was at that time in position 35°46’N, 18°41’E. Also around noon he convoy was reported by an enemy aircraft and at 1230 hours one Cant. 501 was attacked by Gladiators but apparently managed to escape.

At 1400 hours, aircraft were flown off to search between 200° and 350°. Also one aircraft was flown off with messages for Malta. The air search again sighted nothing.

At 1520 hours, the fleet was reported by enemy aircraft.

At 1610 hours, three Fulmar fighters attacked a formation of seven Italian S. 79’s shooting down two of them. The remainder jettisoned their bombs and made off.

At 1700 hours, HMS Ajax joined the fleet coming from Suda Bay.

The fleet had remained in a covering position to the north of the convoy all day and at 1830 hours, when in position 35°’20’N, 17°25’E course was changed to 000°. At that time the convoy was only five nautical miles to the southward of the fleet.

At 2130 hours, the fleet altered course to 180°.

At 2230 hours, the fleet altered course to 210°.

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At dawn A/S air patrols were flown off by HMS Ark Royal. These were maintained throughout the day.

A fighter patrol was maintained throughout the afternoon but no enemy aircraft were encountered.

The weather was fine and visibility good it was considered very likely that the force would be sighted and attacked by enemy aircraft. So it was decided at 1530 hours that HMS Ark Royal, HMS Sheffield, HMS Glasgow and six destroyers would proceed ahead to carry out the planned attack (‘Operation Crack’) on the Cagliari aerodrome. [According to the plan these destroyers should be HMS Faulknor, HMS Foretune, HMS Fury, Gallant, HMS Greyhound and HMS Griffin. It is currently not known to us if it were indeed these destroyers that with this force when they split off from the other ships.]

That evening fighters from the Ark Royal shot down an enemy aircraft.

9 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°42’N, 17°09’E, the mean line of advance was 270°.

At 0800 hours, the convoy was closed in position 34°42’N, 15°00’E.

At 0920 hours, HMS Ramillies, HMS Hyperion, HMS Hero and HMS Ilex were detached to join the convoy and escort it to Malta. The weather was overcast and squally so no air search was flown off.

The main fleet remained to the south-west of the Medina-Bank during the day. The 3rd and 7th Cruiser Squadrons being detached to search to the north.

The main fleet was being shadowed by enemy aircraft and was reported four times between 1048 and 1550 hours. One Cant 506B aircraft was shot down by a Fulmar at 1640 hours.

At noon, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 34°47’N, 16°35’E.

At 1219 hours, a Swordfish A/S patrol force landed near HMS Warspite shortly after taking off. The crew was picked up by HMS Jervis. The depth charge and A/S bombs exploded close to Warspite.

At 2100 hours, when the Commander-in-Chief was in position 34°45’N, 16°10’E, course was altered to 310° to make rendez-vous with ‘Force F’, the reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet coming from Gibraltar.

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At 0430 hours, HMS Ark Royal launched a strike force of nine Swordfish aircraft to bomb Cagliari aerodrome with direct and delay action bombs. On completion of flying off, course was altered to 160° for the flying on position.

At 0745 hours, a fighter section and a section of three Fulmars that were to be transferred to HMS Illustrious (via Malta) were flown off and the nine Swordfish of the strike force landed on. The fighter section for Illustrious landed at Malta at 1020 hours.

The raid on Cagliari appeared to have been quite successful. Five Swordfish attacked the aerodrome and hits were observed on two hangars an other buildings. Two fires were seen to break out and also a large explosion occurred. One Swordfish attacked a group of seaplanes moored off the jetty. Another Swordfish attacked some factories near the power station and obtained a direct hit with a 250-lb bomb and incendiaries. The remaining two aircraft were unable to locate the target and attacked AA batteries instead. Two fires were seen to start but the AA batteries continued firing.

On completion of flying on course was altered to rendez-vous with HMS Barham, HMS Berwick and the remaining five destroyers which were sighted at 0910 hours. The ships then formed up in formation and set off on an easterly course at 18 knots.

At 0930 an enemy aircraft that was shadowing the fleet was picked up by RD/F at a distance of about thirty miles. After working round the fleet clockwise the aircraft was sighted by HMS Barham and then by the Fulmar fighter patrol. The aircraft, which was a large floatplane, was shot down at 1005 hours, twenty miles on the starboard beam of the fleet.

At 1048 hours, a large formation of enemy aircraft was located by RD/F about fifty miles ahead of the fleet and closing. Five minutes later a section of Skua’s was flown off.

A section of Fulmar’s intercepted the enemy as they were working their way round to the sun and forced them to turn away but ten minutes later the enemy again approached. The fleet was then bombed from a height of 13000 feet. No British ships were hit, although HMS Barham, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Duncan had been near missed. It was believed that one of the attackers was shot down.

Throughout the remainder of the day fighter patrols were kept up but no further enemy aircraft attacked the fleet.

At 1915 hours, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Sheffield, HMS Duncan, HMS Isis, HMS Firedrake, HMS Forester and HMS Foxhound turned to the west. HMS Barham, HMS Berwick, HMS Glasgow, HMS Faulknor, HMS Fortune, HMS Fury, HMS Gallant, HMS Greyhound and HMS Griffin continued to the east under the command of Capt. Warren of the Berwick, which was the senior Captain.

10 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°13’N, 15°25’E steering 300°. Shortly afterwards, at 0010 hours, two heavy explosions were felt. It appears that the fleet had been under attack at this time.

At 0700 hours, aircraft were flown off to search a sector 315° to 045°. Shortly after takeoff one Swordfish crashed into the sea. The crew was rescued by HMS Nubian.

At 0715 hours, the 3rd and 7th Cruiser Squadrons rejoined. Shortly afterwards, at 0730 hours, HMAS Vampire, HMAS Voyager, HMAS Waterhen, HMS Dainty, HMS Diamond, HMS Hyperion, HMS Havock and HMS Ilex joined the fleet. HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Juno, HMS Nubian, HMS Mohawk, HMS Decoy, HMS Defender and HMS Hasty were detached to fuel at Malta.

At 1015 hours, rendez-vous was made with ‘Force F’ which was made up of HMS Barham, HMS Berwick, HMS Glasgow, HMS Griffin, HMS Greyhound, HMS Gallant, HMS Fury, HMS Fortune and HMS Faulknor. HMS Fortune and HMS Fury joined the destroyer screen. The other ships were ordered to proceed to Malta to land troops and stores there. The course of he fleet was changed to 110° in position 36°08’N, 13°10’E around this time.

At noon, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°55’N, 13°30’E.

At 1330 hours, convoy ME 3 departed Malta. It consisted of the transports Memnon (7506 GRT, built 1931), Lanarkshire (11275 GRT, built 1940), Clan Macaulay (10492 GRT, built 1936) and Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT, built 1938). Escort was provided by the battleship HMS Ramillies, AA cruiser HMS Coventry and the destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Defender.

At 1400 hours the monitor HMS Terror (Cdr. H.J. Haynes, DSC, RN) and the destroyer HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades RAN) departed Malta.

At 1435 hours, HMS Mohawk rejoined the fleet.

At 1450 hours, HMS Hero was detached to Malta with correspondence.

In the afternoon three Fulmars, which had been flown to Malta from HMS Ark Royal, landed on HMS Illustrious.

At 2100 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°15’N, 14°16’E steering 090°. The 3rd and 7th Cruiser Squadrons were detached to search between 020° to 040°.

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In the western Mediterranean all was quiet. Fighter patrols were maintained overhead during the day. Also A/S patrols were maintained all day.

11 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°18’N, 15°14’E. At 0100 hours the fleet altered course to 060°.

At 0135 hours, HMS Ramillies, which was with convoy ME 3, reported three explosions in position 34°35’N, 16°08’E. This might have been a submarine attack. [This was indeed the case as the Italian submarine Pier Capponi attacked a battleship around this time.]

At 0700 hours, an air search was launched to search between 315° and 045°. One aircraft was flown to Malta to collect photographs of Taranto harbour.

At 0800 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 36°55’N, 17°36’E.

At noon, the Vice-Admiral light forces in HMS Orion coming from Pireaus, joined the fleet in position 36°10’N, 18°30’E. Correspondence was transferred to HMS Warspite via HMS Griffin.

At 1310 hours, the Vice-Admiral light forces, in HMS Orion and with HMS Ajax and HMAS Sydney, HMS Nubian and HMS Mohawk in company, parted company to carry out an anti-shipping raid into the Straits of Otranto.

At 1800 hours, HMS Illustrious, HMS York, HMS Gloucester, escorted by HMS Hyperion, HMS Hasty, HMS Havock and HMS Ilex were detached for ‘Operation Judgement’ the torpedo and dive-bombing attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour.

For this operation this force proceeded to position 38°11’N, 19°30’E. Here aircraft were flown off in two waves, at 2000 and at 2100 hours.

At 2000 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 37°54’N, 19°09’E. One hour later the fleet altered course to 000°.

At 2030 hours, the Vice-Admiral light forces with the cruisers passed through position 39°10’N, 19°30’E, course 340° doing 25 knots.

At 2140 hours, HMS Juno obtained an A/S contact and attacked it with depth charges.

12 November 1940.

At 0700 hours, both detached groups rejoined the fleet. The attack on Taranto harbour was reported as a success. Eleven torpedoes had been dropped and hits were claimed on a Littorio-class and two Cavour-class battleships in the outer harbour. Sticks of bombs had been dropped amongst the warships in the inner harbour. Two aircraft failed to return to HMS Illustrious. [Damage was done to the battleships Littorio (three torpedo hits), Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour (one torpedo hit each), in fact the Conti di Cavour never returned to service. Also damaged (by bombs) were the heavy cruiser Trento and the destroyer Libeccio.]

The raid into the Straits of Otranto had also been successful as an Italian convoy had been intercepted off Valona around 0115 and largely destroyed. The convoy had been made up of four merchant vessels which had all been sunk. There had been two escorts, thought to be destroyers or torpedo boats. These managed to escape. [The merchant vessels Antonio Locatelli (5691 GRT, built 1920), Capo Vado (4391 GRT, built 1906), Catalani (2429 GRT, built 1929) and Premuda (4427 GRT, built 1907) had been sunk. Their escorts had been the armed merchant cruiser Ramb III (3667 GRT, built 1938) and the torpedo boat Nicola Fabrizi. The convoy had been en-route from Vlore, Albania to Brindisi.]

At 0800 hours, the fleet was in position 37°20’N, 20°18’E.

At 0930 hours, HMS Warspite catapulted her Walrus aircraft to take massages to Suda Bay for forwarding to the Admiralty by transmission.

At noon, the fleet was in position 37°20’N, 20°08’E. Course at that time was 140°.

As it was intended to repeat ‘Operation Judgement’ tonight the fleet remained in the area. Course being altered to 340° at 1600 hours.

Fortunately the fleet was not reported at this time. Three enemy aircraft were shot down during the day but these were shot down before they had reported the fleet.

At 1800 hours, the decision was taken not to proceed with the repeat of ‘Operation Jugement’ due to the bad weather in the Gulf of Taranto. At that time the fleet was in position 37°06’N, 19°44’E. Course was set to 140° to return to Alexandria.

At 1830 hours, HMS Malaya, HMS Ajax, HMS Dainty, HMS Diamond, HMS Greyhound, HMS Griffin and HMS Gallant were detached to fuel at Suda Bay. HMS Berwick and HMS York were detached to proceed to Alexandria where they arrived in the evening of the 13th.

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In the western Mediterranean the fleet arrived back at Gibraltar around 0800 hours.

13 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 35°44’N, 20°53’E.

At 0630 hours, HMS Terror and HMS Vendetta arrived at Suda Bay. Terror was to remain at Suda Bay as guardship.

At 1000 hours, the force with HMS Malaya arrived at Suda Bay. After fuelling the departed later the same day for Alexandria taking HMS Vendetta with them.

Also around 1000 hours, convoy ME 3 arrived at Alexandria.

At noon, the Commander-in-Chief was in position 34°23’N, 23°43’E.

At about 1530 hours, Fulmar’s attacked an Italian shadowing aircraft which however managed to escape although damaged.

At 1600 hours, the fleet altered course to 050° when in position 33°23’N, 26°18’E. Course was altered back to 090° at 1800 hours. RD/F later detacted an enemy formation to the southward but the fleet was not sighted.

At 2000 hours, the fleet was in position 33°38’N, 27°34’E.

14 November 1940.

Around 0700 hours, the bulk of the fleet with the Commander-in-Chief arrived at Alexandria. (4)

12 Nov 1940

Attack on Italian convoy in the Straits of Otranto.


11 November 1940.

At 1310 hours, the Vice-Admiral light forces, in HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN) with HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN) and HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN) in company, parted company with the bulk of the fleet to carry out an anti-shipping raid into the Straits of Otranto.

12 November 1940.

At 0100 hours, the force had reached their northern limit and turned back. No enemy ships had so far been sighted.

At 0115 hours, while just on the way back towards the fleet, ships were sighted to the south-east. They bore 120° and were about 8 nautical miles away. They were thought to be four merchant vessels escorted by a destroyer and a torpedo boat. They were steering westwards towards Brindisi.

At 0125 hours, HMS Mohawk opened fire on the torpedo boat.

At 0128 hours, HMS Orion crossed the bow of the convoy and opened fire with her 6” guns on the third merchant vessel in line and with her 4” guns she fired four salvoes at the torpedo boat. Range was 6400 yards, bearing 88°. The merchant ship was badly damaged and set on fire. Two torpedoes were fired at her of which one hit and she was seen to sink.

Fire with her 6” guns was then shifted to the fourth merchant ship in line bearing 63°, range 5300 yards. The 4” guns meanwhile fired star shell to light up the target. Hit repeatedly she was set on fire and abandoned by her crew. She was then hit by a torpedo fired from 5000 yards and was seen to settle by the stern.

HMS Ajax had opened fire at 0130 hours on the destroyer. She did not appeared to have been hit. She then shifted fire to one of the merchant ships that was set ablaze. She then opened fire on another ship and also fired a torpedo which apparently missed. The ship was then hit by two salvoes and left in a sinking condition.

HMAS Sydney, the last ship in line, opened fire from 7000 yards on the leading ship which was hit and set ablaze. Fire was then shifted to the second ship from the right which was lit up by star shell. This ship was seen turning away with shots falling all around her. Then the destroyer, which was making smoke, came under fire. She drew ahead and fire was now shifted back to the original targets now bunched together. The targets were hit but were soon lost out of sight into the night. At 0140 hours, a torpedo track passed underneath Sydney. Fire was then shifted to a ship hat was laying stopped and was also under fire from other ships. This ship was seen to be badly hit. At 0148 hours two torpedoes were fired by Sydney on a ship that was to the right of the previous one. At 0150 hours Sydney ceased fire. Two ships were in sight bearing 20° and 25°. Also a ship on fire was in sight bearing 349°. This ship was seen to sink at 0200 hours.

HMS Nubian had opened fire at 0131 hours on a light grey ship from 8000 yards. When this ship was on fire she shifted her gunfire to the ship to the right of the previous target. The escorts by now had been lost out of sight. At 0145 hours HMS Nubian sighted land looming on the starboard bow.

HMS Mohawk opened fire at 0125 hours on one of the escorts from 4000 yards. A hit was obtained with the fourth salvo and the enemy turned towards the convoy making smoke. Fire was then shifted to the second merchant vessel from the left. Mohawk also sighted land at the same time as Nubian. Mohawk then shifted target to the fourth ship from the left. This ship was hit by a salvo and was seen to lay stopped emitting large clouds of steam. HMS Nubian who was now astern of HMS Mohawk took over the target. HMS Mohawk was about to attack disabled enemy ships with torpedoes when she received orders to leve the area with the remainder of the force and course was set to 166°, speed 28 knots.

At 0315 hours, HMS Ajax reported a shadowing aircraft which remained with the force until around 0515 hours. The force had maintained a speed of 28 knots to get as far as possible from the enemy bases. No attacks however followed.

The force rejoined the fleet around 0700 hours.

The convoy this force attacked had been made up of four merchant vessels which had all been sunk. There had been two escorts, these were thought to be a destroyer and a torpedo boat. These managed to escape. The merchant vessels Antonio Locatelli (5691 GRT, built 1920), Capo Vado (4391 GRT, built 1906), Catalani (2429 GRT, built 1929) and Premuda (4427 GRT, built 1907) had been sunk. Their escorts had been the armed merchant cruiser Ramb III (3667 GRT, built 1938) and the torpedo boat Nicola Fabrizi. The convoy had been en-route from Vlore, Albania to Brindisi. (5)

23 Nov 1940

Operation MB 9.


Convoy operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

See also the event for 25 November 1940 called ‘Operation Collar and the resulting Battle of Cape Spartivento’ for the events in the Western Mediterranean.

23 November 1940.

Convoy MW 4 departed Alexandria for Malta today. The convoy was made up of the transports HMS Breconshire (9776 GRT, built 1939), Memnon (7506 GRT, built 1931), Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT, built 1938) and Clan Macaulay (10492 GRT, built 1936). Close escort was provided by (‘Force D’) the AA cruisers HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN), HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall A'Deane, DSC, RN), HMAS Vampire (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades RAN) and HMS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN).

A cover force (‘Force C’) for this convoy also departed Alexandria today. They were to proceed to Suda Bay where they were to refuel. This cover force was made up of the battleships HMS Malaya (Capt. A.F.E. Palliser, DSC, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Ramillies (Capt. A.D. Read, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), light cuisers 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. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN) and the destroyers HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Havock (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Gallant (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, RN), HMS Dainty (Cdr. M.S. Thomas, DSO, RN), HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN) and HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN).

HMS Berwick (Capt. G.L. Warren, RN) departed Alexandria later this day to make rendez-vous with ‘Force C’ off Suda Bay next morning.

24 November 1940.

Both ‘Force C’ and ‘Force D’ passed the Kaso Strait early this day. ‘Force C’ arrived at Suda Bay to refuel at 0800 hours.

At noon, the convoy was attacked by three enemy torpedo bombers in position 36°13’N, 24°48’E. The enemy planes were forced to drop their torpedoes from long range by the effective AA fire from the escorts and no hits were obtained.

In the afternoon both forces passed the Kithera Channel.

25 November 1940.

At 0200 hours, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E. de F. Renouf, CVO, RN) and HMS Glasgow (Capt. H. Hickling, RN), departed Alexandria for exercises.

Around 0300 hours, ‘Force A’ departed Alexandria to provide cover for the operations. This force was made up of the 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, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral A.L.St.G. Lyster, CB, CVO, DSO, 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. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN), HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN), HMS Wryneck (Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN) and HMAS Waterhen (Lt.Cdr. J.H. Swain, RAN).

At 0500 hours, HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN) and HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN) departed Malta to make rendez-vous the next day with ‘Force A’.

At 0645 hours, Illustrious flew off fighter and A/S patrols.

Around 1600 hours, having completed their exercises, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron joined ‘Force A’.

At 2000 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 34°25’N, 26°33’E, steering 000°.

26 November 1940.

At 0030 hours, ‘Force A’ changed course to 285°.

At 0230 hours, HMS Illustrious, with HMS Gloucester, HMS Glasgow, HMS Janus, HMS Juno, HMS Mohawk and HMS Nubian split off for an air attack on Port Laki, Leros.

At 0300 hours, HMS Illustrious began to fly off the aircraft involved in the raid, which were a total of 15.

At 0600 hours, off Suda Bay, the aircraft returned to HMS Illustrious. They reported that targets were difficult to distinguish but fires were started in the dockyard and other areas. Two aircraft attacked a ship, believed to be a cruiser, but the results were unobserved. One aircraft failed to return.

Meanwhile, at 0500 hours, HMS York, had been detached to refuel at Suda Bay and then to join the Rear-Admiral 3rd Cruiser Squadron (in Gloucester) off Cape Matapan.

The remainder of ‘Force A’ entered Suda Bay between 0700 and 0830 hours. The destroyers were fuelled there.

A fighter patrol was maintained over the harbour until ‘Force A’ sailed again around 1030 hours. They then set course for the Kithera Channel.

Meanwhile convoy MW 4 had arrived at Malta around 0800 hours. Also HMS Malaya and HMS Ramillies had put into the harbour.

At noon, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°37’N, 24°20’E. As it was considered that the fleet had been located by enemy aircraft a fighter patrol was flown off and maintained for the remainder of the day (during daylight hours).

Also around noon HMS Ramillies, HMS Newcastle (Capt. E.A. Aylmer, DSC, RN), HMS Coventry, HMS Greyhound, HMS Gallant, HMS Hereward, HMS Defender and HMS Diamond departed Malta to join HMS Berwick at sea and then proceed westwards to join the fleet in the western Mediterranean.

At 1600 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°44’N, 23°05’E. At 1630 hours, Convoy ME 4 departed Malta for Alexandria. This convoy was made up of the transports Waiwera (12435 GRT, built 1934), Cornwall (10603 GRT, built 1920), Rodi (3220 GRT, built 1928, former Italian), Volo (1587 GRT, built 1938) and Devis (6054 GRT, built 1938). Escort was provided by HMS Calcutta, HMAS Vampire, HMAS Vendetta and HMAS Voyager.

At 1815 hours, ‘Force A’ altered course to 220° and at 1930 hours, when in position 35°52’N, 22°08’E, to 290°. This course was maintained throughout the night to cover the convoy.

27 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 36°15’N, 20°40’E.

At 0600 hours, ‘Force A’ altered course to 230°.

At 0700 hours, an air search was flown off to search a sector of 295° to 025° but nothing was sighted.

At 1100 hours, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron (HMS York, HMS Gloucester and HMS Glasgow) rejoined the fleet having carried out a sweep to the north-west of the fleet through positions 36°06’N, 20°56’E and 37°48’N, 17°47’E.

At noon ‘Force A’ was in position 35°56’N, 17°47’E.

On receipt of enemy reports from ‘Force H’, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron was detached to the west to cover the ‘Collar convoy’ coming from that direction. They were to reach a rendez-vous position of 36°32’N, 12°00’E at 0400/28.

The fleet remained in a covering position for convoy ME 4 for the rest of the day. A second air search was flown off at 1430 hours to search a sector between 310° and 010° but again sighted nothing.

28 November 1940.

At 0230 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°15’N, 14°24’E. Course was altered to 320° to rendez-vous with the ‘Collar convoy’ in position 36°00’N, 13°25’E.

At 0700 hours, HMS Wryneck was detached to fuel at Malta, she returned in the afternoon.

At 0800 hours, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron was sighted and one hour later rendez-vous was made with the ‘Collar convoy’ in position 36°02’N, 13°18’E. HMS Decoy and HMS Hotspur (Cdr. H.F.H Layman, DSO, RN) were detached with the merchant vessels Clan Forbes (7529 GRT, built 1938) and Clan Fraser (7529 GRT, built 1939) to Malta. Where they arrived at 1430 hours. The destroyers also remained at Malta where they were to refit. At the same time HMS Greyhound joined the destroyer screen of the fleet.

The merchant vessel New Zealand Star (10740 GRT, built 1935) proceeded eastwards escorted by HMS Defender and HMS Hereward. Cover was provided by HMS Manchester (Capt. H.A. Packer, RN) and HMS Southampton (Capt. B.C.B. Brooke, RN).

At 1200 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°41’N, 14°11’E. Half an hour later course was altered to 270° to close the corvettes HMS Peony (Lt.Cdr. (rtd.) M.B. Sherwood, DSO, RN), HMS Salvia (Lt.Cdr. J.I. Miller, DSO, RD, RNR), HMS Gloxinia (Lt.Cdr. A.J.C. Pomeroy, RNVR) and HMS Hyacinth (T/Lt. F.C. Hopkins, RNR) which were astern of the convoyas they had been unable to keep up. They were sighted at 1245 hours and course was then altered to 180°.

At 1250 hours, HMS Glasgow was attacked by six Italian JU-87 dive bombers. One bomb fell within 30 yards from the ship but all the others missed by a wider margin. Glasgow sustained no damage or casualties.

Of the corvettes HMS Gloxinia had to put into Malta with the defects, while the remaining three proceeded to Suda Bay.

At 1600 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°20’N, 14°37’E. The 3rd Cruiser Squadron was again detached to patrol to the north, this time to cover the passage of the corvettes to Suda Bay.

At 1700 hours, HMS Griffin was detached to Malta with engine defects.

Meanwhile from the escort of convoy ME 4 (the group with HMS Malaya) the destroyers HMS Diamond and HMAS Waterhen were detached to escort convoy AS 7 from the Aegean to Port Said.

29 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°18’N, 17°03’E.

At 0730 hours, an air search was flown off to search a sector between 310° and 020°.

At 1200 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°00’N, 21°00’E. The three remaining corvettes were at that time 80 nautical miles to the north-westward.

At 1330 hours, the 3rd Cruiser Squadron was detached to Suda Bay.

At 1450 hours, HMS Manchester and HMS Southampton joined ‘Force A’ but at 1720 hours they were detached to proceed independently to Alexandria.

At 2000 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 34°37’N, 23°20’E.

Convoy ME 4 arrived at Alexandria this day as did her escort ‘Force C’. Some of the merchant vessels (Volo, Rodi and Cornwall) continued on to Port Said escorted by two of the destroyers.

29 November 1940.

At 0001 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 34°00’N, 24°45’E.

In the morning HMS Manchester and HMS Southampton arrived at Alexandria.

Also in the morning HMS York, HMS Gloucester and HMS Glasgow arrived at Suda Bay as did the three corvettes.

Around 1800 hours, ‘Force A’ arrived at Alexandria. (3)

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)

21 Jan 1941
HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) both departed Suda Bay shortly after 0900/21 to provide cover for convoy AN 12 during it's passage through the Kaso Strait.

For the daily positions of these cruisers during 21/22 January 1941 see the map below.

(7)

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. (8)

22 Jan 1941
HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN) and HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) returned to Suda Bay around 1600/22. (7)

1 Feb 1941

Operation MC 7.

Diversion in the eastern Mediterranean during operations by Force H in the western Mediterranean.

1 February 1941.

The light cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) and the destroyers HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN) and HMS Hereward (Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN) departed Alexandria at 0300/1. The destroyers were detached shortly after leaving harbour to proceed to the north-eastward to sweep the waters around Rhodes during the night of ½ February. They were to be at Suda bay at 0700/2.

The cruisers were to proceed through the Kaso Strait around 2200/1. They then were to proceed to Suda Bay where they were to make rendez-vous with the destroyers.

At 0800/1 the Mediterranean Fleet departed Alexandria. The Fleet was made up of the battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, KCB, DSO, RN), HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral A.L.St.G. Lyster, CB, CVO, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Juno (Cdr. St.J.R.J. Thyrwhitt, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr .P.A. Cartwright, RN), HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN), HMS Wryneck (Lt.Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN), HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhodes, RAN) and HMAS Vampire (Cdr. J.A. Walsh, RAN).

At 2200/1 the light cruisers HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN) and the destroyer HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) departed Suda Bay to join the Mediterranean Fleet at sea.

2 February 1941.

At 0645/2 Italian reconnaissance aircraft sighted the Fleet. At 0800 hours the Fleet was in position 34.25’N, 23.49’E. At this time HMS Ajax, HMAS Perth and HMS Jaguar joined the Fleet. HMS Wryneck was detached to return to Alexandria. She was ordered to proceed along the western desert coast in order to reinforce the inshore squadron during her passage.

At 1500/2, HMS Defender parted company and proceeded to Malta where she was to refit. She also had RAF personnel on board for Malta. She arrived at Malta at 0800/3.

The destroyer HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN) left Malta at 1900/2 to join the Fleet at 1100/3.

HMS Orion, HMS Bonaventure, HMS Ilex, HMS Hero and HMS Hereward joined the Fleet at 1545. No enemy had been encountered during their operations. HMS Bonaventure was detached shortly afterwards on account of her shortage of ammunition. She arrived back atAlexandria around 1300/3.

At 1800 hours, HMS Orion, HMS Ajax, HMAS Perth, HMS Ilex and HMS Hereward were detached to cover the movements of HMS Defender and HMS Decoy (see above) during the night. They later turned around to rejoin the fleet by 0900/3.

The Fleet continued to proceed to the north-west until 0100/3, then turned west but at 0300/3 turned to the east.

3 February 1941.

At 0800/3 a signal was received from Force H that ‘ Operation Picket ‘ had been completed but that ‘ Operation Result ‘ had been abandoned due the the severe weather conditions. As ‘ Operation MC 7 ‘’s main purpose was a diversion for these operations Admiral Cunningham decided to return to Alexandria.

Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell’s force rejoined the fleet at 0900 hours. At 0930 hours, HMS Ajax and HMAS Perth were detached for duty in the Aegean and to cover convoy’s. The destroyers HMAS Vampire and HMAS Vendetta were detached with orders to fuel1 at Suda Bay and then to join the escort of convoy AS 14 coming from the Aegean towards Alexandria / Port Said.

HMS Decoy, coming from Malta, joined the fleet at 1130 hours.

4 February 1941.

The Mediterranean Fleet returned to Alexandria around 1830 hours. Practice attacks by aircraft from HMS Eagle had been made on the fleet during the day. (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)

9 Jun 1941
During the British operations against Vichy-French held Syria, the Vichy-French submarine Caiman narrowly misses the British light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN).

1 Dec 1941
Acting on an ULTRA intercept, a British force sailed from Malta in the evening of 30 November with the British light cruisers HMS Neptune (Capt. R.C. O'Conor, RN), HMS Aurora (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Penelope (Capt. A.D. Nicholl, RN) and the British destroyers HMS Kimberley (Cdr. J.S.M. Richardson, DSO, RN), HMS Kingston (Cdr. P. Somerville, DSO, DSC, RN) and HMS Lively (Lt.Cdr. W.F.E. Hussey, DSC, RN).
At 0330 hrs of 1/12 the British intercept and sink the Italian transport Adriatico (1976 GRT) then proceed towards the Libyan coast.
At a point 60 nautical miles north-north-west of Tripoli, Libya, Penelope, Aurora and Lively intercept a small convoy consisting of the Italian oiler Iridio Mantovani (10540 GRT) escorted by the Italian destroyer Alvise da Mosto (2125 tons) and sink both.

26 Dec 1941

Convoy ME 8

This convoy departed Malta on 26 December 1941 for Alexandria where it arrived on 29 December 1941.

The convoy was made up of the following transports; Ajax (7797 GRT, built 1931), City of Calcutta (8063 GRT, built 1940), Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT, built 1938) and Sydney Star (11095 GRT, built 1936).

Escort was provided by the light cruisers HMS Ajax (Capt. S.L. Bateson, RN), HMS Dido (Capt. H.W.U. McCall, RN) and the destroyers HMS Lance (Lt.Cdr. R.W.F. Northcott, RN), HMS Lively (Lt.Cdr. W.F.E. Hussey, DSC, RN), HMS Arrow (Cdr. A.M. McKillop, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. G.H. Peters, DSC, RN), HMS Gurkha (Cdr. C.N. Lentaigne, RN) and HMAS Nestor (Cdr. A.S. Rosenthal, RAN).

On the same day the light (AA) cruiser HMS Carlisle (Capt. D.M.L. Neame, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMAS Napier (Capt. S.H.T. Arliss, RN), HMAS Nizam (Lt.Cdr. M.J. Clark, RAN), HMS Maori (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC and Bar, RN) and HrMs Isaac Sweers (Cdr. J. Houtsmuller, RNN) departed Alexandria. They were to make rendez-vous with the convoy on the 27th but due to bad weather rendez-vous was only made in the morning of the 28th. By then the Dutch destroyer HrMs Isaac Sweers had already left the force on the 27th to return to Alexandria due to weather damage. She arrived at Alexandria on the 28th.

When the two groups met HMS Lance and HMS Lively split off and returned to Malta where they arrived on the 29th.

During the 28th the convoy was attacked several times by German Ju.88’s and Italian torpedo aircraft. The destroyer HMS Maori was damaged by near-misses. There were also some casualties amongst her crew.

The convoy and it’s escort arrived at Alexandria on the 29th less the transport Sydney Star which proceeded to Port Said escorted by HMAS Nizam. The destroyer then arrived at Alexandria on the 30th. (11)

22 Jan 1942
Shortly before 1700 hours, HMS Ajax (Capt. S.L. Bateson, RN), departed Alexandria for Port Said. She was escorted until 2003 hours by the destroyers HMS Hotspur (Lt. T.D. Herrick, DSC, RN) and HrMs Isaac Sweers (Cdr. W. Harmsen, RNN). The destroyers then returned to Alexandria where they arrived later the same day. (12)

23 Jan 1942
Around 1100 hours HMS Ajax (Capt. S.L. Bateson, RN) arrived at Port Said. (12)

18 Dec 1942
HrMs O 15 (Lt. A.J. Schouwenaar, RNN) conducted A/S exercises at / off Scapa Flow with HMCS Iroquois (Cdr. W.B.L. Holms, RCN). Iroquois was escorting HMS Ajax (Capt. J.J. Weld, MVO, RN) on which HrMs O 15 conducted practice attacks. (13)

Sources

  1. ADM 186/794
  2. ADM 53/112031
  3. ADM 199/387
  4. ADM 199/387 + ADM 199/392
  5. ADM 234/325
  6. ADM 199/414 + ADM 199/656 + ADM 223/679 + ADM 234/335
  7. ADM 199/414 + ADM 53/113720
  8. ADM 199/414
  9. ADM 53/113721 + ADM 53/115234
  10. ADM 53/113721 + ADM 53/114820
  11. ADM 199/415
  12. ADM 53/115260
  13. File 2.12.03.6397 (Dutch Archives, The Hague, Netherlands)

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


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