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by Janet King

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
Janet King
People in story: 
George Cowie writer of the story
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
24 October 2005

H.M.S. Centurion

H.M.S.Centurion, a 35,000ton battleship of the ‘Thunderer ‘Class, completed in1912, was the pride of the Royal Navy in the Great War of 1914-1918.

When her days as an operational warship were over, she was converted to a target ship for the fleet, a task for which she was well suited, due to the thickness of armour on her deck and sides. In 1939 when real targets became available she was used as a supply ship for trawlers and minesweepers.

Early in 1941, it was decided to use her as a block ship to block the Mediterranean harbour of Tripoli, which was used as a base by the Italians and Germans. At the same time she was converted into a likeness of H.M.S. Anson a King George V Class battleship and so confuse the Germans.

In Devonport Dockyard, her magazines were converted to carry fuel, a dummy funnel was erected and as aircraft hanger of wood and canvas was built. She now carried three gun turrets complete with 14 inch guns, all made of wood and canvas, which from a distance, looked realistic. Six inch guns were painted on the side of the dummy hanger. When all this work had been completed, she was a fair likeness of H.M.S. Anson, again from a distance.

On Saturday,26th. April1941 her crew of 283 and she was commissioned for service. On the 4th May she sailed from Plymouth. This was for many of the crew, their first voyage which took them up the West coat of England and Southwest Scotland to Ardentiny in Loch Long which was reached on 6th May.

On May 12th, with oil and water tanks full she left Loch Long and headed west into the Atlantic, ostensibly bound for Canada. This was part of the decoy mission. About three hundred miles form Canada the course was changed from a westerly to a south easterly one and arrived off Gibraltar on May 17th. In order to maintain her secret identity she remained off-shore until dark. Then it was into harbour, load up with fuel and stores and out again before daylight.

Destination was Freetown in West Africa, an escort of four corvettes failed to arrive and she sailed on alone. About twelve hours out from that port, the crew of the S.S. Colonial which had been torpedoed the previous night were picked up from their lifeboats. As soon as the last men left the lifeboats, two big sharks which had been with them, jumped out of the water and capsized the boats. The ‘Centurion’ was particularly vulnerable when hove-to picking up the survivors as the only armaments she had were four single Pom-Poms, (two pounders) and four oerlikons (20 millimeter), neither any real defence against aircraft or submarine. Freetown was reached on May27th. Without any further incident to the relief of all the crew and the survivors. Nine days later when she was leaving, the steering gear broke down and she gently rammed a liner, fortunately causing little damage. The same day an air raid took place and her guns fired in anger for the first time. Two days later, with the steering gear repaired; she left Freetown bound for St Helena in the South Atlantic, reaching the remote island on 12th June. She left the same day and reaching Capetown on 18th June. As at Gibraltar, she lay off-shore until dark, entered harbour took on stores and fuel and left again before daylight.

Durban was reached on the 22nd June. While on the way, a report was received of an armed German raider in the area. The anti-flash guards were removed from the Pom-Pom guns so that a bigger flash would be seen if it was necessary to use them. Fortunately the rained did not appear. As Centurion lined up to enter Durban harbour, the steering gear once again broke down and she brushed the wall of the narrow entrance as she went through. After a day and a half to effect repairs, she set out once again and reached Mombassa on 29th June. This port was left astern the following day reaching Aden on 6th July.

Aden was left behind the next day and course set through the Red Sea for Port Tewfick arriving there on Saturday 14th July to be greeted with an air raid. Another raid in the middle of the night resulted in the liner S.S. Georgic being hit by two bombs which set her on fire. She was later beached to prevent her sinking in the seaway. Later on the Sunday afternoon, Centurion sailed into the Suez Canal to Kabret in the Bitter Lakes, where she lay at anchor for eleven days to give the crew a break. While there, it was learned that the original operation had been cancelled and on the 26th July she returned to Port Tewfick in company with the aircraft H.M.S. Formidable which had been damaged in the Mediterranean, and her escorting destroyer, H.M.S. Voyager.

Two days later she sailed south, reaching Aden and 31st July. When she left Aden on 5th August for Mombassa, it was though she was heading for the U.K. but the weather had other ideas. Two days out she encountered a typhoon and mountainous seas smashed up and washed overboard ‘A’ gun turret. After another day battling the elements, she returned to Aden.

On the 21st August she sailed from Aden once again, this time the destination was Bombay, arriving on the 27th August. The ship had a re-fit, ‘A’ gun turret rebuilt and after a coat of paint, she once again ‘looked’ like a battleship. In addition another dozen Oerlikon guns were mounted.

It was not until 19th May1942 that Bombay disappeared astern. Seven days later she was again back in Aden to take on fuel and stores. On leaving Aden she got stuck on a sandbank and it took five tugs two days to get her free. It was then full speed to Port Tewfick to load one thousand tons of stores for Malta; at least that was the plan. Then it was through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, arriving at Alexandria on Saturday 13June. After re-fuelling, she left to join a convoy of nine merchant ships, escorted by 8 cruisers, 25 destroyers, 4 M.Ls and 8 corvettes.

The air attacks started early on the Sunday morning. One Merchant ship was hit and three ‘planes were shot down. These attacks continued all day and the next day. Two more ’planes were shot down with the loss of a cruiser, H.M.S. Hermione and the destroyer H.M.S. Nestor. On Tuesdays, 16 June a signal was received that the Italian fleet was heading towards us and as our ammunition was running low, it was decided to turn about and draw the Italian fleet away form Malta and so allow another convoy which had set out from Gibraltar to get through. The air attacks continued all that day with torpedo bombers ad ‘E’ boats attacking at night. One bomb hit the side of the f’castle, went through and exploded on the waterline. There were no injuries.

On Wednesday 17th June there were more air attacks and this time, submarines were also involved. Later that day the convoy reached Alexandria without further loss, though another destroyer and corvette were damaged.

On 30 June1942, the fleet, including ‘Centurion’ left Alexandria for Port Said, where the writer left her to join submarines, having had enough of air raids.

P.S. Centurion eventually returned to the U.K. and played a final ole as part of the Mulberry Harbour used for the landings in France on the 6th June1944

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