Bombers lost in fog over Britain

As we had be airborne for over 10 hours and it would seem had only a few minutes petrol left I gave instructions to abandon aircraft when flying at about 10,000ft. After the crew had all baled out I trimmed the aircraft and as we were over hilly open landscape I left by the forward escape floor hatch.
According to the previous ground instructions we had received, one waited 10 seconds before pulling the rip cord of the parachute. Whether I did or not I don’t know but I was wearing a breast type chute and expected to feel a rush of silk pass my face and when this did not happen my immediate thought was ‘it’s not opening’ only to be pulled up with a sudden jerk as the chute opened and left me swinging without any sense of falling.

The first British four engined bomber, the Stirling, made its first operational flight on 10th/11th February 1941.

RAF bombers provided the principal means of hitting back at Germany during the early years of the war but there was a long learning curve as they developed the aircraft and the tactics to become effective. Weather conditions hampered British bomber operations as much as they did the the Germans. It was not just weather over the target that was important, on the 11th February a fifth of the bombers that were despatched crashed on their return due to heavy fog.

Weather conditions were unfavourable during most of the week, but on the 10th/11th February, in clear weather, our heaviest night operation of the war was carried out. Two hundred and eighty-four aircraft were employed, including three Stirlings operating for the first time, and each carrying 8,000 lbs. weight of bombs; four aircraft were lost.

During a raid lasting six hours, 146 tons of high explosive and 25,500 incendiary bombs were dropped on the industrial centre of Hanover and many large fires were left blazing in the target area. Rotterdam petrol harbour was also heavily and effectively bombed and Cherbourg and Ostend were attacked by aircraft of Coastal Command.

The following night, under conditions of heavy cloud, Hanover was again attacked in addition to targets at Bremen. Owing to sudden deterioration in weather, resulting in widespread fog, twenty-two heavy bombers of the 109 despatched crashed in.this country on return, but only one crew was lost.

From the Air Situation Report for the week ending 13th February, see TNA CAB 66/15/4

Squadron Leader H. J WALTERS was flying a Whitley Bomber from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire that night. After returning from the raid on Bremen his aircraft was caught in the fog:

After circling for some time we were finally diverted to Drem Aerodrome in Scotland and with petrol getting very low we headed north. We were flying at 11,000ft in the cloud and the W/T operator reported hearing numerous other aircrafts calling for assistance.

Eventually the clouds began to thin and at the same time when the petrol gauges were reading zero the W/T operator obtained a wireless bearing from Drem and I was given a course heading which took us back into all the bad weather we had just cleared.

As we had be airborne for over 10 hours and it would seem had only a few minutes petrol left I gave instructions to abandon aircraft when flying at about 10,000ft.

After the crew had all baled out I trimmed the aircraft and as we were over hilly open landscape I left by the forward escape floor hatch. According to the previous ground instructions we had received, one waited 10 seconds before pulling the rip cord of the parachute. Whether I did or not I don’t know but I was wearing a breast type chute and expected to feel a rush of silk pass my face and when this did not happen my immediate thought was ‘it’s not opening’ only to be pulled up with a sudden jerk as the chute opened and left me swinging without any sense of falling. After a short time I saw aircraft lights coming towards me and thought that I was going to be struck by it but it passed underneath me and I realised it was my own aircraft which crashed not far away.

I could then see the ground and a very wide river, which I later realised was the Clyde and to which I seemed to be drifting but then the ground appeared to be coming up fast and I dropped in the middle of a ploughed field close to a white farm house.

Read his full account on BBC People’s War

First British Airborne Raid

Plans for the men to be evacuated by submarine had to be abandoned when the rendezvous site was compromised, and the plan had made no provision for an alternative rendezvous point. In any event the the escaping men, who travelled in four groups, found it extremely difficult to travel covertly across country in a landscape packed with small farms. They were all soon captured.

Early British parachute training from a converted Whitley bomber.

The 11th Special Air Service Battalion made history on the 10th February with the first British parachute raid on enemy territory, Operation Colossus. Thirty five men were dropped in southern Italy and blew up the Tragino Aqueduct which supplied water to Naples and the surrounding area. The raiders successfully blew up the aqueduct but it was repaired within a matter of days.

Plans for the men to be evacuated by submarine had to be abandoned when the rendezvous site was compromised, and the plan had made no provision for an alternative rendezvous point. In any event the the escaping men, who travelled in four groups, found it extremely difficult to travel covertly across country in a landscape packed with small farms. They were all soon captured. The Italian interpreter, Fortunato Picchi, who accompanied the group posing as a member of Free French forces, was shot as a spy. One officer, Lieutenant Deane-Drummond, managed to make his escape the following year. His account and many more documents can be found at Paradata.

‘Give us the tools to finish the job’

With every month that passes the many proud and once happy countries he is now holding down by brute force and vile intrigue are learning to hate the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name, as nothing has ever been hated so fiercely and so widely among men before. And all the time, masters of the sea and air, the British Empire – nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world will be on his track bearing with them the swords of Justice.

Winston Churchill raises his hat in salute during an inspection of the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, 9 January 1941. Behind, Mrs Churchill chats to a Guards officer. Lieutenant General Sir Bertram N Sergison-Brooke (GOC London Area) is standing on the right.
Winston Churchill raises his hat in salute during an inspection of the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London, 9 January 1941. Behind, Mrs Churchill chats to a Guards officer. Lieutenant General Sir Bertram N Sergison-Brooke (GOC London Area) is standing on the right.

Winston Churchill’s radio broadcast of the 9th February 1941 was a particularly rousing affair. It was partly designed for his domestic audience, including British forces stationed around the world. Privately he considered the threat of invasion to Britain to be much diminished but he could not allow this perspective any publicity.

The speech was also an international appeal. He made clear the Nazi threat to the Balkans and to Russia itself, even while plans for these actual operations were closely guarded German secrets. By June Churchill would be passing definite intelligence on the German intention to invade Russia to Stalin.

It is not an easy military operation to invade an island like Great Britain without the command of the sea and without the command of the air, and then to face what will be waiting for the invader here.

But I must drop one word of caution, for next to cowardice and to treachery, overconfidence leading to neglect or slothfulness is the worst of martial crimes. Therefore, I drop one word of caution: A Nazi invasion of Great Britain last Autumn would have been a more or less improvised affair. Hitler took it for granted that when France gave in we should give in. But we did not give in. And he had to think again. An invasion now will be supported by a much more carefully prepared tackle and equipment for landing craft and other apparatus, all of which will have been planned and manufactured during the Winter months. We must all be prepared to meet gas attacks, parachute attacks and glider attacks, with constancy, forethought and practiced skill.

I must again emphasize what General Dill has said and what I pointed out myself last year: In order to win the war, Hitler must destroy Great Britain. He may carry havoc into the Balkan States; he may tear great provinces out of Russia; he may march to the Caspian; he may march to the gates of India. All this will avail him nothing. He may spread his curse more widely throughout Europe and Asia, but it will not avert his doom.

With every month that passes the many proud and once happy countries he is now holding down by brute force and vile intrigue are learning to hate the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name, as nothing has ever been hated so fiercely and so widely among men before. And all the time, masters of the sea and air, the British Empire – nay, in a certain sense, the whole English-speaking world will be on his track bearing with them the swords of Justice.

The United States administration was in the process of approving the Lend Lease Act, which would provide military assistance to Britain and China. Churchill was not going to miss an opportunity to aid that process of approval. He concluded by making a direct appeal to the United States.

Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.

Read the whole speech at iBiblio.

The Battlship HMS Barham which operated in the Mediterranean in 1941.

There are numerous accounts of how well the speech was received by those who heard it. Surgeon-Commander E.R.Sorley, RN, heard it on HMS Barham and recounted his reaction in a letter written to his wife the next day:

I thought of you very frequently when I was listening to Winston Churchill’s broadcast last night. It came through to us exceedingly well and as it co-incided with our weekly cinema show special arrangements were made to have the address relayed through the cinema amplifier between parts of the film.

Believe me, a very novel and interesting entr’acte; all of us, including Admiral and Captain, listened with craning ears, and laughed with the Prime Minister as he scourged the Dictators with his tongue. Thank God for Winston Churchill at this time. I think that was the predominant feeling amongst us at the end of his most moving speech.

There is no other man on earth, I believe, who can inspire us with the spirit of dogged resolution and fierce desire to strike our enemies; who can so combine the art of moving oratory with the bite of ferocious justified invective. There is something of the boy in Winston Churchill; he loves to tease and anger his opponents; one can almost see him chuckling and licking his lips as he rolls out his blistering phrases about the Nazis and the “black-hearted” Mussolini. Yet none of his opponents can compete with him in reply; even if they could, he would be quite unmoved.

How Hitler and Mussolini must hate him. Last night’s oration was a masterpiece and to my mind should take a place in history alongside his inspired words after France had fallen. You remember “Let us brace ourselves to our duty …. if the British Commonwealth shall last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

The continuance of the cinema film after the broadcast came as a bit of an anti-climax. To be translated from the atmosphere of an inspired Churchill to that of Mickey Rooney portraying the adventures of the boy Edison detracted from the entertainment value of the latter.

This and other letters from Surgeon-Commander Sorley can be read at BBC People’s War.

On board the battleship HMS Barham - sponging out the 15" guns after being in action.
On board the battleship HMS Barham – sponging out the 15″ guns after being in action.
On board HMS Barham 1941 - Taking on board 15" shells.
On board HMS Barham 1941 – Taking on board 15″ shells.

Bergonzoli gives his excuses

Your forward units found us on the coast on Wednesday morning when we were in an exposed and dangerous position. But we gave battle at once. Our tanks and artillery and men were tired and at a considerable disadvantage on the coast, but they came quickly into position and gave battle magnificently. We launched two counterattacks that were very nearly successful.

The crew of a British Matilda tank celebrate by flying a captured Italian flag.

The journalist Alan Moorehead had followed the whole of Operation Compass since he first learnt of the ‘important raid’ from General Wavell on the [permalink id=9482 text=”9th December.”]

By Friday morning it was all over, and the British were sweeping on to occupy Agedabia and Agheila, nearly two hundred miles south of Benghazi.

Only a few Italian tanks and a few score vehicles had escaped the battle of Beda Fomm. And now we had in our hands seven generals and their staffs, about twenty thousand more prisoners, 216 guns, 101 tanks and vehicles in hundreds. And Cyrenaica was ours.

In all this fighting, here and on the coast from Sidi Barrani to Beda Fomm, the entire British casualties had not exceeded three thousand in dead, wounded and missing. It was complete victory – even though the world never had time to realise it before the reverses set in.

Paul Farrell gives an account of the capture of Bergonzoli on BBC People’s War.

Alan Moorehead went on to interview General Bergonzoli, the Italian commander nick-named ‘Electric Whiskers’ who quite candidly explained how he had escaped capture at Tobruk by fleeing on foot and hiding in caves. He also gave his reasons why his forces had finally been defeated at Beda Fomm:

‘We had no time to prepare defences outside Benghazi. In any case, it was an open town. We had no wish to expose the women and children there to any more misery. We decided to leave with our army for Tripoli. You were here too soon, that is all.

Your forward units found us on the coast on Wednesday morning when we were in an exposed and dangerous position. But we gave battle at once. Our tanks and artillery and men were tired and at a considerable disadvantage on the coast, but they came quickly into position and gave battle magnificently. We launched two counterattacks that were very nearly successful. Our tanks against superior numbers broke right through the English lines. Our second attack was made when our forces were largely decimated and our ammunition almost exhausted.

And always, here as everywhere else, we were grossly outnumbered. So when our second attack was unable to prevail we had no choice but to make an honourable surrender.’

All this was spoken in Italian through an interpreter, but when the interpreter translated, ‘I ran away,’ Bergonzoli snapped in English, ‘Not ran away, drove away.’

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

The Italians surrender at Beda Fomm

For all the efforts of the previous day, the Italian column still looked huge and threatening. I watched with apprehension the movements of the mass of vehicles before me. On either side of me, hidden behind the crests of other dunes and ridges, I knew that there were other eyes just as anxious as mine, surveying the scene before them. In the mind of each one of us was the sure knowledge that we were well outnumbered.

Italian M13-40 Tanks in the Libyan Desert, pictured later in 1941

The Australian 6th Division had captured the coastal town of Benghazi on the 6th February and then pursued the retreating Italian army west along the coast road. Meanwhile leading elements of the 7th Armoured Division had moved rapidly across the desert country to intercept the Italians, arriving at the road just thirty minutes before the first retreating Italians appeared, late on the 5th February. British artillery held up this force until the arrival of the British tanks late on the 6th, when there was further fighting. It was a tight situation for the British forces who were at the extreme limits of their very extended supply lines. Once again however the Italians chose to believe their own propaganda which told them that they were facing a massively superior force.

Cyril Joly was an officer in one of the tanks and later wrote a classic account of the action:

From my position on the dune I watched an attack which was launched soon after dawn by about thirty Italian tanks against the position on the road. This was beaten off quickly and with little difficulty.

For a time there was silence on both sides. For all the efforts of the previous day, the Italian column still looked huge and threatening. I watched with apprehension the movements of the mass of vehicles before me. On either side of me, hidden behind the crests of other dunes and ridges, I knew that there were other eyes just as anxious as mine, surveying the scene before them. In the mind of each one of us was the sure knowledge that we were well outnumbered. Each of us knew by what slim margin we still held dominance over the battlefield.

Our threat was but a facade – behind us there were no more reserves of further troops. Even the supplies of the very sinews which could keep us going had almost run out. If we lost now we were faced with capture or a hopeless retreat into the empty distances of the inner desert. It was a sobering thought. I felt that the day, with all its black, wet dullness, was heavy with ominous foreboding. The scene before me was made gloomy enough to match my mood by the black clouds of acrid smoke which shrouded the battlefield like a brooding pall.

Gradually I became aware of a startling change. First one and then another white flag appeared in the host of vehicles. More and more became visible, until the whole coiumn was a forest of waving white banners. Small groups of Italians started to move out hesitantly towards where they knew we lay watching them. Larger groups appeared, some on foot, some in vehicles. Still not able to believe the evidence of his own eyes, the Colonel warned, “. . . Don’t make a move. This may be a trap. Wait and see what happens. Off.”

But it was no trap. Italians of all shapes and sizes, all ranks, all regiments and all services swarmed out to be taken prisoner. I felt that nothing would ever surprise me again after my loader suddenly- shouted: “Look, sir, there’s a couple of bints there coming towards us. Can I go an’ grab ’em, sir? I could do with a bit of home comforts.” We took the two girls captive, installed them in a vehicle of their own and kept them for a few days to do our cooking and washing. I refrained from asking what other duties were required of the women, but noted that they remained contented and cheerful.

See Cyril Joly: Take These Men (Echoes of War)

Wellington bomber captured on Boulogne raid

The enemy attempted to break out and made a persistent attack with over 100 tanks, but these were repulsed with heavy losses, including 60 of the latter. The full number of prisoners has not yet been ascertained, but it is understood that they have surrendered in large numbers, and include an Army Commander, a Corps Commander and many other senior officers.

Wellington bomber captured by Germans
RAF Wellington bomber L7842 was lost on 6 February 1941 while in service with No. 311 Squadron, RAF, on a mission to Boulogne. Wellingtons were famously robust and the Germans were able to restore it for testing.

Meanwhile in the Libyan Desert the final push of Operation Compass brought yet another Italian surrender:

Following a lightning advance our troops succeeded in cutting off the enemy line of retreat which resulted in the capitulation of Benghazi on the 6th February. The enemy attempted to break out and made a persistent attack with over 100 tanks, but these were repulsed with heavy losses, including 60 of the latter. The full number of prisoners has not yet been ascertained, but it is understood that they have surrendered in large numbers, and include an Army Commander, a Corps Commander and many other senior officers. Quantities of war material of all descriptions have also been captured.

From the Military Situation Report for the week as reported to the War Cabinet. See TNA CAB 66/15/4 .

Intelligence on German troop concentrations

Reports of invasion in the Spring—according to some sources in February—are being received in increasing numbers from various quarters. Many of them mention details of preparations, such as training of parachutists, manufacture of parachutes and of water and fire proof suits, the issue of British uniforms to German troops, and intensive manufacture of gas.

The invasion threat never went away completely despite the winter months - Polish troops guarding the coast in Scotland. There were so many Poles in Scotland it was known as the Polish invasion.

Germany: Reports of troop concentrations.

Norway.
The number of German troops in Northern Norway, viz., 3-4 divisions, is considered larger than is necessary for mere garrison purposes, but not excessive as a safeguard against a possible Russian move, or against a British landing which the Germans are said to expect. There is no definite indication of any change in the number of German divisions in this area or of any excessive amount of shipping in North Norwegian ports, such as might point to an expedition to Iceland, Ireland, or the North of Scotland.

Invasion.
Reports of invasion in the Spring – according to some sources in February – are being received in increasing numbers from various quarters. Many of them mention details of preparations, such as training of parachutists, manufacture of parachutes and of water and fire proof suits, the issue of British uniforms to German troops, and intensive manufacture of gas.

Two reports suggest that the main attack will come across the Channel, which will be closed at its narrowest point to form a lane of approach.

Belgium.
Reports of German troop concentrations in Belgium have also been received recently, but these are not confirmed.

Italy.
Reports of tJhe presence of German troops are still conflicting, but it now seems probable that there are possibly 2 or 3 divisions, including armoured and motorised units, in Southern Italy and Sicily. Recent unconfirmed reports state that the Germans have taken over control of the port of Genoa and possibly of certain other Italian ports. German control of ports would doubtless be one of the conditions required if Germany intended to attack Malta or if an expedition to Tunisia or Libya were contemplated.

From the weekly military situation report.

Goebbels on Churchill

England will one day pay a heavy price for this man. When the great catastrophe breaks over the island kingdom, the British people will have him to thank. He has long been the spokesman for the plutocratic caste that wanted war to destroy Germany. He distinguishes himself from the men behind the scenes only through his obvious cynicism and his unscrupulous contempt for humankind.

German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in late January 1941, during a course on propaganda for military leaders.

Josef Goebbels the Nazi Propaganda Minister continued to portray Britain as the main enemy, partly as a smokescreen for the build up of arms for the invasion of Russia. In early February 1941 he published an article about Winston Churchill himself:

England will one day pay a heavy price for this man. When the great catastrophe breaks over the island kingdom, the British people will have him to thank. He has long been the spokesman for the plutocratic caste that wanted war to destroy Germany. He distinguishes himself from the men behind the scenes only through his obvious cynicism and his unscrupulous contempt for humankind.

He wants war for war’s sake. War is an end in itself to him. He wished it, pushed for it, and prepared for it out of a stupid, destructive drive. He is one of those characters of the political underworld who rise through chaos, who announce chaos, who cause chaos. For countless people the war brings vast suffering, for countless children hunger and disease, for countless mothers and women streams of tears. For him, it is no more than a big horse race that he wants to take part in.

He now has what he wanted. England is in the middle of the gravest struggle in its history, from which it will be lucky to emerge with its mere existence.

The cold wet misery of the Greek front line

I was never trained to do trauma surgery under such great pressure and in such primitive conditions. I have no time to think of alternatives; sometimes I barely have time to disinfect one trauma before I must deal with another more severe one. In the background as I hear the explosions of the guns and the mines, I think of the parents, wives and children of our men, who are agonizing about them without really knowing how great the dangers are — even the natural dangers of this wild and rugged terrain — and tears come to my eyes.

Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.
Dr Electris, centre, with his Greek Army nurses and his Albanian hosts in January 1941. At the end of January they moved into a tented camp high in the mountains.

The war was turning into a disaster for Mussolini. His attempted invasion of Egypt had never got very far and the British were now reversing the offensive and pushing his forces back into Italian Libya, capturing huge numbers of prisoners as they did so.

His other major adventure, the invasion of Greece had seen a similar a reverse. The Greek Army had proved to be far tougher than he had anticipated. The front line now lay in Italian occupied Albania. High in the mountains the Greeks were still on the offensive despite the difficult terrain.

Dr Theodore Electris, a military reservist, had suddenly found himself mobilised into the Army. He had had to adjust very rapidly to the rigours of the campaign – and then rise to the challenge of dealing with many wounded that were brought to him just behind the front line:

February 4, 1941

It’s been four days since I’ve come to this camp and it has not stopped raining. The rain, especially today, is something I’ve never experienced before. It feels like buckets of water have been falling non-stop for hours on top of my tent.

As far as the mud is concerned, I can find no words to describe it: mud, mire, mortar—hell. The ground has been churned into a doughy muck by the soldiers’ boots and the horses’ hoofs and the machinery and artillery wheels; there isn’t a single untracked spot in sight. At some places you could sink in mud up to your knees.

On this dramatically miserable muddy stage the work and struggle of our poor soldiers is taking place. What effort, what agony and pathos — and how many victims! It will be such a pity if all is wasted.

I have to describe a couple of incidents that took place an hour ago.

Our 13th Infantry Regiment, with the support of our battery unit, had attacked and seized a hill near Bosketto (height near the village of Dodovece). There were many wounded who were being brought to us through the field just across from my tent, where the ground was as I’ve described it.

The stretchers with the wounded were carried by three, and sometimes by two, soldiers instead of the proper four — one for each corner of the stretcher. They struggled to walk through the mud in the pouring rain—slipping, sliding and falling and pushing, with their heads drooping like those in the pictures I have seen of the workers on the Volga River.

Sometimes as they walked they would slip and fall and would try to get up. The wounded would be screaming and grabbing onto the stretcher, if they could, with those parts of their body that were not wounded, so they would not fall into the mud. Sometimes all would fall and try to rise again, lifting the stretcher that was stuck and sucked by the mud.

At one point, I saw two guys trying to carry a stretcher with a wounded man who was screaming loudly. The carrier in the back of the stretcher was crying and his face was sheet white. He could not carry the stretcher because his hands were slipping; he would set the stretcher down and try to pick it up again. The carrier in the front would scream and swear at him and the wounded man would cry, beg and try to hold onto the stretcher to keep from slid- ing backwards into the muddy hell below.

Suddenly the carrier in the front dropped the stretcher, and both the wounded man and the stretcher splashed into the mud. This particular carrier then staggered towards the carrier in the back, who was crying as he was trying to get up. With his fist, he hit him very hard in the face. In fact he hit him so hard that the poor guy fell backwards in the mud, was knocked out and was not moving.

For a second the guy that did the hitting was scared, thinking that he had killed the other carrier; he bent over and grabbed him by the neck and started shaking him. When he saw that he was moving, he started swearing and cursing him again. The fallen carrier crept up out of the mud, continuously crying and ignoring the other one who was screaming. He started walking away from the whole scene as if in a daze.

Meanwhile the wounded man was lying in the mud and rain, crying. What could the poor carrier have done under all these conditions? It was hard for the horses to walk through the field; how could an overloaded man, with wet slippery hands, be expected to walk through it? These conditions are so undignified, humiliating, inhumane! Perhaps he was the one who sent six other carriers, who soon arrived and lifted the wounded man out of the mud.

Meanwhile, under these wretched conditions of mud and rain, the battle is raging. We are very busy taking care of the wounded, who are arriving nonstop with every imaginable trauma caused by artillery shell fragments, machine gun fire, but mostly mortars. Our poor soldiers patiently take their turns, silently, not protesting the fact that we cannot work any faster; some of them are even trying to help others and we, we the medics, try to do the best we can in primitive conditions, lacking both tools and, I dare to admit, expertise in trauma surgery.

I was never trained to do trauma surgery under such great pressure and in such primitive conditions. I have no time to think of alternatives; sometimes I barely have time to disinfect one trauma before I must deal with another more severe one. In the background as I hear the explosions of the guns and the mines, I think of the parents, wives and children of our men, who are agonizing about them without really knowing how great the dangers are — even the natural dangers of this wild and rugged terrain — and tears come to my eyes.

I feel for every soldier whose family is waiting at home for him, like my family, my sweet wife, my beloved relatives and friends, and I wish with all my body and soul for this war to end. It is an unfair, unjust war that we were dragged into, and it is going to fill the whole world with bitterness and pain. Will our poor nation be a nation of widows, orphans and lame men?

I send money and cards to Chrysoula, Mother and Sofia. Be- cause we have been moving we haven’t received mail yet. Oh, how I need the morale boost and the psychological high that a note from a loved one brings!

See Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII

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"The proper way to carry a stretcher"
“The proper way to carry a stretcher”

‘Q-ship’ torpedoed in the Atlantic

It was 2200 hours. We had been hit by a torpedo which had struck the bulkhead separating the engine room and the for’ard hold beneath the bridge. One “greaser” (stoker) was killed by the explosion and the NAAFI canteen manager had a lucky escape. He was blown out of his bunk and his cabin was wrecked. His young assistant was not so lucky and died as a result of his wounds.

HMS Crispin, seen before she was converted into a British Ocean Boarding vessel and later equipped with Anti-Aircraft guns to protect convoys. Image courtesy U Boat Net.

H.M.Armed Boarding Vessel Crispin, a special anti-aircraft ship, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat 400 miles to the westward of the Bloody Foreland on the 4th February. H.M. Ships in the vicinity took off the crew and casualties are unlikely to be heavy.

From the Naval Situation report for the week, TNA CAB 66/14/48. Almost every entry in these reports represents an extraordinary experience for the individuals involved, yet in only a minority of cases do we have the full story.

In this case George Woodley, one of the ship’s Royal Navy gun crew, has left a very full account. He describes the life on board HMS Crispin, which was a ‘special anti aircraft ship’, disguised to look like an ordinary merchantman with concealed Oerlikon guns that would be brought into action if the ship came under attack from aircraft. Unofficially such vessels were known a ‘Q-ships’ or ‘Q-boats’. During this early phase of the Battle of the Atlantic the long-range [permalink id=7020 text=”German Condor aircraft”] were having particular success in bombing ships, such as the [permalink id=8804 text=”Empress of Britain”], as well as spotting convoys for U-boat wolf packs.

On the fifth day we left the convoy to rendezvous with another coming from Halifax to the UK. We were then at our most vulnerable, without escort. We were out of range of the Focke-Wulfs and we were making a steady 10 knots in rough seas with gale force winds imminent. I was watch on the first deck for the first watch (8p.m.-midnight), and sheltering from the storm in the passageway by the steering motor room, when suddenly there was a terrific explosion which lifted me off my feet, followed by the smell of burning explosive.

It was 2200 hours. We had been hit by a torpedo which had struck the bulkhead separating the engine room and the for’ard hold beneath the bridge. One “greaser” (stoker) was killed by the explosion and the NAAFI canteen manager had a lucky escape. He was blown out of his bunk and his cabin was wrecked. His young assistant was not so lucky and died as a result of his wounds.

The ship stopped and wallowed helplessly, the light went out, and all was silent except for the wind. The water rushed into the engine room and the hold. The ship took on a list to port, and as she rolled, the empty barrels in the hold sounded like thunder in the distance as they moved around. Instead of keeping the ship afloat, the barrels floated out into the Atlantic, so much for the theory of buoyancy! We mustered in the Wardroom, below the bridge, for roll-call. We then prepared to abandon ship. My station was the starboard lifeboat, a sturdy Royal Navy cutter.

This was a 32’ boat with twelve oars which had been disguised with a false stern to look like a Merchant Navy boat. The order to “Abandon Ship” was given. My Divisional Officer came along to say “Goodbye and good luck.” I was told later that the raft was launched, the Divisional Officer jumped into the sea to get to the raft, but he disappeared and was never seen again.

Able Seaman “Jumper” Cross and myself were experienced with cutters and we lowered the boat, which was overloaded with about 50 men, to just above the crest of the swell, which was not easy in the darkness. We then went down the lifelines and met the boat as it rose. The pins holding the safety catches were removed and the boat launched on a wave with a big splash.

We pushed and struggled to get the boat clear of the ship, and when clear we manned the oars, three men to each oar, and pulled for dear life to keep the boat bows to the wind. The waves were breaking and flooding the boat and there was a grave danger of overturning. We had to pull hard on the oars with the Officer Coxswain calling the stroke, and the crew calling out in unison — but they were the cries of desperate men. I was wet, cold, and very frightened. The Officer-in-Charge gave us encouragement when he said, “Every ship in the Atlantic knows that the Crispin is in distress and help is imminent”, but it was a dark moonless night as the gale continued. One moment we would be on the crest of a wave and the next moment 30’ to 50’ down in the trough. We were tired, but continued to row, it kept us warm.

We were 700 mile north-west of Ireland. Just before 0600 hours a destroyer appeared and circled to give us a “lee” and we came alongside. There were many willing hands to help us on board. Our saviour was HMS Harvester, a fairly new destroyer that had been built for the Brazilian Navy and commandeered by the Royal Navy. I well remember the relief I felt as I stepped on board. We were welcome to share their crowded mess deck which was to be our home for the next four days. Regrettably, HMS Harvester was sunk, with a great loss of life, four months later.

They had been sunk by U-107.

George Woodley believed that they were torpedoed on the 2nd, although official records show it as happening on the 3rd with the Crispin finally sinking on the 4th. Read his full account on BBC People’s War. HMS Crispin does not appear on every list of World War II ‘Q-Boats’, even though the Cabinet Naval Situation Report records her as being a ‘special anti-aircraft ship’, and George Woodley’s account makes clear that her armament was concealed. He was apparently mistaken about the loss of HMS Harvester “four months later” – see comments below.

U-boat U-107 returns to the U boat base at Lorient, France later during 1941.

U-Boat Net has details of this patrol by U 107 during which she sank four ships.