HMS Fiji (58)
Light cruiser of the Fiji class
|Navy||The Royal Navy|
|Built by||John Brown Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Ltd. (Clydebank, Scotland)|
|Ordered||20 Dec 1937|
|Laid down||30 Mar 1938|
|Launched||31 May 1939|
|Commissioned||2 Apr 1940|
|Lost||22 May 1941|
|Loss position||34° 35'N, 23° 10'E|
During the Battle of Crete, HMS Fiji (Capt. Peveril Barton Reibey Wallop William-Powlett, RN) was sunk by German bombers about 45b nautical miles south-west of Crete in position 34º35'N, 23º10'E. She took 241 men to the bottom. 523 survivors were rescued by the destroyers HMS Kingston (Cdr. P. Sommerville, DSO, DSC, RN) and HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN).
Commands listed for HMS Fiji (58)
Please note that we're still working on this section.
|1||Capt. William Gordon Benn, RN||28 Dec 1939||7 Oct 1940|
|2||Cdr. Gerald Vaughan Gladstone, RN||7 Oct 1940||16 Dec 1940|
|3||Capt. Peveril Barton Reibey Wallop William-Powlett, RN||16 Dec 1940||22 May 1941|
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Notable events involving Fiji include:
The page for this light cruiser was last updated in June 2020.
2 Apr 1940
At 0900 hours, HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN), was commissioned at Rothesay Dock, Clydebank. (1)
3 Apr 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) shifted from Rothesay Dock, Clydebank to Tail of Bank. Also anchor and steering trials were carried out. (1)
14 Apr 1940
While they were both at anchor off Tail of Bank, HMS Derbyshire (Capt.(Retd.) E.A.B. Stanley, DSO, RN) dragged her anchor and hit HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN). No serious damage was sustained by both ships.
HMS Fiji returned to her builders yard the next day. (1)
27 Apr 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery trials in the Clyde area. (1)
30 Apr 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted full power trials in the Clyde area. (1)
5 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted trials in the Clyde area. (2)
17 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted trials in the Clyde area. (2)
20 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted trials in the Clyde area. (2)
22 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery trials in the Clyde area. (2)
25 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery trials in the Clyde area. (2)
27 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted trials in the Clyde area. She also ran over the D.G. range. (2)
29 May 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery trials in the Clyde area. (2)
3 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery trials in the Clyde area. (3)
4 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed the Clyde to work-up on the West Indies Station. (3)
10 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at Bermuda. (3)
11 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed Bermuda to patrol in the Florida Straits. This patrol was due to Italy having declared war on Great Britain and the purpose of the patrol was to intercept Italian merchant vessels that were trying to leave the Caribbean. (4)
17 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) returned to Bermuda. (4)
23 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery exercises off Bermuda. (3)
24 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed Bermuda, being ordered by the Admiralty to patrol off Martinique to watch French warships. (4)
28 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) put into Martinique. (3)
29 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed Martinique for St.Lucia. (3)
30 Jun 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at St.Lucia where she was oiled. After completing oiling she returned to Martinique. (3)
3 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed Martinique to patrol off that Island. She had to leave port as the British were about to attack the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. (5)
7 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at St.Lucia where she was oiled by the RFA tanker Bishopdale (8406 GRT, built 1937, master G.F. Rutter). (6)
9 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed St.Lucia to patrol off Martinique. (6)
13 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) is ordered to proceed to Bermuda with all despatch. (5)
15 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at Bermuda. (6)
22 Jul 1940
Around 1700 hours HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, DSC, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) met their destroyer screen that was to escort them for the final part of the voyage to the Clyde. This destroyer screen was made up of HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, RN), HMS Diana (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Le Geyt, RN) and HMS Watchman (Lt.Cdr. E.C.L. Day, RN).
Around 2100 hours that evening HMS Diana hit a whale and had her Asdic dome damaged and out of action. Also she was taking on water forward and had her speed reduced to 22 knots. (6)
23 Jul 1940
Shortly before 2000 hours HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, DSC, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) and their destroyer screen made up of HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, RN), HMS Diana (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Le Geyt, RN) and HMS Watchman (Lt.Cdr. E.C.L. Day, RN) arrived off Greenock. (6)
24 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) shifted from Tail of Bank to Govan where she was immediately docked in No.2 dock. (6)
27 Jul 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) is undocked from No.2 dock at Govan and then berthed alongside Rothesay Dock, Clydebank. (6)
2 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) shifted from Clydebank to Tail of Bank where she then anchored. (7)
10 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed Greenock (Tail of Bank) for Scapa Flow. (7)
11 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at Scapa Flow. (7)
15 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted gunnery exercises at/off Scapa Flow. (7)
18 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) conducted torpedo firing and gunnery exercises at/off Scapa Flow. (7)
20 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) shifted from Scapa Flow to Rosyth. (7)
28 Aug 1940
Operations Menace, the attack on Dakar, 23-24 September 1940.
Part I, initial movements of the Allied naval forces
The actual attack on Dakar took place on 23 and 24 September 1940 but preparations off course started earlier.
28 August 1940.
The battleship HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN) departed Scapa Flow for Gibraltar. She was escorted by HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN). They were joined at sea by HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN) which sailed later.
29 August 1940.
The transports Anadyr (British, 5321 GRT, built 1930), Casamance (French, 5817 GRT, built 1921), Fort Lamy (British, 5242 GRT, built 1919), Nevada (French, 5693 GRT, built 1918) and the tanker Ocean Coast (British, 1173 GRT, built 1935) split off in position 54’N, 18’W from convoy OB 204 (which had departed from the British east coast on 26/27 August) to proceed to Dakar. When they split off their escort towards Dakar were the Free French sloop Savorgnan de Brazza and the Free French A/S trawler President Houduce.
31 August 1940.
On this day three groups of ships departed from British ports.
From Scapa Flow the following ships sailed; troopships Ettrick (British, 11279 GRT, built 1938), Kenya (British, 9890 GRT, built 1938) and Sobieski (Polish, 11030 GRT, built 1939). These were escorted by the light cruiser HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) and the destroyers HMS Ambuscade (Lt.Cdr. R.A. Fell, RN), HMS Antelope (Lt.Cdr. R.T. White, DSO, RN), HMS Volunteer (Lt.Cdr. N. Lanyon, RN) and HMS Wanderer.
From Liverpool the following ships sailed; troopships Karanja (British, 9891 GRT, built 1931), Pennland (Dutch, 16082 GRT, built 1922) and Westernland (Dutch, 16313 GRT, built 1918) and the transport Belgravian (British, 3136 GRT, built 1937). These were escorted by the destroyers HMS Mackay (Cdr. G.H. Stokes, RN), HMS Vanoc (Lt.Cdr. J.G.W. Deneys, RN) and the corvette HMS Erica (Lt.Cdr. W.C. Riley, RNR).
From the Clyde the following warships sailed; HMS Devonshire (Capt. J.M. Mansfield, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.H.D. Cunningham, CB, MVO, RN, the Commander of the upcoming operation), the destroyer HMS Harvester (Lt.Cdr. M. Thornton, RN) and the French sloops (minesweepers) Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc.
All these ships were expected to arrive at Freetown on 13 September where they would be joined by ships coming from Gibraltar and ships that were based at Freetown.
1 September 1940.
The outward passage was initially uneventful and Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s group joined up with the group that came from Liverpool at 0600/1 (zone -1). But that evening misfortune occurred when HMS Fiji was torpedoed by the German submarine U-32 when about 40 nautical miles north-northeast of Rockall in position 58°10’N, 12°55’W. She then returned to the Clyde. Her convoy then continued on escorted by the four destroyers until they met Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s force at 0900/2. The convoy was now known as ‘Convoy MP’. The place of HMS Fiji in the operation was subsequently taken over by the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (Capt. R.S. Stewart, RN).
2 September 1940.
HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN), HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN) arrived at Gibraltar from Scapa Flow.
The destroyer escort for the MP convoy parted company at 1400/2 and was ordered to join HMS Revenge (Capt. E.R. Archer, RN) which was escorting Canadian troop convoy TC 7 to the Clyde.
Passage of the MP convoy southwards was relatively uneventful except for some submarine alarms and also some engine defects during which speed had to be reduced a bit.
6 September 1940.
HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN), HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN) departed Gibraltar for Freetown in the evening but now accompanied by ships from Force H; the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN), battleship HMS Resolution (Capt. O. Bevir, RN) and the destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Foresight (Lt.Cdr. G.T. Lambert, RN), HMS Fortune (Cdr. E.A. Gibbs, DSO, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN) and HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall A'Deane, DSO, DSC, RN).
After passing between Madeira and the Canary Islands on the 8th this force, which constituted the major part of the warships involved in the upcoming operation, turned south at 0900/9. By 0800/11 the force was in position 20°18’N, 19°54’W about 1000 nautical miles south of Casablanca.
Vice-Admiral Cunningham in HMS Devonshire was then in position 16°50’N, 22°00’W, about 240 nautical miles to the south-west ward of the main force. He had just sighted the MS convoy (the five transports), escorted by Savorgnan de Brazza, some 300 nautical miles north-west of Dakar. Vice-Admiral Cunningham ordered the convoy Commodore to take the convoy into Freetown.
A signal was then received that Vichy-French warships had passed the Straits of Gibraltar and had turned south. Three light cruisers and three large destroyers were reported to have made up this force. It was not known where they were bound for but possibly Casablanca. Their appearance seriously affected the whole operation.
The Vichy-French cruiser force.
At 1850 hours on 9 September 1940, H.M. Consul General, Tangier, had informed Admiral Sir Dudley North, Flag Officer commanding North Atlantic, and repeated to the Foreign Office, that a French Squadron in the Mediterranean might try to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar within the next 72 hours. This report received confirmation the next day when the French Admiralty requested the British Naval Attaché, Madrid, to advise the Naval authorities at Gibraltar of the departure from Toulon on the 9th of three light cruisers of the Georges Leygues class and three large destroyers of the Fantasque class. They would pass through the Straits of Gibraltar on the morning of the 11th, no mention was made of their destination. This information reached the Admiralty at 2350/10 and Admiral North at 0008/11.
The Government policy with regards to Vichy warships at that time had been defined in a signal sent to all Commanders-in-Chief and Flag Officers commanding shortly after the attack on the battleship Richelieu at Dakar in July. This message, after stressing the importance of terminating the state of tension then existing between the French navy and ourselves, stated that His Majesty’s Government had decided to take no further action in regard to French ships in French colonial and North African ports, and went on to say ‘ We shall, of course, however, reserve the right to take action in regard to French warships proceeding to enemy controlled ports.’ Recent intelligence had indicated that it was highly improbable that any warships would make for the German occupied Biscay ports, and a Admiral North had not been informed of the Dakar project, he saw no reason to take any steps to interfere with the movements of the French warships.
Early on September 11th, the destroyers HMS Hotspur (Cdr. H.F.H. Layman, DSO, RN) , HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN) and HMS Encounter (Lt.Cdr. E.V.St J. Morgan, RN),which were hunting a reported submarine to the eastward of the Strait of Gibraltar. At 0445 they sighted six French warships steaming fast to the westward and reported them. At 0617/11, Admiral North informed the Admiralty that the lights of six ships, probably warships, steering west at high speed, had been reported by HMS Hotspur at 0515 hours in position 36°03'N, 04°14'W (60 miles east of Gibraltar) and that he had ordered the destroyers to take no further action. At 0711 hours he added that he intended to keep in touch with this force by air and that he would report probable destination.
Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Sommerville, commanding Force H, on receiving the signal from HMS Hotspur had brought HMS Renown (Capt C.E.B. Simeon, RN) and the only destroyer available, HMS Vidette (Lt. E.N. Walmsley, RN), to one hour’s notice for full speed. He did not put to sea because he too, believed the Government’s policy was to avoid interference with French warships as stated in the signal of 12 July.
The French squadron passed Gibraltar to the westward shortly after 0830/11 having given it’s composition in reply to the demand as the light cruisers Georges Leygues, Gloire, Montcalm and the destroyers Le Malin, Le Fantasque and L’Audacieux. This information reached the Admiralty at 1043/11 in a signal sent by Admiral North at 0917/11.
No further action was taken during the forenoon and the situation at noon was that the French Squadron was in position 35°00'N, 06°40'W (about 75 nautical miles south-south-west of Gibraltar) steering 213° at 20 knots. They were being observed by reconnaissance aircraft from RAF 200 Sq. based at Gibraltar. The Admiralty and Air Ministery were being kept informed.
Here was a complication that might well effect the Dakar operation should Dakar be the destination of the French Squadron. It does not seem to have been viewed in this light at the Admiralty, until the 1st Sea Lord himself, who was attending a meeting in the Cabinet Offices that forenoon, telephoned orders for HMS Renown and all available destroyers to raise steam for full speed. A signal to this end was then sent to Admiral Sommerville at 1239/11. This was over twelve hours after the original message from Madrid had reached the Admiralty.
Movements of Force H, 11 to 14 September 1940.
The noon position and their course indicated Casablanca as the most probable destination of the French Squadron and at 1347/11 the Admiralty ordered Admiral Sommerville to sea to intercept them. Further instructions followed at 1429 hours. These was no objection with them going to Casablanca but they could not be allowed to proceed to Dakar. Shortly after 1600 hours aircraft reported that the French Squadron had entered Casablanca.
Admiral Sommerville left Gibraltar at 1630 hours in the Renown escorted by the destroyers HMS Griffin, HMS Velox (Cdr.(Retd.) J.C. Colvill, RN) and HMS Vidette. At 2006 hours he was ordered by the Admiralty to establish a patrol to intercept the French Squadron if they sailed southwards from Casablanca. In the early morning hours of the 12th at 0235 hours, HMS Vidette, encountered a four-funneled French destroyer in position 33°55'N, 08°31'W (west-north-west of Casablanca). She sighted a darkened ship some 6 miles on her port bow. She challenged but got no reply. A searchlight was turned on and revealed a four-funneled French destroyer. Vidette then fired two salvoes and the French destroyer, ignoring a signal to stop, then retired at high speed behind a smoke screen. Shortly afterwards Vidette was recalled from her patrol and ordered to rejoin Renown.
The French squadron was still at Casablanca at 0923/12 according to an aircraft report. At 0934 hours, Admiral Sommerville turned north to meet three more destroyers coming from Gibraltar. These were; HMS Hotspur, HMS Encounter and HMS Wishart (Cdr. E.T. Cooper, RN). These were met at 1300 hours, in position 33°05'N, 09°40'W. They then turned to the south-west again. HMS Hotspur was stationed to patrol closer inshore.
At 0405/13, HMS Renown sighted three darkened ships in position 31°25'N, 11°30'W. These were thought to be the three Fantasque class destroyers. They were steaming north at 20 knots and were allowed to proceed. Admiral Sommerville continued his patrol but fuel began to become an issue. The weather was to rough for the destroyers to fill up at sea and two of them will have to be detached that evening to refuel. This would much reduce the chance to intercept the French Squadron and Admiral Sommerville informed the Admiralty of this. Adding tat he considered a patrol should be established off Dakar. His signal crossed one from the Admiralty stating that according to French sources the Squadron would remain only shortly at Casablanca before proceeding to Dakar.
This forecast proved correct. At 1530/13 aircraft reported that the light cruisers were no longer at Casablanca. Due to his fuel situation Admiral Sommerville signalled that he would leave his patrol area for Gibraltar at 2000 hours that evening. But at 1916 hours the Admiralty ordered him to steer for Dakar at 18 knots. This was being done but Vidette and Velox were detached to Gibraltar to fuel.
At 2335/19 the Admiralty cancelled the order so at 0121/14, Renown and the four remaining destroyers set course to return to Gibraltar which they reached at 2000/14.
Patrol of Dakar by Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s forces.
To return to Vice-Admiral Cunningham. He knew that the French Squadron had left the Mediterranean at 1542/11 and that Vice-Admiral Sommerville had been ordered to intercept them. Within a couple of hours he learnt that the French Squadron had entered Casablanca. The next forenoon (0947/12) he was informed that Vice-Admiral Sommerville had been ordered to establish a patrol and to prevent them from proceeding to the south.
Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s forces were then approaching Freetown. At 1145/12, an aircraft from HMS Ark Royal approached HMS Devonshire to report that the Ark Royal would be in position 13°59'N, 20°08'W at 1300 hours and expected to arrive at Freetown with HMS Barham, HMS Resolution and ten destroyers at 0700/14. The next morning, 13 September, at 0820 hours an aircraft again closed HMS Devonshire. An order was then passed that four destroyers were to be detached to join HMS Devonshire and the convoy before dark. At 1008 hours HMS Devonshire left the convoy to close Ark Royal’s force, sighing it an hour later 20 nautical miles to the north-north-east. Devonshire remained in visual touch until 1700 hours when course was set to return to the convoy taking the destroyers HMS Faulknor, HMS Foresight, HMS Forester and HMS Fury with him.
Shortly after 1800/13, Vice-Admiral Cunningham was informed that the French cruisers had left Casablanca and that Vice-Admiral Sommerville in the Renown had been ordered to proceed to the Dakar area.
Shortly after midnight 13th/14th, a signal came in from the Admiralty ordering Vice-Admiral Cunningham to establish a patrol immediately to prevent the French cruisers from reaching Dakar, employing every available ship. The same orders went to the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. HMS Cumberland (Capt. G.H.E. Russell, RN), which had departed Freetown for the U.K. at 2000/13 was placed under Vice-Admiral Cunninham’s orders and HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hammill, RN), on her way from Simonstown to Freetown, was ordered to increase speed.
The original operation was now swallowed up in the task of intercepting the French ships. Time had become a factor of the utmost importance and without waiting for daylight, Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin, went over to see General de Gaulle on board the Westernland at 0120/14, who immediately roused Capitaine Thierry d’Argenlieu and armed him with a letter forbidding any French warship to proceed to Dakar. Within twenty minutes they were on their way back to the Dorsetshire with Capt. D’Argenlieu and the following measures were taken;
HMAS Australia which was coming from the Clyde to take the place of HMS Fiji was ordered to close HMS Devonshire, which would be steering for Dakar, then 400 nautical miles distant.
The Ark Royal was ordered to sent her six remaining destroyers; HMS Inglefield, HMS Greyhoud, HMS Fortune, HMS Echo, HMS Eclipse and HMS Escapade to Freetown to fuel and herself proceed with despatch to position 16’N, 17°40’W.
HMS Barham and HMS Resolution and the other four destroyers; HMS Faulknor, HMS Foresight, HMS Forester and HMS Fury, were to fuel at Freetown and leave for the Dakar area as soon as fuelling had been completed.
Convoy’s MP and MS were to proceed to Freetown with their French escorts.
HMS Devonshire meanwhile had altered course to the northward for Dakar at 0230/14, speed 18 knots. It was not possible to transfer General Irwin and his staff and the General thus found himself speeding northward with the orders for the landing while his troops went on to Freetown. HMAS Australia joined HMS Devonshire at 0300 hours and half an hour later the cruisers had worked up to 27 knots. HMS Cumberland and HMS Ark Royal were approaching from the south.
At 1000/14, HMS Devonshire and HMAS Australia were 200 nautical miles south of Dakar in position 11°23’N, 17°42’W, with HMS Cumberland and HMS Ark Royal respectively 45 and 100 miles astern of them. Aircraft from Ark Royal carried out reconnaissance ahead of Devonshire and Australia from this time onwards. Also flights over Dakar were carried out. That afternoon a large amount of shipping was reported in the harbour and also a submarine was sighted on the surface at 1533 in position 260°, Cape Manuel, 10 nautical miles, steering 260°. It could not be seen if the French cruisers had arrived at Dakar.
At 1900/14 the Devonshire and Australia, reduced to 17 knots on reaching the latitude of Dakar and then turned back to join Cumberland. She was met at 1940 hours and then the cruisers turned northward once more. They established a patrol line at 2320 hours, 4 miles apart, courses 270°-090°, between the meridians 17°30’W and 18°00W in latitude 16°00’N.
But they were too late. Just before midnight 14/15 September a message was received from the Admiralty that a Vichy report had announced that the cruisers had arrived safely at Dakar. The Vichy cruisers actually had arrived at Dakar at 1600/14.
Dawn air reconnaissance on the 15th failed to spot the cruisers at Dakar and by this time the three heavy cruisers were running low on fuel and at 1001 hours Vice-Admiral Cunningham sent a signal to the Admiralty to ask if he should withdraw to Freetown to refuel and prepare for operation ‘Menace’, leaving HMS Cumberland to patrol off Dakar, or to report the patrol about 0001/17 and accept indefinite delay of operation ‘Menace’. He recommended the first alternative.
At 1027 hours, however, the Ark Royal signalled that the cruisers had been located at Dakar. All ships then set course for Freetown to refuel except HMS Cumberland which was left to patrol off Dakar. The next day, the 16th, she met the Vichy French merchant vessel Poitiers (4185 GRT, built 1921) 100 miles south of Dakar and fired a salvo across her bows. Her crew then set her on fire and abandoned her. She was then sunk by gunfire from the cruiser.
Cancellation of Operation ‘Menace’.
By the evening of 15 September, Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s forces were all making once again for Freetown. A destroyer had been sent on ahead with the operation orders and two staff officers. The escape of the French cruisers, however, called for a drastic re-consideration of the original plan.
In London the War Cabinet met at 1000/16 to consider the new situation. The Prime Minister pointed out that in his view the operation had to be cancelled and at 1346/16, Vice-Admiral Cunningham received a signal that the landing of troops at Dakar in ‘Operation Menace’ was impracticable. It was proposed that General de Gaulle’s force should land at Duala with the object of consolidating his influence in the Cameroons, Equatorial Africa and the Chads. The British portion of the force was to remain at Freetown. Unless de Gaulle had any strong objection, this plan had to be put into operation forthwith.
Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin were reluctant to take this view. They replied at 1642 hours suggesting that if HMS Cornwall and HMS Cumberland would be added to their force they should be enough to deal with the French cruisers. The answer came at 2245 hours; they were left a liberty to consider the whole situation and discuss it with de Gaulle, whom they informed of the new proposal.
HMS Devonshire arrived at Freetown at 0630/17. The Vice-Admiral and the General proceeded to consult with General de Gaulle. The latter was much perturbed at the possible cancellation of the original plan and that very morning he sent a telegram to the Prime Minister desiring ‘to insist’ that the plan should be carried out and emphasising the vital importance to the Allies of gaining control of the basis in French Africa. He now urged on the Force Commanders that if the unopposed landing failed the Free French troops should attempt a landing at Rufisque. They decided to support this proposal and shortly after midnight they forwarded their recommendations to the Admiralty for consideration. The reply from H.M. Government came at 1159/18; ‘ We cannot judge relative advantages of alternative schemes from here. We give you full authority to go ahead and do what you think is best, in order to give effect to the original purpose of the expedition. Keep us informed.’
With a free hand such as is seldom enjoyed in these days of rapid communication by the leaders of an overseas expedition in unbroken touch with their Government, the Joint Commanders decided to proceed with ‘Menace’ on 22 September.
The French cruisers again, 19 to 26 September 1940.
The naval and military staffs were working hard at preparations for the landing when the next day, 19 September, French cruiser appeared again on the scene. HMAS Australia, which had left Freetown the day before to relieve HMS Cumberland on patrol, at 1019/19 in position 10°23’N, 16°54’W, north-west of Freetown, sighted the three La Galissonniere class cruisers 14 nautical miles off steering south-east. Once more the naval forces had to raise steam with all despatch. HMAS Australia and HMS Cumberland were already had on the trial. General de Gaulle again arranged for Captain Thierry d’Angenlieu to carry a message requisting the French cruisers to return to Casablanca.
General Irwin and his staff, with Admiral Cunningham’s Chief Staff Officer, Capt. P.N. Walter, were transferred to the troopship Karanja, and at 1400 hours HMS Devonshire left Freetown at 27 knots with the destroyers HMS Inglefield, HMS Greyhound and HMS Escapade. It was hoped to sight the French cruisers before dark. HMS Barham with HMS Fortune and HMS Fury made for a position to the south-east of the French. HMS Ark Royal, which had engine trouble to repair first, was to follow at 0500/20. A message came from the Admiralty that the French cruisers were not to return to Dakar.
The French cruisers turned back to the north-west and increased speed to 29 knots. Torrential rain was falling, hiding everything from view, but HMAS Australia and HMS Cumberland were able to keep in touch and at 1830/19 HMAS Australia managed to pass directions not to return to Dakar. She was then in position 09°02’N, 15°14’W, just keeping in touch while doing 31 knots. Then the French cruiser Gloire broke down and separated from the other two cruisers. The British then lost touch with these two cruisers. HMS Devonshire meanwhile was steaming to a position to cut off the way to Conakri in French Guinea. HMS Cumberland then regained touch with the two French cruisers (Georges Leygues (flag) and Montcalm) who were speeding north while HMAS Australia picked up the Gloire which was steering eastwards at reduced speed. Night had fallen when HMS Devonshire with HMS Inglefield still in company showed up. HMS Inglefield took Captain d’Argenlieu on board of the Gloire. The French captain refused to accede to his representations, but when Vice-Admiral Cunningham intervened he agreed to proceed to Casablanca. HMAS Australia escorted her until 21 September, leaving her then, on Admiralty instructions, to proceed unescorted.
HMS Cumberland meanwhile managed to keep in touch with the other two cruisers. Her attempts at parley failed, but the French signalled that ‘under no circumstances shall my cruisers pass under German control’. HMS Cumberland followed them all the way to Dakar but was unable to prevent them from entering, which they did at 0550/20.
Meanwhile, on 18 September, far away to the southward, a fourth French cruiser had been sighted escorting a naval tanker. This was the Primaguet escorting the Tarn. HMS Cornwall had departed Freetown on 16 September to meet HMS Delhi (Capt. A.S. Russell, RN) and HMS Dragon (Capt. R.W. Shaw, MBE, RN) off Cape Formosa (south Nigeria). They swept towards Fernando Po [now called Bioko] to intercept any French forces bound for the Cameroons with instructions to direct them back to Casablanca. On 17 September at 2000 hours information came that a French warship and an oiler had been in position 07°25’N, 14°40’W at 1500/15. The Cornwall proceeded to search and on the 18th her aircraft picked up the cruiser Primaguet and oiler Tarn 35 nautical miles ahead. The Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered her to be shadowed.
Her lights were sighted at 2142/18 but disappeared at 0425/19. When dawn broke the horizon was clear. She was picked up again at 1009/19. A boarding party from HMS Delhi went on board. The Captain, after making a formal protest, asked to be allowed to remain stopped until 1700/19 after which she proceeded, first westward, then northward, being shadowed by HMS Cornwall and HMS Delhi until 1830/21 when HMS Delhi had to proceed to Freetown to refuel. HMS Cornwall shadowed her alone untul the 23rd when she was rejoined by HMS Delhi. For two days they followed her close, still steaming north. On the 25th Primaguet fuelled from the Tarn. They were then off the Cape Verde Island. The next day the Admiralty approved the cruisers to return to Freetown. The Primaguet gave a promise that she would proceed to Casablanca with the Tarn where they indeed arrived in due course. The British cruisers then turned south. They had kept the Primaguet and Tarn in sight for five days. Thus two out of the four cruisers in the area had been diverted to Casablanca without the use of force. (8)
29 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) departed Rosyth for Scapa Flow. (7)
30 Aug 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at Scapa Flow from Rosyth. (7)
31 Aug 1940
Convoy MP was part of the upcoming Dakar operation. The convoy departed Scapa Flow on 31 August 1940 for Freetown.
The convoy was made up of the troopships Ettrick (11279 GRT, built 1938), Kenya (9890 GRT, built 1930) and Sobieski (11030 GRT, built 1939). Escort was provided by the light cruiser HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) and the destroyers HMS Ambuscade (Lt.Cdr. R.A. Fell, RN), HMS Antelope (Lt.Cdr. R.T. White, DSO, RN), HMS Volunteer (Lt.Cdr. N. Lanyon, RN) and HMS Wanderer (Cdr. J.H. Ruck-Keene, DSC, RN). The next day the convoy was joined to the north of Ireland by the heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire (Capt. J.M. Mansfield, DSC, RN), the destroyer HMS Harvester (Lt.Cdr. M. Thornton, RN) and the Free French sloops (minesweepers) Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc which came from the Clyde.
At 1709/1 (zone -1), HMS Fiji was hit by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-32 when about 40 nautical miles north-northeast of Rockall in position 58°10’N, 12°55’W. She then left the convoy 10 minutes later and set course for the Clyde. She was joined by the destroyer HMS Antelope soon afterwards. The forward boiler room and five adjacent were flooded and five ratings had been killed.
Around 2030 hours HMS Fiji and HMS Antelope were joined by the destroyers HMS Ashanti (Cdr. W.G. Davis, RN), HMS Bedouin (Cdr. J.A. McCoy, DSO, RN) and HMS Volunteer. Fiji and her escort arrived at the Clyde around 1700/3. After inspection it was estimated repairs would take three to four months.
Meanwhile on 31 August 1940 the convoy escort had been joined by the destroyers HMS Punjabi (Cdr. J.T. Lean, DSO, RN), HMS Tartar (Capt. C. Caslon, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Javelin (Cdr. A.F. Pugsley, RN). All destroyers parted company with the convoy on September 1st except for HMS Harvester which parted company with the convoy on the 3rd.
The place of HMS Fiji in the upcoming Dakar operation was taken by HMAS Australia (Capt. R.R. Stewart, RN) which departed the Clyde for Freetown on 6 September.
The convoy, escorted by the two Free French sloops (minesweepers), arrived at Freetown on 14 September 1940.
1 Sep 1940
At 1800 hours on 1 September 1940 German U-boat U-32 attacked the Dakar Task Force in position 58°10'N, 12°55'W. HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) was damaged and was put out of commission for six months.
3 Sep 1940
The damaged HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) arrived at Greenock. (9)
9 Sep 1940
HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) proceeded from Greenock to No.3 Dry Dock at Govan for repairs (9)
28 Nov 1940
HMS Fiji (Cdr. G.V. Gladstone, RN) is undocked at Govan and then proceeded alongside the Ordnance Wharf at Dalmuir West. (10)
7 Feb 1941
With her repairs now completed HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) proceeded down river to Greenock. (11)
15 Feb 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted exercises in the Clyde area. (11)
18 Feb 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted full power trials and exercises in the Clyde area. (11)
25 Feb 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted gunnery exercises in the Clyde area. (11)
2 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted torpedo and gunnery exercises in the Clyde area. Also a simulation air attack was made on her. (13)
6 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted gunnery exercises in the Clyde area. (13)
7 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted gunnery exercises in the Clyde area. (13)
10 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted gunnery exercises in the Clyde area. (13)
11 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) departed the Clyde for Scapa Flow. (13)
12 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) arrived at Scapa Flow from the Clyde. (13)
14 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted torpedo firing and 4" gunnery exercises at Scapa Flow. (13)
19 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted gunnery exercises off Scapa Flow. (13)
22 Mar 1941
In the evening, HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN), conducted night gunnery exercises off Scapa Flow. (13)
25 Mar 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) conducted gunnery exercises off Scapa Flow. Also RDF exercises were carried out with HMS London (Capt. R.M. Servaes, CBE, RN) during the night of 25/26 March. (13)
28 Mar 1941
HMS Nigeria (Capt. J.G.L. Dundas, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) are ordered to join the battlecruiser Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN) and the destroyers HMS Tartar (Cdr. L.P. Skipwith, RN), HMS Electra (Cdr. C.W. May, RN) and HMS Escapade (Lt.Cdr. E.N.V. Currey, DSC, RN) which they did around 1445 hours (zone -1).
These ships were to relieve 'Force H' from Gibraltar on the Bay of Biscay patrol to block the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest. (14)
31 Mar 1941
Shortly after midnight, HMS Tartar (Cdr. L.P. Skipwith, RN), HMS Electra (Cdr. C.W. May, RN) and HMS Escapade (Lt.Cdr. E.N.V. Currey, DSC, RN), parted company with Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN), HMS Nigeria (Capt. J.G.L. Dundas, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN). The destroyers were to proceed to Londonderry to fuel before they were to rejoin the other ships for their return passage to the U.K. (15)
2 Apr 1941
Around 2100 hours, HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) parted company with Hood (Capt. R. Kerr, CBE, RN) and HMS Nigeria (Capt. J.G.L. Dundas, RN). HMS Fiji was ordered to proceed to Gibraltar to temporarily join 'Force 'H.
At midnight HMS Nigeria was also detached to join convoy HG 57 at sea. (16)
At Midnight HMS Nigeria was also detached. (16)
5 Apr 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) arrived at Gibraltar. (17)
6 Apr 1941
At 0300 'Force H' departed Gibraltar to patrol off the Bay of Biscay to prevent the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from leaving Brest and proceed into the Atlantic.
'Force H' was made up of the following ships; HMS Renown (Capt. R.R. McGrigor, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, DSO, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. L.E.H. Maund, RN), light cruisers HMS Sheffield (Capt. C.A.A. Larcom, RN), HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN), destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN (Capt. D.8)), HMS Fearless (Cdr. A.F. Pugsley, RN) and HMS Foresight (Cdr. J.S.C. Salter, RN).
'Force H' was ordered to proceed to position 41°00'N, 16°30'W at 20 knots. (17)
10 Apr 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) was detached from 'Force H' to return to Gibraltar. As she was to proceed to Freetown later on by orders from the Admiralty. (17)
12 Apr 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) arrived at Gibraltar. (18)
13 Apr 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) departed Gibraltar for Freetown. (18)
17 Apr 1941
Convoy SL 72
This convoy departed Freetown on 17 April 1941 for Liverpool where it arrived on 13 May 1941.
The convoy was made up of the following merchants; Alcinous (Dutch, 6189 GRT, built 1925), Bangalore (British, 6067 GRT, built 1928), Baron Douglas (British, 3899 GRT, built 1932), Coracero (British, 7252 GRT, built 1923), Corinaldo (British, 7131 GRT, built 1921), Daldorch (British, 5571 GRT, built 1930), Dixcove (British, 3790 GRT, built 1927), Empire Lotus (British, 3696 GRT, built 1920), Gaelic Star (British, 5596 GRT, built 1917), Garoet (Dutch, 7118 GRT, built 1917), Hainaut (Belgian, 4312 GRT, built 1905), Hazelside II (British, 5297 GRT, built 1940), Inverbank (British, 5149 GRT, built 1924), Jeypore (British, 5318 GRT, built 1920), Kelbergen (Dutch, 4823 GRT, built 1914), Llanberis (British, 5055 GRT, built 1928), Lorca (British, 4875 GRT, built 1931), Moanda (Belgian, 4621 GRT, built 1937), Mokambo (Belgian, 4996 GRT, built 1938), Mount Kitheron (Greek, 3876 GRT, built 1912), Muneric (British, 5229 GRT, built 1919), Norman Star (British, 6817 GRT, built 1919), Penrose (British, 4393 GRT, built 1928), Perth (British, 2259 GRT, built 1915), Prinses Maria-Pia (Belgian, 2588 GRT, built 1938), Saint Bernard (British, 5183 GRT, built 1939), Scottish Star (British, 7224 GRT, built 1917), Somerset (British, 8790 GRT, built 1918), St. Helena (British, 4313 GRT, built 1936), Testbank (British, 5083 GRT, built 1937), Tyndareus (British, 11361 GRT, built 1916), Ulysses (British, 14647 GRT, built 1913), Velma (Norwegian (tanker), 9720 GRT, built 1930), Winkfield (British, 5279 GRT, built 1919) and Yorkwood (British, 5401 GRT, built 1936).
The merchant vessel Empire Advocate (British, 5787 GRT, built 1913) joined at sea on 25 April near the Azores.
A/S Escort was provided on the day of departure when the convoy was near Freetown by the destroyers HMS Vidette (Lt. E.N. Walmsley, RN), HMS Vidette (Lt.Cdr. E.N. Walmsley, RN) and the corvettes HMS Asphodel (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) K.W. Stewart, RN) and HMS Calendula (Lt.Cdr. A.D. Bruford, RNVR).
Ocean escort was provided by the light cruiser HMS Dragon (Capt. R.W. Shaw, MBE, RN) until being relieved around noon on the 19th by HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) which then remained with the convoy until May 1st.
On 20 April the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Dunnottar Castle (Capt.(Retd.) C.T.A. Bunbury, RN) joined the convoy and she remained with it until May 11th.
Local escort in British home waters was provided from 10 to 13 May by the destroyers HMS Keppel (Cdr. A.M. Sheffield, RN), HMS Lincoln (Lt. R.J. Hanson, RN), HMS Sabre (Lt. Sir P.W. Gretton, DSC, RN) (to 12 May only), HMCS Columbia (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) S.W. Davis, RN), sloop HMS Fleetwood (Cdr. R.W. Moir, RN), corvettes HMS Alisma (A/Lt.Cdr. M.G. Rose, RANVR), HMS Dianella (T/Lt. J.G. Rankin, RNR), HMS Kingcup (Lt. R.A.D. Cambridge, RNR) and the A/S trawlers HMS Man o' War (T/Lt. W.W. Creber, RNR), HMS St. Loman (T/Lt. R.C. Warwick, RNR) and HMS Wellard (Lt.(Retd.) R.F. Turnbull RD, RNR).
18 Apr 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) arrived at Freetown. (18)
[See 'Convoy SL 72' for 17 April 1941 for more on this convoy.] (18)
4 May 1941
HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) arrived at Gibraltar from convoy escort duty (convoy SL 72). (18)
5 May 1941
Operation Tiger, supply convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria and reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet and Operation MD 4, supply convoy from Alexandria to Malta and taking up the reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet.
Timespan: 5 to 12 May 1941.
5 May 1941.
Part of Convoy WS 8A was approaching Gibraltar from the west. This part of convoy WS 8A was to proceed to Malta during operation ‘Tiger’.
It was made up of five transports; Clan Campbell (7255 GRT, built 1937), Clan Chattan (7262 GRT, built 1937), Clan Lamont (7250 GRT, built 1939), Empire Song (9228 GRT, built 1940) and New Zealand Star (10740 GRT, built 1935). During the passage from the U.K. it had been escorted by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse (Capt. W.G. Tennant, CB, MVO, RN), light cruiser HMS Naiad (Capt. M.H.A. Kelsey, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.L.S. King, CB, MVO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Harvester (Lt.Cdr. M. Thornton, DSC, RN), HMS Havelock (Cdr. E.H. Thomas, DSC, RN) and HMS Hesperus (Lt.Cdr. A.A. Tait, RN) (with the additional local escorts when still close to the U.K.)
Around 0700/5, HMS Repulse, HMS Harvester, HMS Havelock and HMS Hesperus were relieved from the escort by the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth (Capt. C.B. Barry, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Fearless (Cdr. A.F. Pugsley, RN) , HMS Foresight (Cdr. J.S.C. Salter, RN) , HMS Fortune (Lt.Cdr. E.N. Sinclair, RN) and HMS Velox (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Roper, DSC, RN). The Repulse and the three H-class destroyers then proceeded to Gibraltar to refuel where they arrived shortly before 1800 hours. It had originally been intended to include Repulse in the upcoming operation but she was left at Gibraltar due to her inadequate anti-aircraft armament.
HMS Naiad had already arrived at Gibraltar around 0900/4, having been relieved shortly after noon on the 2nd of May by HMS Mauritius (Capt. W.D. Stephens, RN). Around the same time HMS Naiad arrived at Gibraltar the cruiser HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN) arrived, she had been part of the escort of convoy SL 72.
Shortly before 1000/5, the battlecruiser HMS Renown (Capt. R.R. McGrigor, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, DSO, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. L.E.H. Maund, RN), light cruisers HMS Sheffield (Capt. C.A.A. Larcom, RN), HMS Fiji and the destroyers HMS Kashmir (Cdr. H.A. King, RN), HMS Kipling (Cdr. A. St. Clair-Ford, RN) and HMS Wrestler (Lt. E.L. Jones, DSC, RN). Kashmir and Kipling had departed a little earlier and carried out an A/S sweep in Gibraltar Bay first.
For the upcoming operation two groups were formed; The cover force which was formed on Renown was group I, the close escort, which was to remain with the transports was group II. When they arrived near the convoy at 1800/5 the group I was formed and was made up of Renown, Queen Elizabeth, Ark Royal, Sheffield, Fiji, Kashmir and Kipling. Group II remained with the convoy and was (for the moment) made up of Fearless, Foresight, Fortune, Velox and Wrestler. Group II and the convoy proceeded towards the Straits of Gibraltar at 13 knots while Group I proceeded to the south until 2130 hours when course was changed to 074°. At 1930 hours, Group I, had been joined by HMS Naiad. This cruiser had sailed from Gibraltar at 1300 hours.
Convoy MW 7B departed Alexandria for Malta this day. It was made up of the Norwegian tankers Hoegh Hood (9351 GRT, built 1936) and Svenor (7616 GRT, built 1931). These tankers were able to proceed at 10 knots. Escort was provided by the AA-cruisers HMS Carlisle (Capt. T.C. Hampton, RN), HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN), destroyers HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN), HMS HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.A. Marshall-A’Deane, DSO, DSC, RN) and HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, DSC, RN). Also part of the escort of this convoy was the corvette HMS Gloxinia (Lt.Cdr. A.J.C. Pomeroy, RNVR) which was to serve as minesweeper at Malta and the whaler HMS Swona which was to be outfitted as minesweeper (LL-sweep) at the Malta Dockyard.
6 May 1941.
The convoy with Group II passed through the Straits of Gibraltar between 0130 and 0330 hours followed by Group I between 0300 and 0430 hours. Although the moon did not set until 0314 hours the sky was completely overcast and visibility was low.
At 0330 hours, HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, DSC and Bar, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN), HMS Harvester, HMS Havelock and HMS Hesperus departed Gibraltar followed at 0420 hours by HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) which had completed her repairs and undocking shortly before.
By 0550 hours, Group I was about 32 miles to the east of Gibraltar with the convoy and Group II 10 miles to the north. At this time Faulknor, Forester and Fury joined Group I. At 0615 hours Queen Elizabeth with Kashmir and Kelvin was detached to join Group II, followed thirty minutes later by Naiad.
At 0625 hours, Gloucester joined Group I and speed was then increased to 24 knots to draw well ahead of the convoy. During the day Group I steered 060°. Group II was steering parallel to the Spanish coast at 13 knots. Velox and Wrestler were detached from Group II to arrive at Gibraltar after dark to avoid being sighted returning from the East.
At 1740 hours Renown, in position 37°05’N, 00°21’W sighted a French merchant ship most likely en-route to Oran. On sighting the British ships she immediately steered clear to the westward. Shorty afterwards Group I reduced speed to 17 knots as to not get too far ahead of Group II and the convoy.
By midnight Group I was about 150 nautical miles east-north-east of Group II.
The Mediterranean Fleet departed Alexandria in the forenoon, it was made up of the battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, GCB, DSO and 2 Bars, RN), HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN), light 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), destroyers (D.14) HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN), HMS Juno (Cdr. St. J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN), HMS Kimberley (Lt.Cdr. J.S.M. Richardson, DSO, RN), HMS Kingston (Lt.Cdr. P. Somerville, DSO, DSC, RN), (D.7) HMAS Napier (Capt. S.H.T. Arliss, RN), HMAS Nizam (Lt.Cdr. M.J. Clark, RAN), HMS Imperial (Lt.Cdr. C.A.de W. Kitcat, RN), HMS Havock (Lt. G.R.G. Watkins, RN), HMS Hotspur (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC, RN) and HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN). The fast minesweeper HMS Abdiel (Capt. E. Pleydell-Bouverie, MVO, RN) and the naval transport HMS Breconshire (9776 GRT, built 1939) also sailed with the Fleet. HMS Abdiel was to lay a minefield off Lampedusa. HMS Breconshire had on board oil and petrol for Malta as well as oil to supply this to destroyers at sea. Abdiel took station in the destroyer screen while Breconshire took station in the battleship line. After sailing the fleet proceeded to the northwest. No aircraft were flown off by HMS Formidable due to a dust storm and very limited visibility.
After the Fleet sailed, convoy MW 7A departed Alexandria. It was made up of four transport vessels; Amerika (10218 GRT, built 1930), Settler (6202 GRT, built 1939), Talabot (6798 GRT, built 1936) and Thermopylae (6655 GRT, built 1930). These were able to proceed at 14 knots. Escort was provided by the light cruisers HMS Dido (Capt. H.W.U. McCall, RN), HMS Phoebe (Capt. G. Grantham, RN), AA-cruiser HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN) and the destroyers (D.2) HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicholson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Isis (Cdr. C.S.B. Swinley, DSC, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt. W.J. Munn, RN) and HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN).
One of the destroyers from the escort of convoy MW 7B, HMS Defender, that had sailed on the 5th had to return to Alexandria due to condenser problems.
7 May 1941.
At 0400 hours, Group II, which was approximately 30 nautical miles east of Cape Palos, altered course to the south for about two hours before turning eastwards for the run to Malta.
Group I meanwhile had altered course to the northward at 0130 hours to pass between Ibiza and Majorca in order to carry out a diversion to the north of the Baleares during the day should this appear desirable.
By 0715 hours there was no indication that Group I had been sighted, and as visibility varied from poor to moderate, course was altered to pass again between Ibiza and Majorca to reach a position well ahead of Group II so as to divert any attention of any enemy aircraft from Group II and the convoy.
At 1000 hours, when 33 nautical miles south-west of Malta, Group I encountered a small Spanish fishing vessel which was seen to proceed towards Palma de Majorca.
At noon, Group I altered course to 140°. At 1630 hours course was altered to 100° to keep about 40 nautical miles to the eastward of Group II. Group I streamed paravanes at 1800 hours.
At 1945 hours, two Sunderland flying boats flying east passed north of the force and did not identify themselves till challenged. At the same time smoke was sighted astern and shortly afterwards a fighter aircraft reported that it was the convoy at a distance of 26 nautical miles.
At 2100 hours, Group I altered course to the north-east until dark in order to mislead any hostile aircraft. The sky had been overcast all day but towards the evening the visibility improved considerably and the convoy was clearly visible to the southwestward making a great deal of smoke.
At 2225 hours, RD/F in Fiji detected a group of aircraft bearing 170°, range 30 miles. The bearing changed to 154° and the range opened to 40 miles until the echo faded at 2230 hours. Group I altered course to 080° at 2300 hours.
All forces continued on their way during the day without incident. Destroyers were being fuelled from Breconshire one at a time.
The submarine HMS Triumph reported three transports proceeding towards Benghazi. Accordingly HMS Ajax, HMS Havock, HMS Hotspur and HMS Imperial were detached to attack Benghazi during the night of 7/8 May.
The Vice-Admiral Malta reported that the harbour had been mined and that the destroyers based at Malta were therefore unable to leave the harbour and participate in the convoy operations.
8 May 1941.
Soon after midnight Group I had to alter course to avoid being sighted by a lighted merchant ship steering a course of 110°.
At 0535 hours, HMS Ark Royal launched three reconnaissance A.S.V. aircraft in position 38°06’N, 06°26’E to search to the eastward south of Sardinia. At 0700 hours a fourth aircraft was flown off to search to the west of Sardinia. These aircraft returned at 0800 hours and had nothing to report. They had covered 140 miles to the eastward and 50 miles to the westward. Group I then proceeded to join the convoy. The first fighter patrol was flown off by Ark Royal at 0830 hours.
By 1000 hours, Group I had joined the convoy, which was proceeding on a course of 085° at 14 knots. This was the Clan Campbell’s best speed. Renown and Ark Royal took station on the starboard side of the convoy in order to facilitate flying operations and at the same time provide AA protection for the convoy. Queen Elizabeth took station astern of Ark Royal to provide AA protection for this vulnerable ship. Gloucester and Fiji formed on the transport ships.
At 1115 hours an enemy signal was intercepted that our forces had been sighted at 0800 hours. Naiad detected an enemy aircraft approaching at 1133 hours and three minutes later a large float-plane emerged from the clouds ahead of the convoy. Naiad opened fire and the aircraft retreated into the clouds. Fighters were sent in pursuit but failed to intercept. At noon a full and accurate report was made by this float-plane on the composition of our forces.
The sky cleared to some extent at noon, it had been overcast all morning. Visibility continued to improve all day although considerable cloud prevailed until the evening.
At 1345 hours, eight aircraft were seen approaching very low, fine on the starboard bow. These were engaged as they approached, but the AA fire appeared to be not very well directed. Torpedoes were dropped from outside the destroyer screen, which was roughly 3000 yards ahead of the convoy and extended to starboard to cover Renown, Ark Royal and Queen Elizabeth. The four Fulmar fighters on patrol at this time were engaging CR. 42 fighters that had accompanied these torpedo aircraft.
Torpedoes were evidently aimed at Renown and Ark Royal but by very skilful handling by the Commanding Officers of these two ships all tracks were combed or avoided. Two torpedoes passed close to Renown. A third which was being successfully combed made a sudden alteration of 60° towards Renown and a hit forward seemed inevitable when the torpedo reached the end of it’s run and sank. Two torpedoes passed to port and two to starboard of Ark Royal.
Of the eight aircraft which attacked one was brought down during the approach, probably by AA fire from the destroyers. Two others were seen to fall from the sky during their retirement. The destroyers were disappointingly slow in opening fire on the approaching torpedo-bombers and a full barrage never developed. During the action between the Fulmar’s and the CR. 42’s one Fulmar was brought down and the crew of two was lost.
At 1400 hours a few bomb splashes were observed on the horizon to the northwestward.
At 1525 hours, two sections of Fulmar’s attacked and shot down in flames an S.79 shadower. On returning from this attack one Fulmar had to make a forced landing on the water about 9 nautical miles from the fleet. HMS Foresight closed the position and was able to pick up the crew of two. At this time the fleet was about 28 nautical miles north of Galita Island.
At 1600 hours, as the wind had backed from south of east to north of east. The starboard column; Renown, Ark Royal and Queen Elizabeth, was moved over to the port quarter of the convoy and the destroyer screen was readjusted accordingly. This allowed freedom of manoeuvre for flying operations and enabled the column to increase speed and snake the line whenever a bombing attack developed, in order to hamper the bombers and at the same time remain in a position to afford full AA support of the convoy.
The first high level bombing attack of the day developed at 1622 hours when three S.79’s approached from astern at about 5000 feet, i.e. just under the cloud level. One, diverted by AA fire, jettisoned his bombs and subsequently crashed astern of the Fleet. The other two dropped twelve bombs close ahead of Ark Royal and escaped into the clouds. It is probable that both of these were hit by the concentrated AA fire with which they were met. About 10 minutes later a single aircraft approached from astern and encountering heavy AA fire turned across the stern of the Fleet, dropping its bombs well clear.
At 1710 hours, another S.79 shadower was shot down in flames on the port quarter of the Fleet by a Fulmar fighter. Twenty minutes later five S.79’s attacked the fleet from south to north. Two broke formation under gunfire and the remainder delivered a poor attack, bombs falling near the destroyer screen. A similar attack by three S.79’s took place at 1800 hours, when bombs were again dropped near the destroyer screen.
The provision a adequate fighter protection for the Fleet was a difficult problem with the small numbers of fighters available. Aircraft returned to the carrier at various times with damage and failure of undercarriage, and every opportunity was taken, whenever the RD/F screen cleared to land on, refuel and rearm the Fulmars, sometimes singly and sometimes two or three at a time. There were occasions when no more then two fighters were in the air, but whenever an attack appeared to be impending every fighter that could be made serviceable was sent up.
At 1910 hours enemy aircraft were detected at a range of 70 miles approaching from Sicily. At this time only seven Fulmars remained serviceable of which only three were in the air. The other four were immediately flown off. The total number of hostile aircraft is uncertain, but the Fulmars sighted three separate formations of sixteen Ju.87’s, twelve Ju.87’s and six Me.110’s. One formation was seen from Renown for a short time at 1933 hours in a patch of clear sky. RD/F indicated several formations circling to the northwest of the Fleet for nearly one hour and several bomb splashes were seen well away to the northward and northwestward. During this period Fulmars intercepted the enemy and, although greatly outnumbered, fought several vigorous and gallant actions, resulting in the certain destruction of one Ju.87 and damage to several others, including at least one Me.110. These attacks disorganised the enemy and forced them to the northward with the result that they probably missed sighting the Fleet. They then entered thick cloud and it is possible that the groups became separated and all cohesion in the attack disappeared. Whatever the reason RD/F showed these groups retiring to the northward and no attack on the Fleet developed.
The Fleet reached the entrance to the Skerki Channel at 2015 hours. ‘Force B’ then turned westwards. It was made up of Renown/i>, Ark Royal, Sheffield, Harvester, Havelock and Hesperus. Queen Elizabeth was ordered to join ‘Force F’.
The turn to the west was just being completed when ‘Force B’ was attacked at 2030 hours by three torpedo-bombers which came from right ahead. The destroyers were still manoeuvering to take up their screening positions and did not sight the enemy aircraft in time to put up a barrage of AA fire. This attack was pressed home by the enemy with great determination. All three aircraft were heavily engaged and two were seen to be hit. Renown combed the torpedo tracks, two passing close down the port side and one down the starboard side.
During this attack No. P (port) 3, 4.5” gun turret in Renown malfunctioned and fired two round into the back of No. P 2 gun turret. This resulted in five ratings killed, five seriously wounded of which one later died and one officer and twenty-five ratings wounded.
Speed was increased to 24 knots at 2038 hours and a westerly course was maintained throughout the night.
As a result of the day’s air attacks, seven enemy aircraft were destroyed, two probably destroyed and at least three, probably more, damaged. Of the seven destroyed AA fire accounted for four and feighters for three. No hits, either by bomb or torpedo were obtained on our ships, nor were there any casualties besides than caused by the accident in Renown. Two Fulmars were lost, the crew of one of them was saved.
Meanwhile the convoy continued eastwards escorted now by HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Naiad, HMS Gloucester, HMS Fiji, HMS Faulknor, HMS Fearless, HMS Foresight, HMS Forester, HMS Fortune, HMS Fury, HMS Kashmir and HMS Kipling.
Visibility was still poor with patches of heavy rain. This helped the Fleet and convoy from being detected by the enemy and attacked by aircraft. On the other hand it resulted in the loss of two Albacore aircraft. One Fulmar was lost in combat with enemy aircraft.
HMS Ajax, HMS Havock, HMS Hotspur and HMS Imperial rejoined the Fleet at 1700 hours. Their attack on Benghazi had been successful although there was little shipping in the harbour two transports were intercepted after the bombardment. The largest blew up, and the other was ran aground and was left on fire after several explosions. These were the Italian Tenace (1142 GRT, built 1881) and Capitano A. Cecchi (2321 GRT, built 1933).
The Fleet remained with convoy MW 7A during the day and at dark moved to the southward. HMS Dido, HMS Phoebe, HMS Calcutta, HMS Carlisle and HMS Coventry were detached from their convoy’s to join the Tiger convoy coming from Gibraltar.
Both MW convoy’s made direct for Malta escorted by HMS Hotspur, HMS Havock and HMS Imperial. All other destroyers had been oiled from Breconshire during the past two days.
9 May 1941.
Further torpedo-bomber attacks were expected and a screen made up of Sheffield and the three destroyers was stationed ahead, astern and on either beam of Renown and Ark Royal at 5000 yards. The night was however uneventful and at 0800 hours speed was reduced to 20 knots and screening diagram no.4 was resumed by the escorts.
A shadower was detected, bearing 115°, range 12 nautical miles at 1027 hours. Two fighters were flown off but failed to intercept the enemy. An enemy sighting report was intercepted in Renown.
At 1100 hours a merchant vessel was sighted in position 37°54’N, 03°30’E about 8 nautical miles to the northward. At the same time Ark Royal reported that a periscope had been sighted about 4000 yards away. No further action was taken as detaching a single destroyer to search for the submarine was thought to be of little use and it was not thought wise to detach more then one destroyer as there were only three present.
At 1300 hours course was altered to 145° and speed reduced to 16 knots to conserve fuel in the destroyers.
At 1700 hours five search aircraft were flown off from position 37°27’N, 01°29’E to search between bearings 045° and 340° from Oran and south of parallel 38°45’N. Nothingwas sighted except for a merchant vessel. A Fulmar was also flown off to carry out a reconnaissance of Oran. This aircraft took photographs and reported the battlecruiser Dunkerque in her usual position at Mers-el-Kebir surrounded by nets, with lighters alongside and a pontoon gangway to the shore. One large and two small destroyers were sighted inside Oran harbour and probably six or seven submarines.
The six destroyers from the 8th Destroyer Flotilla which had taken part in getting the ‘Tiger’ convoy to as far as Malta sailed from there at 2000B/9 for their return passage to Gibraltar. HMS Foresight however had to return to Malta with an engine problem.
At 2200 hours ‘Force B’ altered course to the eastward as to be in a position to support the destroyers during their passage west at daylight the next day when they were passing south of Sardinia.
The Tiger convoy and it’s escort.
Shortly after midnight the transport Empire Song was mined and damaged. Initially she was able to remain with the convoy but around 0140 hours she was slowly sinking having also been on fire. The destroyers HMS Foresight and HMS Fortune were detached to stand by her. In the end Empire Song blew up during which Foresight was damaged.
The transport New Zealand Star was also damaged but she was able to remain with the convoy as her speed was not affected.
The convoy was attacked by torpedo-bombers early in the night but no damage was done by them. One torpedo passed very close to HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Around 0700 hours the Tiger convoy was joined by HMS Dido and HMS Phoebe. An hour later HMS Calcutta, HMS Carlisle and HMS Coventry also joined.
At 1515 hours the Tiger convoy made rendez-vous with the Mediterreanean Fleet about 50 nautical miles south of Malta.
Convoy’s MW 7A and MW 7B both arrived safely at Malta. Both were swept in by HMS Gloxinia who succeeded in exploding a number of mines. The 5th Destroyer Flotilla was then also able to leave the harbour and they joined the Mediterranean Fleet; these were HMS Kelly (Capt. L.F.A.V.N. Mountbatten, GCVO, DSO, RN), HMS Kelvin (Cdr. J.H. Allison, DSO, RN) , HMS Jackal (Lt.Cdr. R.McC.P. Jonas, DSC, RN) and HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN)
Also Breconshire arrived at Malta where she fuelled HMS Hotspur, HMS Havock and HMS Imperial.
As said above, at 1515 hours the Tiger convoy made rendez-vous with the Mediterreanean Fleet about 50 nautical miles south of Malta. HMS Queen Elizabeth then joined the battleship column. The Fleet then turned eastward but remained near the convoy for the remainder of the day. During the night he Fleet covered the convoy from a position to the north-eastward of it.
10 May 1941.
At 0700 hours, when in position 37°35’N, 03°02’E, course was altered to the westward at 15 knots. This being the most comfortable speed for the destroyers in the rising westerly gale.
At 1000 hours, the Capt. (D) 8th Destroyer Flotilla, reported he was in position 37°18’N, 08°45’E steering 275° at 28 knots. He also reported hat his ships were being shadowed by enemy aircraft. The enemy aircraft report was intercepted at 1025 hours. Course was then altered by ‘Force B’ to the eastward to reduce the distance between the two forces.
At 1100 hours, the Capt. (D) 8th Destroyer Flotilla, reported he was in position 37°22’N, 07°54’E, still steering 275° at 28 knots. The destroyers were still being shadowed.
At noon ‘Force B’ altered course to the westward. The wind was by then force 8 with a rising sea. Ten minutes later the enemy aircraft was again heard to report the position of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla and it’s course and speed.
At 1300 hours, the Capt. (D) 8th Destroyer Flotilla, reported he was in position 37°25’N, 07°01’E, steering 270° at 28 knots and that his ships were still being shadowed. At this time ‘Force B’ was 134 nautical miles to the westward and they could only maintain 13 knots in the sea without suffering damage. In view of the weather conditions and the fact that HMS Ark Royal had now only four serviceable fighters available it was not possible to afford the 8th Destroyer Flotilla any fighter protection without hazarding Ark Royal unduly. It was hoped that if an attack would develop the destroyers were able to avoid damage by high speed manoeuvring.
At 1430 hours a signal was received that the 8th Destroyer Flotilla was being bombed in position 37°25’N, 06°18’E and that HMS Fortune had been hit and her speed had been reduced to 8 knots. ‘Force B’ immediately altered course to the eastward and ran before the sea at 24 knots the maximum safe speed for the destroyers in the prevailing weather conditions.
An unidentified aircraft that had been detected by RD/F overtook the force at 1530 hours and was fired at by HMS Sheffield. The aircraft retired to the northward before resuming it’s easterly course. A reconnaissance of three aircraft was flown off at 1600 hours to cover the area to the northward and eastward of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla to maximum depth, in case enemy surface units were out in pursuit. These aircraft reported having sighted nothing on their return.
At 1750 hours a signal was received that the 8th Destroyer Flotilla had been subjected to another bombing attack but that no damage had been done. ‘Force B’ continued eastwards to provide close support in case of more air attacks.
At 1820 hours rendes-vous was made with the 8th Destroyer Flotilla and all ships proceeded westwards steering 280° at 12 knots. This was the best course and speed HMS Fortune could maintain. By this time this destroyer was down by the stern with seas breaking continually over her quarterdeck.
Five search aircraft were flown off by Ark Royal to search to maximum depth between 025° and 090°. Nothing was sighted except for one enemy aircraft. By 2030 hours all aircraft had returned.
As a speed of 12 knots subjected Fortune’s bulkhead to undue strain, HMS Fury was ordered to escort Fortune and proceed at 8 knots for the night. The remainder of the force zig-zagged, clear of these two destroyers, at higher speed.
It became also clear that Fortune had not received a direct hit but that five near misses had bent one shaft and caused flooding in several compartments aft, and minor flooding in the engine room.
The Battlefleet remained near the convoy for the entire day. Visibility improved throughout the day although conditions were still difficult for the enemy to attack from the air. One Ju.88 aircraft was shot down and another one was damaged. One Fulmar was lost when taking off from Formidable.
No enemy air attacks developed until dark when a number of aircraft, probably torpedo bombers, endeavoured to attack the convoy and battlefleet. A very heavy blind barrage of AA fire however kept them off and no torpedoes were seen.
At 1700 hours, Capt. D.5 in HMS Kelly was detached with the ships of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla (besides Kelly these were Kashmir, Kelvin, Kipling and Jackal) to bombard Benghazi before returning to Malta. The bombardment was carried out successfully. Following the bombardment they were dive bombed by German aircraft and all but Kipling were near missed. The Flotilla reached Malta p.m. on the 11th.
11 May 1941.
At 0532 hours, Vice-Admiral Sommerville sent a signal to the Vice-Admiral commanding the North Atlantic station at Gibraltar reporting the position, course and speed of his forces. He also requested a tug to be sent for the assistance of HMS Fortune.
The wind eased considerably during the morning and at daylight Fortune and Fury were sighted about 4 nautical miles in advance of the Fleet and making good about 10 knots.
A reconnaissance of six aircraft were flown off at 0700 hours. These searched for a depth of about 140 miles between 030° and 085°. Visibility was reported as being 10 to 20 miles. Also a search was conducted for a depth of about 100 miles between 085° and 110° with a visibility of 3 to 5 miles. Only a few French merchant vessels were sighted.
Nothing happened during the day.
At 1700 hours a reconnaissance was flown of from position 36°54’N, 01°11’E to a depth of 180 nautical miles between north and east and to a depth of 90 nautical miles between north and 290°. The visibility was reported as being 10 to 15 nautical miles. Nothing was sighted.
The Fleet turned to the eastward for an hour before dark to take up a position well astern of Fortune and Fury during the night.
The Tiger convoy and the Fleet continued eastwards. Enemy aircraft were in the vicinity all day but no attacks developed. One Ju.88 was shot down and another one was damaged, one Fulmar was lost. At dark the cruisers were detached to proceed to Alexandria and the Fleet went on ahead of the convoy.
12 May 1941.
Just before daylight contact was made by the Fleet with Fortune and Fury. At dawn the tug HMS St. Day and four ML’s arrived from Gibraltar.
HMS Sheffield, HMS Harvester, HMS Hesperus and the four ML’s then remained with HMS Fortune and HMS Fury. Fortune was now able to make 12 knots.
HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal, screened by HMS Faulknor, HMS Fearless, HMS Forester, HMS Foresight and HMS Havelock, then proceeded ahead to conduct flying exercises east of Gibraltar before entering harbour.
A reconnaissance was flown off at 0800 hours to search to the east but nothing was sighted. On their return these aircraft made a practice attack on Renown and Ark Royal. More exercises were carried out during the day.
The Fleet arrived at Gibraltar at 1800 hours. Renown berthed in no.1 dock to enable her damaged 4.5” gun turret to be hoised out.
HMS Sheffield entered harbour at 2030 hours followed shortly afterwards by the damaged Fortune and her escorts.
The bulk of the Fleet arrived at Alexandria around 1000 hours. The convoy arrived later, around 1300 hours. Some ships had been detached from the fleet to arrive early, fuel and then depart again for escort duties. (19)
15 May 1941
Around 0845 hours (zone -3), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN), having embarked the Second Battalion, Leicester Regiment, departed Alexandria for Heraklion, Crete where they arrived around midnight 15/16 May 1941 after a high speed run. The troops were then immediately disembarked. (20)
16 May 1941
Having landed the troops at Heraklion, HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN), departed at 0545 hours to join other British forces operating west-south-west of Crete. En-route they made rendesvous with the destroyers HMS Havock (Lt. G.R.G. Watkins, RN) and HMS Hotspur (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC, RN) after which they all joined up with the other forces at 1400 hours.
19 May 1941
At 1530 hours (zone -3), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN), arrived at Alexandria to fuel and ammunition before they were to proceed to sea again the next day. (21)
20 May 1941
At 0815 hours (zone -3), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN), departed Alexandria to join Force A 1 that was operating to the west of Crete. (21)
20 May 1941
Battle for Crete.
Timespan: 20 May to 1 June 1941.
Opening of the German airborn attack on Crete, 20 May 1941.
At 0915 hours, 20 May 1941, just three weeks after the British withdrawal from Greece, the German attack on Crete commenced. This took the form of intense bombing of Maleme airfield and Suda Bay areas, closely followed by the landing of troops by parachute, gliders and troop carrying aircraft. The enemy’s main objective appeared to be Maleme airfield but in the afternoon similar attacks developed at Heraklion and Retimo.
Fierce hand to hand fighting took place throughout the day on the Maleme airfield. At nightfall the situation appeared to be in hand, though about 1200 of the 3000 enemy who had landed by air appeared to be unaccounted for.
The naval situation at dawn, 20 May 1940.
The position of British (Allied) naval forces at sea at daylight on the 20th of May was as follows;
Force A 1 was about 100 nautical miles to the west of Crete. It was made up of the following warships; battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), destroyers HMAS Napier (Capt. S.H.T. Arliss, RN), HMS Kimberley (Lt.Cdr. J.S.M. Richardson, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Imperial (Lt.Cdr. C.A.de W. Kitcat, RN), HMS Isis (Cdr. C.S.B. Swinley, DSC, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt. W.J. Munn, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN), HMS Hotspur (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN) and HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN).
Force B was enroute from Alexandria to join force A 1 and consisted of the light cruisers HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN also in command of this force as senior Captain) and HMS Fiji (Capt. P.B.R.W. William-Powlett, RN).
Force C was to the south of the Kaso Strait and was made up of the light cruisers HMS Naiad (Capt. M.H.A. Kelsey, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.L.S. King, CB, MVO, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN), destroyers HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN), HMS Kingston (Lt.Cdr. P. Somerville, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Juno (St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN).
Force D had reached the Antikithera Channel during the night and was now steering to join Force A 1. Force D was made up of the light cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of the Rear-Admiral (D) [D = Destroyers] I.G. Glennie, RN) and HMS Dido (Capt. H.W.U. McCall, RN).
The Commander-in-Chief’s intentions, 20-21 May 1941.
On learning that the attack on Crete had started, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean at once ordered the forces at sea to move up towards the island but to keep out of sight of land. In the course of the forenoon he signalled his intentions for the night.
Force B was ordered to pass close to Cape Matapan at 0400/21 and then rendezvous with Force A 1 about 50 miles west of Crete at 0700/21.
Force D, augmented by HMS Ajax and the destroyers HMS Isis HMS Imperial, HMS ar and HMS Kimberley was to pass through the Antikithera Channel to sweep the area Cape Malea (36°26’N, 23°12’E), Hydra (37°21’N, 23°35’E), Phalconera (36°50’N, 23°54’E) and to be off Canea at 0700/21.
Force C was to pass through the Kaso Strait and sweep round Stampalia (75 miles north of Kaso) arriving off Heraklion at 0700/21.
Later in the day air reconnaissance reported caiques in the Aegean, and these two sweeps were cancelled as it was feared that they might miss south-bound convoys in the darkness. Instead forces C and D were ordered to establish patrols to the east and west of Longtitude 25°E respectively. A new force of destroyers (Force E) made up of HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN) and HMAS Nizam (Lt.Cdr. M.J. Clark, RAN) was to bombard the Italian airfield at Scarpanto (50 miles to the east of Crete), withdrawing to the southward before daylight.
Night operations, 20-21 May 1941.
Scarpanto airfield was bombarded at 0245/21. The result could not be observed, but intelligence reports later indicated that two Do.17 aircraft were damaged. After examining Pegadia Bay (six miles to the northward of the airfield on the east coast of Scarpanto), and finding it empty, Force E retired to the southward.
The other operations ordered by the Commander-in-Chief were duly carried out but no convoys were sighted. Force C was attacked by torpedo-carrying aircraft with approaching the Kaso Strait at 2040/20. All torpedoes could be avoided. An hour later six MAS boats were encountered. Juno, Kandahar and Naiad engaged them and they retired after four of them had been damaged.
Naval situation at dawn, 21 May 1941.
At daylight, 21 May, Force A 1 (Warspite, Valiant, HMAS Napier, HMS Hereward, HMS Hero, HMS Hotspur, HMS Griffin and HMS Decoy) was 60 miles west of the Antikithera Channel, steering to the south-east to meet Force D (HMS Orion, HMS Ajax, HMS Dido, HMS Isis, HMS Imperial, HMS Janus and HMS Kimberley), which sighted nothing during the night and was now to the northward of Canea Bay and withdrawing towards the Antikithera Channel.
Force B (HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji) was closing Force A 1 after an uneventful sweep between Cape Matapan and Cape Elophonesi (the south-west point of Crete).
The minelayer HMS Abdiel (Capt. E. Peydell-Bouverie, MVO, RN) was returning to Alexandria after laying mines off Cephalonia.
At the eastern end of Crete Force C (HMS Naiad, HMAS Perth, HMS Kandahar, HMS Kingston, HMS Juno and HMS Nubian) was joined at 0600 hours by the AA cruiser HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN). This force was now retiring from the Aegean through the Kaso Strait.
Force E (HMS Jervis, HMS Ilex and HMAS Nizam) was to the southward of Scarpanto and operating under the orders of Rear-Admiral King (Force C) as was the AA cruiser HMS Carlisle (Capt. T.C. Hampton, RN) which was on passage from Alexandria.
Operations during 21 May 1941. Loss of HMS Juno.
During 21 May, Force A 1, B and D remained to the south-west of Kithera. Every opportunity, between air attacks, being taken to refuel destroyers from the battleships. Force C cruiser to the southward of the Kaso Strait where HMS Carlisle joined him in the afternoon. Force E was recalled to Alexandria.
Throughout the day various forces were subjected to heavy air attacks. Force C in particular suffered attacks from daylight onwards, and after withdrawing through the Kaso Strait, was bombed continuously from 0950 to 1350 hours.
At 1249 hours, HMS Juno was hit and sank in two minutes. Six officers and ninety-one ratings were rescued by Kandahar, Kingston and Nubian. During the attacks one enemy aircraft was shot down and two, maybe more, were damaged.
To the west of Crete Force D was located at daylight and heavily bombed while withdrawing towards Force A 1. HMS Orion and HMS Ajax both suffered damage from near misses.
Force A 1 was attacked once during the forenoon and for two and a half hours during the afternoon. This later bombing was shared by Forces B and D which were then in company. Two enemy aircraft were probably shot down.
No seaborne landing has as yet taken place but during the afternoon air reconnaissance reported groups of small craft, escorted by destroyers, moving towards Crete from Milos (80 miles north of Retimo). Forces B, C and D were therefore ordered into the Aegean to prevent landings during the night. If there were no developments Forces C and D, in the eastern and western areas respectively, were to commence working northwards on a wide zigzag at 0530/22, to locate convoys.
Force A followed Force D well into the Antikithera Channel as AA support, turning to the westward at sunset to patrol for the night in the supporting area. As the two forces parted company a sharp attack by four Ju.88’s was made on Force D which shot down three of them.
Force D breaks up a troop convoy, night of 21/22 May 1941.
At 2330/21 when some 18 miles north of Canea, Rear-Admiral Glennie with Force D which now consisted of HMS Dido, HMS Orion, HMS Ajax, HMS Janus, HMS Kimberley, HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, DSC, RN) and HMS Hereward, encountered an enemy convoy composed mainly of caiques escorted by a torpedo boat. The caiques which were crowded with German troops were engaged for two and a half hours. In all, at least a dozen caiques, two or three steamers and a steam yacht were sunk or left burning. It was estimated that about 4000 German troops were accounted for [an over-estimate, the real number was about 800 of which some were rescued later]. In addition the Italian torpedo-boat Lupo, after firing torpedoes at the cruisers, was damaged by a broadside from HMS Ajax.
After taking a further sweep to the east and north, Rear-Admiral Glennie decided that, in view of serious shortage of AA ammunition (AA ammunition remaining; Orion 38%, Ajax 42%, Dido 30%) and the scale of air attack to be anticipated the next day, he was not justified in keeping his force in the Aegean to carry out the intended sweep to the northward at daylight. He accordingly turned to the westward at 0330/22. His ships which had become considerably scattered during the action were given a rendezvous some 30 miles west of Crete. This decision, together with the result of his attack on the convoy, he reported to the Commander-in-Chief who ordered Force D to return to Alexandria with all dispatch.
Meanwhile Force B (Gloucester, Fiji, HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.A. Marshall-A’Deane, DSO, DSC, RN) and Griffin) had been ordered by the Commander-in-Chief to leave their patrol off Cape Matapan and to proceed with dispatch to Heraklion where part of the town and harbour were reported to be in enemy hands. These orders reached Capt. Rowley in the Gloucester too late to be carried out, but the force entered the Aegean and at daylight was about 25 miles north of Canea. Nothing was sighted, and they retired to the westward towards Force A 1. Force B was attacked almost continuously by dive bombers for an hour and a half from 0630/22 onwards but escaped with slight damage only to each cruiser. They joined Force A 1 at 0830/22.
Naval situation at dawn, 22 May 1941.
At daylight on 22 May 1941, the position of the naval forces at sea was as follows. Rear-Admiral Rawlings with Force A 1 (HMS Warspite, HMS Valiant. HMAS Napier, HMS Imperial, HMS Isis, HMS Hero, HMS Hotspur and HMS Decoy) was about 45 miles south-west of Kithera, steering to the north-westward and shortly to be joined by the forces D and B from the Aegean.
The 5th Destroyer Flottilla had meanwhile sailed from Malta the previous evening and was on passage to join Rear-Admiral Rawlings around 1000/22. This Flotilla was made up of five destroyers; HMS Kelly (Capt. L.F.A.V.N. Mountbatten, DSO, RN), HMS Kashmir (Cdr. H.A. King, RN), HMS Kelvin (Cdr. J.H. Alliston, RN), HMS Kipling (Cdr. A. St.Clair-Ford, RN) and HMS Jackal (Lt.Cdr. R.McC.P. Jonas, DSC, RN).
HMAS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades, RAN) and HMAS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN) from the 10th Destroyer Flotilla as well as HMS Jervis, HMS Ilex and HMAS Nizam from the 14th Destroyer Flotilla were on passage from Alexandria to join Rear-Admiral Rawlings (Force A 1) and Rear-Admiral King (Force C) respectively.
Force C (HMS Naiad, HMAS Perth, HMS Calcutta, HMS Carlisle, HMS Kandahar, HMS Kingston and HMS Nubian) was off Heraklion about to sweep to the north-westward in search of enemy troop convoys.
The 22nd of May was to prove an expensive day for the British naval forces costing them two cruisers and a destroyer sunk, and leading directly to the situation which occasioned the loss of a further two destroyers the next morning. Also two battleships and two cruisers were damaged.
On the other hand the enemy was prevented from making a seaborne landing, and that so effectively as to deter him from any further attempts to do so, until the fall of Crete had been decided by his airborne troops.
Force C’s encounter with an enemy troop convoy, AM 22nd May.
Rear-Admiral King’s Force C had spent the night of 21/22 May patrolling of Heraklion. Nothing was sighted and at dawn the force formed up to carry out the sweep to the northward as ordered by the Commander-in-Chief. Air attacks on Force C commenced at 0700/22 and were continued without intermission. At 0830 hours a single caique carrying German troops was sighted. This caique was sunk by HMAS Perth, and as she was being heavily attacks by enemy aircraft, HMS Naiad turned back to support her. A small merchant vessel, reported by HMS Calcutta at 0909 hours was dealt with by the destroyers.
At 1000/22 Force C was 25 miles south of Milo (90 miles north of Retimo), HMAS Perth had rejoined the rest of the force but HMS Naiad was being heavily attacked and was still some way astern. Ten minutes later an enemy torpedo-boat (the Italian Saggitario) with four or five small sailing vessels was sighted to the northward. The destroyers gave chase, while the Perth and Naiad engaged the torpedo boat, causing her to retire behind smoke. HMS Kingston then engaged another destroyer, who was laying a smoke screen, at 7000 yards range, claiming two hits. She also reported a large number of caiques behind the smoke.
Force C was running short of AA ammunition. Air attacks were incessant and the force had to be kept together for mutual support. Its speed was limited as HMS Carlisle was unable to do more than 21 knots.
For these reasons, Rear-Admiral King considered that he would jeopadise his whole force if he proceeded any further to the northward. He therefore decided to withdraw to the westward and ordered his destroyers to abandon the chase. A signal from the Commander-in-Chief (timed 0941 hour), which showed that this convoy was of considerable size, was not seen by him until 1100 hours. The brief action did, however, cause the enemy to turn back, and the troops, if they ever reached Crete at all, were not in time to influence the battle.
During its withdrawal to the westward, Force C, was continuously bombed for three and a half hours. HMS Naiad due to avoiding action had been unable to overtake the remainder of the force had two 5.25” turrets out of action. Several compartments were flooded by near misses, and at 1125 hours, her speed being reduced to 16-19 knots, the remainder of the force was ordered back to her support. Over a period of two hours, 181 bombs had been counted as being aimed at HMS Naiad.
HMS Carlisle was hit, and although not seriously damaged her Commanding Officer was killed. Torpedo bombers attacked the force at 1258 and 1315 hours but all torpedoes were avoided. At 1321 hours Force C sighted Force A 1 coming up the Kithera Channel from the westward.
The junction of Force A 1 with Force C, 22 May 1941.
On learning that Rear-Admiral King would be withdrawing through the Kithera Channel, Rear-Admiral Rawlings had decided that he would meet him in that neighbourhood. Accordingly, after being joined by Forces B and D he spent the forenoon patrolling between 20 and 30 miles west of the channel. The ammunition situation was causing anxiety, and rigid economy was ordered.
At 1225 hours, Rear-Admiral Rawlings heard from Rear-Admiral King that HMS Naiad was badly damaged and in need of support. He immediately decided to enter the Aegean and steered for the Kithera Channel at 23 knots. AA shell bursts from Force C were sighted at 1312 hours and a few minutes afterwards a large caique was seen between Pori and Antikithera Islands, to the south of the channel. HMS Greyhound was ordered to sink it.
At 1332 hours, just as forces A 1/B/D and C were meeting HMS Warspite was attacked by three Me 109’s equipped with bombs. A bomb hit and wrecked the starboard 4” and 6” batteries and damaged number three boiler room fan intakes, thereby reducing the ship’s speed. Both forces then withdrew to the south-westward, air attacks continuing intermittently for most of the afternoon.
The loss of HMS Greyhound, HMS Gloucester, HMS Fiji, 22 May 1941.
HMS Greyhound meanwhile, after sinking the caique, was returning to her place in Force A 1’s screen when at 1351 hours she was struck by two bombs and sank stern first 15 minutes later. HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston were detached from Force C to pick up survivors and shortly after 1400 hours, Rear-Admiral King (who was the senior officer of all the forces present) ordered HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji to give them AA support and to stand by the sinking Greyhound. These rescuing ships, and the men swimming in the water were subjected to almost continuous bombing and machine gun attacks. HMS Kingston was damaged by three near misses.
At 1413 hours, Rear-Admiral King asked Rear-Admiral Rawlings for close support as Force C by that time had practically no AA ammunition left. Force A 1 closed at the Warspite’s best speed (18 knots), and Rear-Admiral Rawlings, who was feeling uneasy about the orders given to Gloucester and Fiji informed Rear-Admiral King about the depleted state of their AA ammunition stocks of which the latter was not aware. At 1457 hours, Rear-Admiral King therefore ordered the rescuing ships to withdraw at their discretion, leaving boats and rafts if air attack prevented the rescue of survivors from Greyhound.
At 1530 hours, HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji were coming up astern of HMS Warspite at high speed, engaging enemy aircraft. At 1550 hours, HMS Gloucester was hit by several bombs and came to a full stop. She was badly on fire and her upper deck was a shambles. In view of the intensity of the air attacks the Captain of HMS Fiji reluctantly decided that he could offer no assistance to her. All available boats and floats were dropped and the Fiji proceeded to the southward with Kandahar and Kingston still being hotly attacked by enemy aircraft.
At 1710 hours, HMS Fiji reported that she was in position 24 miles, 305°, Cape Elophonesi (the south-west point of Crete), steering 175° at 27 knots, a position 30 miles due east of Forces A 1 and C which were steering 215°.
At 1845 hours, after having survived about 20 bombing attacks by aircraft formations during the last four hours she fell victim to a single Me. 109. The machine flew out of the clouds in a shallow dive and dropped its bomb very close to the port side amidships. The ship took up a heavy list, but was able to steam at 17 knots until half an hour later when another single machine dropped three bombs which hit above ‘A’ boiler room. The list increased and at 2015 hours she rolled right over and sank in position 34°45’N, 23°12’E. She had expended all her 4” ammunition except for six star shell.
HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston dropped boats and floats and then withdrew to the southward to avoid almost certain damage from air attacks if they had stayed in the area. They returned after dark and were able to rescue 523 officers and men. It was during this rescue work that Cdr. W.R. Marshall-A’Deane the Commanding Officer of HMS Greyhound, who had been picked up by HMS Kandahar earlier in the day when his own ship was sunk, jumped overboard to help a men in distress. He was lost out of sight in the darkness and was never seen again.
HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston had been subjected to 22 air attacks between 1445 and 1920 hours and were now running short of fuel. At 2245 hours they left the scene of the loss of HMS Fiji and shaped course to rendezvous with Rear-Admiral King’s forces to the southward of Crete.
Night operations, 22-23 May 1941
Meanwhile, Rear-Admiral King, with Forces C and A 1 had been steering to the south-westward. Spasmodic air attacks continued till dusk. At 1645 hours HMS Valiant was hit by two medium bombs but no serious damage was done to her. Course was altered to the southward at 1800 hours and to the eastward at 2100 hours
Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten with his five destroyers; HMS Kelly, HMS Kashmir, HMS Kelvin, HMS Kipling and HMS Jackal had been delayed on his passage from Malta by a promising A/S hunt and only effected his junction with Force A 1 at 1600/22. At 2030 hours Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were detached to search for survivors from Fiji and half an hour later Kelvin and Jackal were also detached to try to search for survivors from Gloucester. Subsequently these searches for survivors were cancelled and the destroyers were ordered to patrol inside Kisamo and Canea Bays.
On arrival at the Antikithera Channel HMS Kipling developed a steering defect and was detached to join Force A 1. Later on as the defect was remedied, her Commanding Officer decided to remain to the south-west of Crete where he anticipated he was able to make rendezvous with the other destroyer on their return. To this fortunate decision Capt. D.5 and over 250 of his officers and men in all probability were to owe their lives.
Continuing into Canea Bay Kelly and Kashmir fell in with a troop carrying caique, which they damaged badly with gunfire. They then carried out a short bombardment at Maleme and, whilst withdrawing, they engaged and set on fire another caique.
The Naval Officer in Command Suda had meanwhile reported some lights in Canea Bay. These lights the Kelvin and Jackal, who were operating in Kissamo Bay, were ordered to investigate, and finding them to be shore lights, proceeded independently for Alexandria informing the Commander-in-Chief of this intention at 0300/23.
Towards the eastern end of Crete, Force E, consisting of HMS Jervis, HMAS Nizam, HMS Ilex and HMS Havock (Lt. G.R.G. Watkins, RN) maintained a patrol off Heraklion without incident. They set course to return to Alexandria in the morning. On the way there were bombed for five hours, Ilex and Havock being damaged by near misses.
During the night HMS Decoy and HMS Hero embarked the Greek King, members of the government and other prominent Greeks at Agriarumeli on the south coast of Crete after which the two destroyers sailed to join Rear-Admiral King forces to the southward.
In the meantime Forces C and A 1 were some 75 miles to the southward of Crete steering 110°. At 0100/23 ‘Force C’ parted company and proceeded for Alexandria. Some hours previously Rear-Admiral Rawlings had signalled to the Commander-in-Chief that a rallying point further to the east would be better than one to the southwest of Kithera. If this was approved it was suggested that the 5th Destroyer Flotilla should make it’s withdrawal from Canea Bay to the eastward and that the Commander-in-Chief should issue orders accordingly, to all forces. Force A 1 therefore continued steering 110° until 0400/23, when, no reply having been received from the Commander-in-Chief, course was altered to the south-westward. Rear-Admiral Rawlings was about to signal a rendezvous to the southwest of Cape Elophonesi when a message was received ordering the withdrawal of all force to Alexandria. He accordingly set course for Alexandria at 15 knots, informing scattered units of his position, course and speed at 0530/23.
The Commander-in-Chief orders withdrawal to Alexandria, 23 May 1941.
At 2230/22, the Commander-in-Chief had received a ‘Most Immediate’ message from Rear-Admiral Rawlings reporting the loss of HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji, and giving details of the ammunition situation. Owning to an error at Alexandria this signal made it appear that the battleships of Force A 1 had no pompon ammunition left. Therefore at 0408/23 orders were given to all forces to retire to the eastward.
In actual fact, the battleships had plenty of ammunition. Had the Commander-in-Chief been aware of this, they would not have been ordered to Alexandria, and would have been available as a support and rallying point for the 5th Destroyer Flotilla in the morning of the 23rd.
Naval situation at dawn, 23 May 1941.
Dawn on 23 May 1941 found the naval forces in the waters around Crete considerably scattered. To the eastward Capt. Mack with Force E was north of Crete, returning to Alexandria through the Kaso Strait.
Rear-Admiral Glennie in HMS Dido was just arriving at Alexandria with HMS Orion and HMS Ajax some distance astern of him.
The transport HMS Glenroy (Capt.(Retd.) J.F. Paget, RN), with reinforcements on board and escorted by HMS Coventry (A/Capt. W.P. Carne, RN), HMS Auckland (A/Capt. E.G. Hewitt, RN) and HMS Flamingo (Cdr. R.J.O. Otway-Ruthven, RN) had left Alexandria the previous afternoon and was 130 miles out making for Tymbaki.on the south coast of Crete.
Forces A 1 and C were about 25 miles apart to the south of Crete and were returning to Alexandria. The destroyers HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston, with survivors from HMS Fiji on board were about to join Force C. The destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Hero, with the King of Greece on board, were to the northward of Force A 1 which they joined at 0745/23.
Further to the west, a bit to the south of Gavdos Island, was Capt. Waller in HMAS Stuart, HMAS Vendetta and HMAS Voyager, who had been ordered by Rear-Admiral Rawlings to search for survivors from HMS Fiji. Also in that area were the destroyers HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN) which had left Alexandria the day before with munitions for the army.
HMS Kelvin and HMS Jackal were to the south-west of Crete and returning to Alexandria. HMS Kipling was also in that vicinity and was hoping to join HMS Kelly and HMS Kashmir, who had cleared Canea Bay and were retiring close to the west coast of Crete.
Loss off HMS Kelly and HMS Kashmir, 23 May 1941.
Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten had been withdrawing at full speed since dawn. At 0755 hours, after surviving two air attacks without suffering damage, he was about 13 nautical miles to the southward of Gavdos Island when his ships were attacked by a force of 24 Ju.87 dive bombers. The Kashmir was hit and sunk in 2 minutes. A large bomb struck the Kelly while she was doing 30 knots under full starboard rudder. She turned turtle to port with considerable way on, and after floating upside down for about half an hour, finally sank. In accordance with earlier practice the dive bombers then machine-gunned the survivors in the water, killing and wounding several.
The attack was witnessed by HMS Kipling, who was some 7 to 8 miles to the southward. She immediately closed and succeeded in picking up 281 officers and men from the water including the Commanding Officers of both destroyers. She left the scene of the sinking for Alexandria at 1100/23. She was considerably hampered in this rescue work by six high level bombing attacks and it was subsequently estimated that between 0820 and 1300 hours no less then 40 aircraft attacked her, dropping 83 bombs, though she emerged from the ordeal unscathed.
Return of the British naval forces to Alexandria, 23 May 1941.
In the meantime Force C had been joined by HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston with survivors from HMS Fiji on board at 0630/23. Both destroyers were very low on fuel. Force A 1 was only 25 miles to the north-west. Force C then closed Force A 1 and both destroyers were able to fuel from the battleships. Shortly after 0800 hours, a signal was received from HMS Kipling reporting the loss of HMS Kelly and HMS Kashmir. Rear-Admiral King reluctantly decided that he could sent no help from Forces A 1 and C.
HMS Decoy and HMS Hero, with the Greek Royal party on board, had joined Force A 1 about the same time, and in course of the forenoon all the scattered destroyer joined up except for HMS Kipling. Later in the day HMS Jaguar and HMS Defender were detached to land ammunition at Suda Bay. The remained of the force proceeded to Alexandria where they arrived in the early hours of the 24th.
The fighting in Crete, 21 -24 May 1941.
On shore, meanwhile, the situation deteriorated. During the 21st although Maleme airfield remained no-man’s land under fire from Italian guns manned by New Zealand gunners, enemy troop carriers landed there regardless of losses. Parachute reinforcements also arrived, and the Germans concentrated between Aliakanou and Canea, and immediately west of Meleme. The savage air bombardment of the British positions continued.
Early on the 22nd, a British counter attack reached Maleme airfield, but heavy dive bombing, and machine gun fire from air and ground rendered further progress impossible. Fighting continued throughout the day, but enemy troop carriers with reinforcements were arriving at a rate of more than 20 each hour, and the withdrawal of British troops to a new line further east was commenced.
The steady flow of German reinforcements, and very heavy air attacks on the British troops continued throughout the 23rd. On this day, the five Motor Torpedo Boats of the 10th M.T.B. Flotilla in Suda Bay (MTB 67, MTB 213, MTB 214, MTB 216 and MTB 217) were all sunk by air attacks. During their operations off the Cretan coast and in harbour they accounted for two aircraft shot down for sure and another two probably shot down.
By the 24th the AA defences of Suda had been seriously reduced and losses to small craft in port were heavy. Severe bombing of Canea compelled the withdrawal of the Army Headquarters to the Naval Headquarters at Suda.
At Heraklion, in the meantime, the Germans had been unable to make much headway. Successful counter attacks were carried out by British troops, in conjunction with Greek and Cretan forces on the 21st, and the situation remained will in hand the next day. 20 to 30 German troop carrying aircraft were destroyed by AA fire. On the 23rd an ultimatum from the Germans calling for the surrender of Heraklion was rejected by the British and Greek commanders, though by this time the Greeks were running short of ammunition.
Reinforcements and supplies to the Army in Crete.
Throughout the Battle of Crete, frequent attempts were made to throw reinforcements and supplies into the island, with varying success.
All disembarkation had to planned to take place at night, owning to the German command of the air. Attempts were made to use HMS Glenroy and merchant vessels for this purpose, but it was found in practice that only warships were able to get through.
On the night of the 23rd – 24th of May, HMS Jaguar and HMS Defender landed stores and ammunition at Suda between midnight and 0200 hours. They returned to Alexandria with officers and men not required in Crete as well as some wounded.
HMS Glenroy embarked 900 men from the Queens Royal Regiment, H.Q. staff of the 16th Infantry Brigade and 18 vehicles at Alexandria. She then sailed for Tymbaki on the afternoon of the 22nd escorted by HMS Coventry, HMS Auckland and HMS Flamingo. These ships were recalled at 1127/23 due to the heavy air attacks sustained by the Fleet.
The following day, HMS Isis, HMS Hero and HMAS Nizam sailed from Alexandria with the Headquarters and two battalions of special service troops, known as ‘Layforce’. These were to be landed on the south-west coast of Crete at Selinos Kastelli. The weather conditions however did not permitted a landing and it had to be cancelled.
During the night of 24 – 25 May, the fast minelayer HMS Abdiel landed about 200 personnel of ‘Layforce’ and about 80 tons of stores at Suda. She returned with about 50 wounded and 4 Greek Cabinet Ministers. A dive bombing attack by 4 Ju.88’s at 1300/25 was successfully avoided.
On arrival at Alexandria in the evening of the 25th, HMS Abdiel embarked Brigadier Laycock with 400 men and 100 tons of stores. She left again early on the 26th accompanied by HMS Hero and HMAS Nizam. These ships landed about 750 troops and stores at Suda during the night of 26 – 27 May. These were the last reinforcements landed in Crete.
About 930 men no longer required there were then embarked and taken back to Alexandria in HMS Abdiel. Air attacks commenced at daylight, just north-west of the Kaso Strait, and continued intermittently till 1130/27. No damage was sustained except by HMS Hero whose speed was reduced to 28 knots by a near miss at 0700 hours.
Meanwhile the Glenroy with a battalion of the Queen’s Regiment on board, had sailed from Alexandria for Tymbaki during the evening of the 25th. She was being escorted by HMS Coventry, HMAS Stuart and HMS Jaguar. The force was subjected to bombing attacks by enemy reconnaissance aircraft during the forenoon. At 1820/26 there were heavy dive bombing attacks. Glenroy was slightly damaged sustained some casualties owing to near misses and machine gun attacks. Three of her landing craft were holed and a large dump of cased petrol on the upper deck caught fire, which necessitated steering down wind until the fire was put out. With 800 troops on board and with a large cargo of petrol it was a nasty situation. By 1950 hours the fire was under control and course was resumed to the northward. A final attack by torpedo bombers at 2050 hours caused no further damage. The torpedoes were being successfully evaded. The Glenroy was now about three hours behind schedule and wither landing craft capacity down by about a third and the weather forecast in mind it was decided to cancel the operation and the force was ordered to return to Alexandria.
One other attempt was made to transport some supplies to Crete. Convoy AN 31 of three Greek merchant ships escorted by HMS Auckland left Alexandria at 0500/26. One of the merchant vessels soon had to turn back due to engine trouble. The convoy escort was later reinforced by HMS Calcutta and HMS Defender. Early the next forenoon it was realised that under the existing conditions they would not have a chance of reaching the island and they too were recalled. Shortly after turning back the convoy was attacked by about 9 Ju.88’s but no damage was sustained. One of the attacking aircraft was seen to be hit by AA fire.
Naval situation at dawn, 24 May 1941.
At daylight on the 24th, the only naval forces at sea were HMS Jaguar and HMS Defender, which were about to pass through the Kaso Strait on passage from Suda Bay to Alexandria and HMS Abdiel which had left Alexandria during the night and was on passage to Suda Bay with more stores for the Army.
HMS Kipling with the survivors from HMS Kelly and HMS Kashmir on board was about 70 miles from Alexandria, practically out of fuel. HMS Protector (Cdr. R.J. Gardner, RN) had been sent out to meet her.
It was on this day that the Commander-in-Chief, well aware under which strain his ships were working, signalled to his Fleet. ‘The Army is just holding its own against constant reinforcement of airborne enemy troops. We must NOT let them down. At whatever cost to ourselves, we must land reinforcements for them and keep the enemy from using the sea. There are indications that the enemy resources are stretched to the limit. We can and must outlast them. STICK IT OUT.’
The Commander-in-Chief’s appreciation, 24 May 1941.
Four days had now elapsed since the opening of the attack on Crete and in reply to a request from the Chiefs-of-Staff for an appreciation, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, informed them that the scale of air attack now made it no longer possible for the Navy to operate in the Aegean or vicinity of Crete by day. The Navy could not guarantee to prevent seaborne landings without suffering losses which, added to those already sustained, would very seriously prejudice our command of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Chiefs-of-Staff replied that the Fleet and Royal Air Force were to accept whatever risk was entailed in preventing any considerable enemy reinforcement from reaching Crete. If enemy convoys were reported north of Crete, the Fleet would have to operate in that area by day, although considerable losses might be expected. Experience would show for how long this situation could be maintained.
To this the Commander-in-Chief replied on the 26th that the determining factor in operating in the Aegean was not the fear of sustaining losses but the need to avoid crippling the Fleet. He added that the enemy, so far, had apparently not succeeded in landing any appreciable reinforcements by sea.
As how long the situation could be maintained, he pointed out that in three days two cruisers and four destroyers had been sunk, one battleship had been put out of action for several months, and two cruisers and four destroyers had been considerably damaged. He also referred to the strain both to personnel and machinery in the light craft, who had been operating to the limits of their endurance since February.
Captain McCarthy’s Force , 24-26 May 1941.
There had been indications that a landing might take place in the east of Crete at Sitia on the night of 24-25 May. To deal with this threat a Force consisting of the cruisers HMS Ajax (Senior Officer), HMS Dido, destroyers HMS Hotspur, HMS Imperial and HMS Kimberley left Alexandria at 0800/24 and passing through the Kaso Strait swept the north coast of Crete during the night. Nothing was sighted and the Force withdrew to the southward of Kaso before daylight. Here they remained during the 25th, repeating the sweep north of Crete the next night. Again nothing was sighted.
F.A.A. attack on Scarpanto airfield, 26 May 1941.
It was known that Scarpanto airfield was being extensively used by the enemy in his operations against Crete, and it was therefore decided to attack it with Fleet Air Arm aircraft from HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN), who had now built up her fighter strength to 12 Fulmars.
Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippel left Alexandria on the 25th with Force A which was made up of the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth (Capt. C.B. Barry, DSO, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Formidable and the destroyers HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Kandahar, HMS Nubian, HMS Hasty, HMS Hereward, HMAS Voyager and HMAS Vendetta.
At 0330/26 this Force was about 100 miles to the south-south-west of Scarpanto. Four Albacores and later five Fulmars were flown off from HMS Formidable to attack the airfield. The Albacores achieved complete surprise. They destroyed two enemy aircraft and damaged several others while the Fulmars damaged a number of Cr.42’s and Ju.87’s. All aircraft had returned to Formidable by 0700 hours. By now the Force headed by HMS Ajax had also joined coming from the Kaso Strait. ‘Force A’ now set course to the southward.
Operations of ‘Force A’, HMS Formidable and HMS Nubian damaged, 26 May 1941.
During the forenoon of the 26th May, enemy aircraft were continually being detected. The eight remaining serviceable aircraft, four of which were fighters, made 24 flights, during which there were 20 combats. Two enemy aircraft were shot down and two more were probably destroyed. One Fulmar was lost.
At 1320 hours, when about 150 miles south of the Kaso Strait ‘Force A’ was attacked by about 20 dive bombers which approached from the African coast. HMS Formidable was hit twice, her starboard side was blown out between numbers 17 and 24 bulkheads and ‘X’ turret and cable and accelerator gear were put out of action.
During the same attack, HMS Nubian, was hit right aft and had her stern blown off. She was still able to steam 20 knots. She was then detached to Alexandria with HMS Jackal where she arrived under her own steam that night.
Force A than shaped course to the eastward and after dark HMS Formidable escorted by HMS Hereward, HMAS Vendetta and HMAS Voyager parted company and set course for Alexandria. The remainder of the Force operated to the north-eastward of Alexandria during the night.
Naval situation at dawn, 27 May 1941.
At daylight, 27 May 1941, ‘Force A’, now consisted of the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Barham and escorted by the destroyers HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Kandahar, HMS Kelvin, HMAS Napier and HMS Hasty were about 250 nautical miles south-east of Kaso, steering to the north-westward. In the Kaso Strait HMS Abdiel, HMS Hero and HMAS Nizam were returning from Suda Bay.
Some 90 nautical miles to the north-west of Force A, HMS Glenroy and her escorting destroyers; HMAS Stuart and HMS Jaguar were steering for Alexandria after their abortive attempt to land troops and supplies at Tymbaki. About half way between these two forces was convoy AN 31 heading for Crete. This convoy was recalled soon afterwards.
Operations of ‘Force A’, HMS Barham damaged, 27 May 1941.
Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippel with Force A had been steering since daylight for the Kaso Strait to cover the withdrawal of HMS Abdiel, HMS Hero and HMAS Nizam. At 0859 hours, 15 Ju.88’s and He.111’s attacked from the direction of the sun. HMS Barham was hit on ‘Y’ turret and two of her bulges were flooded by near misses. A fire was started, which necessitated steering down wind to the south until it was extinguished two hours later. Two enemy aircraft were shot down and one was seen to be damaged.
At 1230 hours, on receipt of instructions from the Commander-in-Chief, Force A shaped course for Alexandria, arriving there at 1900 hours that evening.
The collapse in the Suda-Maleme area, 26 May 1941.
While these operation had been in progress at sea, the battle on shore had continued with unabated bitterness. Sunday, May 25th, the sixth day of the enemy attack was critical for the Australian and New Zealand troops in the Maleme area. After continuous bombing of their positions all day, a strong enemy attack took Galatos. British light tanks and New Zealand troops retook it at the point of the bayonet. This was described by General Fryberg as ‘one of the great efforts in the defence of Crete’. The position could not be held, however, and with Maleme no longer under fire, enemy troop carriers poured in reinforcements. Late that night the new line formed in the Maleme-Canea sector was broken by the Germans, after several attacks had been repulsed.
The next day (May 26th) further attacks compelled the tired New Zealand and Australian troops to withdraw still further towards Suda. They had fought for six days without respite; more then 20 fiece bayonet counter attacks had been carried out, and throughout the whole period they had been subjected to air attacks on unprecedented scale. That night the line collapsed and the retreat commenced.
So suddenly did the collapse come at the last, that there had been no time to organise the retirement and though the infantry which withdrew from the front line did so in good order, the movements of the rest of the force were uncontrolled, and much congestion on the route resulted.
The withdrawal, which was directed towards Sphakia continued during the 27th. By this time a rearguard had been organised which was able to cover the retirement of the bulk of the remainder to Sphakia.
Meanwhile in the Heraklion sector the British troops were holding out. On the 26th, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and two of the ‘I’ tanks landed at Tymbaki on the 19th, succeeded in breaking through from the south and joining them. With the Suda-Maleme area in the hands of the enemy, however, the position of the troops at Heraklion was clearly untenable and it appeared to be only a matter of time before the enemy would launch a major attack on them.
The work of the Royal Air Force.
Throughout the battle, the Royal Air Force, working from Egypt, did all that was possible to afford relief to our troop in Crete; but the distance was too great to maintain a scale of attack on the Germans that could affect the issue.
Enemy positions and aircraft were attacked at Maleme by Blenheims and Marylands (of the S.A.A.F.) at intervals on the 23rd, 25th, 26th and 27th of May. In these raids at least 40 enemy aircraft of various types were destroyed and many others damaged. Nine Ju.52’s carrying troops were destroyed by Hurricanes on the 23rd and 26th. Wellingtons bombed Maleme on the nights of the 23rd, 25th, 26th, 27th and 29th. They also attacked Scarpanto on the nights of the 25th, 27th, 28th and 29th and Heraklion on the 30th at 31st of May and 1st of June.
All these attacks caused fires and explosions but the extent of the damage is not known. During the battle the R.A.F. lost 38 aircraft, 33 of them in the air.
The decision to evacuate Crete, 27 May 1941.
Messages received from the G.O.C. Troops in Crete and the N.O.I.C. Suda Bay made it clear that our line defending Suda had collapsed with great suddenness.
In a message times 0824/27, General Wavell informed the Prime Minister that he feared we must recognise that Crete was no longer tenable, and that, so far as possible, the troops must be withdrawn. In reply to this message, the Chiefs-of-Staff ordered Crete to be evacuated forthwith.
Evacuation from Sphakia, 1st night, 28-29 May 1941.
At 0600/28, less then 24 hours after the decision to evacuate Crete had been taken, Force B, consisting of the light cruisers HMS Orion, HMS Ajax, HMS Dido and the destroyers HMS Decoy, HMS Hereward, HMS Hotspur, HMS Imperial, HMS Jackal and HMS Kimberley departed Alexandria to evacuate the Heraklion garrison. Rear-Admiral Rawlings, flying his flag in Orion was given charge of this operation.
Two hours later, Force C, under Capt. Arliss, left Alexandria for Sphakia. It was made up of HMAS Napier, HMAS Nizam, HMS Kandahar and HMS Kelvin. Force C had an uneventful passage and commenced embarkation at 0030/29. The operation was completed by 0300/29 by which time the four destroyers had taken on board nearly 700 troops and had landed badly needed rations for 15000.
On the return passage, the force was attacked by four Ju.88’s at about 0900 hours, HMAS Nizam suffered minor damage from a near miss. Fighter protection had been arranged from 0545 hours and at 0940 hours a crashed enemy aircraft was sighted, probably shot down by our fighters. Force C arrived at Alexandria at 1700/29 without much enemy interference.
Evacuation of the Heraklion garrison, 1st night, 28-29 May 1941.
Rear-Admiral Rawlings, meanwhile, had been having a much more different experience. At 1700/28 Force B was about 90 miles from Scarpanto and from then until dark was subjected to a series of air attacks. High level, dive bombing and torpedo.
At 1920 hours, HMS Imperial was near missed but appeared to be undamaged and 50 minutes later a near miss caused slight damage and some casualties in HMS Ajax which was then detached to Alexandria.
On arrival of the force at Heraklion at 2330/28 the destroyers immediately entered harbour, embarked troops from the jetties and ferried them to the cruisers outside. By 0245/29 the ferrying was complete and a quarter of an hour later HMS Kimberley and HMS Imperial had embarked the rearguard.
At 032 hours the force proceeded to sea at 29 knots with the whole of the Heraklion garrison on board, some 4000 troops. All went well until 0345 hours when HMS Imperial’s steering gear failed and she nearly collided with HMS Orion and HMS Dido. Her rudder was jammed and repairs could not be made. Delaying the force would mean more air attacks and it was vital to be as far away as possible from the enemy airfields before daylight. It was therefore decided to take off the troops from HMS Imperial and then sink her. At 0445 hours this was successfully done by HMS Hotspur which had now 900 troops on board. By now Force B was about 1,5 hours late and it was only at sunrise that they arrived off the Kaso Strait. The German air force was already waiting.
Air attacks commenced at 0600 hours and continued at intervals to 1500 hours when the force was within 100 miles from Alexandria.
At 0625 hours, HMS Hereward was hit by a bomb which forced her to reduce speed and fall away from her position in the screen. The force was then in the middle of the Kaso Strait and once more Rear-Admiral Rawlings had to decide whether to endanger his whole force and the troops on board for the sake of a single ship, or to leave her for a certain destruction. HMS Hereward was last seen making slowly towards Crete which was only five miles distant with her guns engaging enemy aircraft.
Twenty minutes later HMS Decoy suffered damage to her machinery as the result of a near miss and the speed of the force had to be reduced to 25 knots. A further reduction to 21 knots was needed after HMS Orion had been near-missed at 0730 hours.
With 4000 troops on board, the speed reduced to 21 knots, and no fighter support, things were beginning to look ugly. The Commander-in-Chief realised from Rear-Admiral Rawlings signals that our fighters had not appeared and every endeavour was made to rectify this but the fighters only appeared at noon.
By this time Force B had suffered badly. Shortly after 0730 hours Capt. Back, the Flag captain of HMS Orion was wounded and died two hours later. His place was taken by Cdr. Wynne.
At 0815 hours, HMS Dido was hit on ‘B’ turret and the Orion on ‘A’ turret at 0900 hours, both by bombs from Ju.87 dive bombers. In each case the turrets were put out of action.
At 1045 hours, HMS Orion was again attacked by Ju.87’s and a bomb passed through her bridge, putting the lower conning tower out of action. Force B was then 100 miles south of Kaso and this was the last attack made by dive bombers.
The Orion had nearly 1100 troops on board and the casualties on the crowded mess decks were very heavy. It is believed that a total of 260 were killed and 280 were wounded. In addition three of the engineer officers were killed. All normal communication between the bridge and the engine room was destroyed, the steering gear was put out of action, and three boiler rooms were damaged. Also there were fires in the foremost 6” and 4” magazines.
Fortunately there was a lull in the air attacks until 1300/29 when a high level bombing attack developed, followed by another one at 1330 hours and a final one at 1500 hours.
Force B arrived at Alexandria at 2000/29. HMS Orion only having 10 tons of fuel and two rounds of 6” HE remaining.
Feasibility of further evacuation considered, 29-30 May 1941.
This disastrous commencement of the evacuation placed the Commander-in-Chief in a most unpleasant predicament. Of the 4000 troops embarked in Force B, no less then 800 had been killed or captured (those on the Hereward) after leaving Crete. If this was to be the scale of the casualties, it appeared that quite apart from prospective naval losses of ships and men, who could be ill spared, our efforts to rescue the army from capture might only lead to destruction of a large portion of the troops.
Particular anxiety was feld for the transport HMS Glengyle (A/Capt.(Retd.) C.H. Petrie, RN) which was already at sea and was due to embark 3000 troops the next night (29-30 May).
It was only after long and anxious consideration, and consultation with the Admiralty, as well as with the military authorities, that the decision to continue the evacuation could be taken.
Once taken this decision was amply justified. The remainder of the evacuation proceeded almost without casualties to personnel. Fighter protection became steadily more effective, and the enemy less enterprising. His failure to interfere with the nightly embarkations at Sphakia was most surprising.
The original intention to send ships to Plaka Bay to take off the Retimo garrison was abandoned, as it was not known whether the troops had received the message ordering them to retire there. Moreover it was doubtful that they would be able to reach the coast, since they had no supplies. 1200 rations were dropped by air at Plaka, in case any should get there, but it was decided to send ships to Sphakia only.
From messages received from Crete during the night of 28-29 May, it was thought that the next night was going to be the last night of the evacuation but in the course of the day it became clear that the situation was not so desperate as it had appeared and the Commander-in-Chief decided to send four destroyers to embark men on the night of 30-31 May.
Evacuation from Sphakia, 2nd night, 29-30 May 1941.
Meanwhile Rear-Admiral King, wearing his flag in HMS Phoebe (Capt. G. Grantham, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral E.L.S. King, CB, MVO, RN) had left Alexandria in the evening of the 28th with the light cruiser HMAS Perth, AA cruisers HMS Calcutta, HMS Coventry, transport HMS Glengyle, destroyers HMS Jervis, HMS Janus and HMS Hasty (Force D). Detination was Sphakia and their passage was uneventful except for one attack by one Ju.88 which dropped a stick of bombs near HMAS Perth but no damage was caused.
The cruisers and the Glengyle anchored off Sphakia at 2330/29 and the destroyers closed in one at a time to embark their quota. The troops were ferried from the beach in the landing craft from Glengyle assisted by two assault craft carried in HMAS Perth. The beach was too small for ships boats to be used in addition.
By 0320/30 a total of 6000 men had been embarked and Force D sailed for Alexandria, leaving three motor landing craft behind for use on subsequent nights. During the passage there were three air attacks on the force which had been joined by the destroyers HMAS Stuart, HMS Defender and HMS Jaguar at 0645 hours.
In the fist of these attacks, at 0930 hours, HMAS Perth was hit and her foremost boiler room was put out of action. The second and third attacks achieved no result although bombs fell close to HMAS Perth and HMS Jaguar. Fighter cover was able to drive off quite a number of enemy aircraft.
Evacuation from Sphakia, 3rd night, 30-31 May 1941.
At 0915/30, Force C, consisting of the destroyers HMAS Napier, HMAS Nizam, HMS Kandahar and HMS Kelvin again left Alexandria for Sphakia. After a few hours Kandahar developed a mechanical defect and had to return to Alexandria.
At 1530 hours, three Ju.88’s carried out an unseen dive from astern. Bombs were dropped and HMS Kelvin was near missed. The result was that her speed had to be reduced to 20 knots and she too was detached to Alexandria.
Captain Arliss now continued on with only the two Australian destroyers and arrived at Sphakia at 0030/31. By 0300 hours, each destroyer had embarked over 700 troops, using the three motor landing craft that had been left behind the previous night, supplemented by the ships boats.
On the return passage to Alexandria the two Australian destroyers were attacked by 12 Ju.88’s between 0815 and 0915 hours. Both destroyers were damaged by near misses and HMAS Napier had her speed reduced to 23 knots. One Ju.88 was shot down while three others were seen to be hit.
Fighter cover was able to shoot down three Ju.88’s and one Cant 1007 during the day. The remainder of the passage was without incident and HMAS Napier and HMAS Nizam arrived at Alexandria in the evening with a total of 1510 troop on board.
The final evacuation, Sphakia, 31 May – 1 June 1941.
A final evacuation of about 3000 men was required, which was more then previously was estimated. It was therefore decided to sent over one more Force to evacuate these men during the night of 31 May – 1 June.
So at 0600/31, Vice Admiral King departed Alexandria with the light cruiser HMS Phoebe (Flag), fast minelayer HMS Abdiel, destroyers HMS Hotspur, HMS Jackal and HMS Kimberley to carry out this final evacuation (Force D).
That forenoon the Commander-in-Chief received a signal from Capt. Arliss, who was then on his way back from Sphakia, which indicated that there was then some 6500 men to come off Crete. Vice-Admiral King was then authorized to increase the total number he was allowed to embark to 3500 men. This was later changed to ‘fill up to maximum capacity’.
In the evening of the 31st the force was attacked three times by enemy aircraft. None of the bombs fell very close and one Ju.88 was believed to be damaged by AA fire. Many bombs were seen to be jettisoned on the horizon indicating several successful combats by our fighters.
Force D arrived at 2320/31. Three fully loaded landing craft, the ones left behind, immediately went alongside. The embarkation went so quickly that for a time the beach was empty of troops. This was unfortunate as it led to a last minute rush, which could not be dealt with in the time available and some troops had to be left behind. Some medical stores were landed and finally the three motor landing craft were destroyed or sunk.
The force departed at 0300/1 having embarked nearly 4000 troops and arrived at Alexandria at 1700 hours that day. The return passage was uneventful.
The loss off HMS Calcutta.
Yet one more loss was suffered by the Fleet. In order to provide additional protection for Force D the AA cruisers HMS Calcutta and HMS Coventry were sailed from Alexandria early on the 1st of June. When only about 100 nautical miles out, they were attacked by two Ju.88’s, who dived from the direction of the sun. HMS Coventry was narrowly missed by the first but two bombs from the second hit HMS Calcutta and she sank within a few minutes at 0920/1. HMS Coventry then picked up 23 officers and 232 ratings. She then immediately returned to Alexandria.
Throughout the operations the Mediterranean Fleet had played a worthy part. Whilst the land fighting was in progress, sea-borne invasion had been prevented and reinforcements and stores for the Army had been maintained. When the evacuation was ordered, some 16500 British and Imperial troops were brought safely to Egypt and provisions and stores were landed for those who had to be left behind.
The Fleet had to pay a heavy price for its achievement. Losses and damage were sustained which would normally only occur during a major fleet action, in which the enemy fleet might be expected to suffer greater damage then our own. On this occasion, the enemy fleet was conspicuous by its absence, though it had many favourable opportunities for intervening, and the battle was fought out between ships and aircraft.
All forms of air attack were experienced by our ships but it were the dive bombing attacks that caused most of the losses and damage. Torpedo attacks for instance resulted in no ships being hit at all. When ships were inside the Aegean during 21/22 May air attacks were almost continuous. Aircraft appeared to land on nearby airfield, load up with new bombs, refuel and take off again.
During the evacuation the Royal Air Force gave what little protection was possible to the fleet and the presence of even a few fighter aircraft on the enemy was noticeable. It was regrettable that none had been made available to protect the Fleet during the earlier stages of the battle for Crete.
Warm thanks were expressed to the Navy by the Commanders-in-Chief of the Army and Air Force for their efforts during the Battle for Crete. (22)
- ADM 53/112213
- ADM 53/112214
- ADM 53/112215
- ADM 53/112215 + ADM 199/367
- ADM 53/112216 + ADM 199/367
- ADM 53/112216
- ADM 53/112217
- ADM 234/318
- ADM 53/112218
- ADM 53/112220
- ADM 53/114262
- ADM 173/16815
- ADM 53/114263
- ADM 199/396
- ADM 53/114263 + ADM 199/396
- ADM 53/114437
- ADM 199/656
- ADM 199/2554
- ADM 199/414 + ADM 199/656
- ADM 199/414
- ADM 53/114650
- ADM 199/414 + 234/320
ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.