Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews PROVIDED BY - Rob Jerrard

HMS Gloucester -The Untold Story

Just Re-issued Nov 2004 in HB Edition SEE Pen & Sword Books


In Honour of all who served on HMS Gloucester 1939-41 and to the memory of those who never came home

HMS Gloucester was a Southampton Class Cruiser (2nd Group) built by Devonport Dockyard, completed 31st January 1939 and lost 22nd May 1941. She was dive-bombed and hit 4 times, with 3 further near misses, she was abandoned and sunk shortly afterwards

BOOK INTRODUCTION by Ken Otter the Author

I was seven months old when my father, Fred Otter, was killed during the battle of Crete. He had been in the Royal Navy since he was fifteen and eventually became the Chief Yeoman of Signals aboard the cruiser, HMS Gloucester.

I often used to wonder what sort of life he had led aboard ship and what circumstances had led to HMS Gloucester being sunk.  Whenever I came across a book about the Second World War, I would flip through the index to see if the name Gloucester was mentioned. I was never able to find much detail and when I did come across information it was often limited to a few lines.

After school I spent two years in the Royal Navy and went on to join the Metropolitan Police Force in 1960. An absorbing career, marriage and three children, studying for promotion, and playing too much football, cricket and golf, left mystery of my father's fate, and the story of his ship, on the back burner.

In my early forties, however, I made a more determined effort and managed to contact John Stevens, one of the few men who had survived the sinking in 1941 a happy coincidence he was in the process of organising the first ever reunion survivors and families of men who had served on HMS Gloucester. The group took the ship's nickname: The Fighting "G".

I went to the first reunion, held in Plymouth, which is where HMS Gloucester was built.  I didn't know what to expect but I soon met Roy Tremaine and Les Thomas; who had served under my father onboard the ship. They were able to tell me things about my father that I had never known; that he had a wonderful sense of humour compassion for the welfare of men under his command and his distinct weakness for cream cakes!  It was clear to me that they had thought him a wonderful man. I was not emotionally prepared for the things I was being told and found that I could hardly speak to them and the other survivors, let alone ask the many questions to which I longed to know the answers. Forty-two years of pent up emotions had suddenly unexpectedly come to the surface.

The following year I was able to return and be better prepared. I asked survivors about their life at sea, what they remembered about the sinking of their ship and traumatic experiences as prisoners of war. It soon became evident that story of HMS Gloucester was both fascinating and devastating and should be written for future generations to read and understand the tragedy of war. Not one of the men I spoke to glorified war and their graphic testimonies are evidence that the appalling conditions under which they lived have left everlasting impressions on them.

Every year I returned to their reunion and every year there were fewer survivors than the previous year. It was obvious that the story of HMS Gloucester was soon be lost forever, however at that point I could find no time to fully research write their story.

When I retired from the Metropolitan Police Force I went to Durham University to read history and the degree which I was awarded gave me the confidence to begin writing this book.

I set off, travelling around Britain, to interview men who had served on the ship and survived the sinking and searching out the families of men who had perished. The more interviews I conducted the more I was amazed at the story which was unfolding. The contrast of their lives on board ship before they became engaged in action in the Mediterranean could not have been greater than that which they experi­enced after the spring of 1940. These men, who by now were in their seventies and eighties, had lived through times which will never be experienced by future generations of sailors. There will never again be such a sustained war at sea as the men of the Royal Navy faced in World War Two, particularly those who served in the Mediterranean.

I travelled to the Greek Island of Kythira, where the men were first taken when they were rescued. Here I discovered more details of the story and was fortunate enough to meet some wonderful Greek people who witnessed the sea battle in 1941 and one man in particular who risked his own young life to feed our sailors.

In this book I have, wherever possible, used the invaluable personal testimony of the people I interviewed. Many of those who served on the ship have now passed away, but some left written accounts of their service, and I was able to use these sources. This book is the story of the men who lived and died on HMS Gloucester. It is their story, not mine

Many people have given me invaluable help, both in my research and in writing the book. The men and the families who I interviewed were most kind, inviting me into their homes and showering me with hospitality. To have the advice and encouragement of such an accomplished author as Wendy Robertson has been invaluable. Gill Richardson gave me the advantage of her constructive advice. The staff at Bishop Auckland Library the Public Records Office at Kew, the Imperial War Museum and the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, have all shown remarkable patience with me and their help was of considerable assistance. The 'Navy News' proved an invaluable source in contacting men who had served in the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. Efthia and Andy, who are 'The Greek Experience', made my visit to Kythira unforgettable. My friends Chip, Tanya and Chris 'Cats', from Colorado Springs, were extremely helpful in explaining the mysteries of computer technology and managed, most of the time, to keep straight faces whilst watching over me.

Many members of 'The Fighting G Club' have sent me photographs and documents or have written letters of encouragement and I thank them all for their kindness. In particular Frank Moulder, who gave me access to his remarkable collection of photographs, documents and memorabilia. John Stevens, President of 'The Fighting G Club', has been my guiding light in the accumulation of details of the ship's history: without his help it is doubtful whether I could have produced this book.

Above all else I thank Judy, my wife, without whose editing and typing skills, and constant encouragement, this book would not have seen the light of day.

Ken Otter reveals the amazing and tragic story of HMS Gloucester: His extensive research has uncovered a fascinating human story as well as an horrendous blunder that led to the sinking of the ship and her survivors being abandoned by the Roval Navy.

Beginning with high hopes and an idyllic tour of the Indian Ocean, the ships's company of 807 men was savagely decimated in the battle of Crete, May 1941. Only 85 of them survived and went on to endure the devastation of POW camps.

This story has never before been told and the book exposes private correspondence from senior naval officers, in which they severely criticise events which led to the sinking. BBC, TV has broadcast a documentary based on Ken Otter's research.

'By then I was too weak to take off his lifebelt, so he drifted away the surface, his red hair resting on the water'.

Tubby Revans, Electrical Artificer.

'One chap in the raft had nothing on and had a terrific gash in his flesh. He never made a single utterance before he died in the night'.

 Peter Everest, Boy Seaman, aged 16.

'Again and again we asked ourselves what had happened to the destroyers. Why hadn't they returned to pick us up after dark'?

Ken Macdonald, Royal Marine.

Ken Otter grew up in Devon and was educated at Exmouth Grammar School. After service in the Rot Navy he joined the Metropolitan Police and retired in 1990.  He has an honours degree in history.  Ken's father Fred Otter was Chief Yeoman on HMS Gloucester and was killed when she sank May 1941. Ken was 7 months old.  Now resident in County Durham with his wife Judy, he has a son, two daughters and five grandchildren.


REVIEW

Title: H.M.S. Gloucester the Untold Story

Edition: Third 2004

Author: Ken Otter

ISBN: 1844151220

Publishers: Pen & Sword Books Limited

Price £19.99 RRP UK

Publication Date: 2 December 2004

This is the full story of HMS Gloucester, the Fighting ‘G’, a Southampton Class cruiser built by Devonport Dockyard and completed on 31 January 1939.  It is not, in a sense, a long story because she was sunk on 22 May 1941.

Ken Otter the author and son of one of those lost with her sinking calls it, ‘the untold story’, which is of course it now isn’t since this is the third edition of his book; the intention was to tell the story and put right that omission – to tell the world what happened and why those men were not rescued. 

Only 83 of her crew of 808 survived at the end of the war, Ken’s father, the Chief Yeoman was killed.

Gloucester was engaged in operations at Crete and in company with HMS Fiji, a Fiji class cruiser, also lost the same day three and a half hours after Gloucester.  Both ships were low on AA ammunition and at one stage Fiji was ordered to sink Gloucester.  Gloucester, with other ships had been dispatched from the Fleet to assist the stricken destroyer HMS Greyhound.  From this original force of four ships, Gloucester, Fiji, Greyhound and Griffin, only the destroyer Griffin survived the day. 

This book has been well researched.  It isn’t just the story of a ship, it is the story of brave men told in their own words from letters and memories.  It is a story that had to be told in memory of the 725 who did not return.  It wasn’t right that their story should remain ‘untold’ - they deserved better than that. 

Looking through the list of survivors, I see that only one member of the Royal Marine band survived.  This was not unusual when battleships and cruisers were lost in action.  The band members were very often deep in the ship at the TS (Transmitting Station) and had little chance of survival.  My own uncle, who was a member of the Royal Marine band in HMS Barham, was killed when she was sunk.  One of his fellow bandsmen who survived, had just come off watch and went up on deck for a cigarette.  Minutes later he had to walk along the funnel to step into the sea.

Reading the list of those who did not survive brings home to you how young they all were.  So many boy ratings (aged 16) were amongst them.  It often begs the question “Why”?  Why has the Royal Navy always subjected it’s young men to such horror at a young age.  Like many RN practises it goes back a long way, to days when they died in action even younger.

The surviving men of the Gloucester and their families will be thankful their story is no longer ‘untold’.

Rob Jerrard