Warship Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022: Continuing the Legacy
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, Sept. 14, 2022: Continuing the Legacy
Above we see a superb example of the Ceres sub-class of the Royal Navy’s C-type light cruisers, namely HMS Coventry (D43), pictured after her anti-aircraft conversion refit modernization in May 1937. While the 10 new QF 4″/40 Mk Vs she is fitted with sound formidable, she met a swarm of German bombers she wouldn’t be able to swat away exactly 80 years ago today.
Laid down as Yard No. 1035 at Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend on Tyne in April 1916 just before the launch of the Somme Offensive in the third year of the Great War, Coventry was a member of the 28-strong “C”-class of new-fangled oil-fired light cruisers. Sturdy 446-foot ships of 4,000~ tons, their eight-pack of Yarrow boilers trunked through two funnels and pushing a pair of Brown-Curtis turbines coughed up 40,000 shp– enough to sprint them at 29 knots.
Split into seven incrementally modified subclasses with minor changes among them, usually in terms of armament layout, superstructure arrangement, and turbine fit (some with Parsons-made equipment, others with Brown-Curtis) they were built across the UK at eight different yards during the War years with the first, Comus, laid down in November 1913 and the 28th, Colombo, completed in July 1919.
Comparable in size to a smallish frigate today, they packed three to five single BL 6-inch Mk XII guns arranged fore and aft along with a more distributed battery of six or eight QF 4-inch Mk IV guns in addition to two bow-mounted or four beam-mounted 21-inch torpedo tubes.
With up to 6-inches of steel armor (conning tower, just 2.5 inches on the belt), they could hold their own against similar cruisers, slaughter destroyers, and gunboats, and run away from larger warships.
The five Ceres-variant sisters (HMS Cardiff, Ceres, Coventry, Curacoa, and Curlew), which joined the fleet in the first half of 1917, had a much-reduced secondary armament, dropping the 4-inch guns in favor of a few new 3-inch and 2-pounder high-angle AAA mounts, with the latter seen as more useful against increasingly encountered and very pesky Jerry seaplanes and Zepps.
After just 18 months on the builder’s ways, Coventry, originally laid down as HMS Corsair, was commissioned on 8 February 1917, the fourth of HMs vessels to carry the name one of the Midlands city since 1658. Tragically, all three of the previous Coventrys had been captured by the French in battles across the 17th and 18th centuries and the cruiser was the first to carry the name since 1783.
Assigned to the 5th Light Cruiser squadron along with many of her sisters, Coventry stood in case the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet sortied out once again and spent her WWI service on guard but without the opportunity to fire a war shot.
During this period, Royal Navy war artist Phillip Connard captured images from her decks that endure today.
While none of the 28 C-type light cruisers were lost during the Great War– despite several showing up in U-boat periscopes and being present at Jutland and the Heligoland Bight– Coventry’s sister HMS Cassandra was sunk by a mine in the Baltic on 5 December 1918 while acting against the Reds.
Joining the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron back in the Atlantic in 1919, Coventry would often be employed as a flagship for destroyer flotillas and, in the early 1920s, would be transferred to the Mediterranean where she would continue in the same vein.
A 1928 refit saw her little-used flying platform removed and in 1935 she was paid off, reduced to reserve status at the ripe old age of 18.
With the times passing and newer cruisers coming online eating up valuable treaty-limited tonnage, many of the class were paid off and sold for their value in scrap metal. These included almost all the early ships of the class– HMS Carysfort, Cleopatra, Comus, Conquest, Cordelia, Calliope, Champion, Cambrian, Canterbury, Castor, Constance, Centaur, and Concord. Others were converted for new purposes– for instance, HMS Caroline, stripped of her guns and boilers in 1924, became a headquarters and training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve’s Ulster Division at Belfast.
Just under half of the class, 13 vessels, made it out of the Depression still in the fleet, and most went on to serve in one form or another in the Second World War, despite their advanced age and outdated nature.
Some were converted to meet the needs of the age.
Coventry and Curlew were taken from reserves and morphed into early “AA cruisers,” landing their large 6-inch guns and smaller secondaries for an all-up battery of 10 improved 4″/45 MK Vs along with an updated fire control layout and redesigned magazines, able to carry a total of 2,000 such shells. Three other remaining vessels of her sub-class– Ceres, Cardiff, and Curacoa— were slated to get the same conversion but tight budgets precluded this and only the latter of that trio would ultimately pick up 8 4-inchers, and even that was not until WWII. Receiving a similar fit would be the last of the C-types– HMS Carlise, Cairo, Calcutta, Colombo, and Cape Town— picking up six 4″/45s after hostilities commenced.
Coventry, refit at HM Dockyard, Portsmouth, over the first ten months of 1936, would spend the following two and a half years in a series of trials work helping to develop mountings for the multiple barreled 2-pounder “Pom Poms” that would become a notable fixture on Royal Navy surface ships in WWII, as well as new degaussing gear and 20mm Oerlikon guns. She would soon also start work with early sea-going radar sets.
Then, came war, again.
Outpost duty and the Barents Sea
In August 1939, with the war on the horizon, Coventry joined the newer light cruisers Danae and Dauntless for passage to the Med, arriving at Alexandria on 3 September.
Recalled to Home Waters, she was the urgent task of convoy escort then as a floating AAA battery at the Sullom Voe seaplane base in the Shetland Islands, she fought off German aircraft on 21 October and again on 13 November, shooting down a Heinkel He 111 in the latter effort. Further German attacks on Christmas Day 1939 and New Year’s Day 1940 ensued, with Coventry’s gunners rushing out from the holiday meals to fire at Goering’s party crashers. It was in the latter that a near-miss (the first of many she had during the war) left her with a leaking hull.
Once the Army arrived at Sullom Voe to install shore-based ack-ack batteries, Coventry was relieved and entered refit at Chatham where she got her leaks fixed and landed her after 4″/40s (No. 6 and No. 7 mount) then picked up a Type 279 dual-purpose air- and surface-warning set with an instrumented range of an optimistic 65 miles (airwave) and about 6 miles surface wave. Her installation complete, Coventry became the flagship of the 1st AA Squadron (flying the flag of Rear-Admiral J.G.P. Vivian, RN) with Humber Force alongside her sisters Curlew and Cairo, in April 1940, just in time for the Allied intervention in Norway.
Coventry would support the landings at Bodo in mid-May– her Pom Poms credited with an AAA kill on 18 May off that port– followed by the assault on Narvik, and ultimately cover the withdrawal from the latter in June, even embarking evacuating troops. She both bombarded German positions ashore and served up hot anti-air to Luftwaffe aircraft overhead.
It was during the Norway operation that sister Cairo was hit by hit by two bombs and severely damaged, suffering 12 killed while Coventry herself would take splinters from a near-miss that left one rating killed. Curlew, meanwhile, was sent to the bottom by German bombers of Kampfgeschwader 30 on 26 May, near Narvik.
Of Junkers and Spaghetti
Patching up damage from Norwegian rocks and German shells, Coventry helped cover Convoys WS 2, AP 1, and AP 2, then was ordered back to the Med in August where the Italians were now in the war.
Picking up troops in Gibraltar, she made Malta with Force F in what was termed Operation Hats on 1 September, screening the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Making Alexandria on 6 September, she would cover Convoys BN 5A, MAQ 2, MF 3, and MF 4. In October 1940, she was part of Operation BN, the landing of British troops on Crete. In the latter, she would prove a successful minesweeper, discovering and partially sweeping without loss an enemy minefield using her paravanes– a rare occurrence.
In early November, with available escorts few and far between, two Allied convoys, A. N. 6, and M. W. 3 set out from Port Said/Alexandria in Egypt for the Aegean Sea and Malta. The ships were covered by Coventry and her sister Calcutta, along with the destroyers Dainty, Vampire, Waterhen, and Voyager. Then came Operation Barbarity, the transport of British troops from Alexandria to Piraeus in Greece.
Sailing with Force D in November 1940, Coventry, and company, joined by Gibraltar-based Force H, briefly engaged a superior Italian force south of Sardinia’s Cape Spartivento in an inconclusive battle that led to ADM James Somerville almost being cashiered by Churchill when he did not pursue the retreating Italians.
The next month, while supporting operations against the Italian army in Cyrenaica and screening the battleships HMS Barham and Valiant, 2042 on 13 December, Coventry, while some 80 miles off Mersa Matruh, Egypt, was hit by a torpedo in the bow from the Italian Adua-class submarine Neghelli. The damaged cruiser, losing part of her stern but suffering no casualties made it back to Alexandria under escort the next afternoon. For what it’s worth, Neghelli disappeared on her fifth war patrol a month later.
Repaired, Coventry soon again joined on the regular Med convoy route, lending her guns to Convoy AN 13 in January 1941, AS 14 in February, AN 17, AN 18, MW 6, AN 22, AN 23, and ANF 20 in March– claiming her share of six Junkers Ju88s shot down on the 26th off Piraeus; ASF 23, ANF 29, GA 14, and AS 25 in April– stopping to help evacuate a British battalion at Mudros in an act very similar to the withdrawal from Narvik the year before.
At this point, the barrels on her guns had to be replaced, as they were considered too worn for use– one had exploded on 26 April during air attacks, killing one gunner and injuring the rest of the gun crew. The approximate barrel life on these mounts was between 600 and 850 shells depending on type and charge, giving you an idea of just how many Coventry had been firing.
May saw Operation Tiger, riding shotgun over aborted reinforcement “Tiger convoy” through the Eastern Mediterranean to Malta. It was on this sortie that Coventry came to the assistance on 17 May of the hospital ship Aba (7938 GRT, built 1918) which had been attacked by German aircraft to the south of the Kaso Strait.
The cruiser suffered nine casualties when she was strafed by enemy aircraft during her efforts. It was during this rescue that 30-year-old Petty Officer Alfred Edward Sephton, one of Coventry’s director layers, would earn the VC the hard way, posthumously. It would be the first such award of the Mediterranean campaign for the Royal Navy.
The end of May saw Coventry and her sister Calcutta covering the desperate nighttime evacuations of British and Commonwealth troops of Creforce from the village of Sphakia, situated on the southern coast of Crete.
The two ships were attacked on 1 June by German Ju 88 bombers of Lehrgeschwader 1 while 100 miles north of Alexandria and, while Coventry was narrowly missed, two bombs hit Calcutta and she sank the cruiser in minutes with Coventry standing by to pluck 254 survivors from the water. Sadly, Calcutta took 107 with her to the bottom.
Shrugging it off, Coventry was on point for Operation Exporter, the Syria–Lebanon campaign, during which the cruiser was subjected to regular day and night air raids while off Haifa and Beirut, with Vichy French coastal artillery also taking pot shots at her.
The rest of the year saw the cruiser allowed to rest in the quieter waters of the Red Sea then begin a six-month refit in November at Bombay that saw additional AAA mounts fitted.
In June 1942, fresh from the yard, she took on gold in Alexandria and transported it to Jeddah to pay the Saudis for oil then escorted the battered old HMS Queen Elizabeth for part of the dreadnought’s sail from the Med via the Red Sea to America for modernization.
Coventry was back in the shooting war by August, part of Operation Pedestal, the last ditch effort to resupply Malta before the besieged island was forced to surrender. Her role would be with MG 3, a dummy convoy of three merchant ships, escorted by three light cruisers (Coventry, HMS Arethusa, and Euryalus) and ten destroyers that would function as a diversionary force in the Eastern Med, shuffling around Port Said to Beirut/Haifa and then dispersing.
Then, on September 1942, with the British gearing up for a Commando raid against Axis-held Tobruk, (Operation Agreement), Coventry was operating with a force of six destroyers, was swarmed by a force of at least 16 German Ju 88s of I./Lehrgeschwader 1— the same force that sunk Calcutta— followed up by a dozen Stukas of III. /Sturzkampfgeschwader 3. Despite RAF Beaufighters running interference and seven German aircraft downed between the AAA and the British fighters, Coventry was hit by at least four bombs. With fires out of control and at least 64 of her crew killed, Coventry was abandoned and sunk by torpedoes from the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Zulu (F18).
Shortly after, Zulu was sunk as well.
Of the 13 active C-types that entered WWII, almost half of those, six, were lost. In addition to Coventry, Calcutta, and Curlew– all victims of German land-based bombers as discussed above– sisters Calypso and Cairo were claimed by submarines while Curacoa was taken out in a collision with the Queen Mary. Of special distinction, one member of the class, Carlise, was credited with more AAA kills (11) than any other British cruiser, not a bad distinction for the old girl especially considering the Royal Navy had several more modern and better-armed cruisers in the thick of it.
By the end of 1945, the seven survivors were paid off, waiting for disposal, and were soon scrapped.
Just one C-class cruiser survived past 1948, Caroline, a past Warship Wednesday alum. Having served as an RNVR drillship in Alexandra Dock, Belfast until 2011, since 2016 she has been a museum ship. She is the last remaining warship that was at Jutland.
As she was lost during WWII, little remains in terms of relics from our subject cruiser. Even the VC issued to the hero Alfred Sephton– who was buried at sea– was stolen in 1990 from its display case at the Coventry Cathedral and has never been recovered. The Sephton Cross is one of only 17 VCs, and the only one awarded to a member of the Royal Navy, to be reported stolen.
The Royal Navy recycled “Coventry” with a new Type 42 destroyer in 1974. Faithful to the legacy of the four warships with the same name that preceded it– three of which were captured and the fourth scuttled after being abandoned– this new destroyer would also perish in combat.
Sunk 25 May 1982 by Argentinean airstrikes, 19 sailors went down with said destroyer and another died 10 months later. As the survivors awaited rescue from the nearby ships, they sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life“ in true Monty Python fashion.
A sixth Coventry, a Type 22 frigate (F88) commissioned in 1988, broke the chain of sacrifice and served 14 years before she was sold in a wave of post-Cold War drawdowns to Romania, where she still sails as Regele Ferdinand (F221), that country’s flagship. Fingers crossed she doesn’t hit a loose mine in the Black Sea.
Thus far, there has not been a seventh HMS Coventry.
Displacement: 3,750 tons (designed); 4,320 fl; 4,799 deep load
Length: 446 ft (o/a)
Beam: 41 ft 6 in
Draught: 14 ft 10 in (with bunkers full, and complete with provisions, stores, and water: 16 feet 3 inches mean)
Propulsion: 8 Yarrow small tube boilers, 2 Brown-Curtis steam turbines, 2 shafts, 30,000 shp natural/40,000 forced draught
Speed: 28.5 knots max (some hit 29 on trials)
Number of Tons of Oil Fuel Carried: 841
Quantity of Water carried: For boilers, 70 tons, for drinking 49.25 tons
Ship’s Company (typical)
Engine-room establishment: 88
Other non-executive ratings: 44
One motorboat 30 feet
One sailing cutter 30 feet
Two whalers 27 feet, Montague
One gig 30 feet
Two skiff dinghies 16 feet
One motorboat 30 feet for Commodore’s use
Waterline belt: 1.5–3 in
Deck: 1 in
Conning tower: 6 in
5 x single BL 6″/45 Mk XII guns on Forecastle, Forward superstructure, Aft Forward superstructure, and Quarterdeck
2 x QF 3-inch 20 cwt IV on Mark IV AAA mounting on foc’sle
2 x QF 2 pounder Pom-pom AAA on the aft superstructure
2 x twin 21-inch deck beam mounted torpedo tubes, typically with eight Mark IV Torpedoes
10 x QF 4″/40 Mk Vs in open mounts
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