Over 400 dead as HMS Charybdis is ambushed

HMS Charybidis, torpedoed by German E boats and sunk in the English Channel on the 23rd October 1943
HMS Charybdis, torpedoed by German destroyers and sunk in the English Channel on the 23rd October 1943

Operation Tunnel was mounted when the Royal Navy gained intelligence that the Germans would be moving a convoy along the Brittany coast on the night of the 22nd/23rd October 1943. The cruiser HMS Charybdis and her accompanying six destroyers should have been a strong force to reckon with.

Instead it seems that the German shore based radar gave them advance warning of the movements of the British ships, which they were able to communicate to the convoy escort, only 5 miles off the French coast. Although the Charybdis picked up the approach of enemy ships on her radar, it was too late to anticipate a joint torpedo attack by a group of German destroyers.

The Charybdis was hit almost immediately by a torpedo, and the destroyer HMS Limbourne soon afterwards, both ships were soon sinking. The German ships withdrew, undetected.

On board HMS Charybdis was David Royle, stationed in the Transmitting Station. He was aware only that the enemy ships had been detected and that they were intending to close with them before attacking:

Suddenly there was a terrific explosion. I left my seat, hit the deckhead and fell back across the table. I did not need to be told we had been torpedoed. All the lights had failed, my earphones were silent and had slipped round my neck. Water was rushing in somewhere and I heard the Bandmaster calling for the emergency lighting. This too had failed.

The ship was now listing over to port, so that in the inky blackness one could not tell if one was standing on the deck or on a dividing bulkhead. I had hung my lifebelt up, on entering the T.S.. – contrary to ships “Standing Orders”, and stumbling about nearly had my head yanked off. My earphones were still plugged in, and the strap round my head brought me up with a jerk.

Piesse gave the order to leave the T.S., but it seemed an eternity before the watertight door was located and forced open. Fortunately it had not jammed, but there was an immediate inrush of water. We moved by instinct, groping for the steel ladder to the next deck. There was no sound of gunfire above, and I don’t believe I could feel the throb of engines.

The next few minutes were very hazy but, by the list now of the ship, it meant getting on to the upperdeck quickly was imperative.

The next ladder seemed to be lying flat instead of vertical, no wonder because when I got on the upperdeck the port side was almost awash. The old ship seemed to be sinking fast, from the stern. One didn’t need to jump, I just kicked off my shoes and stepped into the “drink.”

[He stepped into a patch of oil and was immediately covered in it – it was probably this that saved his life, protecting him from the worst effects of the cold. After swimming around for some time and narrowly avoiding a German destroyer travelling at speed, he saw some red lights further away in the water]

Eventually I reached them. It was a Carley float, and hands reached to grab me to them. Inside the Float were two badly wounded men and hanging on the lifelines on the outside were 16 others, two or three I recognised as young Boy Seamen. There was only sufficient room for each person to put one arm through a line, and then with hands clasped hang on.

After a while the body became numb, and the cold more intense. One by one, men and boys were letting go, drifting away. Nobody had the strength to hold them back. Some became unconscious and by the ridiculous design of the Naval lifebelt, the head fell forward and the person drowned.

The oil fuel was now having it’s effect, and my retching no longer cleared the breathing. The clinging grip of it seemed to be everywhere, nose, mouth, eyes and hands. The seas were rising too and the Carley Float was rearing up on the crest of each wave, tumbling down into the trough, to be met by the next white capped sea. It must have cast off some man every time it did this half somersault, because there was more space around the float. By now I was not aware of any feeling in the lower part of my body.

I consider it my responsibility to record here that conditions were the same, with the few other Carley floats that had survivors around them. Indeed one “float” similarly over-manned in it’s early stage was approached by the Captain, and the men urged him to join them. But turning and swimming away, he called “keep going, help will be here soon.”

He lies now with over a hundred officers and men at Dinard, near St. Malo, Brittany. Over eighty men were buried at St. Bruic, Brittany thirty eight at Howard Park, Jersey, nineteen at Le Foulon, Guernsey, and the ship’s Padre with two unidentified, on the island of Isle de Bas. More than five hundred officers and men died that night.

At what time the seas abated I do not know. A heavy swell persisted and there appeared to be the first signs of dawn. The “float” had now just four of us hanging on it’s sidelines, with two motionless bodies lying inside. It brightened still further, and I looked at the man next to me. He was totally unrecognisable, only the white of the eyes showing. I tried to speak but could not, neither it seemed could he.

As the “float” rose on the crest of a large swell I saw to my left a faint sign of land, with my eyes gummed up with oil it could not have been all that far away. Another big land swell, and over to my right I could see a destroyer and not all that far away. Each lift of the “float” gave me another sight of her.

She was stopped now, broadside on. A Hunt Class, one of ours. But had she seen us? she must be in range of enemy shore batteries, and with the coming light in danger of air attack. Being stopped she was a target for any ‘U’ boat. I tried to tell the others she wouldn’t wait – lets swim for it – but I could only speak with one hand. That was it, I must try and reach her before she got underway again. I let go the lifeline and struck out. Two, three strokes and everything went black.

The names of the two Petty Officer’s who dived into those October seas with lifelines attached, and saved the other three men (unfortunately the two inside the “float” had died) are P.O. Johnson and P.O. Guy, of H.M.S. Wensleydale. The time, 0625 hours, exactly 25 minutes after the FINAL order from C-in-C Plymouth to clear the area. Two previous orders to do so had not, fortunately been carried out.

David Royle’s full account, which includes a great deal about the short but very active carer of HMS Charybdis, can be read at Naval History Net.. Gordon Smith runs the comprehensive record that is the widely respected site Naval History Net, dedicated in part to his father George Smith who was amongst the men on HMS Charybdis who did not survive that night. Comprehensive analysis of the action used to be found at the http://www.charybdis-limbourne.co.uk/flash/the_story.htm – the website of the Charybdis-Limbourne Association. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

Named after its American inventor, the Carley float was a length of copper or steel tubing 12-20 inches (30-50 cm) in diameter bent into an oval ring, covered in cork and treated canvas. Before proceeding to sea from Portsmouth, ratings wearing overalls make sure that paddles and ropes are secure, ship unknown.
Named after its American inventor, the Carley float was a length of copper or steel tubing 12-20 inches (30-50 cm) in diameter bent into an oval ring, covered in cork and treated canvas. Before proceeding to sea from Portsmouth, ratings wearing overalls make sure that paddles and ropes are secure, ship unknown.

19 thoughts on “Over 400 dead as HMS Charybdis is ambushed”

  1. I had the utmost privilege of spending some time with Eric Wilmot yesterday afternoon. Now aged 99, he miraculously survived this bombing by treading water in the freezing channel for 4 hours. What kept him going he said getting lost on an extremely tough school cross country run. If he could get through that then he could tread water until help arrived. He also talked about the bombing of Leicester where he had to be pulled from the rubble. 6 lives he had, his wife Gladys said to me. I felt incredibly humbled and lucky to have had this time with him yesterday.

  2. My uncle, O.S Edward Ernest Staples was amongst those who lost their lives on HMS Charybdis. He was just 18 when he died and is buried at Dinard in France. He is incorrectly named as Ernest Edward at the war graves commission.. According to my mum, his sister, who was 3 at the time, he should have been home, but he was saving his leave for Christmas. Although I never knew him, he is talked about often, and I have part of a letter stamped Charybdis, which he wrote to his family.

  3. My late father-in-law (whom I never knew) was one of the survivors of the Charybdis. My husband only remembers him talking about how he was covered in oil and he believes this was what kept him alive in the cold water. His name was Thomas (Tommy) Heffernan.

  4. My dad John (Jack) Dunsmuir survived the sinking and in the 70s we all attended a ceremony at Le Foulon in Guernsey and met some other survivors and their families. My dad passed away in 1999.

  5. My father, Harry (Henry) Kent was a Royal Marine and survived the sinking of the Charybdis. Like others, he didn’t talk about it.

  6. My Grand dad died at sea and served on HMS Charybdis, Charles Symons leaving his wife and daughter, my mum, who was only 12 at the time. Trying to find out as much as I can about this tragedy

  7. My uncle john thomas buckley was one of the men on hms charybdis
    He was not found. My aunt who is 98years old remembers going with her mother to a near by town
    To meet a surviour who told her that john known as jack to family made it to the same life raft that he did, but jack friend was struggling in the water jack went back to help he was not seen again. I would like to hear from anyone who may have any information. My aunt can not remember the surviour name who told her this story. We think the survior was from somewhere near manchester as we live in macclesfield.

  8. I strongly recommend Roger Hill’s book for background to the ill-planned and ill-fated operation, and an excellent account of what happened and why, as well as other actions in his very active WW2 career, very often at the center of events in his destroyers. The breakdown of BLACK PRINCE was unfortunate as she was more heavily armed and considerably more suited to a surface action than CHARYBDIS, armed like a destroyer and about the smallest modern cruiser in service.

  9. Hi,

    2018 is the 75th anniversary of the Charybdis and Limbourne disaster. We are particularly keen to get in touch with anyone interested in this action particularly survivors and their families and families of those who were lost in the action.

    I have access to information about various members of HMS Charybdis and HMS Limbourne.

    Please feel free to message the Facebook page of the Guernsey Association of Royal Navy and Royal Marines to get in contact and I shall be delighted to help.

    Alternatively, please e-mail garnrmmn@suremail.gg for more information.

    Many thanks,


  10. My uncle Walter Boyle served on HMS Limbourne and was presumed killed during Operation Tunnel . My late father never spoke about his younger brother only to tell us he was killed during WW2 whilst serving with the Royal Navy. I would like to ask if anyone has information about my uncle or his ships history could they please get in touch.
    Best Wishes
    Fred O’BOYLE

  11. My grandfather who is now 93 was onboard Charybdis. He survived and doesn’t like to talk about it as it still makes him emotional. It was hard enough to get the name of the ship. This information has been very helpful in giving insight. Thank you to those who shared. His name was Ken Shortman.

  12. My wife’s father was a sailor on HMS Charybdis, Francis Fitsimons, he survived the sinking ,clinging on a carley float, but is now deceased – 1985.

    There is no local memorial of most of the 400 men who came from north west, Birkenhead and the Wirral who were killed on HMS Charybdis, like there is for HMS Thetis . I think the ship was blessed in Chester. Should not there be one?

  13. Hi,

    I have access to information about various members of HMS Charybdis and HMS Limbourne.

    Please feel free to message the Facebook page of the Guernsey Association of Royal Navy and Royal Marines to get in contact and I shall be delighted to help.

    Many thanks,

  14. My great-uncle Hugh Carson served on the HMS Charybdis and was among those who died. He is buried in the War Graves section of a beautifully maintained cemetery in St Briuc, Brittany. I visited his gravesite in 2015 and was both touched by the ages of those buried alongside him and by the care with which the graves are attended.

  15. My mum’s brother was Ordinary Seaman Leaonard Charles Bobby who’s body was never found and is commemorated by an unmarked grave on the Isle of Guernsey. My mother visited there and still has the telegrams that informed of:

    Missing presumed dead

    Missing not presumed dead.

    Must have been a terrible, terrible time for all concerned.

    Would be interested to hear from anyone who knew my uncle Lenny

  16. Especially interesting as my late Father – Alfred Newton was a radar operator on board Charybdis and although injured managed to survive………

  17. A very interesting account of the tragic operation Tunnel. PO Stanley Guy was my uncle. His father (my grandfather of course), my father and a further two uncles were also RN. I broke with tradition & joined the RAF.

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