HMS Formidable (67)
Aircraft Carrier of the Illustrious class
|Navy||The Royal Navy|
|Built by||Harland & Wolff Ltd. (Belfast, Northern Ireland)|
|Ordered||19 Mar 1937|
|Laid down||17 Jun 1937|
|Launched||17 Aug 1939|
|Commissioned||24 Nov 1940|
|End service||Mar 1947|
HMS Formidable operated mainly in the Mediterranean. Her initial role was to accompany a convoy to Capetown from December 1940 to January 1941. Subsequently she was called to the Mediterranean to replace the damaged HMS Illustrious in February 1941.
She took part in the Battle of Cape Matapan 27-29 March 1941, and in the two following months was involved in convoy escort. She supported Crete operations in May where she suffered serious damage in air attacks by 1000kg bombs on 26 May 1941, and so was out of action for six months. Between June till December 1941 she underwent repairs in the USA, after which she sailed for the Indian Ocean to join the Eastern Fleet remaining there between March-August 1942.
In October 1942 she returned to the Mediterranean and remained there until October 1943. She took part in the North African landings in November 1942, Sicily landings in July 1943, and Salerno landings in September 1943. On completion of her Mediterranean tour of duties she took part in an Arctic convoy in October 1943.
HMS Formidable was refitted between January -June 1944 and then her aircraft were involved in operation "Mascot" attack on the German Battleship Tirpitz in Norway on 17 July 1944. She took part in further attacks on Tirpitz 22, 24 and 29 August 1944 as part of the "Goodwood" operations.
HMS Formidable sailed for the Eastern Fleet on 16 September 1944, being stationed at Gibraltar between September 1944 till January 1945 after machinery breakdown. She finally joined the British Pacific Fleet in place of the damaged HMS Illustrious on 16 April 1945. She subsequently took part in air strikes against Sakishima Gunto between April-May 1945. Between 4-9 May 1945 she was hit by Kamikazes - yet was able to operate aircraft within a few hours of attack, her aircraft later took part in air strikes against Japanese home islands between July-August 1945. HMS Formidable arrived in Sydney, Australia on 23 August, subsequently undertook trooping voyages to UK September 1945-November 1946.
Formidable was reduced to reserve at Rosyth in March 1947, stricken 1950 and sold on 11 November 1953. She was scrapped at Inverkeithing from November 1956.
Commands listed for HMS Formidable (67)
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|1||Capt. Arthur William La Touche Bisset, RN||7 Aug 1940||23 Aug 1942|
|2||Capt. Arthur George Talbot, DSO, RN||23 Aug 1942||23 Sep 1943|
|3||Capt. Philip Ruck-Keene, RN||23 Sep 1943||Jan 1944|
|4||Cdr. Conrad Byron Alers-Hankey, DSC, RN||Jan 1944||29 Jan 1944|
|5||Capt. Philip Ruck-Keene, RN||29 Jan 1944||13 Feb 1946|
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Notable events involving Formidable include:
10 Jan 1941
Around 0600 hours (zone +1), HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.La T. Bisset, RN), HMS Norfolk (Capt. A.J.L. Phillips, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.F. Wake-Walker CB, OBE, RN), HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN), HMS Velox (Lt.Cdr. E.G. Roper, DSC, RN) and HMS Vidette (Lt. E.N. Walmsley, RN) split off from convoy WS 5A and proceeded to cover this convoy from a distance.
Both destroyers parted company, the next day, around 1715/11 to return to Freetown. (1)
15 Jan 1941
Early in the evening HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) split off from the other two ships, HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.La T. Bisset, RN) and HMS Norfolk (Capt. A.J.L. Phillips, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral W.F. Wake-Walker CB, OBE, RN).
HMS Dorsetshire then proceeded on an anti-raider patrol in the South Atlantic and HMS Formidable and HMS Norfolk continued to provide cover for convoy WS 5A from a distance. (2)
19 Mar 1941
Operation MC 9.
Convoy MW 6 to Malta.
19 March 1941.
On 19 March 1941 three merchant vessels departed from Haifa to Malta. One more merchant vessel departed from Alexandria.
The merchant vessels that departed from Haifa were the City of Manchester (8917 GRT, built 1935), Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT, built 1938) and Perthshire (10496 GRT, built 1936). They were escorted by HMS Hotspur (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC, RN) and HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN).
The merchant vessel that departed from Alexandria was the City of Lincoln (8039 GRT, built 1938). She was escorted by HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall-A'Deane, DSO, DSC, RN).
20 March 1941.
Around 0430/20, HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) departed Alexandria to joined the convoy which was known as ‘Force C’.
Around 0700/20, ‘Force A’ which was made up of the battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, KCB, DSO, RN), HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.La T. Bisset, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral A.L.St.G. Lyster, CB, CVO, DSO, RN) departed Alexandria to cover this convoy. These capital ships were escorted by the destroyers HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN), HMS Juno (Cdr. St.J.R.J. Thyrwhitt, RN), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Havock (Lt. G.R.G. Watkins, RN) and HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN).
21 March 1941.
Around 0700/21, ‘Force B’ which was made up of the cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN) and HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN) departed Suda Bay to join ‘Force A’ at sea. Before they did so HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) joined ‘Force B’ around noon. She came from Piraeus. The destroyers HMAS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Hereward (Lt. W.J. Munn, RN) were also in company. HMS Hasty, like HMS Gloucester came from Pireaus. These ships joined up with ‘Force A’ around 1600/21.
When ‘Force A’ and ‘Force B’ joined up, HMS Havock was detached to the convoy (‘Force C’). Also on this day ‘Force C’ was reinforced by the AA-cruisers HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN), HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN), HMS Carlisle (Capt. T.C. Hampton, RN) which had been on convoy escort duty in the Aegean.
During the night of 21/22 March 1941, ‘Force A’ remained about 20 nautical miles north of ‘Force C’ with ‘Force B’ a further 20 nautical miles to the north-west.
22 March 1941.
At 0740 hours ‘Force B’ rejoined ‘Force A’ and remained close to the convoy all day. None of the forces was detected by enemy air reconnaissance all day.
One Fulmar fighter from HMS Formidable crashed into the sea around 1115 hours. The crew was rescued by HMS Gloucester.
At 2000 hours, when in position 35°08’N, 16°42’E, ‘Force A’ parted company. They set course for Alexandria after covering ‘Force B’ during the night. ‘Force B’, reinforced with HMS Nubian and HMS Mohawk from ‘Force A’, covered ‘Force C’ to the northward during the night.
HMS Coventry and HMS Carlisle left the convoy (‘Force C’) at 2030 hours and proceeded to Alexandria. The remainder of the convoy took the direct route to Malta at the maximum speed of the merchant ships.
At 1945 hours, HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN), which had been refitting at Malta, left that place to join ‘Force A’.
23 March 1941.
At 0800 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 35°16’N, 19°32’E where it was rejoined by ‘Force B’. HMS Defender, coming from Malta, joined shortly afterwards. Course was continued towards Alexandria during the day.
The convoy (‘Force C’) arrived at Malta safely but were bombed in the harbour. HMS Bonaventure and HMS Griffin were slightly damaged by near misses. The City of Lincoln was hit on the bridge and the Perthshire took a hit in No.1 hold.
The cruisers and destroyers of ‘Force C’ departed Malta at 1930/23.
At 1900/23, ‘Force B’ had been detached to cover the passage east of ‘Force C’. ‘Force B’ was strengthened by HMS Ilex and HMS Hasty while HMS Herewardwas detached from ‘Force A’ to strengthen the escort of convoy AN 22.
24 March 1941.
At 0800 hours, ‘Force A’ was in position 32°27’N, 25°45’E and continued direct to Alexandria where it arrived around 2230/24.
The cruisers and destroyers of ‘Force C’ joined ‘Force B’ around 0730 hours. HMS Coventry and HMS Hereward joined the escort of convoy AN 22. HMS Carlisle arrived at Alexandria in the afternoon.
HMS Calcutta, HMS Ilex and HMS Hasty proceeded to Port Said.
Cover was provided for convoy AN 22 from west of the Kithera Channel.
HMS Bonaventure, HMS Griffin, HMS Greyhound, HMS Hasty and HMS Hotspur proceeded to Alexandria where they arrived the next day.
Part of ’Force B’ then patrolled the Aegean while the other part went to Suda Bay. (3)
28 Mar 1941
Battle of Cape Matapan.
Timespan: 26 to 30 March 1941.
26 March 1941.
The Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto departed Naples escorted by the destroyers Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere and Granatiere from the 13th Destroyer Division.
The Italian heavy cruisers Fiume, Zara and Pola from the 1st Cruiser Division departed Taranto escorted by the destroyers Vittorio Alfieri, Giosuè Carducci Alfredo Oriani and Vincenzo Gioberti from the 9th Destroyer Division.
The Italian light cruisers Luigi di Savoia Duca Delgi Abruzzi and Giuseppe Garibaldi from the 8th Cruiser Division departed Brindisi escorted by the destroyers Nicoloso Da Recco and Emanuele Pessagno from the 16th Destroyer Division.
27 March 1941.
The Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and her escorting destroyers passed the Straits of Messina after which they were joined by the heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento and Bolzano (3rd Cruiser Division) and their escorting destroyers from the 12th Destroyer Division; Ascari, Carabiniere and Corazziere which sailed from Messina.
The 1st and 8th Cruiser Divisions were to proceed to the Aegean to search for British/Greek convoy’s while the Veneto and the 3rd Cruiser Division were to proceed towards Gavdos Island to take up a cover position. Late in the evening however the 1st and 8th Cruiser Divisions were ordered to join the Veneto and 3rd Cruiser Division.
However in the meantime the British were aware of the Italian fleet movements and shortly after noon this day the 3rd Cruiser Division had been sighted and reported by a Sunderland aircraft.
In response Admiral Cunningham departed Alexandria at 1900 hours with the Mediterranean Fleet which was made up of the battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, KCB, DSO, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.La T. Bisset, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN), HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN / other sources give Lt. L.R.P. Lawford, RN in command), HMS Mohawk (Cdr. J.W.M. Eaton, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall-A'Deane, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN), HMAS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMS Havock (Lt. G.R.G. Watkins, RN) and HMS Hotspur (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, DSC, RN).
The fleet steered a course of 300° at 20 knots.
Six hours before, at 1300/27, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell, had departed Pireaus with the light cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and the destroyers HMS Hereward (Lt. W.J. Munn, RN) and HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades, RAN). They were to patrol in the Aegean to provide cover for convoy’s but when the Italian warships were known to be at sea they were ordered to make rendez-vous at 0630/28 south of crete with the Mediterranean Fleet in position 34°20’N, 24°10’E, 30 nautical miles south of Gavdos Island, south of Crete.
28 March 1941 and onwards.
At 0430 hours, the Fleet was in position 32°22’N, 27°12’E steering 310° at 16 knots. They were a little over 200 nautical miles from the rendez-vous position with the cruiser force.
At 0555 hours, HMS Formidable, launched A/S and fighter aircraft. They were to search an area between Crete and Cyrenaica as far west as longitude 23°E. An air search from Maleme, in Crete, had started earlier. Four torpedo bombers (armed indeed with torpedoes) took off at 0445 hours to search to the west of Crete. One however developed engine trouble and ha to jettison her torpedo and return. The other sighted nothing of the enemy and returned at 0845 hours.
At 0630 hours, the cruiser force was proceeding to the south-east at 18 knots. They sighted an Italian aircraft of a type that was used as catapult aircraft by Italian surface ships. So this indicated that these must be in the area.
At 0630 hours, the cruiser force was joined by two more destroyers. These were HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN) and HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN) which came from Suda Bay. The cruiser force then set course to 200°.
At 0720 hours, the enemy was first sighted by aircraft ‘5 B’ from HMS Formidable. At 0722 hours this aircraft amplified her report ‘four cruisers and four destroyers’ were reported in position 34°22’N, 24°57’E. They were steering 230°.
The next report came from aircraft ‘5 F’ from HMS Formidable at 0739 hours which announced four cruisers and six destroyers in position 34°05’N, 24°26’E steering 200°.
As the force reported at 0720 hours was identical in composition as the British cruiser force and only 35 miles north of this force it was thought that the aircraft had sighted our own ships.
The report of the force reported at 0739 hours was still being studied by Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell when HMS Orion sighted smoke astern at 0745 hours bearing 010°. One minute later the enemy ships were sighted and identified.
Commencement of the action.
At 0752 hours the cruiser force altered course to 140° and increased speed to 23 knots. Shorty afterwards the ships astern were seen to be three cruisers and some destroyers and speed was increased to 28 knots. As the enemy was suspected to be 8” cruisers of the Zara-class which outgunned our cruisers and were also faster it was decided to try to draw them towards out battleships which were about 90 nautical miles to the eastward.
At 0812 hours the enemy opened fire from 25000 yards. It were however not Zara-class heavy cruisers but it were Trieste, Trento and Bolzano. Enemy salvoes however fell short. Enemy fire concentrated on HMS Gloucester which commenced zig-zagging to avoid being hit.
At 0829 hours HMS Gloucester opened fire on the enemy from 23500 yards. The salvoes fell short but caused the enemy to alter course away and draw outside the British gun range. The Italians continued firing although all their salvoes were falling short. Both forces continued speeding to the south-east when at 0854 hours the aspect of affairs was suddenly changed when aircraft ‘5 F’ from HMS Formidable reported enemy battleships in position 34°00’N, 24°16’E steering course 210° at 20 knots. Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell had been in that position less then one hour before and thought the position to be incorrect but enemy battleships must be nearby non the less.
One minute later the enemy cruisers ceased fire and turned away to the north-east. They had been ordered to break off the engagement as the Italian C-in-C feared that his cruisers were drawn to far into waters controlled by British aircraft. Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell decided to follow the enemy and altered course accordingly. At 0936 hours he reported that the enemy was still in sight bearing 320°, range 16 nautical miles, speed 28 knots. During this phase of the action HMAS Vendetta developed engine trouble and was detached to Alexandria.
Movements of the Mediterranean Fleet.
When Admiral Cunningham received Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell’s contact report at 0827 hours the Fleet increased speed to 22 knots and altered course to 310°. Twenty minutes later HMS Valiant was ordered to proceed at her utmost speed and join Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell’s cruiser force. HMS Mohawk and HMS Nubian were ordered to join her.
At 0833 hours HMS Formidable was ordered to ready a torpedo bomber striking force. Also the aircraft at Maleme, Crete were ordered to attack the enemy cruisers.
Aircraft reports then came in regarding another enemy force further to the northward, though their presence was by no means certain. Aircraft reports continued to come in but the situation was very unclear. It was therefore decided to hold back the torpedo bomber striking force of HMS Formidable until the situation had cleared.
Striking force of HMS Formidable finally takes off.
At 0939 hours the C-in-C finally orders HMS Formidable to lauch her torpedo bomber strike force to attack the enemy and relieve the pressure on the cruiser force.
At 0956 hours Formidable therefore launches six Albacore torpedo aircraft and two Fulmar fighters as escort. Also a Swordfish was launched for observation duty.
Meanwhile the cruiser force was still in pursuit of the enemy cruisers. They were barely visible from the director of HMS Orion when at 1058 hours the enemy motive for breaking off the action and turning to the north-west became evident when HMS Orion sighted an enemy battleship bearing 002°. The battleship quickly opened fire and Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell at once altered course to the southward in order to disengage. Also speed was increased to 30 knots which all cruisers fortunately could make despite some machinery problems in HMS Gloucester. For ten minutes the enemy battleship concentrated her fire on HMS Orion which suffered some minor damage from a near miss. Smoke was made and the cruiser force then became invisible to the enemy except for HMS Gloucester. Fire was then shifted to this ship and she was repeatedly straddled until HMS Hasty was able to cover her in smoke. Meanwhile the Italian 8” cruisers that had been encountered first tried to cut off the retreat of our cruisers but fortunately right at this moment the air striking force from HMS Formidable intervened.
The air attack on the Vittorio Veneto.
While flying at 9000 feet the air striking force from HMS Formidable sighted the Vittorio Veneto at 1058 hours. Her salvoes were seen to straddle our cruisers. The planes proceeded to manoeuvre to reach a position off her starboard bow on the opposite site of the battleships destroyer escort.
They attacked at 1127 hours, in two waves, each plane being able to act independently. The enemy destroyers began to move over to starboard when our planes commenced their dive and the battleship altered course more then 180° to starboard when the first wave was at 1000 feet. Two aircraft (‘4 A’ and ‘4 F’) were already committed to the attack released their torpedoes on the starboard side. The third aircraft (‘4 C’) attacked from fine on the starboard bow.
The second sub-flight (aircraft ‘5 A’, ‘4 P’ and ‘4 K’) was able to take advantage of Vittorio Veneto’s turn and dropped their torpedoes from good positions on the battleships port bow. Although the striking force reported a possible hit all torpedoes passed clear astern of the target.
The enemy battleship then broke off the action with our cruiser force and retired on a north-westerly course at 25 knots. This was fortunate for the cruiser force but the C-in-C was not at all happy because this lessened his chance to bring his battleships into action against the enemy battleship.
At 1230 hours, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell made contact with the Fleet.
Attack by FAA aircraft from Maleme on the Italian 3rd Cruiser Division.
The aircraft from Maleme also took part in this phase of the action. Three Swordfish had been flow off at 1050 hours. Flying at 9000 feet they sighted enemy cruisers in position 34°22’N, 23°02’E at 1200 hours. The enemy force was steering 300° at 28 to 30 knots. The aircraft then attacked out of the sun. Their target was the rear cruiser, Bolzano. The two leading aircraft dropped their torpedoes from the port bow and beam. The third aircraft came in too high, turned to port and then dropped it’s torpedo on the bow of the target. The enemy cruiser took avoiding action and all torpedoes missed. AA fire was opened but none of the aircraft was damaged.
Movements of the battlefleet 1100 – 1305 hours.
At 0918 hours, the C-in-C ordered HMS Valiant, HMS Mohawk and HMS Nubian to rejoin him. This was done after it was heard by the C-in-C that the Italian cruisers had broken off the action with the British cruiser force.
At 1112 hours, the C-in-C asked Rear-Admiral Boyd on board HMS Formidable when a second air strike force could be ready. The reply was ‘in about half an hour’. At 1153 hours, HMS Formidable reported this second strike force to be ready for takeoff. They were however told to wait for a moment.
At 1225 hours the battleships were ordered to launch spotter aircraft as action might be near. Shortly afterwards the C-in-C realised that the speed of the enemy battleship had to be reduced if his battleships were to see action against it. Meanwhile the cruiser force had been retiring towards the battlefleet and at 1228 hours HMS Orion had been sighted by HMS Jervis from the destroyer screen.
At 1305 hours, the cruiser force was ordered to proceed ahead of the battlefleet on a bearing of 290° at maximum visual signalling distance. They remained near the battlefleet until 1644 hours when they were ordered to press on and gain touch with the retreating enemy.
The Formidable’s second strike force awaits orders.
The first air strike force returned to HMS Formidable between 1200 and 1215 hours after attacking the Vittorio Veneto. This necessitated the second air strike force to be flown off in order to have the first one to land on. The two operations were completed by 1244 hours and HMS Formidable set course to rejoin the battlefleet she had to split off from during flight operations.
The second striking force consisted of three Albacore’s and two Swordfish accompanied by two Fulmar’s. After flying of it was ordered to wait overhead until the battlefleet engaged the enemy which was hoped to be around 1330 hours.
Whilst proceeding to rejoin the battleships, HMS Formidable was attacked by two Italian S-79 torpedo bombers but the torpedo tracks could be easily combed and both torpedoes missed astern. At 1400 hours Formidable was back in position and the Fleet was still proceeding westwards in pursuit of the enemy.
As touch with the enemy had been lost due to lack of shadowing aircraft three Albacores from the first strike group were launched again at 1400 hours to search for the enemy. One of them (aircraft ‘4 F’) sighted the Vittorio Veneto at 1459 hours in position 34°45’N, 22°14’E. The report was received at 1515 hours. This aircraft was able to remain in touch with the enemy until being relieved at 1920 hours.
The second striking force sighted the enemy battleship at 1510 hours. The squadron leader worked into the sun and succeeded in getting down to 5000 feet unobserved. The leading destroyer on the battleships bow then opened fire but turned away when shot up by the fighter escort. As the three Albacores (‘5 F’, ‘5 G’ and ‘5 H’) attacked on the Vittorio Veneto’s port bow she turned 180° to starboard and splashes were seen on her port bow and amidships. The two Swordfish (‘4 B’ and ‘5 K’) had worked round ‘up sun’ to attack separately. But as the Vittorio Veneto in turning presented her starboard side clear of the screen they decided to attack together diving from 8000 feet. By that time the enemy battleship was doing only 14 knots thus providing an easy shot. A large splash was seen on her starboard quarter and another on her starboard side. In fact only one hit was obtained which caused a reduction in the battleships speed.
Activities from R.A.F. bombers from Greece.
During the afternoon of the 28th R.A.F. bombers from Greece made a series of attacks on the enemy. When an enemy report was received from an R.A.F. Sunderland ay 1235/28 six Blenheim aircraft from 84 Squadron were ordered to take off from Menidi airfield (some 20 miles north of Athens) and attack the contact. These aircraft made an attack at 1420 hours. The target appears to have been the Vittorio Veneto but no hits were obtained.
Then at 1520 hours four more Blenheims from 84 Squadron attacked the Italian 3rd Cruiser Division. Two hits were claimed on a cruiser with 250 lb. bombs and two more on another cruiser with 500 lb. bombs. Unfortunately these were only near misses on the Trento and Bolzano.
Between 1515 and 1645 hours, several attacks were made by a total of 11 Blenheims on the Italian 1st and 8th Cruiser Divisions and near misses were obtained on the Zara and Garibaldi.
The pursuit, 1330 to 1810 hours.
At 1600 hours, the C-in-C ordered HMS Formidable to make strong as possible torpedo bomber attack on the damaged battleship.
At 1618 hours, the destroyers were organized into divisions for a possible night attack.
At 1644 hours, the cruiser force was ordered to press on to gain touch with the damaged battleship. They made off at 30 knots.
Shortly afterwards HMS Mohawk and HMS Nubian were ordered to proceed ahead of the battlefleet as a visual link between the battleships and the cruisers.
When evening was beginning to fall at 1720 hours, the destroyers were organized for night attack.
At 1810 hours, the C-in-C signalled that if the cruisers were to gain touch most of the destroyers would be sent to join them for a night torpedo attack on the damaged battleship. The situation was however not very clear due to lack of enemy reports.
At 1831 hours, the observer aircraft from HMS Warspite, which had been catapulted at 1745 hours, made a report that the damaged Vittorio Veneto was in company with three cruisers and seven destroyers and about 50 nautical miles bearing 292°, speed 12 knots, from the C-in-C’s position.
The British battleships then formed in line ahead and were doing 20 knots. Shortly afterwards the observer aircraft from Warspite reported that enemy forces were concentrating and at 1912 the aircraft reported that the enemy forces had formed five columns.
Situation at 1915 hours on 28 March 1941.
The sun had set at 1840 hours. By 1915 hours it appeared that the damaged enemy battleship was about 45 nautical miles to the westward steering 290° at 15 knots. Another cruiser force had joined the enemy fleet which was formed in five columns. The battleship was apparently in the centre with four destroyers screening ahead and two astern. On her port side were thee 8” cruisers and outside of them were three destroyers. On her starboard side were also three 8” cruisers with what appeared to be two 6” cruisers but were in fact destroyers. Both the 6” cruisers had by that time gone on to the westward.
Third torpedo attack on the Vittorio Veneto by aircraft from HMS Formidable and Maleme.
It was 1925 hours when aircraft from HMS Formidable made their third and last attack. They had flown off at 1735 hours when Formidable was in position 34°42’N, 22°44’E. Composition of this third strike force was; six Albacore’s and two Swordfish aircraft.
The sun was sinking when the force sighted the enemy and took up a waiting position astern and well out of range at low height. It was joined by two aircraft (Swordfish) from Maleme. These had sighted the enemy at 1810 hours when they were 25 miles off. On closing them they identified the enemy as four ships screened by six destroyers steering 320° at about 14 knots. At 1835 hours they saw the strike force from Formidable coming up from the eastward and took station in its rear.
Dusk had fallen at 1925 hours when the aircraft swept in to attack. During the approach the enemy was steering 230°. On closing the enemy put up barrage fire. The aircraft were forced to turn away to starboard and lost their formation after which they had to attack independently from very different angles.
Most of the pilots reported to have fired their torpedoes at the Vittorio Veneto but it was extremely difficult to observe anything with precision. Several observers of the attacking aircraft however reported a hit on a cruiser. Indeed a torpedo hit the Pola during this attack. Most likely it was fired by aircraft ‘5 A’ which dropped it’s torpedo at 1945 hours and Pola was hit one minute later. Following the attack the aircraft from Formidable proceeded to Suda Bay. Aircraft ‘5 A’ was out of petrol and had to made a forced landing on the water near destroyer HMS Juno, which then picked up the crew.
Also the two aircraft from Maleme attacked independently. They both dropped their torpedoes but obtained no hits. Both aircraft then returned to Maleme although one was damaged by enemy AA fire.
The attack by the aircraft had important results. The Pola was hit on the starboard side between the engine and the boiler room, causing her main engines to stop and putting out of action all her electric power and with it all her turrets. The attack was observed by a shadowing aircraft from HMS Formidable which had relieved the aircraft from HMS Warspite. At 1950 hours the aircraft reported that the enemy force had divided, the major portion going off on a course of 220° while the ‘battleship’ (which was in fact the Pola) remained stopped with smoke rising from her. This report however was never received which was just as well as the reported course of 220° was incorrect (300° was correct).
Movements of the British Fleet, 1920 to 2040 hours.
By 1920 hours the C-in-C was aware of the position and formation of the enemy fleet and knew that Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell’s cruiser force was in touch with it. The report of the dusk air attack was received at 2008 hours. It mentioned only probable hits. It was in light of this information that the C-in-C had to decide if it would be justified to take the fleet closer to the enemy.
At 2040 hours he decided that the destroyers were to attack. Capt. Mack with his eight destroyers then drew ahead making 28 knots with the intention of passing up the starboard side of the Vittorio Veneto and then attack from ahead.
The cruiser force.
Meanwhile the cruiser force had been pressing on at 30 knots to the westward to get in touch and at 1832 hours had seen the aircraft from HMS Formidable going up to attack the enemy.
At 1907 the Vice-Admiral ordered his ships to spread on a line of 20° apart, seven nautical miles apart. They were still opening out when at 1914 hours three or four enemy ships were sighted on the starboard bow. The Vice-Admiral then decided to keep his ships concentrated and they reformed in line ahead.
By 1930 hours the air attack had begun an was clearly visible on the horizon bearing 303°, distance about 15 nautical miles. Two minutes later the cruisers altered course to 320°. At 1949 hours speed was reduced to 20 knots in order to ‘reduce bow waves’. The last stage of the air attack was at that moment still in progress. Searchlights and gunfire was visible bearing 278°. At 195 hours course was changed to 290° to close the enemy. Visibility to the westward was then about four nautical miles and no ships were in sight.
At 2014 hours, HMS Orion altered course to 310°. A minute later a vessel was plotted and followed for 18 minutes. It became clear that the contact was either stopped or moving very slowly. At 2017 hours, the force had reduced speed to 15 knots. At 2029 hours HMS Ajax reported an enemy vessel in position 35°16’N, 21°04’E. This was 275°, 5 nautical miles from Ajax. The enemy was stationary.
Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell then decided to lead clear of this ship to the northward and try to regain touch with the retreating enemy. Accordingly at 2033 hours, the cruiser force turned to 60° and at 2036 hours to 110°. At 2040 hours the stationary Italian ship was reported to the C-in-C. It was thought the destroyers would be ordered to deal with this ship. At 2048 hours, course was altered to 310° and at 2115 hours to 300°. Speed was increased to 20 knots at 2119 hours.
The cruisers had been proceeding for some time on this course and the Vice-Admiral considered spreading them again when he realised that Capt. Mack and his destroyers might have gone further west and would almost certainly encounter his cruisers. At 2155 hours HMS Ajax reported three unknown vessels being picked up by radar 5 nautical miles to the southward. Though rather far to the westward these were thought to be some of our own destroyers. The Vice-Admiral then decided to keep concentrated and steer more to the northward as to keep clear of them. According at 2204 hours course was altered to 340°.
At 2229 hours, gun flashes from the battlefleet were seen astern bearing 150° to 160°. Then at 2243 hours, a red light was sighted by HMS Orion and HMS Gloucester bearing 320° on the port bow. The general alarm was made and the cruisers formed single line ahead. Course was altered to 000° at 2255 hours.
At 2314 hours a heavy explosion bearing 150° to 160° lit up the horizon to the southward. Shortly afterwards the Vice-Admiral received a signal from the C-in-C of 2312 hours ordering all forces not in action at that moment to withdraw to the north. At 2332 hours course was altered to 60°. Then at 0018/29 HMS Gloucester sighted an object to the south-west but lost it out of sight at 0030 hours. No other ship sighted this ‘object’. Nothing more was seen until 0635/29 when the smoke of the battlefleet was sighted to the eastward.
The destroyer striking force 2037 to 0200 hours.
After leaving the battlefleet at 2043 hours, the eight destroyers; 14th Destroyer Flotilla: HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Mohawk, HMS Nubian and the 2nd Destroyer Flottilla: HMS Ilex, HMS Hasty, HMS Hereward, HMS Hotspur, drew ahead on course 300° while making 28 knots. The 14th Destroyer Flotilla was in line ahead with the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla six cables on it’s starboard beam. It was Capt. Mack’s (who was in overall command) intention to pass up the starboard side of the damaged battleship outside visible range and then attack from ahead.
Capt. Mack did not receive the 2029 signal from HMS Ajax nor the 2040 signal from HMS Orion. It was very unfortunate that the destroyers proceeded northwards as did the cruisers leaving the south flank open for the enemy to escape.
Around 2200 hours, he received Ajax’s 2155 report of the three unknown ships. They were thought to be three miles ahead but due to a navigational error were in fact about ten miles on his port bow. As the destroyers proceeded westwards on course 285° the gunflashes of the battleships were seen at 2230 hours. Ten minutes later HMS Hardy sighted a red light bearing 010°. This was evidently the same red light that was seen to the north-westward by HMS Orion and HMS Gloucester.
The destroyers continued to proceed westwards on course 285° until 2320 hours when a signal came from the C-in-C to forces not engaging enemy ships at that moment to retire to the north-east. Capt. Mack did so and quickly sent a signal if this included his forces. He was told ‘after your attack’. This reply was received at 2337 hours and the destroyers then turned westwards again proceeding on course 270° for 20 minutes.
At midnight it was thought that the destroyers had drawn sufficiently ahead course was altered to 200° and speed reduced to 20 knots. Then at 0030 hours, just as Capt. Mack thought to have reached a position just ahead of the enemy, a signal was received from HMS Havock, which was with the disabled Italian cruisers about 50 miles further to the east, that she was in touch with a Littorio-class battleship and that she had expended all her torpedoes. Course was then altered to 110° and speed increased to 28 knots. A full hour passed before a signal was received from Havock that the contact was an Italian 8” cruiser and not a battleship.
In these circumstances Capt. Mack decided it was best to continue on to the east and at 0200 hours the destroyers sighted searchlights ahead and, steaming through a number of survivors, arrived on the scene of the battlefleet’s action and they then sighted the Italian cruiser Zara.
The British battlefleet. Night action 2213 to 2312 hours.
At 2043 hours, when the destroyer striking force proceeded on its quest, the battlefleet was left with a screen of only four destroyers; HMAS Stuart, HMS Havock, HMS Greyhound and HMS Griffin.
At 2111 hours, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell’s report of a ‘stopped ship’ came in. The C-in-C at once turned to 280° and made for the reported position at 20 knots. The Warspite, Valiant, Formidable and Barham were in single line ahead at three cables distance. HMAS Stuart and HMS Havock were stationed one mile off to starboard and HMS Greyhound and HMS Griffin to port. Visibility was about 2.5 miles.
Nearly an hour had passed when at 2203 hours HMS Valiant’s radar detected a ‘stopped ship’ on the port bow bearing 244°, range 8 to 9 nautical miles. At 2213 hours course was altered to 240°, towards the ‘stopped ship’. At 2220 hours, the ‘stopped ship’ was reported 191°, range 4.5 nautical miles. The destroyers on the port side were ordered to move over to the starboard side but the order had hardly been given when HMAS Stuart sighted a ship 4 miles off, fine on the starboard bow bearing 250° and gave the night alarm. This however had not reached the C-in-C when two minutes later the massive outlines of ships were seen by the Chief of Staff and the C-in-C himself looming through the night. Two large cruisers could be made out on the starboard bow with a smaller vessel ahead of them.
These cruisers were the Zara and Fiume which had turned back to help the disabled Pola. They were in single line with a destroyer ahead and three destroyers astern. They were steering approximately 130° and were some 4000 yards from HMS Warspite. Almost at the same time HMS Greyhound which was drawing ahead opened her searchlight, its beam fell right across the water, most valuably illuminating a cruiser without revealing the position of our battleships.
HMS Formidable, being of no use in a gun battle hauled out of line to starboard. HMS Warspite then opened fire followed seven seconds later by HMS Valiant. A salvo of 15” shells crashed into Fiume. Her after turret was blown overboard, she started to list heavily to starboard and burst into a sea of flames. She was driven out of the line and apparently sank about 30 minutes later. Fire was then shifted to the Zara which was now illuminated by searchlights.
Just before the enemy cruisers were sighted HMS Barham, in the rear of the line, had sighted the disabled Pola on the port quarter making identification signals and had trained her turrets on her. When the Greyhound’s searchlight shone out, the Barham trained forward at once, opening fire on the leading ship which was the destroyer Vittorio Alfieri but was at that moment thought to be a 6” cruiser. A brilliant orange flash shot up under the bridge and bursts were seen along the whole length of the ship which turned to starboard and made off to the westward making smoke. The Barham then shifed fire to the Zara which was soon being heavily hit. A big explosion forward hurled one of her turrets overboard. The action lasted barely five minutes, shell after shell crashing into the helpless Italian ships which were caught unprepared with their gun turrets trained forward and aft.
At 2231 hours the remaining Italian destroyer turned towards the British battleships and one of them was seen to fire torpedoes. To avoid them the battlefleet made an emergency turn of 90° to starboard. The Warspire’s 6” guns then shifted fire to a destroyer that was illuminated by a searchlight but having difficulty in finding the target after the turn had been completed fired only one salvo at it which was fortunate as the target turned out to be HMS Havock.
By now the Italian cruisers were completely crippled and burning. At 2238 hours the C-in-C ordered the destroyers to finish them off.
The destroyers that were escorting the battlefleet, 2240 to 0140 hours.
As the battlefleet turned north after their action the Stuart was about to attack the enemy cruisers when three enemy destroyers were sighted steering to the westward. HMS Greyhound and HMS Griffin went off in pursuit while HMAS Stuart and HMS Havock proceeded south in search of the enemy cruisers. It was then 2240 hours. A minute later came the signal from the C-in-C to finish off the enemy bearing 165° and both destroyers proceeded on this mission.
at 2259 hours a burning and apparently stationary Italian cruiser could be seen about two nautical miles to the southward with what appeared to be another large cruiser circling slowly around her. HMAS Stuart then fired her whole outfit of eight torpedoes against this pair of cruisers and observed a ‘dim explosion’ low down on the ‘non burning’ one. HMS Havock did not fire torpedoes for the moment, being unable to make out a suitable target. It was then 2301 hours. HMAS Stuart then opened fire on the burning ship and then went after the other and found her at 2305 hours, about 1.5 miles off, with a heavy list and stopped. Fire was opened and two salvoes caused a big explosion and fires. She was seen to be of the Zara-class. A ship then suddenly loomed up on the port bow passing very close and Stuart had to turn to port to avoid collision. This was seen to be a Grecale class destroyer, apparently undamaged. Stuart then fired two salvoes at her. Havock which was following up Stuart lost touch with her but did sighted the Italian destroyer. She fired four torpedoes at it, one of which hit.
HMAS Stuart then sighted what was thought to be another cruiser but this could not have been the case, probably it was an enemy destroyer. She followed this ship to the south-west. HMS Havock meanwhile continued to engage the Italian destroyer for about 20 minutes until this ship had her decks awash and was blazing from fore to aft. This destroyer blew up and sank around 2330 hours.
HMS Havock still had half her torpedoes left. She sighted a cruiser which was heavily on fire and about to blow up. It was decided not to engage this cruiser as another one was sighted with a single fire abreast the bridge. Havock fired her remaining torpedoes at this ship but all missed. Havock then turned to the north and made off at high speed towards the cruiser that was heavily burning, fired star shell and then a few more salvoes in her. The star shell illuminated a large ship thought to be a battleship (this was in fact the disabled Pola) laying stopped. It was then 2345 hours. Havock then opened fire on this ship while retiring to the north-east. A signal was then sent reporting this ‘battleship’.
This was the signal received by Capt. Mack which then returned eastwards with his eight destroyers (D. 2 and D.14). At 0005 hours the Commanding Officer of the Havock realised his mistake and a signal was sent at 0030 stating that the reported ‘battleship’ was in fact a heavy (8”) cruiser. This signal was received by Capt. Mack at 0134 hours who decided (as stated earlier) to continue on to the eastward.
Meanwhile HMS Greyhound and HMS Griffin had been pursuing the enemy destroyers. The Greyhound, after her opportune searchlight display, sighted three destroyers in the rear of the Italian cruisers making off to the westward and gave chase together with Griffin. Fire was opened and hits were observed, but the enemy, lost in the smoke, turned southwards, was lost in the smoke around 2320 hours. Just then the C-in-C’s sigbal to retired to the north came in and both destroyers than proceeded accordingly until 0050 hours when HMS Havock’s signal was received, then then turned southwards.
At 0140 hours HMS Greyhound encountered the Pola, laying stopped on an even keel with ensigns flying and guns trained fore and aft. It was then that a challenge was seen and Capt. Mack and his destroyers arrived at the scene.
Captain D.14, the sinking of the Zara and Pola.
Capt. Mack in HMS Jervis had sighted searchlights ahead, and, steaming through a number of survivors, sighted what turned out to be the Zara, with a few small fires burning on the upper deck. As he passed her he fired four torpedoes, two of which appeared to hit and she blew up and sank. It was then 0240 hours. He ordered his destroyers to pick up survivors but not to lower their boats. Nine survivors were picked up by HMS Jervis.
Then at 0250 hours a red and white recognition signal was observed from the direction of the Pola which was about two miles away. The rescue of survivors was then stopped and the destroyers moved off in that direction. As they were closing they were met by HMS Havock which reported that the enemy cruiser seemed to be on an even keel with a large number of her crew on the forecastle and in the water around her. HMS Jervis then passed close to the Italian cruiser. No visible damage could be seen except for a small fire on the tarboard side abreast her after turret. He ordered his destroyers to pick up survivors from the water while HMS Jervis went alongside. To take of the rest of the ships company. They seemed thoroughly demoralised, many half drunk. The upper deck was an mess. The Jervis was alongside for about a quarter of an hour. At 0322 hours she had embarked 22 officers (including the ships Commanding Officer), 26 petty officers and 202 ratings. HMS Jervis then casted off and fired a torpedo into the stricken cruiser. As she appeared to settle very slowly Capt. Mack ordered HMS Nubian to fire another torpedo into her which completed the destruction of the Pola. At 0403 hours she blew up and sank.
Capt. Mack then reformed his flotilla’s in single line ahead, with the 2nd Flotilla on his starboard beam. Course was set to 055° at 20 knots to rejoin the C-in-C. Rendezvous was made at 0648/29.
Proceedings of the Battle Fleet, 2330 – 0800 hours.
At 2330/28, the Battle Fleet, leaving the Italian cruisers on fire and out of action, proceeded on a course of 070°, reducing speed to 18 knots. At 0006/29, the C-in-C signalled his course and speed and the position of a rendezvous at 0700/29. Light cruiser HMS Bonaventure (Capt. H.G. Egerton, RN) which had left Alexandria at 1300/28 together with the destroyers HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN) and HMAS Waterhen (Lt.Cdr. J.H. Swain, RN) were ordered to stay east of the C-in-C until 0430 hours. As were the destroyers HMS Juno (Cdr. St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN) which had sailed from Piraeus, Greece in the morning of the 28th and made for the Kithera Channel. Patrol there was discontinued on the 29th, HMS Juno and HMS Jaguar were ordered to join the fleet while HMS Defender was ordered to proceed to Suda Bay for escort duties.
At 0430 hours, HMS Formidable flew off three aircraft for a morning search between 160° and 305° while another was sent to the south-east for 30 miles and then to proceed to Maleme with orders for the aircraft that had landed there after their air strike the day before.
Between 0600 and 0700 hours all units of the Fleet joined the Flag. None had any damage or casualties to report except for one Swordfish aircraft that was missing. The searching aircraft returned at 0830 hours. They reported having sighted only a number of rafts and survivors. At 0800 hours the Fleet was in position 35°43’N, 21°40’E and course was now set to search the scene of the action. Between 0950 and 1100 hours many boats and rafts were seen and destroyers picked up a number of survivors, a work that was interrupted by the appearance of German aircraft. The total number of survivors picked up by the British ships had now risen to 55 officers and 850 men. Further to that Greek destroyers picked up 110 survivors on the 29th.
The return to Alexandria.
While the Fleet was on the way back to Alexandria a continuous air patrol was maintained by HMS Formidable for the remainder of the voyage. Fighters dealt effectively with a dive bombing attack made by 12 Ju.88’s at 1530/29 which was directed mainly against Formidable. No damage was caused although she was shaken by two near misses. One Ju.88 was shot down, another one was damaged and four had been forced to jettison their bombs early. At 0834/30 an S.79 that was shadowing the fleet was shot down by Fulmar fighters.
The Fleet arrived at Alexandria around 1730/30. A submarine was reported while the Fleet was entering the harbour. Destroyers cleared the area by dropping depth charges but all ships arrived in harbour safely. (4)
18 Apr 1941
Operations MD 2 and MD 3, convoy movements to and from Malta and bombardment of Tripoli.
Timespan 18 to 23 April 1941.
18 April 1941.
Around 0700 hours (zone -3) the Mediterranean Fleet departed Alexandria for these operations. The Fleet was made up of the battleships HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN, flying the flag of Admiral Sir A.B. Cunningham, KCB, DSO, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN), light cruiser HMS Phoebe (Capt. G. Grantham, RN), AA cruiser HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN) and the destroyers HMS Juno (Cdr. St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN), HMS Kingston (Lt.Cdr. P. Sommerville, DSO, DSC, RN), HMS Kimberley (Lt.Cdr. J.S.M. Richardson, DSO, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN), HMS Havock (Lt. G.R.G. Watkins, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt. W.J. Munn, RN) and HMS Encounter (Lt.Cdr. E.V.St J. Morgan, RN). Destroyer HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN) joined later at sea having overtaken the fleet after being delayed on leaving Alexandria as she fouled her mooring buoy. The Fleet was to proceed to Suda Bay where the destroyers would be refuelled. Also HMS Warspite was to land salvage equipment there that was to be used in the attempt to salvage the heavily damaged heavy cruiser HMS York. Initially the Fleet set course to pass through the Kithera Channel but this was later changed to pass through the Kaso Strait.
At dusk the British transport HMS Breconshire (9776 GRT, built 1939) departed Alexandria for Malta. She was loaded with petrol and ammunition. She was escorted by the light cruiser HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN), and the destroyer HMS Hotspur (Lt.Cdr. C.P.F. Brown, RN),. They were to make rendes-vous with the Fleet south-west of Kithera at daybreak on the 20th.
19 April 1941.
The Battlefleet passed through the Kaso Strait during the night and arrived at Suda Bay around noon to refuel the destroyers and disembark the salvage gear embarked in Warspite.
In the morning the light cruiser HMS Phoebe and the AA-cruiser HMS Calcutta were detached from the Fleet to join a convoy coming from Pireaus. They remained with the convoy until after dark and then proceeded to join the convoy of empty freighters that was to be sailed from Malta (see below).
The Fleet sailed around 1530 hours and set course to pass through the Kithera Channel and then set course to the south-west. Enemy reconnaissance aircraft reported the Fleet leaving the harbour.
At dark a convoy of empty merchant vessels (Convoy ME 7) departed Malta for Alexandria. It was made up of four merchant vessels; City of Lincoln (8039 GRT, built 1938), City of Manchester (8917 GRT, built 1935), Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT, built 1938) and Perthshire (10496 GRT, built 1936). Escort was provided by four destroyers; HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN), HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN), HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN), and HMS Diamond (Lt.Cdr. P.A. Cartwright, RN). This last destroyer had just completed a refit a Malta.
20 April 1941.
At 0800 hours, the Battlefleet made rendes-vous with the force of the Vice-Admiral light forces; the light cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN) and the destroyers HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN). Rendez-vous was also made with HMS Breconshire, HMAS Perth and HMS Hotspur. Breconshire joined the battleship line. The cruisers formed round the Battlefleet and the destroyers joined the screen. Course was westwards to meet convoy ME 7.
Convoy ME 7 was met around noon and HMS Jervis and HMS Janus joined the Battlefleet. The convoy then continued on to Alexandria escorted by HMS Phoebe, HMS Calcutta, HMS Nubian and HMS Diamond.
The Fleet was not attacked by aircraft despite being sighted by enemy aircraft in the forenoon.
At dark several of the destroyers streamed their T.S.D.S. (minesweeping gear) and the Vice-Admiral Light Forces was detached in HMS Orion with HMS Formidable, HMS Ajax, HMAS Perth, and the destroyers HMS Griffin, HMS Kingston and HMS Kimberley for independent flying operations. Also HMS Breconshire was detached for Malta escorted by HMS Encounter.
21 April 1941.
Between 0500 and 0545 hours, the Battlefleet bombarded Tripoli at ranges from 11000 to 14000 yards. HMS Warspite, HMS Barham, HMS Valiant and HMS Gloucester were in line ahead with destroyers screening, these were; HMS Jervis, HMS Jaguar, HMS Janus, HMS Juno, HMS Hasty, HMS Havock, HMS Hereward, HMS Hero and HMS Hotspur.
The submarine HMS Truant (Lt.Cdr. H.A.V. Haggard, RN) served as navigational beacon during the approach and aircraft from HMS Formidable provided illumination of the target area by dropping flares. The night was clear but dust and smoke made it difficult to see the results of the bombardment. The spotting aircraft later reported much damage in the harbour area including to fuel tanks. Also five ships were thought to have been sunk. A coast defence battery opened fire after 25 (sic !) minutes but without result.
[According to Italian sources the following damage was inflicted; The torpedo-boat Partenope was damaged by shells of medium calibre. The bridge was hit and her commander, Capitano di Corvetta Guglielmo Durantini was hit in the head by a shell and killed instantly. The ship was temporarily disabled. In all two were killed and five slightly wounded. It is not clear if the destroyer Geniere was also hit (Supermarina does not list her as damaged) but she had three of her crew killed, thirteen wounded (they may have been ashore at the time). Unfortunately, the report of Geniere could not be found in her file. The torpedo-boat Pleiadi had one wounded (again he might have been wounded ashore as no mention of damage to the warship in her file). The transports Assiria (2705 GRT, built 1928) and Marocchino (1524 GRT, built 1920, one wounded) were sunk in shallow water, the Custom (Guardi di Finanza) motor boat Cicconetti (61 tons) was also sunk (all three had not returned to service when the British occupied Tripoli in 1943). The transport Sabbia (5788 GRT, built 1926) was damaged. We currently do not have any data on civilian casualties but the Italians mentioned that several of the enemy 381mm shells failed to explode. The Tripoli 190mm coastal battery fired 88 rounds and claimed an enemy vessel probably hit but this was not the case.]
On completion of the bombardment the fleet withdrew at maximum speed to the north-east and at daylight made contact with the Vice-Admiral Light Forces ships. Air attacks were expected on the Fleet but none followed.
At dark the cruisers were detached to make a sweep to the north of the Fleet and HMS Jervis and HMS Janus were detached to Malta.
22 April 1941.
Convoy ME 7 safely arrived at Alexandria at 0700 hours this day.
At daylight the cruisers rejoined the Fleet which then continued eastwards without any attacks on it or any other delay. Enemy shadowers reported the Fleet throughout the day and at 1800 hours an attack by three Ju-88’s was developing but Fulmars from HMS Formidable intercepted them and shot down two of them.
Around noon HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN) joined the Fleet coming from Alexandria and HMS Griffin then parted company and proceeded to Suda Bay for fueling and then escort duty in the Aegean.
At 1600 hours HMS Gloucester was detached to Malta where she arrived on April 24th and HMAS Perth to join HMS Phoebe in the Aegean. Having arrived at Alexandria with convoy ME 7, Phoebe and Calcutta departed Alexandria in the afternoon to join a convoy towards the Aegean.
23 April 1941.
The Fleet arrived at Alexandria without further incident at 1030 hours.
HMS Defender went to Tobruk instead of Alexandria. (3)
29 Apr 1941
Convoy’s GA 15.
This convoy was formed north of Crete on 29 April 1941 for Alexandria / Port Said where it arrived on 1 May 1941.
This convoy was made up of the following transports; Comliebank (British, 5149 GRT, built 1929), Corinthia (Greek, 3721 GRT, built 191), Delane (British, 6054 GRT, built 1938), Ionia (British, 1936 GRT, built 1923), Itria (British, 6845 GRT, built 1940), Thurland Castle (British, 6372 GRT, built 1929) and the RFA oiler Brambleleaf (5917 GRT, built 1917).
Escort was provided by the AA cruiser HMS Carlisle (Capt. T.C. Hampton, RN), destroyers HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN), HMS Kingston (Lt.Cdr. P. Sommerville, DSO, DSC, RN) and the sloop HMS Auckland (Cdr. E.G. Hewitt, DSO, RN).
Cover was provided by the light cruisers HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral H.D. Pridham-Whippell, CB, CVO, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D.B. McCarthy, RN), HMAS Perth (Capt. P.W. Bowyer-Smith, RN), HMS Phoebe (Capt. G. Grantham, RN) and the destroyers HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN), HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. G.L. Farnfield, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hereward (Lt. W.J. Munn, RN) and HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN).
The battleships HMS Barham (Capt. G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of A/Rear-Admiral H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN), HMS Valiant (Capt. C.E. Morgan, DSO, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN), and the destroyers HMAS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN), HMAS Vampire (Cdr. J.A. Walsh, RAN), HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades, RAN), HMAS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN), HMAS Waterhen (Lt.Cdr. J.H. Swain, RN) and HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall-A'Deane, DSO, DSC, RN) sailed from Alexandria to support the convoy. The forces met south of the Kaso Strait on 30 April where HMAS Perth, HMS Phoebe and HMS Nubian joined the force of Rear-Admiral Rawlings. His force was also joined by three more destroyers; HMS Ilex (Capt. H.St.L. Nicholson, DSO and Bar, RN) joined from Alexandria while HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Juno (Cdr. St. J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN) joined coming from Malta. HMAS Perth and HMS Nubian were however soon detached and joined the close escort of the actual convoy.
The bulk of the convoy arrived at Alexandria on the 1st,but Comliebank and Itria went to Port Said instead escorted by HMS Decoy and HMS Defender. They also arrived on May 1st.
The Fleet arrived at Alexandria on the 3rd. (3)
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. (5)
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. (6)
29 Mar 1942
Operations by the Eastern Fleet from 29 March to 13 April 1942. Enemy air attacks on Colombo and later Trincomalee and the loss of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on 5 April 1942 and HMS Hermes, HMAS Vampire on 9 April 1942.
Dispositions of the Eastern Fleet on 29 March 1942.
On 29 March 1942 the disposition of the Eastern Fleet was as follows; At Colombo: Aircraft Carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN), heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. A.W.S. Agar, VC, DSO, RN) (refitting) and HMS Cornwall (Capt. P.C.W. Manwaring, RN), light cruisers HMS Enterprise (Capt. J.C.A. Annesley, DSO, RN), HMS Dragon (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) and HMS Caledon (A/Capt. H.J. Haynes, DSO, DSC, RN), the destroyers HMS Paladin (Cdr. A.D. Pugsley, RN), HMS Panther (Lt.Cdr. R.W. Jocelyn, RN), HMAS Nestor (Cdr. A.S. Rosenthal, DSO and Bar, RAN), HMS Hotspur (Lt. T.D. Herrick, DSC, RN), HMS Arrow (Cdr. A.M. McKillop, RN) and HMS Express (Lt.Cdr. F.J. Cartwright, RN).
At Trincomalee: The flagship of the Eastern Fleet, the battleship HMS Warspite (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Sommerville, KCB, KBE, DSO, RN), the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN), light cruisers HMS Emerald (Capt. F.C. Flynn, RN) and HrMs Jacob van Heemskerck (Cdr. E.J. van Holte, RNN), the destroyer HMAS Vampire (Cdr. W.T.A. Moran, RAN). HMS Warspite departed Trincomalee this day and arrived at Colombo in the evening.
At Addu Atoll; The battleships HMS Resolution (Capt. A.R. Halfhide, CBE, RN , flying the flag of A/Vice-Admiral A.U. Willis, DSO, RN, second in command Eastern Fleet), HMS Ramillies (Capt. D.N.C. Tufnell, DSC, RN), HMS Royal Sovereign (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Revenge (Capt. L.V. Morgan, CBE, MVO, DSC, RN) the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable (Capt. T.H. Troubridge, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN) and the destroyers HMAS Napier (Capt. S.H.T. Arliss, DSO, RN), HMAS Norman (Cdr. H.M. Burrell, RAN), HMAS Nizam (Lt.Cdr. M.J. Clark, DSC, RAN), HMS Fortune (Lt.Cdr. R.D.H.S. Pankhurst, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. G.H. Peters, DSC, RN), HMS Griffin (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO, RN), HMS Decoy (Lt.Cdr. I.M. Balfour, RN) and HrMs Isaac Sweers (Cdr. W. Harmsen, RNN).
The Japanese had been operating in the Indian Ocean in early March and more attacks were expected in this area by the Allies. The most likely target would be the island of Ceylon and the harbours of Colombo and Trincomalee.
30 and 31 March 1942.
Admiral Sommerville therefore planned to concentrate the Eastern Fleet on the late afternoon / early evening of 31 March 1942 in position 04°40’N, 81°00’E. The fleet would then be divided in two groups; Force A (the fast division) was made up of the flagships, battleship HMS Warspite, both fleet carriers, HMS Indomitable and HMS Formidable. They were escorted by the cruisers HMS Cornwall, HMS Enterprise, HMS Emerald and six destroyers; HMAS Napier, HMAS Nestor, HMS Paladin, HMS Panther, HMS Hotspur and HMS Foxhound. This force would try to intercept the enemy and deliver a night air attack on the enemy with their carriers as the main target.
Force A would be covered by the slower Force B which was made up of the battleships HMS Resolution, HMS Ramillies, HMS Royal Sovereign and the light carrier HMS Hermes. Escort to these ships was proviced by the cruisers HMS Dragon, HMS Caledon, HrMs Jacob van Heemskerck and a total of eight destroyers HMS Griffin, HMS Decoy, HMAS Norman, HMS Fortune, HrMs Isaac Sweers, HMS Arrow and one of the old destroyers that had managed to escape from the China station also joined, this was HMS Scout (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) H. Lambton, RN). They were to remain about 20 nautical miles to the west of Force A. If Force A encountered a superior enemy force the would withdraw towards Force B.
At 1400/30 the ships mentioned earlier at the top of this article departed Colombo. HMS Hotspur and HMAS Nestor carried out an A/S sweep of the searched channel before Force A sailed.
By 1600/31 the fleet had made the pre-arranged rendez-vous and formed up. It then proceeded northwards. After dark, to avoid detection from the air by the enemy, Force A altered course to 080° and proceeded at 15 knots until about 0230 hours when it was thought they would be in the estimated position from where the enemy would fly off their aircraft for the expected attack on Ceylon. If nothing was sighted or located by 0230/1, Force A was to turn back to the south-west and to withdraw outside the enemy’s air search area. Force B was to act as a supporting force for Force A, keeping 20 miles to the west of it and confirming to the movements of Force A through the night. This procedure was carried out as planned during the night of 31 March / 1 April but nothing was seen or located.
In the late afternoon / early evening of 31 March HMS Indomitable briefly separated from the fleet for flying operations during which she was escorted by HMS Emerald. From 2100/31 to 0600/1 a search was carried out, to a depth of 120 miles from 050° to 110°, by three A.S.V. fitted Albacores from HMS Formidable. Also two Albacores fitted with long-range tanks were kept standing by for shadowing purposes if required. One of the Albacores crash landed on HMS Formidable upon return at 0340/1.
1 April 1942.
At 0940 hours HMS Decoy reported the breakdown of her main feed pumps. Dhe was detached to Colombo to effect repairs.
Around noon several of the destroyers reported submerged contacts. HMS Scout reported sighting a periscope. The fleet took avoiding action in each case, but nothing further transpired from these contact which are now considered to be non-sub.
At 1400 hours, HMS Scout, one of the oldest destroyers of the Royal Navy with a short enducance, was detached to oil at sea from RFA Appleleaf (5892 GRT, built 1917, Master E. Mills) in position 04°00’N, 80°00’E. Upon completion of oiling HMS Scout was to proceed to position 05°40’N, 81°08’E by 0800/2. RFA Appleleaf and her escort, HMS Shoreham (Cdr. E. Hewitt, RD, RNR), were to proceed towards a new waiting position 05°00’N, 80°30’E.
In the afternoon, around 1420 hours, HMS Dorsetshire joined Force A. This cruiser had been refitting at Colombo but this refit was cut short to enable her to take part in this operation. Air searches were carried out from Ceylon as the days before but they sighted nothing of the enemy. Also from 1430/1800 hours a search was carried out by aircraft from HMS Indomitable between 142° to 207° to a depth of 215 miles. Admiral Sommerville decided to carry out the same sweep to the north-east as had been done the previous night. Again nothing was seen and Force A made rendez-vous with Force B at daybreak on 2 April 1942.
2 April 1942.
At 0800 hours the destroyers HMS Fortune and HMAS Vampire were detached to fuel from RFA Appleleaf in position 05°00’N, 80°30’E. and an Albacore was ordered to search for HMS Scout and order her to rejoin the fleet. Shortly after noon the fleet sighted RFA Appleleaf, HMS Shoreham, HMS Fortune and HMAS Vampire. The last two ships then rejoined the fleet while the tanker and it’s escort were ordered to proceed towards Colombo at 1200/3.
During the day the Eastern Fleet cruised in an area about 50 miles further to the west then the previous day to avoid being detected by enemy submarines that had been reported. Throughout the day several of the escorting destroyers obtained unconfirmed echoes. Two more destroyers fuelled during the afternoon, HMAS Napier and HMS Arrow took in fuel from HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall.
As the enemy had not shown herself by 2100 hours, Admiral Sommerville decided to proceed to Addu Atoll to fuel and to take on fresh water as the R-class battleships were running out of this as they had been unable to top up at Addu Atoll before they sailed.
3 April 1942.
At 0520 hours, the destroyer HMS Fortune was detached to search for survivors from the merchant vessel Glensheil (9415 GRT, built 1924) that had been torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-7 in position 00°48’S, 78°35’E at 0230 hours. HMS Fortune picked up 88 survivors and then proceeded to Addu Atoll where she arrived at 1130/4.
As at this time Admiral Sommerville felt confident that something must have held up the Japanese or that their intentions were incorrectly appreciated. At 0940 hours, he sent HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall to Colombo. The former to continue her refit and the latter to act as escort for the Australian troop convoy SU 4. HMS Hermes and the destroyer HMAS Vampire were also detached but to Trincomalee as HMS Hermes was to prepare for the upcoming operation ‘Ironclad’, the attack on Madagascar.
Late in the morning three of the destroyers of the screen oiled from the battleships; HMAS Norman from HMS Warspite, HMS Griffin from HMS Revenge and HMS Foxhound from HMS Royal Sovereign.
At 1820 hours Force A proceeded ahead to Addu Atoll at 19 knots followed by Force B at 15 knots. Force A arrived at Addu Atoll at 1200/4. Force B at 1500/4.
4 April 1942.
In the early morning hours, and while approaching Addu Atoll, a simulated air strike was carried out on Force B by aircraft from HMS Indomitable and HMS Formidable. One aircraft crashed into the sea, it’s crew was picked up by the Dutch AA-cruiser Jacob van Heemskerck. A second simulated air attack was made on Force A later in the morning.
At 1630 hours, Admiral Sommerville received a report that a large enemy force was in position 00°40’N, 83°10’E at 1605/F. Enemy course was 315°. Shortly afterwards this report was confirmed by another report in which they gave an enemy course of 330°. This positioned the enemy in a position 155° from Dondra Head, 360 miles, the distance from Addu Atoll being 085°, 600 miles. There was no indication about the composition of this force.
The condition of the Eastern Fleet at Addu Atoll at that time was as follows; Owning to the limited number of oilers available, the vessels comprising Force A had taken about half their fuel and Force B had not yet commenced fuelling. In addition the ‘R’-class battleships were very short of water which had to be taken in before they could sail. This meant that Force A could sail immediately, minus HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise. These cruisers could sail shortly after midnight. Force B could not leave until 0700 hours the following morning at the earliest.
It appeared that the enemy’s probable plan was as follows. All the evidence supported Admiral Sommerville’s original appreciation that the enemy would attack Colombo (and possibly Trincomalee) with carrier borne aircraft either before dawn or shortly afterwards and would return to the carriers in a position about 150 miles south-east of Ceylon. On completion the whole force would then withdraw to the east. The enemy’s reported position made it apparent that this attack was to be made on the morning of 5 April 1942.
Admiral Sommerville considered his possible courses of action were as follows: 1) Force A, less HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise to proceed immediately at best speed to the area to the south of Ceylon and to be joined there by HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall coming from Colombo and attack any enemy force located. 2) Delay the sailing of Force A until HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise, valuable units with their strong torpedo armament, had completed refuelling and sail about midnight. Force B could sail in the morning of the 5th and follow astern to act as a supporting force. 3) Delay the sailing of Force A until both force could leave together on the morning of the 5th. 4) Force A and Force B would remain at Addu Atoll and leave the RAF to deal with the enemy attack.
The choise Admiral Sommerville made was governed by the following considerations: 1) First and foremost the total defence of the Indian Ocean and it’s vital lines of communication depend on the existence of the Eastern Fleet. The longer this fleet remained ‘in being’ the longer it would limit and check the enemy’s advances against Ceylon and further west. This major policy of retaining ‘a fleet in being’, already approved by Their Lordships, was, in Admiral Sommerville’s opinion, paramount. 2) The only hope of dealing the enemy an affective blow was by means of a carrier borne air striking force preferably at night. To operate both carriers escorted by HMS Warspite out of supporting distance of the ‘R’-class battleships would offer the enemy an opportunity to cripple our only offensive weapon. Admiral Sommerville considered it a cardinal point in any operation the Force A should not proceed out of the supporting distance from Force B unless it could be presumed that that enemy capital ships would not be encountered. 3) No matter what course of action Admiral Sommerville would take the enemy force could not be intercepted either before or during the attack on Ceylon on the morning of the 5th. The only hope was that the air striking force from Ceylon might inflict damage to the enemy so that the Eastern Fleet could ‘finish them off’, or that the enemy attack on Ceylon would be delayed 24 hours.
Admiral Sommerville therefore decided to adopt ‘plan 2’. So he sailed Force A including both E-class cruisers at midnight and ordered Force B to proceed as early as possible the following morning.
Admiral Sommerville therefore instructed HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall to sail from Colombo and to make rendez-vous with Force A at 1600/5 in position 00°58’N, 77°36’E. The position of this rendez-vous was based on their expected time of departure from Colombo and estimated as being the earliest possible time at which they could cross the track of Force A, taking into consideration that HMS Dorsetshire had resumed her refit and was at extended notice. Admiral Sommerville considered that the course to be steered should take them well clear of any enemy forces operating in the vicinity. Actually these instructions had been anticipated by the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet and these two cruisers, at his discretion, sailed at 2300/4 for Addu Atoll. On receipt of the signal from Admiral Sommerville the Deputy Commander-in-Chief amended his instructions accordingly at 0409/5.
5 April 1942.
Force A sailed from Addu Atoll at 0015 hours and proceeded 070° at 18 knots towards a position which would bring it 250 miles south of Ceylon by dawn on the 6th. Shortly before departure the destroyer HMS Hotspur conducted an A/S search of the entrance to Addu Atoll.
During the night Admiral Sommerville received reports from the Catalina reconnaissance aircraft on patrol from Ceylon of an enemy destroyer in position 01°59’N, 82°20’E, course 315°, speed 20 knots; six enemy destroyers in position 02°54’N, 82°10’E, course 325°, speed 21 knots; and at 0701 hours a report of one battleship, two cruisers an four other ships in position 195°, Dondra Head, 110 miles. Later this message was subsequently amplified to the effect that the vessels previously reported were definitely hostile and consisted of two battleships, two cruisers and destroyers.
At about 0825 hours an air raid on shipping and harbour facilities at Colombo was commenced in which some 75 aircraft were taking part. These were later reported to be mainly Navy ‘O’ fighters, armed with one bomb each. This enemy force withdrew from Colombo before 0900 hours and was seen by several merchant ships to the south-west of Ceylon probably returning to the carriers. In several cases these merchant were machine gunned.
From 0645 hours an air A/S patrol was maintained ahead of the fleet. HMS Indomitable also sent four Fulmars to commence a search to the eastward. This search covered the area between the arcs 055° to 105° to a depth of 215 miles. It proved negative except for the sighting of an enemy seaplane at 0855 hours, 076°, 150 miles from Force A. This suggested that the enemy was carrying out reconnaissance in a south-westerly direction by means of cruiser aircraft, or a seaplane carrier, in a position 70 miles of the main enemy force. There was no indication that this aircraft sighted any of our surface forces or our air search.
Between 0702 and 1145 hours, Admiral Sommerville received reports of battleships in approximate positions 03°55’N, 80°40’E, steering 290° at 0648 hours, steering 120° at 0730 hours, and at 1004 hours in position 04°00’N, 80°25’E steering 282°. This suggested that the battleships were making time while the carriers recovered their aircraft. The estimated position of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall at this time was 150 miles from the enemy and opening.
At 1327 hours a mutilated ‘Shad’ signal was received from what was thought to be Colombo but was identified half an hour later as coming from HMS Dorsetshire whose position was estimated as being 037°, 90 miles from Force A at 1400 hours. No contact could be established.
At 1344 hours an enemy air formation was detected by RD/F, 030°, 84 miles from Force A. This had faded after five minutes and it later it became clear that this was the enemy attacking the Dorsetshire and Cornwall. At 1552 hours, a reconnaissance aircraft from Force A, reported wreckage in position 02°08’N, 78°08’E.
The destroyer HMS Panther was then detached to search but was recalled about one hour later when a reconnaissance aircraft from Force A reported a force of 5 ‘unknown’ ships in position 03°38’N, 78°18’E at 100 hours. There was no indication of the course or speed of the enemy but it could be either a force previously unreported or the force previously and last reported 1004 hours.
No relief shadowers were however sent off by the Rear-Admiral aircraft carriers as soon s the report was received and Admiral Sommerville omitted to obtain confirmation that this had been done. At 1700 hours, Admiral Sommerville, received a report from Ceylon that there were indications of enemy aircraft carriers steering 230° at 24 knots from an unknown position at 1400 hours. This was thought to be subsequent to the attack on our 8” cruisers and Admiral Sommerville’s deductions from this enemy moves were as follows. If the enemy held on this course they would at 0400 be in a position to deliver a night attack on Addu Atoll. This seemed quite a possible course of action. In any case it was necessary for Force A to keep clear to the southward and for Force B (estimated to be 135 miles astern of Force A) to steer to the southward so that Force A and B could close for supporting action at daylight the following morning (April 6th). It was also necessary for Force B to steer to the southward to keep clear of the enemy carrier force should it be proceeding to attack Addu Atoll.
At 1726 hours, therefore, Force A altered course to 210° at 18 knots and a signal was made to Vice-Admiral second-in-Command and to HMS Dorsetshire to steer south, although at this time Admiral Sommerville feared about the fate of the two heavy cruisers. As he had received no signal from them that they had been attacked he thought it possible they had escaped and maintained W/T silence.
At 1800 hours Admiral Sommerville received a signal from the Rear-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, stating that a reconnaissance aircraft reported the estimated enemy position as 020°, 120 miles at 1710 hours. This position was very close to the previous position reported at 1600 hours. The course of the enemy had not been given in either of these reports but the positions fitted in well with the course received earlier (230°).
At 1817 hours, a further signal was received from the Rear-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, adjusting the 1600 hours position of the enemy’s force, amplifying it to include two carriers and three unknown vessels and giving the course north-west. This was the first indication Admiral Sommerville had of the enemy now proceeding to the north-west. He immediately ordered force A to alter course to 315° and instructed the Vice-Admiral, second-in-Command to conform. These movements had to object of keeping Force A within night air striking distance of the enemy force, trusting to an A.S.V. (airborne surface vessel radar) search to locate the enemy and to bring Force B within supporting distance should it be necessary to retire in that direction. A dawn rendez-vous was arranged with Force B in approximate position 03°00’N, 75°00’E.
As no news had been received of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall it was assumed they had been sunk.
At 1930 hours a night search with A.S.V. aircraft was commenced to cover the sector 345° to 030° to a depth of 180 nautical miles. Northing was located on this search.
6 April 1942.
From 2100/5 to 0600/6 further A.S.V. searches were carried out to cover the sector 020° to 080° to a depth of 200 miles. These searches also failed to make any contact with the enemy but reported that Force B was 220°, 25 miles from Force A at 0400 hours.
At 0615 hours, Force A altered course to 135° and sighted Force B ten minutes later. By 0720 hours the Fleet was formed up and course was altered to 090°.
Whilst no furher information had been received regarding the enemy’s movements nothing had occurred to diminish the possibility of the enemy’s being in the vicinity of Addu Atoll, either to attack it by air this morning or to await the return of the Eastern Fleet.
Admiral Sommerville intended to keep clear of the superior enemy forces by day. It was still his intention to get into a position to attack them with a night air striking force on their possible return from at Addu Atoll area, and also rescue the possible survivors from HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall. He therefore steered east and at 1115 hours course was altered to south-east in the direction of the wreckage that had been reported the previous evening. During the morning reports came in from merchant ships being attacked in the Bay of Bengal. There must be a second Japanese force operating there.
At 1300 hours HMS Enterprise, HMS Paladin and HMS Panther were detached to search for survivors in the vicinity of the wreckage position. Air search was provided to assist and fighter escort was sent to cover the operation. These ships were successful in picking up a total of 1122 survivors from both heavy cruisers. They rejoined the fleet at noon the following day. At 1800/6, when about 50 miles from the wreckage position course was reversed and the fleet retired to the north-west. All-round air searches were carried out to a depth of 200 miles but again nothing was seen.
At about 1400 hours a signal was received from the C-in-C, Ceylon estimating that a strong Japanese force was still somewhere between Addu Atoll and Colombo. Admiral Sommerville therefore decided to keep clear of the Addu area until daylight on the 7th.
7 April 1942.
At 0200 hours the Eastern Fleet altered course to the west, 270°.
At 0427 hours, an A.S.V. aircraft located two submarines in position 02°08’N, 75°16’E and 02°46’N, 75°10’E, to the southward of the course of the Eastern Fleet. This indicated that the possibility of an enemy submarine patrol having been established to cover the eastern approaches to Addu Atoll. Admiral Sommerville therefore decided to pass through Veimandu Channel to the west of the Maldives and make an unexpected approach to Addu Atoll from the west. At 0700 hours the course of the fleet was altered to 210°.
At 1335 hours, HMS Fortune was detached to investigate a ship contact made by HMS Emerald but no ship was sighted. Fortune only rejoined the fleet at about 0600/8.
At 1600 hours, HMS Enterprise, HMS Paladin and HMS Panther rejoined with the survivors they had picked up and medical stores were transferred from HMS Warspite to HMS Paladin for treatment of the wounded. Enterprise and Paladin were then detached to proceed immediately to Addu Atoll.
At 2100 hours, the Eastern Fleet altered course to 160°.
8 April 1942.
At 0700 hours aircraft were flown off from the carriers to carry out an all-round search to a depth of 175 miles. Again nothing was seen and at 1100 hours the Eastern Fleet entered Addu Atoll. Refuelling commenced immediately, Force B being refuelled first.
Admiral Sommerville held a conference on board HMS Warspite with Flag and Commanding Officers in the afternoon.
Having discussed the situation Admiral Sommerville decided to sent Force B to Kilindini and to proceed to Bombay with Force A. This later decision coincided with Their Lordships views as later in the day he received Their Lordships instructions that Force A was not to be sent to Colombo for the time being. Further by proceeding to Bombay the could arrange a meeting with the Commander-in-Chief, India and discuss the situation in the Far East with him.
At 1800 hours HMAS Nestor departed Addu Atoll to maintain an A/S patrol in the sector between 090° to 150° to a depth of 35 miles from the Port War Signal Station. One hour earlier HMS Resolution launched her Walrus aircraft for a ‘round the island’ A/S patrol. It returned at dusk.
9 April 1942.
Force B sailed for Kilindini at 0200 hours where it was due to arrive on April 15th. Force A sailed at 0600 hours for Bombay shaping course to pass to the westward of the Maldives.
During the morning Admiral Sommerville was informed of further Japanese attacks in the Bay of Bengal and on Trincomalee and the sinking of several ships, including HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire but nothing could be done about this.
10 April 1942.
At 1000 hours HMS Panther closed HMS Warspite to transfer Staff Officers for passage to Colombo where they were to inform the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet of Admiral Sommerville’s views and make preliminary arrangements to transfer Admiral Sommerville’s administrative staff and secretariat to Kilindini.
13 April 1942.
At 0705 hours, HMS Paladin rejoined Force A bringing back the Staff Officers who had been transferred to her on 10 April and also Rear-Admiral Danckwerts, Admiral Sommerville’s Chief of Staff ashore. Force A arrived at Bombay later that morning (1040 hours) and commenced oiling.
Japanese operation in the Indian Ocean in late March 1942 and April 1942.
On 26 March 1943 the 1st Japanese Carrier Fleet departed Staring Bay, Celebes, Netherlands East Indies for a raid on Ceylon. This Fleet was made up of the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, Shokaku, battlecruisers Kongo, Haruna, Hiei, Kirishima, heavy cruisers Tone, Chikuma and the destroyers Urakaze, Tanikaze, Isokaze, Hamakaze, Kasumi, Arare, Kagero, Shiranuhi and Akigumo. This force then proceeded west of Timor and to a position to the south of Java where they fuelled from oilers on April 1st.
On 1 April the Japanese Mayala Force departed Mergui for operations in the Bay of Bengal. This force was made up of the heavy cruisers Chokai, Kumano, Mikuma, Mogami, Suzuya, aircraft carrier Ryujo, light cruiser Yura, and the destroyers Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki and Murakumo. On 4 April the estroyers were substituted for four other destroyers; Amagiri, Asagiri, Shirakumo and Yugiri.
On 5 April the Japanse 1st Carrier Fleet launched their air attack on Colombo. 53 bombers, 38 dive bombers and 36 fighters were launched. They destroyed 19 Hurricane fighters, 1 Fulmar fighter and 6 Swordfish torpedo bombers. At Colombo the harbour facilities were heavily damaged and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Hector and destroyer HMS Tenedos were sunk.
Then around noon a reconnaissance aircraft from the Tone sighted the heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall. The 1st Carrier Fleet immediately launched an attack force of 53 dive bombers that sank both cruisers with the loss of 424 members of their crews (Dorsetshire 234 and Cornwall 190). The Japanese then retired to the south-east.
In the evening of 5 April the Japanese Malaya-Force was ordered to commence attacking Allied shipping along the Indian east coast. On 6 April the northern group (Kumano, Suzuya and Shirakumo destroyed 9 ships off Puri (Orissa). The central group (Chokai, Yura, Asagiri and Yugiri) sank 4 ships. The southern group (Mikuma, Mogami and Amagiri sank 3 ships and damaged 2 more. Meanwhile aircraft from the carrier Ryuju, which operated with the central group, sank 4 more ships and damaged 1 more. In all about 92000 GRT of shipping was sunk.
On 8 April 1942 a Catalina aircraft spotted the Japanese 1st Carrier Fleet proceeding for an attack on Trincomalee but the Eastern Fleet was approaching Addu Atoll to refuel and could do nothing. Shipping at Trincomalee was ordered to leave port and proceed to the southward. In the morning of the following day 91 Japanese bombers and 41 fighters attacked Trincomalee. They destoyed 9 Hurricane and Fulmar fighters and 14 aircraft on the ground. The harbour most mostly empty but they sank a merchant vessel and 4 aircraft it had on board and not unloaded yet. Also the British monitor HMS Erebus (Capt. H.F. Nalder, RN) was damged. The Japanese 1st Carrier Fleet was then attacked by 9 Blenheim bombers but they inflicted no damage for 5 of their own lost to Japanese fighter cover. Then Japanese reconnaissance aircraft from the Haruna sighted ships escaping southwards. 85 Dive bombers and 3 fighters were then launched which sank HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire as well as the corvette HMS Hollyhock (Lt.Cdr. T.E. Davies, OBE, RNR), two tankers and a merchant ship.
By mid-April 1942 all Japanese forces had returned to their bases. (7)
17 Nov 1942
German U-boat U-331 was sunk in the Mediterranean north of Algiers in position 37°05'N, 02°27'E after she had been badly damaged by a Hudson aircraft she signalled surrender to a seaplane but was attacked by a torpedo-equipped aircraft Albacore from the British aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Squadrons 500 and 820).
9 Aug 1945
Award of the Victoria Cross posthumously to the late Temporary Lieutenant Robert Hampton-Grey, R.C.N.V.R. " For great valour in leading from the Aircraft Carrier Formidable an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan in the Japanese Island of Honshu, on 9th August 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships, Lieutenant Grey pressed home his attack, flying very low to ensure success. Although he was hit and his aircraft in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit , sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Grey has consistently shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership." (8)
- ADM 53/114129 + ADM 53/114264 + ADM 53/114806
- ADM 53/114129
- ADM 199/414
- ADM 186/795 + ADM 199/414
- ADM 199/414 + ADM 199/656
- ADM 199/414 + 234/320
- ADM 199/1389
- Personal communication
ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.
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