- Letter Writer
- WWII operations, Letter to the Editor
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1995 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
I am writing in connection with Mr Hilton’s enquiry in “Navy News” May number of the convoy to Suez which left the Clyde on 22nd May 1941. This was convoy WS 8B – War 8B composed of some six large liners carrying some 15,000 troops and other ships with tanks and stores for the Middle East round the Cape of Good Hope.
I was then 1st Lieutenant of HMS Exeter. After a period of patrol in the Denmark Strait north of Iceland waiting for the German battleship Bismarck, we returned to Scapa Flow on 20th May. That evening, I dined with the Gunnery Officer of HMS Hood and the next day we left for the Clyde to act as ocean escort for convoy WS 8B. Meanwhile the Bismarck had been sighted in the Denmark Strait and units of the Home Fleet were dispatched to intercept her.
Convoy WS 8B sailed on the evening of 22nd May, escorted by HMS Cossack (Senior Officer, Capt Vian), Maori, Zulu, Sikh and the Polish destroyer Piorun as anti-submarine escort and HMS Cairo (cruiser) and Eridge (frigate) as anti-aircraft escort.
On the next morning we were sighted by a German Fokker Wulf, we engaged her but we now suspected that our position and course had been reported. The convoy was, (as far as I can remember – it was over fifty years ago) composed of about a dozen ships including Georgic (White Star Liner), Duchess of Richmond? (Canadian Pacific Liner), Dutch liner Neiuw Amsterdam and three other merchant ships with stores. This was a very valuable convoy, essential for reinforcing our forces in the Middle East.
Next day 24th May the Hood was blown up whilst engaging the Bismarck – a terrible tragedy and there were only three survivors. I had dined on board only four days before and all those perished. During the night 24/25 Bismarck threw off her pursuers and disappeared. She was known to be damaged as she left an oil trail and it was soon suspected that she was making for St Nazaire, the French Naval Base in the Bay of Biscay. In Exeter we found ourselves right across her possible path, for that part we were very concerned. If she fell in with our convoy, enormous loss of life would occur.
On the evening of the 25th May, Captain Vian in Cossack ordered Exeter “Take station 10 miles N. W. of convoy. Act as bumper”. We did not relish that much! A few days later, the destroyer escorts were ordered to join the C in C in the King George V and search for Bismarck. Cairo and Eridge left through lack of fuel.
We returned to the convoy, and we alone protected it.
Next morning at about 10am, Bismarck was sighted by an R.A.F. aircraft and later towards nightfall attacked by aircraft from HMS Ark Royal that had come up from Gibraltar. They hit her in the rudder and she would not steer. Next morning she was sunk by our Battleships and Cruisers.
We worked out later that the convoy with Exeter passed across Bismarck’s track by less than two hours about 2330, a very narrow escape. On hearing of the Bismarck’s sinking, Exeter passed from astern right through the convoy to the van flying the flags “Bismarck Sunk”, and the troops gave the White Ensign a tremendous reception. Little did they know how narrow an escape they had had. We then all proceeded to Freetown for fuel, then round the Cape to Durban where we stayed for about a week. Then we took the convoy to Aden, from there they went on without escort to Suez.
After disembarking her troops, Georgic was attacked by German aircraft and completely burnt out.
The Bismarck Operation is fully described by Ludovic Kennedy, a BBC reporter, published by Book Club Associates in conjunction with William Collins Ltd in a book called PURSUIT.
Curiously, Exeter and the valuable nature of the convoy WS 8B are not mentioned. So I wrote to the author and pointed this out. He replied with thanks and forwarded my letter with his papers to Churchill College Cambridge which is the centre of naval history of World War II.
But what a narrow escape. In addition to Bismarck the convoy was also liable to attack by heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, who also disappeared into the blue.
So this is a report by someone who was in company with that convoy from Clyde to Aden, and if I can help you in any way further, please do not hesitate to ask.
Captain G.T. Cooper. O.B.E. Royal Navy.