In memory of HMS Dunedin and her Men

Encounters with Big Ships

OUR THANKS GO TO CHRIS BROADWAY FOR THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE ON DUNEDIN’S NEAR MISSES WITH GERMAN NAVY (AND ONE FRENCH) BIG GUN SHIPS.

During the war very few surface ships of the Royal Navy came up against major German surface ships and Dunedin never got into surface action – but she came close.

After two and a half months with the Northern Patrol in the winter of 1939, with high speed steaming and very bad weather Dunedin was in need of a refit, and this was arranged on the Clyde. On her last patrol before refit Dunedin was relieved by the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi at 0730 on 23rd November and hastened south, stripping some of her torpedo armament and getting ready for refit as she went. She was a few hours south when at 1545 Rawalpindi reported she was under attack by a pocket battleship, and as ordered Dunedin reversed course and at 20 knots in very bad weather headed back towards the datum where Rawalpindi, despite the odds, had stood and fought.

By 0430 on 24th November Dunedin’s torpedoes were all available but by 0800 the ship was down to 340 tons of useable oil and some tanks were flooded with seawater to maintain stability, so Dunedin and Diomede were ordered into Scapa for fuel, arriving on 25th November and sailing again at 0102 to join the Home Fleet hunting Deutschland, Dunedin having meantime made good storm damage. Dunedin was making 24 knots in bad weather. On 26th November the weather deteriorated, nothing had been found, and the opinion of the Ships Company, who had expected by then to be headed for leave, was expressed in a diary by one of the ships company – “Still tearing about, rough sea and bad weather….” No mention at all of the danger of running into the Deutschland which figured very much less in the crew’s minds than getting into refit, and leave.

At 2345 on 27th the possibilities came sharply back into focus when Dunedin went to action stations as she challenged a cruiser sized ship and did not get a response, as the diary reports with some relief “ – friendly, one of ours – very much relieved.” (This was HMS Delhi). On 28th Dunedin fuelled again in Sullom Voe and at 0700 sailed again, once more into foul weather, to rejoin the Fleet. By this time she was one of sixty-six ships hunting the Deutschland. On 30th word came through that if nothing had been found by 0900 on 1st December she was to proceed to the Clyde for the delayed refit and leave – and Dunedin was very relieved to find that the Cruiser line of which she had been part was supported by at least three battleships. The diary reports “….what noise when it (the refit) was piped”. – But there was still a sting in the tail, the report of proceedings ends “A large darkened ship was sighted on the port bow…..the private signal made twice ….elicited no response so I flashed “What ship” on a box lamp. The searchlight was trained on and just as I was about to illuminate her, the ship called up. It was the Hood.” Hood was the biggest Battle cruiser in the world, and Dunedin was about to challenge her….

Having had her refit, done at least one more Patrol and given a little leave, Dunedin, with Diomede went to the West Indies, where she was involved in much trouble, but no big ships, apart from an unfounded scare about raiders, and a run in with the French that could have gone bad, but didn’t. She returned to the UK on anti-invasion duties, and was then sent to the South Africa Station as part of the escort to Convoy WS5A. The WS number (standing for Winston’s Special) indicated that it was a convoy of particularly high value.

Sailing from Portsmouth on 21 December 1940 Dunedin headed out into the Atlantic, as usual in foul weather, and by late on Christmas Eve was with WS5A where she joined Berwick and HMCS Bonaventure as escort to the convoy. On Christmas Day dawn broke late, and as it did so, the ships being at dawn Action Stations, there was an alarm ahead and to starboard of the convoy. After a few minutes things settled down again but a few moments later there was a further alarm and out of the gloom came the German heavy cruiser Von Hipper, firing as she came.

As usual for Dunedin the weather was terrible and as the cruisers tried to form a fighting line and Von Hipper tried to escape (she had instructions not to take on a significant escort). Dunedin managed to work up to 29 knots, the speed she had made on her builders trials, but she could not come up with the more modern ships and had to watch them disappear back into the gloom, both sides taking hits. Dunedin steamed across the convoy, making smoke to hide it, and suddenly twenty minutes later there was nothing in sight, the convoy having been given orders to scatter.

Despite the size of the convoy, searching until 1445 on Christmas day in weather that the Sick Berth Chief Petty Officer describes as the worse he had ever seen produced only one merchantman, “City of Canterbury” who at 1815 was turned over to Sheffield, who reported the main rump of the convoy 30 miles to the East. Dunedin never found it and spent the next three days trying to find any part of the Convoy. Eventually on 29th she entered Gibraltar with three stragglers she had picked up, and one of her torpedo tubes still turned outboard as a result of damage on Christmas Day. Dunedin’s Navigating Officer reported that he did not know where the ship was to within fifty miles with all the high speed steaming and lack of sights Letters home reported that it had been rough, and that they had been busy, but they could not – for censorship reasons – mention Von Hipper. But some did mention the bully beef and sour bread for Christmas Dinner due to the Galley fires having all been washed out and another writer says he had been horribly seasick. No wonder, given the state of the sea.

By 1400 the same day Dunedin had fuelled and sailed with HMS Furious to rejoin WS5A. Two days later the man who had been so sick reports that he is sunbathing on a warm deck, beneath blue skies and calm seas.

Years later at a Cocktail Party in Hamburg I met one of the Engineers Officers of the Von Hipper, and asked him what he had been doing on Christmas Day 1940, to which he said “We were running away from the British”, and when I said I knew, because my father had been chasing him it precipitated a splendid weekend together.

Dunedin had no more contact with big German ships but on 28th January 1941 sailed from Sierra Leone for Greenock with Convoy SLG 01, mostly made up of Royal Marines returning from the Dakar expedition and after a few days at Gibraltar Dunedin arrived in Greenock on 22nd February. After some debate it was decided that she had significant engineering problems and she was sent to Devonport to dock and make good defects. She was placed in dockyard hands on 5th March and had to suffer heavy bombing raids.. The shipwrights had to go under the ship during these raids because every time Dunedin fired her 3” HA Guns she shook the docking wedges loose, so the shipwrights had to bang the wedges back in. The refit followed its course until just before she was completed when the Admiralty signalled that she was to be retained at Devonport until further orders against a break out by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau down the Channel.

The order was cancelled by another signal on 8th April, 1941, and Dunedin ordered to proceed, although another exchange of signals on 9th warned her about a possible warship. The signal was as quickly cancelled and Dunedin left the UK for the last time and joined the South Africa Station.

Dunedin’s final involvement with a big German surface unit started on 3rd May 1941, when she was working a convoy north from Sierra Leone and A 1 Boiler “ ….had an accident….Boiler requires extensive re-tubing. D reduced to 24/25 knots”. Despite a convoy speed of 18 knots she entered Gibraltar on 8th May and on 22nd orders were given that Dunedin was to be returned to Freetown, ASAP, with the boiler blanked off. It is not certain why this order was given, but it was probably due to Enigma information which showed a build up of support ships, which Dunedin was required by the South Africa Station to chase.

Early on 24th Hood was sunk and the drama of the Bismarck chase commenced – Dunedin was sailed at 2020 in company with Force H (including Ark Royal), which was to play a critical part in the subsequent destruction of Bismarck. Dunedin’s sailing was reported in an account written later by Electrical Artificer Stephenson, in which he says how lonely they felt when the main force turned towards their target while Dunedin went south by herself towards Bathurst, to fuel, pick up the carrier HMS Eagle and search for the supply ships which were known, because of Enigma transcripts, to be waiting for Prinz Eugene and Bismarck.

On 27th Bismarck was sunk, the drama was over, and Dunedin went on with Eagle to capture Lothringen, one of Bismarck’s supply ships. Dunedin’s boiler was never repaired, although steps were in hand when she herself was lost six months later.

Dunedin’s final brush with a big ship was with a French Montcalm Class heavy Cruiser, and she probably came closer to getting into a gun action than at any other point of the war, but only if you read Midshipman Martell’s Journal.

On 28th August, 1941 arrangements were in hand to find an ocean escort for Convoy WS 11 and to move HMS Repulse south on her fatal trip to the Far East. Repulse was to be refuelled by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Rapidol, and Dunedin was to escort Rapidol to the rendezvous. This was all neatly summed up by Midshipman Mantell in his journal: “Northwards with Rapidol to meet convoy, oil at sea, then come back south”.

On 29th a possible Hipper class ship was reported near St Paul’s Rocks and Eagle, Dorsetshire, Newcastle and Wrestler were sailed at 0800. Dunedin with Rapidol was to meet Repulse, provide her with fuel then leave Rapidol and free up Sheffield by taking over the slow portion of Convoy WS 11 to Freetown. On 31st August 1941 Dunedin blew a boiler tube in B4 Boiler, A1 still being blanked off, and was instructed to remain with Rapidol until Repulse turned up at the rendezvous.

At 0400 on 2nd September Dunedin met with a Brixham Trawler “Maid Honour” (We now know she was working for SOE) and she appears to have passed on a report from the ex yacht Philante, then a patrol craft, that she had sighted an unidentified convoy. Dunedin remained with Rapidol and refuelled on 5th, but on 6th a submarine was sighted on the surface by Boy Seaman Pike. Dunedin had a near miss with Rapidol, who was then ordered to clear the area, and the Admiralty reported the Convoy was not recognised and there was some concern it might have been the enemy. Dunedin was to patrol between Los Palmas and Tenerife.

When nothing was found by that evening Dunedin had reported the area clear and been ordered on to Cape Verde but on the 10th at 0830 three French warships were sighted, and a French type submarine which approached Dunedin and then dived at 4 miles. The senior French ship was a Montcalm class cruiser. Midshipman Mantell says the Cruiser had her guns trained on Dunedin and that Dunedin’s loaded guns were trained on the Frenchman. At the time, Mantell was understudying the GDO (Visual) Captain Maul of the Royal Marines, and maintained that it only needed the trigger to be pulled to open fire. In the event polite signals were exchanged, and having sniffed round each other like a couple of dogs, that was the end of that, and by 1710 that night Dunedin was fuelling in Bathurst before doing another quick sweep of the islands and then returning to Sierra Leone.

What really happened and how close the two cruisers came to exchanging fire is hard to tell, but there is no record in the log of Dunedin going to action stations that busy day It is clear, however, that Dunedin’s importance as a fighting unit had declined by September of 1941 – every ship available had been sent out looking for the reported heavy cruiser, while Dunedin had been detailed off to protect a solitary tanker, and then to take over a convoy, to release a more powerful ship.