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by Moore

Contributed by 
Moore
People in story: 
David Moore
Location of story: 
White Sea, Russia
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2076518
Contributed on: 
24 November 2003

HMS Edinburgh getting supplies at the Kola Inlet 1942.

This story was written by my father David Moore for publication in Warship World 1990.

"THE LOSS OF HMS EDINBURGH"

HARRIER AND THE SWEEPERS

HMS Harrier was leader of the British minesweeping force in North Russia at the time of the Edinburgh sinking. Originally sent to the White Sea in August 1941, the 6th Minesweeping Flotilla had been tasked with keeping the approaches to Archangel clear of mines for the incoming Allied convoys. When the White Sea was closed by ice in the autumn, the 'fleet' minesweepers had been moved to a base in the Kola Inlet. Here they were assigned to reinforcing the warships escorting the convoys as they approached and departed form the ice-free port of Murmansk during the winter of '41 to '42. Harrier and the sweepers under her command were little shallow-draught ships of some 800 tons with the latest British minesweeping gear and the new 10-cm wavelength surface warning radars. They were too slow (maximum speed only 14 knots) and lightly armed (one 4- inch gun and two light Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns) to be very effective as escorts. But they had sonar and depth charges, and every little helped when the shortage of escorts was so desperate.

HMS Edinburgh, flying the flag of Rear- Admiral Stuart Bonham-Carter, was providing strong support in close proximity to convoy QP1 1 of 17 ships which left the Kola lnlet for the UK on 28 April 1942. The close escort consisted of four destroyers, four corvettes and a trawler, the strongest yet allocated to a Russian convoy. In addition the Harrier, with three of her sweepers (Hussar Gossamer and Niger) backed up the convoy screen for the first part of the voyage. The air temperature was still below freezing, and frequent snowstorms, low cloud and heavy seas provided some protection. However, at this time of the year daylight extended nearly all night and the ice pack prevented a wide detour to the north to keep the convoy further away from the German air and naval bases in northern Norway.
After little more than a day in company the minesweepers were detached to return to the Kola Inlet. But the convoy had already been found and reported by German aircraft and U- boats. On the evening of the next day (30 April) Harrier had just completed re-fuelling from a tanker in the Kola Inlet, when we received a signal informing us that Edinburgh had been torpedoed by a U-boat.
This news was as surprising as it was unwelcome, because Edinburgh, zigzagging at high speed some distance ahead of the convoy, was a far more difficult target to hit than any of the slow-moving merchant ships. It is known that U-456 had made the most of a golden opportunity presented by Edinburgh altering course towards her on a fresh leg of her zigzag, and had obtained two torpedo hits, the first amidships and the second in the stern. The latter virtually destroyed the stern abaft the after turret and most of it subsequently sank including the rudder and at least one propeller. Amazingly two propeller shafts were still working, and Edinburgh though almost unable to steer, was struggling slowly in the direction of Murmansk, some 200 miles to the south, escorted by two British destroyers (Foresight and Forester) and two Russian ones.
In the minesweepers our expectation of a warm night in harbour rapidly disappeared as we were ordered to proceed to sea again at full speed to find and assist the stricken cruiser. Our captain in the Harrier, Commander Eric Hinton, took ail this in his stride. He was a fine seaman, expert in shiphandling. Beneath his unassuming and humorous manner, there was an irreducible core of courage. The minesweepers were never intended to engage enemy surface ships, but we ail knew that our Captain would never entertain the thought of running away,, even from a German battleship. My job as Flotilla Navigating Officer was not only to navigate Harrier and the sweepers under our command, but to act generally as the Captain's staff officer in organising any operations on which our flotilla was engaged.
At 2018 on 30 April, four hours after the Edinburgh had been struck, we passed outwards from Kola Inlet and began to retrace our course along the convoys track towards Edinburgh's reported position, which we naturally assumed might in the circumstances be considerably in error. By midday on 1 May we were near this position, still searching to the northward with Gossamer and Niger spread out to the westward to obtain the maximum width of radar coverage. Hussar was following somewhere astern escorting a Russian tug to the scene. That evening we ran into the edge of the ice pack and were forced to turn back to the south. In doing so we spread our search line to the eastward and by great good luck we sighted Hussar soon after midnight (it was twilight all night) and she told us that she had just found Edinburgh. Visibility was now varying from about one to five miles because of continual snowstorms.
By this time, early on 2 May, Edinburgh was still valiantly struggling to return to port, possibly making about 3 or 4 knots in a southerly direction. The two Russian destroyers, short of fuel, had left, but a little Russian gunboat, named Rubin, had round her. Foresight and Forester were circling round to provide anti-submarine protection. Soon the Russian tug was attempting to tow the Edinburgh but unfortunately she was not powerful enough to make any headway. As an alternative, Gossamer was then secured by a wire rope to the stern of the cruiser to try to keep her on a steady course, white the Edinburgh pushed away with her two remaining propellers, thereby continuing to make slow progress. Meanwhile the two destroyers, the minesweepers and the Rubin circled round to keep U-boats at bay.
I was half asleep in the charthouse when I heard a shout form Lieutenant Holgate, who was our Officer-of-the-Watch, to come up to the Bridge immediately. Going up the ladder I was thinking 'My god, this is it'- expecting to see the German battleship Tirpitz, which was stationed in Northern Norway and might well have been sent to finish off the damaged British cruiser. In fact it was a German Z-class destroyer, and her initial salvoes were straddling Hussar, who, like Harrier, was between Edinburgh and the German attackers. The time was 0627.
Admiral Bonham-Carter had signalled the Senior Officer 6th Minesweeping Flotilla previously that, in the event of meeting enemy surface forces, the sweepers were to retire under a smoke screen. Either we never received this signal or Cdr Hinton kept it to himself and chose to ignore it. At any rate, he immediately turned Harrier straight towards the German destroyer, increased to our full speed of 14 knots and opened fire with our single 4 in gun, We obtained one range of the destroyer of four miles, but our radar then went out of action with the vibration of the gunfire. Soon three German destroyers came in sight intermittently, dodging in and out of the snowstorms, and making smoke that increased the haze. Edinburgh opened fire with the three 6 in guns in her "B" turret, which was practically the only one of her four turrets still able to fire. Foresight and Forester came dashing over from the other side of the flagship and began to engage the Germans, who kept their distance at four or five miles and refrained from approaching any closer.
Seeing gun-flashes coming from five separate directions, the Germans probably imagined that they were confronting a superior force. Each of these heavy destroyers was armed (we subsequently discovered) with five 5.9 in guns in addition to torpedoes, so had they pressed in they might easily have sunk every ship in our force. However, Harrier and the other .'fleet' minesweepers looked not unlike destroyers when seen end-on, so probably the Captain's action in heading straight for the enemy had saved our lives.
Minutes later a 4-gun salvo of shells fell 500 yards from us, another straddled our forecastle and then another fell at the correct range just astern, but fortunately we were not hit. Hussar was also engaging the enemy. The action continued, with the Germans disappearing from view from time to time, until 0652 when we sighted ahead a torpedo, apparently running on or near the surface in the direction of Edinburgh. The latter had cast off Gossamer and was moving ahead, although constrained in a series of circles. Unfortunately one of these circles carried Edinburgh right into the path-of another torpedo from this salvo which was running deep and struck her amidships exactly opposite the previous hit from U-456. It was now estimated that only the upperdeck plating and a somewhat shaky keel were holding the two ends of the ship together, and clearly she was in danger of breaking in two at any moment. Had the ship's company taken to the water in this event, few would have kept alive long enough to be rescued, the longest survival time in this water temperature being (as we knew from previous sinkings) only about 10 to 20 minutes at most.
The Admiral therefore immediately ordered Gossamer alongside his starboard side, and Harrier, his port side, and both the minesweepers began to embark the sick and wounded men, some of whom, injured in previous convoys, were taking passage home in the Edinburgh. Following this the entire ship's company was transferred, some 440 men to Gossamer and about 400 to Harrier. Fortunately the heavy sea had subsided and it was almost flat calm while this was going on. Meanwhile, Edinburgh was listing further and further until she reached an angle of 17 degrees. Despite the list, the cruiser's "S" turret continued to fire on local control with Captain Faulkner shouting down the bearings of the German destroyers, whenever they were in sight, from the bridge to the lieutenant in charge of the turret just below him. Such was our concentration on the battle and the job in hand that it never occurred to us that the Edinburgh might capsize on top of us. It was about this time that the Rubin, having misunderstood a signal, attempted to come alongside Harrier', and in doing so caused some slight damage - of this more later. Eventually the 6 in turret was so far depressed that the guns could no longer be brought to bear, and the whole transfer having been completed in an orderly fashion, the Admiral and his staff came on board Harrier. We lay off, expecting the cruiser to founder almost at once.
Harrier had now become the Admiral's flagship, and it was necessary to hoist the appropriate flag designating a Rear-Admiral. The nearest we had was a white flag with a red cross, but two red balls needed to be added to complete it correctly. I instructed my Yeoman to improvise these with the red ink from the charthouse, and the flag was duly hoisted.
Admiral Bonham-Carter was a jovial character, but with exceptionally sound tactical judgement and shrewd common-sense. He was imperturbable in this misfortune, but was now faced with the embarrassing fact that -the Edinburgh, despite the colossal damage caused by the three torpedoes, obstinately refused to sink. Harrier was ordered to encourage the process and fired twenty 4 in shells into the ship at point-blank range, but these had little effect. We then steamed close alongside firing depth charges set to explode at the shallowest possible depth. One of these actually rolled down the side of the ship and went off immediately underneath her, but still without result. Bonham-Carter began to think of going back on board with a skeleton crew when the Foresight re-appeared form the murk, having finally driven off the Germans. She was asked: 'Have you any torpedoes left?' - to which she replied: 'One'. It so happened that this torpedo had misfired when Foresight had fired her entire outfit at the enemy.
The Admiral now ordered the destroyer to sink the Edinburgh with her remaining torpedo, and we watched her position herself at point- blank range (1500 yards) abeam of the cruiser and saw the torpedo dive into the sea. There followed the longest two minutes that I can remember, towards the end of which the Admiral was saying: 'She's missed': but just at this moment the torpedo struck and exploded, and we witnessed the sad end of this fine cruiser as she rolled over and sank.
We made our way back to Murmansk, and as we got further from the scene of action without any more interference from the enemy, our spirits rose. The sun actually appeared through the clouds, and I was able to make observations with the sextant. Cdr Honnywill, the admiral's Staff Navigating Officer, worked out the sights for me, and I still have his calculations written on the back of the Admiralty signal informing convoy QP1 1 that it was being shadowed by a U-boat. These sun sights enabled us to fix the position of Harrier fairly accurately during the afternoon of 2 May, and we made a good landfall and safely entered the Kola Inlet at 2040 on that day, some 12 hours after the Edinburgh had sunk. Our 'chicks' - the Niger, Hussar and Gossamer - were with us. Foresight and Forester also got back unmolested, but they had both sustained damage and casualties. Between them and Edinburgh there was a total of 74 killed and 43 wounded in this action, but all the minesweepers had escaped unscathed. It transpired later that one of the German destroyers had been scuttled after sustaining heavy damage, and that the other two had retired at high speed after rescuing the crew.
On the way back Cdr Hinton had pointed out with some pride to the Admiral how we had correctly improvised his flag with the red balls and hoisted it, to which Stuart Bonham- Carter's reply was: 'Two balls! That's more that I expected to have this afternoon !'
A few days after our return to harbour, the Captain of Harrier received a letter, written in English, from the Captain of the Rubin, which I reproduce here, and which perhaps forms a fitting tail-piece to this story:
"From Commander of Divisions, U S S R Gunboat Rubin 4th Day of May 1942

Dear Sir,
Soviets seamen was witness of heroic battle English seamen with predominants powers of enemy. English seamen did observe their sacred duty before Fatherland. We are proud of staunchness and courage English seamens - our allies.
I am very sorry what injured your ship by approach to board for what I must to beg pardon.

Commander of Division."

As published in Warship World Vol 3 No8 Autumn 1990

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