- Gower, J.R., Captain, RN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Canberra I, HMAS Shropshire
- June 1981 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THIS IS THE STORY of a well known ship, seen through the eyes of a retired captain who commissioned the ship as a cadet in 1929.
In 1927 the Admiralty decided to name one of the new County class 10,000-ton cruisers Shropshire, the first ship with this name to appear in the navy list.
Her distinctive three funnels, speed of 32 knots plus high endurance, her eight-inch twin guns in four turrets, eight torpedoes and four 4-inch high angle guns outclassed any previous cruiser. It made her, like her sister ships, an impressive addition to our post-war navy.
Her high freeboard with scuttles in all living quarters made her a comfortable and habitable ship for her 45 officers and 650 men, although she was prone to roll in rough seas.
Shropshire was built at Dalmuir on the Clyde and completed in 1929. She steamed to Chatham where she was commissioned on 24th September under Captain Ronald Oldham.
Seven cadets, including myself, joined her straight from the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth – our first ship. She was to be my home for the next three years, and it proved to be a very formative period of my naval service – indeed my whole life.
That same month two coaches of ladies and gentlemen from the Shropshire Society in London, preceded by the Mayors of Chatham and Ludlow, arrived alongside the ship. The ship’s company was assembled and the Society presented to the ship a silver tankard, a white silk ensign, and a gramophone for the ship’s company.
The Mayor of Ludlow gave a very good address to which the captain replied. The Band of the Royal Marines played ‘All Friends Round The Wrekin’, the words being sung by a Miss Jukes, and the ship’s company joined in the choruses.
The visitors were then shown around the ship, given tea, followed by dancing on the quarterdeck. I was detailed to stand at the brow to see that the ladies didn’t trip, and to present the ladies with souvenirs of their visit as they left the ship.
A few days later we had a visit from officers and men of the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry, accompanied by Major General R.N.R. Reade. Thus was born the link between the ship and County and Regiment. (Editor’s note: ‘I often admired the beautiful badge of the KSLI which was mounted over the canteen, and wonder what happened to it.’)
Shropshire joined the 1st Cruiser Squadron Mediterranean Fleet in December where she met her consorts, London (flagship), Devonshire and Sussex. She soon made her name.
Her first year in commission proved her to be happy and successful. Few ships, if any, in that vast Mediterranean Fleet could match her for cleanliness and efficiency. It was no surprise then to see her selected as an exchange cruiser to go to Australia, while their HMAS Canberra came to us.
Alas, Britain went off the gold standard and the exchange was cancelled. Disappointment was short lived for in October 1931, she sailed to Cyprus in company with London and landed pickets of seamen, stokers and marines to quell the riots there.
The following year, in August, Shropshire was selected to take the Prince of Wales and Prince George from Malta to Cannes after they had inspected the Mediterranean Fleet at Corfu. About that time Charlie Chaplin visited the ship and entertained the ship’s company.
She continued to serve successive commissions in the Mediterranean, covering the Abyssinian War (1935-36) and Spanish Civil War, playing a leading part in the evacuation of refugees from Barcelona in August and September 1936.
In 1937 she returned to England for a complete refit and to have her anti-aircraft armament modernised.
When war broke out in 1939, ten years after commissioning, she was at Alexandria, one of the many ships of the finest fleet the world had known, alas so soon to be dispersed.
She was transferred to the South Atlantic Command a month later and was employed in searching for enemy raiders and escorting convoys between South Africa and Great Britain.
During the chase and destruction of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic, Shropshire was one of the forces searching for enemy raiders and on December 9 1939 she intercepted the German SS Adolf Leonhardt, which scuttled herself at Lobito.
Before Christmas she had steamed 34,000 miles in less than four months. She returned to England for refit, then back to the Indian Ocean.
From February 1941, while serving with the Red Sea Force and working in co-operation with the British and South African armies attacking Somaliland, she greatly assisted in the occupation of Kismayu and caused a large number of Italian military casualties in the bombardment of Mogadishu.
The collapse of the whole of the Italian Empire followed shortly. Shropshire went back to convoy escort duty around the coast of Africa, and on March 2 1941 she intercepted and escorted to Durban the Vichy French ship Ville de Strasbourg.
From June 1941 until March 1942 she was back with the Home Fleet, and in August she escorted the aircraft carrier Argus, loaded with planes for Russia, to Murmansk. She was then due for another refit, this time an extensive one. In March 1942 Shropshire was again allocated to the South Atlantic command for convoy escort duty.
Following the loss of the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra on August 9 1942 in the Battle of Savo Island, the British Government approved transfer of Shropshire to the RAN as a replacement.
The transfer was announced in the House of Commons on September 8 1942 by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said: ‘His Majesty’s Government consider that the Commonwealth should not bear this grievous loss following the sinking of other gallant Australian ships.
‘We have therefore decided to offer, freely and unconditionally, to transfer His Majesty’s 8-inch cruiser Shropshire to the Commonwealth Government, this offer has been most warmly received.’ It was a queer twist of fate that these were the two selected for exchange service in 1931.
The decision to transfer Shropshire to the RAN brought her recall from service on the South Atlantic Station. Commander D.H. Harries, RAN, assumed command to supervise refit and transfer to the Royal Australian Navy.
At this stage of her history Shropshire had steamed some 363,000 miles, of which 220,000 had been covered on war service. During the refit the ship’s aircraft and catapult were landed. She did not carry an aircraft during her RAN service.
Captain J.A. Collins, RAN, assumed command of Shropshire on April 7 1943 and she was commissioned in the RAN on April 20 1943 at Chatham.
However, the pre-transfer refit occupied many months and it was not until June 25 1943 that Shropshire was formally handed over to the RAN by Admiral Sir George D’Oyly Lyon, C-in-C The Nore. In August 1943 Shropshire began her voyage to Australia escorting a Gibraltar-bound convoy. She arrived at Capetown on September 4, Fremantle three weeks later and finally Sydney on October 2, 1943. On October 30 at Brisbane, the cruiser joined the Australian Squadron (Task Force 74) under the command of Rear Admiral Victor A.C. Crutchley flying his flag in Australia.
In December 1943 Shropshire took part in the New Britain operations covering landings at Arawe and Cape Gloucester. In March 1944, with other ships of Task Force 74, she took part in the operations leading to the seizure of the Admiralty Islands and the following month was again in action at the Hollandia-Humboldt Bay operations. Continuing support of the American northward sweep, she was at the Wakde-Sarmi-Biak operations in May 1944, afterwards returning to Sydney for a brief refit.
On July 12, Shropshire proceeded to the Aitape (New Guinea) area in support of the 6th Division ashore and followed this duty by bombardment support for the landings at Cape Sansapor on July 28.
Then in September 1944, the cruiser gave support to the landings on Morotai Island, prior to proceeding north as part of the invasion fleet for the Philippines operations at Leyte. She took part in the Battle of Surigao on 25th October as part of Rear Admiral Oldendorf’s force (Task Force 77) ending in the rout of the Japanese.
In January 1945 after Leyte Gulf patrols, Shropshire took part in the assault on Lingayen (Philippines), finally returning to Sydney in March for refit.
In June 1945 Shropshire was back in the operational area and after operating at the Brunei (Borneo) landings she was part of the force for the Balikpapan landings on July 3. She then returned to the Philippines and was there when the Japanese surrendered.
She was in Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony and remained in Japanese waters until November 17, when the broad pennant of the Commodore Commanding Australian Squadron was transferred to HMAS Hobart, and Shropshire departed for Sydney.
In May 1946 Shropshire left Australia for the United Kingdom carrying the Australian contingent for the Empire Victory celebrations, returning to Australia in August.
In January 1947 she represented the Royal Australian Navy in Japanese waters, returning to Sydney in March 1947 in preparation for final paying off, her days as an active warship ended. Since first commissioning in the RAN she had steamed 506,445 miles.
It was not until July 1954 that Shropshire was sold as scrap to Thomas W. Ward Limited, Sheffield, on behalf of British Iron and Steel (Salvage) Corporation and on October 9 1954 she left Sydney in tow of the Dutch tug Oostzee, bound for the ship-breakers in Scotland. She had returned home after twenty-six years.
Certain ships earn fame as a result of some great naval victory or an association with a famous Admiral – Nelson’s Victory. Others achieve fame by the individuality of their captain and some specific battle or epic – Mountbatten’s Kelly or Vian’s Cossack.
It is not so easy to recognise the worth of a ship which gives prolonged service throughout her life and doesn’t get sunk. Shropshire did just this, and in doing so steamed thousands of miles in all climates from the Arctic to the Pacific and through every ocean in the world.