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.

Japanese destroyers prevail at Battle of Vella Lavella

The USS Chevalier which was sunk by torpedo at the Battle of Vella Lavella.
The USS Chevalier which was sunk by torpedo at the Battle of Vella Lavella.
USS Selfridge  circa the later 1930s.
USS Selfridge (DD-357) during exercises at sea, circa the later 1930s.
Imperial Japanese Navy destroyers Shigure and Samidare operating off the coast of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands hours prior to the Naval Battle of Vella Lavella on 6 October 1943.
Imperial Japanese Navy destroyers Shigure and Samidare operating off the coast of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands hours prior to the Naval Battle of Vella Lavella on 6 October 1943.

In the Solomon Islands the Japanese were falling back. Where they could they sought to evacuate their troops from under the noses of the U.S. forces. The seas around the Solomons were contested but neither side dominated. In some circumstances the US Navy held an advantage. On other occasions the advantage was less obvious.

On the 6th October the Japanese sent a significant force in to pick up their troops from the island of Vella Lavella. The U.S. Navy warned of the move by patrol planes but had limited forces to respond with – two groups of three destroyers, one of which was travelling from some distance away. The first group consisted of the USS Chevalier, USS O’Bannon and USS Selfridge.

Ernie Herr was a radio man on the USS O’Bannon:

October 6th — we return to Vella Lavella but this night Japanese planes spot us and drop flares but, oddly enough, no bombs. A Japanese force of nine destroyers and twenty barges is trying to rescue 600-some soldiers who are stranded on Vella Lavella. Our force consists of three destroyers with the remaining three destroyers of our force some distance away. Japanese planes drop dazzling lights, which slowly float down held suspended by small parachutes. These lights outline our force of three destroyers.

We close on the Japanese destroyer force and firing commences on both sides. Flames flare up from two of the Japanese ships as they are hit by our shells. But within seconds one of their torpedoes rips into the Chevalier. The entire ship separated as if a giant knife had sliced her in two. The stern turned about and swung into the path of the O’Bannon as if steered by a phantom quartermaster. The command “Hard right rudder” and then “Back emergency” was not good enough and it was evident the ships would collide.

The order was given: “stand by for a ram . . . stand by for a ram,” and every officer on the bridge grabbed the small brass rail running around the pilothouse. Crew members lunged for metal supports, gun mounts. In the fireroom men who might be trapped in an inferno of scalding steam dropped their tools and held onto railings and ladders, their faces tight with apprehension. In the handling room and magazine, men threw themselves on the deck, eyeing the stacks of shells and tins of powder.

The O’Bannon, unable to avoid hitting the Chevalier, crashes into her after engine room. Our luck holds however as we hit a glancing blow and bounce clear. Our bow is ripped back more than twenty-five feet and water pours in. In the emergency radio room, another radioman and I happen to belong to that two percent who never get the word and the impact throws us a short distance but we are unhurt. The crash knocks out all power on the ship and even the emergency battle lights at our location fail to light.

Fortunately the sound powered phone works fine and we are back in communication with all stations on the circuit. While we sit in total darkness we are informed that our ship may be sinking as water is pouring into the forward compartments. And at this time more Japanese planes arrive. Luckily for us, the phrase “Have a nice day” has not yet been invented.

Three Jap bombers zoomed down and released a stick of bombs. They exploded with a roar off the O’Bannon’s stern and sent sheets of water high in the air. More bombs are dropped, followed by showers of flares. Against the backdrop of harsh white light the Chevalier settled rapidly. Boats were being lowered off the O’Bannon and the screech of protesting davits could be heard plainly. Less than 6,000 yards ahead a Jap destroyer was still burning.

Now alone, the destroyer Selfridge continues to fire at the Japanese destroyers and scores a hit but in return receives a torpedo that blows up the forward area of the ship engulfing it in flames. All three ships in our force are now dead in the water and without power. Within minutes however, our damage control crew has the emergency generating system in operation and power is restored to the O’Bannon.

With the restoration of power comes word there are emergency messages to be sent back to our base. While hurrying to the bridge to pick up these messages, I have a chance to look out across the water. What I see is rather amazing. There are many small lights out in the water, maybe a hundred of them. They turn out to be flashlights being held and waved by sailors from the Chevalier who are jumping from the rapidly sinking ship and are swimming toward the O’Bannon, a distance of about 40 yards. It seems that everyone in the water has a flashlight and is waving it to get attention (later information indicated that some type of fish that emitted light was in the surrounding water in record numbers, probably stirred up by the torpedo explosion). Messages coming in from the Chevalier stress that they are sinking rapidly and need assistance. Our whale boats are already heading out to pick up survivors.

After sending the radio messages, a quick acknowledgment is received from our base radio station at Guadalcanal. They will be providing air cover at daylight. It is comforting to know that everyone is now aware of our present predicament. Word from our damage control parties indicate that they have been able to shore up the damage to our bow and we are no longer in danger of sinking. Word is received from the other destroyers of our force that they are just over the horizon and have been watching the gun flashes of the battle and will be coming to our assistance shortly.

More good news and bad news. The good news is that remaining ships of the Japanese task force are not attacking. The bad news is the 600 Japanese troops have been safely evacuated and will be around to fight another day. But the Japanese are not looking for further adventures this night. They make a hasty exit except for one of their destroyers that is on fire and slowly sinking.

With 85 percent of the Chevalier’s crew accounted for and no more that can be located on board, the O’Bannon heads for home at one-third speed, leaving behind the ship’s whaleboats for any survivors that may have been missed. The whaleboats were found the following day and were full of survivors, 78 in all. However, all were Japanese. American PT boats took the Japanese to Vella Lavella as prisoners. The badly damaged Selfridge finally gets underway at three knots as the Chevalier sinks beneath the waves. Every bit of available deck space on our ship is taken by the Chevalier survivors. Her dead are stacked respectfully on the fantail of our ship and are covered with tarpaulins. For the crews of the O’Bannon, the Selfridge and the Chevalier, the battle of Guadalcanal is finally over. For those under tarpaulins, the war is finally over. But, dead or alive, we are all heading home.

Ernie Herr’s full account of his service on the USS O’Bannon can be read at Destroyer History.

The heavily USS Selfridge on the left and the USS O'Bannon with hull damage after ramming USS Chevalier.
The heavily damaged USS Selfridge on the left and the USS O’Bannon with hull damage after ramming USS Chevalier.

A closer view of the damage to the USS O'Bannon.
A closer view of the damage to the USS O’Bannon.

Another tragic night for Convoys ONS 202 and 18

HMS Itchen was a River class frigate - very similar to HMS Lochy, seen here.
HMS Itchen was a River class frigate – very similar to HMS Lochy, seen here.

The ships of Convoy ONS 202 and 18 continued their steady course west. The marshalling of 65 merchant ships in mid Atlantic would never have been an easy task in the fog and heavy seas that prevailed. On top of this the Convoy commander had to attempt co-ordinate his Escort group of warships, in a fight against a group of U-boats that were making a combined attack.

Already HM Frigate LAGAN had been damaged beyond repair, and HM Corvette POLYANTHUS and HM Destroyer ST CROIX had been sunk. He did not know that these ships had been the victims of the new German T5 acoustic torpedoes.

The limitations of radar and inter ship communication meant that he only had a limited understanding of events as they occurred.

This is part of the Narrative of Events from M.J. Evans, Commander, R.N., Senior Officer for the Escort Group with the convoy.

Night 22nd/23rd:

At 22.38, Itchen obtained another contact and at 23.37, Itchen and Morden were both in contact with several submarines coming in from the starboard bow.

At 23.55, Gatineau obtained a radar contact and sighted a submarine coming in towards the centre of the convoy from ahead. Then ensued a mêlée ahead of the centre of the convoy with a number of escorts firing at the submarine and attempting to illuminate her by searchlight. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion, which was thought by many ships – including Gatineau – to be the submarine blowing up.

“Pineapple” [a pre planned programme of searching for U -boats] was ordered with ships in the van illuminating but no further submarines were sighted. In the firework display, which was going on in the van, it was not possible for me to distinguish whether a merchant ship had been torpedoed. At the time I thought one probably had been and was later confirmed – wrongly – in this belief by a report from Renoncule that she was in company with a stopped ship 4 miles astern of the port columns. This ship was in fact the S.S. Wisla who had courageously stopped and picked up three survivors from Itchen.

Shortly afterwards Morden reported that it was an escort that had blown up astern of her. As Morden should have been in position on the starboard bow, I at first thought that she must have been referring to Towy although this did not at all fit in with the picture as I had seen it. When operational signals allowed I called all escorts on R/T and established the fact that only Itchen was not answering.

At this stage this was all the Convoy commander knew of the fate of HMS Itchen.

The full Narrative report and much more on this convoy can be found at War Sailors.

HMS KEPPEL (D 84) - Shakespeare-class Flotilla Leader, the destroyer that carried the convoy commander.
HMS KEPPEL (D 84) – Shakespeare-class Flotilla Leader, the destroyer that carried the convoy commander.

It remained for William Fisher to complete the account of what happened to HMS Itchen. He had been on HMCS St Croix when it had been torpedoed on the 20th and had spent thirteen hours in the whaler before being picked up by HMS Itchen. This is his account:

We found a place to sleep, the night passed quietly and part of the next day. Around four o’clock action stations sounded. The Itchen dropped a few charges. The boys were talking of what they were going to do – stay with the convoy or go into port. At about six clock we were all at supper – a very good supper too – when action stations sounded again. We all went up on deck. We dropped some charges, then things quieted down. I was talking to the SBA and he said the injured boys were all fine. Then around eight we had action again. We dropped charges and made another sweep around and came in and dropped one charge. We made another quick sweep and came in and dropped a big pattern. The conning tower of the sub came up and then disappeared.

There were a lot of bubbles and oil and we were sure we had got a sub and we were happy. We all went down below and tried to sleep. About a quarter to nine, 22nd September, action stations went again. We went to the upper deck where it was quite cold and very dark. Around nine our searchlight went on and there was a sub in the beam. I was standing by the funnel and had hold of the railing around the funnel.

I looked past the bridge and could see the sub about three hundred yards ahead. It was cutting across our bow. Then the forward gun went off but the shell landed short and the bridge gunners started to fire. There was an explosion. We had been torpedoed. I was blown about thirty feet and landed against a gun deck. I got up, the ship was listing and I could hear water rushing in. I couldn’t see a thing. I got the davit of the skiff, reached out with the other hand to get to the railing. Just before I jumped over the side I called for my chum Mackenzie, but there was no answer. So I dove over the side.

As I hit the water there was a terrible explosion. I was sucked under and nearly lost consciousness. My insides seemed to be squeezed out of me. I was choking as I struggled back to surface again, got a breath of air, and a wave took me under. I came up and started to swim away from the ship. I swam about thirty or forty feet and looked back at the propellers of the Itchen which were just disappearing. She had gone down in about forty seconds.

It has been forty-nine hours between torpedoing of the two ships. I started swimming around and remembered to take my shoes off. I reached down to take my right shoe off and it was gone, I reached and took off my left one. I had on a big duffle coat and I unbuttoned it but forgot to undo the mouth piece. It slipped under my chin and started to choke me but I finally got it off. There were quite a few star shells in the air; the water was rough.

I saw a lad holding onto a board, and swam over and took hold of the board with him. The water was very cold and I started to get cramps. I held onto the board for about one hour only. Then the lad passed away and I started to run into quite a few bodies. I could hear a few of the boys hollering.

Then the convoy started to pass us. The wash from the ships would wash us back and forth; we would go under and choke and there was a lot of oil and small boards that would slap us in the face. Then the star shells stopped going up and it got very dark. I saw a small flare and hollered out to a fellow and asked him what he had. He said he had a float, so I swam over towards him. He had two life savers. He gave me one, the one with the calso flare on it. I put it around me, then a wave parted us.

There was a splash and I could hear voices. I looked and there was a freighter [SS Waleha] which had dropped one of its floats, I tried to swim to it but I was too weak, so I hollered at them and they said they were coming. It was good news, I saw a light but it seemed far off, then I heard the sound of a motor boat. I could hear voices but couldn’t see a thing except the light. Then I felt something hit my face and heard somebody say grab the rope. Then I saw the motor boat when it was nearly on top of me.

They threw me the rope again, I caught it and was pulled up to the side of the motor boat. A hand grabbed me and pulled me inside. I lay there coughing and too tired to move; I was cold. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I finally moved beside the engine and tried to get some heat. They circled around and picked up two more boys.

They pulled alongside of their ship and as they pulled the motor boat up I felt a lot of hot water go over me it certainly felt good. It was the exhaust from the engine. One of the lads they had picked up was doing a lot of groaning. Finally they got the boat up and put blankets around me and helped me into the officers’ wardroom. They gave me a full glass of rum. I drank it all and it warmed me up.

I was a frightful looking sight covered with oil from head to foot, but they got some towels and rubbed the oil off and put my feet in hot water. I had been in the water 3 hours when I was picked up for the second time. The other lad lay on the floor groaning. They were rubbing him with whiskey and trying to get him to drink some.

I asked the other chap who he was and he said he was off the Itchen. The lad on deck was off the Itchen too. I had been saved for the second time but all our boys were gone.

There were two survivors from HMS Itchen and now only one survivor from HMCS St Croix – William Fisher – see Canadian Military History, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1999, pp.63-69. for full account.

Torostar_01

The Narrative of Events was only able to conclude:

Commander P.W. Burnett of HMCS Gatineau has carried out an investigation to find out what occurred in this mêlée. His conclusion is that “it appears that HMS Itchen was torpedoed in her foremost magazine just after she had sighted and engaged, and just before she rammed the U-boat. The latter was probably considerably shaken by the explosion and dived: its attack was frustrated and no ships of the convoy were torpedoed.”

This was the last major U boat attack of the war in the Atlantic, for a good summary of events see The Last Hurrah, for a discussion about whether the rescue ship was SS Wisla or SS Wahela or even the SS James Smith see War Sailors.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Express underway. She was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS Gatineau in 1943.
Royal Navy destroyer HMS Express underway. She was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS Gatineau in 1943.

US destroyers ambush Japanese at Vella Gulf

The USS Dunlap led the group of US Navy destroyers that lay in wait for the Japanese.
The USS Dunlap led the group of US Navy destroyers that lay in wait for the Japanese.
The Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Arashi, photographed in 1940. The fast destroyers were used for the 'Tokyo Express'.
The Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Arashi, photographed in 1940. The fast destroyers were used for the ‘Tokyo Express’.

In the Soloman islands US Naval forces were making it extremely difficult for the Japanese to bring in reinforcements and supplies. Their forces on the islands were already suffering from shortages and were unable to mount a co-ordinated defence. Even though Japanese troops suffered from poor morale they were determined to fight on.

The Japanese solution was to bring in troops by fast destroyer under cover of darkness rather than conventional troop transports – the system known as the ‘Tokyo Express’. Radar was now challenging even that tactic. On the night of 6th August 1943 it was to give the US Navy a great advantage.

As four Japanese destroyers bringing troop reinforcements to Kolombangara island made their approach, they were unable to spot a force of US destroyers – the USS Dunlap, Craven, Maury, Lang, Sterett, and Stack – that were lying in wait for them. The Japanese radar could not distinguish the US ships from the great mass of the island behind them. The surprise torpedo attack by the US destroyers almost achieved total annihilation of the Japanese forces.

Tameichi Hara was the commander of the Japanese destroyer Shigure. Being unable to to keep up with the other three destroyers probably contributed to his lucky escape:

We sortied from Rabaul on August 6 at 0300 and headed southward in a calm sea. The cloudy sky offered intermittent rain squalls and brief glimpses of sunshine.

We were passing Buka Island at 1430 when an enemy patrol plane was seen disappearing into the clouds. Our radiomen reported hearing an “Urgent” coded message, which must have been the plane’s report of our approach. Clearly, our operation would not take the enemy by surprise.

I kept close watch of flagship Hagikaze to see how Captain Sugiura would react to this development. It grieved me to see our same speed of advance and course maintained, even after we had been sighted by the enemy. I gritted my teeth and followed along.

We entered Bougainville Strait at 1900 and, turning to a course of 140 degrees, boosted speed to 30 knots. Two hours and twenty minutes later we were directly northeast of Vella Lavella Island. Shigure was falling behind the formation as the 30—knot speed proved too much for her. The navigation officer, Lieutenant Yoshio Tsukihara, came to report to me.

“Sir, we are lagging 1,000 meters behind Kawakaze. Shall we use the overboost to gain back our lost 500 meters?”

”No,” I roared, “this is good enough. To hell with the prescribed 500- meter distance. Don’t overboost the engine!”

Kolombangara loomed to starboard, its towering volcanic peak overhung with ominous black clouds. To port I could see nothing but blackness, from which anything could emerge at any moment. It made my spine creep.

I shouted new orders. “Stand by for action! Aim all guns and torpedoes to port. Set gun range of 3,000 meters. Set torpedoes to run at two-meter depth, angle 20 degrees. Double all lookouts!”

For the next ten uneasy minutes I peered searchingly to port for some sign of activity or movement to betray the presence of the enemy. Visibility was no more than 2,000 meters in this direction. The growing tension was shattered by the voice tube from torpedo control where Lieutenant Doi asked if it was all right to return the tubes from portside to their original starboard position

I shrieked an emphatic “No!” and followed with a more controlled explanation, “No, Doi, for heaven’s sake, no! Starboard visibility is so good that we can see the reefs of Vella Lavella. To port we see no more than 2,000 meters, and we don’t know where the enemy is. Stay trained to port and be ready for action at any moment.”

This bit of instruction was hardly finished when lookout Yamashita called, “White waves! Black objects! . . . Several ships heading toward us!”

I called at once for full starboard helm, and ordered torpedoes launched at port-side targets. The white waves were plainly visible. I shuddered and glanced at the three leading destroyers. They were proceeding straight ahead, oblivious of the closing enemy ships.

Damn! Damn! Shigure was now 1,500 meters behind Kawakaze. Forty-five seconds after the order was given, Shigure began swinging to starboard as her torpedoes leapt in rapid succession into the water. The time was 2145.

As the eighth torpedo was about to be released I caught sight of telltale white torpedo tracks fanning out in our direction, the nearest within 800 meters. I shouted again for hard starboard helm. In the same moment I saw a pillar of fire shoot up from amidship of Arashi, and two from Kawakaze. Lead ship Hagikaze was beyond and in line with these two victims so that I could not see her.

Looking again at the water, I held my breath. Three torpedoes were streaking toward Shigure’s bow, which was swinging rapidly to the right.

My knees almost gave in as I clutched the handrail. The first torpedo passed 20 meters ahead of the bow, the second was closer, and the third appeared certain to hit. It did not, however, or if it did it was just a glancing blow on the skin of the rapidly turning ship. I thought I felt a dull thud from aft but could not be sure. Looking around again I saw several torpedoes running 30 meters or more in front of the bow, as the ship was completing a full circle in its desperate evasive turn.

See Tameichi Hara: Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway – The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes.

Three out of the four Japanese destroyers – the Hagikaze, Arashi, and Kawakaze had been sunk. The US destroyers suffered no damage or casualties at all – but for the escape of the Shigure it would have been complete and utter victory. Around 1000 Japanese were left in the water as they abandoned ship but many were to refuse rescue when daylight came.

USS Sterett (DD-407) after portion of the ship, photographed from a crane at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 6 February 1943, at the end of an overhaul. Circles mark recent alterations, including the installation of 40mm guns on her after deckhouse. Note the photographer's shoes in lower left. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.
USS Sterett (DD-407) after portion of the ship, photographed from a crane at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 6 February 1943, at the end of an overhaul. Circles mark recent alterations, including the installation of 40mm guns on her after deckhouse. Note the photographer’s shoes in lower left. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

HMS Lightning sunk in E boat attack

The Royal Navy's greyhounds - destroyers at sea in line ahead, with a fine bow wave. Photograph taken from on board the destroyer FAULKNOR
The Royal Navy’s greyhounds – destroyers at sea in line ahead, with a fine bow wave. Photograph taken from on board the destroyer FAULKNOR
The British destroyer HMS NUBIAN returning to Malta after patrolling the coast of Tunis. She had been participating in operations by light naval forces based at Malta to patrol the Sicilian Narrows off the coast of Tunis and cut off the German Afrika Korps's escape route from North Africa.
The British destroyer HMS NUBIAN returning to Malta after patrolling the coast of Tunis. She had been participating in operations by light naval forces based at Malta to patrol the Sicilian Narrows off the coast of Tunis and cut off the German Afrika Korps’s escape route from North Africa.

In the Mediterranean the Allies were making considerable progress in regaining command of the seas. Convoys were now getting through to Malta and the Allied forces in North Africa.

Yet the battle was far from completely won and the Germans were intent on re-inforcing and resupplying their forces in Tunisia. This led to a very testing life for many in the Royal Navy as they sought to protect their own supply lines and attack the enemy’s.

The 227 men on HMS Lightning were exhausted, they were escorting Allied convoys by day and attacking enemy convoys by night. On the 12th March they had been in continuous action for thirteen days. That evening they were ordered out of Bone harbour at 1745 to attack a German convoy heading out of Sicily. They fought off twelve torpedo bombers at 1851 and shot one down. At 2200 the radio messages of German E boats were intercepted suggesting they were about to be attacked.

George Gilroy, at 21 already a very experienced Seaman with four years service, was one of the men on HMS Lightning:

We had been at action stations all evening and I was closed up in A turret. I was tired, hungry and frightened as we were so close to the enemy. At about 2215, through my sights, I clearly saw the pale grey E-boat on the port beam when it fired the first torpedo.

We were not operating RDF, ASDIC or HF DF and had no time to return fire – perhaps if we had all been fighting fit we may have opened fire in time – who knows? The skipper turned the ship hard to port to comb the track of the torpedo as he had done on so many previous occasions, but she was just too slow this time and we were hit fine on the Port bow, blowing it clean off ‘as if cut by a knife’.

Even though I was very near the point of impact I heard no loud explosion, just a sickening heavy thud that jarred my bones. The ship shuddered from the blow and everything went dead. Realising what had happened and with no electrical power to operate the gun we had no choice but to abandon the turret.

We could not escape from the door as it was jammed. Instead, we had to escape onto the deck by sliding down the chute for ejected shell cases. We did not panic as we could feel that the ship was not settling or heeling over, although we guessed that she must be in a serious state.

It is interesting that in a letter to me fifty years after the sinking; Tom King [who had previously served on HMS Lightening] mentions the turret door, ” … before I left the ship, when I was Captain of A Turret … being tall I could stand with my legs spread and put one put one foot on each of the ready use shells, so I never needed to use the stand (which obstructed the door). The lads used to say “don’t put the stand down Tosh so if we have to get out sharp – there’s only the clips”.

This is possibly what prevented us escaping. I wonder how many men lost their lives in other similar turrets due to this poor design. Upon emerging from the gun turret I was amazed at the enormity of the damage and how near we had been to being killed outright. About fifty feet of the ship had been blown clean away and our turret was leaning over onto the deck.

To a man we were stunned. We could only look at one another in amazement. Everything was still and quiet – there was no return of fire and no rushing about. The only other ship visible was the E-boat. We just waited for the inevitable, like a rabbit hypnotised in a car’s headlights.

The stricken ship quickly lost way and became a sitting target. In a desperate attempt to save her, the skipper gave orders to go astern to relieve pressure on the forward bulkheads that were still holding. But I could only watch as our attacker slowly circled the dead ship and come round to the starboard side. I heard his engines speed up as he turned to run in towards us.

He came straight for us and fired a second, fatal, tin fish. It was carefully aimed and hit us square amidships beneath the funnel. This caused terrible damage, destroying both-boiler rooms, pom-pom and for’ard torpedo tubes on the upper deck, and breaking the poor ship’s back. I watched in disbelief and horror as a huge plume of water and steam rose high above us as the torpedo plunged into our lovely ship.

Men and machinery were blown to oblivion. I felt very sorry for my good mates on the pom-pom; they never stood a chance and must have watched helplessly as the fateful torpedo sped straight for them. With her back broken she immediately began to founder.

In total 45 men died in the attack and subsequent sinking, most of the survivors were picked up at about 0145 by HMS Loyal.

Struck by Lightning provides many different accounts from men who served on the destroyer HMS Lightning. This was a very busy ship in her service from May 1941 to March 1943, although not untypical for many destroyers at the time. She was at the heart of the action throughout the Malta convoys.

There are few accounts that give such a full picture of what life was like in the Royal Navy in this period, particularly for those serving on the destroyers. This book includes many interesting photographs and a very comprehensive guide to further research materials.

Munitions workers Marion Griffiths and Betty Evans stand with a Royal Navy gun crew on the pom-pom deck of a destroyer, somewhere in Britain. Marion and Betty were taken on a surprise tour of the destroyer after discovering that the shells which they helped to make were, according to the original caption, "actually used on this destroyer to beat off Nazi dive bombers".
Munitions workers Marion Griffiths and Betty Evans stand with a Royal Navy gun crew on the pom-pom deck of a destroyer, somewhere in Britain. Marion and Betty were taken on a surprise tour of the destroyer after discovering that the shells which they helped to make were, according to the original caption, “actually used on this destroyer to beat off Nazi dive bombers”.
Venus" the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS VANSITTART.
‘Venus’ the bulldog mascot of the destroyer HMS VANSITTART.
An image from the end of the war. A surrendered E-boat doing 30 knots with two other E-Boats (not visible) alongside an accompanying MGB heading to HMS HORNET, the light coastal forces base at Gosport, to be taken over by the Royal Navy.
An image from the end of the war. A surrendered E-boat doing 30 knots with two other E-Boats (not visible) alongside an accompanying MGB heading to HMS HORNET, the light coastal forces base at Gosport, to be taken over by the Royal Navy.

Churchill declares that the U-Boat war is top priority

A merchant ship sinks stern first after being torpedoed by a U-boat.
A merchant ship sinks stern first after being torpedoed by a U-boat.
A tanker explodes after being torpedoed by a U-boat in the Caribbean.
A tanker explodes after being torpedoed by a U-boat in the Caribbean.

Churchill was back in Britain after his tour of the Middle East and the Casablanca Conference. Throughout the war he remained accountable to the House of Commons and only a year before had had to face two votes of ‘No Confidence’. Now he faced the tricky position of providing Parliament and the British people with a proper picture of the progress of the war whilst at the same time not giving away information that would be of value to the enemy.

On the 9th February he was to give a long speech in Parliament on the ‘War Situation’. For Churchill it was not just about reporting on the situation but building a morale boosting picture that gave the public confidence. In a wide ranging speech one issue dominated:

The dominating aim which we set before ourselves at the Conference at Casablanca was to engage the enemy’s forces on land, sea, and in the air on the largest possible scale and at the earliest possible moment.

The United States has vast oceans to cross in order to close with her enemies. We also have seas or oceans to cross in the first instance, and then for both of us there is the daring and complicated enterprise of landing on defended coasts and also the building-up of all the supplies and communications necessary for vigorous campaigning when once a landing has been made.

It is because of this that the U-boat warfare takes the first place in our thoughts.

An aerial view of a convoy in the Atlantic. During the course of the war 366,852 tons of Allied Merchant shipping were sunk in the Atlantic.
Original caption: ‘An aerial view of a convoy in the Atlantic. During the course of the war 366,852 tons of Allied Merchant shipping were sunk in the Atlantic.’ See comments below for accuracy of this figure.

The waste of precious cargoes, the destruction of so many noble ships, the loss of heroic crews, all combine to constitute a repulsive and sombre panorama. We cannot possibly rest content with losses on this scale, even though they are outweighed by new building, even if they are not for that reason mortal in their character. Nothing is more clearly proved than that well-escorted convoys, especially when protected by long-distance aircraft, beat the U-boats.

I do not say that they are a complete protection, but they are an enormous mitigation of losses. We have had hardly any losses at sea in our heavily escorted troop convoys. Out of about 3,000,000 soldiers who have been moved under the protection of the British Navy about the world, to and fro across the seas and oceans, about 1,348 have been killed or drowned, including missing. It is about 2,200 to one against your being drowned if you travel in British troop convoys in this present war.

Even if the U-boats increase in number, there is no doubt that a superior proportionate increase in the naval and air escort will be a remedy. A ship not sunk is better than a new ship built. Therefore, in order to reduce the waste in the merchant shipping convoys, we have decided, by successive steps during the last six months, to throw the emphasis rather more on the production of escort vessels, even though it means some impingement on new building.

Very great numbers of escort vessels are being constructed in Great Britain and the United States, equipped with every new device of anti-U-boat warfare in all its latest refinements. We pool our resources with the United States, and we have been promised, and the promise is being executed in due course, our fair allocation of American-built escort vessels.

A photograph taken from the bridge of HMS VISCOUNT which gives a good idea of the difficult weather conditions while escorting a convoy during the Battle of the Atlantic. During this operation HMS VISCOUNT and HMS FAME rammed and sank. two German U-boats.
A photograph taken from the bridge of HMS VISCOUNT which gives a good idea of the difficult weather conditions while escorting a convoy during the Battle of the Atlantic. During this operation HMS VISCOUNT and HMS FAME rammed and sank two German U-boats.

On the offensive side the rate of killing U-boats has steadily improved. From January to October, 1942, inclusive, a period of 10 months, the rate of sinkings, certain and probable, was the best we have seen so far in this war, but from November to the present day, a period of three months, that rate has improved more than half as much again.

At the same time, the destructive power of the U-boat has undergone a steady diminution since the beginning of the war. In the first year, each operational U-boat that was at work accounted for an average of 19 ships; in the second year, for an average of 12, and in the third year for an average of 7½. These figures, I think, are, in themselves, a tribute to the Admiralty and to all others concerned.

One relatively small point in the speech was that he had to inform the British that their armies in Africa were now falling under American Command:

As the Desert Army passes into the American sphere it will naturally come under the orders of General Eisenhower. I have great confidence in General Eisenhower. I regard him as one of the finest men I have ever met.

Read the whole speech at Hansard

Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic.
A surfaced U-boat is straddled by depth charges from a Coastal Command Liberator.
A surfaced U-boat is straddled by depth charges from a Coastal Command Liberator.

Arctic convoy ambushed by German cruisers

HMS Bramble underway.
HMS Bramble underway. The 1300 ton minesweeper went into the attack when confronted by the eight inch guns of the 16,000 ton Admiral Hipper and was sunk with all hands.
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in dry dock at Brest, France. Obtained on a 'dicing' sortie by a Supermarine Spitfire PR Mark IG of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit Detachment flying from St Eval, Cornwall.
Low-level oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in dry dock at Brest, France. Obtained on a ‘dicing’ sortie by a Supermarine Spitfire PR Mark IG of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit Detachment flying from St Eval, Cornwall.

German Naval intelligence learnt from U Boat U 354 on 30th December that an arctic convoy, which appeared to be lightly escorted, was headed for Russia. They despatched the pocket battleship Lutzow and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper with a force of destroyers to ambush the fourteen merchantmen in the convoy.

It should have been an unequal battle but the Royal Navy escorting destroyers turned towards the larger German ships with a view to torpedoing them. The Germans, being under orders to avoid risk, withdrew. This manoeuvre was repeated several times, allowing the merchantmen to get away.

It was not without cost to the British forces. In the polar twilight the minesweeper HMS Bramble stumbled into the Admiral Hipper and was sunk with all hands. It was not the first time that the Hipper had been attacked by a much smaller Royal Navy ship, famously HMS Glowworm had taken her on in April 1940.

The destroyer HMS Achates was also sunk and the other destroyers hit before the cruisers of Force ‘R’, the long distance escort ships HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica, arrived to see the German ships off.

HMS ACHATES, an A class destroyer modified for escort work with a Hedgehog ASW in place of ‘A’ gun, at sea. 114 men died when she was sunk, coming under gunfire as she laid a smokescreen to protect the merchantmen.Amongst those lost was Seaman Kenneth MacIver RNR. He was posthumously mentioned in despatches. He put himself at risk to rescue comrades in a rapidly flooding cabin, then made trips across the deck while under heavy fire to take over the ships wheel. With the aid of just a ships compass he continued to steer the stricken ship and maintain the laying down of smoke screen. Unfortunately, as the survivors were being picked up the wheelhouse was totally destroyed by further shelling and Seaman MacIver lost his life.
Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke, awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the destroyers at the battle of the Barents Sea.
Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke, awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the destroyers at the battle of the Barents Sea.

The commander of the destroyer escorts, Captain Robert Sherbrooke on HMS Onslow, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership during the action:

Captain Sherbrooke, as Senior Officer of four destroyers which comprised the (striking force) protecting a convoy, without hesitation led the ships under his command into action against a superior enemy force consisting of a cruiser and two or three destroyers which endeavouring to attack the Convoy.

He split his force to allow one sub-division to engage the destroyers while he led the other sub-division against the heavier ship. During the ensuing action, on four occasions he forced the superior enemy force to retire under cover of smoke to avoid the threat of his torpedoes.

Each time the enemy gave ground he closed in, forcing him outside gun-range of the convoy and towards our own cruiser covering force. After 40 minutes ONSLOW was hit forward and Captain Sherbrooke was severely wounded in the face by shrapnel, losing the sight of one eye.

Despite this he continued to direct the ships under his command until he was compelled to disengage as a result of further damage from enemy gunfire, but not until he was satisfied that the next Senior Officer had assumed control. It was only then that he left the bridge for medical assistance.

During the time the convoy was endangered, he insisted On being kept fully informed of the situation in his smoke-filled sea-cabin. His bravery, coolness and prompt decisions both before and after being wounded, inspired all in touch with him.

By his leadership and inspiration the ships under his command saved the convoy which was successfully brought to its destination without loss or damage.

Read more of this story on including one of the after action reports at BBC People’s War

HMS Sheffield underway
HMS Sheffield underway
HMS SHEFFIELD, AT Greenock, 10 January 1943. after the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
HMS SHEFFIELD, AT Greenock, 10 January 1943. after the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
Inside one of the gunhouses for the triple mounted 6 inch gun aboard HMS SHEFFIELD. Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines sleep on the floor of the gunhouse. Others stand or sit whilst reading. 6 inch armour-piercing shells sit in the gun cradles ready for immediate action.
Inside one of the gunhouses for the triple mounted 6 inch gun aboard HMS SHEFFIELD. Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines sleep on the floor of the gunhouse. Others stand or sit whilst reading. 6 inch armour-piercing shells sit in the gun cradles ready for immediate action.
Some of the gun's crew of the HMS SHEFFIELD which took part in the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
Some of the gun’s crew of the HMS SHEFFIELD which took part in the battle off the North Cape, 31 December 1942.
Heavy seas seen astern of HMS SHEFFIELD during a voyage in northern waters.
Heavy seas seen astern of HMS SHEFFIELD during a voyage in northern waters.

Royal Navy’s Force K from Malta on the attack again

In bright sunlight, HMS KELVIN lays a smoke screen during destroyer exercises.
Crew of a 4.7 inch High Angle gun “closed up” ready to face an aerial attack on board HMS JAVELIN whilst she was at sea. Note the men standing by with further ammunition to be fired.
Torpedomen putting depth settings on the depth charges on board HMS JAVELIN. The thrower for the depth charges can be seen behind them.

Hitler was now seeking to reinforce his troops in Libya and Tunisia as they were threatened by Allied forces coming from the west and east.

At the same time the Royal Navy was gradually re-asserting its presence in the Mediterranean. The small task force based at Malta – ‘Force K’ – had been withdrawn when the constant bombing made the port unsustainable. Its [permalink id=15553 text=”last patrol”] almost a year earlier had met with disaster.

Coastal Command aircraft were now an increasing threat to the Italian and German convoys of troops crossing the Mediterranean, alongside the submarines that had operated out of Malta throughout the crisis. But an attack from the Force K cruisers and destroyers could be devastating.

Frank Wade was a midshipman on the destroyer HMS Jervis which was on patrol with HMS Nubian, which picked up a radar contact, and HMS Javelin and HMS Kelvin:

The night attack by our aircraft had obviously been successful, because we could make out a ship on fire in the distance. As we closed very rapidly, the stricken ship loomed larger and larger and we could soon make out its funnels, superstructure and masts partially covered by smoke and flames. It seemed quite unaware of our approach.

Within minutes we were within gun range of the convoy, about five miles away. Suddenly, the silhouette of a destroyer became clearly visible to us as it passed between us and the burning ship. Very quickly it passed out of view, but not before we had got an accurate true bearing on her. All our gun turrets were rapidly directed in her direction. Then something extraordinary occurred. As Guns was orally preparing the turrets to open fire, we found ourselves steaming through hundreds of men in the water around us. They were so close that some of them could actually be identified as shadowy heads in the water. Farther away were boats full of more survivors. They called out for help in Italian and German, their voices echoing pitifully over the sea.

Our first shot was a star shell which illuminated the whole scene. All our ships directed their fire at the destroyer. We turned our searchlight on her and all the details of a small destroyer became starkly evident. Within three minutes, hot glowing circles appeared on her superstructure and hull from the hits that she was sustaining. Things were happening very fast.

The luckless destroyer, without radar, apparently was quite unaware of our presence before the attack. Within five minutres it was all over. Her mast soon collapsed and her superstructure all but disappeared from internal explosions. What a terrible sight to see a ship being so brutally destroyed with such heavy loss of life. We were soon past her and we put the grisly memory out of our minds as best we could.

See Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War: A Young Man in the Mediterranean Naval War, 1941-1943.

A flotilla of Germans fleeing from the 1st and 8th Armies, found nearly twenty miles out to sea off Cape Bon, Tunisia, were rounded up by the Royal Navy. After weeks of iron rations these German prisoners were glad of good food given to them in the destroyer HMS JERVIS. All the prisoners are German and all except two are anti-aircraft gunners who were bombed out of their gun sites.
HMS JERVIS, June 1945.
The British destroyer HMS NUBIAN returning to Malta after patrolling the coast of Tunis. She had been participating in operations by light naval forces based at Malta to patrol the Sicilian Narrows off the coast of Tunis and cut off the German Afrika Korps’s escape route from North Africa.

Japanese surprised at Battle of Cape Esperance

USS Duncan underway in the south Pacific on 7 October 1942, five days before she was sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance. Photographed from USS Copahee (ACV-12), which was then engaged in delivering aircraft to Guadalcanal. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

The battles on and around Guadalcanal continued. The Marines had fought several intense engagements to defend their base at Henderson Field since the battle at [permalink id=22272 text=”Hell’s Point”] and the [permalink id=22691 text=”air battles”] over the island were equally furious. Both the Japanese and the Americans were intent on landing more troops on the island and the two Naval forces ‘stumbled’ into each other on the night of the 11th/12th.

Shortly before midnight on 11 October, a U.S force of four cruisers and five destroyers—under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott intercepted the Japanese force as it approached Savo Island near Guadalcanal. Taking the Japanese by surprise, Scott’s warships sank one cruisers, one destroyer, heavily damaged another cruiser, and mortally wounded the Japanese commander, Aritomo Gotō. It was a tactical victory to the USN but the Japanese still managed to land their reinforcements.

The USN did not come away completely unscathed. Being on the winning side might be of little consequence to some men, as this account by a sailor from USS Duncan makes clear:

The plunge overboard drove me into dark, warm waters. I fought to hold on to my senses. If I passed out, I would just keep sinking. I was 18, and I had shrapnel in both legs and my skull. I struggled to the surface and saw my destroyer, the USS Duncan, burning and adrift, struck 56 times by Japanese shells during the Battle of Cape Esperance near Guadalcanal.

It was Oct. 12, 1942. I saw a wooden spar and grabbed it. To my surprise, a Japanese sailor was hanging on to the other end. I reached for my knife as we eyed each other. We remained frozen with indecision for a long moment. I eased off my end of the spar. He eased off his end. We swam away as fast as we could in opposite directions. Both of us had had all of the fight we wanted.

As luck would have it, I splashed into someone else floating face up. It was [my shipmate] Stanley Dubiel, raving, out of his mind with pain. His legs were badly burned; I had thrown him overboard before I jumped into the ocean.

Looking back over my shoulder as I swam, I saw the Duncan chasing me. The ship was like a giant flamethrower. Still steaming wildly in a tight circle, blazing like a Viking’s funeral pyre, she bore straight down on me, growing larger as she approached, spewing fire and smoke from every opening. The ship rushed by so near I thought I could reach out and grab her.

I held on to Dubiel and his life jacket with a drowning man’s grip as the wake caught us and drove us tumbling underwater. When we surfaced, after what seemed like hours, the world had grown quiet and warm and peaceful. I thought I must have died. Then I spotted the Duncan, flaming away across the sea in the distance. I must have passed out for a minute.

We had gone into the drink about midnight. Now it was daylight. I had been swimming for hours, towing Dubiel. “Keep going” played itself over and over in my brain.

Somehow I became aware that Dubiel and I were no longer alone. I saw fins cutting the surface like blades of knives. The sharks closed in. One of the fish, larger and bolder than the others, darted in for a bite. My foot was bleeding. The shark’s fin disappeared beneath the surface. I spun in the water, my eyes searching frantically. I screamed, Dubiel screamed. His body exploded out of the water. He twisted violently, then he was gone, wrenched from my grip.

I swam like a madman. I figured by all rights I should have been dead. I heard Dubiel’s screams for years afterward.

See the Daily Beast at Newsweek.

The USS Duncan had only just entered service. En route from her builder’s yard at Kearny, New Jersey, to be delivered to the Navy, 15 April 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

From the perspective of those on Guadalcanal it was difficult to understand who was prevailing. Robert Mahood was one of the Marines on the beach:

I can say I have never witnessed a more awesome sight. We could see salvos of hot shells in threes moving across the night sky in big arcs to hit or miss unseen targets. The battle seemed to last for hours, and all of us beach defense guys sat on the front edge of the gun emplacements and watched the spectacle.

There were from two to six vessels burning at different times all through the night. We sent out rescue craft the next morning to pick up survivors. Many of both sides were found, but few japanese were brought in. Some of the Naval personnel had gaping shrapnel wounds, severed limbs, or they were burned, with oil covering their bodies.

They were all in various stages of shock. I counted over fifty American bodies lying on the beach in neat rows. These were the guys who had been recovered by our rescue teams and were either dead when found or died on the way to the beach.

We could see two or three ships out there that morning, still burning or lying dead in the water. One of these was one of our six-turret cruisers.

This account appears in Pacific War Stories: In the Words of Those Who Survived.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott was awarded the Medal of Honor partly for the “courageous skill and superb coordination of the units under his command” at the Battle of Cape Esperance
A subsequent publicity photograph. Sailor W.R. Martin points out details of the Japanese trophy flags painted on the cruiser’s pilothouse as a scoreboard of enemy ships claimed sunk in the Battle of Cape Esperance, 11-12 October 1942. The six Japanese ships (two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and three destroyers) represented in this scoreboard greatly overstates the actual enemy losses, which were one heavy cruiser (Furutaka) and one destroyer (Fubuki) sunk and one heavy cruiser (Aoba) badly damaged. This overclaiming was typical of contemporary night surface actions.

As may be expected the U.S. Naval Institute has an excellent account of the whole battle and analysis of its significance.

HMS Bedouin charges the Italian fleet

The ‘Tribal class’ destroyer HMS Bedouin at anchor in Iceland when she was waiting to join an Arctic convoy earlier in 1942.

In the Mediterranean the battle continued to get supplies through to Malta. Commander B. G. Scurfield, Captain of the destroyer HMS Bedouin, knew his moment had come when the Italian fleet were spotted approaching the convoy he was protecting as part of Operation Harpoon. As planned the convoy changed direction accompanied by part of their escort. The remainder of the escort ships headed straight towards the guns of the Italian battleships:

I was in a fortunate position in many ways. I knew what we had to do and that the cost was not to be counted – the Italians must be driven off. It was no time for fancy manoeuvres – it was to my mind merely a question of going bald-headed for the enemy and trying to do him as much harm as possible by gun and torpedo. Otherwise it was within his power to destroy us and then the convoy at his pleasure.

I knew, too, that the other destroyers would follow me and know what I was about, whether they had signals from me or no. Finally, I knew that the ship was as ready for the test as we had been able to make her, and the result of our labours was now to be shown. I could do no more about it, except give Manners a target and do my best to avoid punishment for as long as possible.

The cruisers opened fire almost at once and the first salvos fell astern of the Bedouin. Their spread was good – too good perhaps at that range – and the shooting seemed to be unpleasantly accurate. Perhaps this is always the impression when one is the target!

My attention was taken up by the time-honoured dodge of steering for the last splash. I had often heard of it being done and found it exhilarating. It worked, too, for some time. A little before 0630, Manners reckoned we were within range, so I told him to engage the leading destroyer, and we opened fire at 17,400 yards. Ten minutes later the enemy altered another twenty degrees away and we shifted our fire to the leading cruiser at 12,400 yards.

By this time we were starting to get hit. Tinny crashes succeeded one another to such a tune that I began to wonder how much the ship could stand. Though I did not realise it at the time, one of the first things to go was the mast, and with it the wireless.

I knew the bridge had been hit; the compass repeater was shaken out of its gimbals and I had had water and paint flakes dashed at me, but the splendid Bedouin was forging ahead and closing the gap minute by minute, Montgomery was passing news to the plot and Moller was standing by to fire torpedoes – wounded himself and with his assistant lying dead beside him. Skinner, though I didn’t know it, was lying at the back of the bridge mortally wounded in the throat; Yeoman Archer and most of the signalmen and ‘rudolf’ men on the flag-deck were either dead or wounded.

All I knew was that the coxswain was calmly doing his job at the wheel and that the ship was responding splendidly. We appeared to be straddling the enemy and must have been hitting, but observation of fall of shot was difficult and it was not possible to allocate targets. That was the only signal I might with advantage have made.

At about 0650 the director was hit. The layer was killed outright and Parker, who was keeping the rate, mortally wounded; Manners and the sight-setter escaped unscathed and so did the cross-leveller, though he was blown clean out ofthe tower.

The ship had received more punishment than I knew, and I felt in my bones that she would not be able to go much farther. So I told Moller to go down and fire the torpedoes from the tubes and when the range had come down to 5,000 yards – tracer was being fired at us by the enemy’s close-range weapons – turned the ship to starboard. During the turn we were hit several times, but the torpedoes were fired when the sights came on. After swinging past the firing course the ship came to a standstill.

The Bedouin was sunk and Commander B. G. Scurfield DSO OBE AM spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. His account comes from a letter he wrote to his wife. He was to die in the closing stages of the war when a column of Prisoners of War being escorted by Germans was bombed by Allied planes.

Later that day the Italian Fleet were bombed by a combination of RAF and USAAF planes, forcing them to return to port. They did not emerge again while Italy remained in the war.

This was just the second mission for the B-24 Liberators of ‘Halpro Force’ – which had been en route to China. It was decided to keep them in the Middle East and they were now flying out of Fayid in Egypt. Their first mission on the 12th June had been to the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania – a target that many USAAF men would later become familiar with.

Airmen ground crew, assisted by soldiers and sailors, load a Mark XII aerial torpedo into the bomb bay of a Bristol Beaufort Mark I at Luqa, Malta, in preparation for a sortie against the Italian naval force threatening the ‘HARPOON’ Convoy.
Aircrews of No. 39 Squadron RAF gather round Flying Officer A O S Jepson in front of his Bristol Beaufort Mark II as he recounts his part in the Squadron’s attack on the Italian Battle Fleet on 15 June 1942, for the benefit of the press cameras at Fayid, Egypt. A force of 12 Beauforts set out from LG 05 near Sidi Barrani to attack the Fleet, but was soon reduced to five following an attack off Derna by German fighters. The remainder attacked two battleships, and a further three aircraft were badly damaged in the process before the survivors flew on to Malta. Although strikes on the warships were claimed, the Italian Fleet was undamaged, except for one hit on the battleship LITTORIO with a 500-lb bomb dropped by aircraft of the USAAF ‘Halpro’ Detachment which also participated in the attacks. Jepson and the survivors flew to Fayid four days later to attend a press day with members of the ‘Halpro’ Force.
The USAAF had arrived in the Middle East. Seven B-24 Liberators from ‘Halpro Force’ took part in the attack on the Italian Fleet on 15th June 1942.
B-24s during one of the USAAF attacks on the oil refineries at Ploesti made in 1943.