HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall sunk

The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire had assisted with the evacuation of Singapore and of Rangoon and was on patrol in the Indian ocean with HMS Cornwall.

Although Ceylon had received a warning of the approaching Japanese task force, the Royal Navy ships in the Indian Ocean were once again disadvantaged without proper air cover. The cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall were on patrol together when they came under attack from the Japanese carrier based bombers. Walter Fudge was on board HMS Dorsetshire:

At 11 a.m. Sunday 5th April, a single Japanese plane was spotted astern and at 1.40 p.m. Cornwall and we were attacked by some 80 planes. In less than ten minutes Dorsetshire was sunk and within five minutes more Cornwall went down too.

Two shipmates went down in the mess and refused to leave the ship – they were non-swimmers. At a time like that it is every man for himself. I recall seeing our new Captain Agar VC giving a salute on the fo’c’sle intending to go down with the ship; but Cassier, another shipmate would not allow that!! He bundled him over the side.

A yell from the bridge to the 4 inch AA guns crews – “Why aren’t you firing?” Reply – “All dead except me!” The masthead lookout scrambled down a rope, which had been secured there, and I was right behind him. We both smiled at the water’s edge and we exchanged words “After you!” “No, after you!!” At that time, much of the ship had gone under and only the fo’c’sle was out of water.

There was no vortex – just ear-splitting noise from the bombs (these were responsible for deafness in my right ear). The water was warm. I felt happy to have had a tot of rum earlier. We swam away and a few low flying planes machine-gunned swimmers and I found a bullet in my ankle but only under the skin – the depth of water must have slowed down its velocity.

So there we were for over 30 hours – one man taken by a shark – 1,222 officers and men from the two ships – with a total loss of 425. Tropical sun and thirst were problems but the wounded obviously had the worst time. Only one whaler boat survived and this was filled with the wounded and those badly burnt. The remainder of us clung to floating objects like Denton rafts and Carley floats.

This account appears in the anthology War’s Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War.

The Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall under heavy air attack by Japanese carrier aircraft on 5 April 1942. The photo was taken from a Japanese aircraft.

Other accounts can be read at HMS Dorsetshire, which also has a gallery of pictures of the ships service.

A few miles away HMS Cornwall had suffered a similar fate. Engineering Officer Lieutenant E. A. Drew only just managed to get out of the Engine Room before the order to abandon ship was given:

Once in the water I was covered in thick fuel oil (which has a consistency of black treacle) which meant that I could only open my eyelids a small amount – I had to stretch my head back and look along my cheeks to see what was happening and of course at the same time, keep myself afloat. I then realised that I had no lifebelt; why I do not know, for it was an offence to be at sea on duty without wearing one, and I had had one on in the Engine Room!

Anyway, I started to swim away from the ship when I found that I was being drawn back to the ship. I quickly realised why – the starboard outer propeller (14ft. diameter) was still rotating with the shaft at water level and as it churned the water it was drawing the sea and me to it! As I approached the propeller, I suddenly realised that I was in big trouble and that there was nothing that I could do about it. God was with me as He always is, for, as I approached the thrashing water, the ship lurched over to port, the propeller came out of the water and I sailed under it. I can see it all happening as I write.

I then came alongside Sub-Lieutenant (E) Dougall, a Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve who was with us for training, and he got a lifebelt off one of the corpses and helped me get it on – not an easy job with both of us covered in oil and swimming in an oil covered sea – I never saw him again. We were then subjected to machine gun fire from the large number of Japanese planes that hung around until the ship sank.

I remember watching the ship moving away from me. I saw the Walrus float off the catapult but it was then sunk by the ship’s wireless aerials coming down across the wings as she went over on to her side. The seaman in the lookout barrel at the top of the foremast had to remain there until he was able to jump into the sea from a height of 8ft, as the ship listed over to port.

One of the ship’s motorboats floated off and that remained afloat and was to become the ‘senior ship’ among several Carley floats. It was the one thing that I could see in the distance as the waves lifted me up. By this time, I was about half a mile astern of the ship. When shortly afterwards she went down by the head and her stern came right out of the water and she sank in a vertical position – about half of her length stood out of the water as she went straight down into the Indian Ocean which is about a mile deep at that point – it is hard to believe but I heard a faint cheer as the survivors, spread along a line about a mile long, watched it all happen.

I found myself alone and conscious of dead bodies, large fish and wreckage. I found a messdeck tabletop, about 3ft wide and 10ft long, and was thankful for a rest as I clung to it; it was not possible to get on it.

The full account can be read on HMS Cornwall’s page on World-War.

The Kent class Cruiser, HMS Cornwall

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael j williams April 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Sir,
Can anyone confirm that a royal marine name Wilfred story naylor, was on hms Cornwall was sunk. Regards mike

Anne Goodfellow March 13, 2014 at 10:57 am

Hi My father, CPO Thomas Kenneth Goodfellow served on the Cornwall and survived the sinking. He was brought into Cape Town (where I now live) and feted, along with his fellow survivors, as a hero. I went to sleep many a night hearing wonderful tales of AB Nuisance and his sterling service to the men of the Royal Navy during WW2.
Nuisance has a statue in his honour in Simons Town – which I pat every time I’m there!

My father passed away in 1977 but we do have several wartime photographs……

Ann Richards March 8, 2014 at 2:39 pm

My father John (Jack) Brown also survived the sinking of the HMS Cornwall, his rank I belive was Chief Petty Officer, he went on to serve on the HMS Mutine a mine sweeper till the end of the war. He died sadly in 1974

Roger Baker January 13, 2014 at 10:12 am

My dad, (died 1998) in a letter to me dated 24/01/1993 talks about 3 trips he made in the Life Boat to help pick up some of 1,100 survivors form the Cornwall & Dorsetshire. I am now hunting back through his records to see what ship he was on at that time.

Tony Cross December 30, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Hello
A few years ago my aunt, recently deceased, told me that my father, William Edward Cross was on the Dorsetshire when it was sunk. He never mentioned this and passed away some years ago. My father was not in the Royal Navy. He was in an East Anglian unit. Could there be any truth in this account.

Regards

Tony Cross

John haviland October 29, 2013 at 11:42 pm

I have just discovered that my cousin Sub Lieut. John Sidebotham went down in Dorsetshire. Is there by any chance a survivor who remembers him?

Dave Cole October 1, 2013 at 11:21 am

The link below will take you to a site that includes a reference to my Dad’s bit in the local paper.
http://www.chelmsfordwarmemorial.co.uk/WW2/WW2_PARISH,_Kenneth_Thomas.html

John McKeown July 21, 2013 at 11:59 am

My father Samuel McKeown was a survivor of the sinking, he was in “A” turrett when the ship was hit. He said that as the ship went over on it’s side, he and another sailor walked down the side and into the water. He moved to Australia in 1954 and passed away in 2005. He was a member of the Dorsetshire association and the Royal Navy association in Melbourne. Many a night was spent recalling his time aboard this glorious ship.

Peter Curiel June 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

Very interesting account of the 2 British heavycruisers HMS Dorsetshire & the HMS Cornwall as they fought on hard and held their sea-worthy positions in a Pacific battle in the Indian Ocean during WW2. That was a tough battle in April 1942. Survival in the warm ocean waters meant you had to tread water, try to find something to hold onto,perhaps wood debri, and still make it past the scary jaws of big sharks! Our real heroes of WW2 gave so much of themselves,even so many lives! I proudly take my hat off and salute these brave men who stood & fought in harm’s way,even unto death! I offer my prayers of remembrance to them in my heart,especially for the cost of freedom!

Dave Cole June 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm

My Dad, Len (“Tim”) Cole, was among the survivors. He was a Chief Yeoman of Signals (at least I think that was his rank at the time). He went to Cornwall reunions for many years – in fact he died just a couple of weeks after the last one he attended. I know he was interviewed by his local paper (Essex Chronicle??) while on survivor’s leave and I plan to try to locate the article that appeared in their archives. I’ll post it on this site if I can find it.

Adam Lowe April 22, 2013 at 8:15 am

Hi, I believe my grandad Harry Hartill was a chief petty officer stoker on the Cornwall and survived the sinking and lived until 1987. I’m trying to find out a bit of information about him if anyone can help that would be great. I know my Nan donated his medals to the museum at Chatham dock yard soon after his death, I remember going to see them as a kid.

John Preston March 23, 2013 at 4:00 pm

My Father William Henry Preston was a survivor of the sinking but sadly died at the age of 52 in 1952.

david wilson January 12, 2013 at 8:20 pm

My late fathers brother .. jim wilson was a stoker on hms cornwall went she went down

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