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The Loss of HMS Charybdis

23rd - 24th October 1943

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Charybdis as completed in 1940 / 1941
Charybdis as completed in 1940 / 1941
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The first extract below is part of a letter to the family of a seaman who died when Charybdis was torpedoed in a night action off Brittany on the 23rd October 1943. It was written by a shipmate who survived and is his eye witness account. Personal and painful sections have been omitted.

The second part is the historical view of what happened.

There are some differences in the detail, but in comparison the immediacy of the letter has enormous impact.

There is another link under Stories written by the captain of one of the destroyers following Charybdis.

Follow this link to a site that focuses on the loss of Charybdis and Limbourne.

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That night we lost four hundred and fifty men out of five hundred. We were sent out to attack a German convoy, but someone had talked. They were ready for us when we went in to the attack. We were well within range of the shore batteries, in fact only five miles off the coast, with the convoy sailing straight ahead at a range of fourteen thousand yards.

We had just opened fire with starshell over the convoy when five E-boats were spotted heading straight for us, at top speed, on our beam. We slewed round to engage them, but they had fired their torpedoes, and a second later two hit us amidships. We then listed over heavily to port. Three minutes later they fired another two at us to make sure of sinking us.

In all she stayed afloat for about thirty minutes, I myself was among the last ten to leave. We couldn't get any of our boats away because our list was too heavy, but they managed to get about twenty Carley floats into the water. It developed into a panic towards the end because everyone had the fear of being sucked down with the ship.

I managed to survive in the water because I was covered in oil. The intense cold killed most of the men. The water temperature was 50 degrees. I shall remember to my dying day, men dropping out just saying, "So long I can't stick it any longer", or somebody else double up with cramp, and pass on. We carried on for four and a half hours swimming towards the French coast, until our destroyers came back and picked us up.

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taken on board HMS Charybdis
taken on board HMS Charybdis
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Marine Jack Traynor, in the middle of the back row in the grey uniform, was lost that night. He was part of mess no 19. If you knew Jack and would like to get in touch with his family please email Laurence Traynor.

The British force which sailed on the night of 22nd/23rd October 1943 consisted of the Charybdis, two Fleet destroyers, Grenville and Rocket and four of the slower Hunt class escort destroyers Limbourne, Stevenstone, Talybont and Wensleydale. Their target was the German blockade runner Munsterland which had sailed from Brest the same afternoon with an escort of five E boats and eight smaller escorts.

T23 - the other four Torpedo boats were very similar, T22, T25, T26 and T27
T23 - the other four Torpedo boats were very similar, T22, T25, T26 and T27
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The German escort disposition was flexible, with E boats ahead of the convoy but separate from it to enable them to act independently. Conversely the British dispositions were rigid: the Charybdis led the line, followed by the two Fleets and then the Hunts astern of them, with the second-in-command aboard Limbourne.

Soon after midnight the British force was some seven miles off Brittany and commenced to sweep west at thirteen knots. On their part, at around 0030, the waiting German radar operators picked them up as expected and carefully tracked them, reporting to the German ships at sea. These warnings were intercepted by the Hunts and by Plymouth Command, but Charybdis, if she received them did nothing to change the plan. The Munsterland was turned back out of harm's way while the E boats prepared to deal with the British force. Charybdis picked them up on her own radar at a range of 14,000 yards at 0130 and signalled the destroyers to increase speed, but only the rear destroyer, Wensleydale, picked up this signal and her overtaking the others ahead caused confusion, compounded when the first German torpedoes arrived and friendly starshells illuminated the leading British ships instead of the enemy.

map of the action
map of the action
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The British force was visible against the lighter horizon, and the Germans were further aided by a rain squall approaching from the south-west. Visibility was poor with low clouds, and there was a long heavy swell.

The cruiser could have inflected considerable damage but the Germans had not been seen. 24 torpedoes were fired by the E boats. Charybdis tried to avoid them but was struck on the port side flooding No 2 dynamo room and B boiler room. The port electrical ring main failed and she listed 20 degrees as she slewed to port and stopped. Torpedoes narrowly missed Grenville and Wensleydale, and then a second torpedo struck Charybdis and her list increased to 50 degrees. The after engine room flooded and all electrical power failed.

A minute later the Limbourne was hit exploding the forward magazine. She listed heavily to starboard with her bows blown off.

Limbourne - a Hunt class destroyer
Limbourne - a Hunt class destroyer
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Both ships sank quickly with heavy loss of life while the other destroyers had close shaves from collisions in the confusion, returning later to pick up survivors. The German ships contented themselves merely with watching them by radar and made no attempt to interfere. The Munsterland resumed her journey unscathed. T23 and T27 claimed the hits that sank Charybdis and T22 the Limbourne.

Only 150 survivors were found from Charybdis' crew of 668. Altogether the loss of this fine ship was on a par with the sinking of the Canberra at Savo Island, the exposing of the Dorsetshire and Cornwall to Japanese dive bombers unsupported, and anchoring Spartan off Anzio when radio-controlled bombs were being used regularly.

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