The Loss of HMS Kelly

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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of March 1978

by Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma KG, PC, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCVO, DSO, FRS.

An Extract from an account of the sinking of HMS Kelly in the battle of Crete, given by her Captain, Lord Louis Mountbatten, to his sister Louise, Queen of Sweden.

THE KELLY AND SOME OF THE DESTROYERS of my flotilla had been stationed in Malta, and when we were not out on sweeps were subjected to a lot of air attack in the harbour, which was unpleasant and frightening. However, except for the Jersey, who was sunk just after passing the breakwaters into Grand Harbour by a magnetic mine, none of the rest of my flotilla were damaged.

When news came to Malta of the beginning of the Battle of Crete I realised that we should soon be sent for to take part. I went and called on the Admiral, Ford, and I gave him a suitcase which contained a suit of blue uniform, a suit of white uniform, pyjamas, underclothes, a sponge, and a toothbrush, and I told him that if the Kelly was sunk, as seemed quite probable in the Battle of Crete, and if I were picked up, as I hoped I would be, I would presumably be taken to Alexandria and I would be grateful if the Admiral could put my suitcase into the next RAF aircraft flying from Malta to Alexandria. He promised he would do so. I got the suitcase ready because as we were the latest and finest destroyers, I was sure we would be used for rearguard action in the most dangerous and exposed positions and we would be the most likely to be sunk. In any case, after 21 months’ intense activity in the war it was unlikely that the Kelly could go on having lucky escapes.

Shortly after this I got the signal to join the Fleet and we sailed. We joined the Mediterranean Fleet at the same moment as a medium-level bombing attack took place and a number of bombs were aimed at us, but luckily we were able to dodge them.

Later that evening on 22nd May I was ordered to proceed into Canea Bay to bombard Maleme airstrip, which the Germans had just captured and which the New Zealand Brigade were waiting to counter-attack as soon as our bombardment lifted.

Having lost the Jersey, I only had three ships of my own division instead of four, and they were the Kelly, Kashmir, and Kipling. We set off around the North-Eastern Cape of Crete and quite early on the Kipling’s steering gear became defective and as I couldn’t risk having a ship whose steering wasn’t perfect following me on such a hazardous night operation, I told her to rejoin Rear-Admiral Rawlings, having first steered to the westwards for at least three hours not to betray the presence of this force. The little cherub who sits up aloft and looks after us poor sailormen must have put the Kipling’s steering gear out of action, for it was due to this incident that we owe our lives.

As we entered Canea Bay a large caique was sighted loaded with German troops steering towards Crete. Both ships opened fire and sank her very quickly, the wretched Germans jumping into the water in full marching order. In any other circumstances we would have stopped to pick them up, but even at 30 knots it was doubtful if I could get into position to carry out the bombardment in time, so I had to push on.

We hadn’t got the exact position of the aerodrome, but worked out from a contour map where the airstrip must be. After having completed our bombardment we withdrew at high speed and came across another caique carrying ammunition. Shortly after we started firing at her she blew up in a very spectacular way.

Dawn broke as we rounded the North-Eastern Cape and we steamed at 30 knots down the Kithera Channel to rejoin Rawlings’ force. As the sun rose a German Dornier 215 appeared out of the east and was engaged before she dropped five bombs which missed Kelly astern; forty minutes later three more Do. 215s made a high-level bombing attack on Kelly and Kashmir in the face of good 4.7-inch controlled fire. Both ships avoided the bombs. I sent for my breakfast on the bridge and I continued reading C. S. Forester’s book about my favourite hero Hornblower called Ship of the Line.

Just before 8 am we sighted a mast above the horizon and I hoped it belonged to the Kipling though I couldn’t think why she had waited for us.

By now the sun was well up, the sea was calm and it was a lovely Mediterranean day. Just about 8 a.m. we suddenly saw 24 ominous black objects. Their distinctive shape soon revealed them as the dreaded Stukas, the Ju. 87s. They had a reputation for diving almost vertically on ships and only releasing their bombs when they were so low that they couldn’t miss. They were hard to distinguish against the rising sun, but presently we could see that they broke up into two parties of about 12 in each.

I pressed the alarm rattlers, for this required full action stations, and I hoisted the signal to the Kashmir to ‘act independently’.

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