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Sirius in 1943 while serving with Force H in the Med
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This is not an epic tale of a gallant ship's last hour, nor of the horrors of a Malta convoy, nor the madness that was the Murmansk run. This is a slice of life aboard a cruiser midway through WWII when the fortunes of war were beginning to change for the better. It is written by Peter Deacon, if you served on Sirius he would like to hear from you.
After a year in an Asdic trawler doing Atlantic convoy escort I found myself in a cushy job trolling for mines off Gibraltar's Europa Point. I won't name the ship but if there was a scruffier one to be found anywhere I'd have been very surprised. I was a Signalman and was about to request an advance to Trained Operator, which would carry a star on my sleeve and a modest increase in my personal fortune. I was interviewed by the legendary Signal Lieutenant Jackie Condon and he offered me a deal. He would confirm my promotion but first I had to read the Standard Flashing Exercise, and second I had four hours in which to collect my dunnage and report 'bag-and-hammock' aboard HMS Sirius which was lying across the harbour and expecting to sail in a matter of hours.
I had never travelled by sea, on a dark night at 35 knots before and I found it very exhilarating. Slightly less exhilarating were the incessant intrusions of bugles and bosun's whistles over the Tannoy, but I got used to them. Nor had I been used to so large a ship's company - we carried 530 officers and men, including a detachment of Royal Marines, mostly bandsmen. I did see one familiar face in the Communications messdeck. 'Bud' Abbott had been a co-leader in Class S-30 at Royal Arthur at Skegness, though, being considerably older than I was we had never really been 'go-ashore' mates.
We reached Algiers early the next morning, then on to Bône and finally Bizerta. Bombed-out and a mere shell of a town, whose majority of inhabitants were ex-Afrika Korps p.o.w.s contained in large barbed wire enclosures. Bizerta harbour was now a makeshift anchorage for Allied warships of various stripes. The Luftwaffe was well-aware of this and paid frequent visits. On each side of the harbour mouth smoke-making machines were installed and as soon as the sirens went off, dense clouds of very pungent white smoke would drift across the ships at anchor. We hoped to be going to sea again very soon and we had not long to wait.
We sailed one evening, accompanied by our sister-ship Dido, with Penn and Petard. As was his custom, Capt. Brooking announced over the Tannoy that we were off to do some night-time bombardment of the island of Pantelleria, where there were elements of German troops still in occupation. We went to action stations around 2300 and told to don anti-flash gear - something that I had not done previously. My assigned station was in the port wing of the flag deck. I thought that this would afford a grandstand view when the balloon went up.
At 0130 the destroyers fired starshell and the dark outline of the island could now be seen quite clearly on our port beam. One of my oppos handed me a small wad of cotton waste and told me to stuff my ears up. And not a moment too soon. The first salvo was a real ear-ringer, with Q-turret's 5.25-in muzzles far closer than I realized. The two destroyers were now firing their 4.7s and Dido joined in astern of us. We gave them perhaps half a dozen more salvos and then it was time to go home. We did Pantelleria again two nights later and then turned our night attentions to the Italian mainland, attacking the main coastal road, railway line and their bridges. We were accompanied by Aurora (with Capt. W.G. Agnew commanding the group), Penelope, and two more destroyers. I will never forget the sight as we steered for Bizerta once more, the black ridge of the Italian coast deeply scored by angry red fires, looking like some mortally wounded black monster.
We visited Italy once more, left our calling cards and returned to Bizerta. Sicily had fallen and the buzz was that our softening-up of the Italian coast was the precursor of an invasion. There followed a few days of inactivity and sporadic air raids and then an unfamiliar vessel entered the harbour in the shape of the super-fast minelaying cruiser Abdiel. A few hours later Dido and the US cruiser Boise had joined us. I learned from L/Sig. Jock Muir, who was on watch that the cruisers were shortly to embark the 1st Airborne Battalion. The operation was accomplished in a surprisingly short space of time and as we moved away from the jetty our guests were being settled down as best they could in the messdecks. We were soon making them feel at home with cigarettes, mugs of tea and sandwiches.
By 1100 all four cruisers were loaded and ready to sail, along with a handful of escorting destroyers. We learned that we were bound for Taranto to land the paratroops to coincide with a main landing up the east coast at Salerno. The sea was reasonably calm, so the soldiers did not suffer from seasickness en route. Reportedly Italy had formally surrendered so a 'soft' landing was expected on arrival. This was confirmed by the surprising sight of a large number of Italian warships outward bound from Taranto and evidently en route to Malta to surrender. As we came abeam the starboard side of our ship was lined with the curious and quite a few uncomplimentary hand signals were exchanged. At one point a tri-motored Junkers appeared, outbound from the Italian mainland and bearing German insignia. It was promptly shot down by the destroyers after it failed to exchange recognition signals. It later transpired that it contained high-ranking Axis personnel attempting to escape capture.
It was about 2200 by the time Sirius had dropped the hook and landing craft had begun to disembark the troops rather than our having to go through berthing in near-blackout conditions. About an hour later there was a tremendous explosion and flames and debris shot high into the night air. The word soon got around that Abdiel had been mined by Italian frogmen. Very soon thereafter all kinds of small craft were scurrying around picking up survivors, while every ship with searchlights was using them to spot swimmers. The First Lieutenant, Cdr. Jenkins ordered the launch and the whalers away and soon we were bringing half-drowned men on board, both paratroopers and some of Abdiel's ship's company. The Chief Buffer organised towels, blankets and hot tea until landing craft came alongside to ferry the wet survivors ashore. As soon as the last one had left the ship we weighed anchor and set off at high speed. We were bound for the Salerno invasion site.
We arrived on September 10, the morning after the first landing craft had gone ashore. The day was bright and sunny and the visibility excellent. There was a large assembly of warships of all shapes and sizes in the bay, the town of Salerno being at the northern end and where British commandos had gone ashore and further down the coast the British 46th and 56th Divisions had also established beachheads. We hove-to about a mile offshore and could hear the boom of artillery and saw the numerous gun-flashes. Nearby were the monitors Roberts and Abercrombie. We hove-to and very soon a launch came alongside, dropping off a Royal Artillery Major who was conducted immediately to the bridge. He would establish radio contact with a Forward Observation Officer in the beachhead area who would direct our fall of shot. At this point we were visited by the Luftwaffe in the shape of Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers. There were not very many of them. But enough to cause a distraction and to divert AA fire from the planned task of shore bombardment. They came in waves, half a dozen at a time and seemed to be after the monitors. Their aim was not all that good, probably because of the intense flak barrage that everyone was putting up. I didn't see any ships getting hit although some were raked with machine-gun fire. After they left we began to deliver salvos, with pauses after each for corrections given by the Major. The monitors' 15-in guns had opened up and were probably also under the direction of Artillery officers. Our target was reportedly a transport park some miles inland and beyond the coastal ridge. When the range and bearings had been established we dropped danbuoys and moved off to the west, maintaining radar watch, the bay having become rather congested.
We returned quietly after dark, picked up our positions and around 2300 all was in readiness for a bombardment. A close friend of mine was the 'B' turret captain and he sneaked me in with strict admonition to stay out of the way. I was fascinated by the well-drilled action within the confines of the turret as the shells came up the hoist, were loaded into the breeches and the guns prepared for firing. The firing bell sounded and away went the shells. There was far less noise inside the turret than I had imagined there would have been. We must have let loose 20 or more salvos before we got 'Check-check-check'. And then we were off into the night heading for Malta to take on fuel, supplies and ammunition.
By the beginning of October Sirius was in harbour in Alexandria, having had a boiler-clean and several other maintenance jobs done. Aurora, Penelope and Dido were also present and messdeck rumours were flying freely. War news was not all that liberally promulgated, at least at messdeck level, but little titbits had a habit of escaping from the W/T office from time to time.
Had we been privy to the big picture we would have known that Churchill wanted to lessen the dangers and privations of the ghastly Murmansk convoys. The passage to Russia via the Aegean and the Dardanelles would be infinitely more practicable now the Italian Navy was no longer a threat. A passage through the Dodecanese Islands was envisaged but these were currently held by Axis forces. These islands were Sámos, Léros, and Kos and most importantly the large island of Rhodes which had excellent airfields. Preparations had been made for a British/Indian assault in early September but Eisenhower denied the use of necessary landing craft and ancillary shipping. The smaller islands were occupied by Italian troops which offered no resistance when elements of the former Long Range Desert Group had recently invaded, but the key island of Rhodes was held by German forces. The required shipping was now being used to move bomber bases from North Africa to Italy so Rhodes was off the agenda. To make matters worse, the Germans re-took Kos on October 3. Léros, with a garrison of 3 battalions of British troops was re-taken on the 16th by 600 German paratroops and heavy air attacks.
Against this uncertain, but probably unknown scenario, what was now called Force H (Force H had had many diverse components previously) sailed from Alexandria on October 17 with Agnew in Aurora leading Penelope, Sirius, Dido, Jervis, Javelin, Penn, Petard, Pathfinder, Faulknor and Fury. As was his custom of keeping the troops informed, Capt. Brooking came on the Tannoy shortly after leaving harbour and told us that we were heading for the Dodecanese where our intended target would be Kos. If memory serves me correctly he said that we would be shelling the harbour, but he gave no further details. In retrospect I have often wondered since whether the principal thrust of this operation might have been to stage a kind of reprise of the Crete evacuation, to rescue the British forces since Eisenhower had denied the use of the British/Indian assault group and their vessels. (And to further exacerbate an already bad situation, unaccountably on October 11, RAF long-range fighter support was withdrawn).
About 1300 Action Stations sounded off and everyone went scrambling, expecting air attack. As I reached the flag deck the battle ensign was already bent-on and everyone with binoculars was scanning the clear blue sky for the first sign of incoming planes. Minutes went by and then Aurora hoisted 'Enemy ahead', followed by 'Landing craft ahead, open fire at will' on her 10-inch SP.
There they were, 20 or more landing craft, packed with troops and escorted by what looked like trawlers or small coastal craft. Their course was almost diagonal from ours, they were steering southwest but had already begun to scatter. We were making about 30 knots and so were closing rapidly and it seemed that we were the closest. Some of the screening destroyers on the starboard flank had probably been advised to hold their fire but just about everyone else opened up. It was all over remarkably quickly as the convoy was decimated, with virtually every craft on fire or sinking. We seemed to plough right through the remains and there were survivors' heads bobbing in the slight swell all around. Brooking ordered our port side close-range weapons to open fire on what had not been blown apart and one of the escorts, only a couple of cables away was rapidly reduced to scrap metal with fire from Oerlikons and the 4-barrel pompoms.
A state of something approaching mass euphoria reigned for a while and there seemed to be no question about picking up survivors - we had become pretty hardened against compassion for the Germans by now.
A little later the alarms went off as a single, low-flying aircraft was seen approaching from the southeast but nobody opened fire. Evidently it had identified itself. It was a Hurricane and obviously in trouble. A few moments later the pilot bailed out and parachuted into the water and Fury was sent to pick him up. We never learned how and why he had found us. We secured from Action Stations but got the feeling that retribution might not be all that long in coming. 'George' had been spotted during the recent action, flying well out of range of our guns but inevitably, our presence must have been reported.
At about 1600, making 30 knots and steering due north Action Stations sounded once more. Almost before I reached the flag deck all hell was let loose as probably every ship in company opened up. Coming head-on at us, flying low and spread out came half a dozen planes. They came in with frightening speed but I saw that they were not Stukas, but twin-engined machines, probably Ju88s. They seemed to be almost at masthead height, flying seemingly unscathed through the barrage of flak that was being put up. One passed so low overhead that we hit the deck instinctively and the roar of the engines was heard above the thunder of our 5.25s. What I took to be flying debris turned out to be machine gun bullets hitting parts of the ship. Seconds later another plane zoomed in and down we went one more on to the steel deck, imagining, I suppose that the thin skirting around the flag deck would protect us. There followed a deafening explosion and a brilliant flash and I knew we'd been hit. They came back for another run but, for some reason we were not the target this time. A couple of the destroyers had been hit but if the other cruisers had, it had not been devastating. I looked aft from the flag deck and saw the port pompom platform had been shot-up and there were bodies slumped inside it. X-turret was motionless and had obviously been hit. Looking down at the port waist I saw a figure in white shirt and shorts that were now soaked in blood which I recognised as the on-board NAAFI manager. Most of us were in a state of confusion but there seemed to be no further air attack forthcoming.
Sirius under attack in the Aegean off Scarpanto on 17 Oct 1943, Penelope on the left and Petard on the right Rate this photo
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Sirius had been badly damaged. Capt. Brooking had been injured on the bridge, the port pompom had lost most of its crew, most of the Royal Marines in X-turret had been killed and if there was an upside, the flash had not travelled down to the magazine. Had it done so, at best the entire stern would have been blown off. Bud Abbott, shutting down deadlights in the recreation space had been virtually decapitated by a bomb fragment penetrating the outer bulkhead. The NAAFI manager immaculately dressed as always had met his end while trying to film the action with an 8mm movie camera. We were ordered to return to Alexandria and to this day I have no idea whether or not the entire mission was scrubbed.
the damage on the quarterdeck of Sirius after a direct hit by a 1,000lb bomb Rate this photo
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We buried our dead the next morning, all neatly stitched up in new canvas and weighted down. The Chaplain conducted the short service; a simple wooden board and the White Ensign were their last contact before they vanished forever into the Mediterranean. The Royal Marines fired a volley and the bugler sounded the Last Post. Soon we were underway again and less than an hour later we were abeam of Ras el Tin, heading for a berth where our damaged ship would be partially patched up, the wounded sent to hospital and where perhaps a hose party would try to wash away the sickening odour of the dried blood in the pompom platform baked onto twisted metal and paintwork by the blistering sun.
(Exact chronology and disposition of some ships mentioned may be in error - but the passage of time is a notorious thief !)