The Royal Navy suffered significant losses in the battle for Crete but also managed to sink large numbers of German troop ships bringing re-inforcements to the airborne invaders. The destroyers HMS Kelly, HMS Kipling and HMS Kashmir were under the command of Lord Louis Mountbatten. He had saved HMS Kelly from near certain sinking during the invasion of Norway just a year earlier.
On 23rd May Mountbatten was directed to Crete where they were to bombard Maleme airfield, which had just been captured by German airborne troops, in support of a counter-attack by British forces. HMS Kipling developed steering problems and was detached. Mountbatten’s account comes from a letter to his sister Louise, Queen of Sweden:
As we entered Canea Bay a large caique was sighted loaded with German troops steering towards Crete. Both ships opened fire and sank her very quickly, the wretched Germans jumping into the water in full marching order. In any other circumstances we would have stopped to pick them up, but even at 30 knots it was doubtful if I could get into position to carry out the bombardment in time, so I had to push on.
We hadn’t got the exact position of the aerodrome, but worked out from a contour map where the airstrip must be. After having completed our bombardment we withdrew at high speed and came across another caique carrying ammunition. Shortly after we started firing at her she blew up in a very spectacular way.
Dawn broke as we rounded the North-Eastern Cape and we steamed at 30 knots down the Kithera Channel to rejoin Rawlings’ force. As the sun rose a German Dornier 215 appeared out of the east and was engaged before she dropped five bombs which missed Kelly astern; forty minutes later three more Do. 215s made a high-level bombing attack on Kelly and Kashmir in the face of good 4.7-inch controlled fire. Both ships avoided the bombs. I sent for my breakfast on the bridge and I continued reading C. S. Forester’s book about my favourite hero Hornblower called Ship of the Line.
Just before 8 am we sighted a mast above the horizon and I hoped it belonged to the Kipling though I couldn’t think why she had waited for us.
By now the sun was well up, the sea was calm and it was a lovely Mediterranean day. Just about 8 a.m. we suddenly saw 24 ominous black objects. Their distinctive shape soon revealed them as the dreaded Stukas, the Ju. 87s. They had a reputation for diving almost vertically on ships and only releasing their bombs when they were so low that they couldn’t miss. They were hard to distinguish against the rising sun, but presently we could see that they broke up into two parties of about 12 in each.
I pressed the alarm rattlers, for this required full action stations, and I hoisted the signal to the Kashmir to ‘act independently’.The first party made for the Kashmir and they started diving in waves of three. I could see the bombs dropping round her and all her guns were firing. Then a wave of three peeled off from our lot and started to dive. I put the telegraphs at ‘full ahead’. I gave the order ‘hard-a-starboard’ to bring the ship under the dive bomber to force it to dive ever steeper in the hopes they would finally be pushed beyond the vertical and lose control. This happened and the bomber hit the sea close by sending up an enormous splash.
I reversed the wheel ‘hard-a-port’. The next dive bomber was also forced to dive steeper and this one we actually shot down, into the sea. The next one also missed.
But now to my horror I saw that the third or fourth wave had hit the Kashmir somewhere amidships and she was finished. I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, even if we are not hit now we shall have to stay and pick up the survivors and they will get us then!’
I think it was about the fourth wave of the three, where one of the Stukas suddenly came lower than the others and although I had the wheel over to ‘hard-a-starboard’ and we were turning at over 30 knots under full helm the bomb was released so close to the ship that it couldn’t miss. It hit square on X gun-deck and killed the crew of the twin 4.7-inch gun mounting, including that nice young boy Michael Sturdee, who was in command.
The next wave were coming and I gave the order to the navigator ‘midships’ and then ‘hard-a-port’, but we only listed over more heavily to port. All ships list outwards under full helm at full speed, but this list was getting worse. I gave the order ’stop engines’ and then heard the coxswain shout up the voice-pipe, ‘Ship won’t answer the helm. No reply to the engine-room telegraphs!’ Then I realised we were for it. The next wave of Stukas had started their dive towards us and I remember shouting out, ‘Keep all guns firing’, an unnecessary order, for all guns continued to fire until the guns’ crews were actually washed away from their guns. I realised the bomb must have torn a gaping hole down near X magazine, as we had lost our stability and were rolling right over. I suddenly saw the water rise on our port side in a raging torrent of over 30 knots and thinking, ‘Whatever happens I must stay with the ship as long as I can. I must be the last to leave her alive.’
We were over beyond ninety degrees now and I climbed up on to the distance correction indicator of my station-keeping gear, which I had invented and was fitted in the flotilla. With my arms I clung round the gyro compass pedestal. And then the sea came in a roaring maelstrom. I saw officers and men struggling to get out of the bridge and then I took an enormously deep breath as the water closed over my head. The awful part was that even after we were upside down we continued to race through the water, though, of course, at a rapidly decreasing rate. Somehow I managed to flounder and work my way across the upside-down bridge until I got to the bullet-proof bridge screens. Here I had to pull myself under them and up to this moment it was horribly dark.
A faint glimmer of daylight appeared on the other side of the bridge screens, but the water was churning round and I could distinguish nothing.
I suddenly felt my lungs were going to burst and that I would have to open my mouth unless I could somehow keep it shut. With my right hand I gripped my mouth in a vice-like grip and with my left hand I held my nostrils shut. It was a fight of willpower. Would my hands obey me and keep my mouth and nose shut longer than the reflex action which would force me to open them and swallow a lot of seawater?
I had my Gieve waistcoat on, but had not blown up the rubber ring which is fitted in the waistcoat. This was lucky because it had made it easier to get out from under the bridge, but now I had to kick hard to fight my way to the surface. Slowly, infinitely slowly, the water got brighter and lighter and then suddenly with lungs bursting I broke surface. I gasped for breath, but the next moment I saw the stern of the ship approaching us with both our great propellers still revolving in the air. They looked as though they were going to come right over us and hit us. I saw the navigator, Lieutenant Maurice Butler-Bowden, with his back to the ship. I yelled to him to ’swim like hell’ because I was afraid that the propellers would hit him. We both managed to get clear, but only by a matter of six or seven yards.
At this moment up bobbed one of our stoker petty officers, a great character and a bit of a humorist. He looked at the ‘pilot’ and then at me and then produced a typically cheery crack. ‘Extraordinary how the scum always comes to the top, isn’t it, sir?’ I looked round, I could only see one Carley raft, which someone must have had time to release before the ship turned over. I saw men all round me in the water and yelled out, ‘Everybody swim to the raft.’
I suddenly noticed I still had my steel helmet on, and this seemed ridiculous in the water, so I took it off and threw it away. I pulled the mouthpiece and tube out of my waistcoat and blew up the rubber ring. That made it easier to stay afloat. Then at that moment, suddenly and unexpectedly, a row of splashes appeared between us and the Carley raft, then with a roar one of the Stukas shot overhead with her machine-guns firing at us. I bitterly regretted throwing away my tin hat; you have no idea how naked one feels in the water without one when one is being machine-gunned.