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HMS Cornwall

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Most of the reports that describe the loss of HMS Cornwall originate from upper-deck people. Some 10 years ago Lieut (E) E. A. Drew RN put on paper the events of six and a half years War Service both as an RNVR rating (1937-1940), and then as an officer in the Engine Room Branch serving in 3 cruisers, Norfolk (6 mths.), Cornwall (16 mths until sunk) and Bermuda (24 mth ) before 18 mths ashore as a Divisional Officer at RN Artificer Training Establishment, Rosyth. This is the story from the Stokers Messdeck. If you served on Cornwall or would like to get in touch with Teddie Drew please contact him.

HMS Cornwall prewar
HMS Cornwall prewar
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From the day of the Japanese declaration of war, it was evident the situation would change in the Indian Ocean. The rapid advance of the Japanese army and the presence of large Japanese naval forces in and around the South China Sea meant Allied naval presence in the Indian Ocean would have to be increased or the Navy would have to withdraw to the East African coast. There was only one answer and that was to increase. The Mediterranean C. in C., Admiral Cunningham, despatched his deputy, Admiral Somerville, to carry out this task. By the end of March 1942, he had assembled the Eastern Fleet, which consisted of many old ships. Apart from the one modern carrier, Indomitable, Cornwall, aged 14 years, was the most modern. The remainder of the Fleet consisted of four R-class battleships from the First War, the first purpose-built aircraft carrier Hermes, several old cruisers and destroyers - in fact as C in C signalled to the Fleet once we had assembled, 'there is many a good tune played on an old fiddle'. In addition to the age of the ships, we had no Fleet support, such as tankers or stores. The Japs and the Americans however had solved that problem, for, wherever they had a group of naval ships, they had tankers in their midst.

After brief fleet exercises, reports came in of a large Japanese task force steaming towards us from the East Indies. Cornwall and Dorsetshire were despatched north to fuel in Colombo, Hermes to Trincomalee. Our fuelling was achieved with great difficulty because of warnings of approaching enemy aircraft. It took four hours to get the boilers of an HM Ship ready for sea. Both ships eventually left Colombo at dusk on 4th. April and steamed at 29 knots to rejoin the Fleet some 750 miles to the south. We never achieved that target.

We were at Action Stations from the moment that we left Colombo. At the end of the day, we were spotted by enemy air reconnaissance. On the following morning, Easter Sunday 5 April, we were spotted again and we knew that trouble was ahead, especially as the Japs had several modern carriers in their Task Force. Just after 2 o'clock, without any warning a mass of dive-bombers came out of the sun and attacked the Dorsetshire and ourselves. Within thirty minutes, we were instructed by the Captain to abandon ship. Because of the ship's initial speed, as we abandoned her we were strung out astern in the sea. There was no hope of launching any boats but several Carley floats floated off together with one of the motorboats and the two large wooden oiling fenders used to keep the ship and a tanker apart when fuelling.

And now for the details. During during the Forenoon watch, I had been at my Action Station i/c Forward Damage Control party. Just before noon I had been relieved to get some food and to take the Afternoon Watch in the After Engine Room. My lunch consisted of two slices of fresh pineapple. I then relieved Mike Edgar in the After Engine Room. All that I can remember of that Watch, before the action started was the heat in the Engine Room and making sure that the lads were as relaxed as possible. Their situation below water level, the very restricted means of movement and of course the presence of superheated steam at 600 degrees in the supply pipes to the main engines and auxiliaries made the relaxation exercises far from easy!

The first that we knew of the action was a terrific bang, the ship shuddered and clouds of dust billowed into the Engine Room from the supply ventilation fans over the artificers on the main throttles - they naturally moved away from their throttles but we got them back to their place of duty. There were several more explosions and vigorous shuddering of the ship. We then lost main steam in the After Engine Room and all the lights went out. There was pitch darkness. That was immediately followed by a bomb exploding at the after end of the Engine Room with dense smoke and flames visible above me against the deckhead.

I shouted to the lads to get out - we could not see each other but everyone knew where the sole exit ladder from the Engine Room was situated. When they had gone and it was my turn to ascend, I heard a scream from the after end of the Engine Room. I went towards the scream but it stopped and I thought to myself 'my lot's up, its all over' and I just felt ready to sit down and wait for the end when I realised that I had a wife and child and must make the effort to get out. I got back to the ladder somehow and started to ascend but found my way blocked by smoke and flames. I pushed on through and apart from burns to my hands and legs, found myself on the main deck with only another companionway to negotiate to reach the upper deck. By that time the ship had a severe list to port so moving across the deck was extremely difficult and I was in shock and in a poor state; in fact I was all-in. The action was still on. We were still being bombed, but there was now no return fire. We really were sitting ducks.

Cornwall listing to port, down by the head with the bows under water, shortly before sinking
Cornwall listing to port, down by the head with the bows under water, shortly before sinking
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Someone helped me up the companionway to the upper deck on the port side where the sea by this time was lapping the deck - remember that in normal circumstances, we had a 20-foot freeboard between the sea level and the deck! As I lay on the upper deck, I remember Archie Lieut.(E) Archbold saying 'God, I've left 50 quid in my cabin' and he went below to get it, despite efforts to restrain him. He returned as the Skipper with blood over his clothing, came along shouting 'Abandon ship'. They helped me up the sloping deck to the starboard side where I was able with others to slide down the ship's side into the water. As I started the slide, I remember thinking to myself 'if I can only get into the water. I'll be OK'. Little did I know of the future at that moment.

the death throes - Cornwall left, and Dorsetshire
the death throes - Cornwall left, and Dorsetshire
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Once in the water I was covered in thick fuel oil (which has a consistency of black treacle) which meant that I could only open my eyelids a small amount - I had to stretch my head back and look along my cheeks to see what was happening and of course at the same time, keep myself afloat. I then realised that I had no lifebelt; why I do not know, for it was an offence to be at sea on duty without wearing one, and I had had one on in the Engine Room! Anyway, I started to swim away from the ship when I found that I was being drawn back to the ship. I quickly realised why - the starboard outer propeller (14ft. diameter) was still rotating with the shaft at water level and as it churned the water it was drawing the sea and me to it! As I approached the propeller, I suddenly realised that I was in big trouble and that there was nothing that I could do about it. God was with me as He always is, for, as I approached the thrashing water, the ship lurched over to port, the propeller came out of the water and I sailed under it. I can see it all happening as I write. I then came alongside Sub-Lieutenant (E) Dougall, a Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve who was with us for training, and he got a lifebelt off one of the corpses and helped me get it on - not an easy job with both of us covered in oil and swimming in an oil covered sea - I never saw him again. We were then subjected to machine gun fire from the large number of Japanese planes that hung around until the ship sank.

I remember watching the ship moving away from me. I saw the Walrus float off the catapult but it was then sunk by the ship's wireless aerials coming down across the wings as she went over on to her side. The seaman in the lookout barrel at the top of the foremast had to remain there until he was able to jump into the sea from a height of 8ft, as the slip listed over to port. One of the ship's motorboats floated off and that remained afloat and was to become the 'senior ship' among several Carley floats. It was the one thing that I could see in the distance as the waves lifted me up. By this time, I was about half a mile astern of the ship. When shortly afterwards she went down by the head and her stern came right out of the water and she sank in a vertical position - about half of her length stood out of the water as she went straight down into the Indian Ocean which is about a mile deep at that point - it is hard to believe but I heard a faint cheer as the survivors, spread along a line about a mile long, watched it all happen.

I found myself alone and conscious of dead bodies, large fish and wreckage. I found a messdeck tabletop, about 3ft wide and 10ft long, and was thankful for a rest as I clung to it; it was not possible to get on it. The ship's Physical Training Petty Officer came swimming by heading for the motorboat we could see in the distance - he suggested that I should accompany him. I said that I would follow him because he was a more powerful swimmer. No sooner had I left my table than I trod on a large fish - I was soon back on my table! However I worked out that because it gets dark about 7 p.m. if I did not reach the motorboat before then, I was going to be on my own all night. So I summoned up courage and eventually reached the motorboat just as darkness fell. I reported to Commander Fair who was in the motorboat and he put me in charge of one of the Carley floats which were all roped together around the motorboat. There were already over 20 ratings standing in my float which meant that the buoyant 'sausage' from which the wooden centre is suspended was 2ft below water level, so it looked as if we were all standing with the water at about waist level! The waters of the Indian Ocean are very clear and as we stood in our Carley float and looked down, the large sharks were clearly visible below.

The motorboat was being used as a sickbay for the severely wounded - the Chief Yeoman of Signals was laid on the roof of the boat's cabin. As men died, they were committed to the sea and space slowly came available for other wounded men. As far as I was concerned, my burns were soothed by the salt-water but the oil continued to affect us all severely.

So the scene was set. We knew that the C in C could not and would not despatch aircraft or ships to look for us, for he had more urgent problems on hand. We knew there was a likelihood that he would never be able to look for us since he and his old ships might be in a similar situation. We knew that we were in for a long wait.

During the night, there was continual shouting from ratings who were sure that they could see lights on the horizon, but it was imagination. One of the Engineer officers, Mike Edgar, died during that night.

We were sustained by fruit juice and small pieces of tinned fruit. Some months before the sinking, the new Doctor aboard had obtained approval for the traditional water and hard biscuits in the boats to be replaced by cases of tinned fruit - and what a success that proved to be. A tin would be punctured and handed round for everyone to have a mouthful of juice - then after a 6-hour period, the tin would be opened and small pieces of the fruit spooned out.

That night seemed to last forever, but the following day was to prove very difficult. After the son rose we cut pieces of clothing to soak and cover our heads as protection from the rays of the Equatorial sun. We were joined by a small group of men who had spent the night clinging to wreckage away from the motorboat. Of these newcomers, I remember that it included Lieut. Cheesman, Royal Marines (one of our two Walrus pilots) who was later in the War to earn a DSO for leading the fighter aircraft covering a bombing raid on the Tirpitz in Norwegian waters, and also Mechanician "Sherlock" Holmes. To the day he died in 1999, Cheesman maintained his strong hatred of the Japanese for their machine-gunning of us in the water.

Archie decided that he would remove his flannel trousers from under his boiler-suit - a job that stretched ingenuity in restricted space and below water level. Once achieved, the offending trousers were despatched to the ocean - an hour later, Archie exploded to inform us all in real Geordie straight talking that the £50 he had fetched from his cabin as the ship was sinking, was in the back pocket of his rejected trousers! So there were some lighter moments. I can remember Chief Stoker Shaw and a group of men sitting on one of the oiling fenders - rather fitting that Joe Shaw should be still connected with the 'tools of his trade'!

After 24 hours in the water, a plane appeared. Friend or foe? Great excitement and apprehension, and about 6pm, just as the light was starting to fail, three ships were seen and there was then no doubt that we were being picked up by our own people - whew! We were picked up by boats from the cruiser Enterprise, and destroyers Paladin and Panther after about 27 hours in the water. Once they got me aboard Enterprise. I asked to be taken to Lieut. Baker's cabin where I was stripped by a big Marine, cleaned up, bathed and put to bed in Baker's bunk. Who was Lieutenant Baker? He and I had joined RNVR on the same night in November 1937 and had met each other for the first time since that date when both our ships were in Colombo a few weeks previously. What a small world!

The only photographs of the whole episode were taken by the Japs as we were sinking and by the crew of the Enterprise as we were picked up. That photograph appeared in British papers from German sources a few days after the sinking and was to cause terrible distress among our next-of-kin.

When Baker came off watch, he told me that C in C had detached the three ships to search for us for half an hour in the area reported by an aircraft from one of the carriers and if we were not found, to rejoin the Fleet immediately. He also said that on the previous night, C in C had gambled everything on a night action with the Jap Task Force as being his only hope of success - both Fleets had been under surveillance from the air and each knew or thought he knew where the other would be at any particular moment.

When on the night of 5-6 April, the Eastern Fleet reached the area where the Japs were expected to be, they drew a blank. Next day, air reconnaissance revealed that the Japs had turned tail and were heading back to the East Indies. After the war we were to learn the answer to the salvation of the Eastern Fleet and our rescue. The Japanese High Command were concerned at the possibility of their Task Force in the Indian Ocean being cut off from the remainder of their naval forces in the South China Seas as the result of increasing American naval activity in the South Pacific area, and had ordered the retreat. What a chance they missed, for they could have proceeded to East Africa and beyond without any opposition at all. That would have completely altered the War scene! We knew from our final visit to Colombo for fuel that the first bomb dropped on Sri Lanka would lead to the whole native population leaving the coastal towns and ports and going inland - and so it proved. That rendered the ports and their facilities without any labour at all. A similar situation would have occurred on the coast of Africa.

I have forgotten to say that Hermes was sunk by the Japs off Trincomalee just before we were sunk, and there was considerable bomb damage ashore at Trinco and Colombo - nevertheless the RAF with Spitfires and Hurricanes had caused the Japs to realise that such attacks were going to be costly and that the island's defences were now substantial.

Before the attack, Cornwall and Dorsetshire were steaming a mile or so apart. Following the attack we moved farther apart. The two destroyers picked up the Dorsetshire survivors. At no time during our hours in the water did we see any sign of each other even though we were relatively close. After our rescue, I do not remember meeting any of the Dorsetshire survivors which I now find strange. They hit the headlines in the British press in due course, probably on account of Captain Agar being the holder of a Victoria Cross, and the fact that some months earlier, they had taken part in the sinking of the Bismarck in the Atlantic. That had been a great boost for the British morale, However the lack of publicity for the Cornwall survivors did not upset me one little bit.

As soon as Enterprise rejoined the Fleet we made for Addu Atoll at the maximum speed of the slowest members, which was not very fast since the old R class battleships had only 50 percent boiler capacity. On the way to Addu, the Fleet carried out an anti-aircraft practice shoot at airborne targets - not a very helpful background for we survivors less than 24 hours after being picked up! On arrival at Addu, we found a hospital ship. The doctors decided that I should go to the hospital ship but I asked that I should be allowed to stay with the 'walking wounded' since my injuries only consisted of burns to my hands, arms and groins. This was agreed and I along with many others from Cornwall was transferred to the R class battleship Revenge and to its Sickbay in particular.

Revenge was in a desperate state. We were limited to 2 pints of drinking water each day due to her boiler problem and washing had to be achieved using seawater. I had a cabin to myself but it was desperately hot. When a naval ship prepares for sea, all portholes are closed and deadlights (heavy steel circular plates that drop down internally over the porthole) secured in place. Forced ventilation below decks comes from louvres in trunking along the deckhead - there was no air-conditioning in HM Ships during the War. Portholes are opened again on arrival in harbour. The conditions below decks on Revenge on the Equator were not comfortable.

The journey in Revenge from Addu to Mombassa took an age! I do not remember what other ships accompanied us - on arrival we were transferred immediately to the troopship Mendoza. By that time, my injuries had virtually cleared up. The most important job on arrival was to try and get a communication off to my wife, for we knew that there had been no opportunity in the 2 week interval since we were sunk for the Navy to forward a list of survivors to the UK.