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 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 can be found at the Charybdis-Limbourne Association.