|The sinking of the
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
|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
|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
|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
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,
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.'