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The Tragic Loss of HMS Galatea
14th December 1941

James Ernest Whiting


HMS Galatea along with two Dido class cruisers and nine destroyers sailed out of Alexandria on 14th December 1941. The Captain broadcast to the ship’s company that we were going to engage units of the Italian fleet.

0945    The air attack. Repel aircraft was sounded. The attacks lasted till 1730.

The Captain broadcast to the ship’s company that the fleet had been attacked by formations of dive-bombers. Ten minutes later another attack by torpedo bombers; the attack was driven off.

1800    Hands to supper - the galley had been shut down all day so no hot grub. Queue up for bread and corned beef.

2000    First watch close up. My oppo and I made our way up to the bridge. It was a pitch-black night you couldn't see your hand in front of you. We made our way to our station - searchlight control. Although we were only 18in apart we try again. My oppo and I made our way inside the superstructure to the bridge. On opening the door we were met by a wall of blackness. I have never come across anything like it before. We made our way to our position and sat down on the deck and spun yarns, at no time was there any mention of action stations. After a long while we heard a noise of somebody on the bridge, it was the middle watch closing up. I went to the starboard ladder and was just on the ladder when the first torpedo hit. Flames leaped out of the after funnel; two more exploded on the portside. At that point two thirds of the ship was a mass of flames.

The story of torpedoes chasing them was rubbish.

I dashed down the ladder and as the ship was rolling over I had to jump up and haul myself onto the ships side.  The starboard side of the ship, out of the sea, was still well ablaze .I could see a lot of the crew standing on the hull. I took off my knife and cut my bootlaces; I then unscrewed my life-belt valve.  I managed to get five or six good puffs into it.  Just as the bows started to rise out of the sea I jumped in and swam quickly away to avoid the suction as the ship went down.  The sea was covered with dirty stinking fuel oil that soon covered us. I struck out strongly.

After a while I looked back - she had gone. There was nothing but blackness and the cries for help out there. It was a cold night and a rough sea. I swam a little further and came across a small motorboat. I climbed in over the stern but she had holed and was sinking. I climbed over the canopy and there was someone holding onto the bow, I didn't know whom it was till later.  It was the US war correspondent Larry Allen. I started to swim away, when I realised that the only sound was the slap of the waves, the cries for help had ceased. As I was getting tired I stopped swimming. It was strange I couldn't see anything and didn't know where I was. I started to swim again and have a little rest in between. Time had no meaning. After a period I got hold of a piece of wood. I didn't know how long the wood was but there was some else clinging on to it.  We agreed to hold onto it with one hand and paddle with the other and have rests in between - this worked very well.

After a time he shouted ‘OVER THERE’ we struck out hard and came to a boat (a 27ft. whaler).  I made my way to the stern section. I asked someone to help me in. Have you ever heard the saying:  “I careth not Jack - I’m in the dinghy”?  Well it happened.  He said “You can’t come in, we are full.”   I said “Let me in for a breather, then I will get out again.”  He fell for it.  There was no way I was getting out.  After a while someone cried “Come on” - there was a mad scramble to the front of the boat, I was the last there. I reached out and grabbed hold of a strong net hanging from a ship I was dragged up onto the deck.

I was taken forward along the upper deck to the mess-deck when I realised that I was on a destroyer (HMS Hotspur). A number of crew members cleaned my face and hair of oil, others cut my oily rags off. They then put a blanket around me and took me to a table and gave me a mug full of rum.  I had to dash to the heads ('loo') where I was very sick, just black oil.  I was then given a cup of tea -hot and sweet.

In the forenoon 15 bodies, sewn up in canvas, with a 4in dummy shell between the legs, were buried at sea. The doors and hatches were not opened, the Capt. was too good an officer to compromise the ship by over-riding his Damage Control Officer and ordering doors to be opened – the reason ships had to sail up a swept channel and there was always a danger of the odd mine floating around.

When we entered Alexandria harbour we went alongside a depot ship. When we got inboard a lot of men stood staring at us - some other people across called us over and gave us each a large bag with towels, pyjamas and other things.  We were then taken to the bathroom where we tried to scrub the oil off ourselves.  After that we were taken to No6 shed to be re-kitted, we were shocked to find items of kit piled up on the floor. We had to go around trying kit on to find some that would fit.

We were then transported to the RN air station HMS Grebe out in the desert and put in tents.  Monday morning, after breakfast we all gathered at the main gate and were given ackers (in the Navy any foreign currency was ackers). We were told that we could go to Alex but to return on Thursday night and if we were stopped by the shore patrol for being improperly dressed we should say “Ex Galatea” there had been no caps for us at No.6 shed. On Friday morning we were taken by lorries to a place called SidiBish.  Later we were taken to Alexandria railway station, we were told we were travelling overnight to Suez. We arrived in the morning and then boarded a troopship for our long trip to the UK.

When I joined the ship I was put on torpedo tubes crew, after some months I was transferred down below to the main switchboard, this was where all the main electrical circuits were controlled. I remained there until the day before we sailed for the last time. I was put on fan motor maintenance. Torpedo men were also ships’

Electricians.  At any one time 80 men worked on circuits. We sailed down the Indian Ocean calling at Kilindini then down to Durban, we stayed there about 2 weeks in camp then we were taken to the docks and boarded a big liner. We sailed across the Atlantic and arrived at Port-o-Spain Trinadad, later we sail up though the Gulf Stream and called at Burmuda. The next port of call was Brooklyn, we stayed there for about 9 Days. When we sailed from N.Y. it was in a convoy of US troopships, destination Belfast Ireland. From there a small ship to Stranraer Scotland, then by train to Plymouth it took 36 hours for the journey. When we arrived we were taken to RN.Barracks then sent home for two weeks Survivors leave.