HMS Eagle sunk as Pedestal comes under atttack

HMS Eagle in the Mediterranean in February 1942 during Operation Spotter. A Supermarine Spitfire flies off HMS EAGLE to reinforce the air defence of Malta. Fifteen Spitfires, flown by replacement pilots for the much depleted No. 249 Squadron RAF, reached the island successfully during this operation.

11 August: The loss of HMS EAGLE and the first air attacks: A general view of the convoy under air attack showing the intense anti-aircraft barrage put up by the escorts. The battleship HMS RODNEY is on the left and the cruiser HMS MANCHESTER on the right.

It was not long before the air assault on the Pedestal convoy began. More Spitfire re-inforcements for Malta were flown off from HMS Furious once they were within flying range of the island. But soon afterwards the convoy came within range of the Italian and German planes and four major attacks were launched during the day dropping bombs and launching torpedoes, as well as laying mines in the route ahead.

The most serious threat came from U-boats however. U-73 hit the carrier HMS Eagle with four torpedoes and she went down quickly. The air cover for the convoy had been dramatically reduced in one blow.

George Amyes was serving with the Fleet AirArm on HMS Eagle:

11th August 1942 13.15hrs HMS Eagle

I was standing in the shade of No.1 starboard 6″ gun, fifty feet above the waterline. The Eagle shuddered with four distinct lurches. For some reason I thought we had hit a school of whales! The deck tilted under my feet and to my astonishment I saw a pair of seaboots flying through the air and disappear overboard. These were followed by other pieces of debris and as the ship began to list I realised that we were in serious trouble.

Loose fittings began to clatter around. Frightened voices shouted and men began to stream up from the lower decks to reach higher positions. Bodies were already floundering in the water below. And the wake of the Eagle had developed a distinct curve as the vessel pulled out of line. The rhythmic throb of the main engines died away and the ship slewed further around rapidly keeling over.

Looking over the side I was amazed to see that the green slimed bulge of the torpedo blister was above the surface of the water. (Designed to withstand a charge of 750 per square inch, the torpedo blister was supposed to deflect the force of underwater explosions and preserve the hull of the ship.)

I never did hear the order to abandon ship, but when I saw marines jumping from the flight deck, hurtling past the gundeck, and hitting the rising torpedo blister as the ship keeled over I really did begin to get worried. Less than two minutes had past, and the marines that had smashed themselves to jelly when they jumped had already slithered away leaving behind a blood streaked trail of slime.

I clambered through the rails, and suddenly I to was sitting on the torpedo blister. Two ratings were already there, terrified, they could not swim. An officer slid between the two ratings and shouted, “now is your time to learn,” and with a rating beneath each arm he dived into the sea. I never saw them again.

Taking a deep breath I blew up my inflatable lifebelt which was a permanent part of our dress when we were afloat. Remembering our survival lectures, I hurriedly kicked off my deck shoes, pushed myself away and before I could think I was upside down 20 feet under the water and frantically holding my breath whist I looked around for a lighter colour in my surroundings that would indicate the surface. The next few seconds seemed like a lifetime and as I broke through to the surface my throat and chest seemed to explode with relief.

When I was able to think, I heard someone shouting, “get the charges”. “Oh my God!” I thought. The depth charges for the aircraft, were they primed? My horizon from wave level was limited. Eagle was just a bulge in my vision. Then she was gone. My throat filled with bile, and as I looked around my small watery world I saw other frightened faces and suddenly I did not feel quite so lonely. “Swim away from the ship, depth charges, suction, the boilers will explode!”

All these things went through my brain, but where was the ship? Which was the way to swim? Swim! Swim! Swim! The sea suddenly boiled; an unbelievable crushing pressure stunned my senses, and I spun around in the water like a toy and when I could think again I was once more in my own little watery world.

Something bumped into me from behind; it was “Stripey”, the twelve year service man who was the “Daddy” of our messdeck, but something was wrong. His face was discoloured, his eyes staring, and he was flopping uncontrollably in the water. I grabbed for him, and my clutch slithered down his torso, and suddenly there was nothing but mush.

From the waste down he was just offal, sliced in half, and gone. Panic stricken I pushed him away and felt my stomach heaving uncontrollably. We drifted apart.

Read more of George Amyes’ story on BBC People’s War

11 August: The loss of HMS EAGLE and the first air attacks: HMS EAGLE rolling over on to her port side after being torpedoed.

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