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The sinking of the Cruiser Gloucester.

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Account by the surgeon

Leading Seaman E.J. Smith

Scattering of a survivor's ashes

On Monday 18 June I saw a brief news item on BBC TV.  Six survivors of the sinking of the Gloucester had gone back to the site (courtesy of the Royal Navy) and together with families of some who died, had laid wreaths on the sea above the spot where she went down.  It is an official war grave site.  The six then went to the island of Kithera and met one of the islanders who had helped them following the sinking.

See also the article below on the sinking by one of the survivors.

The Gloucester. Photo from http://www.naval-history.net 

In May 1941 the cruiser Gloucester, under the command of Captain H.A. Rowley was a part of Force B, together with the cruiser Fiji.  In the period just prior to the German invasion the orders for Force B were to patrol to the north-west of Crete with the instructions to intercept and sink any enemy forces and to give support to Force D.  Force D was protecting the coast to the west of Rethymnon.  As has been mentioned elsewhere, the Navy had to operate without air support against an enemy with a substantial ability to deliver aerial attacks against capital ships.
On May 16th Force B, with Force D, took up position north-west of Crete to protect the island from any forces coming from Greece.  By the 18th the Gloucester and Fiji were released to refuel at Alexandria as quickly as possible, then steam to assist Force A1 to the west of Crete.  Early on the 20th the German airborne invasion began.  Admiral Cunningham made changes to his force dispositions as a result of the German moves.  The Gloucester and Fiji were to pass close off Cape Matapan at the southern end of the Greek Peloponnese at 0400 on the 21st, and steam to join Force A1 (Admiral Rawlings) about fifty miles west of Crete.  They joined A1 after an uneventful sweep from Cape Matapan.
During the 21st Force A1 was off the south-west of the island of Kithera.  It had also now been joined by Admiral Glennie's Force D and so was now a considerable force of two battleships (Warspite & Valiant), five cruisers (Gloucester, Fiji, Ajax, Orion & Dido) and eight destroyers (Isis, Imperial, Kimberley, Janus, Napier, Decoy, Griffin & Hotspur).  The British hoped that this force would tempt the Italian Navy to put to sea against them.  It didn't.
On the 21st the German fleet of small invasion craft en-route Milos to Maleme was spotted by British aircraft.  Force B (with C & D) was to sail through the Kaso Straight and Kithera Channel to prevent a seaborne landing on the night of 21/22 May.  The German convoy was destroyed, mainly by Force D.
Thursday 22nd May dawned with the Gloucester and Fiji steaming to rejoin Force A1 some fifty miles south-west of the Kithera Channel, steering north-west.  At daylight the Gloucester, Fiji and destroyers Greyhound & Griffin were about twenty five miles north of Canea.  At 06.30 they were spotted by Stuka pilots and were subjected to an aerial bombardment for about an hour and a half while they steamed to join force A1 at 08.30.  During this attack the Fiji received slight damage, but Gloucester was almost unscathed.  While damage was only slight, the Gloucester now had only 18% of her High Angle ammunition remaining, this was her defence against air attack.
Early on the afternoon of the 22nd the destroyer Greyhound was detached from the force and ordered to sink a large caique spotted between the islands of Pori and Antikithera.  On her return she was attacked by Stukas, and quickly sank.  The destroyers Kandahar and Kingston were sent to pick up survivors, which they attempted to do, though under heavy attack themselves.  At 14:02 the Fiji was sent to provide them with anti aircraft defense, and five minutes later the Gloucester was sent to do the same.  As the ammunition check earlier in the day had shown the Gloucester with only 18% remaining at 09:30, and the Fiji not much better off with 30%, an accident was waiting to happen.  At around 14:30 the ammunition situation was such that the two cruisers were told to withdraw at their discretion.  Steaming to rejoin the rest of the force the Gloucester was hit at 15:27 by at least two bombs.  These did considerable damage, not least to one of the boiler rooms.  Further bombs hit the ship, and at around 15:45 there were three violent explosions, the end was near.
The Gloucester maneuvering while under aerial attack, and not long before she was mortally wounded.
The following account is by Surgeon Lt. Cdr. Singer who was on the Gloucester, it is taken from the files in the Second World War Experience Centre.

Around 15.00 there was a 'dull explosion and the ship heaved, throwing us into the air'.  "The ship was shaken by several more explosions.  At 15.27 we were hit by at least two bombs in the after part of the ship.  One of these entered by 'X' barbette and exploded in the gunroom flat.  Either this bomb or another one damaged 'B' boiler room and compressor room and the main w/t office.  Another was responsible for blowing clean over the side the after DCT, the after HA director and the main topmast.  At about 15.40 another bomb landed on the 4" gun deck between P1 and P2.  All the port torpedoes had been fired before the explosion, owing, I believe, to the prompt action of the torpedo officer, Lt. Daniel.  No doubt many more would have been killed had the warheads exploded.  Yet another bomb penetrated the port pom-pom platform, went through the port hanger and exploded in the canteen flat."

They abandoned ship "The FIJI came past dropping Carley floats.  She then steamed away, only to share our fate later on".

The men started to abandon ship as best they could, and a little before 17:30 the Gloucester sank.  "....nine miles from Pori Island on a bearing of 294 degrees within sight of the mountains of the Peloponnese, the peaks of Crete and the island of Kithera."  (David Thomas, "The battle at sea").  The body of the Captain, Henry Rowley, was washed ashore four weeks later to the west of Mersa Matruh in North Africa.  As Admiral Cunningham later said, " It was a long way to come home."
I am grateful to Mark Evans of San Francisco who sent me this note and the photo of his Grandfather, who died on the Gloucester.

My grandfather was killed when the Gloucester was sunk on May 22nd. He was Edward John Smith, Leading Seaman, 
D/J 113324.

 
I've attached a picture of him.
 
This is an account of the sinking written by Ernie Evans, one of the survivors featured in the BBC programme, to my Mum.
 
"The Gloucester, together with another cruiser, Fiji, had been in action most of the 21st of May '41 against German dive bombers, and again on the morning of 22nd May. About noon on that day, we met up with the rest of the fleet in the Kithera Channel, about 14 miles north of Crete.

 

 
 
"The dive bombers concentrated on us and we were hit by at least eight bombs. The ship stopped in the water, badly on fire. At about 4pm the order was given to abandon ship. Whilst in the water, German fighter planes flew low over the water and machine-gunned us, killing many of the crew. Unfortunately, none of our ships returned to pick us up, and it was left to the Germans to do this at around 2pm the following day. By this time, there were just 85 of us left out of a crew of 807, and we spent the next four years in a German prisoner of war camp."
 

Leading Seaman E.J. Smith.  Photo courtesy of his grandson, Mark Evans.

To commemorate VE Day in 2005 The Times issued a reprint of their May 8, 1945 edition.  In the section for Deaths On Active Service there was a poignant reference; "TANNER - Previously reported missing, now officially presumed to have been killed in action on May 22, 1941.  Commander R.P. Tanner, D.S.C., Royal Navy, H.M.S. "Gloucester."  So his family waited four years for that news.
Former seaman has ashes scattered where his wartime comrades died.  This was the headline to a January 2007 article in the Daily Telegraph.  Ken MacDonald was a marine bandsman on the Gloucester and one of the 82 survivors; 723 died.  Ken manned one of the guns and was picked up by a German ship and made a POW for the rest of the war.  According to the Telegraph report he vowed at the time that when he died he wanted his ashes scattering where his comrades had died.  The present-day Gloucester, a destroyer, did the job for Ken; 'a cask containing his remains and draped in the Union flag, was committed to the deep.'