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HMS Gloucester

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Gloucester in 1941
Gloucester in 1941
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This is part of the journal of Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Hugh Singer. In this extract he describes the sinking of Gloucester and the traumatic events that followed as they waited for rescue.

It forms part of the report he submitted after the war - the full document can be found in the National Archives - ADM 1/18695. He spent the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps and the primary purpose of the report was to document the war crimes that took place in these camps

It is a moving story - even though it was written 5 years after the events, it is obvious that the memory of what happened still affected him greatly.

Further information can be found on the Crete Action page and the Gloucester story.


THE SINKING

At dawn on May 22nd, 1941, H.M.S. GLOUCESTER was steaming in company with H.M.I. FIJI to the north-west of Crete. The remainder of our squadron was further to the eastward, where during the night it had intercepted the German seaborne invasion force and had most effectively dealt with it.

It was a perfect spring morning. The sky was cloudless and the sea flat calm. It was difficult to appreciate that one of the major battles of the earlier part of the war was in progress. However, our peace was soon shattered. As I was walking on the quarter-deck soon after dawn the loudspeakers blared out the "Alarm to Arms", and at the same time I saw a few apparently harmless dots appear over the horizon astern of us. These specks rapidly grew larger and soon resolved themselves into a squadron of German aircraft. I went below to my action station, in the stokers bathroom, port side. I had seen a great deal of it in the Mediterranean, especially since the beginning of the Battle of Crete. Since leaving Alexandria on May 20th we had been subjected to one attack after another during daylight hours. As I reached the stokers' bathroom the 4" guns opened fire. They were soon joined by the pom-poms and the 0.5". The ship heeled over as she was put hard a starboard. Almost immediately there were some dull thuds and the ship shook a little. Splinters from the exploding bombs spattered against the ship's side.

After this attack we were left for a short time in peace. I went up to the wardroom to arrange some breakfast in my capacity of Mess Caterer. Beside the seat I habitually occupied was a new splinter hole in the bulkhead and I was duly thankful that the attack had not taken us by surprise. While I was lingering over my coffee we were again ordered to action stations. Almost at once the ship could be felt to increase speed and the guns again opened fire. The same routine was repeated. From that time until we were sunk in the afternoon we were constantly at action stations and attack followed attack with little interruption.

During the forenoon we passed through the Elephantos Channel between Kythera and Crete and at about 1100 joined the main fleet. We took station on the port side of the battle squadron inside the destroyer screen. Air attacks continued but we were no longer the principal target and were accordingly thankful.

The Germans adopted a rather unusual policy during this forenoon. Formerly we had noticed that the bigger ships were the main target and that the destroyers in company were often left unscathed. Now they divided their attacks and during most of the late forenoon concentrated on the screen. At about 1230 they had their first success. One of the destroyers was heavily hit and sank.

Just after the loss of the destroyer I went foraging for something to eat. We were released from our action stations in small groups for this purpose. I found bully-beef sandwich in the Wardroom and decided to get some fresh air while I had the chance. As I stepped out on deck I saw that an attack was being made on H.M.S. WARSPITE. At about 1300 she was hit amidships but appeared to be keeping station in spite of the large quantities of smoke billowing up from her. I was not able to watch for long as a few of the dive-bombers directed themselves towards us and I repaired below without undue delay.

By this time our H.A. ammunition had been reduced to about 20 rounds per gun and our fire during the attacks of the early afternoon was noticeably more economical than it had been earlier in the day. H.M.S. FIJI was in the same position as ourselves. At about 1400 the GLOUCESTER and FIJI were detached from the fleet and sent back into the Aegean, I believe for the purpose of supporting some destroyers which were being heavily attacked from the air. I am not quite clear as to the nature of the support we were expected to give.

Air attacks continued at fairly regular intervals, and being once again the leading ship we became the main target. Our 4" fire was by now of necessity only spasmodic and the Germans must have realised our position because their dive-bombing attacks grew bolder. Our pom-poms kept up a brisk fire but they were hardly sufficient to cope with a concerted attack by a whole squadron of bombers.

I had not been on deck since the lunch interval but we were kept well informed below decks by means of the loud-speakers, through which the torpedo officer kept up a running commentary for our benefit. Also one comes to be able to form a fairly accurate picture of what is happening from the movements of the ship, the vibrations of the engine and the nature of the H.A. fire. Soon after 1500 we were warned through the loud-speakers of the imminence of another attack. The 4" guns fired once. The pom-poms opened fire. The voice of the torpedo officer told us that this looked like being pretty close one. Almost immediately afterwards the ship shook violently and all the lights in my part of the ship went out. The loud-speakers went dead. Again there was a dull explosion and the ship heaved, throwing us into the air. I switched on my torch and got to my feet. The ship was shaken by several more explosions.

At 1527 we were hit, by at least two bombs, in the after part of the ship. One of these entered through X Barbette and exploded in the Gunroom Flat. Either this bomb or another damaged B Boiler Room and Compressor Room and the Main W/T Office. Another was responsible for blowing clean over the side the After D.C.T. the After H.A. Director and the Main Topmast. At about 1540 another bomb landed on the 4" Gun Deck between P.1 and P.2. All the port torpedoes had been fired before the explosion, due I believe to the prompt action of the torpedo officer, Lieutenant E.O. Daniel. No doubt many more would have been killed had the war heads exploded. Yet another bomb penetrated the Port Pom-Pom Platform, went through the Port Hangar and exploded in the Canteen Flat.

Up to this time the ship had been able to steam on the forward engine but in a very short time we lost steam altogether and the ship rapidly lost way. I do not know why this happened as apparently neither the Foreward Engine Room nor the Foreward Boiler Room had been hit.

At about 1545 we were hit along the port side by what are believed to have been three torpedoes dropped by German torpedo-bombers. No-one with whom I have been able to speak actually saw any torpedo tracks and one rating expressed the view that the holes in the ship's side were caused by near misses. At all events the Main T.S. and the 2nd W/T Office were flooded and the ship began to list to port.

While all this was happening I was still below decks, and the above is not an eye witness account. The damage subsequently visible from the upper deck to a large extent confirms it, however.

During the action all medical parties with the exception of one hand on the telephone in each of the Distributing Stations were kept within the armoured belt. In the event of casualties either the Foreward or the After Distributing Stations, or both, were manned according to the needs of the situation. The P.M.O., Surg.Lt. Cmdr. R.G. Dingwall, kept his party in the bathroom on the starboard side, foreward of the Workshop Flat. His Distributing Station was the Sick Bay. My party, as I have already mentioned, was in the bathroom on the port side, abaft the Workshop Flat. My Distributing Station was in the Gunroom where all necessary arrangements had been made for dealing with casualties. (On an earlier occasion we had treated nearly 100 there).

After we had been hit my first concern was therefore to reach the Gunroom. I got as far as the armoured door on the port side but found this had jammed. I managed to get it open a few inches and was at this stage joined by Commander (E) Brown and Lieut (E) Setten, but our combined efforts failed to open it further. Large quantities of smoke began to pour out from the Marines After Mess-deck and we were forced to abandon any further attempt to reach the after part of the ship by this route. At this stage all hands were ordered on to the upper deck.

Meanwhile the P.M.O. with his party had been able to get foreward into the Sick Bay. Those of us who were in the mid-ships section reached the upper deck through the hatch leading up from the Workshop Flat.

When I reached the upper deck "abandon ship" had already begun. I had not actually heard the order myself but that is hardly surprising under the circumstances. The starboard whaler had been lowered (I heard later that it had gone straight to the bottom owing to some confusion while getting it away) and many men were leaving by the falls. We were by this time listing quite heavily to port. The port whaler was also already away but judging from the surrounding damage I imagine it would have proved unseaworthy. I did not hear what happened to it.

As I came on deck the FIJI was steaming past dropping her Carley floats into the water. She then increased speed and left us, alas ! to share our fate some time later.

I established an emergency dressing station on the starboard side of the well deck against the bakehouse. There we were sheltered from any stray splinters which might have come from the pom-pom shells which were exploding at intervals as a result of fire round the port pom-pom magazine.

I attended a few casualties here, mostly from the port 4" and pom-pom guns crews. The two most seriously injured were put into the two remaining Neil-Robertson stretchers and passed into a Carley float kept alongside port side for the purpose. Others were dealt with as the circumstances permitted. Dressings were applied as necessary and fractures splinted. Those who were not too gravely wounded were given only gr .25 of morphine in order that they might help themselves as much as possible. The dangerously wounded were given at least gr .5 as their survival under these conditions seemed highly unlikely and there seemed no point in allowing unnecessary suffering. Owing to the intensity of enemy air activity we could not expect any ship to stop to pick us up during daylight.

While I was thus engaged the P.M.O. came aft from the Sick Bay and asked me if I had everything under control. On being assured that I needed no help, he reminded me to take off my shoes before leaving and abandoned ship by the falls of the starboard whaler. S.B.C.P.O. George Hicks left shortly afterwards, I did not see either of them again.

Shortly after they left a few Ju 87s and 88s came over the ship and dropped sticks of bombs among the survivors swimming near the starboard side. I cannot say whether this was deliberate or whether they were actually trying to hit the ship. In any case I did not observe the effect as I was fully occupied at the time.

When all the wounded who were brought to me had been dealt with and put on the Carley float I went aft along the 4" gun deck to see if it were possible to reach the after part of the ship by this route. Unfortunately the Wardroom Flat and the Wardroom Galley Flat above it were badly on fire and there was no hope at all.

On my return to the waist of the ship I joined for a short time Commander Tanner, who was with a small party on the flight deck throwing loose wood over the side for the benefit of the swimmers. After a few minutes, however, another casualty was brought to me from somewhere foreward. After his leg had been splinted he was put into the Carley float which was still alongside. By this time it was full to capacity and those who were in it were up to their chests in water. Some of the badly wounded were already in a critical state. There seemed to be no more wounded who could be reached so I ordered the float to cast off.

During the time I was running this emergency dressing station I was greatly assisted by L.S.B. A. Priestly who stayed with me until the last of the wounded was aboard the Carley float. He was for most of the time my only assistant apart from the Chaplain, Rev. William Bonsey, who made excellent use of the knowledge of First Aid he had acquired in the ship and who did much to raise the spirits of the wounded.

At about 1715 (at least that is the time when my watch stopped) there being nothing further to do I abandoned ship with the padre. The port gunwhales were by this time awash and it was simply a matter of stepping into the water.

Captain Rowley was of course the last to leave the ship. Shortly afterwards, I do not know what time, the ship slowly turned turtle and sank by the stern.

KEEPING AFLOAT.

My first impression when I entered the water was that it was agreeably warm, but I soon found that water which is pleasant for bathing is not necessarily a suitable medium in which to spend a day and a night. After swimming about 100 yards at a leisurely pace to get clear of the ship before she went down, I came across the blowing head of a torpedo which struck me as being as good a support as I could wish for. It turned out otherwise. As soon as I made any attempt to get onto it, by hanging on to the ring bolt, it began to spin at a dizzy speed. I therefore abandoned it. When I looked round a little later I saw Pay. Sub. Lieut Hay experiencing the same trouble. I did not see him again. A bit further on I came across a group of swimmers around some floating wreckage which consisted of two side-party fenders loosely connected with a wire rope, and two oars. There were far too many of us for everyone to benefit from what support this would give, but we had been instructed to keep together in as large groups as possible and this seemed a good collecting point.

At this stage the ship vent down. Someone had had the foresight to set the depth charges at "Safe" so we were not troubled by the concussion of their explosion. It felt very lonely in the water after the ship had gone.

The visibility was still good and land was in sight at three points - Crete, Kythera and the mountains of the Peloponese. Of these Kythera seemed to be reasonably close. From the point of view of swimming I was at that time in good training as I had played water polo regularly in harbour. There was no sign of any ship so I decided to have a try at reaching the island. I must have misjudged the distance badly as it later turned out to be at least 15 miles. In any case after swimming easily for some time I realised that I was not likely to get there and I thought it better to return before dark to the men I had just left, if for no other reason than for their company.

I rejoined the party round the fenders while it was still light. Soon afterwards Rev. W. Bonsey left us with one of the oars in spite of our advice to him to stay with us. I do not know what happened to him after that.

At intervals after leaving the ship I had watched squadrons of German aircraft fly over us, presumably on their way to attack H.M.S. FIJI - by then out of sight over the horizon.

Returning from the attack the first of these squadrons had detached planes to photograph the GLOUCESTER sinking. Later several planes from other squadrons came down and machine gunned survivors in the water and on rafts. It was one of my more unpleasant minutes watching a Ju 88 dive straight for our party and seeing the spurts of water from the bullets coming at us in a straight line. Fortunately he stopped firing just before he reached us. I believe a number of men must have been killed in this way and I subsequently looked after the blacksmith who had been wounded while on a raft.

One of the most astonishing features of this unfortunate business was the ease with which some men gave up the struggle for existence and allowed themselves to drown without apparently making any effort at all. Admittedly the "Mae West" proved a most unsatisfactory form of life jacket but it did give valuable support and was effective if the swimmer helped himself a little. And yet from the time I abandoned ship until far into the night I saw men, among them several first class swimmers, just give up the ghost. There was no panic. They died very peacefully. Two of them actually smiled at me and said good-bye. I think they must have been affected sooner and to a greater degree by a sort of lethargy one had to fight. I found that I could contemplate drowning without any qualms and at times I had an almost overwhelming urge to let down by "Mae West" and give up what seemed an unending and pointless struggle.

By nightfall there were roughly twenty of us left together round the fenders. Very close to us was Commander Tanner, supporting himself on a floating drawer taken from a chest of drawers. I lost sight of him after dark.

The night was rather grim. One by one our party of twenty dwindled in spite of the efforts of the fitter men to keep those who were exhausted going. Soon we were sufficiently reduced in numbers for all of us to be able to get a hand on one of the fenders. But if any of us threw too much of his weight on to one of them it turned turtle, and because of the wire rope attachment the other followed suit. For those who were at their last gasp the subsequent confusion in the dark was sometimes the final straw.

Throughout the night our hopes were many times falsely raised. In retrospect the situation was rather amusing. We all hoped that a destroyer might come back to look for us after dark, and we were keenly on the look-out for one. In the distance we saw the searchlights on Crete and took them for those of a ship, the island being by this time of course invisible. Accordingly we raised a shout. Some distance away in the dark Lt. Cmdr. Heap in a Carley float heard our shouts and mistook them for hails from a rescue ship. He blew his whistle. We heard the whistle and optimistically assumed that we were about to be picked up. And so began a vicious circle which was broken only when we were too tired or too full of water to shout any more, and which began all over again if either of us got a false alarm.

Later in the night the sky became overcast and a breeze got up which added to our discomfort. Several times I left the party for a short sharp swim to loosen my cramped muscles and to try to get warm. I also discovered that it is not as difficult as it sounds to vomit while swimming. I imagine it was the swallowing of some fuel oil earlier in the day which made me sick.

At one stage during the night a rubber dinghy passed us quite close moving at a fair speed. Though we hailed it lustily it continued on its course. I later learned that it contained German paratroops who had been chased off Crete and who were making for Kythera.

As our numbers diminished so were we able to get more and more support from the side-party fenders. And though this was most welcome it meant that the chances of capsizing them were correspondingly increased. The slightest maldistribution of weight left us all floundering. This happened fairly frequently and I acquired a first class knowledge of a lot of lower deck slang I had not heard before.

When daylight came at last there were six of us left, three to each fender. We were able to give each other warning of any intention to shift weight so that the other two could counter-balance it, in this way we were much less frequently capsized. Soon after dawn another of our number died. He was completely exhausted and had to be held on to the fender. When we capsized it was too much for him.

The sea was choppy and the sun shone at intervals through the clouds. Still looking quite close was Kythera. As by now the fenders were adequate to hold all our weight I thought we had better have a shot at paddling them to the island. There was quite a lot of wreckage strewn over the sea and it was not long before a couple of pieces of wood suitable for paddles came drifting by. I swam over and collected them.

Once again I had underestimated the distance to Kythera and thought it looked quite easy to paddle there. The wind was certainly against us but it was only a moderate breeze. I did not learn till much later that there was also a current against us. However, full of optimism, C.P.O. Evans and I started paddling. The third man on our fender was not capable of helping. The first thing we discovered was that the other fender would not follow in tow but acted as a sea anchor. We therefore collected some more paddles and started, the two men on the other fender paddling in unison with us. The paddling on all sides soon became pretty irregular as we were none of us exactly bursting with energy. The combination tended all the time to go round in circles. I managed to convince myself that we were getting nearer to the land but failed completely to convince any of the others of this. C.P.O. Evans was extraordinarily good company and very cheerful but indicated most politely that as a navigator I left a lot to be desired.

I am rather vague about what happened later in the day and can only recall odd incidents. At intervals I had a renewed burst of energy and started paddling. At one stage a ship passed to westward of us but apparently did not see us. Later a plane flew low some distance from us dropping flares. Apparently some other planes did a bit more machine gunning among survivors but I do not remember it. I remember too that sometime in the early afternoon the third man on our fender went mad, and, despite the efforts of Evans and I to restrain him, he capsized the fender, swam away a few strokes and quickly drowned.

Finally in the afternoon we saw a small ship cruising and stopping at intervals, presumably picking up survivors. As she drew closer we shouted ourselves hoarse and to our immeasurable relief she suddenly altered course and came straight for us. I was assisted on board with a boathook.

Our rescue ship was a small vessel, probably used for trading among the Greek Islands. The Greek crew had been replaced by Germans. Once on board we were told to strip off our wet things which were to be dried for us and we were each given a dry blanket. We were then sent below to a large cabin occupying most of the after part of the ship. There we were given freshwater and were able to begin the three days job of quenching our thirsts. We were very glad to find in this cabin other survivors from the ship, although in the water we had not seen a soul all day. There were double tier bunks all round the bulkhead and although there were not nearly enough to go round we managed to pile in somehow, rather like sardines. I slept at once and only woke when we reached harbour. My first act on waking was to drink more water which made me violently sick, as it did others.

Some time in the dog watches we arrived in the small harbour of Kythera and were mustered on deck. From a cabin foreward we were delighted to see still more of our shipmates who had been picked up. Such of our clothing, still wet, as was of no use to the German crew, was handed back to us. I got only my reefer, presumably because it was not in very good shape. From the ship we pulled ashore in groups in a dinghy. On the beach we were again mustered - as prisoners of war.

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