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HMS Dido War Record
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in her original state with only four 5.25in turrets, lacking Q. The action where she was heavily damaged during the evacuation of Crete and B turret destroyed is described below. She was repaired in the USA at which time she got her third fore turret in place of the 4in starshell gun fitted here. Rate this photo
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After some preliminary trials Dido went to Scapa Flow for the more serious business of building the crew into a fighting team and training them in the use of the ship's complement of guns.
For a time, Dido took part in Atlantic convoy escort duties. She was used in the Biscay approaches in November 1940, as part of a blockading fleet designed to prevent raids by the German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer. Then in March 1941 she provided cover for the successful Commando raid on the Lofoten Islands. Shortly afterwards she was despatched to the Mediterranean, acting as a convoy escort to and from Malta.
Early 1941 was an anxious time. Mussolini had invaded Greece from bases in Albania in October 1940. The Greeks bravely repelled the Italians, but by early 1941 it was clear that Germany would come to support her Axis partner. A British army of nearly 60,000 men was despatched to Greece in early March, but, on April 6, a superior German force crossed the Greek and Yugoslav frontiers and the combined Greek and British forces were driven down the Balkan peninsula. On that same day, heavy air attacks were made on the port of Piraeus. The merchant ship Clan Fraser, loaded with explosives, blew up and ten other ships were destroyed in the explosion.
In the last week of April, the Allied army was evacuated from Piraeus in an operation reminiscent of Dunkirk. On this occasion, their safe haven was the island of Crete. For a short period, that beautiful island became a place of rest and refreshment, most were camped around the olive groves on the north west coast. A naval force sailed from Alexandria on 14 May, with the object of repelling an invasion of the island.
But then, on 20 May, after many hours of intense air attacks, the Germans launched one of the biggest airborne invasions of the war. Parachutists came down in their hundreds and fierce hand to hand fighting took place among the olive trees and terraced hillsides. Once the critically important airfield at Maleme had been taken the battle was as good as lost. Retreat meant for many, including the King of Greece, a march across the mountains to the south coast of the island, and it was from here that many Allied troops escaped.
During the night of 21 May, Dido, which was then carrying the flag of Rear Admiral Glennie, met a convoy of small enemy craft, crowded with troops, some twenty miles off Khania. She was accompanied by Orion, Ajax and four destroyers, and the combined squadron made short work of their opponents.
The next few days were some of the most tragic of the war at sea. In the waters around the island, intense bombing, over a period of little more than 48 hours on 22 and 23 May, resulted in the loss of the following warships: Fiji, Gloucester, Greyhound, Kelly, Kashmir; and in severe damage to Carlisle, Naiad, and Warspite.
At about 6am. on 28 May, Dido, accompanied by Orion, Ajax and six destroyers, set sail for Heraklion to take off the beleagured garrison. By 3.20am on the following day, 4,000 men had embarked in these ships and the little fleet set off. A delay caused by faulty steering gear in the destroyer Imperial meant she had to be left behind, after the troops she was carrying had been taken off, and was subsequently scuttled. Antony Beevor's book 'Crete: the Battle and the Resistance' records that a group of Australian soldiers, semi-insensible from drink, had to be left below and went down with her.
Almost at once, the expected air attacks began. The soldiers on board did their best by firing machine guns from the upper decks, but both Dido and Orion were hit and severely damaged. In the case of Orion, the 1,100 troops on board suffered 260 killed (including the Captain) and 280 injured. An eye witness, Hugh Hodgkinson, aboard Hotspur, subsequently described, in his book 'Before the Tide Turned', the effect of the bomb from a Ju 87 which exploded on Dido's 'B' Turret at about 8.15am: 'A great sphere of black smoke burst out ahead of her bridge. One of the guns curled up into the air and dropped smoking into the sea'. The blast wrecked the marines mess deck and rescue was hampered by fire. It was impossible to reach the dead and wounded until damage control parties had brought the fires under control.
All twelve of the gun crew were killed, as well as a further 15 sailors and 19 soldiers below decks. Ten sailors and 28 soldiers were wounded.
When Dido got away shortly afterwards, she was carrying something like a thousand troops, who disembarked safely at Alexandria. Out of the garrison of 4,000 soldiers who were evacuated, eight hundred had been killed, wounded or captured, but the Navy had kept its promise not to let the Army down.
at St Helena after the battle for Crete - note B turret is missing Rate this photo
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the remains of B turret Rate this photo
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The following are the recollections of some individual crew members of the Battle for Crete, still vivid after more than 50 years:
Chief Gunnery Instructor Arthur Brotchie.
'The most frightening event I think was during the evacuation of Crete when we got hit by a Stuka that dive-bombed the ship. I was on the pompom gun deck and this Stuka came straight down and the bomb struck B turret. The bomb hit the steering rack, blew up and destroyed B turret and started a fire in the recreation room. If it it hadn't hit the steering rack it would have gone straight down and through the bottom of the ship and probably sunk her.
At the time we had a lot of New Zealand soldiers on board and we lost quite a few of them. But the damage control system was so good that we had the fire under control and we continued at full speed as before, arriving safely in Alexandria. When we got ashore the surgeons had to get the dead bodies out of the turret because they were all wedged in. They were wrapped in hammocks and buried at sea.'
Stoker George Skevington:
I should have died that day. We had a direct hit on my action station. At 8.30 there was a direct hit on B turret and I should have been there at 8 o'clock'
Seaman Gunner Lewis Pollock:
I wasn't in the turret as I had scratched my fingers. When the turret was hit I was on the pompom gun deck I watched the actual bomb come down. I was stuck watching this little black dot come down. I couldn't move, not until we were hit. There was a plume of flame and then I moved'
Signalman Ivor Campbell:
'I did a lot of things I was in the D Day invasion and landed on D day, but Crete was the worst of all:
Signalman Thomas Barrett:
Off Crete, I was on the bridge I was 17 years old. The 20" searchlight was switched on, and suddenly, there in the Aegean Sea, there were hundreds of German kayaks full of soldiers with their rifles at the ready. There was a little Italian destroyer to one side and Rear Admiral Glennie gave a signal to the ship behind us which drew out of line and fired. Whoosh - and the destroyer blew up.
Then, I remember the sky being full of paratroops. There was the smoke of cordite and through it and below it you could see the parachutes coming down.'
Safely delivered of her human cargo in Alexandria, Dido set off via the Suez canal for repairs in Durban, South Africa. The repairs were even more serious than had been realised, because on returning to the ship, the crew were told that they were to proceed to New York for further work to be done. The dockyard at Durban had merely made the cruiser watertight for the long Atlantic voyage.
Arriving in New York on July 6, the whole crew were billeted in US Navy Barracks so that workmen could strip the living quarters where required, without the ship's company getting in the way.
As soon as the repairs and refurbishment were complete, about the middle of November, Dido headed back for the Mediterranean with a short stop at Bermuda on the way. Two battleships, the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant, had been damaged by midget submarines in Alexandria harbour. The Mediterranean Fleet had been reduced to four light cruisers and nine destroyers at the Alexandria end and two cruisers and a few destroyers at Malta. Late 1941 was, indeed, one of the darkest periods of the war, though relieved in one sense by the attack on Pearl Harbor on 10th December 1941, which brought the United States into the conflict.
Dido was immediately involved in Malta convoy duties. Just after Christmas 1941, she helped to escort Convoy MFI(18A) from Malta to Alexandria, and then returned on 16 January 1942 with Convoy MF3(20). The famous merchant ship, Clan Ferguson, was in both these convoys, and was the last ship to unload in Malta for nearly five months. She took part in a record number of Malta convoys, but eventually her luck ran out and she was sunk during the Pedestal convoy of August 1942. Convoy MF3 got through with the loss of the Merchant ship Thermopylae, and the Destroyer Gurkha.
Dido was off again on 24 January with the naval Convoy MF4 which reached Malta without loss, but Merchant Convoy MF5 which left Alex on 12 February accompanied by the Dido and no less than 26 other warships and 3 submarines, was not so fortunate. The merchant vessel Clan Campbell was damaged and diverted to Tobruk where she was later sunk, and the Clan Chattan and Rowallan Castle were both sunk.
Dido seems to have been regularly in the company of her sister ships Naiad and Euryalus at this time. However, during the evening of 11 March 1942, while accompanied by Dido and about 50 miles from Mersa Matruh, Naiad was torpedoed and sunk by U.565. Fortunately, most of the crew were picked up by the destroyer escorts. One torpedo accounted for the Naiad while another from the same U-boat narrowly missed Dido.
Admiral Cunningham wrote to the First Sea Lord in the following terms: "Such a loss, that little Naiad - a highly efficient weapon, and a ship's company with a grand spirit ".
On March 15, Dido and other vessels shelled the Island of Rhodes.
The fate of Dido's next convoy - MG1, which left Alex for Malta on 20 March 1942 - was even worse than MF5. The convoy was spotted by enemy aircraft and despite the presence of five cruisers and eleven destroyers, Breconshire, Clan Campbell, Pampas and Talabot were all sunk, together with the destroyer Southwold in a battle lasting five hours. The Master of the Clan Campbell lost his life with 33 others from his ship, and five men from the Southwold died. Italian ships intercepted the convoy, but a smoke screen was laid down and the Italians finally withdrew when darkness fell. The history books refer to this as the Second Battle of Sirte.
By this time, Malta was desperately short of food and petrol. Convoy Vigorous left Alex on 11 June, accompanied by forty warships and nine submarines. At first, all went well. Air cover was provided from bases in Egypt. But soon, the convoy was out of range of aircraft protection, and was spotted by enemy planes.
For three days, the crew of Dido were closed up to action stations without a break, sleeping where they could and living off soup and corned beef sandwiches. On the same night that the convoy was detected, high flying bombers came in to attack, dropping flares to light up the whole fleet. The merchant ships Aagtekirk and Bhutan were hit and sunk and a cruiser was damaged. The Captain told the crew of the Dido to expect dive bombers by daylight and soon afterwards about sixty planes came in out of the sun. Every gun in the fleet was firing and at least three aircraft were shot down. Others made off with smoke billowing from them. The cruiser Hermione was hit and eighty two of her crew lost their lives. Other losses were Hasty, Nestor and Airedale all with some loss of life. The convoy was so hard pressed in the 'bomb alley" area south of Crete that AA ammunition ran out and the ships turned back for Alexandria.
One can imagine the crew of Dido at this point wondering how long their comparative good fortune could hold, but hold it did, despite the news that the main Italian battle fleet had sailed from Taranto. The Italian ships were picked up on radar and seen hull down on the horizon. The British force put up smoke and fortunately the Italians returned to Taranto, following a determined attack by Liberator aircraft. Was the tide beginning to turn for Malta and our ships? Not quite, since the Pedestal (August) and Stoneage (November) convoys were still to come.
Meanwhile, Convoy Harpoon had left Gibraltar on the same day as Dido had left Alex. Four out of its six merchant vessels were lost, as well as the destroyer Bedouin. Three days later, however, Dido reached Alexandria safely, and the crew were told that 'Monty' had stopped Rommel at "a place called El Alamein".
Thus, while Malta struggled on, the focus of attention changed to supporting the Eighth Army. A naval operation was mounted in July to bombard Mersah Matruh which was then some 125 miles behind the German front line and their most forward supply port. Dido arrived off Mersah Matruh at 0200 on 19 July. The guns opened fire when the ship was still four miles from land, and after a twenty minute bombardment, Dido headed back to Port Said.
Dido and her crew were certainly one of many. There were no brilliant exploits to be remembered for ever, but some men died in the flower of their youth. There was duty, and sacrifice, hardship and courage, and, at last, homecoming. Perhaps she and her crew epitomise the experience of a nation at war.
Malta Convoys 1942
Southern France 1944