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.