- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
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- June 1983 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This vivid eyewitness account of the sinking of the 8-inch cruiser, HMS Dorsetshire by Japanese bombers in 1942 was extracted from a war-time booklet published to raise funds for building a replacement for the cruiser. The booklet was edited by John Creasey.
SAILING STEADILY through the warm, calm ocean, in company with the Cornwall, the Dorsetshire was hunting for surface raiders and an enemy fleet.
Reconnaissance aircraft from Japanese aircraft carriers of an unlocated force, including cruisers and battle-ships, were searching for them. British aircraft carriers were too far away to afford fighter escort.
Three hundred miles west of Colombo, at dawn on the 5th of April, the bugle call calling the crew to ‘action stations’ rang out through the ship’s loudspeakers.
It was usual at dawn of course, but the minutes passed slowly, and the stations were maintained.
Gradually a feeling of excitement spread throughout the ship. It was Easter Sunday, but there was little thought of the day, only an increasing tension in which all shared.
One of the most vivid narratives of any action at sea was told by the Chief Naafi Canteen Manager, A.G. Elsegood to Carl Olsson; it appeared in Illustrated on September 12th 1942, and part of the breathtaking story was broadcast in the ‘Into Battle’ series of the BBC a few days afterwards. And this is his story:
‘My action station was in the main sick bay amid-ships, where I was in charge of a medical party. I went along there and reported to the Surgeon-Commander, and saw that instruments, bandages and lint were laid out in proper array; Neil-Robson stretchers (cane and canvas folding contraptions which can carry a wounded man through the narrow confined spaces of a ship) were all stacked neatly in the sick bay.
Then we sat down to wait. Seven a.m. came, the time when we open the canteen till 8.30 for the first morning sales, cigarettes, soft drinks, toothpaste, chocolate and hundreds of other things.
We waited there through the morning, cooped up under the electric lights. The waiting, the suspense, is the worst part of it all. Conversation palled after a while, and some of us played cards or ludo.
There were the usual reliefs for food and a drink of tea or coffee. I went on deck once or twice and saw the gun crews, wearing their flash hoods, tensely alert at their pom-poms, waiting like us.
About mid-morning we had word from a rating passing through the sick bay that a Jap scout plane had been sighted; then about 1 p.m. we heard that more enemy planes were near.
At 1.40 p.m. we heard the muffled toll of our pom-pom and other AA fire. We looked at each other and I thought: ‘This is it.’
A tough Cockney rating whom I knew well, one of the repair parties on an inspection round, grinned at us cheerfully as he passed through and said: ‘Blimey, there’s the ‘split-eyes’ at last, bringing us a nice packet of Easter eggs.’
He had no sooner gone through the doorway at the end of the sick bay than there were two terrific explosions from somewhere aft.
Gunfire ceased, then started again in slow individual gun bursts. The lamp bulbs flickered twice off and on, and then dimmed. The explosions felt exactly as if some giant hand had seized the ship and shaken her bodily. In the pause which followed I felt the even vibration of the engines falter and slow down.
I learned afterwards that Jap bombers, from carriers, had come at us in waves of seven, out of the sun. Some actually tried to crash themselves on our decks.
The guns had not much chance; they were just overwhelmed, and we got two direct hits.
These waves of bombers were followed by fighters which dived, machine-gunning the decks and gun stations and shattering most of the lifeboats with explosive bullets.
It all happened in a few minutes. As the first wounded came in they were attended at once by the Surgeon-Commander and two other doctors – my party still had nothing to do – a bomb came clean through the deck and passed through the dispensary at the end of the sick bay and exploded in the marines’ mess deck.
It came in diagonally and I only saw the flash. The next moment I found myself on my back outside the sick bay door, where I had been flung by the blast. All the lights went out because our power was hit and the place full of fumes, smoke and dust.
The emergency lighting, however (two single lights) came on immediately. I picked myself up and we got to work again. Some men in the sick bay had been killed by blast, and others wounded. Working in the semi-darkness I wished I was on deck with the guns.
But now we could all feel the ship listing heavily.
The engines had stopped and the deck seemed to be falling away from beneath our feet.
Since the power system had been cut off we could not get any orders through the loudspeakers. The first thing I heard was some men calling from the gangway:
‘She’s going.’ Quite unhurriedly the Surgeon-Commander gave orders to get the wounded up and clear the sick bay. We got them up.
Boats hung shattered and burning from the davits.
Through the smoke clouds which drifted far across the water I could see stabbing flashes of flame from the distant guns of HMS Cornwall.
Just before the first bomb burst, Captain Agar gave instructions to hoist the silk Battle Ensign. Great efforts were made to do this, and although the Ensign did not reach the top of the mast, it was flying when the ship sank.
The Japs had left us and were making a concentrated attack on her, and she was going down fighting.
Against the smoke, among the gun flashes, there were long streaks of flame as Jap aircraft went plummeting into the sea.
The thing that struck me was the coolness of everyone. I don’t know what I expected, but I know they helped me a lot. There we were, one side listing almost into the water, and you might have thought they were cheerfully waiting for liberty boat and shore leave. No panic, no pushing and shoving, less rush and excitement than at a normal ‘Action Stations’.
The order came ‘abandon ship’ and the men began throwing Carley floats, Denton rafts and any floatable wreckage overboard.
Except for two whalers and a skiff the boats were useless. We got the wounded into those. I saw Commander Byas on the upper deck. Severely wounded and holding his hand to his side, he was calmly giving orders through his chief boatswain’s mate, and getting the men away.
All I thought was how very warm the water felt and a vague regret about the canteen I was leaving behind, newly stocked and as good as anything in the Navy.
That’s the effect of other men’s coolness and courage on you when you are all together.
We got to rafts and wreckage, pushing and swimming to get away from the suction as the ship went down.
I saw her go. She slid under easily, only half-an-hour since I had first heard her guns in the sick bay. She was a grand ship with a great record.
The smoke had lifted a bit, and as I clung to the edge of a raft there was a mass of bobbing heads, and clusters of men perched on rafts and wreckage.
There was murmur of men’s voices over the water calling to each other and talking. Men were shouting from raft to raft after their pals. ‘Has anybody seen so and so?’ ‘Is so and so with you?’ and similar queries.
One crowd started singing ‘Roll out the barrel’, and other voices took it up till the singing echoed over the water. Those of the Jap aircraft which survived had gone. We were alone, except for HMS Cornwall‘s survivors, also in the water some miles away.
We got ourselves organised, as far as men swimming and floating in the ocean can do. Captain Agar was going round in one of the whalers with the wounded, rounding-up swimming stragglers and others clinging to wreckage, and towing them in until we were all together in one big bunch. That was a good move.
Men could help each other, and it would be easier for rescue vessels to find us.
When that was done he came in among us and spoke to us, his voice coming clearly across the water as calmly as if he was on his own bridge. He told us, among other things, that Commander Byas though badly wounded, was alive, at which everybody cheered.
He told us that help was coming. He told us also to take shirts and underwear or other garments off and drape them turbanwise on our heads as protection against the broiling sun. (It was mid-afternoon and we were only a few degrees above the Equator.) That wise advice saved a lot of us from sunstroke or worse.
With our faces blackened with the oil fuel floating everywhere, and our turbaned heads, we looked a funny sight. There was plenty of wisecracking, and one bunch of wags on a raft started a nasal Eastern sing-song, chanting and hand-clapping.
We took turn about on the rafts and in the water, just clinging to them. When each man’s turn came for a rest on a raft, he handed his Mae West over to a man who had to swim (some of the men hadn’t been able to get their Mae Wests before our ship went down).
Once or twice I thought about sharks (the Indian Ocean is full of them) but I don’t think any of us saw one. At any rate there were no alarms. One of the men said, I don’t know with what truth, that oil fuel keeps them away.
Night came with everybody still cheerful and keeping together. I heard parties singing comic songs on some of the rafts. How they kept it up I don’t know, because I was beginning to suffer a bit from thirst. They found some water and condensed milk, but that was for the wounded. We did have a biscuit each, though, the next morning and though mine was flavoured with fuel oil and salt water, it tasted good. Footnote: Several survivors have written to say that the oil on the water undoubtedly enabled many to keep afloat and substantially reduced the casualties.
During the night we kept watches to look out for rescue ships and the brilliant stars of the tropics started several false calls.
Fortunately the night did not last long, and then came that biscuit breakfast.
I didn’t feel too good but, believe it or not, some of the men were still so fresh that they were swimming races from raft to raft! One crowd of young stokers actually started a sort of water polo match, using a rolled up vest for a ball!
That second day dragged a lot. I had gone over from my raft handhold to a floating wooden spar from the Dorsetshire. It was 4 p.m. and I was just making myself comfortable when I heard a shout of ‘Plane!’
We eyed the tiny speck very tensely for a moment, wondering if it were a Jap. But in the next few seconds there was a yell, ‘String bag!’ the Navy slang for the Swordfish, torpedo reconnaissance plane of the Fleet Air Arm.
In no time it seemed it was sweeping low over our heads. I could see the pilot waving, within an hour there was more cheering as smoke from two destroyers and a cruiser showed on the horizon. Within an hour I was being hauled on to the deck of a destroyer and being given a sip of barley water.
While our destroyer searched for any other straggling survivors we were led to hot baths and our oil coating was removed by some special solution. Those who could not walk were carried. The destroyer’s crew did everything for us, including giving up their own bedding.
The officers gave up their cabins to the wounded, and turned the wardroom into a sick-bay.
It was dark by then, and after the bath and a rest there were buckets of hot sweet tea to wash away the taste of oil fuel and the Indian Ocean, and a huge meal which they called breakfast. I found myself professionally wondering where they had got all the food; but the Navy can usually manage everything.’ Other accounts revealed that, in the shellroom, the crew had not fully realised what had happened as the ship lurched and shuddered. Fumes choked everyone, and a Corporal of the Marines scrambled up to the deck, helped by an electric torch. He found the ship almost deserted with hundreds of men already in the water. Near him Lieut. Geoffrey Berlyn, of East London, S. Africa, calmly lit a cigarette and took a few puffs before jumping – his coolness and courage was an example to everyone. The Corporal had only to ‘step’ into the water, quite calmly, and start swimming, for the ship was already well down. He had lost his lifebelt, but found a piece of wood to help him keep afloat. He had no thought of fear then, but there was a spasm of fear when the Japs flew very low in formation, spitting machine-gun bullets towards the helpless men. The Corporal ‘beat the record for a surface dive,’ but when he broke water again the planes were gone, although two officers and a stoker petty officer were killed in this wanton attack.