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On the 20th and 21st May the main role of the Luftwaffe had been air support to the ground troops and the airborne transports.  Their attack on Force C during the morning of the 21st caused the loss of the destroyer Juno.  Richtofen had a formidable array of aircraft at his disposal; Dornier 17 bombers, Ju 88 bombers, Heinkel 111 bombers, Ju87 Stuka dive bombers, Me 110 twin-engined night fighters and Me 109 fighters.  On the 22nd they began forming up for their attacks on the British naval forces.

The disposition of the British naval forces at sunrise on the 22nd was;

Force A1 Rawlings, south west of the Antikithera Channel

Force B steaming to join Force A1

Force C  under King had reached its position off Heraklion and was now sweeping north to detect German forces.

Force D Glennie's force, about to depart for Alexandria for re-supply.

5th Destroyer Flotilla under Mountbatten en-route from Malta to join Force A1.  Destroyers Kelly, Kashmir, Kipling, Kelvin and Jackal.

14th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain Mack had bombarded Scarpanto, returned Alexandria, and was now en-route back to the Kaso Straight.

10th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain Walker in the Stuart with Voyager and Vendetta en-route to join Force A1.

Admiral King's cruiser force, Force C, was to come in for very heavy punishment from the air.  By 10:00 on the 22nd it was some 25 miles south of Milos, having sunk a caique en-route.  Soon more of the small caiques were sighted as well as their destroyer escort, and the British force started to come under air attack.  The caiques were in fact the second of the two flotillas, this one was the larger of the two, and again the escort was an Italian destroyer, the Sagittario commanded by Lieutenant Fulgosi.  Having spotted the British force, the flotilla was now heading back north, pursued by Force C, which by now had lost some of its concentrated formation.  It had become split up as units had been sent out to attack and sink individual vessels as they were seen.  Consequently the Force no longer had the protection of concentrated AA fire against air attacks.

King's Cruiser Force was restricted to a speed of 20 knots because of the maximum speed of the AA cruiser Carlisle, he was under heavy air attack and using AA ammunition at a very high rate, also his destroyers were now dispersed.  he needed to concentrate his force and withdraw to the west.  Although he had not destroyed the invasion flotilla he had caused it to withdraw to Piraeus.  This failure to destroy the flotilla would be later criticised by Cunningham and Churchill.

22nd May From C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet  (WO106/3241)

To Mediterranean Fleet at sea

Important

"Stick it out.  Keep in V/S touch must not let Army down in Crete.  It is essential no seaborne enemy force land in Crete."

The attacks on Force C had first started around 07:00 before they had sighted the flotilla, the attacks then built up so that from 10:00 till midday the bombing was almost continuous.  Steaming towards Force A1, which he hoped to meet in mid afternoon, King signaled that he was in urgent need of support.  His force was under severe attack from Ju 88s and Dornier 17s, his flagship Naiad was damaged and her speed was reduced.  Rawlings responded to King's call for support, and steamed to meet Force C, but as they got close Rawling's flagship, the battleship Warspite, was hit by Me 109 fighter bombers.  As the two forces joined King assumed command of the combined force as he was senior to Rawlings.

From the obituary to Lt. Commander Vince Carey in the Daily Telegraph, June 28, 2002.

The Naiad was an anti-aircraft cruiser, with 10 5.25 inch guns and nearly 30 smaller calibre guns.  On the morning of May 22 1941, she was attacked by large numbers of aircraft which aimed nearly 200 bombs at her. She survived, but was in Alexandria for repairs for many weeks.

Carey was a young officer aboard Naiad, and he was still a member of the ships crew (another crew member was Bonny Sparks, brother of one of the Cockleshell Heroes) when she was later sunk in March, 1942.  She was torpedoed by U-565, and Carey spent several hours in the water before being picked up.

Soon, the losses started.  The destroyer Greyhound was sent off to sink a large caique, but came under heavy attack and was sunk.  The destroyers Kandahar and Kingston were sent off to recover survivors, but came under such heavy bombing themselves that after taking some survivors on board they could only throw survival floats in the water and leave.  Survivors told afterwards of how they were strafed in the lifeboats by German aircraft.  

Admiral King, now in command of the combined force, was not aware of the state of AA ammunition in the ships outside of Force C.  Had he been aware he presumably would not have sent the cruisers Fiji and Gloucester (Force B) to give AA support to the two destroyers picking up survivors.  The Fiji had earlier reported having only 18% of her AA ammunition remaining, the Gloucester was a little better off but still with only 30%.  The situation was deteriorating.  Although King was now in overall command, the forces were operating independently rather than as a concentrated force.  He ordered Rawlings Force A1 to close on Force C to give more support, and recalled Fiji and Gloucester and the destroyers.  By now the AA fire was becoming less effective as the ammunition ran out, and the German pilots were able to press home their attacks all the harder.  

The AA fire was also hampered because of the fire control system used on British ships at that time.  The German navy used high precision tachymetric systems for computing the firing point for AA guns, but these systems required precision engineering.  The British used their High Altitude Control System (HACS), heavily criticised in 1939 by Captain Roskill, a member of the naval staff; "The truth was that as long ago as the late 1920s the Admiralty had gone for the wrong sort of control system - one in which the enemy aircraft movements were in effect guessed instead of being actually measured and the measured results used to provide the required control data.  This latter, called a 'tachymetric system', was the proper answer....."  As well as being inaccurate, these systems caused the gunners to use much more ammunition in an attempt to hit the target, so exacerbating the ammunition situation on Gloucester and Fiji.

Steaming to rejoin King's force, the Gloucester came under sustained attack from Stukas.  By the end of the afternoon the cruiser had sunk [see separate account].  The Fiji, together with destroyers Kandahar and Kingston, having thrown life-rafts to the survivors, steamed to rejoin the Battle Fleet.  [See an account of the action below]  Unfortunately the fate of the Fiji was to be similar to that of the Gloucester, by late evening she too had been sunk.  Her two accompanying destroyers spent  some hours recovering over 500 survivors before setting course for the rest of the Battle Fleet.

The state of the AA ammunition was a cause of some later controversy.  At 2230/22 May a 'most immediate' message was received reporting the loss of Gloucester and Fiji and giving the ammunition situation in the battleships and destroyers.  It appeared from this signal that the battleships had run right out of pom-pom ammunition.  The Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, [Cunningham] accordingly decided to withdraw all forces to Alexandria.

Cunningham would some years later tell the Daily Express that; "Because a young sailor misheard one word and wrote down 'empty' instead of 'plenty' of ammunition, the destroyers Kelly and Kashmir were lost in the Crete disaster seven years ago this month".

Map showing some of the actions around the island.  From www.nzhistory.net.nz

In the late afternoon of the 22nd Rawling's Battle Fleet was joined by the 5th Destroyer Flotilla from Malta, commanded by Mountbatten in Kelly.  Rawling's force then sailed on for the south of Crete, while Mountbatten's destroyers took up operations in Chania Bay.  From the south side of the island King's force was ordered by Cunningham to withdraw to Alexandria for replenishment, then at around 04:30 on the 23rd Cunningham recalled all forces to Alexandria.  King's force reached Alexandria in the early hours of the 24th.   The First Lieutenant of the Kashmir was Jack Scatchard.  When the Kelly and the Kashmir were sunk, Scatchard and Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten were two of the 279 survivors from the two ships who were rescued by the Kipling.    Scatchard was to go on to become a Vice-Admiral with DSO and two bars.  He died at the age of 90, and his obituary was in the Daily Telegraph, July 5, 2001.

cover

Jack Scatchard
Also from the Daily Telegraph of 2nd August, 2002, I have copied the following from the obituary of Vice Admiral Sir Peter Ashmore.  Ashmore was aboard the destroyer Kipling when it rescued the 279 survivors of the Kelly and the Kashmir.  During the action, while a junior officer, Ashmore took over the direction of Kipling's guns, for which he was awarded a DSO.  He himself became a survivor when Kipling , with the destroyers Jackal and Lively, was attacked and sunk by a force of 31 Ju88s in 1942.  Ashmore was one of 630 survivors who were rescued to Alexandria.
Sir Peter Ashmore

Mountbatten's destroyer flotilla was not so lucky.  At around 08:00 on the 23rd a large force of Ju 87s spotted them a little south of Gavdos island, which lies off the south coast of Crete.  The first to go was the Kashmir, sinking in minutes after being hit.  The Kelly followed soon after, losing 9 officers and 119 ratings.  The Kipling then set about rescuing survivors, while coming under heavy aerial attack herself.  When all survivors had been recovered the Kipling then made it home to Alexandria, but only after she had run out of fuel 50 miles short of the destination, and had to take on replenishment at sea.  The ships now required replenishment, and the crews needed rest, they were exhausted.  One ship did go out though.  On the night of the 23rd the fast minelayer Abdiel left to transport stores to Suda Bay, as well as 200 Special Forces personnel.

One of those on board Kelly with Mountbatten was Edward "Dusty" Dunsterville, a Signals Officer.  The following few words are taken from his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, August 21, 2001.  On the bridge, Dunsterville and Mountbatten had seen the fatal bomb coming straight at them and knew it could not miss.  They remained perfectly calm, holding on as the ship tilted.  Dunsterville later recalled "clinging on for as long as I could - then I was swept down, came up too near the propellers for comfort and went down again".  When he resurfaced, he found "a lot of us bobbing about and we found bits of wood to hold on to".  Eight officers, including Dunsterville and Mountbatten, and 120 ratings were rescued.
Edward Dunsterville

At this time Cunningham was very conscious of the exhausted state of his men, and the dangers from the air.  He signaled the Chiefs of Staff that it was his view that the fleet could not operate off Crete in daylight.  The view of the Chiefs of Staff was that the situation on the island could not be allowed to deteriorate further, and the fleet must operate in daylight to prevent the Germans from strengthening their position.

Losses so far in the 3 days; 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers, 1 battleship out of action, 2 cruisers and 4 destroyers seriously damaged.  A signal from Middle East to London gave the situation; "Situation with navy critical.  Unable to reinforce or supply Crete except by fast warships at night." (WO 106/3243)

On May 25th a force consisting of the carrier Formidable and support ships left Alexandria to fly off an aerial attack on the island of Scarpanto on the 26th.  For this the Formidable had some aging Albacores and Fulmars.  Some success was achieved by the aircraft that were capable of getting airborne.  As they withdrew they were ordered to provide cover to a force which had left Alexandria on the evening of the 25th to put troops ashore on Crete.    This troop convoy included the assault ship Glenroy, which sustained  tremendous damage when the ships were spotted and attacked.  

From Capt D(10) 21:00 26/5  (WO106/3241)

HMS Glenroy reports unable to continue operation tonight.  Reason follows.  One third of landing craft out of action part may be repaired tomorrow.  All army petrol burnt or overboard.  Much time lost turning downwind etc.  Request instructions for tomorrow.

The intended troop landing at Tymbaki was called off and the ships limped home to Alexandria.  As luck would have it the carrier force was also spotted by a large force of Ju 87s before it reached the troop ships.  Formidable and the destroyer Nubia were badly damaged.  Formidable departed at dusk for Alexandria while the rest of the force, on the 27th, headed towards the Kaso Straight to cover the withdrawal of the Abdiel, Hero and Nizam, which had succeeded in landing troops at Suda Bay as well as taking a large number of non-essential personnel off the island.  There was more bad news to come for Cunningham.  While this force was en-route for the Kaso Straight, at about 09:00 on the 27th they were also spotted by a force of Ju 88s and Heinkel 111s, and badly damaged the battleship Barham.  

By now Cunningham's naval force was battered and severely mauled, his crews were exhausted, but the Army would now need to make a further call on the Senior Service.  Events on the island of Crete had reached the point where Freyberg felt there was nothing left to him but total withdrawal.  For this he would have to call again on the Navy.  As at Dunkirk, and in Greece, the Navy would rise to the challenge, as the soldiers had every faith that they would.

The sinking of HMS Fiji, 22nd May, 1941.
The following is from 'Crete Eyewitnessed' and is an account by Ted Gardner.
Our ship. H.M.S. FIJI (8,631 tons), one of Britain's fastest and most powerful cruisers, relentlessly dive-bombed from dawn to dusk, until her shell rooms were emptied of A.A. ammunition, lay in the sea, still floating, her propellers turned to the clouds, motionless.  We could just see one dim, lonely figure sitting on one of the starboard screws.  A moment later, a cry broke out all round.  "They're coming back".  We strained our eyes.  Above the waves, hardly recognizable at first, we saw the thin lines of their foremasts, then their funnels, and lastly, pushing cautiously through the water, their bows.  "Up the Navy!".
The destroyers KINGSTON and KANDAHAR, themselves perilously short of ammunition and fuel, had waited for the safety of night to return.  They withdrew out of bomber range shortly after we had been fatally hit.  Their action saved us from further machine gun attacks.  A few of our men had been wounded by bullets from a low-flying bomber.  Now, hidden by darkness, nearly 600 out of a complement of 800 were safely picked up.
The attack began at dawn.  We needed rest.  The night we had spent patrolling the Greek coast, and air defence the previous day had depleted our ammunition.  Just after six o'clock as the sun rose above the snow-topped mountains of Kithera Straight, the first formation , 16 Ju87's appeared flying high against the hot, blue sky.  A fierce barrage met their dives.  Their bombs went wide.
Half an hour later, a second formation closed over us, one plane swooping so low that we could see the tyres on its landing wheels turning with the force of the dive.  The noise of our guns was too great for us to hear its engines.  We saw the bombs, small and black at first, falling, increasing prodigiously, now with fins that turned the air into a shriek.  We crouched.  The explosions rocked the ship.  One bomb threw up a wave that drenched the bridge personnel with black water.
All about us, the sea gave up fountains of water sparkling in the sunlight.  One bomb splinter cut through seven bulkheads.  Brilliant manoeuvring was saving us from direct hits.  We had 15 minutes to recover before the next attack.  Again we eluded the bombs.
For two hours they left us alone.  We believed the worst was over.  By nine o'clock we were safely out of Kithera Straight, the narrow, rock-bound passage to the Aegean, and had joined the fleet.  At mid-day, the ship was startled by a bugle call to "Action Stations".  We had been ordered back to Kithera Straight.  H.M.S. CARLISLE, running the gauntlet we had survived earlier in the morning, was reported in difficulties.  We were to assist her.  CARLISLE, however, was able to get away under her own power.  We returned to the fleet.
Meanwhile a caique, attempting to run German troops to Crete, was lighting the horizon with flames.  She had been hit by shells from the destroyer GREYHOUND.  A moment later, GREYHOUND disappeared in a wreath of smoke.  She sank in less than five minutes, victim of a furious counter attack from the air.  Destroyers KINGSTON  and KANDAHAR were sent to rescue survivors.  We and the GLOUCESTER were detached to give support.

Below is a photo of HMS Greyhound that a friend found in an old bookshop.

Almost as soon as we gained full view of the Straight again, the bombers came out to meet us, and within a few minutes we were singled out as a target.  The bombs exploded amidships, tearing down the foremast, the yellow air raid warning flag flying at the yard arm - we had no time to hoist the red.
FIJI heeled over at 45 degrees.  We left her turning over slowly.  It was very cold.