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You are in: Guernsey > History > Local History > HMS Charybdis

HMS Charybdis. Copyright of Leigh Bishop

The classic image of HMS Charybdis 1943

HMS Charybdis

Charybdis Weekend is held in Guernsey each year to commemorate not only the sailors and marines who lost their lives, but also the bravery of the islanders.

On 23 October 1943 HMS Charybdis was sunk off Guernsey. Within days the bodies of 21 Royal Navy and Royal Marines had washed up on the Guernsey coast.

Although the Germans decided to bury the men with full military honours, the Islanders seized upon this as an opportunity to show their loyalty to Britain and their respect for the men who died.

In all 5,000 Guernsey people attended the funerals, bringing with them 900 wreaths.

A local man, William de Carteret, removed one of the Union flags that draped a coffin as it was lowered into the ground. (Carefully kept for many years it was later presented to St John Church by his widow in 1973 where along with other mementoes, it is now persevered).

This was a very effective demonstration of anti-Nazi feeling and it proved to be a turning point in the German occupation of the Island.

The Germans subsequently banned members of the public from attending the funerals for the additional 29 sailors whose bodies were later washed up.

In all, 464 men died and 107 survived in this tragedy, the biggest single Channel loss of the war.

The History


The Royal Navy had 57 cruisers in 1939, but their number was reduced to only 26 by the end of the war.

Charybdis was a Dido-class cruiser, one of a series of 11 built during the 1930s and commissioned in 1941.

Spring 1942

After working in Scapa Flow, Charybdis covered mine-laying operations in the north before heading for the Mediterranean in spring 1942.

She took part in 'Operation Harpoon', a convoy run to Malta, and 'Operation Pedestal'.

After three days of intense fighting against German and Italian forces, only three of fourteen merchant ships reached Malta.

However their supplies helped to save the Island.

23 October 1943

'Operation Tunnel'.

Activated from Plymouth because intelligence indicated that the Germans were running an important convoy along the French coast.

The Operation brought together a 'mixed bag' of six destroyers, with Charybdis as command ship. None of them had worked together before.

Germans had the advantage with their excellent radar chain along the French coast as well as good liaison between each vessel and a strong force of Elbing-class destroyers to protect the convoy.

HMS Limbourne. Copyright of Leigh Bishop

HMS Limbourne at port anchor in 1943

They also knew the advantage of sailing convoys in order to make the best of light and weather conditions, their tactics were to draw the attacking force away from the convoy.

The British Plan

The convoy was to run close to shore where shore batteries could operate guns of 15 miles range.

The British force planned a ridged column of 7 ships 3 cables apart at 17 knots, passing through established points to sweep to the westward along the likely route of the convoy.

What actually happened

Charybdis picked up vessels on its radar some seven miles ahead, but it was not equipped to detect German radio communications.

Meanwhile British Hunt-class destroyer HMS Limbourne (another fated British destroyer) had its radar masked on ahead bearings by Charybdis, but picked up German radio transmissions indicating that at least six naval units were close by.

These two vital pieces of information were not exchanged, so Charybdis knew that the enemy was present but not its numbers, while the other vessels knew that six enemy destroyers were close by, but not where.


The German Elbing T23 sighted Charybdis a few miles north of the Sept Isles off northerm Brittany. Charybdis had picked it up and was swinging to port but was hit by a full salvo of six enemy torpedoes.

As the British destroyers came into sight, they too were fired on, with Limbourne being struck before yet another torpedo tore into the Charybdis.


The German force proceeded east, leaving the British in confusion. Both the senior officers' ships were sinking and incommunicado and the rest were charging round at high speed.

The first torpedo had struck Charybdis on her port side, flooding a boiler room and resulting in a 20¡ list to port.

The second struck aft, wiping out electrical power and taking the list to some 50¡.
Charybdis took an angle by the stern until almost vertical, staying like that for about half an hour before the bulkheads gave way.

2.30am - The Sinking

HMS Charybdis sunk through an avoidable series of events. Only 107 of the crew could be rescued and 460 lives were lost.

The torpedo that had struck HMS Limbourne's forward magazine had destroyed the forward section of the ship, though she would remain afloat as long as the bulkhead held. It was later decided to sink her, to keep her out of German hands.

With 40 of HMS Limbourne's men dead, the action had cost 500 lives in all.

A well-trained and drilled enemy force had reduced a superior British task force to equality in minutes and made its convoy safe, without firing a gun or taking any losses.

The British had made so many errors both ashore and afloat that the incident was an illustration to the Royal Navy tactical school for many years to follow as an example of what not to do.

Images used

Images used for this article are copyright of Leigh Bishop. Select images are available providing the user agrees terms and seeks permission before use.

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For more information on HMS Charybdis and HMS Limbourne click on the direct live link at the top right of this page -

last updated: 07/10/2008 at 11:59
created: 08/10/2004

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