- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr Jack Clark RMBX1674, Captain DG Belben, Lieutenant Arno Fensky
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 August 2004
HMS Penelope (light cruiser). Sunk by enemy action 18th February 1944. As experienced by Mr Jack Clark, RMBX1674, Royal marine musician / gunnery operator in transmitting station on the above ship.
Having taken part in actions in the North Africa campaign, Sicily, Italy and Aegean we were engaged in the bombardment of enemy positions relating to the beachhead at Anzio. Having bombarded for approximately two weeks we were becoming short of fuel and ammunition. On the 17th February 1944 we left during the late evening and returned to Naples to replenish supplies of the aforementioned. Captain Belben had completed our tour of duty and was expected to give us a well-earned 24-hour rest period, the custom when conditions permitted.
As we anchored in the bay of Naples at 22:00 captain Belben received a signal ordering him to prepare for sea immediately and return to Anzio to take the place of HMS Dido, which had been in collision with a landing craft in Naples bay. The position at Anzio was so critical not one cruiser could be spared, as every gun was needed to drive back the enemy who was driving our land forces dangerously towards the sea. In fact Mr Winston Churchill our leader and prime minister stated, 'A deep dangerous wedge was driving into our line and no further retreat was possible, it was life or death.'
Crewmen in the duty port watch toiled late into the night to oil and ammunition under the hazard of air alerts. At 06:00 on 18th February, a Friday, we left Naples bay and increased speed to 26 knots and then steered a NW course to make for Anzio, zigzagging as she went to avoid possible submarine attacks. Early that morning U410 commanded by Lieutenant Arno Fensky, aged 25, had moved into the area. He had already destroyed a 7,000-ton supply ship on the 15th February.
At 06:53 the U410 look-out cried out 'enemy ship', the captain of U410 ordered diving stations to periscope level and closed in fast on HMS Penelope. At 06:58 a torpedo leapt from its tube to run at a depth of 6 meters towards an unsuspecting Penelope, it took just 35 seconds to reach the cruiser. Then there was a thunderous explosion, which sent men crashing to the deck, as the stern lifted out of the water.
The hit was well below the water line on the starboard side abaft the engine room. It fractured oil tanks and caused flooding to the aft engine room and other compartments. An emergency signal was immediately started, but before the full text was tapped out the power failed. Penelope listed to starboard as the sea rushed through the torn hull, then she began circling to starboard, her steering gear damaged, in effect no lights, aft engine room out of action, no steering, no telephones and 9 degree list to starboard.
The captain ordered counter flooding, then ordered a signalman to signal to LST 165 and 430 a few miles distant to 'close me', they were returning to Naples empty to pick up more troops, by then Penelope had stopped with smoke belching from her after funnel. At that point Fensky ordered 'Fire 2' tube No 1 with a Mark V torpedo. To give the cruiser the coup de grace then came the second shattering explosion which hit starboard side abreast the boiler room followed by a second thud which caused the after magazine to blow up. Penelope capsized with a column of water that shot into the air, smoke belching from the after funnel and the boiler room exploded and flooded. Penelope had broken her back, two ends pointed upwards, the bow at an angle of 50 degrees.
My action station had just been fallen out and I instinctively made my way into the open portside waist, and no sooner reached the open as the explosion occurred. I immediately dived over the side into the icy, rough, oil-covered sea wearing a roll neck pullover, jacket and sea boots. Other men still in duffel coats sank straight to the bottom. The ship had vanished in one and a half minutes with a large number of men trapped inside, no boats or rafts as they went with the ship. Many men died in the water from lack of strength and oil ingestion. After approx one and three-quarters hours a tank landing craft reached us, but alas had no means of picking us up.
Our heroic chaplain Rev PA Murphy had shortly gone into the sick bay stating, in reply to a question, 'I'm going where I'm needed.' Unfortunately he was not seen again.
Some army ratings hung rope over the side of the LST and those of us that had the strength grabbed the rope and were pulled onto the deck of the LST. As this was difficult being soaked in oil, many men slipped back into the sea and were not seen again. My strength was quickly ebbing but I managed to hang onto the rope and as I neared the top two men of the Queen's Own Regiment grabbed my shoulders and pulled me on board where I flopped like an oily whale. We were taken back to Naples and put aboard a hospital ship Winchester Castle for a few days to recover.
The total lost were 418 from a ship's company of 650, including the captain DG Belben DSCAM. We were then dispersed to Malta and eventually dispersed to our own units.
My mother had lost her first husband at the battle of Jutland in 1916 (as a stoker) and was therefore thankful to see me again.
You will note that 18th February 2004 is the 60th anniversary of Penelope's sinking, it would be interesting to know the numbers of survivors alive today.
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