HMS Cossack torpedoed

The Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack pictured before the war.

G.E. Embley was a 17 year old Boy Seaman on the destroyer HMS Cossack as it escorted a convoy out of Gibraltar back to Britain. There had already been several U boat scares in the first two days into the voyage but late on the 23rd HMS Cossack was at her second state of readiness:

It wasn’t terribly late, shortly before midnight in fact, and I walked over to the guard rail and stood looking out over the port side. Another moonless night, but there was a phosphorescence in our wake and I watched the wave that we sent out from the break in the fo’c’sle; and then from out in the darkness the wave broke and started to run in towards the ship, except this wash was wiggling and wash didn’t wiggle! “It’s a —-” I opened my mouth to yell “Torpedo!”, but torpedoes are about twenty or more feet ahead of their track and if it came out at all it was drowned by the roar of the explosion!

The next thing I know is that I’m on the deck behind the gun, my head is under the fuse setting table, and my leg is on the gun platform. The gun seems to lift back pushing the table down on my head – it’s going to crush my skull! but it doesn’t of course – all sorts of debris falls on the leg that’s on the gun platform, the pain is excruciating and it must be broken. The ship stops its violent shuddering and seems to dip several inches and everything stills for the moment.

That’s my cue to drag myself clear of the debris. But I can’t see! All is gray. I close my eyes and rub them, open them again and I can see again! It must have been the steam from fractured boilers. There’s a noise from the debris.

I look down and see that the debris consists of a heap of the rest of the gun’s crew all unravelling themselves! My head isn’t crushed, I’m not blind, I tentatively put some weight on my smashed leg and, miracle of miracles, that’s not broken either. I take a couple of bewildered steps and realize I, like the rest of the gun’s crew, am uninjured. With that also comes the realisation that for’d of the funnel is a fierce mass of flames, around the upper deck are several small fires and quite a few bodies.

Someone says “ditch the ready-use ammunition” and we mechanically do so but its a futile gesture, if that fire gets back here we’re long gone. The torpedomen on the depth-charges are thinking clear. This vessel is finished and, if it suddenly goes down, there’s a real danger that the depth-charges will detonate at their depth and we’ll go up with them. Half of them are busy setting the pistols to “Safe”, while the other half are insuring against any fluke happenings with the pistols by completely removing the primers!

I’m glad about that. I’d often seen what a bomb blast can do to a body in the Portsmouth blitzes, and the thoughts of treading water over the top of an exploding depth charge didn’t bear contemplating, at least not to me it didn’t!!

The front of the ship had been almost completely destroyed and 159 men out of the crew of 219 were killed. An attempt was made to tow the ship back for repairs but she sank in heavy seas four days later.

HMS Cossack had gained fame during the Altmark incident, in February 1940, and she had also been involved in the Second Battle of Narvik. There are more accounts of life on board at HMS Cossack Association .

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

K Freeland December 16, 2018 at 7:36 pm

My father was a boy seaman his name is Stanley Freeland, he was 19 at the time and survived the attack. He was rescued by the John Quill and then they headed off to help a merchant ship that had lost its rudder. When they got there a tug ship had arrived to help so they headed back to Gibraltar where they boarded the Rodney and headed to Inverness. They then went on an army Lorry back to a main railway station to Waterloo then onto Portsmouth. When he reached Portsmouth he was knitted out with a new uniform and given leave back to his parents home in Woking. His parents weren’t even aware that the Cassack had sunk. He then became a submariner for the rest of the war. He will be 97 on the 1st March 2019.

Shirley December 6, 2018 at 12:43 am

My uncle, George “ Mac” McMillan was a petty officer on Cossack and survived the attack

Shirley Horton re Howman September 1, 2018 at 3:39 pm

My dad was a gun layer on H.M.S. Cossack 1941 reported missing killed age 32.Would love to have any information on anyone that must have been with him at this sad time.His name was Charles C Howman.A/B

Darren Jackson April 23, 2018 at 11:44 pm

My grandad jack jackson served on board the Cossack was at Narvik and aboard when it was torpedoed. Only found out what he did during the war just before he died a few years back at the age of 99

Nicky Lewis September 10, 2017 at 4:40 pm

My great uncle, Burt (Herburt) Knight, served and died as a signalman on hms Cossack when sunk by the uboat in 1941. Only just learned this from my dad..would love to know more about him.

Kirsty Bramble January 21, 2017 at 2:54 pm

My grandad was ken bramble he was on board this ship looking for anyone that may have known him, I never knew him sadly xx

f jeffery August 4, 2015 at 10:09 am

My uncle was Arthur Attfield P.O Stoker on HMS Cossack mentioned in Despatches.I heard that he closed the bulkhead door to avoid flooding in the engine room?

Kath Iredale October 28, 2014 at 10:00 pm

My dad (John [Jack] Iredale was part of the boarding party on the Altmark in the Norwegian Fjord during WW2. He never talked about it and I only learned about it from a former shipmate of his who visited me in Sheffield whilst I was working at the Crucible in the early 1990s. Sadly dad died of liver cancer in 1994 just short of his 77th birthday.

zoe thomson May 24, 2014 at 10:43 pm

my grandad peter alexander thomson was on the cossack that fatefull night, i’m looking for any information, or someone that knew him

Bonnie November 9, 2013 at 11:13 pm

My Dad served in HMS Cossack and was one of the lucky survivors, he didn’t like to talk about the night they were attacked, I remember he spoke about being in the burning water, no wonder he said he didn’t want to go back after his leave, especially as he had just got married.

There were many thousands who must have felt the same as him, how frightening to have to go back to fight again and again after being involved in such horrors.

At this time of year in particular I think of him and of all the brave young men who served and gave their lives for our freedom, the fighting still goes on in one way or another, what a waste.

Maureen Moon (Springall) August 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm

My father was on the HMS Cossack. He was one of the unlucky ones, He was picked up out of burning water by the HMS Connaught and two days later died of his wounds. He is buried in the Azores. Beside him lies a 19 year old Able Seaman from the Cossack and there is another Merchant Seaman age 17 years. They are the only three British buried there (as far as I know) in the British War Graves Cemetery. I wish I knew the name of the Sailor who wrote a note for my father to my mother assuring her he was alright and not to worry. Although, he must be long gone too. My son will be visiting the Azores and tends to see his grandfather’s grave. He will lay flowers on his grandfather’s grave, and certainly put a rose or two on the graves of the two very young men. We shall never forget them!

Ian Hudson July 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm

My late father Geoffrey {chinney} Hudson served on the Cossack Cavendish and Caprice as an HO between 1943/45 just wondered if anyone remembered him he was a gunnery rating leading hand (got busted at sometime).
Came from Bishopthorpe just outside York

Trevor Jenkins April 14, 2013 at 8:10 am

I live in Portsmouth and have just seen a banner outside the royal beach hotel saying Hms Cossack reunion got home and looked on the website and read of her exploits, went down to the war memorial at southsea and captain berthons name is with vice admiral Hollands on the Hood plaque,what a brave bunch of lads they all were and I wonder what they would think off England today.

D YOUNG November 17, 2012 at 11:25 pm


Editor October 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Naval History Net is an excellent starting point for the history of any Royal Navy ship – -, it has a list of the casualties on Cossack – – . For a list of survivors the best people to contact would be HMS Cossack Association . This link was not working for me for a period but seems to back now – – see under ‘Ships Co.’


Jane Carter October 13, 2012 at 6:11 pm

My Grandfather (who died when my Dad was a teenager) was an electrical engineer on board this ship and also survived. I too am looking for a list of crew members and if you have any success please let me know.

Tony Brown February 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm

My Father John (Jack) Brown was one of the lucky surviors, I was looking for any info about the Cossack when I came across this great site would like to know if I could get a list of the crew that was on board on it’s last mission.

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