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HMS Capetown

August 1940 - April 1941

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HMS Capetown in Far Eastern colour scheme at Nancowrie, October 1940
HMS Capetown in Far Eastern colour scheme at Nancowrie, October 1940
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This story records the experiences of the late Albert Welch who served on Capetown from August 1940 until she was torpedoed by an Italian MTB while escorting a convoy in April 1941. It was written by his son, Ken Welch, on his behalf, and represents Albert's words and thoughts. It combines humour with tragedy, and boredom with excitement, which was, I am sure, an accurate reflection of life in that period. Albert sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2002.

The story finishes with the action described from the Italian side. There are differences in the two descriptions, but what is particularly striking is the bravery of the crew of the MTB in attacking a heavily armed cruiser with a small old wooden World War one vintage ship.

You can get in touch with his son here.

On the 16th August 1940, I left HMS Widnes, a minesweeper based in Colombo harbour, and was re-assigned to HMS Capetown, an old "C" class cruiser which had been built back in 1922. Despite her age she had beautiful lines and I found it very satisfying to be at last attached to a real fighting ship. Unlike all of the other ships of her class which had been converted to the anti-aircraft role during the 1930's, the outbreak of war had prevented Capetown from being modified and she had retained her armament of five, six inch guns. These were mounted in single turrets, two forward, one centre and two aft. She had a length of 451 ft, a displacement of 4290 tons and a complement of 350. With a top speed of thirty knots, she was also very quiet and I still remember the pleasure of feeling her slip away from the jetty that first time, so smoothly and gracefully, and with only the muffled sounds of the boiler room extractor fans in the background.

We began a series of patrols from Colombo out into the Indian Ocean looking for any shipping that may be carrying supplies for the Axis forces. The ships we investigated ranged from small coastal craft to large cargo vessels, and on one occasion we stopped the White Star liner Britannic in order to send a boarding party across to confirm her identity and check her manifest.

The White Star Liner Britannic being stopped and searched in the Indian Ocean
The White Star Liner Britannic being stopped and searched in the Indian Ocean
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These patrols went on for many months until, at the end of October, Capetown was ordered to proceed to Singapore where she was to have a brief period in dry dock for some long overdue maintenance work on her hull. On arrival, we were sent ashore to the Fleet Shore Establishment in the Jahore Straits. Despite the somewhat spartan accommodation, this was an exciting time for me as a young twenty year old having my first experiences of the exotic Far East which I would never forget. For the next two weeks we enjoyed this respite from the war but, all too quickly, the freshly painted Capetown was floated out and, once we had re-armed and refuelled, we sailed back to Colombo to resume our patrolling duties.

By the middle of December, new orders came through requiring us to sail from Colombo to Aden where we were to join forces with a group of destroyers. Our combined role was to form a small naval force operating in the Red Sea and Aden region in support of the allied East African campaign. Initially our main task was to escort cargo ships carrying supplies and ammunition to the allied forces on the East African coast. It was known that the Italians had a small fleet of warships operating in the area which, when Italy joined the war in June 1940, had comprised nine destroyers, five motor torpedo boats and eight submarines but by 1941 the size of this fleet had been reduced by Allied action. This included the loss of two Italian destroyers which were sunk by HMS Leander and HMS Kimberley off Massawa in October 1940. Despite the poor performance of the Italian fleet, it still represented a significant threat to Allied shipping in these waters and this concentration of Italian forces along the East African coast was a contributory factor in keeping the Suez Canal closed to merchant shipping.

So began a series of patrols and convoy escort duties in the region, during which we suffered a number of air attacks from Italian aircraft. I was advised by some of the older hands that the enemy dive bombing and low level attacks were nothing to worry about as their close action accuracy was poor but their high level bombing was reputedly very much better. Despite this, I did not witness any losses due to enemy aircraft.

The Bridge of HMS Capetown
The Bridge of HMS Capetown
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Shortly after we arrived in the Red Sea, at the beginning of January, we were ordered to make a small diversion to our normal patrolling activities. We were required to sail up to Port Tufic at the northern end of the Red Sea in preparation for a dash through the Suez Canal. Although the Canal was closed to merchant shipping at this time it had been the practice of German bombers, operating from Italian bases in the Mediterranean, to fly along the Canal looking for targets of opportunity. Any ships caught in the channel would be unable to manoeuvre or take evasive action and, if sunk, could create a major obstruction to the waterway. At the entrance to the canal we picked up the pilot and, with the Jack Staff erected on the bow to provide the pilot with an "aiming point" and the lookouts searching the sky for enemy aircraft, we sailed through to Port Said

We arrived without incident and then headed west into the Mediterranean, past Alexandria and along the coast of Libya.

With the battle flag flying, the crew of HMS Capetown prepares for the bombardment of Bardia on the Libyan coast
With the battle flag flying, the crew of HMS Capetown prepares for the bombardment of Bardia on the Libyan coast
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Our mission, we then discovered, was to bombard the Italian stronghold of Bardia in support of Operation Compass, the Allied offensive from Egypt which was making rapid progress along the North African coast. The town was heavily fortified and had a large contingent of Italian defenders. When we arrived we raised our very large and much prized battle flag which had been hand made and presented to us by the women of Capetown. We then proceeded with the bombardment, targeting gun emplacements and shore installations.

The bombardment only lasted for half a day and I lost count of the number of shells that I hoisted up to the turret but the gunnery officer seemed pleased with the results of our action. Shortly after the bombardment, on the 5th January, Bardia fell to the advancing Australian 6th Division who took 30,000 Italian prisoners.

Following the bombardment we retraced our journey back to the Red Sea and continued with our convoy duties and routine patrols. We now found ourselves covering a broad area from Port Sudan in the north down to the Gulf of Aden and there was always plenty to do. On patrol, Capetown would frequently go out alone but we would sometimes operate with a small group of accompanying destroyers.

HMS Kimberley - the same class as Kandahar
HMS Kimberley - the same class as Kandahar
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We also found ourselves being regularly called upon to undertake shore bombardments along the Eritrea coast. Typically for this region, the weather was incredibly hot making it very uncomfortable to work. It was bad enough for me, either being in the hot galley or, at action stations, feeding six inch ammunition to the mid turret of our main armament, but it was unbearable for our boiler room crews.

The East African land campaign was now hotting up and General Cunningham's forces were advancing in a major push from the south. In support of this, our area of operation was extended and we were called upon to head south from Aden to stand off Kismayu on the coast of Italian Somaliland where we bombarded shore batteries and other military targets. On the 11th February we had the satisfaction of seeing Kismayu fall to the advancing army. The thrust along the coast continued and we next bombarded Mogadishu which fell to General Cunningham on the 25th February. What we did not realise at the time was that the British code breaking centre at Bletchley Park had already succeeded in breaking the Italian cyphers and consequently the Allied successes were enhanced by a detailed knowledge of the Italian plans before they happened.

With the fall of the ports of Kismayu and Mogadishu, a number of Italian troop ships and cargo vessels fell into our hands and Capetown escorted these back to Mombassa for internment. As we steamed in to Mombassa harbour, I was on deck and I can remember seeing the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes at anchor which dwarfed us as we went by. A county class cruiser, which I believe was HMS Shropshire, was tied up to the wall.

The view of Mombassa harbour from HMS Capetown. The County class cruiser is believed to be HMS Shropshire
The view of Mombassa harbour from HMS Capetown. The County class cruiser is believed to be HMS Shropshire
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We only stayed in Mombassa long enough to discharge our captives and then we refuelled and re-armed the ship before we headed back up the coast towards Italian Somaliland. The trip back was relatively quiet but when we were a few hours north east of Mogadishu we came across an elderly Arab dhow purposefully heading towards the Italian held territory. We stopped and searched her and it soon became apparent that they were smuggling arms for the Italian forces further along the coast.

We advised the Arab crew to abandon ship which they promptly did as one of our forward turrets swung round to bear and we then opened fire. Unfortunately, the accuracy of fire at close range in a rolling sea was less than impressive and, after expending about half a dozen shells, none had found the mark. Our humiliation became complete when the Arab crew swam back to the dhow and climbed back on board, presumably deciding that it was the safest place to be!

At this point the Captain decided to cease fire with the main armament and ordered a Royal Marine to take on the target with a Bren gun. With much enthusiasm, the marine opened up and quickly hit the target, making short work of the wooden craft. The dhow went down quickly, having been abandoned for a second time by the crew.

This embarrassing situation was compounded later that night when, in the course of our patrol further along the coast, one of the lookouts spotted a light in the distance. Thinking that this was perhaps another enemy supply operation in progress, we turned towards the light and closed at some speed with high expectations of some further action. A rapid change of course was then ordered when the navigation officer noted that we were heading straight for the shoreline and that the light we were about to challenge was in fact a lorry moving along the coast road.

With General Platt also advancing from the north of Eritrea, our level of activity was greatly increased during this period, particularly in terms of shore bombardment and convoy duty where we escorted many supply ships to unloading points along the coast. As more territory was taken, the supply lines became longer and to overcome this problem the allies made preparations to strike at Berbera with an amphibious force from Aden. This assault, known as Operation Appearance, was launched on the 16th March and succeeded in taking the port, greatly improving the supply situation.

During this period Capetown was primarily involved in patrolling to the north of Berbera, off the port of Massawa, to ensure that there was no interference from the Italian Red Sea fleet which was based there. There was no evidence of these warships looking for action but over the next few weeks a number of small blockade runners were intercepted. With the continuing land successes, however, it was very apparent that the port of Massawa was likely to fall and consequently there was much concern over what the fleet may do as a last resort. These fears were confirmed when, at the beginning of April, the six remaining destroyers slipped out of Massawa and went north to raid Port Sudan. They were soon spotted, however, and intercepted by a series of air attacks from Swordfish of HMS Eagle, resulting in four being sunk and two being run aground and scuttled.

With the very high temperatures experienced during the day many of the crew took to sleeping on deck at night to benefit from the cool breeze. On the evening of the 7th April I came off watch at 18.00 hrs and went up on deck for a few hours to chat with a couple of shipmates, including my best mate Bill Boardman. As this day was in fact the first anniversary of my joining the navy, much of the conversation was about how much we had seen over the past year and how much our lives had been changed by these events. We then had a light meal and, feeling tired from an early start that morning, we decided to turn in. It was a beautiful moonlit night and Bill and I set up our wire and canvas camp beds on the upper deck. We were on the port side, roughly amidships, with Bill on the inboard side. The cool breeze was a blessing and as we settled down I noticed that we were just off the coast and making about 10 knots. I quickly went off to sleep totally unaware that events were going to change our lives yet again.

What we had not realised was that an Italian Motor Torpedo Boat, MAS213, from Massawa had been quietly stalking us in the darkness and had been slowly manoeuvring into a position slightly ahead of us where she had a perfect view of the Capetown silhouetted against the moonlight. At 02.30 hrs the captain of the MTB fired two torpedoes and promptly turned, accelerating away at high speed. The attack was totally unexpected as Capetown, being an old ship, did not have the benefit of the more modern radar and asdic technologies and was therefore totally dependent on the lookouts. Thankfully the first torpedo narrowly missed us, passing safely across the bow but before we could take evasive action, the second torpedo struck us amidships, adjacent to "B" boiler room on the starboard side. The explosion was deafening and the blast lifted the ship, causing it to heel over to port. We were lucky that the Italian commander had not fired his spread of torpedoes a few seconds later as two hits would have finished us.

Having been asleep when the torpedo struck, the blast immediately woke me to find myself being propelled through the port rail and over the side into the sea. The sudden shock of immersion in water quickly brought home the realisation that we had been hit but, as I struggled to the surface for air, my immediate concern was of being left behind in the dark. Fortunately for me, the ship had quickly lost power and Bill, realising what had happened, had already grabbed a rope and was running back along the port side to where he could hear me shouting as I swam towards the dark outline of the ship. It was a great relief when I finally felt that rope in my hands and, with me climbing and Bill pulling, we were finally able to link arms and he hauled me back on board. I lay on the deck to get my breath back, still somewhat bewildered at the sudden chain of events.

A number of my shipmates were not so lucky. One of the marines who was also sleeping on deck had been thrown into the air by the blast and had come down on his chest across a bollard causing massive internal injuries. The pain was so bad he kept asking to be thrown over the side to finish it. He clung to life for several hours but there was nothing that could be done and sadly he finally slipped away.

Inside the ship, the torpedo had claimed more lives. The Petty Officer of the watch in the boiler room had just completed his check that everything was running normally and told the rest of the watch that he would go up topside and make the drinks. At the top of the ladder he stepped through the watertight door, closed it behind him and, just as he dogged the hatch, the torpedo exploded. The compartment that he had left seconds earlier was devastated by the blast and his watch were all killed, either in the explosion or drowned by the inrush of water.

By the time I was hauled back on board, the injured were being taken care of and damage control parties were already checking out the ship and reporting our condition, although we all knew that we were in bad shape. There was no panic during the incident, and the discipline and organisation was first class, but there was still an air of disbelief that this could have happened to us. After about an hour of lying dead in the water, the captain came on the speaker system and advised that we had no power but that the Australian sloop HMAS Parramatta was going to put a line on board and tow us to Port Sudan and we were to be escorted by a K class destroyer, HMS Kimberley, to provide protection.

As the condition of the ship was critical and the risk of further attacks was very real, the tow was to take the shortest and quickest route possible, which meant passing through shallow water between the coast and a series of offshore islands near Massawa. If the enemy spotted us and opened up with shore batteries or sent out their fleet, the captain was going to return fire although in our weakened state with a hole dangerously near the keel, the shock of our own guns could possibly have broken the ship's back.

Within a few hours we secured the line from the Parramatta and she started to tow us northwards with HMS Kimberley providing the escort, criss-crossing our path as we went.

HMAS Parramatta towing HMS Capetown towards Port Sudan with HMS Kimberley providing escort. Note the spare towing cable on deck
HMAS Parramatta towing HMS Capetown towards Port Sudan with HMS Kimberley providing escort. Note the spare towing cable on deck
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It was a relief to be moving again, even if we could only manage about eight knots. Even so, all three ships were vulnerable to further attacks and we fully realised the risks that our rescuers were taking on our behalf.

We succeeded in slipping past the shore guns at Massawa during the hours of darkness and were well north by daybreak. During the voyage a large section of the ship was sealed off as its structural integrity was unsure. Consequently I was unable to reach my locker or any of my personal kit but most of us preferred to stay on deck just in case the ship broke in half and went down quickly.

We then heard more news of our attacker. After the MTB had fired its torpedoes and taken off into the darkness, several of our accompanying destroyers had given chase and had captured it. It subsequently transpired that, unknown to us, the Italian forces at Massawa were to surrender later that day and, in anticipation of this, the MTB had left the port for one last mission, it now being the last Italian MTB operating in the Red Sea. As it was now low on ammunition and fuel, and did not have a base to return to, the captain surrendered without a fight. He was pleased with his success and claimed that he had sunk a destroyer. To prove him wrong, our captain had him brought on board the Capetown to show him that we were in fact a light cruiser and still very much afloat!

The tow lasted for two days, which were relatively uneventful but extremely worrying for us all. From my own viewpoint, the latter part of the journey was clouded by yet another event. Early on the morning of the second day I was summoned to the Paymaster Commander and, after I had entered his office, he asked me to sit down and gave me a tot of whisky. He then told me that they had just received the sad news of the death of my father. The news was totally unexpected and completely devastated me. I was advised that there was no possibility of getting me back to my family and, being so far from home and following so closely the recent chain of events, this was probably one of the lowest points of my life. Later that day, therefore, I was not able to share the elation and relief of my shipmates when we finally reached the safety of Port Sudan.

As there was no dry dock available, the ship was tied up alongside the wall and the crew was taken to a local army camp for a rest. Over the next few days we unloaded the ammunition and pumped out the fuel oil to raise the ship as much as possible before a temporary dam could be built around the hole. It was reported that the hole was big enough to drive two London buses through, side by side.

HMS Capetown alongside the wall at Port Sudan. The torpedo damage can be seen below the forward funnel
HMS Capetown alongside the wall at Port Sudan. The torpedo damage can be seen below the forward funnel
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The hole in the ship was temporarily patched up with cement to make her seaworthy and a few days later a sea going tug arrived to tow her to Bombay for repair in dry dock. Only a small transit crew sailed with her and the rest of us followed a few days later on board the liner City of London.

On arrival at Bombay, the Capetown was put in dry dock and the water was finally pumped out of the wrecked boiler room. Then the unpleasant task of removing the remains of our poor shipmates began. After all the time in the water there was very little left of them except bones and the native shipyard labourers refused to enter the damaged compartment until all of these were removed. Some of the ship?s crew undertook the job and the Surgeon Commander had the skeletons laid out on the quarter deck to formally identify them and ensure that they were complete. They were then taken ashore with full ceremony and buried at the local military cemetery.

One of our shipmates is carried to his final resting place
One of our shipmates is carried to his final resting place
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Shortly after these events, I heard that the Allies had declared that the coastlines of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were now clear of enemy forces and the Suez Canal was opened to merchant shipping. The following month, the Italians surrendered at Amba Alagi and this officially brought the East African Campaign to a close.

As we watched the repair work commence on our ship, we all had a feeling of immense pleasure and some pride that we had managed to bring her back home after the attack. Other ships of the Red Sea fleet, however, were not so lucky. Later that year, in the early hours of the 27th November, HMAS Parramatta was torpedoed by the German submarine U559 off the coast of Bardia. One hundred and thirty eight of the crew lost their lives and only twenty four survivors were pulled from the water. In December 1941, HMS Kandahar was mined off the coast of Tripoli killing 67 of her crew while going to the aid of HMS Neptune, see link under Actions. Kandahar was later torpedoed by HMS Jaguar.

I stayed in Bombay for three weeks before being transferred to my next ship, the old hulk of HMS Centurion. Although having been used as a naval target ship which left her full of holes and embedded practice rounds, she had now been given a new lease of life. With the addition of a wooden superstructure and wooden gun turrets she had been disguised to look like HMS Anson in order to fool the enemy, but that's another story.

As I left Bombay, Capetown was still in dry dock and I never saw her again. I understand that she subsequently rejoined the war after extensive repair and survived the conflict, to be scrapped in 1946 after a career spanning twenty four years.

The following is an extract from The Italian Navy in WW II by Commander Marc'Antonio Bragadin and provides a view of the action from the Italian side.

MAS 213 was one of 15 units of the class SVAN-Biglietto built in 1918, also known as "Tipo 203". It was of wooden construction and carried two torpedoes.

The attack against Massawa began on 1 April. On 8 April the British unleashed a final attack and occupied strong points, opening breaches through which tanks were able to enter the city itself by evening. The Italian Navy scuttled the ships in the harbour, and port installations were completely destroyed. The old destroyer escort Orsini kept firing to the very last and was scuttled only when the center of the city had been occupied.

The combat ships at Massawa made the most of their slender resources. When the center of the city had fallen, MAS 213 (motor torpedo boat), the only one of its type in combat condition, left the harbour and attacked the convoy escorted by Capetown. Proceeding courageously through a curtain of fire, it launched its torpedoes while 300 meters from the cruiser and scored a direct hit. The cruiser had to be towed with great difficulty to Port Sudan, where it was under repair for more than a year. The torpedo boat was then scuttled.

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