HMS Scylla was a veteran of the arctic convoys to Russia, where her crew had gained much experience of dealing with aircraft attacks. The Dido class cruisers were well armed with anti-aircraft guns and effective in this role. The crew would no doubt have appreciated their transfer to escort duties from Gibraltar and in the Mediterranean. The threat from aircraft remained no less deadly and now a new menace appeared.
As the tide of war turned against Germany, Hitler was increasingly to place his faith in new technologies, the ‘miracle weapons’ that would transform the situation. Amongst these was a ‘glider bomb’ which now made its appearance. This was a true innovation for the time, a remote control missile, guided onto its target by radio control from the releasing aircraft.
One of the earliest attacks, although unsuccessful, was most probably upon HMS Scylla, although they were not aware of what they had been attacked by at the time. Sub-Lieutenant Hughes, R.N.V.R was Gunnery Control Officer on HMS Scylla:
A plane was coming in on a straight bombing-run, glinting in the sunlight of the late evening, dead in the sights.
“Lovely plot, sir,” gloated Hollier below. “Perks and the Radar right on top of one another. Ready to open fire, sir!”
With a crash that jarred the sponge rubber of the earphones the guns opened fire, and continued their head-splitting cracking with fantastic speed.
“‘B’ gun knocking out sixteen rounds a minute, so I hear, sir,” said the Communication Number.
I raised my hand in acknowledgement, still bent over the sights. This: was a very high rate of fire with a heavy shell going into the breech every four seconds. A beautiful cluster of bursts erupted in the sky and the plane shook violently.
“Take that, you swine!” I yelled viciously.
“And that too, for good measure!” I gritted as the next cluster appeared and the plane turned away from the intense concentration.
I felt a hand suddenly grip my shoulder and the Communication Number screamed urgently:
“Look, sir, up there, from the sun, a plane coming in!”
“Train round, for God’s sake!” I implored, and the tower spun round and the sights ran up rapidly.
“Too late, sir,” said Cornish tensely. “Over fifty degrees.”
“Barrage, barrage!” I shrieked, and the guns went into fixed-barrage firing.
“She’s dropped !” shouted Cornish. “I can see ‘em, and they’re a dead set for us!”
The silver shape came steadily towards us, the barrage exploding around her while we waited for the whistle of the bombs.
“Bad sign,” said Cornish. “Can’t hear the whistle!”
There were three swishes of air, and then the ship shook as if slapped by a gigantic hand. High into the air around us the water rose, and we bent our heads to receive the blow.
“Oh God!” I moaned inwardly. “The lousy luck! Just on a summer’s evening, and they’ve got us!”
Cascades of water fell into the director and the ship seemed to be unnaturally still for a minute. We could hear the water sluicing from the decks, and then gradually to our ears came the undiminished noise of the fans, and a glance aft showed the wake as strong and as white as ever.
“Missed us!” I exulted. “Missed us!”
We laughed like idiots, and then slowly began to realise what must have happened. Coming in from the port side the bombs had overshot us, dropping into the sea on our starboard side, ploughing through the sea away from us, to burst in the water. Had the three thousand-pound bombs hit us directly, or fallen slightly short on the port side, it would have been a different story and the ship would have been a shambles.
The near miss had a sobering effect on us, and we applied ourselves to the task with an added grimness. The bombing was better on this attack, and the Baron Fairlie was damaged, but able to carry on, down by the head. Far astern the inevitable straggler was getting all the surplus bombs from the disgruntled Focke Wulfs.
As the light began to fade from the sky the enemy decided to make a concentrated attack on the straggler, and bomb splashes appeared all round her. On the last bombing-run we never expected her to appear again through the mighty towers of water astern, but gradually as they subsided her bluff bows appeared bravely, and she hurried on, her funnel streaming smoke. Stragglers were a danger to themselves and the convoy at any time, but we had to admire this dauntless old lady who came up smiling after taking the brunt of the enemy’s spite. To me, there was added pride in that she was an elderly Cardiff tramp steamer.
With all bombs expended the enemy departed and we secured from Action Stations after six hours in the director. We climbed wearily through the hatch, slid down the ladder, and then squatted against the steel trunking at the foot, resting before making the final descent of the bridge ladders.
I became aware of the polished sea-boots, and uniform trousers in front of me as I gazed exhausted at nothing, I stood up to see the Captain regarding us.
“Well done,” he said.
“Thank you, sir”.
With lightness in our hearts and renewed strength in our arms, we slid down the bridge ladders.
This account is undated, I have tried to place it as close to the most likely date as possible. For other accounts of life on HMS Scylla and a thorough account of how the Gunnery Officer worked from the Director Tower on Royal Navy ships see WW2 Cruisers. The first successful attack with the glider bomb was made in the Bay of Biscay on the 25th August, when HMS Bideford was hit.