- Mountbatten, Lord Louis, Earl of Burma
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The dive-bombers came again, and again a hail of machine-gun bullets swept by, this time killing some of the men around the raft. As men died or were killed, I had them gently taken out of the raft and men recently wounded put in to take their place. It was a gruesome and unpleasant business, and yet the sea was calm, and the sun was shining, and it reminded me of so many bathes I had had in the Mediterranean in the days before the war.
My eyes were stinging and my mouth had a bitter acrid taste and looking round I saw everybody’s face smothered in heavy oil fuel looking like Negro minstrels. This added greatly to our discomfort and to the unpleasantness.
I thought it would be a good thing to start singing to keep up people’s courage and so I started that popular song ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and the others soon joined in, which seemed to help.
And then the miracle happened. The Kipling appeared from below the horizon at full speed coming to our rescue. She had seen the Ju 87s diving on us and didn’t think we would be able to survive. It was a gallant act of the captain, for he was obviously going to draw the attacks on himself now.
The Kelly was just afloat. One could see the bottom under the bows afloat. Suddenly she started to go as the Kipling approached and I called for ‘Three cheers for the old ship’. It was for me the saddest moment of a sad day.
As Kipling approached she unfortunately grazed the sharp bow of the Kelly under water and she was holed. Luckily the hole was in the reserve feed tank, which meant that no water actually got into the ship.
Kipling lowered scrambling nets over her side. I told everybody to swim to the scrambling nets as soon as they could. I towed a very badly wounded man who was bleeding freely, but by the time I got him as far as the Kipling he was obviously very dead and so I let go.
As soon as I got on board I went up to the bridge. I was still in command of my flotilla and the Kipling was under my orders, but naturally I did not interfere with the captain, Aubrey St. Clair Ford, who was a brave, brilliant and very competent man. I thanked him for coming to our rescue and asked him to go over and pick up the survivors of the Kashmir.
I had personally supervised a course of all the engineer officers of my flotilla at the Experimental Oil Fuel Establishment at Haslar, to ensure that they should be able to increase speed at a far greater rate than had been customary. The Kipling was no exception. Her 40,000 horsepower were applied with such speed that the ship leaped forward and the bows of the motor-boat were driven under. My cry to cut the after falls had been heard by my own first lieutenant. Lord Hugh Beresford, and the first lieutenant of the Kipling, John Bushe.
Together they leaped to the after falls at the moment when the ship had gathered such speed, and the heavy motor-boat had sunk so deep in the water that the after davit was pulled right over and seemed to crush them as the falls tore away and the boat sank in the sea together with the two first lieutenants. Hugh was one of my oldest friends: he had been a midshipman with me in 1927 in the Queen Elizabeth. He was a great-nephew of Papa’s great friend, Lord Charles Beresford. I think this incident hurt me more than any that day.
The captain remarked, ‘This is going to take a very long time now. I only hope they don’t get us before we pick up all the Kashmir’s.’ I replied that this was my responsibility and told him to go ahead. With great skill and great courage he gradually nosed his way from one raft to another in between the persistent attacks of the Ju.88s. But it was a long and painful business and after two hours some of my own staff officers who had been saved came to me to ask whether I would not consider allowing the Kipling to leave the rest of the Kashmirs and proceed to Alexandria. They pointed out, with complete justification, that the Kipling now had on board all Kelly survivors, more than half of the Kashmir’s survivors and it was becoming more and more difficult to pick up the remainder and avoid being hit by the bombers. I decided that we should stay.
This was a much more difficult job, for she went down far more slowly than the Kelly. Hardly had we got opposite the first Carley raft and stopped engines than some Ju.88s appeared. Though not of the terrifying vertical dive-bomber type, they dived in a shallow dive and the captain had to go ahead with the wheel hard over to avoid being hit. Every time he came back to a raft the same thing happened. Finally I told him to lower his fast motor-boat which could then go round collecting the survivors from each raft, and would be able to come alongside the Kipling in whatever position we were without having to try to manoeuvre the whole ship alongside a Carley raft. Aubrey thought this a good idea and gave the necessary orders.
After three hours there was only one more raft-load to be picked up and this proved particularly difficult because the attacks were getting worse. After consulting the captain, my staff came back and urged that the right decision was to let the Kipling go before she was sunk with the loss of an additional five or six hundred lives. I decided we should stay to pick up all we could. I felt it would be better for us all to be sunk together than to leave any of our flotilla mates struggling helplessly in the water without any prospect of being saved.
At last we were able to turn for Alexandria. The damage to the Kipling prevented her from doing more than about half-speed, so we limped home at 16 or 17 knots, the mess decks and upper decks everywhere being crowded with survivors, many of them wounded and in poor shape.