HMS Lightning sunk in E boat attack

The Royal Navy's greyhounds - destroyers at sea in line ahead, with a fine bow wave. Photograph taken from on board the destroyer FAULKNOR

The Royal Navy’s greyhounds – destroyers at sea in line ahead, with a fine bow wave. Photograph taken from on board the destroyer FAULKNOR

The British destroyer HMS NUBIAN returning to Malta after patrolling the coast of Tunis. She had been participating in operations by light naval forces based at Malta to patrol the Sicilian Narrows off the coast of Tunis and cut off the German Afrika Korps's escape route from North Africa.

The British destroyer HMS NUBIAN returning to Malta after patrolling the coast of Tunis. She had been participating in operations by light naval forces based at Malta to patrol the Sicilian Narrows off the coast of Tunis and cut off the German Afrika Korps’s escape route from North Africa.

In the Mediterranean the Allies were making considerable progress in regaining command of the seas. Convoys were now getting through to Malta and the Allied forces in North Africa.

Yet the battle was far from completely won and the Germans were intent on re-inforcing and resupplying their forces in Tunisia. This led to a very testing life for many in the Royal Navy as they sought to protect their own supply lines and attack the enemy’s.

The 227 men on HMS Lightning were exhausted, they were escorting Allied convoys by day and attacking enemy convoys by night. On the 12th March they had been in continuous action for thirteen days. That evening they were ordered out of Bone harbour at 1745 to attack a German convoy heading out of Sicily. They fought off twelve torpedo bombers at 1851 and shot one down. At 2200 the radio messages of German E boats were intercepted suggesting they were about to be attacked.

George Gilroy, at 21 already a very experienced Seaman with four years service, was one of the men on HMS Lightning:

We had been at action stations all evening and I was closed up in A turret. I was tired, hungry and frightened as we were so close to the enemy. At about 2215, through my sights, I clearly saw the pale grey E-boat on the port beam when it fired the first torpedo.

We were not operating RDF, ASDIC or HF DF and had no time to return fire – perhaps if we had all been fighting fit we may have opened fire in time – who knows? The skipper turned the ship hard to port to comb the track of the torpedo as he had done on so many previous occasions, but she was just too slow this time and we were hit fine on the Port bow, blowing it clean off ‘as if cut by a knife’.

Even though I was very near the point of impact I heard no loud explosion, just a sickening heavy thud that jarred my bones. The ship shuddered from the blow and everything went dead. Realising what had happened and with no electrical power to operate the gun we had no choice but to abandon the turret.

We could not escape from the door as it was jammed. Instead, we had to escape onto the deck by sliding down the chute for ejected shell cases. We did not panic as we could feel that the ship was not settling or heeling over, although we guessed that she must be in a serious state.

It is interesting that in a letter to me fifty years after the sinking; Tom King [who had previously served on HMS Lightening] mentions the turret door, ” … before I left the ship, when I was Captain of A Turret … being tall I could stand with my legs spread and put one put one foot on each of the ready use shells, so I never needed to use the stand (which obstructed the door). The lads used to say “don’t put the stand down Tosh so if we have to get out sharp – there’s only the clips”.

This is possibly what prevented us escaping. I wonder how many men lost their lives in other similar turrets due to this poor design. Upon emerging from the gun turret I was amazed at the enormity of the damage and how near we had been to being killed outright. About fifty feet of the ship had been blown clean away and our turret was leaning over onto the deck.

To a man we were stunned. We could only look at one another in amazement. Everything was still and quiet – there was no return of fire and no rushing about. The only other ship visible was the E-boat. We just waited for the inevitable, like a rabbit hypnotised in a car’s headlights.

The stricken ship quickly lost way and became a sitting target. In a desperate attempt to save her, the skipper gave orders to go astern to relieve pressure on the forward bulkheads that were still holding. But I could only watch as our attacker slowly circled the dead ship and come round to the starboard side. I heard his engines speed up as he turned to run in towards us.

He came straight for us and fired a second, fatal, tin fish. It was carefully aimed and hit us square amidships beneath the funnel. This caused terrible damage, destroying both-boiler rooms, pom-pom and for’ard torpedo tubes on the upper deck, and breaking the poor ship’s back. I watched in disbelief and horror as a huge plume of water and steam rose high above us as the torpedo plunged into our lovely ship.

Men and machinery were blown to oblivion. I felt very sorry for my good mates on the pom-pom; they never stood a chance and must have watched helplessly as the fateful torpedo sped straight for them. With her back broken she immediately began to founder.

In total 45 men died in the attack and subsequent sinking, most of the survivors were picked up at about 0145 by HMS Loyal.

The recently published Struck by Lightning provides many different accounts from men who served on the destroyer HMS Lightning. This was a very busy ship in her service from May 1941 to March 1943, although not untypical for many destroyers at the time. She was at the heart of the action throughout the Malta convoys.

There are few accounts that give such a full picture of what life was like in the Royal Navy in this period, particularly for those serving on the destroyers. This book includes many interesting photographs and a very comprehensive guide to further research materials.

Munitions workers Marion Griffiths and Betty Evans stand with a Royal Navy gun crew on the pom-pom deck of a destroyer, somewhere in Britain. Marion and Betty were taken on a surprise tour of the destroyer after discovering that the shells which they helped to make were, according to the original caption, "actually used on this destroyer to beat off Nazi dive bombers".

Munitions workers Marion Griffiths and Betty Evans stand with a Royal Navy gun crew on the pom-pom deck of a destroyer, somewhere in Britain. Marion and Betty were taken on a surprise tour of the destroyer after discovering that the shells which they helped to make were, according to the original caption, “actually used on this destroyer to beat off Nazi dive bombers”.

Venus" the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS VANSITTART.

‘Venus’ the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS VANSITTART.

An image from the end of the war. A surrendered E-boat doing 30 knots with two other E-Boats (not visible) alongside an accompanying MGB heading to HMS HORNET, the light coastal forces base at Gosport, to be taken over by the Royal Navy.

An image from the end of the war. A surrendered E-boat doing 30 knots with two other E-Boats (not visible) alongside an accompanying MGB heading to HMS HORNET, the light coastal forces base at Gosport, to be taken over by the Royal Navy.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

scott fisher February 26, 2014 at 9:53 am

i have a model in a show case unknown who made it but would like to hear from family members from this ship 2.5ft long 1/2ft wide 1ft high like to know u made it i got it then i was about 6yrs old from man last name was mckenize live in south hobart tasmania 7000

Tony March 12, 2013 at 11:07 am

Unbelievable! I find it terrifying the thought of the sailors trapped in the gun…but what of the German sailors in the E-boat? Who are they, that dared attack, and keep attacking until they destroyed the far larger boat?
I would like to know their story

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