Summary of Service: HMS Gloucester (1939-41)

HMS Gloucester was a ‘Southampton’ Class cruiser, built in Devonport dockyard and engined by Scotts. Laid down in September 1936, she was launched on the 19 October 1937, and completed in January 1939. Overall length was 591 feet 6 inches, breadth 62 feet 4 inches and displacement 9,600 tons. Armament was 12 x 6in guns, 8 x 4in guns, 2 x 4 barrel 2pdr pompoms, 2 triple torpedo tubes, with 6 torpedoes. The Gloucester also carried 2 Walrus aircraft.

The outbreak of World War II found Gloucester in the Red Sea as Flagship of the 4th Cruiser Squadron attached to the East Indies Command, having joined that Squadron in the previous April. During her time with the Command, Gloucester carried out patrols off the east coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. Part of her duties was escorting convoys up the coast.

In December 1939, Gloucester was transferred to Force I operating from Simonstown, from where she carried out various patrols. A proposal was made shortly afterwards that she should form part of the Cruiser Forces in Home Waters, operating from Scapa Flow, but this did not happen and she remained with Force I at Simonstown.

In May 1940, Gloucester left Force I to join the 7th Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean Fleet, operating from Alexandria. In July 1940, the Mediterranean Fleet, operating from Alexandria. In July 1940, the 7th CS took part in Operation MA5. This was an extensive sweep into the central Mediterranean (supported by Force H cruising eastwards from Gibraltar) with a dual purpose – firstly to ensure the safe passage of two convoys from Malta to Alexandria and secondly to engage the Italian Fleet if it should be at sea.

On the 08 July the Force was attacked five times by enemy aircraft. During the last attack Gloucester, which seemed to be singled out as a special target, was hit by a bomb, sustaining damage to the bridge structure and forward DCT. However, she continued with the Fleet although, due to damage, she had to be steered from aft and use her after gun control.

During the action with the Italian Fleet off Calabria which followed, Gloucester, which had been detached from the line of battle, escorted HMS Eagle. After the action, the Gloucester joined up again with the Fleet, coming under air attack again on the 11 July but with no further hits or damage.

When the damage had been repaired, Gloucester rejoined the 7th CS as Flagship for Rear Admiral Renouf, Second-in-Command of the Squadron. In august 1940, in company with HMS Liverpool, the Gloucester carried out sweeps in the Aegean and Gulf of Athens to cover movements of shipping. Later that month, with the reorganisation of naval forces in the Mediterranean, Gloucester became the Flagship of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron. Towards the end of the month, in company with HMS Kent and HMS Hereward, she carried out further sweeps to cover the movement of shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the 27 August, the ships were attacked by aircraft who dropped torpedoes but none of the Force sustained damage.

At the end of August and beginning of September, the 3rd CS (with Flag in HMS Kent) took part in Operation ‘Hats’. This was a complicated operation to cover the movement of convoy MF2 to Malta with stores, convoy AS3 to Alexandria and the movement of reinforcements to the naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean. During the operation the Malta convoy came under air attack and the 3rd CS was ordered to cover. In spite of bomb damage to the SS CORNWALL, the convoy reached Malta.

On the 29th September,Gloucester took part in Operation ‘MA5’ which had the dual purpose of passing troops and stores to Malta and engaging the enemy fleet if it could be found. The troops and stores were carried on board the Gloucester and HMS Liverpool. In spite of air attacks, the two ships reached Malta safely.

At the beginning of November 1940, Gloucester was once again at sea carrying out sweeps in support of various convoys and, in particular, in support of convoy MW3 from Alexandria to Malta. The convoy reached port safely. In the meantime, the Gloucester had rejoined the Fleet which was attacked by bombers on 10 November – without any success. Next day HMS Illustrious with Gloucester as part of her escort, left the Fleet to undertake the successful raid on Taranto harbour. The force rejoined the Fleet on the 12th November.

At the end of October, Greece had been drawn into the war as a result of the attack by Italy. To support the Greeks, convoys of personnel and stores were run to Greece and Crete. On the 15 November, Gloucester in company with the rest of the 3rd CS, HMS Sydney and three merchant ships left Alexandria with troops and stores for Piraeus. The convoy arrived safely.

On the 3rd December, the Gloucester escorted HMS Glasgow to Alexandria after that ship had been hit by torpedoes while at anchor in Suda Bay, Crete. On 10 December, Gloucester was once again part of the escort for HMS Illustrious whose aircraft were to provide air protection and spotting for bombardment of Halfayan and Sollum in support of land operations.

Early in January 1941, Gloucester took part in operation ‘Excess’. This was to cover the movement of a convoy of four ships from Gibraltar – one to Malta and three to Piraeus with stores. Also under cover of this operation, it was intended to move three subsidiary convoys. HMS Gloucester (with Admiral Renouf aboard) left Alexandria on the 06 January with troops to be disembarked at Malta, arriving there without incident on the 08 January. She then proceeded West to join convoy ‘Excess’. Shortly after meeting the convoy, it came under air attack but although bombs fell round the Gloucester she was not damaged. The main part of the escort left the convoy before the Sicilian Narrows leaving it covered by Admiral Renouf’s force of three cruisers and five destroyers for the actual passage.

During the passage of the Narrows, the convoy was attacked by two Italian torpedo aircraft. However, in spite of these attacks, the four transports were not damaged.

In the meantime the subsidiary convoys had been proceeding. Due to the actions which had been taking place, one, (convoy ME6) was thought to be inadequately covered and while the Commander-in-Chief continued with convoy ‘Excess’, Admiral Renouf was ordered to take Gloucester and two other ships to reinforce the escort. Whilst about thirty miles astern of the convoy, the three ships were attacked by German dive bombers. HMS Southampton was badly hit and had to be sunk later, while Gloucester was hit by a bomb which penetrated five decks but fortunately did not explode. She was also damaged by splinters from two near misses.

In mid-February, Gloucester, together with two other warships, once again made the run from Alexandria to Malta with two battalions of troops for the defence of the island. On the 24 February, the Gloucester was engaged in the unsuccessful attempt to capture the island of Casteloriso.

Towards the end of March, information had been received of the movements of the Italian fleet. Gloucester was one of the ships which sailed to investigate reports and took part in the ensuing Battle of Matapan when several ships of the Italian Fleet were damaged or sunk with no loss to the Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, events had moved rapidly in North Africa where the enemy land forces had attacked and advanced. In April 1941, Gloucester was giving help to the hardpressed allied land forces by carrying out bombardments of enemy concentrations, including on one occasion a concentration of about 450 motor transport vehicles at Bardia.

Towards the end of April. Gloucester arrived at Malta to reinforce the 14th Destroyer Flotilla and on the 30 April came under air attack whilst in harbour, though fortunately without damage.

At the beginning of May 1941, Gloucester left Malta for Gibraltar, in company with HMS Kipling and Kashmir, to join the 15th Cruiser Squadron. Whilst on passage, the ships were attacked by aircraft, Gloucester once again sustaining damage, this time by a bomb which passed right through the ship without exploding.

Temporary repairs were immediately carried out and on the 06 May, Gloucester sailed from Gibraltar for operation ‘Tiger’, the transit of a convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria carrying much needed tanks for the army in North Africa and some Hurricanes for the RAF. In spite of bombing and torpedo attacks, the convoy reached Alexandria with only the loss of one merchant ship which had struck a mine.

In the meantime, events had been moving rapidly in the Aegean Theatre. Under the German onslaught, Greece had been overrun and Allied troops evacuated, but Crete was still held and endeavour was to be made to continue to hold it. On the 15/16 May, Gloucester landed troops brought from Alexandria. She refuelled at Suva Bay and left for sweeping the Kithira Channel against possible invasion craft.

On the 22 May, Gloucester, with HMS Fiji, was sent to cover two destroyers which had gone to rescue survivors from HMS Greyhound. Whilst on this mission, the ships came under heavy aircraft attack. Gloucester, which sustained at least 4 hits and three near misses, was brought to a standstill, badly on fire, and later sank.

It is believed that as a result of the numerous air attacks to which the ships had been subjected previously, Gloucester was very short of anti-aircraft ammunition and that in the last attacks she had probably fired the last of her outfit. The survivors, 2 officers and 80 ratings, were picked up by the Germans and became prisoners of war.

The following Battle Honours have been awarded to the ships:

  • Lowestoft 1665;
  • Four Days’ Battle 1666;
  • Orfordness 1666;
  • Sole Bay 1672;
  • Schooneveld 1673;
  • Texel 1673;
  • Ushant 1747;
  • Jutland 1916;
  • Calabria 1940;
  • Matapan 1941;
  • Crete 1941;
  • Mediterranean 1941; and
  • Malta Convoys 1941.

Reference

FOI 2019/01021 dated 06 February 2019.

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