Warship Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022: Getting it Coming & Going
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, Dec. 14, 2022: Getting it Coming & Going
Above we see the Royal Navy’s Dido-class light cruiser HMS Argonaut (61), pictured 80 years ago this week at Algiers after losing both her bow and stern to two very well-placed Italian torpedoes with roughly a 400-foot spread between them. A new wartime-production ship only four months in the fleet, she would soon be patched up and back in the thick of it, lending her guns to fight the Axis on both sides of the globe.
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 due to a variety of reasons.
The Dido class had provision for up to 360 rounds for “A”, “B” and “Q” turrets, 320 rounds for the “X” turret and 300 rounds for the “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.”
While all the Didos followed the very British practice of using names borrowed from classical history and legend (Charybdis, Scylla, Naiad, et.al) our cruiser was the third HMS Argonaut, following in the footsteps of a Napoleonic War-era 64-gun third-rate and an Edwardian-era Diadem-class armored cruiser.
One of three Didos constructed at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, the new Argonaut was ordered under the 1939 War Emergency Program for £1,480,000 and laid down on 21 November 1939, during the “Phony War” in which Britain and France stood on a cautious Western front against Germany. Launched in September 1941– by which time Italy had joined the war, the Lowlands, Balkans, and most of Scandinavia had fallen to the Axis, and the Soviets were hanging by a thread– Argonaut commissioned 8 August 1942, by which time the Americans and Japan had joined a greatly expanded global conflict.
Argonaut was later “paid for” via a subscription drive from the City of Coventry to replace the old C-class light cruiser HMS Coventry (D43) which had been so heavily damaged in the Med by German Junkers Ju 88s during Operation Agreement that she was scuttled.
Her first skipper, who arrived aboard on 21 April 1942, was Capt. Eric Longley-Cook, 41, who saw action in the Great War on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, was a gunnery officer on HMS Hood in the 1930s and began the war as commanding officer of the cruiser HMS Caradoc.
Off to war with you, lad
Just off her shakedown, Argonaut sailed with the destroyers HMS Intrepid and Obdurate for points north on 13 October, dropping off Free Norwegian troops and several 3.7-inch in the frozen wastes of Spitzbergen then delivering an RAF medical unit in Murmansk.
On her return trip, she carried the men from the Operation Orator force of Hampden TB.1 torpedo bombers from No. 144 Squadron RAF and No. 455 Squadron RAAF back to the UK following the end of their mission to Russia.
Argonaut then joined Force H for Operation Torch, the Allied landings in Vichy French-controlled North Africa.
Following the Torch landings, Argonaut was carved off to join four of her sisters at Bone– HMS Aurora, Charybdis, Scylla, and Sirius— and several destroyers as Force Q, which was tasked with ambushing Axis convoys in the Gulf of Tunis.
The first of Force Q’s efforts led to what is known in the West as the Battle of Skerki Bank when, during the pre-dawn hours of 2 December, the much stronger British cruiser-destroyer force duked it out with an Italian convoy of four troopships screened by three destroyers and two torpedo boats.
When the smoke cleared, all four of the troopships (totaling 7,800 tons and loaded with vital supplies and 1,700 troops for Rommel) were on the bottom of the Med. Also deep-sixed was the Italian destroyer Folgore, holed by nine shells from Argonaut.
The next time Force Q ventured out would end much differently.
Make up your mind
On 14 December 1942, the Italian Marcello-class ocean-going submarine Mocenigo (T.V. Alberto Longhi) encountered one of Force Q’s sweeps and got in a very successful attack.
At 0556 hours, Mocenigo was on the surface when she sighted four enemy warships in two columns, proceeding on an SSW course at 18 knots at a distance of 2,000 meters. At 0558 hours, four torpedoes (G7e) were fired from the bow tubes at 2-second intervals from a distance of 800 meters, at what appeared to be a TRIBAL class destroyer. The submarine dived upon firing and heard two hits after 59 and 62 seconds.
According to Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Francis Henely, the following exchange took place.
The forward lookout reported: “Ship torpedoed forward. Sir.”
At the same time, the aft lookout reported: “Ship torpedoed aft. Sir.”
To these reports Capt. Longley-Cook replied: “When you two chaps have made up your minds which end has been torpedoed, let me know.”
The torpedoes hit the cruiser’s bow and stern sections nearly simultaneously, killing an officer and two ratings, leaving the ship dead in the water and her after two turrets unusable. HMS Quality remained beside her throughout and HMS Eskimo— who had chased away Mocenigo— rejoined them just before daylight.
After shoring up the open compartments, Argonaut was amazingly able to get underway at 8 knots, heading slowly for Algiers which the force reached at 1700 hours on the 15th.
IWM captions for the below series: “British cruiser which lived to fight again. 14 to 19 December 1942, at sea and at Algiers, the British cruiser HMS Argonaut after she had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Despite heavy damage, she got home.”
Patch it up, and go again
After two weeks at Algiers conducting emergency repairs, Argonaut shipped out for HM Dockyard at Gibraltar for more extensive work than what could be offered by the French.
Ultimately, with nearly one-third of the ship needing replacement, it was decided to have the work done in the U.S. where more capacity existed and on 5 April 1943, the cruiser left for Philadelphia by way of Bermuda, escorted by the destroyer HMS Hero— which had to halt at the Azores with engine problems, leaving the shattered Argonaut to limp across the Atlantic for four days unescorted during the height of the U-boat offensive. Met off Bermuda by the destroyer USS Butler and the minesweepers USS Tumult and USS Pioneer, she ultimately reached the City of Brotherly Love on 27 April.
There, she would spend five months in the Naval Yard– the Australian War Memorial has several additional images of this-– and a further two months in post-refit trials.
Arriving back in the Tyne in December 1942, she would undergo a further three-month conversion and modification to fulfill an Escort Flagship role. This refit eliminated her “Q” 5.25-inch mount (her tallest) to cut down topside weight, added aircraft control equipment/IFF, and Types 293 (surface warning) and 277 (height finding) radar sets in addition to fire control radars for her increased AAA suite.
Fresh from her post-refit trails and essentially a new cruiser (again), Argonaut joined the 10th Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet in preparation for “the big show.”
Back in the Fight
Part of RADM Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton’s Bombarding Force K for Operation Neptune, Argonaut would fall in with the fellow British cruisers HMS Orion, Ajax, and Emerald, who, along with the eight Allied destroyers and gunboats (to include the Dutch Hr.Ms. Flores and Polish ORP Krakowiak), was tasked with opening the beaches for the Normandy Assault Force “G” (Gold Beach) on D-Day, the latter consisting of three dozen assorted landing craft of all sorts carrying troops of the British XXX Corps.
Capt. Longley-Cook, rejoining his command after a stint as Captain of the Fleet for the Mediterranean Fleet, instructed his crew that he fully intended to drive Argonaut ashore if she was seriously hit, beach the then nearly 7,000-ton cruiser, and keep fighting her until she ran out of shells.
In all, Argonaut fired 394 5.25-inch shells on D-Day itself, tasked with reducing the German gun batteries at Vaux-sur-Aure, and by the end of July, would run through 4,395 shells in total, earning praise from Gen. Miles Dempsey for her accurate naval gunfire in support of operations around Caen.
It was during this period that she received a hit from a German 150mm battery, which landed on her quarterdeck off Caen on 26 June but failed to explode.
She fired so many shells in June and July that she had to pause midway through and run to Devonport to get her gun barrels– which had just been refurbed in Philadelphia– relined again.
Then came the Dragoon Landings in the South of France, sending Argonaut back to the Med, this time to the French Rivera.
Across 22 fire missions conducted in the three days (8/15-17/44) Argonaut was under U.S. Navy control for Dragoon, she let fly 831 rounds of 80-pound HE and SAP shells at ranges between 3,200 and 21,500 yards. Targets included three emplaced German 155s, armored casemates on the Île Saint-Honorat off Canne, along with infantry and vehicles in the field, with spotting done by aircraft.
She also scattered a flotilla of enemy motor torpedo boats hiding near the coast. All this while dodging repeated potshots from German coastal batteries, which, Longley-Cook dryly noted, “At 1100 I proceeded to the entrance of the Golfe de la Napoule to discover if the enemy guns were still active. They were.”
Argonaut’s skipper, Longley-Cook, observed in his 15-page report to the U.S. Navy, signed off by noting, “The operation was brilliantly successful, but it was a great disappointment that HMS Argonaut was released so soon. My short period of service with the United States Navy was a pleasant, satisfactory, and inspiring experience.”
CruDiv7 commander, RADM Morton Lyndholm Deyo, USN, stated in an addendum to the report that “HMS Argonaut was smartly handled and her fire was effective. She is an excellent ship.”
September saw Argonaut transferred to the British Aegean Force to support Allied forces liberating Greece. There, on 16 October, she caught, engaged, and sank two German-manned caiques who were trying to evacuate Axis troops.
Headed to the East
Swapping out the unsinkable Longley-Cook for Capt. William Patrick McCarthy, RN, Argonaut sailed from Alexandria for Trincomalee in late November 1944 to join the massive new British Pacific Fleet.
Assigned to Force 67, a fast-moving carrier strike group built around HMS Indomitable and HMS Illustrious, by mid-December she was providing screening and cover for air attacks against Sumatra in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies (Operation Roberson) followed by a sequel attack on oil refineries at Pangkalan after the New Year (Operation Lentil) and, with TF 63, hitting other oil facilities in the Palembang area of Southeast Sumatra at the end of January 1945 in Operation Meridian.
Making way to Ulithi in March, Argonaut was part of the top-notch British Task Force 57, likely the strongest Royal Navy assemblage of the war, and, integrated with the U.S. 5th Fleet, would take part in the invasion of Okinawa (Operation Iceberg). There, she would serve as a picket ship and screen, enduring the Divine Wind of the kamikaze.
When news of the emperor’s capitulation came in August, Argonaut was in Japanese home waters, still covering her carriers. She then transitioned to British Task Unit 111.3, a force designated to collect Allied POWs from camps on Formosa and the Chinese mainland.
War artist James Morris— who began the conflict as a Royal Navy signaler and then by 1945 was a full-time member of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee attached to the British Pacific Fleet– sailed aboard Argonaut during this end-of-war mop-up period, entering Formosa and Shanghai on the vessel, the latter on the occasion of the first British warship to sail into the Chinese harbor since 1941.
Based in Hong Kong for the rest of 1945, Argonaut returned to Portsmouth in 1946 and was promptly reduced to Reserve status.
She was laid up in reserve for nearly ten years, before being sent to the breakers in 1955.
She earned six battle honors: Arctic 1942, North Africa 1942, Mediterranean 1942, Normandy 1944, Aegean 1944, and Okinawa 1945.
Few relics of Argonaut remain, most notable of which is her 1943-44 builder’s model, preserved at Greenwich.
As for Argonaut’s inaugural skipper and the man who brought her through sinking the Folgore, almost being sunk by an Italian submarine in return, D-Day, Dragoon, and the Aegean, VADM Eric William Longley-Cook, CB, CBE, DSO, would retire as Director of Naval Intelligence in 1951, capping a 37-year career.
Of note, Tenente di Vascello Alberto Longhi, skipper of the Italian boat that torpedoed Argonaut, survived the war– spending the last two years of it in a German stalag after refusing to join the Navy of the RSI, the fascist Italian puppet state set up after Italy dropped out of the Axis. He would outlive Longley-Cook and pass in 1988, aged 74.
Of Argonaut’s sisters, 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 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.
Others, like Argonaut, were laid up almost immediately after VJ-Day and never sailed again. 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). By 1954, all had been stricken from the Admiralty’s list.
Many 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.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, to perpetuate her name, the fourth Argonaut was a hard-serving Leander-class ASW frigate, commissioned in 1967.
That ship, almost 40 years after her WWII namesake was crippled, had her own brush with naval combat that left scars.
The H.M.S. Argonaut Association keeps the memory of all the past vessels with that name alive.
Speaking of which, in Feb. 2019, four surviving Royal Navy veterans of the Normandy landings– all in the 90s– assembled aboard HMS Belfast in the Thames to receive the Legion d’Honneur from French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Jouyet in recognition of their efforts in liberating the country 75 years prior.
One saw the beaches from Argonaut.
93-year-old John Nicholls from Greenwich served aboard HMS Argonaut which bombarded German positions; he also drove landing craft.
The tumult of battle severely damaged his hearing – he’s been 65 percent deaf ever since, but he remains haunted by the sight of men who lost so much more.
“I looked at some of those troops as they were going in and thought: I wonder how many of them are going to come back,’” he recalled. “I came out of it with just half of my hearing gone, but those poor devils – they lost their lives. I think of them all the time. Not just on Remembrance Day. They’re going through my mind all times of the year.”
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