Torpedo attack on Malta convoy
23 July 1941: Light Cruiser HMS Manchester suffers casualties and damage
HMS Eridge was part of a convoy taking urgently needed supplies from the British base at Gibraltar to the island of Malta. Commanding the destroyer was Frank Gregory-Smith who was later to write a vivid memoir of life during the Mediterranean war:
Now that the moment of decision was at hand many men, who had experienced only excited anticipation since leaving Gibraltar, were feeling a little apprehensive. HMS Ark Royal, several miles astern, had flown off her fighter patrols, one of which was circling high above the convoy. The sun was still below the horizon when this patrol hurtled eastward at full throttle.
Seconds later a large number of torpedo bombers flipped above the horizon, split into two groups and rapidly closed the convoy from both bows. Instantly the screening destroyers adjusted their courses to bring to bear as many guns as possible and laid down a barrage, a ragged crescendo of gunfire swiftly merging into a continuous cacophony. Shell bursts, splashes and cordite fumes quickly blurred the horizon and partially obscured the bombers.
One, just skimming the sea, burst out of the haze and flew between HMS Eridge and her neighbour. Leading Seaman Rayner managed a short burst with the pom-pom. He could clearly see the pale, strained face of her gunner, a man with only seconds to live, as he swung his weapon and peppered the upperworks with a few ineffectual rounds.
Then the bomber was through the screen and the battleship HMS Nelson's guns opened fire with a mighty crash. The aircraft staggered and a tongue of flame, leaping from the fuselage, swiftly expanded into a great ball of fire amid which the bomber suddenly disintegrated.
‘Suddenly, a vivid flash was followed by a pillar of black smoke. Brewer studied it through his binoculars and remarked almost casually, 'HMS Manchester's been hit.'
Adjacent destroyers had ceased firing and were manoeuvring back into their screening positions. Ships on the far side of the convoy were still heavily engaged but, in the murk, it was impossible to see if the attackers were the first or a following wave of torpedo bombers.
Suddenly, a vivid flash was followed by a pillar of black smoke. Brewer studied it through his binoculars and remarked almost casually, 'HMS Manchester's been hit.'
Then his voice suddenly rose several octaves. 'High level bombers bearing green 130.' Feeling the urgency in his voice, I glanced to starboard and nearly missed a heartbeat.
About forty high level bombers, having synchronised their approach with the torpedo attack, were closing from supposedly neutral French Algeria, practically unopposed.
HMS Eridge escaped on this occasion but HMS Manchester was seriously damaged by a torpedo.
HMS Manchester suffered a 60 foot hole in the hull allowing so much water to enter that she began to list heavily. 26 men from her crew were killed along with 12 of the troops who were taking passage on her. She was forced to return to Gibraltar, suffering yet another attack by Italian aircraft en route back, which she survived.
Red Tobruk: Memoirs of a World War II Destroyer Commander