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HMS Bedouin 1942

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Sherard Manners
Sherard Manners

This is the story of Sherard Manners who served on Bedouin as Gunnery Control Officer through the Malta convoy Operation Harpoon, leading up to her sinking on the 15th June 1942 after taking on several Italian cruisers.

The situation in Malta in the summer of 1942 was desperate and they were short of food, fuel and ammunition. In June 1942 operation Harpoon was launched consisting of five destroyers and five merchantmen. Two of these reached Malta and were sunk before they were completely unloaded; this kept the island going for a short time.

Force Y- Operation Harpoon

Bedouin earlier in the war, possibly Narvik
Bedouin earlier in the war, possibly Narvik
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Convoy Escort

Cairo (Capt C C Hardy), Bedouin (SO Destroyers, Cdr B G Scurfield) Marne, Matchless, Partridge, Ithuriel 4 Hunts, 4 M/sweepers, 4 MTBs

5 Merchant Vessels

All through 13 June we sailed eastwards. The weather was fine and warm. We topped up with fuel and fresh bread from Liverpool. That evening came the first air attack. The 14 June saw heavy and continuous air attacks- a mixture of high level, dive-bombing, and low level.

1108-1135 air attack (28 Torpedo Bombers and fighters)

1152-1202 2nd air attack (40 Dive Bombers and fighters)

18 15-3rd air attack (JU 88s)

2005-2032 4th air attack

2205 last air attack.

We did some firing, but one had to be careful to conserve ammunition. The results of the bombing were:

(a) Liverpool badly damaged and returned to Gib (torpedoes)

(b) 2 Merchant Vessels were sunk

(c) 17 planes claimed shot down.

As Gunnery Control Officer my action station was in the High Angle Director from where one had a grandstand view of what was happening. I remember seeing one of the MVs hit and explode - and disappear in a matter of seconds.

At this moment there was a submarine scare and a few depth charges were dropped without visible success. The convoy reformed and turned south round Cape Bon. Cairo, the Hunts and minesweepers formed the close escort, whilst Bedouin and the other four Fleet Destroyers in single line, a few miles ahead of the convoy formed a striking force.

We were closed up at action stations - mine being in the Low-Angle Director, By 2100/14 we were all in position. About now the captain sent for me and showed me a signalled report of some Italian Cruisers leaving Palermo. We measured off the distance on the chart and it looked as if they might arrive about 0600/16th. I don't remember my reactions, though clearly we were in for some action. It came rather sooner than expected. At about 0130 someone on the bridge shouted "Alarm dead ahead." I at once got the director on the bearing and, sure enough, there was a dark ship-size shadow. Guns were loaded and we were all ready. Then it struck me that the shape wasn't moving. I shouted to the bridge "I think it's a rock." No sooner said than Partridge next astern put her searchlight on - and there was a destroyer. A short, very sharp gun battle followed. I had been so busy trying to identify the target that my first salvo of four shells went whistling off into Tunisia. For what seemed like a couple of minutes the target was covered in flames and sparks - then suddenly came a cry "Christ, it's one of ours," and sure enough there was the silhouette of a British destroyer. It was all too true. We ceased fire and generally calmed down. It was in fact the hulk of the Havoc, which had run aground at high speed on 6.4.1942 whilst on passage from Malta-Gib. Being part of the Home Fleet, we knew nothing about this, and no-one had warned us about her. I don't suppose it did much harm - except possibly giving away our position.

Once more we settled down. At 0545 we formed up round the convoy. We in the striking force were on the starboard wing ready to move out to attack anyone coming from the north. If this happened the convoy would turn away to the south and the Hunts destroyers on the port wing would lay a smoke screen to hide the convoy.

We had just shifted to the HA director ready for air attacks when the order came from the bridge, "Enemy in sight; shift to low-angle." So we clambered back into the low angle director and trained round to port. I can say with certainty this was the only time in the war, indeed in my whole life, when I was really frightened. Through my binoculars the whole northern horizon seemed full of large, menacing Italian ships. It was, in fact, the Italian 7th Division, which had been reported the previous night. It consisted of

Eugenio Di Savoia
Eugenio Di Savoia
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Raimondo Montecuccoli
Raimondo Montecuccoli
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Vivaldi, Ascari, Malocilo, Premia

Their range was about 22,000yds, and already the convoy was within range of the cruisers guns. At once Bedouin set off at top speed towards the enemy. Training took over and I forgot all about being afraid and was busy getting the guns ready. We could not do much since our maximum range was 17,500yds. In retrospect it might have been better to have gone off more slowly to give the other destroyers time to form up. As it was the Bedouin and Partridge were some way ahead of the others and this meant we took the brunt of the enemy fire. I haven't any very clear memories of the battle, being busy controlling our guns, which opened fire at a range of about 17,000yds. I remember thinking how enormous the enemy ships looked. One heard the odd bang of shots hitting us; an immense column of water arose, some of which came in through the top of the director and soaked me. I don't know whether we scored any hits on the enemy.

Suddenly there was a bang, louder than most; a shell hit the side of the bridge close to the director. The layer was killed outright. The 'Sub' sitting next to me was very badly wounded; the other two sailors were both wounded. Fortune was with me and I was untouched. But clearly the director was out of action and it was obvious that the battle was passing us by. We had in fact suffered a lot of hits. Both our engines were damaged and we came slowly to a stop, just managing to set off our torpedoes but the enemy had turned away pursued by the other fleet destroyers.

It was a poor effort by the Italian Admiral. He had considerable superiority, but as usual the Italians had no stomach for a fight and the squadron turned away to the northeast. It is difficult to imagine a British Admiral acting similarly - the convoy should have been annihilated and the destroyers too.

We were now left lying stopped and the main scene passed onto the east. I got out of the director and went round to the other side and got the 'Sub' out and laid him on the deck where, shortly after, he died. Lieut. Kinner on the bridge was wounded and soon died, as did the Yeoman of Signals, Archer. There was much to do - cleaning up, getting the guns manned in local control, dealing with dead and wounded. Altogether we sustained 12 hits. We were badly damaged in the engine room, but the ship was more or less upright and, in the prevailing weather, conditions moderately seaworthy. Two officers (Skinner and S /Lt Parker) and 26 ratings died, and a good many injured. The doctor, Surgeon Lieut S V C Mooney RNVR, SDc; later Captain, was busy dealing with the wounded in the wardroom, helped by Sick Berth Petty Officer T G Rutherford, later Wardmaster Lieut. DSM. The dead were laid out on the upper deck and prepared for burial - if that's the right word.

By 0930 we had prepared to be taken in tow by Partridge (who had one engine only) and we were steering towards the Tunisian coast, as we reckoned Malta had enough damaged ships to deal with. We were making good about 5 knots. Meanwhile the convoy and escorts were disappearing eastwards and ourselves and Partridge were alone on the ocean; weather was perfect and there was a flat calm sea. The captain ordered "splice the mainbrace" to give everyone a bit of a lift, this entailed giving everybody a ration of rum.

At about 1300, I think, the Stukas reappeared and the tow was slipped. Partridge manoeuvred some way off I don't remember bombs falling, and soon after we got ready for towing again. This wasn't easy since we had no power on the capstan and had to slip the towing wire and some shackles of cable, which were hanging down from the bow. But eventually, all was ready and Partridge ready to pick up the tow again

At about 1400/15th the Italian cruisers reappeared to the north east. We ordered Partridge to withdraw and return later if she could. Once again the tow was slipped. Partridge made a smoke screen around us and we used our smoke floats. The cruisers opened fire at long range. I do not think they scored any hits. I remember going about my duties on the upper deck, hearing shots whistling over and falling flat on the deck. I got up, feeling rather foolish because by the time I heard the shells whistling over they had already landed some way off.

I made my way to the bridge to join the captain and we both looked a bit grim thinking what was about to happen to us. But for some inexplicable reason the cruisers continued on their way and disappeared over the northern horizon towards Pantellaria, which we could just see. Meanwhile the engineer officer was on his way to the bridge to report that one engines was moving slowly ahead and we were making good about 4 knots.

Bedouin sinking
Bedouin sinking
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Suddenly, at about 1400 a Savoia 79 aeroplane came out of the smoke on our starboard beam at a range of about 700yds. It turned towards us at a height of about 50ft. All guns that could, opened fire. I found the stripped Lewis gun which we kept on the bridge and opened fire also. Between the lot of us we managed to score some hits and later heard that they had ditched some 8-10 miles away. He dropped a torpedo at about 400yds and flew on straight over the ship. The captain and I watched the torpedo approaching and I remember saying "I wonder what it will be like when it hits." Unfortunately it hit on the bulkhead between the engine room and gearing room - the two biggest compartments in the ship. It felt just as if a giant had kicked the ship. Some four or five of the crew were killed in the explosion.

The ship at once took up a heavy list to port and was quickly settling. I took a quick tour round the ship to make sure no one was left behind, and that all life rafts etc. were put over the side. I then went back to the bridge to report to the captain. We met at the break of the forecastle together with the chief stoker (Pollard), Sickberth P O (Rutherford) and Able Seam Snasdell who was one of my director's crew. He had just come out of an operation to set his thigh. The chief stoker (Pollard) and I put a life jacket on him and flung him over the side about 25ft into the water. I am glad to say that he survived this rough treatment, and he attended several post-war reunions. The captain and I then blew up our life rings and went over the side. There I found Rutherford hanging onto a life buoy; he told me he couldn't swim, so I told him to hang on and towed him clear of the ship. About l00yds away we turned round and watched the ship slowly sink by the stern until she disappeared under, at about 1.40.

So the situation was that some 230 odd survivors were grouped close together; the wounded on rafts and float-nets and in the skimmer; the rest were hanging onto anything they could. There were no ships or aircraft about. We could still see Pantellaria to the north of us. The sea was calm and there was nothing we could do except wait. I don't remember being worried; I reckoned someone would come and pick us up - it never occurred to me that it might be the Italians.

At about 1830 a Cant HSR seaplane painted white with red crosses landed near a small group of survivors, numbering about 9, embarked them and took off again. By 2000 it was beginning to get dark, and I began to get cold. But suddenly we sighted a ship's lights approaching from the north. This was a small (900 tons) Italian hospital ship, fully lit with Geneva markings. It stopped close by and survivors began to climb aboard. As they did so, four CR42s made a dive-bombing attack on the ship. Luckily the captain of this ship got under way, and steamed clear of the rafts etc. It seems almost unbelievable, but meeting the pilot of one of the CR42s many years later (1989), he said he had orders to attack the Bedouin in a certain position; when he said he could only see the hospital ship he was told not to argue and carry out his attack! Luckily no damage was caused and by 2130 most of the survivors had been embarked. We were in a pretty poor state, covered in fuel oil, cold and getting exhausted - but at least we were alive! The ship turned back north and we berthed at Pantellaria. I don't remember much of the details except that we were fired on by the coastal defences as we approached the island, luckily without any damage. We were accommodated in a large long barrack hut. The Italians treated us quite fairly. We were fed, given palliasses to sleep on. They also sent in water tankers to help us get clean - but the mixture of water and Italian soap made little effect on the dirt. We were issued with ordinary sailors' clothes and sandals.

We stayed in Pantellaria for about ten days and were then taken off to Sicily, landed at Trapani, and taken to a camp near Castel Vetrano, at Santa Ninfa. This was under canvas and wired in. The weather was fine, food adequate, and the officers on parole went for walks with just a couple of guards. The war seemed very far away and we quickly regained full health and came to terms with our new role as POWs. After about three weeks we were taken by train to Messina, crossed over to Reggio by ferry. Here the ratings were separated and went off to Campo PG T2 at Chiavari. The officers went to Camp PG35 at Padula, south of Potenza. Campo PG35 at Padula was situated in an old monastery. It held about 300 officers of all three services. Accommodation was quite adequate, washing facilities and food also. Red Cross parcels came with fair regularity. The earlier prisoners had worked up a good black-market, using cigarettes from the Red Cross parcels as currency. The majority of prisoners were army officers who had been picked up in the desert. There were few RAF and RN officers. Senior officer was Brigadier Mountain. Accommodation was in the old monks' cells - each of these had a couple of rooms and a small garden about 12 x 5 yards at the back. Some ten officers would occupy each cell. The young officers were in four companies each occupying one side of a covered ambulatory on the first floor. The weather was pleasantly warm in spring and summer, but jolly cool in winter. However, the old beams in the roof made excellent, if unofficial burning.

There was plenty to do to occupy one's mind. There was a small library furnished by the Red Cross; one could take part in plays, musical concerts; learn almost any subject under the sun. We also had a soccer pitch and exercise field next to the monastery. We were joined regularly by other newer prisoners but were never overcrowded. The war seemed very remote. Each time a new lot of POWs arrived, they would give lectures to bring us up to date with war news. We had no wireless in Italy but somehow - I never knew whether it was the Italians being friendly or if we managed to infiltrate the loud-hailer system - but one morning over the loudspeaker - we heard the BBC announcement of the victory at Alamein - it lasted perhaps half a minute before being switched off!

By now, news had got home that I was alive and a POW. I remember my father telling me that he heard the news by signal from the First Lord. My first letter came from my brother Rodney about six weeks after arrival at Padua. We ourselves were given a postcard and an air letter form once a fortnight so we could write home. We could also receive a large parcel from home. The arrival of the first parcel was a great moment. The Red Cross had told those at home what items would be well received, and it was very nice to have a razor etc. again.

So 1942 passed by. From new arrivals it was quite obvious that the turning point of the war was passed and it became a question of time before we would be released. In this sense we had an easier time than those who were picked up early in the war - for them it must often have appeared that we were going to lose the war. News of the victory in the desert, and the N African landings came and we began to wonder what would happen to us.

We were in fact moved north to a camp just outside Bologna. The journey was made by train and took, I think, about five days. We were adequately accommodated except for loos, and adequately fed. Whenever the train stopped we were allowed out. I remember one priority was to squat by the line, or wherever the guards indicated, and do one's business. Second was to top up all water containers. We eventually arrived at our destination, which was a modern barrack compound, wired in. I don't remember much about this period and seem to recall we were only there for a few weeks.

As soon as the Armistice with Italy was announced the guards disappeared and were immediately replaced by Germans. I remember that we all went out of one gate as the Germans came in the other. As soon as things settled we were told to get ready to move. This time we were less comfortable travelling in cattle trucks. As I remember it took about five days to get through the Brenner Pass, and on to a very large camp at Moosburg, near Innsbruck (Ofiag VIIC).

I was a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany for nearly 3 years.

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