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 .