The sinking of HMS Dunedin and the Epic of the “Dunedin”, by Harold Woodley

“White Man’s Grave” they called Sierra Leone, British West Africa, and in the sweltering heat and humidity of the Port of Freetown it seemed a very apt name to the hundreds of white men, sailors, soldiers and airmen, who found themselves dumped there because a maniac had run amok in Europe and plunged the world into war.

It was now November 1941, the war had been on for over two years, and Freetown was becoming a very important place on the war map due to the convoy routes to North Africa passing now along the coast of West Africa owing to the dangerous situation in the Mediterranean Sea Route.

Freetown was a typical British Colonial town, the impressive Government buildings, built of stone and looking as if they had been taken form the heart of London and placed amid this tropical scene, and the slum native quarter, where old wooden shacks and hovels housed the natives who like their homes gave forth a peculiar odour.

In this native quarter was the market where one could buy gaily coloured scarves, dress material of vivid hues, so liked by the natives, hats and baskets made of straw, small wooden elephants, ivory curios, handbags made from crocodile skin – all to attract the tourists who now consisted of soldiers, sailors and airmen, not here for pleasure, but nevertheless still interested customers for taking something home to their sweethearts, wives and mothers as gifts from abroad – even if many of them were marked “Made in England”!!!

The fish market was a cure for any bad cold, the smell alone being enough to dispel any customers but the natives themselves. Chickens (or at least we presumed they were!) were suspended by their feet looking as though they had died from old age or starvation, also did not invite any interested buyer but only rude remarks from the servicemen.

A short way from the market was a small river where the native women, whose half naked bodies glistened with sweat in the hot sun, toiled with the family washing. It was very effectively dealt with by firstly dipping the various garments in the river, then laying them out on large flat stones and beating the dirt out of them with a flat piece of wood, after which they would be again rinsed in the river and laid on the flat stones soon to dry in the hot sun.

The glamour of the tropics, though interesting at first, soon vanished. The thousands of mosquitoes and irritating flies that gave you no rest day or night, the hot sun that soaked you in a continual uncomfortable sweat, resulting in prickly heat rashes over all your body, the smell of decaying refuse, made you hate the place.

Lying in the harbour of Freetown on the morning of 21st November 1941, with the mountains and trees forming a brilliant green background, was the light cruiser HMS Dunedin, a ship of 4,500 tons and carrying as a main armament six 6inch guns and having a crew of 500 men. When she was built during the 1914-18 war, her class of cruiser had been among the pride of the Royal Navy, and although now tending to be obsolete compared with the modern cruisers, she was nevertheless still a formidable ship and a very useful one in the many roles and uses she had been put to during the war, as her very good war record showed.

At the moment she was tied alongside a depot repair ship for general repairs, and also a new idea of slipways for the ‘carley floats’ were being fitted to enable the rafts to be slipped away quickly during an emergency.

To many men, working at their various tasks on board HMS Dunedin on that Friday morning, the war seemed many miles away. Their thoughts were mostly concerned with the heat which gradually working itself up into the usual crescendo of the stifling uncomfortable tropical day, and the sun pouring its hot rays down out of a cloudless blue sky, promised yet another day of sweat and fatigue. Thoughts would then turn to the coolness of the tropical nights, bringing everyone on the ships or shore back to life again. As the lights would go on and the music begin to blare from radios, the whole harbour would seem alive again – it was as though people had risen from the dead – from the “White Man’s Grave”!

Many thoughts too turned to home. It would be winter back there, cold but with a comfortable fire with which you could adjust the heat! Soon there would be snow on the ground. Only just over a month and it would be Christmas! Not much chance of getting home for any leave by then although there were some rumours that a draft would be going home soon. Christmas at home with the family, away from the sweltering heat, would be great, and the thought of cold beer and parties made a bloke feel homesick. Still, an immediate consolation was that the Dunedin’s Concert Party were giving another show tomorrow night aboard the repair ship, and how we looked forward to those shows.