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, June 15, 2022: Torpedoed…Again?
Above we see a tow line to the British Town-class light cruiser HMS Liverpool (C11) during Operation Harpoon, one of the Allied convoys desperately raced in a pincer movement to supply besieged Malta in the Axis-dominated central Mediterranean, now some 80 years ago this week. While the damage to Liverpool, a cruiser that is shown listing and billowing black smoke, looks bad, she had already toughed out worse during the war and would come back to serve again.
In the mid-1930s, the British didn’t have a shortage of cruisers, as for generations they had kept large numbers of the type around to police their global Empire and sea lanes in the event of war. The thing is, in a “modern problems require modern solutions” situation was the appearance of very large “light” cruisers (under 10,000 tons, guns smaller than 8-inch bore) such as the four Japanese Mogami class (“8,500” declared tons, 15×6-inch guns, 5 inches of armor) and their American echo, the nine Brooklyn-class (9,500 tons, 15×6-inch guns, 5.5 inches of armor) cruisers, the Admiralty decided they needed something like Mogami/Brooklyn of their own.
As Richard Worth put it, “Aware of Japanese and American decisions to build large light cruisers, the British reluctantly admitted their ships had begun to look puny. Arethusa [the best Royal Navy light cruiser of the day, at some 5,200-tons and carrying just a half dozen 6-inch guns] had a broadside of 672 pounds while Brookly had one of 1,950 pounds.”
This led to the eight original Southampton or “Town” class light cruisers, all named after large cities (Southampton, Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham, Newcastle, Gloucester, Liverpool, and Manchester) in the UK. Designed at 9,100 tons– a figure that would balloon over 12,000 during WWII– and 591-feet long overall, the class was intended to carry a full dozen 6″/50 (15.2 cm) BL Mark XXIII guns in four triple turrets, allowing a 1,344-pound broadside. To this were added eight 4-inch guns and two triple torpedo tube launchers.
The latter three of the class– Gloucester, Liverpool, and Manchester— were modified slightly while under construction, adding improved armor protection and fire control systems. Two further half-sisters, Edinburgh, and Belfast, ordered in 1939, continued with the up-armoring trend, adding steel plate to the point that it made up some 18 percent of their displacement, the best British light cruisers in terms of armor. They would need them as the British would use the Towns in much the same role as they did their beefier County-class heavy cruisers which went about 40 feet longer and 2,000 tons heavier.
As with the contemporary light cruisers of the day, the Towns were fitted with extensive aviation facilities and could carry a trio of Supermarine Walrus flying boats.
Liverpool, the eighth such ship in the RN to carry the name since 1741, was ordered in March 1935 from Fairfield SB at Govan, Glasgow as part of the 1935 Estimates and laid down on 17 February 1936. The Liverpool immediately prior was a 4,800-ton Great War light cruiser that served off West Africa and in the Adriatic and Aegean during WWI before heading to the breakers in 1921.
Commissioned 2 November 1938, the 9th Liverpool visited her namesake town and shipped out for the East Indies and China stations, joining the 5th Cruiser Squadron at the latter just before WWII broke out.
Her initial taskings included working out of Aden on the hunt for German raiders and blockade runners in the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean before moving to Hong Kong just before Christmas 1939 to continue interception duty.
On 21 January 1940, Liverpool intercepted the Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) (Japan Mail Steam Ship Co. Ltd) liner Asama Maru off Japan just 35 miles off Tokyo Bay’s Nozaki Lighthouse, during the liner’s final leg of a scheduled run from San Francisco for Yokohama. Although she would later be requisitioned by the IJN in 1941 and converted to a troopship, at the time Liverpool boarded her, Asama Maru was still a commercial ship under a neutral flag operating in her home waters.
As noted by Combined Fleet:
At 1315, Captain Read sends a boarding party armed with pistols. The British officer in charge explains to Captain Watabe that it will be necessary to take 21 German passengers as prisoners of war. At 1435, the boarding party leaves the ship with the Germans, all former officers or technicians discharged from Standard Oil tankers. At 1440, HMS LIVERPOOL signals “Proceed”. Shortly after nightfall ASAMA MARU arrives at Yokohama. LIVERPOOL takes the Germans to Hong Kong.
The resulting public indignation felt in Japan over the high-handed incident further strained relations between London and Tokyo, which of course would erupt in open warfare the next year.
Transferred to the Red Sea Force by April, Liverpool would work alongside HMAS Hobart and support operations around the Horn of Africa.
By June 1940, Liverpool would enter the Med, where things, since the Italians had entered the war, had really gotten interesting. Attached to the 7th Cruiser Squadron, before the month was out she had bombarded the Italians at Tobruk, where she scrapped with shore batteries and sank the minesweeper, Giovanni Berta, then fought a surface action off Zante on the 27th where she sent the Italian Turbine-class destroyer Espero (1,700 tons) to the bottom and damaged two others, catching a 4.7-inch shell hit during the latter fight.
July 1940 also proved hectic, with Liverpool covering British convoys between Alexandria and Greek Aegean ports, suffering through repeated air attacks from land-based bombers (coming away with damage twice), escaping further damage during the confusing Battle of Calabria, and ending the month assigned to 3rd Cruiser Squadron, under much-needed repair.
Emerging from the dockyard at Alexandria at the end of August, Liverpool was soon back in the thick of it, accompanying the battleships HMS Valiant, Malaya, Ramillies, and Warspite as well as the carriers HMS Illustrious and Eagle in operations ranging from the Dodecanese Rhodes to Malta throughout September and into October.
Who needs a bow?
It was on 14 October, while retiring from screening Illustrious and Eagle during air attacks on the Greek island of Leros (a place Alistair MacLean would use as the loose basis of “The Guns of Navarone”), Liverpool was the subject of an attack by land-based Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 three-engine torpedo bombers.
The hit caused a leak of aviation fuel which later ignited after the fumes spread. The resulting detonation caused so much damage in her forward frames that it wrecked the cruiser’s “A” turret and caused her bow to fall off while under tow to Alexandria. In all, the cruiser suffered 65 casualties in the incident.
Liverpool would remain under repair in Egypt for five months until it was arranged for her to steam, under her own plant, and with her abbreviated temporary bow, on a two-month trip through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and across the Pacific to California. There, in a country still in an uneasy peace, she would be patched up by U.S. Navy workers at the Mare Island Navy Yard with stops at Manila and Pearl Harbor on the way.
She would arrive on 16 June 1941.
Back in the fight
With a new bow and extra batteries of 20mm AAA guns, Liverpool would leave Mare Island on 20 November, arriving back in the UK via the Panama Canal by 5 December– just two days before Pearl Harbor. As for Mare Island, they would have a chance to do lots of repair work in the coming days for “the home team.”
After further outfitting with radar (Type 273 surface warning, Type 281 aircraft warning, Types 284/285 fire control), Liverpool would sail for Scapa Flow on 6 February 1942 for work-ups. By the next month, she would be patrolling the Barents Sea on the lookout for German surface raiders (Tirpitz, anyone) in conjunction with Convoy PQ12 to Murmansk. She would also help screen returning Convoys QP10 and QP12 from Russia and help provide cover for outbound PQ16 into May.
Then, in early June, she was sent back to the Med for a second tour.
SM.79, Part II
In a plan to split German/Italian efforts to interdict British convoys to Malta, the Admiralty in June 1942 hit on the idea to send two at once– from different vectors. This included the Harpoon convoy which would sail West from Gibraltar and the Vigorous convoy which would make the run from Alexandria in the East.
Liverpool would be part of the Force W distant cover group for Harpoon, which had a lot of muscle including the Great War battleship HMS Malaya and the equally old carriers HMS Eagle and Argus, the latter with few aircraft. Rounding out Force W was the cruisers HMS Kenya and Charybdis as well as eight destroyers. Meanwhile, the close escort group, Force X, was made up of the cruiser HMS Cairo and 18 small combatants of which almost half were motor launches.
Departing the Clyde for Gibraltar on 6 June, Harpoon left “The Rock” for Malta on the morning of the 12th, headed eastward at a stately 12 knots in two loose columns, with Liverpool leading the starboard and Kenya the port.
Shadowed immediately by German and Italian aircraft, the pucker factor for the route would be the Skerki Channel in the Sicily-Tunis Narrows, and the first attacks started at 1030 on the 14th. Shortly after, Liverpool would have a chance to do more damage control.
A much more serious attack followed half an hour later when 28 132º Gruppo SM.79 Savoia torpedo aircraft escorted by 20 Macchi fighters conducted a combined attack with 10 Cant. high level bombers. The Savoia approached from the northward in two waves of equal strength. The first wave came in at 1110 hours and the second soon afterwards. The first wave passed through the destroyer screen at 500 feet above the water, rounded the rear of the convoy, and attacked from the starboard side, splitting into groups before firing. They dropped their torpedoes from a height of 100 feet at a range of 2000 yards. They hit HMS Liverpool, which was leading the starboard column, when she was turning to meet the attack. Also, the Dutch merchant Tanimbar was hit in the rear, and she sank within a few minutes in position 36°58’N, 07°30’E.
HMS Liverpool was hit in the engine room and severely damaged. She could only make 3 to 4 knots on one shaft. She was ordered to return to Gibraltar being towed by the A-class destroyer HMS Antelope (H36) and screened by the destroyer HMS Westcott (D47). A long voyage during which the first 24 hours she was attacked from the air.
At 1640 hours, five CR. 42 fighter-bombers attacked from astern out of the sun, luckily without hitting, though one or two bombs fell close enough to increase the ships list. At 1800 hours, the tow having parted, there was a harmless attempt by eleven high-level bombers followed by an equally harmless attempt by seven torpedo aircraft which were heavily escorted by fighters. The Liverpool and Westcott each claimed to have destroyed a torpedo plane.
At 2015 hours, now once more in tow, fife high-level bombers attacked but their bombs fell wide.
At 2230 hours, six torpedo bombers made a twilight attack from very long range only to lose one of their number to the barrage HMS Liverpool put up.
At 1420 hours on 15 June, three torpedo aircraft made a final unsuccessful attempt to attack HMS Liverpool after which she, HMS Antelope and HMS Westcott were not again molested. That afternoon the tug HMRT Salvonia arrived from Gibraltar, and they took over the tow. Antelope then joined Westcott as A/S screen. With Salvonia also came the A/S trawler HMS Lady Hogarth. HMS Liverpool and her escorts safely arrived at Gibraltar late in the afternoon of the 17th.
Seriously damaged, Liverpool managed to mount a fighting retreat– by tow– while her crew saved the ship. It proved an example of damage control for the rest of the fleet, one that would come in handy later in the war such as in the Pacific in 1945.
Speaking of the war, Liverpool was so badly smashed up and repair assets so limited that, after temporary patches at Gibraltar, she was sent to HM Dockyard, Rosyth in early August 1942 and would languish there for the next two years as she was slowly rebuilt, a modernization that saw her radars upgraded and her stern “X” turret removed to accommodate more AAA batteries.
Although she probably could have been sent back to the lines in time to take part in the Normandy or Dragoon landings in France, the Royal Navy was short-staffed, and Liverpool remained in ordinary essentially for the rest of the war in Europe. She was used briefly as a cruise ship, with a skeleton crew, to take the Allied Tripartite Commission to occupied Germany in June 1945 and would only be brought back to full service in October 1945, a month after VJ Day.
She earned four battle honors for WWII service: Mediterranean 1940, Calabria 1940, Arctic 1942, and Malta Convoys 1942.
Post-War Victory Lap
Liverpool’s swan song in 1945 was assigned to the restructured 15th Cruiser Squadron, as part of the rapidly shrinking Mediterranean Fleet. There she would remain, usually in flagship roles with an admiral or commodore aboard, for the next seven years.
This included a lot of tense early Cold War moments, especially in Greek and Egyptian waters, but these never came to blows.
Liverpool remained in commission until 1952 when she was reduced to Reserve status before her name appeared on the Disposal List in 1957. She was sold to BISCO for demolition by P&W MacLellan at Bo’ness, arriving at the breakers on 2 July 1958.
Few remnants of Liverpool exist today, but her bell is on display at Tobruk, where she fired her guns in anger in June 1940.
She is also remembered in maritime art.
Of Liverpool’s sisters, HMS Gloucester, Manchester, Southampton, and Edinburgh were all lost during the war, three of the four in the Med. Five other sisters, like Liverpool, saw limited Cold War service with HMS Birmingham, Belfast, and Newcastle seeing action again against North Korean gun batteries in the 1950s– and the latter sister even pounding Malayan Communist targets in 1955 and again in 1957.
Belfast was the last of the Town-class cruisers afloat, serving as an accommodation ship into 1970 when she was marked for disposal and saved as a museum ship on the Queen’s Walk in London, a task she has performed admirably since Trafalgar Day 1971.
Meanwhile, the 9th Liverpool, a Type 42 Batch 2 destroyer, has come and gone, ordered in 1977 and scrapped in 2014 after spending a solid 30 years in active service that spanned stints on Falkland patrol, Persian Gulf operations, time in the naval blockade of Libya that included 200 rounds of 4.5-inch delivered in NGFS in 2011, and your general Cold War/Post-Cold War sea ops.
It is time for a 10th Liverpool.
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