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HMS Cairo was launched in 1918, she was built by the Cammell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead, U.K. In 1938/9 she was converted to Anti-Aircraft cruiser at Chatham dockyard in 1938-1939. She saw active service during World War Two, being damaged by German aircraft off Narvik, Norway, on the 28th of May 1940 and as part of the Malta convoys.
HMS Cairo was sunk by a torpedo from the Italian submarine "Axum" on the 12th of August 1942, whilst escorting the Pedestal convoy, in the Mediterranean, north of Bizerta, Tunisia.
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List of those who served on HMS Cairo during The Second World War
- Ldg Stoker Stephen Charles Comben (d.12th Aug 1942)
- P.O. Charles Arthur Dabbs Read his Story.
- PO. Charles Dabbs Read his Story.
- Marine Laurence George Durnford (d.12th Aug 1942)
- Lt Wiliam Bashford Ettie Read his Story.
- Able Seaman. Frank Henry Gillson (d.28th May 1940)
- Marine Francis William Holcombe Read his Story.
- Signal Boy Albert Leonard Hunt (d.31th May 1940)
- Ldg Stoker F. B. Lamb (d.12th Aug 1942)
- Signal Boy Richard J. Paffett Read his Story.
- Able Seaman. John William Preston (d.28th May 1940)
- George Frederick Reece Read his Story.
- Engine Room Artificer. Don Short Read his Story.
- Petty Offcr. H. G. Woolley
George Frederick Reece HMS Cairo
I have recently found out that my grandfather was leading signalman on HMS Cairo during the Second World War. His name was George Frederick Reece, he survived the war and died in 1964.
Engine Room Artificer. Don Short HMS Cairo
Then came, after four years of being in the navy without a uniform, the great day when I had to report to R.N. Barracks to be kitted out, but what was even better I could now wear my No 1 suit which was bought for the big day. Before being sent to a ship it was felt that we should spend about six weeks in "square bashing", using a rifle, swimming test in full kit, and even boxing which I hated, the only bout that I won was when my opponent was disqualified for a low blow. I suppose, looking back that it was inexperience and lack of imagination that caused one to want to go to sea at such a time, but there was no turning back now, I was drafted to H.M.S. Cairo, originally a 5 inch gun cruiser but converted in 1938 in to a 4 inch anti-aircraft cruiser, primarily to be employed in the middle of convoys to protect them against air attacks.
Together with an old classmate I set out from Portsmouth Station complete with kitbag, hammock and suitcase to join my first ship H.M.S. Cairo at Devonport. It was then I discovered that being an E.R.A., (Engine Room Artificer) was a bit different from being in one of the other branches, I was very junior, still under training in fact, but on arriving on board I was met by the Chief and taken to the "E.R.A's Mess". In any of the other branches the living quarters depended upon ones rate but with E.R.A's we all lived together and made for a very close community, on Cairo an especially friendly one.
The early days under training were spent mainly in the boiler rooms, tracking systems, following pipelines, crawling in the bilges and even one day, for a change, I was allowed to refit the siren on the funnel. Whilst this was going on we were steaming in and out of Belfast doing convoy runs down the Irish sea calling into Bangor in Wales and on one occasion we were sent out into the Atlantic to escort the "Queen Mary" back to Liverpool, we met her but she had no intention of waiting for us, we turned but she soon left us far behind. Then came the big one, we called into Greenock and picked up members of a Russian Trade Delegation to take them home to Murmansk. What could have been a perilous task turned out to be a comparatively uneventful journey, we did see what we thought was enemy spotting planes a couple of times but the worst problem was the cold and the ice forming on the upper deck, it was nice and warm in the boiler room. We went alongside the jetty in Murmansk, we did have Russian armed guards at the bottom of the gangway but we were allowed ashore and that was certainly something different. The rate of exchange was such that it was not worthwhile changing pounds into kopek, the best currency was packets of cigarettes and bars of "nutty" (chocolate). Not that there was much to buy, in fact the shops did not have shop windows, it was a question of trying the doors but it was all a wonderful experience.
The journey back to Greenock was again uneventful, we took on fuel, stored ship and we were soon on our way to the Mediterranean. During my first few months aboard Cairo we had been operating as a single unit on specific projects now it was different, we had joined up with the big boys. The first few tasks consisted of acting as anti-aircraft protection and as escort to aircraft carriers ferrying aircraft to Malta, our job finished as soon as the aircraft were in fuel range. We used to call these "club runs", the carriers doing the runs were the "Eagle" and the big American carrier the "Wasp".
In mid-June 1942 came the, what has become known as the forgotten operation, "Harpoon". With Cairo's Captain Hardy in command we left Gibraltar with an escort of seven destroyers and in the convoy six merchant ships, and very soon came the first of the air attacks. Then on the horizon were sighted two cruisers, at first we thought it was back up for our small force but as splashes appeared in the water around us and the sound of gunfire we soon realised that they were enemy cruisers and that we were under fire. Cairo received a hit from a 6" shell on the forward super-structure, luckily with little damage. The destroyers carried out torpedo attacks and one of the enemy cruisers was hit amidships, but two of our destroyers were hit by 6" shells and were stopped and eventually sunk. The Italian cruisers kept up the attack on the convoy and Cairo was again hit but by good fortune survived. The 6" shell ruptured the double bottom and penetrated the oil fuel tank ending up in the engine room but failed to explode. The Italian cruisers then rather surprisingly withdrew, especially as our heavy armament was 4" guns firing RDF and anti-aircraft shells, it appeared that the Italian admiral was under orders not to engage superior forces and he had mistakenly believed that the convoy was protected by two cruisers. From then on we came under continuous air attacks during which time we lost four of the merchantmen and it was a matter of concentrating on getting the two remaining through to Malta. Darkness fell with a feeling of relief as we neared our destination, a daylight arrival had been planned but when we arrived it was dark and so started the series of catastrophes which resulted in five ships falling victims to mines, one being sunk and four damaged. After days of fighting our way to Malta it was tragic that there was to be further loss of life through what was believed to be an error in one of the swept channel positions given in a signal to all ships from the office of Vice Admiral Malta.
It was nice to be in Malta but certainly not safe to stay too long, and after patching up the damage we were soon on our way back to Gibraltar and relatively more peaceful surroundings. It was not to last, when a number of ships began to assemble it became obvious that something big was about to happen, we were to become part of Force X, altogether comprising four cruisers, twelve destroyers and an ocean going tug and our task was to act as close escort to a convoy all the way through to Malta. The task was officially named "Operation Pedestal" and to the Maltese it became known as the "Santa Maria Convoy" because of the bedraggled arrival of the Ohio on the feast day of Santa Maria.
We left Gibraltar accompanied by an outer escort of two battleships, four aircraft carriers, three cruisers and twelve destroyers, this was Force Z. There was also Force R consisting of two tankers to replenish the warships escorted by four corvettes and another ocean going tug. Following further back was an aircraft carrier, which was to fly Spitfires off to Malta and escorted by eight destroyers. As wards of this strong escort there was the thirteen merchantmen and the tanker "Ohio" which was American but was captained and manned by a British crew.
We had left on Sunday the tenth of August, there had been spasmodic air attacks directed mainly against the aircraft carriers and on the Monday (what a way to spend one's birthday) during one particularly heavy attack a submarine penetrated the destroyer screen and torpedoed the aircraft carrier, she listed and sank quickly.
Tuesday, a beautiful day weatherwise, was a day of constant action, air attacks again directed mainly against the carriers and two more were badly damaged. Late in the afternoon we were shocked to see the battle-ships and the other ships of the outer escort turn around and steam away from us heading back towards Gibraltar.
We were now steaming through the Straits of Pentellaria, the most dangerous area for the convoy and it was here at dusk when the next heavy attack was launched, the enemy no doubt encouraged by the weaker escort and the absence of fighter cover. The first attack was by a pack of submarines, the cruiser " Nigeria" steaming alongside us was hit and slewed away listing badly, the tanker "Ohio" was hit but kept going and then it was our turn.
I was at my action station at midships damage control where I had spent many hours, in overalls waiting to take over my watch below in the after engine room when the torpedo hit us. I remember the ship shuddering and the lights going out, and the feeling of "at last", one seemed to be waiting, there was an air of almost inevitability. The stern had been blown off, we were listing but didn't seem sure of which way to go, there was nothing that could be done to save her, and yet as we made our way up to the upper deck, we had been ordered to abandon ship, tinged with relief that we were still alive, was the sadness of leaving what had been a happy home.
We gathered along the upper deck, lined along the guardrails, not wanting to jump but knowing that we would have to, when hardly able to believe our luck we saw a destroyer bearing down on us with the obvious intention of trying to steam alongside. We realised that there was no way they were going to stop so it was a question of waiting for the right moment then jumping for it. We had been lucky again and will be forever grateful to the captain of the destroyer "Wilton" who saw our predicament and even in the midst of the confusion, remained calm, and steered his ship three or four feet away maintaining a straight course parallel to our side.
The "Wilton" was carrying so many survivors, more than the number of her own crew, that she was withdrawn from her escort duty and ordered to return to Gibraltar. There wasn't any room to go below, not that one wanted to really, the weather was warm, they found enough food to feed us, there was a "tot" all round, it seemed that the enemy was only interested in the convoy, so it was time to sunbathe.
Back in Gibraltar, usually the place to buy the presents to take home, not this time - dressed in rather soiled overalls and boiler room boots and of course no money were soon on our way to joining H.M.S. Rodney and taking passage back to the U.K. The weather was fine but there was a heavy swell and in a mess which was right forward the movement of the ship was like a figure eight and for the only time during the whole time I was in the navy, I was seasick. Soon we were in sight of land but it was not going to be a quick call into Plymouth or Portsmouth, it was to be the long trek up to Rosyth. Whilst I was aboard Rodney I was given a duffle coat so at least on the train journey back to Pompey it wasn't cold and the train ended up right in the naval barracks itself, and it was a wonderful surprise to see my father there to meet me. So it was home again, meeting up with family and old friends and what stories to tell, it had only been about nine months, but we had survived an epic run to Murmansk, convoys in the Irish Sea, escorted a Queen across the Atlantic, escorted the carriers flying fighters off to Malta, met up with the Italian Navy when we tried to get six merchantmen through to Malta and then being part of the last and biggest convoy of the war.
Didn't spend much time in barracks, being kitted up again, such as it was, serge suits and boots, but we did get paid and soon we were off on "survivor's leave". That happy state of affairs was not to last long, I was recalled, told to be prepared to join the cruiser "Penelope" and it was a frantic few days arranging to get married before it was back to the old routine on a new ship.
Joined H.M.S. Penelope in Portsmouth and after a week or so steaming off Portland and where, incidentally was issued with cold weather clothing, so we had a fair idea that we would be going somewhere warm and we were right, we were soon to be back in Gibraltar and operating in the Med. It was the start of a new year, January 1943, and we became part of the 12th Cruiser Squadron based at Bone in North Africa, the squadron had been formed to act as a striking force to harass enemy convoys ferrying troops across to take part in the North African campaign.
By the 12th of May the whole of North Africa was in Allied hands, the war in the desert was over and that was the start of the partnership that was to be so successful between the "Penelope and Aurora". The captain of Aurora, Captain Agnew was promoted to Commodore and took over in command of the 12th Cruiser Squadron. We could leave Bone now from where we had operated and operate from Malta, a much better run ashore although there was not to be many of them. The other cruisers that made up the squadron were Dido, more about Dido later, Sirius, Cleopatra, and Euryalus with Orion and Newfoundland joining us in the overall task of capturing Sicily. But first we needed to occupy the small islands of Pantellaria and Lampedusa and in early June we were bombarding targets on Pantellaria. When steaming within six thousand yards from the shore we were hit by a shell in the forward superstructure but luckily the shell did not explode and there were no casualties.
On the 9th of June, with Orion, Euryalus and Newfoundland, and a number of destroyers we made one of the final bombardments before the landing due to take place the next day, this went on until noon when Flying Fortresses thundered over to add their contribution to the softening up process. It was then a quick return to Malta to top up with fuel and ammunition before resuming patrol the next day. Following a morning of bombardment and bombing the landing craft filled with troops zigzagged their way to the beaches. Then, early afternoon, it was reported that the signal tower was flying the white flag, the war was over for the eleven thousand troops, mostly Italian, who were found on the Island.
After another quick dash to Malta it was back the following day to carry out a night bombardment and after more heavy raids by Allied bombers the white flag was again to be seen, hoisted after only twenty four hours. On this occasion we had a BBC reporter on board and he reported on local radio that evening that Lampedusa had surrendered to HMS Penelope whose ship's company, keeping themselves fit had broken off doing their knee bending exercises to the tune of "Daisy Bell" to accept the surrender. It was not entirely unexpected that we would hear from the crews of other ships that had taken part but we did not expect to see the crew of Newfoundland, when fell in to enter harbour that evening, suddenly start to do knee bending exercises and singing Daisy. As we always felt that when we were bombarding in company with Newfoundland she was always further out to sea than we were it was no surprise that ashore in Malta that evening there were more casualties between the two ship's companies than there had been on Lampedusa.
Whilst in Malta the Aurora had been sent to Algiers to pick up King George VI and bring him back to visit Malta. As she steamed into Grand Harbour on that sunny Sunday morning of 20th June, it was a memorable scene with the Royal Standard flying at the masthead and the King standing on a platform that had been erected in front of the bridge. I had a particularly good view as my duty was to man the motorboat and cruise around the harbour in case we were needed, and of course the full white uniform was given an airing. It seemed that the whole Maltese population had lined themselves around the Grand Harbour cheering wildly and as the King landed the church bells rang out. There was one notable exception, the old lady who used to wave bed sheets to the ships passing, was missing, her waterfront bar was a heap of rubble.
The next job on the agenda was to be "Operation Husky", the landings on Sicily, programmed for 10th July. At the beginning we were part of Force H, which was led by the battleship Nelson, our aim to protect the landing forces in the event of the Italian fleet putting to sea but before the landings took place we were detached together with Aurora to carry out tip and run raids on Catania and Taormina. These raids were very effective, we lit up the area with star shells and followed with boardsides, the Italian search lights would criss cross in the sky followed by ant-aircraft fire, they did not seem to realise that the attack was coming from the sea. During these operations we did eventually come under air attack from the Italian bombers and on one occasion we were very lucky as a string of bombs fell between the two ships.
Then on the 20th the two ships again together with six destroyers were off on another 250 mile trip to make a night attack on the port of Crotone, in the Gulf of Taranto. After over a thousand shells were fired it was reported that the harbour area and the chemical works were well alight we turned and headed back to Malta without meeting any opposition. It is strange that we all felt a lot better and safer when we were with Aurora with Commodore Agnew making the decisions than when we were left with our own captain.
The only escape route for the enemy troops on Sicily was across the Straights of Messina and it was here that we patrolled to strike at shipping and rail traffic using the coastal routes. We did have a diversion by calling in to Augusta for a quick run ashore after its capture. It was incredible that we were able to stroll along the road picking oranges from the overhanging boughs and to call into the local bar for a wine or two, the locals seemed to be quite pleased to see us.
During the time up to the withdrawal of Axis troops from Sicily which was completed by 17th August we bombarded selected targets up and down the Italian coast up into the Bay of Naples, into the Bay of Salerno with a good view of the Isle of Capri and as far back again as the Gulf of Taranto. The next excitement was a dash to Bizerta on the North African coast, together of course with Aurora, to join up with Dido, Sirius, the fast minelayer Adbiel and the US cruiser Boise and to embark nearly five thousand paratroopers and land them at Taranto by 9th September. On that day the Italian warships were due to leave Taranto to surrender in Malta and also the allied armies were due to land at Salerno so it appeared to be a good opportunity to capture the important port of Taranto. We had on board six hundred and forty paratroopers, wearing their familiar red berets, with their commanding officer Brigadier John Hacket.
We left Bizerta late afternoon and were soon doing thirty knots and whilst we were at sea it was announced on the radio that Italy had surrendered. On arrival at Taranto on the 9th we anchored outside the harbour and watched the Italian battleships Caio and Andrea Doria, two cruisers and a destroyer on their way to Malta escorted by the two battleships HMS King George V and HMS Howe.
In the early hours of the following morning, whilst we were all at anchor in the harbour, there came a shattering explosion from Abdiel whilst her paratroopers were being ferried ashore. A brilliant orange flash from the ship lit up the harbour, she had swung with the tide whilst at anchor and struck a mine laid by German E-boats the previous evening, the explosion then detonated mines in the ship and in minutes she was listing badly, broke into two and sank quickly.
Returning to Bizerta many of the wounded were cared for in our sick bay and on arrival were transferred to a hospital ship in the harbour. During this time more of the Italian fleet led by the battleship Conte di Cavour were on their way to Malta to surrender and on the 11th September the signal "Be pleased to inform their Lordships that the Italian Battle Fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress Malta" was made by Admiral Cunningham. A few weeks later he was promoted to First Sea Lord.
From Bizerta we had steamed back to Taranto with more of the "Red Devils" who had been held in reserve and then with Aurora on to Augusta but there was no rest, on the same day we were ordered to steam at high speed to the Gulf of Salerno where troops had landed in the early hours a few days previously but were now in danger of being pushed back into the sea. We joined up with the monitor Roberts and other cruisers and destroyers bombarding set targets, the return fire was spasmodic but it was difficult to manoeuvre freely to avoid bombs where the fighter bombers and JU88s made their raids. With the situation ashore still critical we were joined by the old battleship Warspite whose eight fifteen inch guns had been most successful but was put out of action by a radio controlled guided bomb down her funnel the next day and she was towed back to Malta. The shelling continued and with the help of the Allied bombers the German counter attack was repelled and so began the long push north and the continuing bombardment of targets along the coast. On 26th September, having run out of ammunition we, with Aurora, left the area for Malta, we had been promised a rest period which really meant boiler cleaning, changing gun barrels, making good defects and painting the ship, but who cared? A few bottles of "Blue" and a glass or two of "Ambete" the sailors' favourite Maltese red wine and the cheapest and all was right with the world again.
On the 4th October together again with Aurora we were on our way to the Aegean to join the 12th Cruiser Squadron, British forces had already taken over some of the islands such as Kos and Leros but the big one Rhodes was still in German hands. Our first task was to reinforce Leros, destroyers were to land troops and supplies at night, with two cruisers operating as anti-aircraft support, then the squadron, still under cover of darkness would make a hasty retreat to Alexandria mainly because we had little or no aircraft cover. We were in trouble from the beginning before the first patrol had started. Aurora from Malta and Dido from Alexandria were to rendezvous and proceed together with destroyers on the first patrol, but not only did they rendezvous, they collided and as Dido bounced off she left half her anchor embedded in Aurora's bow. So we, separated from our 'chummy ship', and at the mercy of our own Captain's decisions joined with Sirius and set off as replacements on the first patrol, steaming at full speed to intercept a convoy of German troops on their way to recapture Leros. This part of the exercise was very successful, we sank an armed anti-submarine trawler, blew up a German freighter carrying ammunition whilst the destroyers rounded up the landing barges, we left leaving hundreds of German troops in the water. The rout had only taken an hour but having waited for the convoy to appear the dawn had come and gone and we were left in broad daylight, with no air cover, at the mercy of the Luftwaffe and they were well and truly ready to pounce. The first attack by Ju88s lasted about an hour and was concentrated on us and at the end of it, when presumably they had to return to base to refuel we had our steering motors out of action and our tiller flat flooded. With steering difficult we were still able to increase speed but the second attack was not long in coming, Ju88s kept coming, diving out of the sun and culminating in a concentrated blitz by diving Stukas. We suffered a direct hit which went through the quarter deck, the wardroom and lower compartments hit the port outer propeller shaft and ended up in a fuel tank but thankfully didn't explode and was followed by two near misses. They were thousand pound bombs and although they didn't hit us they caused much damage and had the damage control parties working overtime. We lost ten killed and fifty six wounded, one wonders if it was worth it, staying on in daylight inviting air attacks and taking such a risk of losing the ship and with the consequent loss of life, maybe it is worth a mention that the captain was awarded the D.S.O. for that decision.
We arrived back in Alexandria early the next day steering by main engines needing, of course, examination by divers to ascertain the full extent of the damage. The Egyptian divers did not spend a lot of time looking, they surfaced and pulled away in their boat, reporting that the bomb must have hit the shaft and gone back up into the tank. It was just as well they were proven to be mistaken, but it was agreed that we required a new shaft fitted and this meant that until one could be transported to Alexandria we were of little use as a fighting unit so we were ordered to make our way as best we could to Haifa where we were to wait until full repair could be undertaken at Alexandria. It was a great relief to be alongside the wall again and in comparative safety and after being in constant action to be able to visit such places as Bethlehem, and those which were just names that one had read about in the Bible, even spending the night in a ramshackle old coach that had broken down crossing the Plain of Armageddon on the way back to Jerusalem.
Too soon it was time to return to Alexandria, into dry dock, and fitting the new shaft together with all the work necessary to bring the ship back to a fighting unit. Whilst we were there the entertainer George Formby was entertaining the troops in Alexandria and he was invited aboard, we were out in the harbour at anchor at the time so he arrived by ships boat, stepping aboard he made his way straight to the wardroom, probably for a few pink gins, anyway he left the ship without contact with the lads and they didn't think much of him and a few of them around the 'spud' locker on the upper deck decided to throw a few of the overripe ones at the boat as it was leaving, of course the culprits disappeared quickly leaving a very angry Captain who promptly cancelled all leave for the whole ship's company, he probably thought that they would be taking a few more 'spuds' along to the NAAFI where he was performing that evening.
Back to sea again, and at this time Mr Churchill had been meeting Mr Roosevelt in Cairo, he had gone on to Bizerta but had expressed the wish to board Penelope and as we all hoped, to take passage home, but it was not to be, he was taken ill with pneumonia and so it was no trip back to U.K. for us. Instead we spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day in a stormy Atlantic, in the Bay of Biscay searching for a German freighter and her destroyer escort, we heard later that she had been sunk by a Liberator bomber. By early January we were back on familiar ground, we were back in Malta, this time to take part in the landings at Anzio. After the early landings, which had been very quiet, with no sign of enemy troops, came the long struggle to maintain a footing in the face of fierce enemy resistance and counter attacks. We spent our time bombarding enemy positions along the coast and when the air raids became so intense we were forced to move out to sea at top speed to have a chance of manoeuvring and dodging the bombs. After almost continuous bombarding, on 17th February we withdrew at dusk and made our way to Naples to replenish with oil and ammunition, we were due our well-earned forty eight hour rest period.
I had kept the first watch, eight o'clock until midnight, it was a great relief going off watch, having a shower, a quick look around on the upper deck, we were alongside the wall and then after weeks of being closed up at action stations with short snatches of sleep, to be able to get into my hammock and within minutes I was in the land of dreams dreaming that I was at home in bed.
Suddenly, what was happening? I was awakened by - was it noise or unusual movement of the ship? Why didn't someone switch on the lights?, it was obviously time to get up, and fast. Overalls, torch, lifebelt were all handy and looking around the mess one could see the same puzzled looks, all hurriedly dressing and because it was the natural thing to do, rush to close up at action stations, but first what was the time? One's action station changed depending on the watch one was on last, I couldn't believe that it was gone 7 o'clock, I had slept solidly for seven hours but it was no dream now. My engine room watch keeping chum and I decided that we should get right aft and we hurried out of the mess which was forehead under the forecastle, through the marine's mess deck and out on to the port waist. We were hurrying aft, still unaware of what was happening and couldn't believe our eyes when we discovered that we were no longer in the comparative safety of Naples Bay but out at sea, in the distance we could see snow capped mountains. Halfway along the waist we met two of our mess mates squelching along, their shoes and overalls oozing oil fuel; they told us that they had come up out of the after engine room as it flooded up and that the after flat was flooding fast, that was where we were making for, they went down the hatch in the cross passage to go to the bathroom. Suddenly there was a huge explosion I fell back against the superstructure, I lost sight of my chum as he disappeared through the cross passage. Then just in front of me I saw a rope dangling from a boat's davit, I clutched at it and hauled myself up to the ship's side, grabbed the guardrail, I remember how it was so difficult to get over it, and slid down the side as it was moving over and upwards. As this was happening I saw the funnel just fall over the side, it seemed in one piece. I suppose I expected to fall straight into the water but somehow I was laying face down in the bilge rail, that contraption built into the ship's side, then, suddenly and so thankfully something or somebody landed in the middle of my back and over I went into the icy sea. As I had been hurrying along the upper deck I had tied my lifebelt on but now it was a question of getting some air into it. I tried hard to get away from the ship but in no time at all the bows seemed to be towering above standing vertical and then it slid slowly out of sight. Then spars, which must have been stored on the upper deck came shooting up out of the water and rose high in the air before crashing back into the sea, with them came large bubbles which burst scattering oil fuel everywhere. Eventually I was thankful for one of the spars, our Chief G.I. who was a strong swimmer pushed one over to me, which I was pleased to hang on to and was able to put some more air into my lifebelt. He swam off I am sure to help any one he could and I was left as far as I could see all lone and for nearly two hours in water which seemed to get colder and colder. I didn't see or speak to anyone, and then it seemed quite literally from out of nowhere there was a landing craft almost alongside me with scrambling nets over the side. The sight could not have been more welcome but getting aboard would have been impossible but for the invaluable help of some of the crew who had jumped in the water themselves to help those like myself. Carried on board we were given blackest, a bunk to rest in and a most welcome tot and for the second time had cause to thank a crew for their thoughtfulness at such a time and to thank God for the umpteenth time for still being alive.
After a check on numbers a signal was sent back to Naples giving details of survivors and injured, when I had been asked and guessing that the survivors would be sent back to Malta I said that I would be fine after a clean up, but when we arrived back in Naples and I tried to stand up they quickly had to find room in an ambulance and I was on my way to hospital, later I was to learn that I had suffered a fractured spine and ankle. I do not remember a lot about my first couple of days in hospital except that they must have cleaned me up, I had been soaked in oil fuel and now I was in a nice clean bed and I do remember being wheeled on a hospital trolley down a long passage with a priest alongside and some nuns chanting. Back in the ward I was encased in plaster, which was to remain with me for many months to come. And of course I remember the Salvation Army lad who gave me pyjamas with odd trousers, the hospital or at least the British part of the hospital didn't seem to have any, the hospital was divided into three - British, Italian and American, of course the American patients could be seen parading around in their new dressing gowns but they did share their cigarettes and "nutty". The Salvation Army did great work out there in places one would least expect to find them and I have never failed to give to the Salvation Army since that time.
Whilst I was in hospital I was interviewed by a naval investigation team, I think I learnt more from them than they did from me, how we had been torpedoed by a U-boat, initially on the stern and whilst lolling around unable to move we had been hit again midships and the ship had gone down in less than a minute. Their questions had been mainly about the Captain, had I seen him in the water? Had I spoken to him? I was not to learn until much later the significance of such questions.
It was after a matter of only a few days that the Germans launched another counter attack and as there was the possibility that they might reach Naples it was decided to evacuate the hospital. Very hurriedly, one night, we were put on stretchers, put into ambulances and taken to the airport to board a Dakota and take passage to Tunis. It was pointed out during the flight that we were flying over Etna, at any other time I suppose it would have been very interesting, but just then we were not very comfortable and all we wanted was to get a bed somewhere a little safer. We soon arrived at a very modern Italian hospital in the middle of Tunis with first class facilities, it was being run by the Americans so we did not want for anything. I was able to take on a very interesting job, to pass the time away, working with a young American doctor sorting out and matching glass eyes and as we were next to the American Broadcasting Station, our requests for records were always met so there was lots of Frank Sinatra played.
All good things must come to an end and after two or three weeks of luxury we were back on stretchers and loaded on to what looked and smelt like cattle trucks to make a long journey to Algiers, eventually to reach the British General Hospital. What a difference it was any army hospital with army discipline even the bed one occupied depended upon one's seniority, I was lucky, being Navy, I was different and being a chief, I occupied bed No 1 but everyone seemed just content to be away from the war. It was not long before a hospital ship the "Amarapoora" arrived to take us back to U.K., sailing with all lights blazing, a few hearts beat a little faster when we were "buzzed" by a German U boat on our way back across the Bay of Biscay but luckily they accepted that we were in fact genuine. Docking in Bristol I was transferred to Barrow-Gurney Hospital which was a general services hospital, quite comfortable, and by this time I was more mobile, I was in a small ward with five others, no television to watch in those days, so it was listening to the radio and playing cards mostly but we were allowed out of the hospital, unfortunately for me it was a bit difficult because I was still encased in plaster, I could only stand up or lie down and as the plaster didn't show I got some funny looks when I continued to stand when there were plenty of seats on the bus to Bristol. The other problem of course, I still didn't have any clothes to wear except the blue hospital trousers and coat and we were not allowed to go into Bristol like that. On one particular occasion I borrowed the uniform of a fellow patient, it didn't seem to matter much that he was a Royal Marine and it was just unfortunate that when in Bristol I should happen to pass a Marine Officer, I saluted him without thinking that the marines did not salute in the same way as the navy. He stopped me and after my explaining he saw the funnyside and we ended up having a pint together. One of the other patients in the ward was a young lad of nineteen, very outgoing and full of self importance, whatever anyone else had done had had done it, wherever anyone else had been he had been there so when we read in the paper that Joe Loss would be appearing with his orchestra at the local theatre in Bristol it was no surprise to hear him say that Joe Loss was a friend of his. That being the case, we said that he ought to go into the theatre and ask Joe Loss to pay us a visit in hospital and maybe bring his band. Off he went in to Bristol and on his return informed us that he had spoken to his old friend and that we were to prepare the hospital for a visit by the band later that week. We thought that this time he had gone a little too far but imagine our surprise when later that week a coach arrived and out stepped Joe Loss and the band, and that was not all, he announced that our young know all had been a vocalist with him before joining the Navy, lots of red faces.
From Barrow Gurney I was sent to a large house in the country in its own grounds, owned by Lord and Lady Rose, which had been taken over as a recuperation hospital, patients to use the house and part of the grounds whilst the owners took over the Lodge. It seemed to work alright, the old boy liked to come into the house to talk with the lads but his wife kept herself very much to herself. Whilst here I was able to take part in games even playing cricket of a sort as much as being in a plaster jacket would allow but came the day for the jacket to be removed. They brought out the sheers and cut the jacket up each side, lifting the top half off, I saw my stomach for the first time in over six months. What I didn't expect was, after being so active, with the top half of the jacket removed I was helpless, unable to move at all, so began the long road to build all the muscles back up, tying the top back on and gradually, day by day, removing it for short periods whilst doing gentle exercises. It was a long business but eventually came the time to join the working Navy again although on seeing the Surgeon Captain before leaving he had given me a certificate to ensure that I would be on light duties and unfit for sea for a further six months. That was to prove very useful, as soon as I returned to barracks and had been kitted up fully I was drafted to a corvette, thankfully that was cancelled but only after a struggle.
It was during this time, home again in Portsmouth with my wife that when we were out one evening, actually in a queue going to the pictures that who should walk by but a young sub-lieutenant, also a survivor from the Penelope so it was cancel the pictures and lots of talking in the nearest pub. It was from him that I learnt why I had been questioned in the way I had at the enquiry in hospital in Naples. It appears that the Captain was seen resting on a spar as the L.S.T. came in sight and swam strongly towards it, although still wearing his thick reefer jacket but after being assisted on board was examined by a crewman who exclaimed "He's dead". This obviously caused a lot of speculation and as far as I know the result of the inquest has never been published.
The Board of Enquiry into the loss of H.M.S. Penelope was held on board M.V. Winchester Castle at Naples on 20th February 1944 some of the findings being that the first explosion occurred at 0700 while the ship was proceeding from Naples to Anzio unescorted at 26 knots, after the second explosion at 0716 the ship listed heavily to starboard and sank in less than a minute. After further detailing of the extent of damage it makes a point:- "It is considered inadvisable that hands should be sent to action stations in an emergency of the type that will not require the ship to go into action. The consequent opening of doors giving access to magazines etc. is as undesirable as placing the men in a position from which escape is very difficult" Penelope's former commanding officer Captain Nicholl, as Director of operations at the Admiralty commented after reading the report on 1st May 1944; 'There seems little doubt that the Ship's Company was closed up at action stations contributed to the heavy number of casualties'.
There are questions which are difficult to answer - Why let a cruiser steam unescorted in such dangerous waters? Why was the order "Abandon Ship" - not given when it was obvious that with the stern hit, no power, and a sitting target a second and maybe a third torpedo was certain? I have gone past asking why but would mention that the Captain was given a "Mentioned in Despatches" for his part in the action at Anzio. I wonder what was mentioned?
I mentioned earlier that I would refer to 'Dido' again, we took her place during the action in the Dodecanese because she had been in a collision and needed to return to harbour, now again when we returned to Naples she had been due to relieve us after her rest spell but on her way to the beach head she collided with a landing craft which necessitated her return to Naples and of course we had to return to Anzio right away. This is why we were alongside the wall when I turned in and miles away at sea, unescorted, when the German U-boat put an end to Penelope.
P.O. Charles Arthur Dabbs HMS Cairo
My father has passed away but served on HMS Cairo and many other ships in WW2, in Malta, North Africa and the Med.
I am in the process of getting his service records. He become Petty Officer but I am unsure whether that was on the Cairo or the other ships he sailed on. If anyone knew my father, please get in touch.
Marine Francis William Holcombe 42nd Royal Marine Commandos
My Grandfather served on the HMS Cairo in 1942 and was on board when it sunk, he was picked up and continued to serve in the Royal Marines up until 1951.
PO. Charles Dabbs HMS Indomitable
I am researching the ships my father sailed on in the Royal Navy 1939-1945. I am in the process of requesting his service records. I know some of the ships he did sail on. He was in the Med campaign, namely Malta, France and North Africa. I can remember he did talk of the Cairo, Indomitable, and Ariadne, but know there must have been many more. He became petty officer while serving, and loved being at sea. His name was Charlie Dabbs and was born in Birmingham. Like many lads at that time, he lied about his age to get in the services. If anyone has any information, or contacts who may remember my father, I would be very gratefull.
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