The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 23 — The New Zealand Cruisers
The New Zealand Cruisers
WHEN the Achilles was taken in hand at Portsmouth in April 1943 for an extensive refit and rearming, it was estimated that she would be ready for sea by the middle of September 1943. But, because of serious damage caused by an explosion in the ship in June and other delays, the date of completion was put forward to May 1944.
The question of an early replacement for the Achilles was raised by the High Commissioner for New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. W. J. Jordan. In a telegram to the Prime Minister dated 30 June he said: ‘… I wonder whether under the circumstances, you would consider having another ship of the same type and so engage ship's company at earlier date, thus maintaining present high efficiency. It is hinted that HMS Gambia,1 comparatively new, is refitted and will probably be ready for commission about September….’
On the suggestion of the New Zealand Naval Board, the Prime Minister replied as follows:
Replacement of HMNZS Achilles by HMS Gambia would be accepted but we are not prepared to press for this as we have no information as to the urgency of providing cruisers for other theatres of war. It is possible that the manning situation in the United Kingdom makes the suggested exchange convenient to the Admiralty as it would provide earlier active employment for the New Zealand crew at present in Achilles, which is desirable, and give more time for the assembly of a Royal Navy crew for Achilles.
1 Gambia, light cruiser of ‘Fiji’ class of eleven ships named after British colonies. Built at Wallsend-on-Tyne; laid down 24 Jul 1939; launched 30 Nov 1940; completed 21 Feb 1942; length 555 ft 6 in; breadth 62 ft; standard displacement, 8000 tons; speed 32 knots; twelve 6-inch guns, eight 4-inch, and 22 light anti-aircraft guns; six 21-inch torpedo-tubes. When the Gambia during her first commission paid a visit to Bathurst, capital of the small West African colony, the Governor referred to her as ‘our own ship’. The native people subscribed £800 to a welfare fund for the ship's company and presented her with a silk white ensign. As a unit of the Eastern Fleet, the Gambia took part in the operations against Madagascar, covering the landing of the troops who captured Diego Suarez in May 1942.
The High Commissioner reported on 25 August the First Lord's assurance that the Admiralty would very much like to meet the request unreservedly, but that it was very difficult to meet cruiser requirements in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and for future operations in the Indian Ocean. Consequently, while the Admiralty was ready to agree that the Gambia be manned by the crew of the Achilles and lent to New Zealand, it could do so only on condition that she remained under the operational control of the Admiralty. It was the present intention that the Gambia, after commissioning and working up, should join the Eastern Fleet. The Admiralty had no objection to the crew of the Leander manning the Achilles and the latter ship returning to New Zealand when ready. These arrangements were agreed to by the Naval Board and the Admiralty was informed that they were acceptable to the Government.
In a personal letter to the High Commissioner, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr A. V. Alexander, said the New Zealand Government's concurrence in the proposals ‘will be of the greatest assistance and we shall be proud indeed to have a ship manned by a New Zealand crew working with the Royal Navy. It is, of course, understood that the Gambia will commission as a ship of the Royal New Zealand Navy, but as she will be operating under Admiralty control, it would be reasonable for us to assume complete financial responsibility for her maintenance and material.’
This arrangement continued for twelve months. In a memorandum to the Minister of Defence dated 7 September 1944, the Naval Secretary pointed out that the terms on which the Achilles and Leander were lent to New Zealand provided that the cost of maintenance and normal refits, and of any alterations necessary to keep them up to the standard of similar ships of the Royal Navy, were to be borne by New Zealand. Since the Royal New Zealand Navy could not provide sufficient ratings to man three cruisers, the Leander would not be recommissioned with a New Zealand crew. The Dominion would be responsible for at least a part of the cost of her large refit and also, of course, for the repair of her action damage. It was desirable, however, that the Gambia should be transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy. The naval members of the Naval Board, therefore, recommended that the Government should take over full financial responsibility for the material and maintenance of the Gambia as from 8 May 1944, the date on which the Leander page 352 became a Royal Navy manned commitment, so that they would have continuous responsibility for two cruisers as hitherto, and that such responsibility be defined in the same way as for the Achilles and Leander and, before them, the Dunedin and Diomede. This proposal was approved by War Cabinet on 26 October 1944 and agreed to by the Admiralty.
HMNZS Gambia was commissioned at Liverpool on 22 September 1943 under the command of Captain William-Powlett, DSC, RN.1 A few of the officers and three-quarters of the ratings were New Zealanders. On 3 October the High Commissioner visited the Gambia and addressed the ship's company. He read the following message from the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. P. Fraser:
On behalf of the New Zealand Government I wish to convey to Captain William-Powlett and the officers and men on the commissioning of the Gambia for service in the Royal New Zealand Navy best wishes for a successful commission. We know that you will add to the laurels already gained by the Royal New Zealand Navy, and that your ship will prove a source of pride to the Colony whose name it bears, and in which the people of Gambia have shown such great interest. The link which you form between the Dominion of New Zealand and the Colony of Gambia will, we trust, be a firm and lasting one. Kia ora.
At the time she was commissioned, the Gambia was completing an extensive refit which included the renewal of the fire-main system, additions to the anti-aircraft armament, and elaborate radar equipment. She was floated out of dock on 10 October 1943 and went to sea next morning for steaming and gunnery trials. After a week at anchor in the Clyde ‘shaking down’, the ship arrived at Scapa Flow on 20 October and was attached to the First Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet. The next six weeks were spent in working-up exercises, all hands showing great keenness in learning to fight their ship.
The first task assigned to the Gambia was to take part in Operation STONEWALL, planned to intercept enemy blockade runners on passage to and from the Bay of Biscay. She arrived at Plymouth from Scapa Flow on 5 December 1943 to work with HM ships Glasgow and Enterprise2 under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief Plymouth.
1 Captain N. J. W. William-Powlett, DSC, RN; born Devon, 1896; entered Royal Navy 1908; awarded DSC as Sub-Lieutenant of HMS Tipperary in Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916; Captain, 31 Dec 1938; CO Anti-Submarine Experimental Establishment, 1940–42; CO HMNZS Gambia, Sep 1943–Apr 1945.
2 HMS Glasgow, 9100 tons; 32 knots; twelve 6-inch, eight 4-inch guns; six 21-inch torpedo-tubes. HMS Enterprise, 7580 tons; 32 knots; seven 6-inch, five 4-inch guns; sixteen torbedo-tubes.
The Gambia sailed from Plymouth on 12 December and arrived at Horta in the Azores three days later. During the next fortnight she and the Glasgow patrolled a line about 500 miles north-northwest of the islands, relieving each other at intervals to refuel at Horta. Nothing happened until the evening of 23 December, when an aircraft from the American escort carrier Card sighted a ship suspected as an inward-bound blockade runner, about 560 miles to the westward of Cape Ushant. About the same time other aircraft patrolling the southern part of the Bay of Biscay reported up to twelve ships — one a merchant ship and the others destroyers — steering a westerly course. They were reported next morning by several aircraft to be still heading to the westward in an area north-west of Cape Finisterre. The Gambia and Glasgow were ordered to take up a patrol line north of the Azores and the Enterprise left Plymouth, steaming to the south-west at 25 knots.
At midday 24 December the shadowing aircraft reported that the enemy force had turned to an easterly course after meeting an inward-bound blockade runner whose description fitted the German motor-vessel Osorno, 6950 tons, known to be on passage from the Far East. About three hours later the convoy was attacked by eight aircraft, one of which reported a direct hit and another a very near miss on a merchant ship.1
1 An aircraft reconnaissance on 28 December found the Osorno at Le Verdon, apparently aground and being unloaded into lighters.
In the forenoon of 27 December a Sunderland flying boat patrolling about 500 miles north-west of Cape Finisterre sighted a merchant ship steering to the south-eastward. The Enterprise to the eastward and the Glasgow, about 300 miles west from the vessel, were ordered to steam at best speed toward an intercepting position about 300 miles north-west of Cape Finisterre. About an hour later the Gambia, which had left Fayal shortly after midnight, and HMS Penelope,2 then on her way from Gibraltar to the Azores, were also ordered to steer for that position. In the meantime the merchant ship was being shadowed by aircraft which made several unsuccessful bombing attacks.
Early in the afternoon the Commander-in-Chief Plymouth made a signal designating the Gambia, Glasgow, Enterprise, and Penelope as Force 3 under the command of Captain William-Powlett in HMNZS Gambia. The cruisers were informed that eleven or twelve German destroyers might have sailed from the French coast to meet the blockade runner, possibly before daybreak on the 28th.
But the fate of that vessel was already sealed. At 4.15 p.m. a heavy bomber of Coastal Command, manned by Czechs, arrived over the ship to take over shadowing, and at once attacked with bombs and rockets which scored direct hits. A heavy explosion followed, and when the striking force of Halifaxes arrived at six o'clock the ship was burning fiercely and sinking. Four lifeboats carrying seventyfour officers and men, including the master, were in the vicinity. They were picked up forty-eight hours later by four Canadian corvettes. They reported that three men had been killed in the ship, which was the Alsterufer laden with rubber, tin, and tungsten from Bangkok and Singapore.3
1 HMS Ariadne, minelayer, 2650 tons; speed 40 knots; six 4·7-inch guns.
3 Alsterufer, motor-vessel of 2729 tons gross register; speed 15 knots; built in 1939 as a fruit carrier. In 1941 she was employed as a supply ship for German raiders in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
The first definite news of the enemy was received at 9.28 a.m. on the 28th, when an aircraft reported four destroyers steaming west at 14 knots in a position about 250 miles north-west of Cape Finisterre, seemingly still unaware of the sinking of the Alsterufer. At eleven o'clock, however, another aircraft reported that the enemy had reversed course to the eastward, the number of destroyers being given as ten. The Glasgow and Enterprise, then about 45 miles to the south-eastward, headed north-north-east at high speed.
Action was joined at 1.46 p.m. when the Glasgow opened fire with eight destroyers in sight at a range of 18,500 yards; the Enterprise joined in four minutes later. The enemy ships made good use of smoke floats, retiring behind their screens as the cruisers' fire became effective. The destroyers kept together on a south-south-east course for about three-quarters of an hour, during which time the cruisers engaged one or another as the smoke allowed and probably damaged several of them. At two o'clock a Focke-Wulf aircraft appeared and released a glider bomb,1 but effective fire from the Glasgow forced the enemy to turn away and the bomb fell astern of the ship and exploded harmlessly. The destroyers fired torpedoes with considerable accuracy but the cruisers successfully evaded their tracks. The enemy's gunfire was fairly accurate and both cruisers were straddled frequently, but the only direct hit was on the Glasgow and killed two men of the port pom-pom's crew, six others being slightly injured.
At 2.28 p.m. the enemy force divided, four ships turning away to the north-west and the others disappearing south behind smoke. The cruisers turned westward in pursuit of the four. Two minutes later another glider bomb exploded in the sea about 400 yards off the port quarter of the Enterprise. By 3.15 p.m. one destroyer had been brought to a standstill, another was damaged and retiring under cover of smoke, a third was being engaged by the Glasgow and the fourth by the Enterprise. These last two were sunk twenty-five minutes later and the Glasgow then sank the one which had been stopped. The destroyers sunk were two of the Elbing and one of the Narvik class.2 Sixty-two survivors were picked up by British minesweepers, 164 by a small Irish steamer which landed them at Cork, and four others by Spanish destroyers.
1 Glider bombs were fitted with wings and when released were directed toward their target by means of wireless control from the aircraft.
2 Elbing class: 1100 tons; speed 33 knots; four 4·1-inch guns; six torpedo-tubes. Narvik class: 2400 tons; 36 knots; four 5·9-inch guns; eight torpedo-tubes.
As more blockade runners from the Far East were expected, the Gambia and her sister-ship Mauritius (from Gibraltar) maintained the outer cruiser patrol north of the Azores for the next three days. The Gambia returned to Plymouth on 1 January 1944. She had been at sea for 22 days and had steamed 8720 miles during the month of December. The last of the blockade runners were disposed of by United States Navy patrols in the South Atlantic, three German ships being sunk between 3 and 5 January.
Having received orders to join the British Eastern Fleet, the Gambia sailed from Plymouth in the forenoon of 30 January. She arrived at Gibraltar on 2 February and sailed the following morning for Alexandria, where she made a stay of three days. The passage through the Suez Canal was made on 10 February. Aden was reached three days later, and on 19 February the Gambia arrived at Trincomalee where she joined the Fourth Cruiser Squadron, Eastern Fleet. The early months of 1944 saw a substantial strengthening of the Eastern Fleet. On 2 January the Admiralty issued a revised composition of the fleet in which 146 ships were listed for its reinforcement up to the end of April 1944.
During the last week of February 1944 a concentration of major Japanese ships at Singapore led to action being taken to increase the air protection of the Eastern Fleet bases in Ceylon and augment the air striking force in the Bay of Bengal. The United States aircraft-carrier Saratoga and three destroyers were sent from the Pacific to join the Eastern Fleet. The expected incursion of Japanese forces into the Indian Ocean did not eventuate. It is very doubtful whether the enemy had any such intention. The major breaches in his defence perimeter in the Pacific called for a drastic revision of Japanese basic strategy which gave no place to naval adventures in the Indian Ocean.
The first seagoing duty assigned to the Gambia after joining the Eastern Fleet was concerned with enemy blockade-running. In consequence of information received from the Admiralty on 20 February, Operation SLEUTH was planned to intercept a possible German blockade runner on passage from the Far East to Europe. HMS Illustrious, with the Gambia and destroyers Rotherham and Tjerke Hiddes (Dutch) in company, sailed from Trincomalee on 22 February and swept the area south-west of Cocos Island. HMS Sussex page 357 joined the force on the 28th, relieving the Gambia, which went to Fremantle to fuel and await orders. Nothing was seen of any blockade runner.
Acting as ocean escort to a convoy of merchant ships, the Gambia left Fremantle on 7 March and arrived at Colombo ten days later. On 19 March Admiral Sir James Somerville, Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet, inspected the ship's company at divisions and welcomed the Gambia as a unit of his fleet. At that time, and later, a considerable number of RNZNVR officers and ratings were serving in other ships of the Eastern Fleet.
During the last days of March 1944, the Gambia took part in Operation DIPLOMAT which was planned to meet a United States task group and carry out exercises preliminary to operations against the Japanese. The ships employed were the Renown (flag of Vice-Admiral second-in-command Eastern Fleet), Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, the fleet carrier Illustrious, cruisers London, Cumberland, Gambia, and Ceylon, and ten destroyers. They left Trincomalee and Colombo on 21 March and carried out a wide sweep to the southward.
The object of the cruise was to give the ships' companies practice in oiling at sea. On 24 March three British fleet tankers escorted by the Dutch cruiser Tromp1 were met at a mid-ocean rendezvous 850 miles south from Ceylon. The ships of the force spent two days in refuelling from the tankers. They then steamed to the southward and on 27 March were joined by United States Task Group 58.5, which consisted of the carrier Saratoga and three destroyers. After carrying out exercises, the combined force returned to Trincomalee on 31 March.
A request was now made to the Admiralty by the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral King, that the Eastern Fleet should carry out a diversionary attack about the middle of April with the object of holding Japanese air and surface forces in the Singapore area while the American seaborne assault on Hollandia and Aitape on the north coast of Dutch New Guinea was developing. It was decided that a seaborne air strike at the Japanese base at Sabang, a small island off the north-west end of Sumatra, was the most suitable form of attack.
For the purposes of what was designated Operation COCKPIT, two truly Allied forces were organised as follows:
1 Tromp, 3350 tons; speed 33 knots; six 5·9-inch, sixteen light AA guns, six torpedo-tubes.
2 Richelieu, 35,000 tons; speed 30 knots; eight 15-inch and nine 6-inch guns; twelve 3·9-inch and 106 light anti-aircraft guns.
Force 70: HMS Renown (flag of Vice-Admiral A. J. Power, second-in-command Eastern Fleet), HMS Illustrious (flag of Rear-Admiral Clement Moody, commanding aircraft-carriers), USS Saratoga; HMS London; HM destroyers Quilliam, Queenborough, and Quadrant; US destroyers Dunlap, Cummings, and Fanning.
British submarines were stationed in the Strait of Malacca to co-operate with these forces. A number of New Zealand pilots of the Fleet Air Arm and six New Zealand radar ratings and a signalman were serving in HMS Illustrious.
The fleet sailed from Trincomalee on 16 April, and two days later the Gambia and Ceylon were detached from Force 69 to strengthen the anti-aircraft defence of the carrier force. At 5.30 a.m. on the 19th, 100 miles from Sabang, 17 bombers and 13 fighters took off from the Illustrious and 29 bombers and 24 fighters from the Saratoga. Their attack was apparently a complete surprise to the enemy. As the Commander-in-Chief put it, the Japanese were ‘caught with their kimonos up’. No fighter opposition was met and there was no anti-aircraft fire until after the first bombs were dropped. Twelve American aircraft were hit but all save one got safely back to the Saratoga. The twelfth came down about a mile from Sabang, the pilot being rescued by the submarine Tactician under fire from shore batteries.
Thirty tons of bombs were dropped on Sabang and the Lho Nga airfield on the mainland. Two merchant ships were hit and two Japanese destroyers and an escort ship strafed and set on fire. Twenty-four aircraft were destroyed on the airfield and a direct hit by a 1000-pound bomb set a large oil tank on fire. The power-station, barracks, and wireless station were badly damaged, and large fires in the dockyard were seen by the Tactician to be burning fiercely hours after the fleet had left on its return to Trincomalee.
On 6 May the Gambia sailed with the Allied fleet from Trincomalee on Operation TRANSOM, the main purpose of which was an attack by carrier-borne aircraft on the Japanese naval base at Sourabaya in Java. The composition of the striking and covering forces was much the same as before. A convoy of six fleet tankers and a water-distilling ship, escorted by the cruisers London and Suffolk, sailed in advance of the fleet to Exmouth Gulf on the north-west coast of Australia, about 600 miles from Java. After refuelling there page 359 on 15 May, the fleet put to sea before sunset and arrived in the flying-off position about 90 miles from the south-west coast of Java at daybreak on the 17th. The flying distance to Sourabaya was about 180 miles, one half of it over enemy-held territory. The striking force was made up of 30 bombers and 24 fighters from the Saratoga and 18 bombers and 16 fighters from the Illustrious. One American bomber had to return owing to engine trouble and two from the Illustrious crashed after taking off, their crews being rescued.
The Japanese were again taken by surprise and considerable havoc was wrought. Ten ships in harbour were hit by bombs and one was seen to blow up. An oil refinery, a power-house, and an engineering works were demolished. The naval base and two floating docks were badly damaged and oil tanks and stores destroyed by fire. Nineteen aircraft were destroyed on the airfields, where hangars and other buildings were set on fire, and two aircraft were shot down by fighters. The only Allied loss due to enemy action was one American bomber, whose crew was last seen in a rubber dinghy outside the harbour. That night American bombers of the South-West Pacific Command flew 2500 miles to bomb Sourabaya, causing further extensive damage.
Operation TRANSOM concluded what Admiral Somerville called ‘a profitable and very happy association of Task Group 58.5 with the Eastern Fleet’. The Saratoga and her three destroyers parted company with the Eastern Fleet before sunset on 18 May. They called at Fremantle two days later to refuel and sailed thence to rejoin the United States Pacific Fleet. Somerville's ships refuelled from the tankers in Exmouth Gulf and arrived at Trincomalee on 27 May. On 9 June Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia, visited HMNZS Gambia and addressed the ship's company. The New Zealand cruiser went to sea with the fleet on 10 June for a three-days' sweep across the Bay of Bengal, but nothing was seen of the enemy. She then went up from Trincomalee to Madras and embarked Fleet Air Arm personnel and stores for Colombo, where she arrived on 17 June for a stay of ten days. Liberal leave was granted to the ship's company and parties of 150 ratings from each watch were sent to the rest camp at Diyatalawa. All hands benefited from the change and rest.
The Gambia missed the air strike at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands on 21 June but took an active part in Operation CRIMSON, the bombardment of the Japanese naval base at Sabang, five weeks later. This was a notable occasion, it being the first time since the Eastern Fleet turned to the offensive that the ship's guns were in action against Japanese shore defences. Admiral Somerville's Force 62 consisted of four capital ships, two aircraft-carriers, seven cruisers, and ten destroyers.page 360
This time the role of the Fleet Air Arm was restricted to a surprise attack by fighter aircraft on enemy airfields before the bombardment started, and to maintaining patrols over the airfields and the ships until the operation ended. At daybreak on 25 July the fighter striking forces, which included a number of New Zealand pilots, were flown off the Illustrious and Victorious and strafed the airfields in face of considerable enemy fire. Two Japanese aircraft were destroyed at Sabang and one at each of the airfields at Lho Nga and Kota Raja. One of these was shot down by Sub-Lieutenant (A) Heffer, RNZNVR,1 of HMS Illustrious, whose ‘considerable skill and fine judgment’ on this, his first combat operation, earned him the award of the Distinguished Service Cross.
The battleships steamed in from the northward and opened fire at 6.55 a.m., the Queen Elizabeth leading the line. This was the first time she had engaged an enemy target with her 15-inch guns since she was in action off Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 — twenty-nine years before. The battleships fired 292 rounds of 15-inch at a mean range of 18,000 yards, causing much destruction and starting numerous fires in and about the dockyard area.
The cruisers stood in much closer and effectively engaged coast-defence batteries and other targets at a mean range of 8500 yards. The Cumberland's 8-inch fire demolished the radio station. The Gambia and Kenya quickly silenced the enemy batteries that were their particular targets. An ammunition dump was blown up and several fires started in and about the batteries. In all, the cruisers fired 1074 rounds. The Nigeria rescued the pilot of a fighter which crashed four miles off shore.
Immediately after the battleships ceased firing, the destroyers Quilliam, Quality, and Quickmatch and the Dutch cruiser Tromp steamed into the harbour, exchanging fire with shore batteries as they went. ‘The entry of this group into Sabang harbour was most spectacular and inspiring,’ wrote Admiral Somerville. ‘The ships obviously were determined to take full advantage of the opportunity offered for close action.’ The Tromp was hit four times by dud shells, but suffered no casualties. The Quilliam and Quality were slightly damaged by shellfire, two men being killed and twelve wounded. An enemy merchant ship was blown up and much damage about the waterfront was done by torpedoes and gunfire at pointblank range. The withdrawal was made under heavy fire from shore batteries, several of which were silenced.
At the end of August Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, GCB, KBE, late Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, arrived at Trincomalee and relieved Admiral Sir James Somerville, who had been Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet since March 1942.
During August and September the Gambia was at sea for only seven days, mainly on exercises with the other ships of the Fourth Cruiser Squadron. A spell of six days at Madras was a welcome break in the ship's war routine. The Gambia arrived at Colombo on 10 September and spent the remainder of the month refitting in dry-dock, half of her ship's company at a time living in the Royal Navy rest camp at Diyatalawa. When she returned to Trincomalee on 6 October 1944, the Gambia found herself in company with HMNZS Achilles, which had arrived from England on 13 September and joined the Eastern Fleet. The Gambia had received orders to proceed to New Zealand, and during the five days the two cruisers were together inter-ship drafting was carried out to relieve where possible ratings in the Achilles due for overseas service leave. On 15 October Rear-Admiral A. D. Read, CBE, who was soon to be relieved in command of the Fourth Cruiser Squadron, inspected the Gambia and in a brief farewell speech complimented the ship's company on her general efficiency and, in particular, on her good gunnery.
Having embarked seventy-eight service passengers for Fremantle and twenty torpedoes, the Gambia sailed from Trincomalee next day. On the 17th she met the United States transports General William Mitchell and General George M. Randall,1 the latter carrying New Zealand troops on furlough from the Mediterranean. The cruiser parted company with the transports south-west of Fremantle on 24 October and, after refuelling at that port and at Melbourne, arrived at Wellington on 24 November.
The Achilles spent more than fourteen months in Portsmouth dockyard refitting and rearming. On 22 June 1943 a violent explosion occurred in one of her main fuel tanks, killing and injuring many dockyard hands and causing considerable structural damage to the ship. The tank had been emptied and cleaned in April and workmen were making moulds in the double-bottom fuel tank preparatory to erecting two bulkheads in the compartment.
Fourteen workmen were killed and many others injured by the explosion, twelve being sent to hospital. The fuel tank in which the explosion occurred and three other compartments were almost completely wrecked. A number of bulkheads were collapsed or badly distorted by the blast. The deck above was blown upwards six or seven feet, the platform deck was torn away from the ship's side, and the shell plating bulged outwards over an area of about thirty feet by ten feet. A number of watertight doors were blown through their frames. Besides those killed, a considerable number of workmen, injured or stunned, were trapped in the damaged compartments. They were rescued by members of the ship's company assisted by other workmen. Dense smoke at first prevented access to the seat of damage. Two ratings equipped with breathing apparatus tried to get through by way of the stokers' mess deck but were overpowered by smoke, and one had to be hauled out by means of a lifeline. The smoke was finally dispersed by water spray.
Some ten or twelve dockyard men owed their lives to the initiative and cold courage of three ratings who, regardless of their own safety, went below and worked to the limit of endurance. They were Stoker First Class William Dale, RNZNVR,1 who was subsequently awarded the Albert Medal, and Engine-Room Artificer William Vaughan, RN,2 and Stoker First Class Ernest Valentine, RNZNVR,3 who were mentioned in despatches.
Wearing a smoke helmet, Vaughan went down into a compartment, the condition of which was unknown, in an endeavour to rescue men believed to have been working there. He could not find them in the pitch darkness and dense smoke, and, in an almost unconscious state, had to be assisted back. Recovering after a short spell, Vaughan went down to the switchboard room, from which he sent up several semi-conscious men before he was again almost overcome by fumes and assisted back to the upper deck. On both occasions Vaughan was saved by the energetic action of a sixteen-year-old lad named Baxter, who had been boiler-cleaning. Stoker Valentine worked his way through smoke and debris into a badly-wrecked compartment and extricated a number of dazed men. It was probably from this or an adjacent compartment that others were rescued later by Stokers Clarke1 and Stow2 and Leading Supply Assistant Brittain.3
The rearming of the Achilles involved the removal of one of her after-turrets, thus reducing the number of her 6-inch guns from eight to six. Four additional 4-inch dual-purpose guns were mounted, increasing the number of these weapons to eight. The four two-pounder pom-pom guns were retained and the close-range antiaircraft armament was increased by fitting eleven 20-millimetre Oerlikon guns. The fighting efficiency of the ship was increased by the installation of the latest types of radar and other equipment in which rapid developments had been made during the war. The appearance of the Achilles was altered by substituting tripod masts for those of the single-pole type.
4 Captain F. J. Butler, MBE, RN, m.i.d.; midshipman and sub-lieutenant, HMS Lion, 1915–19; Commander, 31 Dec 1933; Captain, 31 Dec 1941; CO HMS Danae 1939–42; Gunnery School, Devonport, 1942–44; HMNZS Achilles 1944–46; died 20 Jan 1953.
At the time the Achilles was commissioned, all the harbours along the south coast of England were alive with ships and landing craft getting ready for the great invasion of Normandy. The pressure at Portsmouth was intense, and it was doubtless for that reason that the Achilles was ordered to sail as soon as possible for Scapa Flow to complete her refit. But, after leaving harbour on 3 June, the Achilles had a series of machinery failures and she anchored off Greenock, where she spent four weeks making good defects. Her ‘working-up’ exercises at Scapa Flow were cut short when she was selected as a reserve cruiser of the naval supporting forces for the landings on the south coast of France (Operation DRAGOON).
The Achilles sailed from the Clyde on 16 August. She arrived at Gibraltar on the 19th and left next day with 300 troops for Algiers. As she was now not needed for Operation DRAGOON, the Achilles was ordered to join the Eastern Fleet and sailed from Malta on 26 August, calling at Alexandria and Aden on her way to Bombay. Three days after leaving Aden an oil-fuel fire broke out in one of her boiler-rooms. It was extinguished in about twenty-five minutes after destroying some electric cables and other fittings and damaging brickwork in a boiler furnace. The Achilles arrived at Bombay on 8 September 1944 and five days later at Trincomalee, where repairs to the boiler-room were carried out. The cruiser joined the Fourth Cruiser Squadron, Eastern Fleet, in which HMNZS Gambia was then serving.
In company with the Australian-manned destroyers Quiberon and Quickmatch,2 the Achilles sailed from Hobart westbound on 9 January 1945, escorting the Empress of Scotland (formerly Empress of Japan, 26,032 tons) and two United States transports. The Empress of Scotland, which was carrying some 3700 troops of the 14th Reinforcements, 2 NZEF, had sailed from Wellington on 6 January escorted by the Quiberon and Quickmatch. On the 14th the convoy was met off Cape Leeuwin by HMS London,3 which took over the escort duties, the destroyers going to Albany and the Achilles to Fremantle.
During the afternoon of 17 January a fire broke out in the steamer Panamanian, 15,575 tons, which was loading wheat at Fremantle. The wooden piles of the wharf at which the ship was lying were soaked with fuel-oil and oil was floating on the water. Parties of ratings from the Achilles took a leading part in fighting and suppressing the fire, which badly damaged the Panamanian, endangered other ships in the harbour, and for a time threatened a major disaster.
1 HMS Swiftsure, light cruiser, 8000 tons; 31·5 knots; nine 6-inch, ten 4-inch, and numerous light anti-aircraft guns; six torpedo-tubes; completed June 1944. Atheling, Battler, Fencer, Striker, escort aircraft-carriers; 11,000 to 11,450 tons displacement; 16 knots; 15 to 20 aircraft; numerous anti-aircraft guns; built in USA 1942. Kempenfelt (leader), Wager, Wakeful, Wessex, Whelp, fleet destroyers; 1710 tons; 34 knots; 4·7-inch and numerous anti-aircraft guns; eight torpedo-tubes; completed 1943. In the British Pacific Fleet the escort aircraft-carriers provided transport for replacement aircraft for the fleet carriers and anti-submarine escort for Fleet Train convoys.
2 Quiberon and Quickmatch (also Quality, Queenborough, and Quadrant), fleet destroyers; 1650 tons; 34 knots; four 4·7-inch and numerous light anti-aircraft guns; eight torpedo-tubes; completed 1942; transferred to Royal Australian Navy for manning, 1943.
4 Suffolk, cruiser, 10,000 tons; 31·5 knots; eight 8-inch, eight 4-inch guns. Unicorn, aircraft-carrier, 15,000 tons; 35 aircraft; eight 4·5-inch and numerous light anti-aircraft guns; 22 knots; equipped as aircraft repair ship. Ulster, destroyer, 1710 tons; 34 knots; four 4·7-inch guns; eight torpedo-tubes.
In company with HMS Howe and the destroyers Quadrant, Quality, and Quickmatch, the Achilles arrived at Auckland from Sydney on 5 February 1945, having been absent from New Zealand a fortnight short of two years. After a refit which lasted for nearly ten weeks, the Achilles sailed on 26 April for Sydney and Jervis Bay, where she spent nine days working up. She left Sydney on 11 May for Manus Island to join Task Force 57 (British Pacific Fleet).