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5th April 1942
The source of this page is the book written by Ken Dimbleby, Turns of Fate. Well worth reading.
The hands of clocks were just moving on to 1.40 p.m. It was a fine afternoon with some relatively low light cloud cover and the tropical sun almost directly overhead. The commander of the Japanese bombers signalled the flagship, 'Enemy in sight', as he looked down at the two cruisers in the sea far below.
On the compass platform on the bridge of Cornwall the aircraft were suddenly spotted. The Navigating Officer, Lieutenant J. E. R. Fearfield, dashed down from the compass platform to sound the action alarm for aircraft attack. Able Seaman Angus Sutherland, on duty as Captain's messenger on the bridge, heard Fearfield shout: 'There are aircraft overhead.'
Standing on the port wing of the bridge were the Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Streatfield, and the Meteorological Officer, Lieutenant B. M. Holden, Tommy Thorp, who was on anti-submarine lookout duty nearby, heard Holden say: 'Surely not another bombing.' Holden had been drafted to serve in Cornwall after surviving the Japanese high-level bombing and torpedo attacks which sank the battle-cruiser Repulse four months earlier.
It was another bombing, but with a difference. This time it was not high-level or torpedo attacks but dive-bombing. The assault was cleverly planned, the planes approaching at considerable height and positioning themselves to be able to dive with the sun behind them, thus making it more difficult to be seen. Cornwall did not have radar and Dorsetshire had a small screen of the earliest type that could pick up objects only at very short distances. Confused streaks had appeared on Dorsetshire's radar screen and the Chief Telegraphist, Shaddick, said 'he was sure something was about'. There was a faint hope that any aircraft might be from our own Eastern Fleet as Captain Agar expected the cruisers to be under the protection of planes from the fleet's carriers by about 2 p.m. It was also not thought that the Japanese planes had sufficient range to reach Dorsetshire and Cornwall.
The range and performance of the Japanese aircraft had been sadly underestimated. They achieved almost complete surprise when they suddenly dived on Cornwall and Dorsetshire and launched their attack with disciplined efficiency and fury. They came down at a steep angle in flights of three to release their 500-lb bombs at a low altitude with remarkable accuracy.
The attacks were made from directly ahead. They thus took advantage of the ships' blind spot as their main anti-aircraft armament was in such a position that it could not be aimed straight ahead - one of the weaknesses of the County Class cruisers.
The first three planes dived on to Cornwall which was slightly astern of Dorsetshire. Within seconds another formation of three aircraft attacked Dorsetshire. Both warships tried to take avoiding action by turning hard a starboard, but to no avail. The first bombs aimed at Cornwall scored a near miss on the port side forward and a hit aft. The effect of near misses was incredibly violent. Captain Manwaring reported: 'The effect of these was very great, lifting the ship bodily by their force, causing her to whip heavily from end to end and carrying away all the w/t aerials and nearly shaking the mast down.'
The first three bombs aimed at Dorsetshire all hit her. They disabled the steering gear and put both wireless offices out of action, in addition to other damage. As a result of the steering breakdown, Dorsetshire continued steering to starboard and completed a circle. Cornwall's steering gear was also disabled and, with the ship uncontrollable, her wake became a big zigzag.
Recalling the start of the attack, Wally Muller, who was then a 21-year-old Able Seaman at his action station on the port pom-pom, wrote:
"A high-pitched whine intruded suddenly upon the senses, growing in the space of a second or two to an ear-shattering roar, then passed overhead and away. Almost immediately the ship shuddered violently with the sound of the muffled explosion of a near miss, but even before stunned realisation took hold, the scream of the second dive-bomber rent the air and there was the fearsome concussion as a bomb exploded in the ship.
Men were recovering from the initial shock and moving to do the things they knew had to be done. Someone shouted from the wing of the bridge, 'For God's sake get those guns going', just before the third bomber hurtled down with deafening crescendo, followed again by the sickening tremor of a direct hit. Guns were starting to fire back, flames belching from the twin muzzles of the four-inch mountings. The eight barrels of our multiple pom-pom, capable of firing a spread of graze-fused shells at the rate of 720 a minute, coughed in staccato bursts.
But the planes plummeted down in a continual stream, barely seconds apart, some raking the bridge and superstructure with machine-gun fire as they dived. A near miss on the port side sent a mass of discoloured water towering above the cruiser. It hung motionless for a moment, then came crashing down like a waterfall, drenching men at their guns.
Cornwall was already listing heavily to port and the guns on that side could not elevate sufficiently to hit back at the steeply diving attackers, but one Japanese bomber, in the process of pulling out, had veered into the field of fire of the port pom-pom, burst into flames and, I was assured, crashed into the sea astern.
Dense black smoke was pouring out of the cruiser's funnels and other openings, due to the havoc wreaked in the vicinity of the engine and boiler-rooms. Another explosion wrecked hydraulic power to the guns and in the smoke and clamour, men wrestled to switch controls from power to manual. Flying shrapnel activated the ship's siren on a funnel right behind us. It was blaring full blast and, with all the other noise, it was impossible to hear what the chap next to you was shouting.
Then came a hit on the S1 (forward starboard) 4-inch gun followed by a fearsome, 30-foot wall of flame which had everyone on the pom-pom deck scampering for dear life. Some people said that the flame was caused by an oil bomb, but I believe it was cordite when the ready-use 4-inch ammunition lockers exploded."
The large flame from what was described in the official report as an oil bomb enveloped the forward starboard anti-aircraft armament and starboard superstructure, and even reached as high as the top of the bridge. The men manning the 4-inch S1 gun, including my friend Ian Keith, were killed by this bomb. Battle-dress and anti-flash gear, worn in action by personnel in exposed positions, could not save them in that fire.
Lieutenant-Commander Grove, who was on the air defence platform, recalled:
"We watched the planes like hawks and as bombs came down, flung ourselves down on our faces. If the hit was close, you found yourself being bounced like a ball. We had three hits directly under us. From one of them - I was standing up - I got enveloped in a great sheet of flame. I thought I was dead, but actually my clothing saved me and I was unhurt."
The onslaught on the cruisers was devastating. It quickly knocked out the ships' main anti-aircraft armament and reduced them to little more than helpless targets. Both warships soon lost way, listed and became practically stationery - sitting ducks to be bombed at will. The near miss on the port side of Cornwall had flooded parts of the bilges and dislocated electric power all over the ship. It was believed that all the men in the after engine-room were killed by a near miss on the starboard side. A bomb hit on the water line burst in the forward engine-room, which quickly filled with steam and smoke and had to be evacuated. Both boiler rooms had to be abandoned as a result of damage caused by near misses. There were hits between the forward and centre funnels, between 'X' and 'Y' turrets on the after part of the ship and in the Sick Bay Flat on the starboard side.
A bomb that exploded on the starboard paravane damaged the fore part of the bridge and killed several men. The Chief Yeoman, Sam Langford, was the only survivor, but he had to pay a heavy price, eventually losing both legs. He told me:
"The other men on the bridge at the time were Lieutenant Fearfield, a Midshipman, some look-outs and voicepipe crew. I was on a pedestal on the port side in the rear of the bridge. I was hit in both legs and knocked to the deck. Glancing round, I saw that the rest of the bridge crew were dead. I could not move myself, but fortunately one of my staff, Leading Signalman Norman Raynor, came up and managed to pull me clear."
Captain Manwaring, who was on his way back to the bridge from the Remote Control Office when the bomb exploded, was wounded in the right shoulder, but continued to direct operations.
The damage done to Cornwall in less than ten minutes since the attack started was lethal. All power had failed, both engine-rooms and both boiler-rooms were flooding rapidly. The ship was already slightly down by the head, the starboard outer propeller was breaking surface and the forward part of the port gunwhale was awash.
It was a shattering experience, made worse by the suddenness of the concentrated bombing. To many of Cornwall's crew, particularly to those of us down below, an air attack was unexpected. Despite the report of shadowing aircraft during the morning, we thought in terms of a surface action with the Japanese fleet.
When the first bomb hit Cornwall, men in the Main Wireless Office thought we had fired a broadside - something that gave a very pronounced jolt throughout the warship. Guns' crews in turrets thought the ship had been torpedoed, while others down below thought we had been hit by a shell.
Down in the TS, after the hurried dinner snatched in relays, the crew were in various states of relaxation in the heat. Some were reading, some chatting and some resting. We knew that Cornwall and Dorsetshire were due to rejoin Somerville's Force A of the Eastern Fleet at 4 p.m. and it was already 1.40.
Suddenly, without any warning, there was a terrific crash. The concussion felt as though the ship had run into a solid wall. She shook and heeled over alarmingly to port. My first thought was that Cornwall had been hit by a shell from an enemy warship. (Nagumo's force included four battleships.) Other members of the TS crew, including the Royal Marine officer in charge, Lieutenant Reid, obviously thought likewise. His reaction was immediately to give the order, 'Load, load, load', to the 8-inch surface armament, but a second or two later he cancelled it.
More hits or near misses followed in quick succession. Again and again there was the awful concussion. The TS table, a large and solid structure, was shaken. The decks above and below in the confined space shook and instruments were smashed.
By now we knew it was bombs, not shells. We were told to evacuate the TS which had no part to play in anti-aircraft defence and, in any case was out of action. Everyone looked grim and tied on his lifebelt. The only access to or exit from the TS was a small, square hatch in one corner that was normally closed from the deck above with a water-tight cover when in action. Fortunately, as we were at action stations all day, it had not been battened down otherwise we should still be there.
There was no panic, the men nearest to the perpendicular ladder on the bulkhead leading the way in orderly haste. We hauled ourselves through the hatchway to the Marines' mess deck, which was two decks below the upper deck. No sooner had we got out of the TS than another bomb scored a direct hit or near miss and the ship shook and heeled over again. We were in semi-darkness down below because by then there was no electric power and there were only some emergency lamps. The ship heeled over so much to port that men lost their footing and slithered across the deck, some piling up against the ship's side.
Bill and I were lucky. We managed to grab hold of a ladder in the middle of the deck. When the immediate effect of the bomb explosion had worn off, we climbed the ladder quickly to get to the seamen's mess deck. Getting away from the Marines' mess deck was indeed a lucky break because shortly afterwards a fire broke out there and caused many deaths. Most of the TS crew of about thirty men were trapped by the fire and only a few survived. Some men emerged blinded by the flames and succumbed later in the water.
By the time Bill and I reached the seamen's mess deck - one below the upper deck - it was fairly crowded with men who had come up from other positions down below and had the same thing in mind: to get up top from where one would at least be able to leave the ship before she sank. Just then another bomb made the ship heel over again. We grabbed hold of the iron leg of a mess table to stop slipping across the deck and into the hatch from which we had just managed to climb.
We had not spoken a word since leaving the TS. There was the horrible feeling of suspense in the short time between the fall of bombs. Nerves were taut, with not knowing where the next hit would be or how much longer the ship could remain afloat under such a barrage from dive-bombers. There was no time for words - the individual had to think and act for himself. It is difficult to imagine anyone not trying to get to the upper deck in such circumstances, yet I heard a story later about a seaman in the Dorsetshire who would not leave the mess deck because he could not swim. He had a lifebelt but, instead of going up top and jumping into the water, he calmly said cheerio to his shipmates, lit a cigarette and sat on a mess table to wait for the ship to go down.
The quickest way to the upper deck from the seamen's mess deck was up the ladder opposite where Bill and I were standing. An alternative route was to go through the open door into the adjacent Sick Bay Flat and up a ladder that led to the Galley Flat, which opened on to part of the upper deck that was protected overhead by a gun deck. This route had the advantage of more safety up top and I intended going that way - until another bomb hit the ship. It crashed into the Sick Bay Flat about fifteen yards away. There were screams, shouts and a hissing noise that sounded like steam escaping. It was this bomb that killed the Chaplain, who had conducted his last service that morning, and the doctor who had visited the TS immediately afterwards to remind us that the Sick Bay was our nearest dressing station.
That bomb eliminated the alternative route via the Sick Bay Flat to the upper deck, A number of us dashed up the nearest ladder and into a corridor that led through the Heads Flat on the starboard side to the upper deck just astern of 'A' turret on the foc's'le. Bill was immediately in front of me, and it was with a feeling of some relief that one entered the semi-dark corridor knowing that the goal of the upper deck lay ahead.
But those few yards were by no means the end of our troubles. Suddenly the corridor was transformed from a sort of haven into an inferno. There was a crash, a hissing sound and fire swept through the corridor. Men cried out as there was the searing pain of flame on flesh. It must have been only a few seconds, but it seemed much longer before the flames passed and we surged on through foul-smelling smoke and fumes and out into the sunlight on the upper deck.
Ken Collier, a member of the gun's crew who evacuated 'A' turret, recalled seeing a man stagger out of the Heads Flat on to the fo'c'sle deck, his overalls tattered and smoking. He clung to the guard-rail for a while before collapsing and dying. There were many ugly and distressing scenes on the upper deck.
Those of us who had just arrived up top with burn wounds were in a state of shock and felt mentally numbed. I glanced instinctively across the ocean to see how Dorsetshire was faring on our starboard side. She was slightly astern of us and listing acutely to port. Dorsetshire had taken a terrible pounding, direct hits blasting her in quick succession. One of them caused an explosion in a magazine. Smoke and steam were billowing from the big cruiser as she heeled over farther on to her side and sank stern first, her bows almost vertical as she slid down to her ocean grave. In only about eight minutes since the first bomber dived on her, Dorsetshire had disappeared, taking with her more than 200 of her ship's company.
Watching the last moments of Dorsetshire was a forcible reminder that Cornwall was also in dire straits and could not escape the same fate. But there was not much time to think about it because the Japanese dive-bombers had not yet finished with Cornwall.
'Look out, here they come again,' shouted someone as more aircraft screamed down. There was a rush for cover under 'A' turret, even if it meant getting only one's head sheltered under the overhanging gun-house,
Although they were prime targets for the Japanese airmen, the ratings manning Cornwall's machine-guns gallantly continued to hit back as best they could on their own after the main anti-aircraft armament was put out of action. One of them, Able Seaman Maurice (Bungy) Williams, paid the supreme sacrifice for his defiance with a Lewis gun on the bridge. He was machine-gunned by the diving aircraft and his upper body was 'shot to pieces', but he managed to get to a float after the ship was abandoned. He told a friend next to him that he was dying but not in any way down-hearted. Soon he was dead.
A brave act of defiance also came from Able Seaman Picketing with his Vickers point-fives on the top of the hangar. He opened up at close range on a line of Japanese planes that had come down low to have a close look at Cornwall.
When Lieutenant-Commander Milner had to abandon his action station in the after control tower on the hangar top, he found one of the ratings dying beside his machine-gun which had jammed. He gave Milner his wallet containing money and family photographs and said: 'Please try to get these to my wife.' The wallet and contents were sent to the Admiralty and duly delivered to the widow.
Meanwhile there was drama up forward at 'B' turret. When the guns' crews evacuated the turret, shrapnel from a bomb ripped into some of them. Leading Seaman Freddie Grimster, who was captain of the left gun, was wounded in the chest and knocked out. The shrapnel also punctured his lifebelt so his friend, Able Seaman Johnny Muller, trainer in the turret, took off his Mae West, tied it on Freddie and put him over the side into the sea. Another member of the turret's crew, Able Seaman Alby Shore, had a fatal chest wound. Johnny Muller stayed on deck with Alby until he died before going over the side himself. It was more than twenty-four hours later before Johnny and Freddie discovered that they had both survived.
Another youngster, Paddy Keeping, then sixteen years old and rated a Boy, was lying on the deck among some casualties. After getting out of 'B' turret he had been drenched by a near miss and then wounded in the back and head. While he was lying on the deck, some ratings came along to help wounded men. In his semi-conscious state, Paddy heard one of them say: 'Come on, they're all dead. Leave them.' But another, Leading Stoker George (Bella) Bright, replied: 'Paddy's not. I'm taking him.' He lifted Paddy up and, holding him in his arms, stepped off the deck into the water.
'By this time my eyes were playing up and I thought it was the oil fuel in the water,' recalled Paddy. 'But my eyesight gradually got worse until finish- total darkness. I was blind.'
A lighter moment in retrospect was when an officer got stuck in the hatch while getting out of 'B' turret and thus delayed some other members of the crew from leaving it. The delay might well have saved those still in the turret from being wounded or even killed by shrapnel from the bomb that burst nearby.
Farther aft a bomb that failed to explode slashed the edge of the iron deck amidships. Two sailors, Wally Muller and Tubby Townsend, who were sheltering under a motor-boat only a few yards away, 'gaped blankly at the jagged metal where the bomb had hit'.
The last bombs had been dropped by 1.51 p.m. - eleven minutes after the start of the attack - and efforts were made in vain to correct Cornwall's list to port. The Captain gave orders to abandon the ship and made his way aft with the remaining bridge personnel to see to the launching of boats, floats, rafts and anything else that would float, Officers and ratings helped to get the dead and wounded over the side, put out fires and pushed hot ammunition that was rolling around on the upper deck through the guard-rails into the sea.
Lieutenant-Commander Milner got down from his station on the top of the hangar by sliding down one of the stays of the mainmast. He checked that the depth charges on the stern of the cruiser had been set to 'safe' - an essential precaution otherwise they would have exploded when the ship sank.
Most of the boats had been smashed by the bombing, including the big pinnace that would have been invaluable for survivors. Some men tried to launch a cutter. They got aboard and the slips were knocked off, but the lower gear had been shot away and the boat dropped like a stone. It hit the blister of the ship, which was then out of the water, bounced once and overturned on top of the men in it.
Cornwall listing to port, down by the head with the bows under water, shortly before sinking Rate this photo
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During all the activity in preparation for abandoning the ship, two telegraphist ratings, Glyn Gardner and Ivor Midlane, volunteered to go down to the Main Wireless Office, which had been put out of action and abandoned, to fetch the weighted confidential books so that they could be thrown overboard. With hindsight, it was unnecessary because the ship was obviously going to sink, but the two telegraphists were imbued with the spirit of duty and, according to regulations, code books should be thrown overboard in a time of crisis to prevent their falling into enemy hands.
The books were kept in two heavy steel chests. The youngsters did not have much difficulty in carrying the first chest to the upper deck where the Chief Petty Officer telegraphist dumped it overboard. But when they went down below again and got the second chest, the ship had developed a more acute list and gave a violent lurch. They were thrown to the deck, became separated and lost the chest, their torch and each other in the darkness. Their situation had become quite desperate because they knew the time to get out of the ship was limited.
Midlane found himself against the bulkhead in the Gunnery Office, opposite the Wireless Office, and up to his chest in water and fuel oil. He managed to pull himself out of the Gunnery Office into the sloping corridor. The way to the upper deck was along the corridor to a doorway which led to the Fore-cabin Flat in the centre of which was a steel ladder. Midlane made his way along the corridor, slipping and sliding on oily feet and grabbing whatever he could on the bulkhead for support.
The ladder, which provided access to the upper deck, was a few yards from the doorway. His oily feet could not get a grip on the sloping deck in the Fore-cabin Flat so he worked his way along the bulkhead on the starboard side of the flat until he reached a point opposite the ladder. Then he let go, slithered down the sloping deck and grabbed the ladder, which was normally vertical but by then not far off horizontal because of the ship's list to port. He scrambled up the ladder, through the hatchway on to the upper deck and went off the starboard side of the ship into the water.
Gardner was also thrown against a bulkhead. He called out Midlane's name but there was no reply and he despaired of seeing his friend again. In his struggle to make his way along the corridor, he grabbed at some rifles in brackets on the bulkhead but they came tumbling all over him. He got to the doorway leading to the ladder, which was about ten feet away, sprang to grab it but missed and slipped down the sloping deck into a pool of foul-smelling oil that had welled up from a storage tank below. He was up to his neck in it but managed to crawl out and struggle back to the doorway.
'This time I knew I had to make it,' he said. 'It was now or never. In my loneliness I prayed very hard for strength. With all my might I sprang towards the ladder and grabbed at a steel rung. I just made the distance - only just. My prayer had been answered. I paused a little to regain my breath, then hoisted myself up. I reached the top and instead of finding dry deck as had left it, I stepped right into the Indian Ocean. The water was already lapping the raised steel edge around the hatchway, ready to pour into the ship.'
Within a couple of minutes the sea was flooding the area from which the two young telegraphists had so narrowly escaped. Other men down below did not manage to get out in time.
Among others who did escape and survive was Able Seaman Harry Stone. His action station was at the main electrical switchboard three decks down amidships. Fortunately a damage control party had opened the water-tight hatches so he and others were able to start going up the three flights of ladders to the upper deck. But when Stone was starting up the last ladder a bomb hit caused a beam to fall on him. He lay on his back on the deck, trapped with the beam pinning him down and no one near to help him. For some minutes he tried to move the beam, but in vain. After a tense struggle, however, he freed himself, got to the upper deck and off the cruiser before she sank.
How many other dramatic moments there must have been as hundreds of men, many in extremely hazardous positions, struggled frantically to get from below to the upper deck to escape from the sinking warship. Their desperation and anxiety must have built up terrible tension - and what a terrific relief for those who did make it.
The final order to abandon ship was given at 1.55 p.m. Most men left Cornwall from both sides amidships or farther aft, jumping or stepping into the water or on to floats, many supporting or carrying wounded comrades. The few of us still on the foc's'le did not hear anyone give the order: 'Abandon ship. Every man for himself', but it was hardly necessary. The port side was already under water and the sea was creeping irresistibly across the deck. Yet momentarily I - and, I suppose, others too - experienced a strange reluctance to leave the ship. Cornwall was still something solid in a seemingly limitless expanse of sea, even if she was in her death throes and sinking. She had been a home in time of war.
But the time to leave her had come. I know I was not alone in thinking: 'If I don't abandon the ship now, she is soon going to abandon me.' So I gave my lifebelt an extra blow, ensured that the valve was screwed tight, took off my sandals, put them neatly on the edge of the deck on the starboard side near the tip of the foc's'le and flopped into the water. Normally it was about thirty feet from the deck to the water, but now that the ship was well down by the head and sinking, it was only about three feet. Bearing in mind the need to avoid the suction of a sinking ship, most of the survivors were swimming or paddling to get away.
Suddenly a figure in white tropical rig, his shirt splotched red with blood, was seen clutching the guard-rail on the quarterdeck. Several voices took up the cry: 'There's the skipper!' In true naval tradition, Captain Manwaring was leaving his ship only just before the end. By that time the ship's list to port was acute. As the Captain let go of the starboard guard-rail, he slid and rolled down the ship's side into the water amid cheers from the men. It was rather a cruel touch of fate that he had to abandon his ship only a few days before his fiftieth birthday.
The end came shortly afterwards - about four minutes after the final order to abandon ship and less than twenty minutes since the start of the dive-bombing attack. Survivors watched with awe as Cornwall's stern lifted higher and higher, one of her propellers that had turned millions of times revolving slowly. Then, with colours still flying, she slid bows first into the Indian Ocean. It was a poignant yet spectacular end, a sight imprinted indelibly on one's memory. Hundreds of men, who had just left her and were now splashing in the water, cheered as she took her final plunge at an angle of about thirty degrees.
It is almost too frightful even to think about the suffering of the men who went down in the ship - close on two hundred of them, some mercifully dead after being mutilated by bomb explosions, burnt, drowned in sea water or fuel oil; some wounded and dying, perhaps praying for a quick end; some, in many ways the worst off, alive but trapped in the ship, unable to escape and knowing that they had only a minute or two, or even only seconds, to live.
It must have been terrifying chaos with the inside of the huge ship in a turmoil as her stern lifted and she went down into the depths of the ocean. The agonising suffering, both mental and physical, endured by those men who are listed as 'Missing, presumed killed', is a nightmare that even the passing of the years fails to obliterate.
One of those mortally wounded, trapped and waiting for death; or did he mercifully lose consciousness before Cornwall went down? - was a youngster not yet out of his teens. His name is 108th in the official casualty list: 'Read, Alfred R., Ord. Sea.'
His full name was Alfred Rupert Read and his parents lived in Kent. He had turned eighteen, which gained him promotion in rating from a Boy to an Ordinary Seaman.
Young Alfred Read was at his action station in the telephone switchboard compartment during the bombing of Cornwall. He rang the officer in charge of communications and, in a calm voice, asked: 'What shall I do, sir? The compartment is flooding.'
'You had better leave at once,' the officer ordered.
'I can't, sir,' replied Read, 'both my legs are off.'
The story of Ordinary Seaman Read is known. There are so many that will never be known. One can only wonder at the drama of courage, tragedy, anguish and fear - yes, fear for which no one need be ashamed - that was entombed in the battered warship as she sank. We can but pay homage to the anonymous, unsung heroes among those who were killed, wounded or trapped alive in the doomed ship.
Within twenty minutes, two large cruisers totalling more than 20,000 tons and carrying 1,546 men had been sunk. Cornwall and Dorsetshire, comrades in arms, had died together - the first major British naval vessels to be sunk by dive-bombers operating from carriers.
Fuchida, the Japanese air commander, wrote:
The dive-bombers scored hits with close to ninety per cent of their bombs - an enviable rate of accuracy, even considering the windless conditions. But rather than feeling exultation over the proficiency of the bombers, I could only feel pity for these surface ships assailed from the air at odds of forty to one.
After studying the reports, Churchill commented:
In the Gulf of Siam two of our first-class capital ships had been sunk in a few minutes by torpedo aircraft. Now two important cruisers had also perished by a totally different method of air attack - the dive-bomber. Nothing like this had been seen in the Mediterranean in all our conflicts with the German and Italian Air Forces.
After Cornwall sank, the Japanese aircraft formed up in sub-flights and flew over the men in the sea. Some survivors reported that machine-gun bullets came uncomfortably close. But generally it would appear that there was no organised machine-gunning of men in the water, perhaps just a little over-exuberance by one or two airmen giving a victory burst. In the case of Dorsetshire, Captain Agar reported that just before the cruiser sank one plane 'flew low down over the ship, firing his machine-gun indiscriminately in a triumphant burst into the men on the decks and in the water'.
Considering the severity of the bombing attack, a surprisingly large number of men survived. Cornwall went down with singularly little disturbance and left more than 550 of her ship's company alive in the sea, many of them wounded, some so seriously that death was not far off. They were spread over a large area, swimming, bobbing, clambering on to the six Carley floats that were launched and some rafts, or clinging to all manner of planks and other flotsam, including two large piling fenders and a portion of the mainmast that had snapped off. It was a motley collection but something of a haven for the survivors as they gathered together. Only two boats were available - a whaler (rowing boat) that had been launched and a motor-boat (defuelled) that floated off as the ship went down and fortunately remained upright.
A particularly unpleasant problem was the oil - thick, black, slippery and pungent smelling - which came welling up from the sunken ship in large quantities. It covered men's heads, faces, bodies and clothing and made everything slimy and difficult to handle.
A couple of miles away survivors from Dorsetshire were in a similar predicament with two leaking whalers and a skiff.
For a moment it all seemed so unreal, a bad dream. Less than half an hour earlier two cruisers had been racing through the sea at 27.5 knots - large ships more than two hundreds yards long. Now they had both gone, leaving two groups of survivors totalling more than 1,100 men in the sea about three hundred miles from land. Less than half an hour earlier their feet had been on the solid decks of the ships, feeling the steady throb of their engines as they gave every ounce of energy in response to the order for full speed. Now their feet were treading water or kicking to help them swim in search of something to give more support than just a Mae West lifebelt.