23rd OF OCTOBER 1943: THE SINKING OF HMS CHARYBDIS AND HMS LIMBOURNE
The early morning of 23rd of October 1943, is a day that everyone who served on HMS Wensleydale will never forget. Wensleydale was taking part in Operation Tunnel The Anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Charybdis was sunk and the Hunt class destroyer HMS Limbourne was so badly damaged it had to be sunk by it's own forces.
The Germans were moving naval and commercial ships between Ushant and Cherbourg. This was at irregular times, usually at night; and escorted by minesweepers, E-boats and a force of Elbing destroyers or torpedo boats. Naturally, the British tried to disrupt these convoys. However, the only ships available at the time were 9 Hunt class destroyers based at Plymouth (15th destroyer Flotilla) and Portsmouth. When possible, they were assisted by whatever else was available, be it fleet destroyers or a cruiser. These operations were codenamed 'Tunnel'
22/23rd OF OCTOBER 1943:
The aim of Operation Tunnel on 22/23 October was to find the German Blockade runner 'Munsterland' which was believed to be heading to Cherbourg. The British force was made up of the Anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Charybdis, the fleet destroyers HMS Grenville and HMS Rocket, and the Hunt class destroyers HMS Limbourne, HMS Talybont, HMS Wensleydale and HMS Stevenstone. (HMS Stevenstone was a late replacement for HMS Melbreak).
HMS Charybdis was due for a refit, had just arrived from the Mediterranean and had never been on this sort of operation before. From talking with former crew of Wensleydale it seems that the whole of Plymouth knew what the task force was up to. The force departed from Plymouth at 1900 on the evening of the 22nd of October. The force was formed in single line ahead, with a distance between ships of 3 cables. This was the message (codenamed NITOM) issued from Charybdis to the rest of the force. At 0030, as directed by NITOM the force turned west and reduced speed to 13 knots. Around this time they were detected by German radar.
Charybdis obtained a radar contact at 14,000 yards. At the same time Limbourne picked up German radio broadcasts indicating that 5/6 naval units were nearby. It was now that confusion set in, as Charybdis knew that the enemy was 14,000 yards away, but did not know how many they were dealing with; whilst Limbourne know the numbers of the enemy but did not know exactly where they were. This was due to the fact that Limbourne's radar was masked by Charybdis. Perhaps if Charybdis had previously worked and trained with the other ships this problem would have been spotted. At 0135 Charybdis obtained radar contact at 8000 yards, but was closing to 6000 yards before opening fire. The ship was heading straight for trouble . Charybdis was spotted by the German destroyer T23 who fired six torpedoes at Charybdis. HMS Charybdis was sinking fast with one torpedo hitting the port side and flooding boiler room B; and the other hitting further aft, flooding the after engine room.
RIGHT: The Hunt Class Destroyer HMS Limbourne
The following British destroyers were now attacked by the remaining German force who all fired their six torpedoes. At 0147 Grenville reported a torpedo had just passed 5ft ahead. At 0150 Wensleydale reported a torpedo track approaching from the port bow at right angles to the ship: the helm was put hard a starboard, torpedo missed ahead. The torpedo was running very shallow and the noise of its passage through the water was heard on the bridge as it passed close along the bow. At 0151 Limbourne was struck by one torpedo and had her bows blown off.
No attempt was made to pick up survivors until ordered to do so by HMS Grenville (now in command) at 0348. It was believed on Grenville that the attack was carried out by E-boats which carried a reload of torpedoes. The concern was that the E-boats were waiting around the wrecks of Charybdis and Limbourne. At 0349 HMS Wensleydale sighted Limbourne, with Talybont closing her, and commenced search for survivors. . At 0410 Talybont closed on wreck of Limbourne and removed most of the survivors. Talybont tried to tow the stricken Limbourne, but was ordered by Grenville to sink her if not underway by 0500. At 0502 Talybont reported that the tow had parted, but that Limbourne can still steam. 'Am having another try'. At 0510 Talybont took off the remaining survivors and torpedoed Limbourne at 0545. Despite this she still floated, and it took another torpedo from Rocket to sink her. The Germans had left to the East and were never seen again. 'Munsterland' was undetected.
Between 0350 and 0625 Wensleydale searched for and picked up survivors from HMS Charybdis. Robert Benson the radar mechanic on Wensleydale remembers that most of the survivors were covered in oil. We did not know if they were dead or alive. He remembered a chief stoker who was picked up. "Oil was coming from his mouth. The medics worked on him all night to get the oil out but he was pronounced dead before we got back to port" Ernie Moseley remembers rescuing one man who did not the strength to pull himself up the side of the ship. "So I ran to the locker room and tied a bucket to a piece of rope and threw it over the side to him; and pulled him up with the bucket". Fifty one years later Ernie met the man who he had rescued, Gerald Evens, and the two became good friends.
David Main, a Scot and ex member of Wensleydale remembers one survivor being taken down to his messdeck " I noticed his lips were moving" He said "are you British", I said "we are. You are safe now". He said "It's my birthday, I am eighteen today". During the rescue efforts petty officer Stan Guy P/JX 130782 and acting petty officer James Aster Johnson P/JX 145174 showed exceptional bravery, and it was through their efforts and by remaining in the water on life lines for long periods together, that many helpless men were rescued. Both men were Mentioned in Despatches for their efforts that night. The crew's of the rescue ships noted that those in the water displayed little red lights on their life belts, which naturally aided in seeing them. However, it was estimated that only about one in six had a light on their belt. It was also reported that had survivors from Charybdis been wearing rope belts with grummets for attaching the hooks of rescue lines, many more could have been saved in the time available.
LEFT: Petty Officer Stan Guy
RIGHT: Acting Petty Officer James Aster Johnson
At 0508 Grenville asked Stevenstone and Wensleydale if they were ready to leave. The reply from Stevenstone was that they were still picking up survivors. At 0520 Grenville again sent the message that 'despatch was necessary. Report when ready' At 0551 Grenville again asked Wensleydale if they were ready to proceed. The reply was that they were still picking up survivors. Grenville, now worried about the approaching light replied that 'we must, repeat must leave by 0630'. At 0625 Wensleydale reported all visible survivors brought on board. At 0630 the force formed and left the area bound for Plymouth. The repeated requests by Grenville were due to CinCs insistence that they leave the area as soon as possible. Grenville delayed as long as possible, in-turn saving the lives of those still in the water. A fighter escort of Beaufighters was ordered for 0645, followed by Spitfires at 0730.
Also onboard Wensleydale that night were a number of American Army personnel. They gave valuable assistance during the rescue operation. A number of Americans were also on Limbourne. Some were killed. These were from the 110 Field artillery Battalion, 29th Division. In June 1943, V Corps, of which the 29th Division was a part, had arranged for small groups of soldiers to take voluntary trips on British naval vessels as rewards for outstanding work. Usually the ships went to warm waters, and the troops' only duty was to assist the naval gun crews. In October the headquarters of the 29th allotted such a trip to the 110th for a group of eight men: First Lieutenant James R. McCarthy, Sergeant Robert L. Griswold, Corporal James M. Mitcheltree, Private First Class, Edwin L. Renoff, Private First Class George E. Deal, Private First Class Willie S. Owens, Private Andrew J. Barle, Private Jerome J. Hall. The party reported to Plymouth Navy Yard on October 6, 1943, and was assigned to HMS Limbourne. The men were assigned various duties in different sections of the ship's company. Cpl. Mitcheltree, Barle, Renoff and Owens became ammunition handles for the forward gun crew, while Deal and Hall were assigned to the rear guns. Sgt. Griswold acted as the Chief Petty Officer's Assistant and Lt. McCarthy was assigned to the Bridge. When Limbourne was hit amidships, the force of the explosion took a heavy toll killing the forward guns crew. It is probable that they were killed outright. After the return to Plymouth, the remaining members of the party were taken to the 115th Station Hospital (at Tavistock) for a physical check, and with the exception of Lt. McCarthy, who was suffering from head injuries, were returned to their unit. The four men listed in bold above were never recovered and they are listed on the wall of the missing in Brittany.
Altogether some 560 men from HMS Charybdis and 40 from HMS Limbourne died that day. A number were washed up in Guernsey and along the French coast. Some were never found. In Guernsey a huge croud assembled to witness the funerals of those washesd ashore, despite the strict orders by the Germans that only the German military was allowed to attend. So many mistakes were made on the British side both ashore and afoat that the incident was used as an illustration in the R.N. Tactical School for many years afterwards as a classic example of how to get almost everything wrong.
The information on this page has been taken partly from my own research and documents, but also from documents taken from The Charybdis and Limbourne Association. For enabling their use I wish to thank Neil Woods (ex HMS Limbourne). Further information on the Association can be found at www.charybdis.limbourne.cwc.net. A search of the internet can produce further items related to the night of 22/23/October 1943.
(C) David Allen Nov, 2006