A “grievous error”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Gloucester

This is the HMS Gloucester under attack by Ju-87 Stukas. May, 1941.  As Simon’s Town in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy. The loss of the HMS Gloucester is one of the most tragic losses of the war for the Royal Navy, and it unfortunately, as what is arguably the worst wartime loss for the Royal Navy it also has the highest South African naval casualty roll call of the war. Read on for their story.


German gun camera captures the HMS Gloucester under attack

HMS Gloucester was one of the second group of three ships of the Town class of light cruisers. She was launched on 19 October 1937 prior to commissioning on 31 January 1939.

hms_gloucester_D96_emb_n12985Gloucester was nicknamed The Fighting G and saw heavy service in the early years of World War II. The ship was deployed initially to the Indian Ocean and later South Africa before joining Vice Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean fleet in 1940. She was sunk on 22 May 1941 during the Battle of Crete with the loss of 722 men out of a crew of 807.

Gloucester formed part of a naval force acting against German military transports to Crete, with some success. Prior to moving to the Mediterranean she spent much of her time patrolling the Indian Ocean off South Africa. In December 1939, she was moved to Simonstown, South Africa where she was used, unsuccessfully, against German raiders. Hence the high number of South Africans serving on her by the time she got to the Mediterranean theatre of operations.

22254780_10155537388346480_1703967884046440289_oAfter German paratroopers landed on Crete on 20 May, the cruiser HMS Gloucester was assigned to Force C that was tasked with interdicting any efforts to reinforce the German forces on the island. On 22 May, while in the Kythria Strait about 14 miles (12 nmi; 23 km) north of Crete, she was attacked by German “Stuka”s of StG 2 shortly before 14:00, together with the light cruiser HMS Fiji and the destroyer HMS Greyhound.  The Greyhound was sunk and the two cruisers were each hit by 250-kilogramme bombs, but not seriously damaged. Two other destroyers were ordered to recover the survivors while the two cruisers covered the rescue efforts. Gloucester was attacked almost immediately and sustained three more hits and three near-misses and sank. Of the 807 men aboard at the time of her sinking, only 85 survived. Her sinking is considered to be one of Britain’s worst wartime naval disasters.

The circumstances of the sinking has also recently pointed to blunders by Royal Navy, when dispatching the HMS Gloucester for the rescue effort, she was low on fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition (less than 20% remaining), and therefore sending her into danger was a “grievous error”.

Furthermore, the Royal Navy failed to attempt to rescue survivors of the HMS Gloucester after it turned dark, one of the reasons why the death toll from the HMS Gloucester is so high.  This lack of action was “contrary to usual Navy practice”. A survivor commented “The tradition in the Navy is that when a ship has sunk, a vessel is sent back to pick up survivors under cover of darkness. That did not happen and we do not know why. We were picked up by Germans.

On 30 May 1941, in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, Vice Admiral Cunningham wrote, “The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to the Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes.”

Whether it was a blunder or whether it was an unavoidable course of action that led to her sinking, there is one thing for certain, a lot of good men died fighting very bravely that day.  Today, the wreck site is a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The honour roll of South Africans lost in action on the MHS Gloucester as follows (MPK means “Missing Presumed Killed”):

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nALLISON, Oswald H, Able Seaman RNVR, 67349 (SANF), killed
NOWLAN, Francis C, Able Seaman RNVR, 67409 (SANF), DOW

ANGEL, Walter J H, Able Seaman, 67351 (SANF), MPK
AUSTIN-SMITH, John R, Ordinary Seaman, 67336 (SANF), MPK
BAGSHAW-SMITH, Philip R, Ordinary Seaman, 67337 (SANF), MPK
BAGSHAWE-SMITH, Sydney Q, Able Seaman, 68454 (SANF), MPK
BARBER, Edgar F, Able Seaman, 67302 (SANF), MPK
BRUCE, John, Able Seaman, 67355 (SANF), MPK
CARTER, Frederick G, Able Seaman, 67345 (SANF), MPK
CHILTON, Ronald H D, Ordinary Seaman, 67335 (SANF), MPK
EDWARDS, Ronald E, Ordinary Seaman, 67384 (SANF), MPK
ELLIOT, Edward R, Leading Seaman, 66584 (SANF), MPK
GERAGHTY, Herbert C, Able Seaman, 67338 (SANF), MPK
GROGAN, Graham B, Able Seaman, 67343 (SANF), MPK
JAMES, Victor F, Ordinary Seaman, 67303 (SANF), MPK
JENSEN, Niels P, Able Seaman, 67347 (SANF), MPK
MCCARTHY, Henry F, Ordinary Seaman, 67223 (SANF), MPK
MOORE, Albert, Able Seaman, 67416 (SANF), MPK
SLATER, Bryan M, Able Seaman, 67358 (SANF), MPK
SMITH, Matthew S, Able Seaman, 67359 (SANF), MPK
SONDERUP, Arthur W, Able Seaman, 67356 (SANF), MPK
STADLANDER, Rowland C, Stoker 1c, 67400 (SANF), MPK
STOKOE, Cyril A M, Act/Leading Seaman, 67264 V (SANF), MPK
SYMONS, Maurice M, Able Seaman, 68245 (SANF), MPK
THOMPSON, Walter E H, Able Seaman, 67360 (SANF), MPK
VAN DYK, Cecil H, Able Seaman, 67404 (SANF), MPK
WEBBER, Reginald, Able Seaman, 67361 (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMS, Dastrey S, Leading Seaman, 67047 (SANF), MPK
WRIGHT, Gerald V, Act/Ordnance Artificer 4, 67375 (SANF), MPK

We will remember them


HMS Gloucester

Researched by Peter Dickens, primary reference Wikipedia


5 thoughts on “A “grievous error”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Gloucester

  1. Seven of these seamen came from East London and are commemorated on the War Memorial that used to be kept in the Port Rex Naval Base. Following its closure the Memorial was moved to the Drill Hall of the Buffalo Volunteer Rifles. Third name in the list should read W J H Angel, educated Queens College. Lest We Forget


    • The last survivor of HMS Gloucester is Melvin Baker who is 99 years old . He lives in South Africa. He is planning to attend the annual HMS Gloucester commemoration on the Plymouth Hoe this year.


  2. Pingback: The Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss, but it also carries a remarkable tale of survival. | The Observation Post

  3. Pingback: The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated | The Observation Post

  4. Pingback: The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’ | The Observation Post

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