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HMS Arethusa

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mike : 2018-4-11;17:52
a very moving page

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Ordinary Seaman Eric Webb was killed in action 18/11/42 when the Arethusa was torpedoed by Italian aircraft.

What follows is a transcription of a letter from the navy to his parents, describing the events, followed by a fuller description of what happened from a magazine article 'Yesterday's Navy' by Bill Johnson. In conclusion there is a very moving description of the burial at sea of the dead from Arethusa.

If you served in Arethusa, or had a relative who served, please get in touch with me or with Martin Mitchell who supplied this article.

Arethusa - taken during the Stoneage convoy just before she was torpedoed
Arethusa - taken during the Stoneage convoy just before she was torpedoed
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On November 18th 1942, HMS Arethusa formed part of the escort of cruisers and destroyers taking an important convoy through the Eastern Mediterranean to Malta.

It was important because Malta needed stores to enable her to fulfil the role allotted to her in the great general offensive operations which had opened with the British Eighth Army's advance from Alamein a few days previously.

During the day the convoy was passing through that part of the Mediterranean between Cyrenaica and Crete known as "Bomb Alley" and at dusk had reached a position about half way between Derna, on the hump of Cyrenaica, and Malta. Both the convoy and the escorts had been attacked during the day but neither had been damaged.

At the very end of twilight, in that difficult light when visibility favours the aircraft rather than the ship, a strong formation of Torpedo-Carrying Aircraft made a most determined attack upon the escort.

The Arethusa was attacked simultaneously from both sides and was able to avoid all but one of the torpedoes.

This torpedo hit her and caused a violent explosion accompanied by a severe blast. The blast killed instantaneously all the men in the vicinity. Some not quite so close were badly burned by the flash and some of these unfortunately died later of their injuries. The next of kin of these men were informed that their kinsmen had died from burn injury, but it can now be stated with some certainty that all the remainder were killed at once by the tremendous blast and that they would not have suffered pain.

Their bodies were buried at sea, altogether three services were held, and they were taken by the Chaplain very beautifully and reverently.

A memorial service was held ashore later when the ship reached port and it was a most impressive service.

Correspondence is now being exchanged with the Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham about a permanent memorial to these gallant men to be placed in the Barracks Church. It will probably form a part of the general memorial to all the men of the Chatham Division who lose or have lost their lives in this present war.

In May 1942 Arethusa sailed to join the Mediterranean Fleet via the Cape of Good Hope. She had been refitted with tripod masts, radar and extra anti-aircraft guns. In June she took part in Operation Vigorous taking 11 ships from the East to Malta. The convoy had a close escort of destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers and also the old battleship Centurion, which had been disarmed between the wars and now fitted with anti-aircraft guns. There was no heavy ship available to provide cover and Centurion was simulating a commissioned battleship. One merchant ship was damaged by air attacks on 12th and had to divert to Tobruk. Another merchant ship sent to Tobruk because of engine trouble was sunk by further aircraft attacks. The cruiser Newcatle was damaged and the destroyer Hasty sunk during E-boat attacks off Derna. During air attacks on 15th the cruiser Birmingham and two destroyers were damaged, one destroyer Nestor, having to be sunk the next day. The force was threatened by the Italian Fleet comprising two battleships and heavy cruisers which approached to within 150 miles of the convoy. As the convoy withdrew to Alexandria, the cruiser Hermione was sunk by U-205 south of Crete. Arethusa suffered splinter damage during this convoy. On the night of 12-13 August, she, with the Cleopatra and four destroyers, bombarded Rhodes as one of the diversionary actions in support of the Pedestal Convoy to Malta.

In November 1942 Arethusa was part of the escort of the Stoneage convoy to Malta. Four merchant ships were escorted by the 15th Cruiser Squadron and seven destroyers. The convoy (MW13) sailed from Port Said to Alexandria on 15th and the next day at dusk the Euraylus and eight destroyers joined the escort. At 1330 the 15th Cruiser Squadron (Cleopatra, Dido, Orion and Arethusa) sailed with the 12th and 14th Destroyer Flotillas from Alexandria and by daylight the next morning they overtook the convoy and joined the escort. Air attacks by six JU88s took place at 1110. There was no damage to the convoy and one aircraft was seen to crash. At 1620 twenty six JU52s with two fighters passed, ahead of the convoy, and forty minutes later, at sunset, the Cruiser Squadron and fleet destroyers detached to the north to cover the convoy.

Stoneage Convoy
Stoneage Convoy
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There was a force 5 wind from the WNW and the moon was frequently hidden by low cloud and occasional rain. At 1805 they were attacked by three torpedo bombers and the second aircraft torpedoed the Arethusa. The torpedo hit on the port side abreast B turret with a track angle of red 170 as the ship was turning to starboard. The explosion from the 400-470 pound warhead blew a hole 53 ft long by 35 ft high in the side, and also the explosion went up through four decks. Oil fuel was sprayed over the outside of the ship and also inside up through the bridge structure and severe fires started immediately. She was flooded from bulkheads 20 to 61 and lost communications throughout the ship. She quickly trimmed by the head and took a list of 15 degrees to port.

Arethusa down by the head after the torpedoing - the hole under B turret is just visible
Arethusa down by the head after the torpedoing - the hole under B turret is just visible
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By daylight the next morning the fires had been brought under control after a major effort. Arethusa headed eastwards towards Alexandria at 12 knots escorted by the destroyer Petard. She was steered using her mechanical wheel. with the quartermaster using a boat's compass and communications from the after magnetic compass platform was by a chain of men. There were several air attacks during the day which were driven off. However. the damaged section of the hull was buckling and speed was reduced and the next day the Petard took her in tow stern first. Arethusa helped with her main engines, but after four hours one started to overheat and the shaft had to be locked. By midnight she was off Alexandria and during the transfer of the tow she became unmanageable and drifted onto the Outer Buoy. She was in danger of drifting onto a lee shore and had to use her engines and rudder, which were half out of the water and helped by four tugs she kept to seaward. Finally at 1630 the Respond took her in tow, and with Brigan controlling her head she entered harbour.

Arethusa had lost one officer and 155 men and one officer (the Captain - who was badly burnt) and 42 men injured. She had travelled 450 miles to Alexandria, the last 52 which had taken 11 hours and under tow in heavy weather. It had been a long and gallant struggle. She was the last serious casualty to the 15th Cruiser Squadron in their long struggle in the Eastern Mediterranean and when all four ships of the Stoneage convoy reached Malta the island' siege was relieved.

dry dock December 42, temporary repairs before transferring to a U.S. yard
dry dock December 42, temporary repairs before transferring to a U.S. yard
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She left Alexandria in February 1943 for Charleston, South Carolina, where she refitted until December. During this refit her after funnel was shortened slightly to save top weight and quadruple AA guns were mounted between her funnels. She then returned to Britain via Norfolk, Virginia and Bermuda and was further refitted at Sheerness until Apr 1944.

An extract from the book "The Last Destroyer", the story of HMS Aldenham 1942-1944, first published 1988


Speculation soon became reality by the announcement in a tannoy broadcast of the task in hand, and what a gruesome thing it was going to be. At 1500 hours we would slip and proceed alongside the damaged cruiser Arethusa, take on board approximately 50 dead bodies, proceed to a point about 3 miles off Alexandria and conduct a sea burial, the time to coincide with sunset.

At the appointed time precisely we got underway and proceeded slowly across the harbour to where the Arethusa lay alongside one of the moles. Approaching, we had chance to size up the damage she had sustained, having been hit by a torpedo dropped from an enemy aircraft. 'X' turret was missing completely, and the whole of the front of the bridge was an area of blackened distorted metal, caused by the huge fire after the explosion.

There were great gaping holes in her hull for'ard, and she was well down at the bows, showing she was partly flooded. But what riveted our attention more then anything was the canvas covered objects lying on the mole, laid out in lines and attached to each one a 4" projectile. The bodies of the Arethusa's men mostly marines - who had perished in that holocaust of an explosion and fire, now sewn up in canvas hammocks, waiting to be carried to their last resting place - the sea, on which they had so gallantly served in the cause of freedom.

Without any fuss we tied up, and a section of the ships guardrails removed on the starboard side against the jetty, and a wide board placed down on to Aldenham's deck and made fast at the other end. Then commenced the job of sliding the bodies carefully down the ramp and stacking them high on deck, some under the boats davits, some against the torpedo tubes, and more aft towards the quarterdeck, leaving the port side clear for the conduction of the service.

The last body brought inboard, the board pulled back, the guardrails replaced, and then two padres came in board followed by a funeral firing party from HMS Orion, and lastly a very young marine bugler.

With a signal from the bridge wires were cast off, and Aldenham slowly moved away, to commence her journey to the open sea. At the same time the cruiser had cleared lower deck, the men standing quietly facing outboard, caps removed in a last farewell gesture to their fallen comrades. Suddenly the peace of the afternoon was shattered by the shrill blast of a bosun's call from high up on the cruisers bridge.

The 'still'. Everybody at attention, and not a sound except the Aldenhams screws churning up the water. Then the 'carry on', as the ship turned away crossing the harbour to the open sea, ensign at half mast.

Slowly we cleared the boom and out into the blue calm of the Mediterranean, the sun settling away in the western sky throwing long rays across the placid water.

The ships engines shut down and slowly we came to a standstill, and with that the C. of E. Padre stood up on the torpedo tubes platform and commenced this solemn service for burial at sea, his voice sadly droning on, the ships company gathered around with heads bent, and sea breezes playing little tricks on hair and collars. Then it was the R.C. service. Emotionally and bravely, the Padre carried on this sad service until at the conclusion he closed his prayer book with a definite movement. This was the cue for the funeral firing party. At a command from their officer they raised their rifles to the firing position. Then one volley, another and another until the end, and with that the order 'present arms'. A pause and the marine bugler sprang to attention, his bugle ready at his lips. Loud and clear across that still blue water - the 'Last Post'. Slowly the notes died away and the one minutes silence. Everybody and everything dead quiet, even the sea breezes and birds seemed to pause in stillness at this very heart rending moment. Then it was over as if a spell had been broken and men who had volunteered commenced their gruesome task of committing the bodies to the deep.

The guardrails were slipped a suitable board positioned, and in pairs the corpses were tilted over the side. Half way through this task some of the bodies were floating having not been sufficiently weighted, and both padres became very agitated, but their fears were soon allayed when P.O. Harvey and another man produced a couple of very long boat hooks, and gently pressed the bodies under until they sank. As the setting sun disappeared below the distant watery horizon, proclaiming the end of another day, so the last body was committed to the deep.

All over, the ships engine room was given the order 'slow ahead' and we turned for Alexandria harbour, a wistful look back at a solitary poppy wreath bobbing lightly on the waves. All that was left to show the resting place of those brave men who had paid the extreme sacrifice.

Somewhere across the sea in our homelands postmen and telegraph boys would be knocking at doors handing in telegrams, 'The Admiralty regrets......' . So much for the fight for freedom.

On landing the padres and firing party, the Aldenham returned to her usual billet (another destroyer had taken over E.M.D.) and at 1800 hours the pipe went out 'Hands muster for additional rum issue". Quietly the men mustered with their jugs cans, but there was no cheering. They had performed a very unpleasant job, efficiently and dignified, and it had left the ships' company with some very sombre thoughts. Leave was piped for 1900 but no one was interested. All they needed was peace and a long restful undisturbed night.

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