Bone harbour, North Africa, early 1943. This must have been one of the
last photographs taken of our ship before she was torpedoed just over a
hundred miles north east of here.
The last few months of our ship, in early 1943, were a terrible strain on us all. We were at action stations almost constantly and rarely got any sleep. This was the lowest ebb of my life. We had moved up the North Africa coast from Algiers and were based in the little harbour of Bone (now called Annaba). Although tiny, it was one of the main ports for landing troops and supplies for the ongoing North Africa Campaign.
We were accompanied by our sister ship Loyal and had several overlapping roles with Laforey and Lookout. During the day we would travel between Bone and Algiers on escort duty for supply ships. At night we would go out with Loyal and attack enemy shore bases and convoys off Sardinia and Sicily. Whilst we were in harbour (which was not long) we provided anti aircraft cover for the other ships. Now you can see why, we were at action stations for most of the time! Our two other sisters Laforey and Lookout operated in much the same way but when we were in Algiers - they were in Bone and vice versa.
We arrived in Bone on New Year's day (a Friday) 1943 and joined Force Q which consisted at various times of two cruisers from the 12th cruiser squadron - HMS Ajax, HMS Penelope, HMS Dido, HMS Aurora and HMS Sirius supported by the 4 'L' boats - Lightning, Laforey, Lookout and Loyal.
When we first tied up, just astern of the Ajax, we asked some squadies what it was like there. They replied that it was very quiet and that they had hardly heard a shot for months. We soon found out that they were joking. Shortly afterwards, in the afternoon, a very heavy air raid developed in which the Ajax was severely damaged. A bomb went straight down her funnel, out her side and killed several marines on the jetty. That night, in another air raid, the tanker Daihanna was set ablaze and we landed a fire fighting party aboard.
Also that same night we went out for a patrol, but saw nothing. We had no sooner tied up in Bone the next morning when another intense air raid developed and the tanker Empire Metal alongside us was hit and immediately began to burn fiercely. She was carrying 4000 tons of petrol. Needless to say, we quickly shifted our berth. The First Lieutenant, Duncan Carson, recalls that we did not waste time weighing anchor (we had two down) and so we steamed full astern with them dragging. This caused us to drunkenly swing all around the harbour and at one stage we hit the stern of another destroyer the Lamerton . Apparently, when she went back to Gibraltar for repairs, her skipper laconically entered in the damage report
"... stern was damaged when struck by Lightning".
On the Empire Metal from the crew of 47 and 9 gunners, the Captain and 5 others were lost. I remember that she burned until the 6th January when she was bombarded by Laforey eventually breaking in two and sinking.
In the same air raid that the Empire Metal was bombed, the minesweeper Alarm was hit and had to be beached. The same day, the St. Merriel was hit, five of the crew and one Naval gunner were lost. The fire was still burning on 6 January when we put a party aboard to try and salvage her and finally got the fire under control. Unfortunately, she was bombed again on 9 February and was a total wreck. There were many mentions in dispatches for the men for their brave work on the vessel.
When Ajax was bombed it was obvious that she would need major repair work before she could take part in the war again. And so she was towed part of the way to Gibraltar for eventual passage to America.
On 7th January we, in company with Loyal, escorted her from Philippville to Algiers, where we arrived at 1730 on 10th.
Two days later we departed Algiers and arrived at Bone at 0900 on 13th.
Bone was very much a forward base for the Royal Navy and we could see the German aircraft taking off from their airfields to come and attack us, which they did most days. It never ceased to amaze me how more ships and men did not get hit as we were all packed so tightly in the small harbour with warships alongside ammunition ships alongside tankers.
German E boats were also based about eighty miles away at Bizerta (now called Bizerte). These craft were quite small and operated in flotillas of about six craft. They were also very fast and carried a machine gun and two full sized torpedoes. As our stay at Bone progressed they increased their activity in the Bay of Bone at night and a flotilla of MTBs were moved to Bone to counter them.
Force Q was a strike force intended to hit enemy shipping carrying war supplies from Italy to the German troops in North Africa. Here is an extract of commander Walters' account of some of the actions.
Details of operations from Bone, 12 to 21 January 1943
"Lightning took Loyal out at 1740/12 on a sweep of the area. Several aircraft were attacked, with no success. Arrived back at 0900/13.
At 1730/17 Lightning and Loyal went to sea to carry out an offensive sweep to the south of Cagliari at 25 knots. An enemy aircraft was engaged, but it flew away. At 2300/17 smoke was sighted and the enemy approached. By 0030/18 range was closed to 5000 yards. It was a merchant ship of about 3000 tons. Lightning hit her with her third salvo and continued to hit her. A large fire broke out and she stopped. By this time Lightning and Loyal were past her and turned back. Lightning then ran in firing and readied to fire torpedoes. But before this could happen the ship blew up with a heavy explosion in position 38 degrees 40 minutes N, 09 degrees 32 minutes E. At 0300/18 course was shaped for Bone. An enemy aircraft was driven off with 4.7 inch fire."
Arthur Chubb vividly remembers this action
"...we had been closed up at action stations all evening, I was in 'B' turret. When we attacked this particular ship we fired about 180 rounds in ten minutes - which was very hard work. When we stopped firing we went out onto the gun deck and I can remember seeing all of the empty shell cases around us. All of a sudden I heard a huge explosion and the enemy ship just vanished".
At the time some of the crew thought that our continued heavy bombardment of the ship after she had stopped was rather cruel and must have cost the crew their lives, after all she was a merchantman and would probably have sunk in due course. It wasn't until the mid 1950s, when Arthur Chubb happened to meet the then retired captain Walters in Portsmouth, that the full story emergered.
Apparently, we had at the time recently received a signal to the effect that many of the Axis merchant ships were being manned by German Naval crews. Hence it was believed that they would be well drilled in damage control and could possibly save a badly damaged ship whereas a merchant crew would probably abandon the ship to its fate. We were therefore ordered to press home all attacks until the vessel was destroyed.
In the same month we also engaged and sank two small enemy merchant vessels the Favor and Tanaro.
From time to time we escorted the fast mine layer Abdiel in laying mines off the islands of Sicily and Galita at night. We could always tell when we would be going out with her - if we came into harbour and she was low in the water (with mines) then the buzz went round the ship "we're out again tonight lads".
One such occasion was on 31 January 1943, going out she was so heavily loaded that she could only make about fifteen knots, but after laying the mines she was much faster than us and, just like our sorties in the North sea with
The continuous, heavy air attacks were a feature of our stay at Bone, usually in the afternoon. With particularly severe ones on January 14, 16, 17 and February 9th. In one of these, I received several shrapnel wounds in my shoulder and my tin hat was badly holed - even so, I remained aboard the ship.
Whilst in harbour in Algiers my good mate Tom Taylor received a telegram from home to say that his father had died in Durham hospital on January 23rd. Tom was shattered and beside himself with grief, he confided the news with me the next day. My dad had died a year earlier and so I understood how he felt.