When Sailors Fell
“The Ship Hasn’t Been Announced as Sunk Yet”
Almost 66,000 Royal Navy personnel were killed or wounded in the course of World War II. Among those injured in the line of duty was Elijah Cheetham aboard the cruiser Penelope. The ship, just detached from shore bombardment duties off Salerno, was hit by torpedoes from a U-boat in February 1944. The cruiser went down quickly and nearly three quarters of her crew were killed. Penelope’s sinking was not immediately made public as attested to in a letter written to his mother by the 18 year old Cheetham. The letter was mailed from Naples about two weeks after the incident. It addressed matters of wartime secrecy and security.
I’m terribly sorry I haven’t written to you for the last fortnight, I have been rather ill in hospital. I am a survivor of HMS Penelope … There were 750 in the ship’s company and only 200 were saved. Terrible isn’t it? I am pleased to say that Stan Lake survived. I couldn’t write to you separately. I have had to smuggle this into the country, the ship hasn’t been announced as sunk yet. We are not allowed to mention that we survived. Paddy is going home so I have asked him to post this in England. It doesn’t get censored there, but he insists on bringing this personally … Please try not to worry too much about me. I’m OK now and, believe me, I’m willing to go back and give Jerry exactly what I received and more … Cheerio and God Bless You All, Your Loving Son … xxxxx 1.
“Return to Sender on Admiralty Instructions”
The envelope of a letter written by a mother to her son was used to inform family members of his death. The letter was returned as undeliverable with a sticker on the envelope reading,
Return to Sender on Admiralty Instructions. It is with deepest regret that you are informed that the addressee has died on Active Service.2.
The most common means by which families were notified of a wartime death was telegram. The wording of the messages was straightforward and unemotional. A preserved copy of one such telegram, sent in regards to a Royal Navy sailor’s death states,
“DEEPLY REGRET TO REPORT THE DEATH OF YOUR SON (name omitted) ON WAR SERVICE. LETTER FOLLOWS.” 3.
The promised letter mentioned in the telegram informing the mother about her son’s death was ultimately delivered. The letter emphasized the importance of the duty being performed by the deceased, a crewman aboard the cruiser HMS Arethusa, at the time of his death. It also attempted to soothe the pain of loss with a brief description of the respectful manner in which the man’s remains were placed at rest. A portion of the Admiralty’s official account of the action which led to the death was included with the letter.
On November 18th 1942, HMS Arethusa formed part of the escort of cruisers and destroyers taking an important convoy through the Eastern Mediterranean to Malta. It was important because Malta needed stores to enable her to fulfill the role allotted to her in the great general offensive operations which had opened with the British Eighth Army’s advance from Alamein positions a few days previously. During the day the convoy was passing through that part of the Mediterranean between Cyrenaica and Crete known as “Bomb Alley” and at dusk had reached a position about half way between Derna, on the hump of Cyrenaica, and Malta. Both the convoy and the escorts had been attacked during the day but neither had been damaged.
At the very end of twilight, in that difficult light when visibility favours aircraft rather than a ship, a strong formation of German Torpedo-Carrying Aircraft made a most determined attack upon the escort.
The Arethusa was attacked simultaneously from both sides and was able to avoid all but one of the torpedoes. This torpedo hit her and caused a violent explosion accompanied by a severe blast. The blast killed instantaneously all the men in the vicinity. Some not quite so close were badly burned by the flash and some of these unfortunately died later of their injuries. The next of kin of these men were informed that their kinsmen had died from burn injury, but it can now be stated with some certainty that all the remainder were killed at once by the tremendous blast and that they would not have suffered pain.
Their bodies were buried at sea, altogether three services were held, and they were taken by the Chaplain very beautifully and reverently.
A memorial service was held ashore later when the ship reached port and it was a most impressive service. Correspondence is now being exchanged with the Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham about a permanent memorial to these gallant men to be placed in the Barracks Church. It will probably form a part of the general memorial to all the men of the Chatham Division who lose or have lost their lives in this present war. 4.
“And Gently Pressed the Bodies Until They Sank”– Burial at Sea
When the combat damaged Arethusa returned to Alexandria the destroyer Aldenham was ordered alongside to pick up the bodies of about 50 of the men who had been killed. The destroyer’s duty was to carry the bodies to a point about three miles offshore of Alexandria and to lower them into the sea. An Aldenham crewman described process.
(The canvas covered bodies on the dock were) laid out in lines and attached to each one was a four-inch projectile. The bodies of the Arethusa’s men (were) mostly Marines … Without any fuss we tied up, and a section of the ship’s guardrails removed on the starboard side against the jetty, and a wide board placed down on Aldenham’s deck and made fast at the other end. Then commenced the job of sliding the bodies carefully down the ramp and stacking them high on deck, some under the boat davits, some against the torpedo tubes, and more aft towards the quarterdeck, leaving the port side clear for the conduction of the service.
The last body brought inboard, the board pulled back, the guardrails replaced, and then two padres came in (sic) board followed by a funeral firing party from (cruiser) HMS Orion, and lastly a very young Marine bugler.
With a signal from the bridge wires were cast off, and Aldenham slowly moved away to commence her journey to the open sea. At the same time the cruiser had cleared lower deck, the men standing quietly facing outboard, caps removed in a last farewell gesture to their fallen comrades. Suddenly the peace of the afternoon was shattered by the shrill blast of a bosun’s call from high up on the cruiser’s bridge.
The ‘still.’ Everybody at attention and not a sound except the Aldenham’s screws churning up the water. Then the ‘carry on,’ as the ship turned away crossing the harbour to the open sea, ensign at half-mast … Slowly we cleared the boom and out into the blue calm of the Mediterranean, the sun settling away in the western sky throwing long rays across the placid water … The ship’s engines shut down and slowly we came to a standstill, and with that the C. of E. (Church of England) Padre stood up on the torpedo tubes platform and commenced this solemn service for burial at sea, his voice sadly droning on, the ship’s company gathered around with heads bent, the sea breezes playing little tricks on hair and collars. Then it was the R.C. (Roman Catholic) service. Emotionally and bravely, the Padre carried on this sad service until at the conclusion he closed his prayer book with a definite movement. This was the cue for the funeral firing party. At a command from their officer they raised their rifles to the firing position. Then one volley and another and another until the end with the order, ‘present arms.’ A pause and the Marine bugler sprang to attention, his bugle ready at his lips. Loud and clear across that still water – the ‘Last Post.’ Slowly the notes died away and the one minutes silence. Everybody and everything dead quiet, even the sea breezes and the birds seemed to pause in stillness at this very heart rending moment. Then it was over as if a spell had been broken and men who had volunteered commenced their gruesome task of committing the dead to the deep.
The guardrails were slipped and a suitable board positioned and in pairs the corpses were tilted over the side. Half way through this task some of the bodies were floating having not been sufficiently weighted and both padres became very agitated but their fears were soon allayed when (several of the crew) produced a couple of very long boat hooks and gently pressed the bodies under until they sank. 5.
“After That I Didn’t Sleep Very Well”– Preparing Bodies
In August 1943 Leading Seaman Patrick Fitz’s ship, the monitor HMS Abercrombie, struck a mine while shelling targets at Salerno. The ship was placed out of action and Fitz along with many of his shipmates were sent ashore to various duties in Italy. One day, he was asked by the petty officer in charge of his particular detail if he knew how to sew. When he replied affirmatively, Fitz was then asked if he would be willing to volunteer for a job. He innocently agreed and was informed that,
… (there was) a nasty job to do in the morning … (the petty officer in charge) said, ‘we’ve got 16 bodies down at the morgue off a minesweeper that was sunk some weeks ago and the bodies have just been recovered … (and) they’re not in a very nice state … and we’ve got to go down to prepare to sew them up (into canvas bags for burial at sea)’ … so I said, ‘well, I’ll certainly give you a hand’. So the next morning … we went down to the morgue and we went into this room and there was all these bodies lying there and they were all covered in sheets but because they’d been picked up from where they’d been in the sea they were all in rather grotesque positions … and we took with us a large bolt of canvas and we spent all that day and part of the next day sewing these poor souls up and we then took them to a minesweeper … and I took a small (honor) guard of sailors and we fired a salute over them and we buried them out (at sea). I have to admit that when that was all done for several weeks after that I didn’t sleep very well.
We had another occasion that another minesweeper was sunk and … the bodies … we had to sew again … but they actually had been in hospital and they were covered in sheets and so we were able to not have so much of a horrific job as when we done the previous one. They used to say that Giuseppe Garibaldi … the Italian (national hero) … he is buried in a little island called Caprera (off Sardinia) … it’s a very small island (and) you can walk to it over a little causeway … and they’ve got his tomb there in a large building … and the rumor is that if anyone goes to visit it, he’s then troubled with bad luck. And I found out that the crew(s) of both those minesweepers … or some of them … had actually visited Garibaldi’s tomb. If there’s any truth in this, I don’t know. 6.
“Sold Before the Mast”– Personal Effects
Several months prior to the formation of the British Pacific Fleet in 1944, HMS Victorious was ordered to join the Eastern Fleet at Ceylon. From July through October the aircraft carrier participated in air attacks against heavily defended Japanese oil and rail facilities in Indonesia. Even though the attacks devastated their targets, British aircraft losses were high. Individual missions often resulted in a 15% – 20% aircraft attrition rate.
Pilots or officers who were killed had their personal effects sent home but, if the deceased were a rating such as an observer or a telegraphist/air-gunner, his effects would be taken on deck and auctioned off, or “sold before the mast.” The items to be sold generally included such things as clothing, playing cards, pens, reading material, cigarettes, and cigarette lighters. The sales proceeds would be sent to the man’s widow or mother. If a man had been especially popular, or if the crew knew that his family was needy, they would be deliberate in bidding everything up. In one case where it was known that a man’s widowed mother was practically destitute, the bids netted her £350, a sum that in those days was enough to buy a house. In another case where it was widely known that a wife had been cheating on a man who was killed, there were no bids at all and the effects were placed over the side.7.