The Loss of HMS Charybdis in 1943…

The last week of September of this year saw me back on the beautiful island of Guernsey accompanied again by my father who, happily for me, has also fallen in love with the 7 Crown Dependent British islands that make up this stunning Bailiwick… (in fact I hadn’t even got to the end of my question in the Summer of ‘would you like to go back to Guernsey again’ than his suitcase was packed and standing primed & ready by his door!)

So, following the 30 minute flight from Southampton airport, we were back on God’s Own Island meeting up with my old friends, Ian McRae & Evan Ozanne, both former senior figures with Guernsey Heritage & Guernsey Tourism, the latter to whom I am most grateful for offering me the reminder that the annual HMS Charybdis memorial service and thence graveside ceremony at le Foulon Church would be taking place that very weekend… and not just the annual service, but the 70th commemoration of the ship’s war-time loss.

I must admit that, because my own personal & professional interest is usually focussed primarily on the German side of the occupation, I find that my attention is sometimes fully taken up with those ‘German stories’ almost to the exclusion of all else; however the HMS Charybdis story is one of those awful stories that oft times emerge from the British 1939-45 war effort.

In fact it was, (I believe I am right in saying), the largest loss of Royal Naval personnel that Britain suffered in one single action during the Second World War; it is even more tragic in that because of its horrendous nature and the huge loss of life involved, it was ‘hushed up’ at the time and its true horror only really became known after the war was finally over!

Talking to survivor’s families, tragically for all involved, it goes down in naval annals as one of the biggest foul-ups of World War Two and the actions that cost both HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne are now ‘required reading’ within the today’s Royal Naval ie: how not conduct offensive naval operations during times of conflict!

But the story goes back to the night of October 22 & 23rd 1943 and affects Guernsey directly because the loss of both Royal Naval vessels to Kriegsmarine torpedo & heavy gun fire off the Brittany coast of France, some 12 miles to the south of the island of Guernsey, resulted in many bodies of those lost being interred in the Bailiwick.

Intelligence received by the Royal Navy’s C-in-C Plymouth around the middle of October 1943 had indicated that a convoy of German merchant ships carrying cargo vital to the Third Reich’s war effort would be making its way through French Coastal waters around the Brest peninsula, (so avoiding the open waters of the Channel), heading towards the German occupied port of St Malo on the night of October 22/23.

Accordingly under ‘Operation Tunnel‘ a flotilla of Royal Naval destroyers, headed by HMS Black Prince, was ordered to locate & sink the German convoy and its cargo.However the Black Prince went unserviceable but luckily the formidable anti-aircraft cruiser, HMS Charybdis, had just returned from a very successful tour of duty in the Med escorting convoys to the beleaguered George Cross island of Malta, thence covering the Allied landings at Salerno and escorting Winston Churchill’s ship to a vital conference of Allied leaders in the Middle East.

Ideal for this latest task, HMS Charybdis was deputed for the Black Prince and took command of the destroyer squadron ordered to locate the German merchantman… however no sooner had the British vessels set sail, than communications between all ships were lost and a state of high confusion resulted, so much so that many ships involved in this mission actually had no idea what was unfolding and were forced to act independently of each other. A disasterous state of affairs especially when taking on the might of Hitler’s highly ordered & disciplined Kriegsmarine that were heavily defending this vital convoy with both prowling destroyers and hard-hitting E-boots..!

Nevertheless our destroyers led by HMS Charybdis pressed on and approached the French coastline but were picked up by German coastal radars and their E-boots & destroyers were vectored to intercept. Charybdis picked up the German fleet 7 miles out whilst HMS Limbourne, operating new electronic warfare equipment, also acquired German naval forces and fired star shells into the night sky to try to identify the radar contacts.But almost immediately the German E-boots launched heavy torpedo attacks and both HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne were hit and sunk with a loss of over 500 crewmen from both vessels.

Both ships went down so fast that there was no time to launch life-boats and so the survivors were thrown into the oily water with only flotsam to cling on to in the hope of being rescued. Two other British destroyers, HMS Wensleydale & HMS Talybont, now aware of the disaster that had just befallen the attacking forces, set about searching for any survivors from both Royal Naval vessels they could locate in the dark and in a desperate 3-hour operation, 107 souls from Charybdis were pulled alive from the water, whilst some 85 out of a crew of 125 from Limbourne were similarly located & plucked from the sea…

But with a total of 464 crewmen from Charybdis and 40 from Limbourne killed, this was a loss of life on a terrible scale and over the coming days & weeks, bodies of matelots from both ships would slowly and continuously be washed up on the shores of Guernsey, Jersey and across the water in France…

29 dead sailors were found on Jersey’s shores whilst 21 bodies from Charybdis were eventually recovered on Guernsey’s beaches by St John’s Ambulance members between October & December and were subsequently given a German military funeral and laid to rest in Guernsey’s Le Foulon cemetery. This was an utterly tragic night in both Royal Naval history and in the history of Guernsey’s German occupation and was a military disaster that was obviously suppressed here on the mainland during the war because of the dire affect it would have on the country’s winning determination.

A previous Bailiff of Guernsey, Sir Geoffrey Rowland, described it thus: “The 21 bodies were given a military funeral by the German authorities and some 5,000 islanders journeyed on foot and on bicycle bringing with them thousands of floral tributes. It was recognised that young men had given their lives for the cause of freedom and during more than 3 years (by then) of German occupation, there had been few opportunities for Guernsey men & women to demonstrate their commitment to their King, Country and the Armed Services fighting to secure our eventual liberation and the restoration of our freedoms.The Star newspaper reported that there had not been, in living memory, such a manifestation of grief, pride and sympathy and the resulting strengthening in the morale of the islanders was most marked…”

So reading from the Bailiff’s summary, though the Royal Naval operation was a complete military disaster in terms of so many young sailors losing their lives in this aborted action, their tragic deaths gave an added impetus to all Channel Islanders to hold fast and continue to passively resist German Occupation, which would continue for another 18 months or so… and which was about to get even tougher!

In all the years I have been travelling to the Bailiwick this was the first time I have been on Guernsey around the time of the remembrance services for HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne and in our hotel we bumped into a young couple who had come to pay their respects to a grandfather who went down on Charybdis. His body was subsequently washed ashore on the French coastline, where it similarly now lies buried along with scores of other crew members in a French cemetery:

Karen Andrew & Anthony Pearce had travelled from Oldham in the north of England to attend the ceremony and remember Fred Andrews, (who spelt his surname with an ‘s’… something which baffles and mystifies his relatives who all lack an ‘s’ on their surname today!).

Though indeed one of the many matelots & marines buried across the water in France, Fred would also be remembered here in the Bailiwick along with the other 500 or so sailors lost from both ships on that terrible night in 1943 in the deep waters between Guernsey & France. Despite the obvious sadness (but also pride) behind the purpose of their trip, it was a great pleasure to meet with them both and to hear what they have been able to piece together of their grandfather’s sad story…

With neither Karen or Anthony having attended such a memorial service here on Guernsey before, I ventured to them both that the 6 surviving members of HMS Charybdis who would be attending the remembrance ceremonies in St Peter Port, (and thence at the graveside at Le Foulon cemetery), would be delighted to meet up with other family members of another lost comrade who were coming forward to, hopefully, add a little more to what is already known about this naval tragedy…and that proved to be the case!

I now hope that, as a result of their pilgrimage to the Bailiwick, Karen & Anthony have been fully welcomed into the HMS Charybdis Veteran’s family and, as a result, will learn yet  more about their brave WW-II sailor grandfather Fred…

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013

Comments are closed.