Heavy tears for Bergen-Belsen

While certain obligations and images of current events bring us back tragically to the constancy of our humble and sometimes also heroic human condition, here is an exclusive text for Lest We Forget from a work in preparation (all rights reserved). On this 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camp of Bergen-Belsen, I want to sincerely thank Mr. Pierre Lagacé for giving me the honour of presenting it to the readers of his blog.

Heavy tears for Bergen-Belsen

On April 15, 1945, the British 11th Armoured Battalion were the first to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. But they were not the only heroic liberators of the camp who may have kept a low profile all their lives…

As a very young teenager, an exceptional documentary on the concentration camps had been broadcast one evening on Radio-Canada. It had been shown a on weekday at 11 o’clock at night. As my mother was hospitalized, I asked my father for permission to watch it. After some thoughts, since my grades and school behaviour were satisfactory, he granted me permission. But there was one condition: he wanted to watch it with me. I thought it might give me a follow-up to what he had told me a few years earlier, so I was happy.

One day he had asked me to go and retrieve a document from his boss. His boss stretching out his arm to get it, his shirt sleeve came up and I saw for the first time his bare forearm. He was angry that I had seen the number tattooed on his arm, he straightened himself up by speaking in Yiddish (which he did when things were not to his liking in the garage…) and lowered his sleeve then handed me an envelope. Not knowing anything about the tattoo and surprised by his reaction, I had talked about it when I got home. And in a language that a ten year old child could understand, my father had told me a little about what it had been like in Europe, some twenty years before, two decades, almost an eternity for me then… He added that I shouldn’t worry about his boss, that he would continue to still love me and that I should just pretend nothing had happened because in his life he had known more than his share of misfortune.

When the night of the broadcast came, my father sat in his rocking chair and left me the more comfortable chair. The ceiling light was turned off and we were sitting in front of the black and white TV screen. And that’s how two memories were engraved in my mind and were always associated. The first memory were the horrifying images of that documentary you should have seen once. They were images of a dirty bulldozer which pushed over a mass of emaciated and disarticulated corpses until they felt into a pit. Exactly as if they were garbage in a landfill. The second memory was about my father who leaned forward at the same time, with his elbows resting on his knees, his hands gathered in front, his feet spread apart and his face dripping with tears. Tears so heavy that they felt to the ground like a heavy spring shower.

When the documentary was over, our emotions were more or less under control. My father asked me soberly what I remembered from all this and if I had any questions. Apart from being convinced that a man as hard to hurt as he was could cry without shame (which I didn’t admit to him because that wasn’t what he wanted to know…), I expressed the small point of view of a teenager with a lot of questions in my mind. Then, I couldn’t help myself and I asked him why he had cried when he saw the scene with the bulldozer. And then he stood up, looked me straight in the eyes and came gently towards me. He simply said: “Because I was there when these images were shot. I was at the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany, just before the war ended”. I was without words. I was probably so stunned that he opened his arms and told me to come near him. Thirty seconds later, he kissed my head and added: “Now to the beds. Tomorrow is certainly going to be a day when we can both do our best. Tilting his head a little to the side, he said tenderly: “And forward march!”.

Source IWM

Thus ended what was my first evening as an adult. My investigation about what I had seen would continue…

In order to avoid as much as possible to trigger an episode of heart problems (from the 70s onwards, he had experienced several), I never dared to talk about all this with him again afterwards. And time passed as it always does for people who love each other, too quickly…

In September 1984, Ti-Mick, that was my father’s nickname, suffered a devastating heart attack at the age of 63. That’s my age today… The following year, in 1985, I set out to find out what really had happened of my father’s journey in Europe and what it had been like or at least to find out more about it, the wear and tear he had endured. With time I had learned a few things during his lifetime but which seemed to me much more full of holes, than full of solid facts. At the forefront of this quest, it seemed important to me to clarify was the presence of Fusiliers Mont-Royal at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Living in Montreal at the time, I went first to visit my father’s brothers-in-arms whom I knew. Gathering here and there some information, especially anecdotes that did not seem to me to be decisive in any way. Nevertheless I had heard that from Holland, the regiment had been so scattered that my interlocutors had only seen “Ti-Mick” again long after his return to rejoin them. Ah, and also my father had specifically forbidden everyone to say anything concerning him, to a son a little too curious for his taste… This convinced me in changing how to search for facts and move forward concretely. Finally, to change my method…

Having no access to sources other than which was available to every researcher, I determined from then on to contact those whom I could logically only learned about the regiment. Well, well, “poor little me”! Then followed a rather hazardous and approximate progression of knowledge, very partial and repetitive, in factual content.

This lasted for years.

I was reading everything that could lay my hand on. There were lots of information that were never really new to me and everything was very fragmented (except for the work of Pierre Vennat, a journalist, I wish here to thank him publicly). There were phone calls and letters to Mr. X or Mrs. Y (people generally polite and promising to help). I had a lot of work to do (but no doubt too busy to follow up on the content), questioning of specialized and distrustful authors, questioning of journalists designated as authorities, questioning of official and salaried historians, which meant that at the best with the (slow) progress of my research, concrete results were only presented in a jagged fashion.

My attempts were not very encouraging, but fortunately sometimes left me with the satisfaction of meeting wonderful. Of course, my insistence, perhaps my obstinacy, often earned me to be classified by my interlocutors as a “constant source of intellectual irritation”. This is why many of them have developed a tendency of keeping out of the way to avoid fatigue. A classification that I still sometimes have retained today. Without being the only one of its kind, probably…

Then one day life brought me to move to Europe. In France to be precise. And then I said to myself that, after all, to find concrete information on a human scale about these events that interested me, perhaps this greater proximity would not be useless? And I was quite right to ask myself this hypothesis as a motivation not to give up. Not to back down. Because since then, without announcing or describing everything, among other things I have found what follows:

a) official archival photos and films from the very rich and enriching Imperial War Museum in London, as well as the very moving Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Germany, where soldiers who appear several times can only be from the Régiment des Fusiliers Mont-Royal.

These photos include footage of a convoy of trucks arriving with a number of soldiers clearly wearing a beret with the battalion insignia (a very special grenade), footage of the same type of trucks loaded with Nazi prisoners being transported under strict guard of armed men with the same insignia, and finally, the images that precede and follow the very moving images, presented several times on the Radio-Canada network, of the arrest of Joseph Kramer, head of the Nazi guards, by Montreal soldier Jack Marcovitch of the Royal Canadian Army Corps.

In these “complementary” images, we clearly see other soldiers participating in his arrest, one of whom, in the foreground, is carrying a grenade on his beret.

On some sequences, the regimental shoulder badges can be seen, but it would take professional technical image processing work to identify them absolutely.

On other sequences that are chronologically subsequent to these first ones, the uniforms of these men having obviously been changed, there are no longer any fabric shoulder badges. Too bad. Although one can get an accurate picture of all this from these other items we found…

(b) the official list of names of all units which are recognised as having participated in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp by : arrest, surveillance and armed supervision of its guards; by securing the surviving deportees, providing health and sanitary care (general typhus epidemic and others) and progressive re-feeding; by burying tens of thousands of people who died of hunger and/or disease (the remains lying in the open air) and thousands more who died after 15 April (up to 500 deaths per day); by the medical transport of the sick, repatriation and/or emigration of the survivors; by the destruction by fire of these barracks, where, in an attempt to protect themselves from the bad weather and the cold, thousands of deportees were crammed together and finally; by the forced securing of the Nazi guards (men and women) taken prisoner because of a riot and subsequent attempts at lynching (very understandable). The first peculiarity of this list is that only four units have no regimental identifications, all four following each other in the nomenclature by numbers that remain to this day without any known meaning. And which has for second characteristic that none of the mentioned units has a grenade as insignia…

(c) direct testimonies from deportees about the presence among the liberators of many French-speaking Canadian soldiers whose main task (along with others) would have been to disarm, arrest and “supervise” the Nazi officers and guards in the camp and to force them to dispose of the bodies themselves with their bare hands to and inside the pits.

Of these elements, in conclusion, let me be granted a wish. One that all the children and descendants of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal who, at the age of 20, took the risk of enlisting, should seriously explore their memory and the wartime memories of their fathers, uncles or grandfathers. But also of all the “Canayens” who did so in Quebec. Accompanied by our mothers, grandmothers and aunts, for having given us to live in a world that was fairer and much more abundant than the one they lived in, for the stubbornness they showed in order to bring down a dictatorship based not only on inequality in human rights but on the deliberate organization of it, don’t they deserve our “re-recognition”? And therefore, by definition, this knowledge that is always to be sought of what they have done?

That they had French as their language does not justify any impasse on the heroism of ours. Neither in Canada nor in the world. That they themselves chose discretion belongs to them, and I certainly will not blame them. But that does not allow us to be indifferent to their role in the annihilation of an empire which not only gave itself the ideology of imposing itself on everyone by force of arms, but also the right to decide the destiny of any human group. This went so far as to organize their physical elimination.
Their extermination…

Who knows so long afterwards, a spring shower could not contribute, if only a little, to the germination of one or two flowers of liberty and justice rising up?
One, two, or a hundred thousand?
Thank you for reading me (at length…) here.


Help us identify these FMRs.

To contact us, leave a comment or use the form at the end.



How to search on this blog?

Use the search button on the right side to look for someone’s name among all the posts I wrote about unsung heroes.
Use the comment section or the contact form below.

Breaking News!

I got this comment last week from Norm Gervais, but I did not have time to post something on the blog.

Mon père Jacques Gervais peut-être nommé comme James Gervais était je crois CPO lors de l’attaque. Il a dit très peu de choses lorsque il vivait au sujet de l’événement. Il doit sûrement sa vie au fait qu’il a été très sérieusement blessé et que à cause de ses blessure il a été placé dans un canot de sauvetage. Il paraitrait que plusieurs des marins non blessés ont dû s’accrocher au radeau parce qu’il n’y avait pas de place dans le canot. Certains de ceux-ci auraient été attaqué par des requins alors que d’autres seraient décédés à cause de l’eau froide. Mon père a été un de ceux qui n’a pas été fait prisonnier mais secouru par HMCS HAIDA.


My father Jacques Gervais, maybe going by the name James Gervais was I believe CPO (Chief Petty Officer) during the attack. He said very little about the event when he was living. He surely owed his life by the fact that he was very seriously injured, and because of this was put aboard a lifeboat. It would seem that several uninjured sailors had stayed in the water, and had to hold on to the lifeboat because there was not enough place. Some of them would have been attacked by sharks  while others died of hypothermia. My father was one of those not taken prisoner but rescued by HMCS HAIDA.

The name James Gervais or Jacques Gervais is not on the list found in the book Unlucky Lady.

This is the second time someone has written me about the list being incomplete.

The first time was in 2012 and I wrote about it.

Click here.

Norm wrote me a second time and he told me he thinks his father was working in the engine room… just like my wife’s uncle.

I got thinking…

Could Norm’s father be on these pictures taken early April 1944?

To be continued?

Remembering a comment

A comment left earlier in April…

My Great Uncle Alfred (George) Berkeley is listed in the names of the lost. George was killed while at his station at the Y gun he was 19. The first torpedo hit. George was new to the ship, so there are no pictures of him on board. I have uploaded a picture of George on the Virtual Canadian War Memorial. The HMCS Athabaskan was sunk while engaging German Ebling class torpedo boats that had attacked and killed over 1000 CDN/US and British service men, while on maneuvers called operation TIGER practicing for D-DAY off the coast of England. I had also met many survivors here in BC in the late 80 and early 90’s. they all had very different memories and trauma. I also have a personal letter from Len Burrow the author of the Unlucky Lady. What a great generation.


Link to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial


I wrote this earlier in April. I had asked his relative to look for great-uncle George on these two photos shared by Herman Sulkers’ son.

I know it’s not easy to find one of the greatest generation.

“Thin” Revisited – Robert Lawrence Yeadon?

“Thin”, that’s the nickname my wife’s uncle had used in 2009 when his daughter showed him the picture of the crew.

Old photo - WW 11-2_mod

With this information I then decided to write this post.


My wife’s cousin wrote me again about her father and the Athabaskan…

I had told her that I did not want to bother her with the story of Athabaskan.

I can be quite obsessive sometimes.

Hi Pierre,

You don’t cause me any problems, it’s a real pleasure to dive into history. On the contrary, I’m deeply grateful because I now know a lot more about my father’s involment in the war..

Yesterday, while talking to dad, I noticed that he was a little bit confused, consciously or unconsciously; this disurbs him. I decided that I was to respect that. On the other hand, I bought with me the picture you gave me of the crew of the Athabaskan taken in April 1944. He recognized someone. He is the sailor in the middle between the two cannons in the third row; he is chubby. He did not recall his name, but he recalls his nickname: “Thin”… something like that. He met him once after the year.

He was happy to see the picture and I promised him to print a copy.

I started looking for pictures of my dad… When I am done, I will contact you again.

Have a nice day.

This is “Thin…”



I wonder if my wife’s uncle had a nickname on the Athabaskan…

When I look at that picture, I think of all those brave men who gave their lives for their country and all those who survided the war but have to live now with their memories of the sinking.


I thought this morning I had finally found who “Thin” was on this Website.


But if my wife’s uncle did meet “Thin” after the war then he can’t possibly be Robert Lawrence Yeadon…


Able Seaman Robert Lawrence Yeadon



Who remembers Lucien Riendeau?

A name on a list in the book Unlucky Lady…

cover page 1

A memorial on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial

No picture just an image of his medals.


A nephew who sent me this request a few hours ago…

My uncle was on the Athabaskan when it was sunk. His name was LUCIEN JOSEPH RIENDEAU who was the son of IVANHOE RIENDEAU WHO LIVED IN LOWER TOWN IN OTTAWA ONTARIO AND WAS KILLED ON THAT DATE THE UNLUCKY LADY SANK. Would like to find out any informations about my uncle who gave his life during the war and a lake was named in his honour called  RIENDEAU LAKE IN NORTHERN ONTARIO. IF ANYONE KNOWS ANY INFORMATIONS ABOUT LUCIEN JOSEPH RIENDEAU  PLEASE FEEL FREE IN CONTACTING ME  

Thank you   


Paul Riendeau

Click here for his file on Ancestry.


“Gloucester” 38 – 41 – Redux

One reason I shared what Jim L’Esperance’s son has shared since 2009.

It’s about this comment…

It was a shame I did not come across this while my mother was still alive. Bill Hollett was my uncle and my mother always wondered what happened to him. She thought he went down with the ship. I’m glad I can add this to our family history book.


Jim L'Esperance 019

You asked for it Jimmie

R Wainright


What about HMS Gloucester?


This led me to this…

Click here for the original text.

The name Wainwright appears only once.

Is it the same sailor? We know the ship sank in 1941.

Could it be the same sailor who told this story?

Yeoman Petty Officer Bob Wainwright, from Newcastle, had already seen plenty of action whilst serving on Gloucester’s sister ship, Liverpool where he had narrowly escaped death when she was hit by two bombs which failed to explode. Later he was drafted to HMS Kent and was on board when she was torpedoed in September 1940. Three days later he joined Gloucester.

Bob was stationed on the bridge of Gloucester and had a grandstand view of the attacks that took place prior to the sinking;

‘When we ran out of ammunition we finished up firing the 6-inch guns and starshells, it was a waste of time really. Wave after wave of Stukas were concentrating on us. By the time the order came to abandon ship we had gone another half mile from where we were first hit. I saw men in the carley floats, and men who were swimming, being machine gunned by the enemy planes. I decided it might be safer to remain on the ship for as long as possible. A bomb hit the ship aft and the aft Director Control Tower went up in the air, then toppled over the side, it also took half of the main mast away. The aerials came crashing down and I took cover. One of the aerial insulators hit the captain’s steward and it took the top of his head clean off. I went back to the bridge and assisted a Sub Lieutenant to throw the Cypher books over the side. All the time pompom shells were exploding. Fiji was off the starboard side and Captain Rowley told me to make a signal to Fiji and ask her to come alongside but before I could do so, the captain took the flags from me and sent the signal himself. The reply came back, “Sorry but I will drop carley floats”. I made my way to the forecastle, where I saw a Royal Naval Reserve Lieutenant bravely directing men into the water, between air raids. The ship was listing so much that I just walked into the sea where I joined up with signalman Len ‘Al’ Bowley. We both knew that we could suffer severe internal injuries if the boilers exploded so we decided to swim as far from the ship as possible. The ship was wallowing in the water and I couldn’t believe she was about to sink. After Gloucester went down we were swimming from one piece of flotsam to another. Bowley kept asking me if we were going to make it. I told him, “of course we are” but in truth I didn’t think that we had a hope in hell’.

I am pasting the full article in case the link would become unavailable.

1 Revenge in the Making

At 0800 on Tuesday May 20th, Operation ‘Mercury’, the German codename for the invasion of Crete began. It was the first airborne invasion in history. The Germans planned to drop 23,000 troops, from 500 troop carriers, during the first three days. The Luftwaffe’s principle strike force, Fliegerkorps VIII, was made up of bombers, dive-bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, totalling 716 planes.

The British Eastern Mediterranean Fleet was about to encounter this force without the support of the aircraft based on Crete, which had been withdrawn to Egypt.

During the afternoon of 20th May, allied reconnaissance aircraft had located a flotilla of twenty-five enemy caiques travelling from Piraeus towards their advance base of Milos. By late evening the caiques had overcome strong headwinds and heavy seas to reach Milos, from where they would sail to Maleme on the north west coast of Crete.

Cunningham’s strategy for the prevention of a seaborne invasion on Crete was to divide the fleet into separate forces. Force B, made up of Gloucester and Fiji and the destroyers Greyhound and Griffin were ordered to carry out a sweep, during the night of Tuesday 20th May, between Cape Elephonsi and Cape Matapan. At 0700 on Wednesday 21st May having sighted nothing, they joined Force A1 which was then in a position fifty miles west of Crete. Rear Admiral Rawlings, commanding Force A1 from the battleship Warspite, also had Valiant and the destroyers Napier, Kimberley, Janus, Isis, Imperial and Griffin. With the fleet now covering the seaways to Crete, the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet awaited the anticipated invasion flotilla.

Rear Admiral Rawlings’ A1 Force was sixty miles west of the Anti Kythira channel by dawn on Wednesday 21st May and proceeding south east to join up with Rear Admiral Glennie’s Force D, made up of the cruisers Dido, Orion and Ajax and the destroyers Hasty, Hero and Hereward. With the Luftwaffe enjoying supremacy of the air, Cunningham’s directions were that the British fleet should retire south of Crete by day, thereby reducing the threat from the air. Furthermore, with the naval forces joined together better protection could be given by a concentrated anti-aircraft barrage.

During the forenoon and afternoon of Wednesday 21st May, the fleet suffered many intensive attacks from the Luftwaffe. Gloucester and the rest of the ships under Rawlings’ command were attacked in the morning and for two and a half hours in the afternoon. Although there were no casualties, the intense barrage put up by the ships had expended a considerable amount of ammunition. The question of ammunition supplies for the ships was giving so much concern to Rawlings that he sent a signal to the ships under his command, warning them of the need to conserve their supplies of high angle ammunition.

The other forces at sea around Crete also suffered intense attacks by the Luftwaffe, but with the policy of concentrating the ships to throw up an intense barrage, the bombers and dive-bombers were held at bay. The cruiser Ajax, in Force D, suffered some damage during the morning but by afternoon Force D had joined with Force A1 in order to concentrate the anti-aircraft defences.

At 1300, Force C, under the command of Rear Admiral King, lost the destroyer Juno, after three hours of heavy attacks she was hit by three bombs, and sank in only two minutes.

Force Al, and Glennie’s Force D, had assembled in an area to the south west of the island of Kythira. Force D was made up of the battleships Warspite and Valiant, the cruisers, Gloucester, Fiji, Ajax, Orion and Dido plus eight destroyers. The group offered considerable mutual protection whilst at the same time being in a position to intercept any attempts by the Italian fleet to defend the seaborne invasion of Crete.

Whilst the British forces at sea were enduring relentless attacks from the air, the Germans had captured the airport at Maleme. To reinforce their foothold on Crete, they had organised two flotillas of commandeered Greek caiques and small coastal steamers to transport arms and supplies to their troops on the island. Each vessel carried about 100 German Mountain Troops and a few Italian marines in addition to the equipment aboard. The first of the two convoys which had made its way from Piraeus to Milos, set off on the final seventy mile journey to Crete in the early hours of 21st May.

The Italian battle fleet remained in harbour, although a few small ships were released for escort duty. The destroyer Lupo was in charge of the Milos to Crete flotilla. Commander Mimbelli, the ship’s captain, had the unenviable task of escorting the flotilla: Lupo was armed with only three 3.9 inch guns and four 18 inch torpedo tubes, and the flotilla could sail at a speed of only four knots to Crete. The Royal Navy dominated the approaches by night, therefore it was imperative that the convoy should arrive at Canea Bay before nightfall.

At 1000, Commander Mimbelli received instructions to turn the flotilla and return to Milos. These instructions were based on German reconnaissance reports that British warships were operating in the flotilla’s direct line of approach to Crete. After returning to Milos, further reconnaissance from the Luftwaffe reported the seas to be clear of Royal Navy ships to the north of Crete and so the flotilla left Milos once again.

The slow speed of the heavily laden caiques meant that they would take over seventeen hours to travel the seventy miles to Crete and it was therefore impossible to reach their destination before dark. Allied reconnaissance soon reported them and Cunningham ordered the fleet to destroy it.

At 2330, Admiral Glennie’s Force D found the luckless convoy when it was just eighteen miles north of Crete. The flotilla, defended only by Lupo, was hopelessly outgunned against the cruisers Dido, Orion and Ajax and the destroyers Janus, Kimberley, Hasty and Hereward.

As soon as the searchlights picked out the caiques, Commander Mimbelli laid a smoke screen to hide his charges and then engaged the British ships with gunfire and torpedoes. Despite his bravery and the fact that Lupo was hit by eighteen 6-inch shells during the next two hours, Commander Mimbelli was unable to prevent the routing of the convoy and only a few of the original twenty five ships in the convoy escaped destruction. Despite waving white sheets, the caiques were blown apart by Glennie’s ships and many of their passengers drowned.

Admiral Glennie found the sinking of the Greek caiques unpleasant and in his report on the destruction of the flotilla he later wrote;

‘When illuminated they were seen to be crowded with German troops and to be flying Greek colours. The crews, obviously pressed men, were standing on deck waving white flags and it was distasteful having to destroy them’.

Whatever the numbers of casualties, those who were fortunate enough to have been picked up by the badly damaged Lupo, or by an air-sea search, told stories of being rammed and run down in the sea. The accounts of German soldiers who were aboard the small boats in the flotilla are of crucial importance in understanding events that took place later in the day. These accounts were fed back to the Luftwaffe pilots who then sought revenge.

A German Officer who was aboard one of the vessels said that his caique was hit, followed by another broadside; it then sank in a huge tongue of flame. Some of his men had jumped overboard and some had been blown into the sea by the explosion before they managed to get to a dinghy.

Following the decimation of the invasion flotilla, the Germans held an enquiry and evidence was heard from men who had survived the ordeal.

Lieutenant Walter Henglen said that the crew of the caique he was on had attempted to surrender by waving a white towel and signalling with white handkerchiefs. He added that as the British ships were only two hundred metres away they must have seen them through their binoculars, but the next thing he knew was that between ten and fifteen shells hit the craft. Once in the sea, Lieutenant Henglen said;

‘Machine gun bullets splashed in a semi circle around me’.

Ernst Stribny, also a survivor, said that a British cruiser had repeatedly passed through the wreckage, firing at the soldiers in the sea and many men had drowned by being sucked under by the ship’s propellers.

2 Indecision and Lack of Ammunition

The lack of air support for the Royal Navy was now a crucial factor since the fleet was operating in the waters north of Crete, dangerously close to enemy airfields. Cunningham’s pleas and arguments for more air support in the preceding months had been unanswered in London.

While the German convoy was being decimated by Glennie’s Force D, Captain Rowley aboard Gloucester and in command of Force B, consisting of Fiji and the destroyers Greyhound and Griffin, had spent a watchful but uneventful night in the Aegean. As daylight broke on 22nd May 1941, the small force was sailing west to rejoin Rawlings’ A1 Force and the morning sun rose to reveal a beautiful clear sky.

At 0630, two waves of enemy aircraft, each consisting of twenty-five Stukas, attacked the cruisers. For an hour and a half countless attacks took place and both Gloucester and Fiji were damaged by near misses. The superstructure of Gloucester was peppered by fragmentation bombs and more serious damage was avoided through a combination of skill in manoeuvring the ship, the untiring work of her gun crews and a certain amount of good fortune. At about 0800 the last of the enemy planes left and Force B reached the relative safety of Rawlings’ battle fleet half an hour later.

Glennie had already taken his ships west to rejoin Rawlings’ A1 force, following the destruction of the German invasion force from Milos. The encounters with the Luftwaffe and the destruction of the convoy during the previous day had once again raised the problem of ammunition shortages on Glennie’s ships.

Gloucester and the other three ships in Force B rejoined Rawlings’ A1 force, south west of Kythira. Force B had been under attack from 0630, apart from a brief respite between 0800 and 0900. Admiral Rawlings’ A1 Force, which now included Gloucester, came under attack at varying intervals from 0900 and throughout the morning. Rawlings said that the expenditure of high angle ammunition; ‘gave cause for anxiety’.

The ammunition returns provided good reason for his concern. At 0931, the battleships Warspite and Valiant had 66% and 80% respectively but it was the cruiser deficiencies that caused most concern. Ajax had 40%, Orion 38%, Fiji 30%, Dido 25%, but alarmingly, Gloucester reported that she had only 18% of her ammunition left.

At 1045, Admiral Glenie’s Force D, which included Ajax, Orion and Dido, departed to Alexandria to reammunition. Why Gloucester didn’t leave with them is a mystery. Bearing in mind that her ammunition returns at 0931 showed that she had only 18% of her high angle ammunition left, and with the air attacks continuing, it was clear that this meagre supply would soon be used up.

Force D’s return to Alexandria had been ordered by Cunningham, who at the time was unaware of Gloucester’s depleted ammunition. Nevertheless it is difficult to understand why Rawlings, who did know, did not detach Gloucester to Alexandria with Glennie’s force, all of whom had more ammunition than Gloucester.

Admiral King’s Force C meanwhile, was steaming north towards the island of Milos, in an attempt to intercept any further Crete-bound invasion convoys. From 0700 the force came under attack from the air but at 0830 a caique was sighted, with German troops aboard. The Australian cruiser, Perth, was detached from Force C, to sink the luckless caique, which was a survivor from the flotilla that Glennie’s force had routed in the early hours of the previous night.

J.K.E. Nelson was a sailor aboard Perth who recalled seeing the caique flying a swastika but then they ran up a white flag. He said that after some Germans had abandoned the caique, Perth opened up with her pompoms and more German troops came up onto the deck and dived over the side. Perth finished off the caique with a salvo from her 4-inch guns, while a German soldier was still desperately clinging to the rigging.

King’s force then sank a small merchant ship and at 1000, saw an enemy torpedo boat escorting some caiques about twenty five miles south of Milos. The convoy which they came across was a second invasion flotilla bound for Crete and larger than the one that had been devastated during the previous night. King deployed his destroyers to give chase to the enemy convoy. The cruisers Perth and Naiad engaged the Italian destroyer Sagittario, the principal escort ship of the convoy, which by now was making smoke to hide the caiques.

King’s force had become divided during this action and was therefore vulnerable. With mounting air attacks from Stukas and JU88 bombers, King now had to make a crucial decision: whether to pursue and destroy the enemy convoy or turn about and head west to link up with Admiral Rawlings’ force, to the west of Kythira.

In King’s force, Carlisle’s speed had been reduced to twenty-one knots, and because of the continuous air attacks, Force C’s high angle ammunition was being used up at an alarming rate. King decided to call off the chase. With his ships now regrouped, he had to fight his way west to meet up with Rawlings’ A1 Force.

For over three hours, after turning about, King’s force repulsed attacks by Stukas and bombers during which Naiad and Carlisle were both hit. Captain T.C. Hampton, the commanding officer on Carlisle, was killed.

Rawlings, meanwhile, was aware of Admiral King’s plight and signalled to him that Force A1 would be situated between twenty and thirty miles west of the Anti Kythira channel during the morning, awaiting King’s force.

At 1225, Rawlings received a signal from King saying that Naiad was badly damaged and in need of support. Rawlings then made the decision to go east into the Aegean and ordered his force to increase their speed to twenty-three knots. Gloucester was ordered to prepare to take Naiad in tow. The air attacks were now at their most intense and King’s ships were fighting for survival. At 1241, Rawlings received a further signal from King that Carlisle had been hit. Fiji was ordered to make preparations to take her in tow.

As Rawlings’ force raced towards King’s beleaguered ships it was apparent that they would again attract the attention of the Luftwaffe. At 1312 Fiji was ordered to take Carlisle in tow. However, at 1330, King signalled to Rawlings that Carlisle was not badly damaged, so Fiji was hastily recalled.

At 1332, Rawlings’ force had reached the middle of the Kythira channel when his flagship, Warspite, was dive bombed by three ME109’s coming directly down the fore and aft line of the great ship. The leading plane dropped its bombs, hitting the starboard 4-inch guns. The starboard 4-inch and 6-inch batteries were put out of action and damage caused to the No 3 boiler room intakes reduced the ship’s speed.

King’s westbound force had, by now, joined with Rawlings’ ships, which had been steaming east to support them. Rawlings turned his ships about and the fleet made their escape to the west. Dense smoke from Warspite’s boilers meant that the turn about had to be carried out away from King’s force and as a consequence, a distance of four miles opened up between the two forces.

Rear Admiral King, who was senior to Rawlings, took overall command and from then on he had the responsibility of ensuring the safety of both forces.

Almost immediately he had to deal with an attack on the destroyer Greyhound.

Greyhound had been despatched at 1320, to sink a large caique that was travelling south between the islands of Pori and Anti Kythira. Having succeeded in sinking the caique, Greyhound rejoined the wing of King’s force but was immediately attacked by dive-bombers and hit twice. At 1358, King signalled Rawlings to take his force to Greyhound to give her support. Only two minutes later at 1400, King changed his mind and ordered Rawlings to give close support to his own force, instead of to Greyhound. King then ordered Gloucester and Fiji to give cover to the destroyers Kingston and Kandahar, who were already on their way to Greyhound.

At 1413, with air attacks continuing, King repeated his call to Rawlings for close support, adding that his ships had practically no high angle ammunition left. Rawlings, by now, was extremely anxious about King’s orders to Gloucester and Fiji. He signalled his anxiety to King informing him of the desperate shortage of ammunition on both ships, especially Gloucester. King then changed his orders again and instructed Gloucester and Fiji to withdraw, at Captain Rowley’s discretion.

At 1530, Rawlings’ A1 Force and King’s Force C, could see Gloucester and Fiji steaming at full speed in a desperate attempt to rejoin the safety of the battle fleet. However, the two cruisers were by then engaging enemy dive bombers and because Gloucester had used up her few remaining rounds of high angle ammunition, the attacks came in lower and lower.

At 1550, the inevitable happened and Gloucester was hit. Fiji, herself out of 4-inch ammunition, signalled that Gloucester was out of control. Rawlings received the signals from Fiji and relayed them to King. King replied that he would order Gloucester to be sunk.

King then became uncertain about his decision and at 1555, signalled to Rawlings, saying that if the battle fleet went back to support Gloucester, they ran the risk of more ships being damaged or even lost. He then asked for Rawlings’ views.

King’s signal to Rawlings clearly indicates that he was finding it impossible to decide on the best course of action. In the end, it was left to Rawlings to advise King that in view of the state of Force C, Gloucester would have to be left. King then ordered Fiji to sink Gloucester and withdraw.

3 The Sinking: Abandoned and Alone

Rawlings’ and King’s battle fleet steamed away to safety while Gloucester’s gunners were reduced to firing star shells at the Stukas, who by now were diving at the ship at mast height before releasing their bombs. Only Fiji, herself desperately short of ammunition and still being attacked, remained with Gloucester. At this point, Fiji decided to leave Gloucester and presumably to ignore the instruction to sink her when it became apparent that she would soon go down anyway.

As Fiji steamed by the ravaged ship, the Captain ordered carley floats to be thrown overboard for the men of Gloucester. It was a generous and courageous act and one that undoubtedly helped to save some lives.

Ernie Witcher, from East Wittering in Sussex, was on board the destroyer Kingston, within four hundred yards of Gloucester when she was attacked;

‘I saw a Stuka diving and as I followed its progress I saw a bomb leave the aircraft and hit Gloucester’s main mast, which came down with a shudder and then fell over the side of the ship. Gloucester didn’t stand a chance’.

John Wells was a young telegraphist, standing on the compass platform on board Fiji. He had a grandstand view of the bombs being dropped and recalled how skilfully the ship was manoeuvred in her attempts to avoid them. He saw the carley floats being dropped and recalled that the Gloucestermen, who were now in the sea, were cheering as Fiji steamed by.

On board Gloucester the situation was desperate. She had received a number of direct hits, which had immobilised the steering and caused a number of fires to break out. Unable to control the ship any longer and with no high angle ammunition left, the only thing the men could do was to assist the wounded and fight the fires before they were eventually ordered to abandon ship.

‘There were four of us in the party and we ran down a ladder from the after galley flat, along to the sick bay and on to the torpedomen’s messdeck. We realised how badly the ship had been hit when we saw so many marines lying dead. Fear took hold of me. The bombs fell continuously and then the ship shuddered and I knew we had been hit yet again. Our leading hand, ‘Happy’ Day shouted to us to get up top and away from the messdeck. I was the last one up the ladder and desperately pushing the lad in front of me when I heard a crash, then lumps of hot metal came through the side of the ship. If I’d still been on the deck my legs would have been blown off. We got to the sick bay flat where other men had started to gather amongst the dead and dying. For a time there was no lighting but eventually the lights came on and we saw more badly injured men being brought in. It was a gruesome sight. Then we were told to go aft. As we made our way through the ship, I was about twelfth from the front. Suddenly the hanger deck was hit and the adjacent canteen was blown apart. I still have this vivid memory of cigarettes, chocolates and other things, which the NAAFI sold, flying through the air. Immediately, about eight of the men in front of me dropped dead from the blast. We pressed on and I remember shouting to the men behind me to mind the lads on the deck. It wasn’t a stampede but we were all desperate to get to the open part of the ship. Eventually we got to the waist deck and I saw a pal of mine lying by the torpedo tubes, face down. I turned him over and saw that he had been killed by shrapnel. When I reached the hanger deck I realised that I’d left my life jacket near the action station. I raced back along the port side and to my horror I saw that P2 gun had been hit and was hanging over the side with all the gun crew lying dead. I could also see that the after director tower had also been hit and had toppled into the sea with all the men inside it. The carnage and destruction was terrible. Two other men joined me and we ran to take cover. Then a bomb hit the port side of the ship, causing the pompom guns, which were still set on automatic firing, to swing around and spray bullets along the deck. The two men either side of me were killed outright. Just after that, Lieutenant Setten called out to me, “Come over here son and help me throw these beams overboard”. We pitched about six overboard, then the officer said, “I’ve got the order to abandon ship. You can go now lad. Best of luck”. Within a few minutes the ship was hit again and Lieutenant Setten was killed.

‘I was about to jump when I looked over the side of the ship. She was listing heavily to port. A Stuka dived at us so low that I could see the pilot’s face. He dropped a 5001b bomb with incendiaries attached to it, and it hit the forward end of the ship. Gloucester was in flames from stem to stern and I knew I had to get away from her before she sank. One of the cutters had been lowered into the sea and I grabbed a rope which was hanging from one of the davits, but the rope had been cut and I plummeted in to the sea, falling between the ship’s side and the cutter. I went under the water but as I came up to the surface, someone hauled me into the cutter. There were seven of us in there, with Petty Officer John Mayer sitting in the bow. Gloucester was still being bombed as the Petty Officer told us to pull away. I could see men, still on the ship, trying to get in to the sea, but some were just walking up and down the deck as if unable to comprehend what was happening. There were fires all over the ship’.

Sam Dearie, the stoker from Glasgow, had celebrated his twenty fifth birthday only nine days before Gloucester was sunk. His action station was in a damage control party and when the ship was first hit he said it felt as though she had been lifted out of the sea;

‘We got the order to abandon ship. I picked up a wooden form to throw over the side, so that I would have something to hold on to in the water. Just then I saw Toby, the ship’s dog, cowering in a corner. He was shaking and terrified. I picked him up and took him to the side of the ship. The dog seemed pleased and started wagging his tail. That dog was really spoiled by all of us and I wanted to try and give him his chance along with the rest of us so I put him over the side, into the sea’.

Toby was seen by some of the survivors later that evening. He was clinging to a piece of timber, which was floating in the sea.

Sixteen year old Peter Everest was also terrified. The gun where he was stationed was blown overboard;

‘I was sheltered from the blast but got hit on my head and leg. I remember a rating putting his arm around my neck and he half carried me to the sick bay flat. There were a lot of injured men there and I could hear that the ship was still being bombed. I heard, “Abandon ship”, and someone picked me up, took me to the side of the ship and shouted, “Now jump”. Luckily, I landed right in the middle of a carley float. The float soon filled up with other men: I remember that one man had lost an arm’.

Harry Coxell, a boy seaman who had survived the sinking of HMS Bonaventure just seven weeks earlier, was at his action station in the cordite handling room;

‘In the handling room, we didn’t hear the order to abandon ship until someone shouted down to us that it had been given half an hour ago. I went up on deck with Tom Dunne, another boy seaman. We could see a dive bomber coming towards the ship and Tom said that we should hurry and get in the sea. I said that we would be safer getting under the gun turret and I went and hid there. Tom dived into the sea. The dive bomber dropped its bomb just on the spot where Tom had gone in and I never saw him again. When I got into the water I could see that the men who were in groups were being machine gunned by low flying planes, so I stayed on my own until it got dark and there were no more planes. I held onto a plank with about fourteen other men but by morning there were only two of us left’.

Ernie Evans, just eighteen years old, was at his action station in the early morning;

‘After the early morning attacks we were again called to action stations, but this time I was sent down to the magazine. I could hear the guns firing and the bombs dropping in the sea. Then there was a terrific explosion in the compressor room, just above us. All the lights went out and I will never forget how claustrophobic I felt at that point. Colour Sergeant Richards told me to get an emergency lamp but when I switched it on the fumes from the explosion were so thick that I still couldn’t see anything. I was expecting the magazine to be flooded at any moment but we were lucky that the bomb had damaged the flooding arrangements.

‘We all got out except for one man who went mad and jumped on my back. I got him off me and then he refused to leave the magazine so we had to leave him behind. We got into the handling room and closed the magazine doors. After that I never saw any more of the men who had been in the magazine with me.

‘The bomb had made a hole down through the ship and I saw a rope hanging down from the quarterdeck, which was three decks above me. I got part way up a ladder, grabbed the rope and went up it like a monkey. How I did it I don’t know. As I reached the waist, by the torpedo tubes, the upper deck was in an awful state. X turret, one of the two 6-inch turrets manned by Royal Marines and located at the after end of the ship, was turned over and there were piles of shell cases and bodies everywhere. I decided that the safest place for me would be under the bridge so I made my way forward, through the NAAFI, canteen flat and the sick bay.

‘By now, Gloucester was stopped and she was listing heavily. Corporal Plumb was standing beneath the catapult for the planes. He was directing men, either up to the flight deck or to the waist, trying to prevent panic and keep some order. In fact, he was acting like a policeman directing traffic and he did manage to stop the panic.

‘Eventually I got to the flight deck where I met Cdr Tanner. His face was black from the smoke. He told me to help him throw some beams over the side. There were lots of men in the sea by now. The Commander said, “It looks like the end of the ‘Fighting G’ lad. Now over the side you go”. I jumped in and swam about two hundred yards away from the ship, just as Fiji was dropping carley floats. The lads on Fiji were cheering and waving to us as they went by. Petty Officer Alfred Hutton was near me in the water.

We lashed three carley floats together and manoeuvred them back to the ship. Men who were already in the sea made their way over to the floats, in a desperate attempt to save their lives’.

Billy Grindell, the stoker from Cardiff, was in a fire and repair party amidships;

‘One of our duties was to seal off compartments before opening up the valves on the 12-inch pipes and flooding them. As the lads inside couldn’t get out it was a hard task to carry out but it had to be done’.

Bill Howe, who had been a farmer’s boy on Dartmoor, was at his action station on the main deck;

‘A bomb came through the other side of the superstructure and exploded. The pressure of the blast was terrific and it felt as though someone had punched me in the ears. Many men were killed, especially on the deck below, as they had no means of escaping. Everything seemed to happen at once; more bombs dropped and it was impossible to assess the damage before fresh reports came in. All over the ship there were loud explosions and eventually the engines and boilers were put out of action. I heard someone shouting, “Abandon ship, abandon ship’, so I went up on deck where the surgeon grabbed me and a couple of others and we set about looking for wounded men to tend. Some of them were very badly wounded, with legs and arms gone. Others were just lying there and if there was any sign of life, the surgeon gave them morphine.

‘Eventually I had to leave the ship, she was keeling over so much that I just stepped off her and onto a carley float. There were about a dozen men on the float and we were among the last to leave the ship’.

Lieutenant Hugh Singer was the ship’s junior surgeon. He survived the sinking and, after the war, wrote an account of his experiences;

Singer did not abandon ship immediately but instead established an emergency dressing station on the starboard side, next to the bakehouse. Together with Bill Howe and the rest of his medical party he administered help to injured men, many of whom were close to death. With the pompom magazine on fire, shells exploding all around them and low level attacks from the air, the action of Lieutenant Singer and his party was one of incredible courage and humanity.

Most of the men they treated were from the gun crews and the two most serious cases were strapped on to stretchers before being passed into one of the carley floats which Ernie Evans had helped to bring alongside the ship.

Lieutenant Singer recorded;

‘No more than first aid could be attempted as speed was essential. Dressings were applied and fractures splinted. Those not too gravely wounded were given morphine, only in order that they might help themselves as much as possible. Others who were more dangerously wounded were given a larger dose as their survival under these conditions seemed highly unlikely and there seemed no point in allowing them to suffer unnecessarily’.

Surgeon Lieutenant Commander R G Dingwell joined Singer and his party, told them not to delay abandoning ship for much longer, and reminded them to take their shoes off before they left the ship. Lieutenant Singer, however, still did not abandon ship but continued with his work until the situation was completely hopeless;

‘Soon after Dingwell had left us, a number of German aircraft flew over the ship and bombs fell among the survivors who were swimming near the starboard side. After placing the last of the casualties in a carley float, I took the party aft but we were obstructed by a fire that was out of control. I returned to the waist where I found a small party of officers throwing loose wood into the sea for the benefit of survivors. At this moment another man was brought to me with a badly wounded leg. After splinting his leg I lowered him in to a carley float which was about to leave the side of the ship. By now this carley float was full to capacity and the men were up to their chests in water. Some of them were in a critical condition’.

‘At 1715, I could find no more men needing attention and so we abandoned the ship. By this time the port gunwales were awash and it was simply a matter of stepping down into the sea. Captain Rowley was the last man to leave the ship. Shortly after, HMS Gloucester slowly turned turtle and sank by the stern’.

4 Aftermath: ‘Devastated At The Things I Saw’

Ted Mort, was eighteen-years old when Gloucester went down.

‘The time came to abandon ship. Me and a boy called Donald Allen grabbed a canteen door, which was hanging off, threw it in to the sea and dived in after it. The next thing I remember was the planes machine gunning us and we both dived under water but Allen didn’t come up again. I saw a patch of blood in the sea and knew he was gone. I was convinced that I too would be killed. The planes kept coming in at such low levels that at times you could see the pilot’s faces. I saw some bombs dropped that I think were incendiaries, which were intended to set the oil alight. I was about half a mile from Gloucester when she went down. She turned over for some time, then stood on end before she finally sank. It was a horrible feeling, watching my home going down and being alone, floating on the canteen door’.

Victor Parsons, nineteen years old at the time of the sinking, gave his account to the Imperial War Museum in a taped interview;

‘We had run out of ammunition and in the end we were firing starshells and practice projectiles, until there was nothing left. When the order came to abandon ship, I went over the side without a life jacket on. I saw the ship burning and explosions going off. I swam as far away as possible, and then Fiji came by dropping carley floats. I managed to hold on to one, a few hundred yards away from Gloucester. The ship looked as though a giant had hit her with a hatchet; the gun turrets were hanging over the side; the funnels were split and the upper deck was smashed. I could see a big black mass of survivors near the bows of the ship and then a dive-bomber came down and dropped his bombs right in the middle of them. He didn’t attempt to hit the ship. When the ship finally sank the explosions from the boilers sent shock waves through the sea and I thought my lower body would fall off. Then I got onto the carley float and there were about forty men in the sea clinging to the raft, or to each other. Then we were strafed by the Luftwaffe’s machine guns’.

Frank Teasdale, from Liverpool, was twenty-four and an experienced rating when Gloucester sunk;

‘As the ship tilted over, I slid from the pompom deck, over the side and into the sea. I had my Mae West on and swam to a trough that was used by the baker for making dough and was now floating in the water. I was quickly joined by others and soon there was no room, so I swam away and reached a carley float where I held onto the rope around the side. When Gloucester went down it was a terrible feeling. The crew really loved that ship’.

Chief Petty Officer Bill Wade had served on many ships before being drafted to Gloucester and he was an experienced sailor. Constantly concerned for the welfare and safety of the young seamen under his command, those on board who knew him held him in great affection;

‘I knew we had no ammo left and I told my men to keep under cover. The first bombs to hit knocked the after director out of the ship and that is where I would normally have been. When we got into the sea we were machine-gunned and I saw a lot of men killed. The things I saw devastated me’.

Yeoman Petty Officer Bob Wainwright, from Newcastle, had already seen plenty of action whilst serving on Gloucester’s sister ship, Liverpool where he had narrowly escaped death when she was hit by two bombs which failed to explode. Later he was drafted to HMS Kent and was on board when she was torpedoed in September 1940. Three days later he joined Gloucester.

Bob was stationed on the bridge of Gloucester and had a grandstand view of the attacks that took place prior to the sinking;

‘When we ran out of ammunition we finished up firing the 6-inch guns and starshells, it was a waste of time really. Wave after wave of Stukas were concentrating on us. By the time the order came to abandon ship we had gone another half mile from where we were first hit. I saw men in the carley floats, and men who were swimming, being machine gunned by the enemy planes. I decided it might be safer to remain on the ship for as long as possible. A bomb hit the ship aft and the aft Director Control Tower went up in the air, then toppled over the side, it also took half of the main mast away. The aerials came crashing down and I took cover. One of the aerial insulators hit the captain’s steward and it took the top of his head clean off. I went back to the bridge and assisted a Sub Lieutenant to throw the Cypher books over the side. All the time pompom shells were exploding. Fiji was off the starboard side and Captain Rowley told me to make a signal to Fiji and ask her to come alongside but before I could do so, the captain took the flags from me and sent the signal himself. The reply came back, “Sorry but I will drop carley floats”. I made my way to the forecastle, where I saw a Royal Naval Reserve Lieutenant bravely directing men into the water, between air raids. The ship was listing so much that I just walked into the sea where I joined up with signalman Len ‘Al’ Bowley. We both knew that we could suffer severe internal injuries if the boilers exploded so we decided to swim as far from the ship as possible. The ship was wallowing in the water and I couldn’t believe she was about to sink. After Gloucester went down we were swimming from one piece of flotsam to another. Bowley kept asking me if we were going to make it. I told him, “of course we are” but in truth I didn’t think that we had a hope in hell’.

Fiji was soon located by the oil slick from her stem. A 500lb bomb was dropped so close to the ship that it blew in her bottom and she later sank. Although 523 men were rescued later that night, 295 men lost their lives. The sinking of Fiji is retold by a survivor under Stories.

From the original four ships of Force B; Gloucester, Fiji, Greyhound and Griffin, only Griffin survived the day.

The survivors from Gloucester had abandoned ship under the worst possible circumstances. The one hope, which many of them had, was that they could see the hills of Kythira and Anti Kythira and even the mountains of Crete were visible in the far distance. Some of them thought that they could swim to land, others felt certain that rescue would be swift. After nightfall, they reasoned, the destroyers would return and take them from the sea. Meanwhile it was just a question of hanging on to the sides of the packed carley floats, or the pieces of flotsam, until help arrived.

5 The Longest Night: Where is our Navy?

Once the ship had gone down, the men in the water had to fend for themselves. Bob Wainright came across two midshipmen desperately clinging on to an upturned motor boat. Realising the precarious position of the young officers, Bob tried to persuade them to leave the wrecked motor boat and swim with him to the main group of survivors. Unfortunately they refused and were never seen again. ‘.

Electrical Artificer Albert ‘Tubby’ Revans wrote an account of his experiences;

‘After the ship had finally disappeared I began to feel very lonely. Whilst she remained on the surface there seemed to be something solid that I could go back to if necessary. Then there was nothing in sight except the mountain top of Kythira in the far distance. Nothing, that is, except the heads of a few other men in the same terrible position as myself. I thought about trying to swim to Kythira but guessed that it was too far away so I swam through the oil-covered sea to a carley float. It was manned by Regulating Petty Officer Albert Herniman and several other ratings. I hauled myself aboard and felt much better off. Inside the raft was the Gunnery Officer, lashed up in a straitjacket stretcher and suffering from a very severe wound in the neck. The only sign of life he showed was a faint gasp now and then and it was obvious that he did not have long to live. The float became more crowded but we came across another one, which was empty although badly damaged. Stoker Bill Hollett and myself decided that we would be better off on the other float. As soon as we boarded it, it sank at one end and I went in to the water up to my neck again. However, we found that we could keep it on an even keel by keeping our weight at one end. We paddled around and found three more men; a South African, Henry McCarthy, a Maltese steward and a boy. The raft, in its water-logged condition, was a poor support for five and we were up to our waists in water but the sea was calm and we managed to make our way towards the larger group of rafts which we could see converging on each other. We were gathering in order to facilitate rescue operations if any of our ships turned up. Just as we reached the others, an incident occurred not calculated to increase our hopes of rescue. Three Messerschmitt 109’s came zooming towards us. I saw their yellow painted noses dip and swing dead ahead, in our direction. They approached us at a terrific speed then, at about two hundred yards range, I saw twin streams of tracer bullets leave the leader and come streaking toward us. I dived and struggled to get below the surface with my life belt on. Somehow I managed to get a couple of feet under and heard the bullets from the second machine coming, thud, thud, thud, into the water. I came up, gasping for breath, as the third machine opened fire. I was too late to duck but fortunately the bullets landed several yards from me. Three times those machines came for the rafts with blazing guns. It was a most fearful business. There were about twenty men killed and wounded. I guessed that the time was then about six o’clock in the evening. We saw no more aircraft, except in the distance, so after lashing several pieces of floating wreckage to our carley float we set off to try and paddle to Kythira’.

Singer also gave an account of how men were machine gunned in the water;

‘Several aircraft came down and machine gunned survivors, both in the water and on rafts. It was one of the more unpleasant minutes, watching a JU88 dive straight for our party and seeing the spurts of water 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’.

Ernie Evans was on a carley float when three or four yellow nosed Messerschmitts came down;

‘I could see the pilots clearly. The planes swung round and came back, firing on us. I could see tracers as they were hitting the water so I got off the float and swam away. Two men were left on the float, one of them was the blacksmith and how he survived the machine gunning I just don’t know. The other chap hung onto the side of the float and was shot in the hand. His fingers were hanging off and he died later. I got back on to the float, which was shot to pieces and barely afloat. Many men who had been on the float were killed by the machine gunning. Those of us who were still able restored some order and made the best of it but many more men died during the night’.

Nightfall blackened the already dark sky and Albert ‘Tubby’ Revans recorded what happened on his raft;

‘By eight o’clock it was dark, very dark, with no moon and only faint starlight. We could see, or fancied we could see, the dark bulk of the island, looking to the north. But after a while the wind rose dead off the land and raised an icy, chopping sea, which made clean breaks right over us. In addition to chilling us to the bone, it made it most difficult to cling to the raft and we were capsized several times. At about ten o’clock, Bill Hollett showed signs of weakening. His breath came in rattling, liquid gasps and there was white foam coming from his mouth and nose, showing against his black beard. We supported him between us and encouraged him as best we could but after about an hour his head fell back and quite peacefully, without a struggle, he died. We took off his lifebelt and released his body, which sank like a stone. Who next? I thought. I soon found out. The Maltese, called Joe Simlar, was already very weak but he clung on doggedly and kept on saying that he was all right. About an hour after midnight we were capsized again and when we got the raft righted, poor Joe was gone. This left three of us. I was quite fit but McCarthy and the boy had gone blind with oil fuel in their eyes. Poor devils, they could do nothing. I tried, nearly all night, to paddle towards where I thought the island lay, but it was hopeless and I suppose I knew it really’.

As dawn broke, Tubby’s fears were realised and he knew his efforts to reach Kythira had been in vain, even though the sea was calmer and the raft was now floating better with fewer men on it;

‘So we drifted all that miserable morning. McCarthy’s lungs were full of oil and water he had breathed in the night before, he died at about 1100. I put him over the side and saw his body sinking down and down through the clear water. I could still see him fathoms deep, sinking slowly with his dead eyes open. The boy was in a bad way now, blind and very weak. I could see that he would not last long. About midday he began speaking wildly and a little later raved incoherently for about half an hour, then suddenly he fell quiet and died at about two o’clock in the afternoon. By then I was too weak to take off his lifebelt, so he drifted away on the surface, his red hair resting on the water’.

Billy Grindell described his long night;

‘The carley float could hold perhaps thirty or forty men inboard. When one died he was put over the side and somebody who was in the water was pulled on board.

Eventually I got pulled on and there were two other stokers in the raft, Jimmy Henshaw and Billy Doyle. We were sitting in the float with water up to our necks. Fatigue was our worst enemy at that point but if you went to sleep it was fatal. Both Doyle and Henshaw fell asleep and drowned in the float at my feet. The following morning there was only six of us still alive’.

Bill Howe was on a float, parts of which had been shot away, and men were hanging onto the sides and paddling with their free hand;

‘Later we joined up with some other rafts and after dark an officer attempted to navigate by the stars, although by morning we hadn’t moved more than a mile from our original position. One young rating was so demented with thirst that he kept taking mouthfuls of sea water until his tongue swelled so much that he choked to death’.

‘Later John Mayer, the Petty Officer, started to get ‘the glare’ and then the beams broke apart and he just floated away. That left eight of us and through the night most of the others faded away, one by one, without saying anything. Dawn broke and only me and Hugh ‘Ginger’ Cormoily were still alive, although we were dangerously tired. We were feeling very cold so we climbed onto the beams and urinated on ourselves in an attempt to get warmed up a bit. Later we got back into the sea, but we got cramp and so we spent the rest of the morning getting on and off the beams. The sea became choppy, then suddenly Ginger said to me, “I’ve had enough mate”. I told him, “Hang on Ginger. You can make it”, but he just let himself go under. I tried desperately to keep him afloat but in the end I had to let go of him and he drifted away’.

John, now completely alone, faced his own ordeal to stay alive as he slipped towards unconsciousness;

‘There was only me left and I had two voices in my head. One was saying “You’re going to die, you’re going to die” and the other voice saying “You mustn’t die, your mother says you mustn’t die”. My widowed mother idolised me. I was her only son and all the time I kept thinking of the effect my death would have on my mother. The two voices kept up a constant battle with each other but gradually the voice that said I was going to die began to dominate. I thought then that if I was going to die it would at least be peacefully and I leaned over the beam and put my head in the sea. As I did this the other voice screamed at me, “You mustn’t die, you mustn’t die”.

Most of the men expected a rescue operation to be mounted during the night and Douglas Hall recalled an officer on his float giving him a whistle to blow. But as dawn broke those who had survived the night realised that the likelihood of rescue was remote.

Surgeon Lt Singer was intrigued that so many uninjured men had died during the night;

‘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 lifejacket, 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. There was no panic. They died very peacefully. Two of them actually smiled to me and said “good bye”. I think they must have been affected sooner, and to a greater degree, by a sort of lethargy, which one had to fight. I found that even I could contemplate drowning without any qualms, and at times I had an overwhelming urge to let down my Mae West and give up what seemed an unending and pointless struggle’.

In the early morning light of Friday 23rd May it became painfully obvious to the survivors that there would be no rescue by the Royal Navy. The safety of darkness had gone and no operation would be carried out in daylight when there would be a danger of further attacks from the Luftwaffe.

Ken Macdonald summed up the feelings of the survivors;

‘Again and again we asked ourselves what had happened to the destroyers. Why hadn’t they returned to pick us up after dark?

The records show that a rescue operation was mounted, albeit a brief half-hearted one, on the evening of Thursday 22nd May by two ships of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla, which had arrived west of Kythira at about 1600, just after Gloucester was first hit. The movements of Mountbatten’s flotilla need to be closely considered to understand why the destroyers rescued no survivors from Gloucester.

Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla, made up of Kelly, Kashmir, Kipling, Kelvin and Jackal, had been operating in the waters around Malta. On Wednesday, 21st May, Mountbatten had been ordered by Cunningham to proceed east towards Crete and rendezvous with Rear Admiral Rawlings’ A1 force, west of Kythira, not later than 1000 on 22nd May.

On the voyage east, Mountbatten became involved in an unsuccessful search for a submarine and after being ordered by Cunningham to break off the search, his flotilla finally joined Rawlings’ force.

Rawlings’ report on the battle stated that the air attacks had ceased at 1810, when his force was 60 miles southwest of Kythira. At 1928 Rawlings received a report that Fiji had been hit and was sinking. Cunningham said that at 2030 Kelly, Kipling and Kashmir, were ordered to search for survivors and that the destroyers, Decoy and Hero were despatched to embark the King of Greece and members of his government, from Agriarumeli on the south coast of Crete. At 2100 Kelvin and Jackal, Mountbatten’s two other destroyers, were deployed to the Kythira Channel to pick up Gloucester survivors.

As darkness fell and the threat of further air attacks diminished, the obvious question to be asked is why a search for Gloucester survivors wasn’t mounted until 2100, which was over half an hour after the rescue ships had been sent to Fiji’s survivors. If Kelvin and Jackal had been deployed to search for Gloucester survivors at 2030, they would have reached Gloucester’s last known position at around 2230 and certainly no later than 2330. This would have given them three or even four hours to carry out the rescue and still have at least three hours to steam south before dawn broke.

The deployment of Kelvin and Jackal would seem to have been an afterthought following the sinking of Fiji, which had gone down some three and a half hours after Gloucester had been hit. Kelvin and Jackal were ordered by Rawlings to abandon the search at 2143 when they were already steaming towards Gloucester’s last known position. Rawlings states in his report that he was becoming increasingly concerned about how scattered his forces had become and that he wished to have them in a position where they could rendezvous south of Crete, by dawn.

There is no evidence to suggest that any enemy convoys were en route to Crete, which would have justified Kelvin and Jackal being called back from the search. It was known that there were no more convoys on way to Crete, as a result of the German Enigma code having been broken. In fact, Kelvin and Jackal spent the rest of the night on a futile patrol during which they failed to locate or sink any enemy shipping.

Mountbatten’s other ships, Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling, failed to locate the position of Fiji or to pick up any survivors. They were subsequently deployed to patrol off the north coast of Crete where Kipling developed a steering fault but Kelly and Kashmir went on to destroy two stray caiques and shell the airfield at Maleme.

The survivors from HMS Gloucester continue to feel aggrieved that Kelvin and Jackal were called back from the search before they had reached Gloucester’s last position. Furthermore the fact that two destroyers could be found to rescue the King of Greece has reinforced their belief that ships could also have been found to rescue the Gloucester men.

6 Picked up by Germans: Caiques and Kythira

On Friday 23rd May, during the late morning and throughout the afternoon the surviving Gloucestermen were eventually rescued.

Ken Macdonald recalled his rescue;

‘It must have been late in the forenoon that we heard the sound of aircraft and then sighted two planes flying low over the sea, dropping flares. As they got nearer we recognised with a feeling of dread, the yellow painted noses of our adversaries of the day before, but to our overwhelming relief they soon disappeared. Shortly after this encounter we sighted a small vessel which, after executing frequent alterations of course, causing acute anxiety and frustration with every movement, finally and to our immense relief it came alongside the raft and we were hauled aboard’.

Sam Dearie was soon rescued;

‘When I saw a caique coming towards my float I stood up, intending to wave but instead I fell into the sea. I remember how cold I was and that I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering. I was pulled onto the caique and told to take off my overalls. I didn’t have a stitch on underneath. I was given a cigarette and sent below, where I found a bunk and immediately fell asleep. When I woke up there were around forty or fifty other survivors down there with me’.

Victor Parsons also recalled the desperate state that he was in when he was rescued;

‘We didn’t realise that they were Germans who were rescuing us. I was covered in oil and I think, at first, they thought that they were picking up their own survivors. I was exhausted and from the waist down I was like a jelly and couldn’t stand up’.

Throughout the morning and afternoon the half-dead survivors were picked up. It is ironic that they were eventually saved by Germans who had commandeered Greek caiques and were in fact searching for their own men from the ill fated convoy which had been decimated by Glennie’s force the previous day. Had the convoy not been destroyed there would have been no search and it is probable that none of the Gloucestermen would have survived.

Lt Singer, who was still with CPO Evans, described his excitement at sighting his rescuers;

‘Finally, in the afternoon, we saw a small ship cruising and stopping at intervals to pick up survivors. As she drew closer we shouted until we were hoarse and to our great relief the ship suddenly altered course and came straight for us. I was assisted on board with a boat hook.

Ernie Evans was in such a state of shock by the afternoon that he didn’t even realise that his rescuers were German until he was aboard the boat. John Stevens was in no doubt as to who his rescuers were;

‘I’d almost given up hope when I saw a plane circling low over the sea. I thought I was about to be machine gunned again but the plane fired flares and flew off. Then I thought I’d been left to die. About half an hour later I saw a caique coming. It was flying a flag with a swastika on it. Two German sailors threw me a line but I didn’t have the strength to hold it. They steered the caique round to me and leaned over the gunwales to pull me from the sea’.

From HMS Gloucester’s total company of 807 men, only eighty-five survived the sinking of the ship and the subsequent twenty-four hour ordeal in the water.

Lieutenant Commander Roger Anthony Heap and Surgeon Lieutenant Hugh Singer were the only survivors from fifty-one officers and midshipmen on board Gloucester. Only nine of the ninety-six Royal Marines and four of the thirty South Africans survived. All five of the civilian NAAFI men were killed along with nine Maltese stewards and cooks.

Admiral Cunningham was deeply upset at losing so many ships.

‘He had a tremendous talent and was known to us as the ‘Red Eyed Tyrant’, yet he was most upset at our losses in the battle and evacuation of Crete. He and Lady Cunningham used to walk up and down at night, distraught at what was happening’.

Cunningham later told Mountbatten that when he heard of the losses he felt like getting onto a destroyer and going out and getting himself killed.

When the losses were totalled up, it is little wonder that he felt so grieved. Of the fifty four ships engaged in the battle for Crete and the subsequent evacuation of troops from the island, eleven vessels were lost, twenty two were damaged and two thousand, two hundred and sixty one men were listed as killed or missing. Cunningham described it as a disastrous period in our naval history.

The loss of Gloucester stands out as a particular tragedy since over 30% of the total naval personnel killed were lost from that one ship. Of all the British warships that were sunk or damaged during the battle of Crete, Gloucester was the only one from which the Royal Navy picked up no survivors.

On 17th August 1941, Admiral Cunningham wrote to Captain Rowley’s widow, Christina;

‘He died as he had always lived, most gallantly and the Navy mourns the loss of a grand officer and fine man who, had he lived, would have gone very far’.

Cunningham paid tribute to the extraordinary service that Gloucester had given under his command;

‘Thus went the gallant Gloucester. She had endured all things and no ship had worked harder or had had more risky tasks. She had been hit by bombs more times than any other vessel and had always come up smiling. As she left Alexandria for the last time, I went alongside her in my barge and had a talk with her captain, Henry Aubrey Rowley. He was very anxious about his men, who were just worn out, which was not surprising, as I well realised. I promised to go on board and talk to them on their return to harbour, but they never came back. I doubt if many of them survived as they too were murderously machine gunned in the water. Rowley’s body, recognisable by his uniform monkey jacket and the signals in his pocket, came ashore to the west of Mersa Matruh, about four weeks later. It was a long way to come home’.

Cunningham was in no doubt that the loss of Gloucester could have been avoided. The golden rule which he and his captains had learned was that in encounters with enemy aircraft in the confined waters of the Mediterranean, ships must keep together for mutual defence and never be deployed for individual tasks. He said;

‘The fleet should remain concentrated and move in formation to wherever any rescue or other work had to be done. The detachment of Greyhound was a mistake, as was that of Gloucester, Fiji and the other ships. Together, the fleet’s volume of fire might have prevented some of our casualties’.

Cunningham believed that, had he been at sea, Gloucester would have been saved and he put the loss down to the inexperience of some of those at sea.

Officially, Cunningham recorded;

‘The junction of Forces A & C on the afternoon of the 22nd May left the Rear Admiral Commanding, 15th Cruiser Squadron, (King) after a gruelling two days, in command of the combined force. Before he had really time to grasp the situation of his force, a series of disasters occurred, the loss of Greyhound, Gloucester and finally Fiji. Past experience had gone to show that when under heavy scale of air attack it is essential to keep ships together for mutual support. The decision to send Kandahar and Kingston to the rescue of Greyhound’s people cannot be cavilled at but in the light of subsequent events it would probably have been better had the whole force closed to their support. The Rear Admiral Commanding, 15th Cruiser Squadron (King) was however not aware of the shortage of AA ammunition in Gloucester and Fiji’.

However in private correspondence, Cunningham was far more scathing about the inadequacies of Rear Admiral King and went so far as to highlight the fact that, irrespective of how much ammunition Gloucester and Fiji had, they should never have been deployed away from the group safety of the fleet.

On 30th May 1941, he wrote to Sir Dudley Pound, ‘The First Sea Lord, expressing his personal views;

‘Some mistakes were certainly made in the conduct of our operations, the principle one being the failure of CS 15 (King) to polish off the caique convoy in the morning…I could cheerfully put up with our losses had we had some thousands more Hun soldiers swimming in the Aegean. The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to the Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes’.

Pound replied, expressing similar doubts;

’19/6/41 Are you satisfied with King as CS 15. If you are not, let us shift him. We cannot afford to use second class material when first class is available’.

King was soon removed from his post and given a desk job at the Admiralty. Cunningham’s private correspondence to Pound continued;

’18/9/41 I was not very happy about him. I was much upset that he failed to utterly destroy that convoy full of Hun soldiers, south of Milo, particularly when his destroyers and the two little a/a cruisers Carlisle and Calcutta were getting in well among the caiques…I have always had the feeling that he was a better officer wallah than sailor. He wants everything cut and dried and most precise orders, doesn’t exhibit much initiative at sea’.

King never went to sea again and was placed on the Retired List on 15th June 1944.

In the months following the sinking of Gloucester, the awful fact that the rescue had been aborted, and the survivors left to their own fate, was clearly on the minds of both Sir Dudley Pound and Admiral Cunningham. On 19th June 1941, Pound wrote to Cunningham;

‘I had hoped very much that most of the Gloucesters would have got ashore on Kithera Island’.

On 25th July 1941 Cunningham replied;

‘I have not heard one word about any of the ‘Gloucesters’ ship’s company though there is a rumour, that the Germans broadcast, that 75% of them had been rescued’.

On 8th January 1942, The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty wrote to Christina Rowley, the Captain’s widow;

‘On May 22nd 1941, this gallant Officer handled and fought his ship with exemplary courage, skill and devotion to duty throughout a day of heavy and frequent air attacks, until, in the afternoon, she was put out of action, and at 1600 she sank.’