- Kelly, Michael J
- Ship design and development, Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On April 29,1940 a new Naval Operation was put into action. The British troops in Namsos in Norway had to be evacuated from the onslaught of the overwhelming Wehrmacht, and so the Navy was called on to escort the transports on their errand of mercy.
General Carton De Wiart’s meagre force was entrapped in Namsos with no way of escape except by ship down the 80 odd miles of narrow fiords and across the North Sea to England. On the evening of the planned evacuation a dense fog settled in on the fiords. This fog, a thick grey blanket swirling across the surface of he cold North Sea, was in one way a blessing for under its cover the ships were hidden from the eyes of the Luftwaffe, but on the other hand caused a long delay in the planned evacuation, for the ships were blind and could only manoeuvre at a dead slow pace.
When the troops at Namsos heard of this delay they began to disperse from the wharves and began to dread the thought of another day of constant enemy bombing. When almost all hope of rescue had drained from their souls a miracle occurred. From out of the fog cover down the fiord the bows of a destroyer cleaved through the mist followed by five more knife-like bows. Kelly had arrived leading her Flotilla. As soon as they broke from the fog near the town the German bombers, which were shadowing their movements up the fiord, their mast tops protruding through the fog, laid on a blanket of bombs. The ships remained undamaged, but many men on deck were killed or wounded from the near misses. It was impossible for the ships to go alongside the wharves, so back into the fog they fled.
On the following day Mountbatten again led his Flotilla, accompanied by three transports and the cruiser York, back into the fiord, uncertain whether the British troops were still there or if the town was in German hands.
Twilight shrouded the fiord, the town aflame from end to end, the ASW trawler Aston Villa lay listing and burning from the previous night’s bombing. Under the cover of the naval guns the transports sidled into the wharves. Waiting for them was more than 7,000 British troops anxiously awaiting rescue. Gunfire could be heard on the outskirts of the town as the rear-guard held off the on-coming Germans. For four hours these rear troops fought and in those four hours the main column of 7,000 troops had been embarked in the transports in the cover of the darkness of the northern night. The rear guard was left to buy time for the rescue ships as they steamed down the fiord on their return trip to England.
At the early hour of 0500 in the soft light of dawn a German reconnaissance plane sighted the fleet as they departed the fiord. Then it was on again. For almost ten hours the ships were under constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe. Kelly had numerous near misses and shot down some of the screaming Stukas. The French destroyer Bison reeled out of line having received numerous direct hits. She lay lifeless and burning. HMS Afridi, on her rescue mission, was chosen as the next target for the Stukas and after several direct hits went to the bottom with 100 of her crew.
At the end of this day of torture the remaining ships reached Scapa Flow. The crews, dead on their feet from exhaustion of continuous action could receive no rest. As soon as the troops were landed the destroyers once again took up their escort duties and shepherded the now empty transports back to the Clyde. Three hours after anchoring, Kelly was ordered back to sea. She was to sail to the east coast of England to assist the cruiser Birmingham and her escorts to hunt and destroy a flotilla of E-boats protecting some minelayers in the Channel.
Kandahar, one of Mountbatten’s own flotilla, was with the Birmingham when she received a submarine report from a reconnaissance aircraft. Both Kandahar and Kelly went in for the hunt. By dropping depth charges over the reported position they managed to keep the submarine submerged and therefore unable to inform the Luftwaffe of the British dispositions. After a short time the Birmingham and escort had passed out of sight and so Kelly and her sister headed at full speed to regain position on the screen. As darkness settled in gun flashes were seen far to the north. Bulldog, another destroyer of the squadron, had lost contact with the Birmingham when detached to destroy a floating mine and so she joined the two Ks on a full speed dash to join the fight further to the north.
On Kelly the fuel situation was causing concern due to the high speed steaming. She had only enough fuel to steam on until midnight and then would have to return to base.
At 2052 hours on May 9 1940 the action began again. A Dornier bomber was sighted and the ship open fired. The plane retired to a safe distance, but held contact with the ships. Kelly and Kandahar were steaming at 32 knots with the Bulldog trailing well astern. Fog began to settle in from the north and so Mountbatten reduced the speed to 28 knots to allow the Bulldog to catch up.
Fourteen minutes later at 2244 the end of the chase was near. A dim shadow was seen at about 600 yards on the port bow in the fog and instantly the creaming wake of a torpedo was seen heading for the Kelly. The track passed below Kelly‘s bridge. For a few seconds everyone froze, waiting for the blast. It came. The ship heeled over and slowed to a dead stop. She took a 13 degree list to starboard.
The torpedo had hit in the forward boiler room. There was a tremendous blast and a tongue of flame shot to masthead height. The boiler had been lifted off its mounting and tossed to starboard. Its twenty thousand horse power was released and all engine fittings were damaged and steam hissed out in all directions scalding the men at their stations. She was a dying ship. No power was left and only emergency lighting showed the movements of any life that was left in the lifeless hull.
Due to the release of the great amount of smoke and steam nothing was seen of the enemy vessel or of the sister ship close by. However, even though Kandahar thought Kelly had gone, Bulldog could see her lying with decks awash. Mountbatten ordered to drop depth charges to the north of Kelly for the assailant was still an unknown type of vessel.
After dropping the charges the Bulldog returned to assist Kelly. As she closed, a large vessel appeared from the fog bank travelling at a fast speed, and narrowly avoided a collision with the Bulldog. This vessel was assumed to be Birmingham as she gave the ‘VF’ signal on passing. On arrival at the scene of the torpedoing Bulldog prepared to take Kelly in tow.
The fog had become a thick, soupy cloud of mist and visibility was practically nil. Even with the bad visibility, sea swell and the extreme list of the Kelly, Bulldog managed to secure the tow and get under-way within an hour of the explosion. For this great effort of seamanship Mountbatten gave great credit to the Commanding Officer of Bulldog, Lieutenant Commander J. P. Wisden.
Kelly aided the tow by bringing her hand steering gear into action. At 0010 hours on May 10, approximately one half hour after securing the tow, crisis came again. Marine engines were heard to starboard of the two ships. As the noise grew louder a German Eboat appeared out of the fog and rammed into the Bulldog’s starboard quarter. The angle of impact was slight and caused the wooden torpedo boat to deflect towards Kelly. She was out of control and firing at both ships with her machine guns when she rammed the Kelly at the break of the forecastle and drove at speed down the starboard deck which was awash with the sea. The torpedo boat tore loose the whaler, the motor cutter, the davits and the guardrails on the starboard side. These steel stanchions, however, were more solid than the wooden hulled boat and wreckage from the hull of the E-boat was found amongst the debris on deck, including some of her ammunition. After she broke clear her engines were heard to splutter and die. Because of the fog she could not be seen, but she most certainly must have gone to the bottom.