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.
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.
In 2015 I received a copy of John Clancy’s ‘The Most Dangerous Moment’ which covers the sinking of HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall in some detail, placing it in the wider context of the Japanese strike into the Indian Ocean. An excerpt, describing the two sinkings can be read in my featured books from 2015.