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Loss of HMS Edinburgh

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29th April 1942

Edinburgh - April 1942 taken from USS Wasp
Edinburgh - April 1942 taken from USS Wasp
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It is 4pm on 29th April 1942. HMS Edinburgh is escorting convoy QP11 back from the Kola inlet in Russia. She is also carrying £5 million in gold bullion on the way to the US as payment for war equipment. Three German destroyers and 7 U-boats have been deployed to intercept the convoy composed of the cruiser Edinburgh, 6 destroyers, 4 corvettes and 13 merchant ships. Edinburgh has deployed some 20 miles ahead of the convoy. The commander of U456, Lieut. Teichert, lifts his periscope and is surprised to see not the crop of convoy mastheads he expected, but the bulk of a large unaccompanied cruiser.

The cruiser was zigzagging but is soon within firing range and with a last minute check he saw the ship turn on to a new leg of her course which he estimated she would probably maintain for some minutes. He dare not miss for his stock of torpedoes had been reduced to two. With a final check on speed, course and range, Teichert gave the order, 'Fire one', and a few seconds later, 'Fire two'. The expected muffled vibrations rippled through the hull as the torpedoes left the tubes, speeding on course with their deadly warheads towards the unsuspecting Edinburgh.

Captain Faulkner and Rear-Admiral Bonham-Carter
Captain Faulkner and Rear-Admiral Bonham-Carter
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At five minutes to four o'clock Edinburgh was almost at the limit of their 20 mile patrol and about to return to the convoy. A few minutes later the asdic operator reported a contact. Seconds later in a voice tense with excitement, he reaffirmed a firm echo almost dead ahead and very near. The range was rapidly closing so the admiral was informed. The operator was ordered to 'Disregard', and no followup action was taken from the reported contact. False echoes were not unusual in the Barents Sea. As a result singularly odd effects were often produced on asdic screens. But in this case the young operator had made no mistake.

The pipe had just sounded, 'Fall out from action stations' and 'Non-duty hands to tea'. Most of the crew had been at 'Stand by action stations' for the last 48 hours. This was the earliest opportunity for some to relax in the comparative comfort of their own messdecks. For the first time since the ship had left Murmansk, the pipe seemed to dispense an atmosphere of relaxation. There was a natural buoyant air of optimism, a sense of security. It was in this unguarded moment that no one, not even the bridge lookouts, saw the tell-tale silver wakes of the deadly steel fish streaking through the Arctic waters towards the ship. Both were on target. As they plunged into the cruiser on the starboard side there were two enormous explosions. The first torpedo, amidships, ploughed through to the region of the forward boiler room and below the stoker's messdeck, destroying compartments through to the port side, killing all personnel in the blast area and flooding other compartments in a deluge of oil and water. The second struck aft, ripping off the stern, blowing the whole quarter deck upwards like a sheet of paper, and wrapped itself around the guns of 'Y' turret with the barrels protruding through the steel decking. With it went the rudder and two of the four propellor shafts. So great was the explosion that it blasted the bottom plates of the ship downwards to form a distorted fin or rudder. With a noise of rending metal and the dreadful thunder of tons of seawater flooding through under enormous pressure, the cruiser shuddered to a stop listing heavily to starboard.

In compartments and gangways just above the explosion areas men stumbled and staggered in the darkness, cannoning into one another as they made for the exits, cursing violently when they could not be found. The two torpedoes had destroyed all electrical power to the gun turrets and only one of the forward turrets, 'B' turret, could be operated at all. Such was the damage to the engine rooms and the stern that only limited power could be applied to move the ship forward. If the U-boat had one more torpedo it could have applied the coup de grace.

Below the cruiser's decks, conditions where the first torpedo had struck were chaotic. For the few who survived it was a nightmare of living hell. Leading Stoker Leonard Bradley described the scene.

"Just before the torpedo struck I happened to go into the stokers' messdeck which was fairly crowded at the time and was talking to a friend of mine, a young amateur boxer called Harrington. As we chatted, the torpedo exploded in the oil tank below us. The whole messdeck split in two and as the lights went out Harrington and I and at least another 50 men fell straight through into the storage tank. The emergency lighting failed to come on and we were down there in complete darkness, floundering around in oil and water. In the blackness with men around screaming and shouting, I managed at last to get a footing and started to make my way towards where I thought the hatch might be.

As I moved, I heard Taff Harrington near me. I called out 'Taff", and he grabbed me. The oil was now pouring in fast from burst pipes in adjoining tanks and rising up to our shoulders. Harrington tried to hold my hand but it slipped and he died in the oil.

There was another boy called Harrison clinging to a stanchion. I tried to lift him above the level of the oil but he screamed blue murder for he had broken both collarbones and an ankle. All this time I was swallowing oil. Gradually the oil found its level and stopped rising. Everything went very quiet.

The hatch above us was sealed and we had no idea if the ship was afloat, partly submerged or at the bottom of the ocean. We must have been there nearly an hour when the miracle happened. The hatch was prized open and three stokers came down with ropes and pulled us to safety. Above, on the fo'c'sle deck outside the galley, Engine Room Artificer Robert Sherriff was standing talking to the Chief Cook, 'Dolly' Gray. The explosion split the deck open where they were standing and both fell through. Sherriff managed to cling to a projecting ledge and regain the deck but the Chief Cook was propelled on downward and was never seen again."

Supply Petty Officer Arthur Start, who with his mate Petty Officer Bob Walkey managed to save several trapped men, relates.

"I was in the PO's mess at the time the first torpedo hit. All the lights went out but fortunately I happened to have a torch in my pocket. Chief Petty Officers and Petty Officers came running from everywhere and as I had the only torch I led them up to the flight deck where in such an event we had been told to muster. Realising that the messdecks below might still contain trapped men, we lifted back the hatch cover of the vertical shaft down through which the gold had been lowered. Sure enough within the compartment we could see men swimming around in oil and water. My mate ran to fetch ropes and ladders but while he was away several of the men below managed to get into the shaft which was only two feet square. Within the trunking there were no ridges or ledges to provide a hold but in desperation those men somehow managed to come up through by working their knees and backs against the sides. Eventually the hatch was sealed. There were several men down there but they were dead anyway."

Captain Faulkner appeared hurrying down from the bridge. Few commanding officers can have been so popular with their men. As he faced his men, many dripping in oil fuel, he paused only long enough to tell them that if all the correct procedures were carried out he had high hopes of getting the ship's company back to Murmansk. Morale could not have been higher and a great cheer went up from the crew. As Captain Faulkner later stated in his report to Admiralty, 'The way they responded convinced me that my hopes were shared by all and that the morale of the crew was indeed high'.

As the day wore on, many acts of heroism and tragedy occurred in and around the explosion areas. Men trapped in small compartments pulled to safety in the nick of time as oil threatened to engulf them. Men caught in the blast of burst steam pipes in darkness until the flesh peeled from their bodies. Men trapped alive in unreachable compartments, a voice tube the only link with the upper deck, as officers tried to reassure them they would soon be freed knowing full well survival time was running out.

For Captain Faulkner, the safety of his men and the safety of the ship were his only concern. If the vessel could remain afloat with all watertight doors and hatches securely locked and if the surviving engine room could produce sufficient power to move the cruiser, no matter how slowly, the chances of reaching the Kola inlet were high. Following the torpedo explosions, he tried to establish contact with the lower steering position and the damage control post right aft but neither here nor in 'Y' cabin flat near where the torpedo had struck could he raise an answer. In the event he ordered the starboard tubes to be fired to reduce the list on that side.

In the meantime the convoy, several miles to the north, was still proceeding westward. A signal was passed to Bulldog reporting that Edinburgh had been torpedoed and requesting assistance. But Commander Maxwell Richmond had his hands full with his own problems. U-boats had been sighted astern and ahead of the convoy and the escorts were speeding around depth-charging the enemy in an attempt to ward off an attack. Amidst this flurry of activity and loth to spare his escorts, he ordered Commander Salter of Foresight to take Forester and the two Russian destroyers with him to investigate.

It was 5.30p.m. before they could reach the stricken cruiser, to find to their relief that enough steam pressure had been raised to turn one propeller slowly. The explosion amidships had opened up her side for some 50 feet exposing ruptured compartments almost through to the port side. Hundreds of tons of seawater were swamping through the great hole, tearing at bulkheads fractured and buckled by the blast. Aft, 63 feet of tangled wreckage of the stern and the two pulverised shafts hung deep in the water, which pulled her down by the stern and acting as a rudder, made her totally unmanageable.

Below decks, men worked desperately, often with only a torch, to get all kinds of machinery operating or to set up hastily rigged alternative sources of power.

Attempts were now made to try to tow the cruiser back to the Kola Inlet 250 miles away. A formidable task indeed. With Foresight and the two Russian destroyers screening the cruiser from further U-boat attacks, Forester managed to pass a tow to Edinburgh's fo'c'sle. It was a grim experience. The piercing cold wind had turned the decks into a sheet of ice, making it difficult to maintain a footing. Seamen worked in unbearable conditions handling wires cumbersome and almost unmanageable because of icing. Eventually, a wire was secured and Forester taking up the slack began to tow. But by now Edinburgh was a dead weight. Each time the little destroyer took the strain on the wire it brought the cruiser up into the wind; an awkward tow, with the ship yawing clumsily from side to side. The admiral and Captain Faulkner watched anxiously as the tow whipped out of the water, hurling a shower of spray as it pulled momentarily taut and then plunged back into the sea, while Forester responded sluggishly to the sudden heave. Each time it lifted to bar tautness quivering under the strain it seemed as though it might be the last. As the windswept rollers met the massive weight of the hull, lifting the bow to run swiftly under the ship, the strident noise of creaking and jarring came from the tortured metal amidships and astern. Minutes later, the tow unequal to the excessive demands made upon it, snapped with a report like that of a rifle shot. The wire, like an uncoiled spring, lashed back to whip across the fo'c'sle deck to tangle itself around bollards and stanchions. Four attempts later, all unsuccessful, towing from the bow was abandoned.

looking aft, part of the quarter-deck is being cut away
looking aft, part of the quarter-deck is being cut away
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The situation improved a little when with the aid of acetylene cutters some of the tangled wreckage at the stern dropped off but there was still a considerable section protruding below that acted as an unwanted rudder, turning her on a circular course to port. It was decided that Forester should pass a line aft to control the stern action, while Edinburgh tried to make some movement forward under her own steam. Before this could take place, however, a U-boat was sighted on the surface barely three miles astern. In all probability this was U456. Determined to make a kill, Forester's commanding officer, Lieut.-Commander George Huddart, ordered full speed ahead. In the engine room, excitement was high as the engineers slammed levers to full throttle. With the ship vibrating and shaking enough to loosen every rivet, Forester at her top speed of 33 knots rapidly approached the position where the U boat was seen to dive. As they neared, speed was reduced to allow the asdic-dome to be lowered. From this they would be able to detect the enemy in the depths below. But Teichert's luck held, for on the bridge of Forester Huddart received from the engine room the bitterly frustrating report that the throttles, so energetically thrown open to maximum speed earlier, had jammed in that position and speed could not be reduced. It must have been a bitter blow to his hopes of levelling the score as the destroyer raced on over the submerged submarine unable to stop. It was sometime before the defect could be remedied and the ship return to the target area to begin the hunt. It was also found that the asdic-recorder had frozen solid and was incapable of receiving echo marks. A couple of random depth charges were dropped, the search abandoned and Forester, her decks covered with frozen spray and with the forward gun iced up, returned to Edinburgh. Unknown to Huddart, however, Forester's mission had not been entirely without success. When the surfaced U456 observed the destroyer heading rapidly in her direction, Teichert had ordered a crash dive which carried her deep and away from the course of the British ship. Having stopped engines he waited, silent, listening to the throb of the destroyer's screws above him. But later, when Forester returned and depth-charged the area, by a hundred-to-one chance one of the two charges damaged the periscope and rendered it inoperable. Unable to observe except by surfacing, a risk he was not prepared to take, Teichert could only lie submerged listening to the sounds of the British cruiser and its escorts. He was quite content to wait, knowing that in a few hours support would be arriving from Kirkenes.

By the time Forester returned, Foresight had succeeded in passing a wire tow from the fo'c'sle into Edinburgh right aft. The cruiser was now moving slowly forward towing Foresight, allowing the destroyer to act as a rudder to keep her on course. This proved reasonably successful and during that night and the early hours of Friday morning, 1 May, the little group moved steadily southward towards the Kola inlet at three knots. The bitter Polar wind brought with it more snow and a visibility varying from two to eight miles. Despite the critical situation, Captain Faulkner had reasonable hope that Edinburgh could reach Murmansk. But at 6 o'clock that morning the two escorting Russian destroyers signalled they were running short of fuel and would have to return to Murmansk to replenish. This was indeed a setback. With only two destroyers in attendance, the admiral decided that both would have to be used to maintain a screen.

In the event Foresight's tow was cast off. The two Russian destroyers disappeared in the poor visibility and the two British destroyers began their screening patrol around the cruiser. Almost at once Edinburgh again started her bizarre motions, at time going quite out of control by performing complete circles. Only by the superb seamanship of the captain were these antics checked and a forward course sustained, although her speed had dropped to two knots.

As if Edinburgh had not enough troubles to cope with, a signal arrived, '... many enemy submarines are taking up positions between Edinburgh and the Kola inlet'. This was immediately followed by a signal from Bulldog indicating they had received a report from Admiralty that enemy destroyers were at sea heading for the convoy, or Edinburgh, or both.

However discouraging these reports, they were somewhat mitigated by a further signal from the SBNO Murmansk reporting that a Russian tug was on its way in company with the British minesweepers Harrier, Niger, Hussar and Gossamer which had only recently returned from their escort duty of QP11. With a pack of U-boats lying in wait and a possible attack by enemy surface ships from the north or northwest, it was a race against time. True, the presence of the minesweepers would be some consolation but with their single 4-inch guns they could do little against the powerful modern 6-inch guns of the enemy. Even Foresight and Forester would be outgunned if the enemy were to attack.

In Edinburgh, the crew at action stations waited tense and restless, discussing the chances of reaching Murmansk before the enemy could find them. The temperature had dropped to 10 degrees below freezing. Destruction of one of the clothing stores had deprived a number of men of the clothing essential for those in exposed conditions. For these men it was sheer torture. The steady wind blowing off the Polar ice cap froze them to the marrow. With the main galley out of action it was sandwiches and cocoa for everyone. The only receptacles large enough in which to brew ship's cocoa were the officers' baths and these were immediately put into use. On lookout and open gun positions the men huddled together behind steel screens or deck lockers, trying to gain whatever warmth they could from one another. Men learned not to breathe too deeply because the shock of the cold air brought pain to the lungs. Like an insidious poison the deadly chill crept up from the feet and spread with unbelieving numbness. If a man was foolish enough to forget his gloves, a careless touch on exposed steel would peel off the flesh like paper. Eyebrows and eyelashes became white with frost. Even the tiny hairs in the nostrils became needle-sharp icicles, piercing the skin at a touch. With the contraction of metal, hatch covers jammed, door hinges and locks were frozen into immobility and gun breeches in exposed positions seized up and were useless. They had still 200 miles to cover and at the present speed of 2 knots it would be another four days and nights before they could reach the haven of Murmansk.

Late that night, Edinburgh received a further discouraging signal from Admiralty. The pocket battleship Admiral Scheer had left Trondheim, Norway and was loose in the Arctic. The Scheer, sister ship to the Graf Spee sunk at Montevideo in 1939, was a formidable adversary. At the time it was considered that the only British ships which could meet them on equal terms were the capital ships Renown and Repulse. Scheer's impressive armament amounted to six 11-inch guns, eight 6-inch and six 4-inch; these in addition to numerous anti-aircraft and lighter guns.

It was in the midst of these disturbing signals that Edinburgh yawed her tortuous way southwards. If the Scheer should come upon her the end would be swift and certain. So far as Admiral Bonham Carter and Captain Faulkner were concerned it was better not to think about it.

Back at the convoy the destroyers had beaten off an attack by torpedo carrying Heinkels with no losses. Then they faced an attack from three heavily armed destroyers which again was beaten off but at the loss of one merchant ship.

It was clear it would be only a matter of time before the German flotilla would turn their attention to Edinburgh. With only the two small destroyers Foresight and Forester for protection, he realised Edinburgh would be in an almost indefensible situation. He therefore dispatched the following signal to his two destroyers

In the event of attack by German destroyers, Foresight and Forester are to act independently taking every opportunity to defeat the enemy without taking undue risks to themselves in defending Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is to proceed wherever the wind permits, probably straight into it. If the minesweepers are present they are also to be told to act independently, retiring under smoke screens as necessary.

The signal came as a welcome relief to Lieut.-Commander George Huddart of Forester and to Commander Jocelyn Salter of Foresight, for discharged from the responsibility of having to act in a purely defensive role they could now adopt whatever measures were necessary to meet the changing situation.

All through the afternoon of 1 May 1942, redeyed and weary lookouts searched the distant horizon. At 6 o'clock a small ship was spotted coming up from the southeast. As it neared it proved to be a Russian tug, the Rubin, her mission to tow the cruiser to Murmansk, and preparations were put in hand to perform the difficult task of securing a wire to Edinburgh's bows. Just before midnight with the sun touching the horizon and immediately rising again, the four British minesweepers hove in sight. They were Hussar, Harrier, Gossamer and Niger, each armed with two 4-inch guns.

Hopes were raised as the little flotilla of ships gathered around the cruiser but they were soon dashed when it turned out that the tug was not powerful enough to tow the big ship on her own. After a number of attempts two tows were eventually secured. One from Edinburgh's starboard bow to the tug and another from Gossamer to the port quarter. While this manoeuvre assisted in keeping her on course the speed of 2 knots was barely improved.

After failing in their attempt to destroy the convoy the German destroyers steamed speedily to the southeast. It would be an easy matter to find the British cruiser for Teichert was still following the ship from a safe distance. All through that night the flotilla raced on at 35 knots. His plan was to approach the cruiser from the north with the wind behind him and his destroyers in line abreast, a little over a mile apart. Immediately they were in effective firing range they were to turn together and fire all torpedoes at the same time. On this wide front of attack he considered it improbable that Edinburgh, now incapable of manoeuvring, could escape from such a concentration of crossfire.

Just after 6 o'clock that morning a long black oil slick was spotted trailing southward. All the indications were that Edinburgh could not now be far away. Fifteen minutes later one of the German ships Z25 reported a silhouette to starboard and the three destroyers immediately altered course. It was the quarry they were seeking HMS Edinburgh.

Hardly had the British minesweepers taken up their screening positions when Hussar saw the German destroyers looming out of the mist. Immediately the little ship opened fire with her two 4-inch guns. But finally, outgunned and outmanoeuvred and straddled by shells, she had no recourse but to fall back and seek support from the two British destroyers. As the first gun flashes showed through the mist, Edinburgh cast off the towlines and increased speed to her maximum of 8 knots. Despite the inevitable circling to port the measure seemed preferable to remaining stopped. By now the Germans were finding the range and several falls of shot were registered astern of the cruiser. At once Foresight's and Forester's telegraphs rang 'full speed ahead', and with waves creaming back from the bows they turned in a flurry of foam towards the enemy, guns blazing defiantly.

If the earlier engagement between the German flotilla and the convoy forces had been one-sided in terms of firepower, this action was even more so. The enemy's combined armament of twelve 5.9-inch guns were now ranged against eight 4.7-inch guns and some of these were frozen and could not be used. Foresight speeding towards the enemy at 31 knots and Forester a cable length astern now turned together and fired a spread of torpedoes. And Edinburgh, slowly and painfully yawing round into the wind, was to prove she was still a power to be reckoned with. With her battle flag streaming in the wind and her heavy 6-inch shells waiting in the only operational turret, the cruiser opened fire. A moment later, as the German destroyers Z24, Z25 and the Hermann Schoemann crossed the line of fire, Edinburgh's guns again flashed out. Now followed a wild, intermittent fight as the German and British ships raced in and out of the snow squalls and smoke screens laid by both sides. It was then that the admiral received the welcome message from Admiralty that the German battleship Scheer was now back in Trondheim harbour.

As Edinburgh completed another circle, bringing her bows around to face the enemy, the guns of 'B' turret were ready and waiting. With the director out of action and no power to move the turret itself, firing and spotting orders were given by Lieutenant R. M. Howe, who had his head and shoulders out through the hatch at the top. At that moment, the leading enemy destroyer Hermann Schoemann came into view running out of the shelter of a snow cloud. Howe gave the order 'Fire', and the cruiser's guns roared out in an ear-splitting crash, the muzzles spewing long tongues of flame and black smoke. Considering the encumbering circumstances, the firing was remarkably accurate. The first salvo fell within a few yards of the German destroyer and in desperation she tried to turn away towards her own smoke screen, heeling over at an alarming angle. Even as her guns replied, those of Edinburgh thundered out in a mass of flame. This time the shells found her in an ear-splitting holocaust of fire and smoke. The tremendous explosion lifted the deck structure, smashing it through the hull like cardboard. Above and below decks men were hurled into one another and against steel bulkheads in a sickening crash. Both engine rooms were destroyed and with all control systems out of action the Hermann Schoemann drifted to a stop.

the German destroyer Hermann Schoemann on fire and sinking
the German destroyer Hermann Schoemann on fire and sinking
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At the time Schoemann was hit Foresight and Forester were steaming at speed, independently seeking the enemy ships among the scurrying snow clouds. From one of these flurries Commander Salter of Foresight saw one of the German ships emerge heading straight for him. Swinging his ship to starboard to deliver a salvo from his four guns a sudden gust of smoke and cloud obscured the target but on his port beam, Lieut.-Commander Huddart of Forester found he was ideally placed to fire torpedoes at the advancing German and immediately turned to starboard. As Forester turned, the full fury of the enemy's vastly superior armament fell on the ship. One shell, plunging through the hull, severely damaged the forward and after boiler rooms, killing and injuring many stokers and ERAs, and bringing the ship to a stop in an eruption of cloud and steam. Another shell, striking aft, killed the captain of the gun and injured two others, and a third passed through the gun shield of the forward gun near the bridge to explode in a sheet of flame. It was a splinter from this shell which killed Lieut.-Commander Huddart who was leaning over the bridge superstructure exhorting 'B' gun's crew to greater efforts. Three of 'B' gun's crew were also killed from the explosion. The breechworker was severely hit in the head and was believed dead. Miraculously he recovered consciousness and during a lull in the fighting started walking to the sick bay, but he passed out on the fo'c'sle where he was found and taken aft. He was to die in hospital several days later.

Within five minutes two more shells struck the ship. One in the issue room killing three men outright and injuring eight others and another in the RDF office killing the two operators. Lieutenant Jack Bitmead, RN took over command and continued the action.

Forester now lay stopped less than two miles from the guns of the enemy ships but seeing her sister ship in this perilous situation Foresight, with black smoke pouring from her funnels, placed herself between Forester and the enemy. Immediately she received two direct hits, one like Forester in the forward boiler room and the other aft. Again there were many casualties. It left her with only one gun in action. Among the killed were the first lieutenant, Lieut.-Commander Richard Fawdrey, RN, and a passenger, Captain Stone, master of the freighter Lancaster Castle. Fortunately one boiler room was still operational and although badly damaged she was able to retire very slowly towards Edinburgh which was still engaged in her circular antics and firing whenever her bows faced the enemy. Forester, helpless and stopped almost under the guns of the enemy destroyers, awaited the final blow.

While below decks stokers and engineers prayed, sweated and worked among the wreckage to restart the engines, officers and lookout crews on the bridge watched in horror as two torpedo tracks were seen racing towards them. Frozen into a state of immobility they waited for the shattering explosion which might well kill them all but in that unforgettable moment of terror the torpedoes passed under, missing the keel by a hair's breadth and sped under and onward in the direction of Edinburgh. Conscious of their incredible escape, Forester's crew redoubled their efforts to repair the fractured steam pipes and the most serious damage and to get under way again, well aware that at any moment another torpedo or another shell could find them. Meanwhile the torpedoes which had passed beneath Forester were nearing the end of their run, with one on course beginning to splash along the surface losing speed. Edinburgh, slowly completing another circuit, was now bearing round to cross its path on a collision course. In seconds, the torpedo struck the ship dead centre and for the third time the cruiser lifted and shuddered under the impact of the explosion. For Edinburgh this was the final blow. It was clear there was no hope of saving her.

The torpedo struck Edinburgh amidships on the port side almost opposite the area where the second torpedo had struck three days earlier. This cut her practically in two. There was one great shattering explosion accompanied by the noise of ripping tearing metal as the ship lurched to starboard and men began to die. With it came the unmistakable sound of tons of seawater flooding in under enormous pressure and the opposing elements of heat and cold as the hot blast from the explosion with its choking acrid fumes mingled with a funnel high spout of icy water drenching the decks. In seconds, with a list of 17 degrees, Edinburgh slumped to a stop settling deeper into the water.

Already there were other sounds; the noise of things breaking adrift, sliding along the steepening decks. The turret was still firing when the torpedo struck. The young gunnery officer, directing the fall of shot from the turret top, was ejected through the hatch on to the roof. Here, by clinging to a fingerwidth ledge he managed to save himself from being thrown to the deck below.

As damage control reports from below reached the bridge it was clear that the ship was open from side to side with the sea washing straight through. It was also clear that the outer strakes of the upper deck and possibly bits of the hull were the only things that were holding the ship together. The admiral, aware that she might break in two at any moment and sink with severe loss of life gave the order, 'Abandon ship'. At the same time he signalled the minesweepers to come alongside to take off the wounded, passengers and the crew.

just before the end - survivors being taken off
just before the end - survivors being taken off
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Below decks another battle raged; one for survival. When the torpedo hit one of the lower messdecks had a number of men passing through it and the explosion ruptured adjacent bulkheads and oil tanks. Nineteen year-old Able Seaman William Wallis who was in that messdeck described what happened.

"It was just like being in a bad car crash. All the lights went out and we were left in darkness - a blackness that defied description. Amid the deafening roar of scalding steam erupting from burst steam pipes, thick fuel oil spurted in all directions from a dozen or more fractures enveloping us in its filthy black slime. In trying to breathe we found we were swallowing the stuff. In the blackness, trying to feel our way we kept losing direction. Our one hope was to find the ladder and by clearing the lockers I eventually managed to find it. But I had a man with a broken leg hanging around my neck and as I tried to climb the ladder he was slipping from me. The ladder was also covered in oil and I couldn't get a proper grip. I managed to hold him on to me, pulling him up and out towards a glimmer of light coming from a gangway somewhere high above. I could hear them screaming down below, 'Help me - help me'.

By this time, my eyes were getting used to the darkness and I went down again. At the bottom of the ladder they were fighting to get up. I managed to grab one man and it turned out to be a pal of mine. Coated in the black oil however you couldn't tell one man from another. By this time I had to get out because my lungs were bursting with the smell and having swallowed some I was vomiting. After a few minutes I went down to the hatch again to see if I could do anything, only to discover that the heavy cover had fallen down with the listing and had jammed shut. I got some help but although we tried, we couldn't move it. They were still screaming when we left.

I remember hearing the hoarse cries of one man in particular. He was from our mess, a real tough guy and a bully; everybody was afraid of him, he made life a misery. He died with the rest down there.

But we had to go as the list was increasing. We went up on deck and found that one of the minesweepers had come alongside and was already taking the wounded and passengers aboard. While we waited our turn, we huddled together behind the hangar out of the freezing wind. We were all in pretty bad shape and I went across to the wardroom to find a cloth to wipe the oil from our eyes. I went back to wipe my pal's eyes and the back of his neck and as I did so the flesh came off with the oil. He must have caught the full force of one of the steam bursts."

One of the radar ratings Harry Cook, who had a miraculous escape, recounted his story.

"There were eight of us in this lower compartment when the torpedo hit. The deck plating above us, yielding under the pressure of the explosion jammed the hatch cover. In charge of us was a long-term petty officer who treated us with contempt. He despised us not only because we were young and inexperienced but principally because we were 'hostilities only'. We all shouted and battered at the hatch but no one heard us. Eventually, by exerting all our combined strength against the cover, we managed to move it open just wide enough to allow the petty officer to force his body through the gap and slide out. We were all very young and very frightened and the tension was terrible. We waited there in the dark for an hour assuring ourselves that the PO would soon be bringing help. But still no one came. We tried the telephone but could get no reply. After what seemed an eternity the phone actually rang. It was from Damage Control. The voice said - 'We didn't know you were down there - we thought you were all out. We saw the petty officer who came barging up the ladder and when we asked, "Is everybody out?", he replied "Yes". As a result we locked the upper hatch cover in the deck above'. Very soon a Damage Control party arrived and forced the cover and in moments we were free. You can imagine how we felt. In fact if we could have found that PO at the time, I think we would have half-killed him. By his deliberate neglect we could have all died."

With the minesweeper Harrier secured along the port side and Gossamer starboard, the loading of the wounded and passengers began. The transfer of wounded from a sloping deck on a higher level to the decks of Harrier was a formidable undertaking. Time was the essence with the ship almost in two and likely to break up at any moment. Most of the wounded were on stretchers and had to be lifted over the side of the listing ship and lowered by whatever means available. The deck of Harrier was at least 12 feet below that of Edinburgh's and the transfer was made more tricky by the lifting and falling swell. One by one the stretcher cases were lowered as carefully as possible but almost inevitably there were accidents. A few became dislodged from their stretchers and crashed to the decks below. Others, almost naked from their sick bay beds fell over the side and became entangled in the scrambling nets, nearly freezing to death in the Arctic wind.

Following the wounded came the passengers, nearly 200 of them. Then followed the major operation of transferring about 800 men to the minesweepers Harrier (Captain E. P. Hinton, DSO, RN) and Gossamer (Lieut-Commander T. C. Crease), each embarking about 400. Captain Hinton and his crew showed remarkable calmness for the minesweeper was in danger of being crushed as Edinburgh increased her list. He signalled to Captain Faulkner, 'You are leaning on me rather heavily'. Meanwhile, the Russian tug Rubin came racing in towards Harrier and for some obscure reason misjudged her speed and collided with a resounding crack. Fortunately little damage was done to either vessel. While the transfer was going on, someone asked, 'What about the gold?' The question brought an answer which is unprintable. Still snug in the lower region of the cruiser lay the mass of gold bullion covered deep in seawater.

Aboard both minesweepers the decks were becoming so overcrowded there was imminent danger of the vessels capsizing. Although the men were asked to go below to stabilise the vessel a large number were reluctant to do so. It was understandable in the circumstances, especially for those who had recently been trapped below decks in Edinburgh. With the extra 400 men aboard each vessel they were now packed like sardines.

Uppermost in everyone's mind must have been the thought 'What happens if we get torpedoed now?' Finally the admiral and Captain Faulkner took their departure for the last time. There was nothing more that could be done.

deserted and sinking
deserted and sinking
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The lines were let go and the two minesweepers with Foresight and Forester stood off to watch Edinburgh go down. Contrary to all expectations, however, she did not continue to heel over and measures were taken to hasten her end. The admiral decided she should be sunk by gunfire. Harrier therefore fired twenty rounds of semi-armour piercing shells into her with little obvious effect except that two fires were started. Two patterns of depth charges were then dropped close alongside but this was also unsuccessful.

just before the final torpedo sank her
just before the final torpedo sank her
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Finally Foresight was ordered to fire her one remaining torpedo. From the decks of the circling ships, officers and men watched in silence. The great ship for which they had fought and bled and for which men had died was now to be lost forever. As the lever went over the long steel torpedo carrying its lethal warhead, the final executioner of Edinburgh, leapt from the destroyer to speed on its way to the target. Those last few seconds a breathless hush of despair hung over the stretch of grey sea between the two ships. Then it was there, plunging deep into the vitals of the cruiser with a booming explosion. A sheet of flame rose high, fingering skywards, mushrooming into a pillar of black smoke. Silently at first, slowly, almost reluctantly, she rolled over on her side, then in an agony of tearing, rending metal the fore part broke away. The stern disappeared quickly but the bows rising high stayed poised for a moment, then in a tumult of bubbling, gurgling water, disappeared. With it came the smell of oil fuel. A smell they had got used to in recent days. An obscene disgusting stench that persisted, lingering on the freezing water of the Barents Sea.

As Edinburgh disappeared she bore within her hull the bodies of fifty-seven men. Almost at the same moment the Hermann Schoemann was settling into her last resting place on the floor of the ocean with the bodies of those killed aboard her.

Aboard Harrier the log recorded Edinburgh as sinking in position 71-51 degrees north, 35-10 degrees east. The time 9 a.m. The date 2 May 1942.

There was a final look at the pool of oil and wreckage littering the surface over Edinburgh's grave as minesweepers and destroyers moved away. As speed increased, hulls began to vibrate, halyards shook and rattled in the wind of their advance and the grey bows slicing into the icy water plumed back their curling waves, showing brilliant white against the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean. It was time to make for the Kola inlet.

At ten o'clock that morning, as bleak icy winds swept over the waters above Edinburgh's resting place and with no ship visible from horizon to horizon, the black shiny hull of U456 surfaced amongst the floating wreckage. From the hatch emerged Lieutenant Max Teichert, the man initially responsible for Edinburgh's destruction. During the heavy engagement between the two forces, the lieutenant had positioned himself close to the cruiser but over forty feet deep so as not to endanger his boat. He had heard the detonation of the torpedo that hit Edinburgh and at about 9 a.m., the familiar sounds of a large ship sinking. He later reported, 'She was so near, we were all afraid she would fall on top of us.' As he surveyed the scene there was no further doubt that the cruiser had sunk. A large oil slick covered the immediate area and encased within its glutinous mass floated caps and chairs, papers and uniforms. Amidst the flotsam in incongruous relief scores of white tropical helmets bobbed about in a macabre dance to the rhythmic motion of the waves.

The gold bullion was removed from the wreck in 1981.

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