Warship Wednesday, July 7, 2021: Chatham’s Last Cruiser
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 7, 2021: Chatham’s Last Cruiser
Here we see Dido-class AA cruiser HMS Euryalus (42) elevate her forward 5.25-inch guns to shell the Italian Fleet while bound for Malta from Alexandria on 22 March 1942 during what would become known as the Second Battle of Sirte. Her sister ship, HMS Cleopatra (33), is cutting across her bow making smoke. While the Dido class didn’t do exceptionally well in their intended role, they did see lots of action, and Euryalus outlasted them all in Royal Navy service.
The Didos were very light cruisers indeed, designed in 1936 to weigh just 5,600 tons standard displacement, although this would later swell during wartime service to nearly 8,000. Some 512 feet long, they were smaller than a modern destroyer but, on a powerplant of four Admiralty 3-drum boilers and four Parsons steam turbines, each with their own dedicated shaft, they could break 32.5 knots on 62,000 shp. They were intended to be armed with 10 5.25″/50 (13.4 cm) QF Mark II DP guns in five twin mounts, three forward and two over the stern, although most of the class failed to carry this layout.
The Dido class had provision for up to 360 rounds for “A”, “B” and “Q” turrets, 320 rounds for “X” turret and 300 rounds for “Y” turret and a properly trained crew could rattle them off at 7-8 shots per minute per gun out to a range of 23,400 yards or a ceiling of 46,500 feet when used in the AAA role. The fact that one of these cruisers could burp 70-80 shells within a 60-second mad minute gave them a lot of potential if used properly. However, this didn’t play out in reality, at least when it came to swatting incoming aircraft.
As noted by Richard Worth in his Fleets of World War II, “Often referred to as AA cruisers, the 16 Dido type ships shot down a grand total of 15 enemy planes. The entirety of British cruiser-dom accounted for only 97 planes, while enemy planes accounted for 11 British cruisers.”
Nonetheless, Euryalus carried extensive secondary AAA batteries as well. Originally fitted with two quad .50-caliber Vickers guns, these were augmented with five single 20mm Oerlikons whose numbers were further expanded until the ship carried over a dozen in twin mounts by the end of the war. She was also completed with three quadruple 2 pdr 40mm MK VIII pom-pom guns on Mk.VII mountings.
The Dido class was largely named after figures in ancient mythology with Euryalus carrying the moniker of the storied Augustan warrior of Jason and the Golden Fleece fame who, with his battle buddy Nisus, forfeited his skin for the sake of war booty. Our cruiser was the fifth such vessel to carry the name “Euryalus” in the Royal Navy since 1803, with past ships serving under Nelson, bombarding Ft. McHenry, serving as the ride for Prince Alfred and becoming immortalized at Gallipoli.
Laid down 21 October 1937 at the famous Royal Navy Dockyard in Chatham, which dated back to the mid-16th Century, Euryalus was the last cruiser completed by that facility. She commissioned 30 June 1941, roughly 80 years ago last week. At the time, just Britain and stood alone against the Germans and Italians, having only recently been joined by the Soviets due to the German invasion of Russia the week before.
Two hard years in the Med
After a short shakedown, she was dispatched to the Med to join RADM Sir Philip Vian’s 15th Cruiser Squadron which was soon involved in a series of close convoy escorts between Gibraltar and Alexandria to increasingly besieged Malta.
Besides convoy work, she went to sea with the fleet on a few occasions for bombardment raids against Derna and Rhodes.
In March 1942, Euryalus joined a covering group under Sir Philip to include four other light cruisers and 18 destroyers to protect convoy MW10 out of Alexandria, bound for Malta. The force was fresh out of battleships as HMS Queen Elizabeth and Valiant had just been sidelined after Italian frogmen attacks and HMS Barham was sunk by a U-boat the previous November.
The afternoon following the departure from Alexandria, a heavy Italian force that included the battleship Littorio (45,000t, 9×15″/50 guns) and heavy cruisers Gorizia (14,000t, 8×8″/53) and Trento (13,000t, 8×5″/50), which far outgunned anything the British had, made contact with the British in the Gulf of Sidra. Cutting the cargo ships to the South, Sir Philip ordered smoke and turned to charge the Italians.
Over the next five hours, an artillery and torpedo duel between the two squadrons swirled.
As dusk set Second Battle of Sirte, the Italians had fired some 1,511 shells, almost all from Littorio and her companion cruisers, while the British, who were able to get their destroyers close enough to the action to lend their guns, were able to get off some 2,850 shells and at least 38 torpedoes. Damage to each fleet was slight but could have been much worse.
During the fight, Euryalus was straddled by 15-inch shells from Littorio— who roared 181 shells from her main battery towards the smoke-shrouded British warships– on two different occasions and was damaged by splinters. Importantly, the Italian surface fleet never got within range of the convoy itself.
The next convoy to Malta, Operation Vigorous, was less than successful and, running short of ammo after fighting determined waves of Axis air attacks, had to turn around 600 miles short of the battered island.
Euryalus continued in her tasks, running convoy support in the Eastern Med, shelling Axis positions– for instance plastering Mersa Matruh in July along with sister ship HMS Dido and a quartet of destroyers– and just generally trying to remain afloat.
In January 1943, with the tide turning against the Axis in the Med, HMS Euryalus, sister HMS Cleopatra and four destroyers formed Force K, shelling the withdrawal of the German-Italian forces in Libya.
In the same vein, she was there for the Allied offensive, joining the Husky landings in Sicily that July where she supported the 1st British Infantry division’s seizure of the fortress island of Pantelleria (Operation Corkscrew).
Then came the Avalanche landings at Salerno in September where Euryalus, operating with Sir Philip’s Task Force 88, screened the British carrier group. Subjected to the hell of the Luftwaffe’s radio-controlled bombs off that shore, Euryalus stood by the heavily damaged battleship HMS Warspite (03) after she was hit by a Fritz X on 15 September. A week later, she embarked C-in-C Mediterranean, Sir Andrew Cunningham, for passage to Taranto for meeting with Italians to arrange disposal of Italian Fleet.
By the end of the month, with Italy sort of knocked out of the war, Euryalus was withdrawn to Clyde for a much-needed refit, having spent 24 months in the middle of some of the worst combat the Mediterranean Theatre had to offer.
Spending eight months in the yard, she missed out on D-Day but emerged in late June 1944 much modified. She landed her Q mount, reducing her main armament to eight 5.25″/50s, and picked up additional 20mm guns in trade. The cruiser was also outfitted as an escort carrier squadron flagship and given an aircraft direction room, swapping out her radar for more advanced models.
After shakedown and repairs due to a galley fire, in October she joined a task force made up of the escort carriers HMS Trumpeter and HMS Fencer along with a half dozen destroyers to mine the Aarmumsund Leads off Norway as part of Operation Lucidas. She would head to Norway again the following month, shepherding the jeep carrier HMS Pursuer to attack enemy shipping off Trondheim.
Then, with the formation of the British Pacific Fleet, her number came up to switch from the Barents Sea to the Far East.
In mid-December, Euryalus left Liverpool as an escort to MV Rimutaka, a steamer with “The Unknown Soldier,” Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (brother of both Edward VIII and George VI), aboard, who was headed to Australia to take up his appointment as Governor-General. Making the Pacific by way of the Suez in mid-January, our cruiser left Prince Henry’s service and was soon tagging along with British armored carriers to raid Japanese occupied oil fields in Dutch Sumatra.
By March, she joined RN TF 57, which was detached to serve with the U.S. Fifth Fleet and arrived at Ulithi to ship out in the American-British carrier force to plaster the Japanese Sakishima-Gunto islands group in the lead up to the Iwo Jima operation.
April saw the U.S./UK group running amok off Formosa while May saw operations in the Philippines.
June saw the cruiser return to Australia to refit before shipping out again with TF57/37 for operations attacking the Japanese home islands from the Tokyo-Yokohama area to Northern Honshu and Hokkaido.
Upon the Japanese signal to surrender on 15 August, Euryalus chopped back to RN control from the Americans and was assigned to British Commonwealth Task Group 111.2 which liberated Hong Kong on 29 August, sailing into the harbor alongside the cruiser HMS Swiftsure and the Canadian armed transport HMCS Prince Robert.
Euryalus would remain in Pacific waters for over a year past VJ Day, policing the region for British interests and supervising both the repatriation of Japanese POWs and the thorny reoccupation of British (as well as Dutch and French) overseas possessions. The cruiser only returned to the British Isles in February 1947.
Her Pacific deployment lasted for 792 days, 502 of which were spent underway.
Six of the 16 Didos never made it to see peacetime service: HMS Bonaventure (31) was sunk by the Italian submarine Ambra off Crete in 1941. HMS Naiad (93) was likewise sent to the bottom by the German submarine U-565 off the Egyptian coast while another U-boat, U-205, sank HMS Hermione (74) in the summer of 1942. HMS Charybdis (88), meanwhile, was sunk by German torpedo boats Т23 and Т27 while during a confused night action in the English Channel in October 1943. HMS Spartan (95) was sunk by a German Hs 293 gliding bomb launched from a Do 217 bomber off Anzio in January 1944. HMS Scylla (98) was badly damaged by a mine in June 1944 and was never repaired.
Some of the rest were immediately sent to mothballs including HMS Argonaut (61), who had been seriously damaged by two Italian torpedoes and had undergone a seven-month rebuild in America that didn’t seem to be entirely successful. She would eventually be stricken in 1953.
Others went overseas. Smallish cruisers that could still give a lot of prestige to growing Commonwealth navies, several saw a second career well into the Cold War. Improved-Didos HMS Bellona (63) and HMS Black Prince (81) were put at the disposal of the Royal New Zealand Navy for a decade with simplified armament until they were returned and scrapped. HMS Royalist (89) likewise served with the Kiwis until 1966 then promptly sank on her way to the scrappers. HMS Diadem (84) went to Pakistan in 1956 as PNS Babur, after an extensive modernization, and remained in service there into the 1980s, somehow dodging Soviet Styx missiles from Indian Osa-class attack boats in the 1971 war between those two countries.
Just four Didos continued with the Royal Navy past 1948, going on to pick up “C” pennant numbers: HMS Phoebe (C43), HMS Cleopatra (C33), HMS Sirius (C82), and Euryalus (C42). Of those, our cruiser was the last ship on the Admiralty’s active list, serving primarily on the South Atlantic station, in the Med, and in the Persian Gulf after a lengthy postwar modernization at Rosyth in 1947–48.
Still, the RN was cash strapped and, after the great drawdown following the Korean War from “East of Suez” operations, Euryalus was placed out of commission on 19 September 1954, having just served 13 years. She was subsequently sold to BISCO in 1958 and towed to the breakers.
The historic vessel is remembered in numerous works of maritime art.
Just a few years after our cruiser was sent to the scrappers, the Royal Navy commissioned the sixth and (as of 2021) final HMS Euryalus, a Leander-class frigate that gave over 25 years of hard service during the Cold War and was sold for dismantling in 1990.
Displacement: Standard: 5,600 tons; Full load: 7,600 tons
Length 512 ft overall
Beam 50 ft 6 in
Draught 14 ft
Machinery: Four Admiralty 3-drum boilers, Four Parsons steam turbines, Four shafts, 62,000 shp
Speed: 32.25 knots
Range: 1,100 tons fuel oil; 1,500 mi at 30 kn; 4,240 miles at 16 knots
Complement: 480 (designed) to 600 (wartime)
Sensors: Type 279 radar (1941), later replaced by Types 272, 281, 282, and 285 in 1943-44, later replaced by Types 279b, 277, and 293 by 1946.
Armor: belt: 76mm, bulkheads: 25mm, turrets: up to 13mm, deck: 51 – 25mm
5 x twin 5.25″/50 (13.4 cm) QF Mark II DP guns in A, B, Q, X, Y turrets
1 x 4-inch gun
2 x quad Vickers .50-caliber MGs
3 x quad 2-pdr 40mm/39cal MK VIII pom pom guns on Mk.VII mounts
2 x triple 21-inch torpedo tubes.
4 x twin 5.25″/50 (13.4 cm) QF Mark II DP guns in A, B, X, Y turrets
15 x 20mm/70 Oerlikon Mk II/IV in six twin and two single mounts
3 x quad 2-pdr 40mm/39cal MK VIII pom pom guns on Mk.VII mounts
2 x triple 21 in torpedo tubes.
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