HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall were travelling as fast as they could to join with Admiral Somerville’s fleet to not only add to its firepower for a possible engagement with Nagumo’s fleet, but also to escape aerial attack in port. In the evening of the 4th April orders were sent ashore for the crews to return to ship and news leaked out that they would be joining Somerville and departing as soon as possible. At 10:00 p.m. the two heavy cruisers left port in line astern and set course for the rendezvous point.
Although both vessels were running at high alert since leaving port the sighting of two separate reconnaissance aircraft confirmed that they were in for trouble and action stations were maintained. Harold Farmer, one of the engineering crew aboard the Cornwall came off watch to find the Mess empty and a note telling him to help himself to the leftovers. Following lunch hr reported for action stations on deck where a sympathetic Chief Petty Officer gave him leave to get some sleep. “Get your head down and if there’s any sign of action I’ll wake you up.” (1) It was an offer that was quickly taken. It was the opinion of the engineering crew that being at Action Stations on the deck was preferable to being trapped below which was were Lieutenant Drew was heading for his duty shift in the After-Engine Room. The atmosphere was tense, and he could see on the men’s faces that they were concerned, and he did his best to relax them despite the claustrophobic heated conditions.
Unknown to the British sailors below Commander Egosa was signalling Nagumo’s flagship “Sighted enemy vessels.”
“Air Group, 1st CarDiv take the first ship; Air Group 2nd CarDiv take the Second Ship” (2)
|Aichi "Val" divebomber|
In the After-Engine Room Edwin Drew was suddenly made aware of the action when they heard a loud explosion and the Cornwall shuddered. Within moments dust billowed out of the supply ventilation ducts covering the artificers and main throttles followed by more explosions and shuddering before they lost steam and the room was plunged into impenetrable darkness.
There was pitch darkness. That was immediately followed by a bomb exploding at the after end of the Engine room with dense smoke and flames visible above me against the deck head. I shouted to the lads to get out. We could not see each other but everyone knew where the sole exit ladder from the Engine Room was situated. (5)
I was in sock and in a poor state; in fact I was all in. The action was still on. We were still being bombed, but there was now no return fire. We really were sitting ducks. (6)
Aboard the Dorsetshire Patrick Cannon had been ordered to leave his position as the main armament was useless and assist with the pompom guns. There was a raging fire below from a direct hit to the small arms magazine, the ship’s Supermarine Walrus and her aviation fuel. Despite having a thick nest of aerial wire fall on him, Cannon made it to the fore pompoms, but he was too late to be of any assistance. “I was speechless… the gun and the men were just like in a ball as if a giant had got hold of them and screwed them up.” (7) They were just distorted.” Petty Officer Crossky, who had gone to the other side found pieces of his men scattered through he ship’s rigging. Cannon reported to one of the surviving gunners saying he was there to assist, the seaman turned to face him with a look of futility whilst gesturing to the remains of the gun. “With what?”
Through the chaos someone shouted “Oerlikon” and Cannon began to make his way to the fore Oerlikon cannon. The pedestal mounted gun was one of a pair which had been recently fitted aboard to augment the older guns. Patrick Cannon opined that; “The Ack-Ack armament on the cruisers was totally inadequate. It had never kept pace with the development of naval aircraft from way back in the 20s and 30s.” (8)
As he ran forward someone shouted his name and Cannon saw a wounded sailor on the deck, he paused and through the maelstrom called “Is that you Murtagh?”
Able Seaman Thomas Murtagh had served with him as a boy on HMS Ganges and had been a prize winning boxer but was now just a limbless mass of blood on the deck calling out to his friend; “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”
Unable to move him due to his extensive injuries all Cannon could do is reassure and get to his post. Other wounded littered the decks intermingled with dead bodies including one of the ship’s doctors who had nearly been cut in two by machine gun fire. As the ship’s tilt became more pronounced the bodies began to roll with a river of blood flowing with them. The Japanese bombers kept coming down and Cannon found himself skidding under X turret waiting for the aircraft to pass. Once they were gone he clambered up to the quarterdeck and ran to the gunner who was blazing at the sky.
“Where’s your loader?” he shouted above the sounds of battle and the banging of trapped men below deck. The gunner indicated a body on the deck that was rolling with the tilt. Cannon grabbed the Oerlikon magazine and started attaching them to the gun and asked the gunner if he had had any luck and hit anything.
“Not a thing.” was the response as he continued to blaze away at the bombers which were so low that Cannon could see the bombs unclipping from their bellies.
The Dorsetshire’s plotting officer, Lieutenant Commander Rupert East was aware the guns were firing but not of the damage the ship when the meteorological rating rushed in “Excuse me sir, the ship is sinking.” (9) East grabbed a second life jacket that happened to be lying around the plotting office and climbed to the starboard side against the tilt. As he prepared to jump in a rating without a life jacked appeared on the deck above him and asked if he could take East’s spare life jacket. Realising for the first time that he had two he threw it up before diving head first into the Indian Ocean. Years later he received a letter from Signalman Boardman thanking him for saving his life that day.
As orders were passed to “Abandon Ship” Patrick Cannon quickly unclipped the Oerlikon gunner who had the honour of being the last man firing at the Japanese and both jumped over the side. In the water they watched as the ship eased ahead slowly and started slipping beneath the waves. All around the Dorsetshire sailors were trying to find anything that floated that they could cling to and Cannon was no exception having left his life jacket hanging up in the Aft detector room. The mast snapped and fell into the water providing many with a life line and Cannon and his gunner found a chunk of wood to cling to as well. Together they made a pact that if they were to get through the sinking and meet again, wherever they were, they would have a night on the town. Slowly they began to make their way towards the main group of survivors. As they did they came across the wounded Petty Officer Crossky. Believing that the man wouldn’t make it through the night Cannon insisted on pulling him up onto their piece of flotsam.
I stayed with him for thirty-three hours. I never got my head out in thirty-three hours. I was covered in oil and eventually I got separated from (the Gunner) ut I stayed with Crossky and we made our way towards the main crowd. (10)
Things were little better over on the Cornwall as the wounded Edwin Drew lay on the deck one of his colleagues, Lieutenant Archibald was suddenly struck by the realisation that he had a £50 note in his cabin. Battling his comrades attempts to restrain him and ignoring pleas to stop the Lieutenant pushed below decks to retrieve his money. As Captain Manwaring approached ordering “Abandon Ship.” Archie reappeared with the note in his pocket.
They helped me up the sloping decks to the starboard side where I was able, with others, to slide down the ship’s side into the water. As I started the slide I remember thinking to myself “if I can only get into the water I’ll be ok.” Little did I know of the future at that moment. (11)
Once in the water though he found himself covered in viscous oil which covered his eyes only allowing him to see if he tilted his head back and look along his cheeks and to add to this he realised that he ha no life belt despite having had one in the Engine room earlier. Despite these setbacks he still was conscious of the dangers of lingering near a sinking cruiser. Despite how hard he swam he wa still caught in the vessel’s pull and a cursory glance revealed the ship’s outer 14-foot starboard propeller was resting with the shaft at the sea level churning and sucking nearby flotsam and survivors towards it with no way to escape. As he drew close to it the Cornwall suddenly lurched to port and lifted the propeller clear of the water allowing Drew to pass under it safely.
Harold Swann had made his way to the Cornwall’s rail and encountered a nineteen-year-old South African Stoker, Lawrence Swann, who refused to leave the ship on account of his inability to swim. His commrades pleaded with him to come them and they would take care of him in the water between them but he refused. “Ofcourse the ship went down in ten minutes so he had absolutely no chance. He was one of the many who went with the ship.” (12)
The Cornwall had entered its’ death throes and Drew had a vivid memory of the death of his ship for years to come:
I remember watching the ship moving away from me. I saw the Walrus float off the catapult but it was then sunk by the ship’s wireless aerials coming down across the wings as she went on her side. The seaman in the lookout barrel at the top of the foremast had to remain there until he was able to jump into the sea from a height of eight feet as the ship listed over to port… I was about half a mile astern of the ship when shortly afterwards she went down by the head and her stern came right out of the water and she sank in a vertical position and about half her length stood out of the water as she went straight down into the Indian Ocean… It is hard to believe but I heard a faint cheer. (13)
|HMS Cornwall sinking taken from one of the attacking aircraft.|
I looked up and the Japanese planes had mustered in line and they dived over us and they machine gunned is in the water and I heard all of the plop-plop-plop and then I put my head as deep as I could – one or two who had life belts tried to do it and found they couldn’t and they reported later their backsides were up in the air like ducks! They were only too happy to find their backsides hadn’t been blown off! I remember seeing the bullets hitting the water not far from me. (14)
Another sailor recalled hearing a Japanese gunner firing his gun to sound like a “V” for Victory in Morse code as an insult to the British.
Edwin Drew had managed to find a mess deck table top which was three by ten foot and clung to it whilst surrounded by dead bodies floating on the ocean. As he tried to take stock of his situation the Cornwall’s PT Petty Officer swam past and implored him to swim with him toward the Senior boat, the ship’s motorboat, which was just visible over the rolling waves. Drew agreed but on alighting from his flotsam he trod upon a large fish which was passing below the surface and the experience distressed him so much that he returned to the safety of his table top. After he had calmed down and thought about his surroundings the thought of being alone in the dark surrounded by corpses made him revaluate his choice.
So I summoned up courage and eventually reached the motorboat just as darkness fell. I reported to Commander Fair who was in the motorboat and he put me in charge of one of the Carley floats which was all roped together around the motorboat. There were already over twenty ratings standing in my float which meant that the buoyant “sausage” from which the wooden centre is suspended was two feet below water level so it looked as if we were standing with the water at waist level! (15)
In the case of both ships In the case of both ships the boats were reserved for the wounded and as a makeshift surgery with the surviving ship’s medics doing all that they could for the worse cases with meagre supplies they had. If a wounded man succumbed to his wounds his body was lowered over the side and his place taken by somebody else. The Dorsetshire’s First Officer, Commander Cyril Byas, although wounded, refused to take a space in the boats insisting that others be treated before him. Finally a group of ratings around him physically pushed him into a boat and a cheer went around that “Commander Byas is alive”. Stoker Francis Anstis recorded that Commander Byas “was our commander who virtually ran the ship and dished out punishment. He wasn’t too well liked and considered a bit too strict and a little unfair sometimes, but he was a good Commander and had control.” (16) By contrast, her Captain, Augustus “Gus” Agar VC was a very well thought of gentleman, a hero of the First World War but now seen by some in a paler light as he was sat in the ship’s whaler at the tiller.
Captain Agar who was sat in the stern of the whaler. Somebody said that he was coordinating and rallying the men. That wasn’t so. Everyone in that water was a survivor and were doing their own thing. Men were surviving on their own merits and not accepting orders from anybody. When you are clinging to a piece of flotsam in the middle of the Indian Ocean and you’ve been there twenty odd hours you are not looking for guidance from somebody sat in a boat. You’re hanging on like grim death. (17)
This observation by Patrick Cannon may habe been understandable due to the nature of the situation but somewhat unfair as Captain Agar was suffering from the effects of the Bends which he had contracted during the sinking. The fifty two year old had been caught in the Dorsetshire’s suction and been pulled deep below the water and despite a shrapnel wound to his leg he managed to swim for the surface where he gulped down quite a bit of water and oil. He was in no state to be in the water.
As can be expected by a lot of blood and dead bodies in the water sharks and other marine predators began to circle the shipwrecked men. The men did all they could to defend themselves which was to keep a sharp lookout and on spotting a fin the men would thrash vigorously and shout seemingly scaring the shark off. But this was only ever a temporary fix and the men were worried that they would suffer a similar fate to that of the shipwrecked crew of HMS Dunedin. The crystal clear water of the Indian Ocean gave a fantastic view of the schools of sharks massing beneath them.
A school of sharks went right underneath us, you could see them, they were well down in the water, but you could see the whole family. The thing that struck me was they were in V formation, but the blunt end was first…They were always there but you never thought of them too much unless they got too close. There were a lot of fish in the water. (18)
Another way to avoid shark attack was the pushing of dead bodies out of the group in the middle and out to the periphery believing that the sharks would more than likely take them first before the living.
As the day dragged on the men had to fight off exposure, fatigue and their own wounds. Rupert East was somewhat philosophical about his thirty hours in the water commenting that “There is nothing you can do about it. If you’re in the water, nice warm water, and you are floating and not hurt there’s not very much you can do about it. You just continue floating.” (19). For the wounded the wait was unbearable and many succumbed to the shock or fatigue though Edwin Drew found the water very soothing on his burns. As clothes grew water logged and jettisoned other pieces of clothing were fashioned into head gear to keep off the sun’s heat. Much to Drew’s amusement and Lieutenant Archibald’s life long dismay the latter shed his trousers and condemned them to the deep before realising too late that the £50 note was still in the pocket.
Fear of being picked up by the Japanese fleet, taken by sharks or that they would die out here was a constant despite the singing, talking and swimming competitions. It was believed that Somerville would not risk the rest of the fleet looking for them and that the ships had gone down so fast that no accurate position had been reported. As night fell and the temperature dropped several men began cheering believing a star on the horizon was an approaching ship and the delusion spread through the men bobbing in the ocean and there was a rolling cheer until the Officers quietened them down and pointed out the truth. This was not the worst delusion though and men suffering from stress, exhaustion, hunger and exposure began imagining things with fatal consequences.
I heard a boy called Jones (Able Seaman William Jones), I never could understand why he was screaming but he kept shouting “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.” Now we didn’t have any conflict with the Russians and for a boy seaman to shout about Russians was most unusual and he kept shouting. Then he died. (20)
Harold Farmer witnessed another incident;
This chap went a bit silly. He was in one of the rafts and so quite safe but he decided he was going to get a taxi and dived into the water. As he dived in we saw this shark come along and he never surfaced again so we imagine he was picked up by the shark. (21)
As men died due to their injuries, such as Engineer Lieutenant Mike Edgar of the Cornwall, the survivors often found themselves talking to the bodies of their former comrades with Patrick Cannon later recalling that he was talking for a while to a corpse and that a precaution they began taking was to ask a question at the start to see if they got a response. During the night Crossky, who was still laying on the flotsam, turned to Cannon and whispered that a man was trying to push him off and handed his pocket knife to Cannon and asked him to stop the man. Cannon said that should it happen again that Crossky should give him a nudge and he would deal with it. A short time later Crossky nudged him and Cannon shouted “Get off or I’ll cut your throat.” The drowning man pleaded that he too was from Torquay like Cannon and that he should help him but Cannon was firm in the defence of his wounded comrade. “I never saw him again. I’m presuming he drowned but that’s just hard luck.” (22)
As the second day in the open ocean unfolded the meagre rations available were issued to the men. For the Dorsetshire’s crew they had to swim up to the whaler where they were issued a piece of hard tack biscuit the size of a postage stamp and allowed to dip their tongues into a tin mug so that they could moisten their lips. The Chief Petty Officer was holding the tiller threatening to wallop anyone who took a sip or if there was a danger of the boat being swamped by over enthusiastic crewmen. By contrast the Cornwall crew were eating tinned fruit. One of the ship’s doctors had petitioned the Admiralty to change the supplies in the lifeboats from the standard. The tins were punctured and passed amongst the men to take a mouthful of juice each. The tins were later opened and the fruit shared out.
Tue first sign of salvation came as a Fairey Swordfish flew over them and rumour was spread that a jam jar was dropped with a message saying the fleet was searching for them. Word spread quickly and the men grew jubilant though the eventual sight of approaching ships concerned them at first as they feared the Japanese had found them until they saw the white ensign fluttering above HMS Enterprise and her attending destroyers HMS Paladin and HMS Panther. Somerville had received a garbled wireless transmission the previous day that talked about having a “shadower” and it wasn’t until 2 p.m. that they were able to identify the sender as the Dorsetshire but by then it was too late. The admiral had attempted to move towards the last known position of the two cruisers with one of his destroyers ahead of him to begin the relief effort but they had to abandon the hunt because of the proximity of the Japanese fleet. As it was he had ordered the Enterprise that they had a limited time to find the survivors and not to be separated from the main fleet for too long lest they join the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire and the Enterprise’s Captain had already gone past the deadline when they spotted the men in the water. As the rescuers arrived they were ordered to stay where they were in the water and the Cruiser and destroyers would come to them and lower lifeboats but for the men in the water salvation was too tempting and several began to swim towards the ships though they found that their legs ached from fatigue and despite the mind’s willingness to get to safety quickly their bodies refused to budge. As the Paladin approached the Dorsetshire’s survivors the crew began throwing over chunks of wood for them to hang onto as well as lowering scrambling nets for the men. As the ship went by, a South African seaman, Jeffrey Berlyn, reached out and grabbed Patrick Cannon by the hair and dragged him through the water and eventually onto the scrambling net.
Once the operation was complete and the crewmen were pulled aboard their rescuers they were stripped of their oily clothes and washed off before being given what spare clothes were aboard and room to sleep and food to eat whilst wounded men were taken care of. Of the two ships a total of 1122 of 1546 men were rescued from the sea and sharks despite the Paladin having to bury twelve men who died that first night but their deaths were kept a secret from the rest of the survivors to save them from upset.
Somerville, though elated that so many of his men had survived being in the ocean for so long, was also sceptical of his chances of military success in the theatre believing that whomever was in charge would be unable to do any better. He wrote to his wife saying that “I’ve come to the conclusion that until I get a proper fleet out here I will simply have to hide, more or less.” (23)