WW II, a British focus




 

 

Memories of Leading Seaman C Walker, P/SSX 17369

 

A SAILOR'S STORY - THE BATTLE OF CRETE

Born Derby, England, 5th June 1918
  • HMS Hereward 1936 Destroyer
  • HMS Exmouth 1938 "
  • HMS Blanche 1938 "
  • HMS Atherstone 1940 "
  • HMS Fiji 1941 Light Cruiser
  • Cape Sable 1941 Q ship

On the 22nd May 1941 HMS Fiji was sunk by enemy aircraft 50 miles south west of Gavdo Island. The Fiji, along with HMS Gloucester, HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston, had been sent to assist HMS Greyhound which was under air attack. By the time this group arrived, however, the Greyhound had sunk. Whilst rescuing survivors the Gloucester was bombed and brought to a halt, her upper deck a shambles and fiercely ablaze. The Captain of the Fiji reluctantly withdrew, leaving behind boats and rafts.

For the next three and a half hours, as the Fiji withdrew to the west, she was relentlessly attacked from the air until finally having exhausted all her live ammunition and surviving twenty bombing attacks, was hit close to the portside amidships. The ship took up a heavy list but was able to steam at 17 knots until half an hour later she was hit again by three bombs above the 'A' boiler room. The list increased and at 2015 hours she rolled right over.

My father, Leading Seaman C Walker, was an ASDIC operator on the Fiji. The ASDIC cabin was located well below decks. In the very early stages of the bombing attacks, explosions from near misses rendered their instrumentation useless. The operators (usually 2 or 3) received permission to abandon the cabin and move to their No. 2 battle stations which in my father's case was a first aid party, located aft of the bridge. After leaving the ASDIC cabin they had to close and lock a number of water tight doors behind them. They had closed and locked one door when they were alerted to an urgent banging on the other side. They opened the door again to find one very frightened stoker who had been sent down to assess and report on any damage. The ASDIC crew had not been aware of this. The stoker used a heavy Davis lamp to bang on the door to attract attention.

At his second battle station he witnessed the sight of HMS Gloucester badly damaged and on fire. After leaving the Gloucester, the Fiji headed west. She eventually ran out of live ammunition and resorted to firing flares, star shells etc in token resistance. As soon as the attacking pilots realised this they flew low targeting the anti-aircraft crew with cannon and machine gune fire. The first aid party then had to dash out from behind cover hoping to avoid schrapnel and bullets, place any wounded gunner on a stretcher and take him to the sick bay. My father remained at this task until the ship lost way and there was nothing else he could do.

When the order came to abandon ship (shouted from the bridge) he made his way aft with the Fiji on an ever increasing list. He recalls encouraging a 'Roy' (Royal Marine) to leave the vessel. When the last of the bombs hit the ship above the 'A' boiler room, he was holding on tightly to part of the deck machinery (a winch). The shock waves from their explosions blew him into the sea singeing his eyebrows and with such force, ripping parts of his uniform off him. The sea was relatively calm, fortunately there was little ship's fuel in the water and it was twilight. He swam to a floating net (buoyed by cork) and hung on. Because the ship had earlier jettisoned its life rafts and boats for the Gloucester, the crew of the Fiji had resorted to throwing objects over the side. Anything that would float like wooden gangways, scaling nets, lifebuoys etc. Those in the sea now clung to whatever they could. Meanwhile the threat from air attack had not stopped.

Aircraft continued to strafe the stricken vessel and survivors in the water. Eventually the ship rolled right over and remained in that position for some time. With barely enough daylight left and with aircraft gone (to refuel and re-arm at their bases) HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston returned to pick up survivors. My father was rescued by HMS Kandahar. The ship did not stop in the water but made its way slowly alongside groups of survivors. The crew threw ropes over the side and hauled men aboard. Each survivor was given a mug of naval rum and sent below. My father says he has no recollection of the return to Alexandria. He slept from total exhaustion but did learn later that the Kandahar had been attacked on several occasions on its return to Alexandria. He, along with others, was repatriated to England, in convoy, on the Empress of Australia.

My father agreed to share his story in remembrance of all ship's personnel lost on that day. He would be pleased to hear from any surviving crew of the Fiji or their descendants via this email contact.

Lest We Forget

HMS Gloucester sunk Thursday 22nd May 1941 with the loss of 736 crew
HMS Fiji sunk Thursday 22nd May 1941 with the loss of 241 crew

They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them
Lest we forget.

God bless the Royal Navy.

Brian Walker, Adelaide, South Australia

(My father asked that all who read his story take into account that he is nearly 82 years of age and the events he has recalled are as accurate as his memory allows)