WORLD WAR TWO - NAVAL FATALITIES

PART 2 - THE ROYAL NAVY

Southsea War Memorial
Southsea War Memorial
Image by Steve Daniels © via geograph.org.uk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Introduction

In Part 1 we looked at local, or locally connected, fatalities in Merchant Craft.

We tend to view the Royal Navy's role in terms of battleships, destroyers, frigates, submarines and suchlike. But there were many other types of vessels, from Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) and trawlers to landing craft, all of which played a vital role. Not all of the casualties resulted from enemy action - there were inevitable accidents too. As of September 1939 we still had the largest navy in the world, but many of the ships were old and we had not bargained for the audacity and number of the U-boats. The first indication of our frightening vulnerability came in October 1939 when Gunther Prien took U-47 into Scapa Flow and torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak. In truth, the Royal Oak, a veteran of the Battle of Jutland, was past it, but for a prestigious ship of that size to be sunk at anchor with more than 800 fatalities was an enormous blow. The British had thought Scapa Flow was impregnable and yet a single U-boat simply sneaked in and destroyed a mighty battleship. Royal Oak is still down there, protected as a war grave. (Scapa Flow had once been littered with wrecks, since it was the place where much of the German Grand Fleet was interned after WW1 and where many of the ships were eventually scuttled by the bored Germans while our backs were turned. Most of them were raised in a years-long salvage operation because they were hazardous to shipping.)

Memorial to HMS Royal Oak (sunk 14 October 1939) in St Magnus' Cathedral, Kirkwall.
Memorial to HMS Royal Oak (sunk 14 October 1939) in St Magnus' Cathedral, Kirkwall.
By BillC (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

But that wasn't all. Three days after Prien's attack, the Luftwaffe had a go at Scapa Flow and damaged HMS Iron Duke, another Jutland veteran, which had been decommissioned and was being used as a harbour defence. However, quite apart from the fact that the ships concerned were not really fit for more modern combat, there had been huge fatalities and the so-called impregnable base had been penetrated with consummate ease. You could say that it was the mother and father of all wake-up calls and the Navy swiftly deployed units to Scapa Flow to make it safe again; it continued as a vital base throughout the second conflict.

The Royal Navy Ships

Generally speaking, it makes more sense to chart the Royal Navy casualties vaguely chronologically, since they were involved in operations which reflected the progress of the War, but, having mentioned the Scapa Flow debacle, I will fast-forward for a moment to May 1941 when major attention was turned to stopping the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from breaking out into the Atlantic and destroying Allied merchant shipping: ships like these were a massive threat and considerable effort was expended in trying to hunt them down or keep them at bay - for example, the battleship Tirpitz lurked in the Norwegian fjords, awaiting the chance to break out, and the Allies had to commit huge resources to finding and stopping her. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were engaged by the British in an action known to us as the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Our principal attacking force comprised the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, supported by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk and six destroyers. Like the Royal Oak, Hood was a fairly old ship and did not really have enough armour, which became tragically evident when one of the enemy shells hit her in the magazine, causing a massive explosion. She broke in two. There were over 1400 fatalities and just three survivors: the last of them, Ted Briggs, who remained in the Royal Navy after the war and was then commissioned, died in 2008. There were two local lads who perished on HMS Hood - 17 year old Boy 1st Class Benjamin Warwick of 3 Hook Road, Epsom and Able Seaman Edward Hales, 18, originally from Portsmouth, whose parents lived in Ewell (according to CWGC).


Video clip of Bismarck vs Hood (original WWII footage)

In May 1940 almost everything we had that was available and still afloat participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. Two local fatalities in this operation were Able Seaman Charles Easton and Stoker 1st Class Ernest Leverington. Both Charles and Ernest were aboard the destroyer HMS Wakeful (H88), when it was torpedoed and sunk by an E-boat on 29 May 1940 - E-boats were rather like Motor Torpedo Boats, but faster.

HMS Wakeful
HMS Wakeful
Image source Wikimedia Commons

HMS Glorious was a WW2 battlecruiser which had been converted to an aircraft carrier. After spending the autumn and winter of 1939 looking for the Admiral Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean, she was sent to support operations in Norway and in June 1940 had the misfortune to encounter another two 'big beasts' of the Kriegsmarine - the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau -, which sank her. The Germans didn't hang around to pick up survivors, and ultimately only a few were rescued. The total fatality count from Glorious was 1207, including Douglas George Franck, an 18 year old fitter in the Fleet Air Arm.

	
USS Buckley in drydock at the Boston Navy Yard - Her bow bent from ramming U-66Fleet
German battleship Scharnhorst firing her forward 283mm guns,
during the engagement with the British aircraft carrier Glorious and her escorts,
8 June 1940. Photographed from the battleship Gneisenau.
Source (http://www.history.navy.mil) NH 83981 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

HMS Glorious in the Arctic
HMS Glorious in the Arctic
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 283)

HMS Hermes was also an aircraft carrier, but in a completely different theatre of operations. She had been involved in many patrols and actions, covering vast areas of the globe, but in April 1942 she was at Trincomalee, situated on the north-east coast of what is now Sri Lanka, to prepare for the invasion of Madagascar, then controlled by Vichy France. There were serious concerns that Madagascar would be ceded to the Japanese or that the latter would be permitted to establish bases there. The British Government's decision, in association with African allies, was that a large amphibious assault would be launched on the key port of Diego Suarez (now Antsiranana). Getting wind of an intended Japanese air raid, Hermes and HMAS Vampire set sail but then ran into air attack from a Japanese carrier, comprising over 30 aircraft; both ships were sunk. 307 men perished on Hermes, including Lieutenant-Commander Edward Ambrose Norman Gardiner, aged 38. Edward was the son of a master at Epsom College and this was not the first catastrophe to afflict the family. Edward's brother, William Norman Gardiner, had lost his life in another appalling, and still controversial, naval tragedy - the loss with all hands of HMS Defence at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

HMS HERMES
HMS HERMES
© IWM (FL 6185)

The destroyer HMS Jaguar had been involved in the Dunkirk evacuation but in 1942 she was on escort duties in the Mediterranean and was sunk by U-652 off northern Egypt. Many of the crew died and one of them was Epsom man Henry Salter. Petty Officer James Bruce Smith, who lived at 97 Church Side, Epsom Common, was on the submarine depot ship HMS Medway when it was ordered to evacuate allied troops from Alexandria. Despite the fact that she was escorted by a light cruiser and seven destroyers she was sunk by U-372 on 30 June. Just over a month later the British sank the German submarine off Haifa, but there were no fatalities.

This is an opportune moment to mention some of the 'little ships', many of which were fishing boats and did sterling work in home waters during both World Wars.

Trawlers and drifters at their moorings at Scapa, April 1942.
Trawlers and drifters at their moorings at Scapa, April 1942.
© IWM (A 8566)

Many fishing trawlers and drifters were requisitioned during WW 2, their main functions being a variety of essential duties, such as minesweeping, escorting convoys, ferrying supplies and personnel between ship and shore and general patrolling activities; they also played a significant role in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. These little boats and their crews were largely unsung heroes. Crews were often made up largely of local fishermen who had worked the boats in peacetime and HM Drifter Ocean Retriever was one such boat, skippered by Acting Temporary Chief Skipper William Alfred Capps, aged 50. Mr Capps had fulfilled a similar role in World War 1. Ocean Retriever had been requisitioned in 1940 and became an armed patrol vessel.

Boats such as this are treasured, mourned and remembered in their home ports and communities, but perhaps receive little wider attention, except for their role at Dunkirk in 1940. Hundreds of them were requisitioned for wartime duties and designated as The Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS). In WW1 the RNPS had been dubbed 'Harry Tate's Navy' after a comedian of the time whose trademark was clumsy ineptitude, but this was far from the truth, and time and time again the crews proved their courage and determination. They were motley crews and as hostilities wore on, you could find seasoned fishing personnel, hastily-drafted civilians and naval men all on the same boat.

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft.
The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft.
Image by Adrian S Pye © via geograph.org.uk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

38 year old Stanley Ellarby was one of the men on Ocean Retriever. He was apparently a last minute replacement for someone else and was typical of the personnel who manned the trawlers and drifters. The Ellarbys were originally a Hull family and Stanley's late father, John, had skippered a fishing trawler. Ernest Barcock was a 20 year old Yorkshireman and Francis Charles Cork was an experienced longshore fisherman from Norfolk, aged 46, who had also served in the First World War.

Monochrome painting of the Ocean Retriever
Monochrome painting of the Ocean Retriever, after an original painting by
Kenneth Luck, from the private collection of Stanley Earl., a volunteer at the
Lowestoft Maritime Museum.

Ordinary Signalman William Thomas Carter was the son of Samuel and Susan Jane (nee Houston) Carter, who were married in Dalston in 1910. At that time Samuel was a warehouseman and Susan a bookbinder. They were East End people and so was William, born in 1918. Samuel and Susan ultimately moved to 104 Belfield Road, West Ewell. On 22 September 1943, whilst minesweeping in the Thames Estuary, Ocean Retriever hit a mine and went down with all eleven of her crew, six of whom were not recovered and are thus commemorated on the RNPS Memorial at Lowestoft.

Quite a number of Royal Navy ships were originally built by the Americans and one of these was the frigate HMS Bickerton, formerly the USS Eisele. She was an escort ship and had mainly seen service in and around British home waters during her brief career. In August 1944 she was escorting a group of aircraft carriers which, in turn, were protecting convoy JW-59. JW-59 consisted of 34 ships and was travelling from Loch Ewe in Wester Ross to Kula Inlet, Murmansk. Bickerton was torpedoed by U-354 with the loss of 38 lives; she was completely disabled owing to damaged propeller shafts and, after the survivors had been taken off, she was scuttled by three torpedoes from HMS Vigilant. One of the fatalities was 18 year old Cecil Alex Frank Howell of Epsom.

The JW convoys operated in the Arctic and one of them, JW-51B, was immortalised by Alan Ross in an epic poem of the same name. Generally speaking, WW2 poetry is nothing like as famous, or as good, as that of WW1, and very few poems of either era covered the realities of naval warfare, but Ross did just that, having nearly died aboard the escort destroyer HMS Onslow in an engagement known as the Battle of the Barents Sea (December 1942), where one of the enemy ships was the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. Convoys and their escorts were not remotely roses, especially in the Arctic. Here is an excerpt from the poem JW-51B.

'A' and 'B' Guns unable to fire,
Radar destroyed, aerials ripped,
And, forward, the sea stripping
The Mess decks, spilling over tables,
Fire and water clinching like boxers
As the ship listed, sprawling them.
Tamblin, his earphones awry, like a laurel wreath
Slipped on a drunken god, gargled to death
In water with a noise of snoring.

HMS PENELOPE
HMS PENELOPE
© IWM (FL 4822)

HMS Penelope (97) was a light cruiser which, for a while, led almost a charmed life: she had been shot up so many times that she was affectionately known as HMS Pepperpot. Over the winter of 1941/42 she operated out of Malta, as part of Force K, their job being to sink Italian merchant shipping. Whilst in the Malta dry docks for repairs during March 1942 she was attacked constantly by German aircraft, which was how she acquired her nickname.

HMS Penelope damage close-up from The Sphere June 27th 1942
HMS Penelope damage close-up from The Sphere June 27th 1942
via Wikimedia Commons

After further repairs in Gibraltar and Bermuda, Penelope returned home to Britain, where 21 of her crew members were decorated by King George VI as 'Heroes of Malta'. She was then sent back to work at Gibraltar and took part in several operations to secure strategic islands in advance of the invasion of Sicily. In October 1943 she was attacked and damaged by Stukas but managed to get to Alexandria for more repairs. Chief Stoker Herbert Henry Knight, who lived in Ashtead, but whose parents were Epsom people, appears to have been a casualty of this attack and was buried in Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery.

Penelope was soon back in business and in February 1944 she was involved in support operations at the Anzio beachhead. (Stoker 1st Class Emrys Morgan of Epsom was killed at Anzio in January 1944 when the Tank Landing Ship HMS LST 422 was lost.) Anzio could have been, and nearly was, as disastrous as Gallipoli in World War 1, but the ultimate objective of taking Italy did succeed eventually, albeit with massive casualties. The Italian campaign claimed the lives of 186,000 Allied troops and 311,000 Axis personnel. Ironically, Penelope's demise was not caused by direct head-to-head combat in the Italian operations: she was heading for Naples to re-stock on ammunition when she was hit by a T5 acoustic torpedo fired by U-410, The acoustic torpedo was a fairly new development and, broadly, it worked by using inbuilt sonar to home in on the particular sound made by a target. U-410 then fired again and Penelope exploded. Over 400 men were killed, including Stoker 2nd Class Leslie Henry Marsh of Epsom and Able Seaman Geoffrey John Stephens, whose parents lived at Tattenham Corner. Amazingly though, there were 250 survivors, who were rescued by landing craft.

As far as our Borough was concerned, naval casualties tailed off after the Normandy landings. Midshipman John Girvin Nicholson, whose parents subsequently lived in Ewell, was lost with the destroyer HMS Isis (D87) when she struck a mine off Normandy on 20 July 1944, but after that most of the sea-related fatalities involved the Fleet Air Arm or the Royal Marines as the Allies made their final push against the Axis powers.

Conclusion

Royal Navy ships were better equipped for survival than merchantmen, but, even so, many of them fell prey to U-boats. At the end of the war most of the surviving U-boats (there were not many left by then) surrendered to the Allies and in an operation named Deadlight they were scuttled by the Royal Navy off Ireland and Scotland. Despite applications for salvage rights, they are still down there.

SURRENDERED U-BOATS
Surrendered U-boats gather in North Ireland port. 24 and 25 May 1945,
Lisahally, near Londonderry. Part of the fleet of surrendered U-boats
moored at Lisahally, under armed guard. Twenty-seven were there on 24 May 1945.
© IWM (A 28892)

Linda Jackson © March, 2017

Main sources:
Uboat.net
Naval-History.net
Wrecksite.eu
Wikipedia


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