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Eighty years since the Royal Navy neared ‘breaking point’ off Crete

Town-class light cruiser HMS Gloucester
22 May 2021
Eighty years ago today the Royal Navy joined battle with the Germans off Crete – a battle which arguably brought the Fleet closer to breaking point than any other encounter in World War 2.

Over the space of just a few days, the Mediterranean Fleet first tried to stop the Nazis gaining a foothold on the island – then was involved in a hasty evacuation as the invaders overran Crete.

After German paratroopers seized key points on the island, reinforcements were dispatched by sea in Greek fishing vessels – known as caiques. Around midnight on May 21st 1941, the invasion fleet was intercepted by the Royal Navy, which took a terrible toll of the wooden craft.

But come daylight on May 22nd, the British ships were sighted by the Luftwaffe. Their commander promised to commit everything he had – and he had 700 aircraft, half of them bombers – against the Royal Navy.

In the onslaught which followed, HMS Naiad counted 36 near-misses in just ten minutes, cruiser HMS Carlisle was damaged, and battleship HMS Warspite – veteran of Jutland – was mauled and suffered more than 100 casualties.

Destroyer HMS Greyhound was the first vessel to succumb to the aerial onslaught, sunk in 15 minutes as she tried to finish off a caique which had escaped the night-time decimation.

Two more destroyers were sent in to rescue the survivors – who were strafed in the water by German dive-bombers.

To provide protection, HMS Fiji and Gloucester were sent in.

Gloucester enjoyed a reputation almost unparalleled in the Mediterranean Fleet – always in the thick of the action… and always coming through, largely unscathed. She earned five battle honours in less than one year… and a nickname: the Fighting G.

Italian radio proclaimed the cruiser sunk on no fewer than seven occasions before Gloucester’s luck ran out.

Gloucester had endured all things and no ship had worked harder or had more risky tasks. She had been hit by bombs more times than any other vessel – and always come up smiling

Admiral Andrew Cunningham

She made a stirring sight, entering the fray at full speed, guns blazing at the swarms of enemy aircraft. She could not sustain this effort, low on ammunition. Soon Gloucester resorted to firing star shells in the vain hope they might scare the Luftwaffe.

They did not.

In a 15-to-20-minute spell the Fighting G was rocked by a succession of explosions – Arthur Stevens called it “the holocaust of HMS Gloucester”. She lay dead in the water and began to roll over. Her death was sufficiently protracted for an orderly ‘abandon ship’. Yet all who survived her final moments agree the sights aboard were horrific: men without arms, without legs, men burned alive. The ship’s surgeons and sick bay attendants offered what help they could in the little time the ship had left, hurriedly applying bandages splinting broken arms and legs, issuing morphine to deaden the pain. A Royal Marine calmly directed shipmates to safety while the ship’s executive officer, Commander Reginald Tanner, encouraged the crew to abandon ship. “It looks like the end of the Fighting G, lad,” he told Marine ‘Taff’ Evans, “Now over the side you go.” A stoker passed the ship’s beloved dog Toby, too frightened to move. He picked the animal up and lowered him into the water; the last time the mascot was seen, he was clinging to a piece a wood.

In the finest traditions of the Service, Captains Henry Rowley was the last man to leave Gloucester. As he did the cruiser turned turtle and sank. “Thus went the gallant Gloucester,” Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, eulogised a decade later. “She had endured all things and no ship had worked harder or had more risky tasks. She had been hit by bombs more times than any other vessel – and always come up smiling.”

Just 85 men survived the sinking – the single biggest loss of life by the Royal Navy off Crete. In all, the battle cost the Senior Service three cruisers and half a dozen destroyers sunk, plus four capital ships, eight cruisers and nine destroyers damaged – out of action in most cases for at least three months, in some as much as a year and a half. Crete, wrote Admiral Cunningham, marked “a disastrous period in our Naval history… how nearly the breaking point was reached.”

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