1. Cunningham was much decorated and highly respected being awarded the DSO with two bars, CB, KCB, Gcb, and promoted to First Sea Lord 1943. In 1945 he was ennobled Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, OM, as well as being awarded many foreign decorations. He was appointed Lord High Steward at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
2. A copy of this photo of in our Association’s archive has inscribed on it the unsigned caption:
“The Captain used to smoke a huge pipe and during attacks by German Dive Bombers he could often be seen striding up and down the upper bridge puffing out clouds of smoke, coughing like mad and giving sharp last minute helm and engine orders. Just before the bomb struck, almost, Ajax would turn “on a sixpence” and the bomb exploded yards away.” (March 2012 Association Newsletter, P12)
3. Dates taken from Admiral Cunningham’s report of the Battle to the Admiralty (Supplement to the London Gazette of 24th May 1948)
4. Ajax was a Leander Class Light Cruiser launched in 1934, first commissioned in 1938 and had arrived in the Mediterranean following a lengthy repair and refit in Chatham Naval Dockyard after her participation in sinking the German Pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate after which public opinion and propaganda had made her an icon of the Royal Navy and a much sought after target of Nazi Germany. She was the seventh Royal Naval Ship to be named Ajax in the last 248 years. These ships were awarded between them a total of 17 Battle honours, and the 1934 light cruiser Ajax was to win the most honours with a total of nine, six of which were won in the Mediterranean campaigns of 1941. Five of these were awarded over a period of just 12 tumultuous months, which included the battle for Crete. This was not single ship action as such but a bitterly fought campaign involving single and multi-ship actions but mainly fighting overwhelming hordes of enemy aircraft which extended over some 6 weeks.
5. It was only in the opening months of 1941 that this was beginning to be rectified with the almost desperate short term solution of installing 20mm oerlikon guns in ships as they came in for resupply, repair or refit. Governed by manufacturing capacity these guns initially were in such limited numbers the first ships, Galatea, Devonshire and Orion, only received two or three.(Ibid - Raven & Roberts, “British Cruisers of World War Two”, P 324). The written records of those who were there shows many examples of ships’ companies foraging for guns even from captured sources, of suitable calibre to take to mount on their own ships, machine guns were particularly favoured. Achilles, a sister ship to Ajax had her aircraft and aircraft catapult removed in Alexandria to be replaced in that deck space by a twin pom-pom mounting, Ajax underwent similar change thought to be at about the same time and place (location and time not yet proven). So much repair work was carried out including on-the-spot modifications as ships came into port and had sufficient time to allow the work to take place. [From Ajax diary - 13/3/41 Arr. Alex. - during March the catapult was removed and a quad 2pdr gun mounting fitted in its place while the forward 0.5in MGs were moved aft to port and starboard abreast the mainmast. Six captured Italian single Breda 20mm AA guns were installed (2 on the quarterdeck, 2 on the boatdeck forward of the mainmast & 2 abreast the bridge at upper deck level)]
6. Reliable intelligence was being provided by the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire who were able to decipher the Nazi German Enigma codes. Intelligence from this most secret source were attributed under a disguise as coming from “Ultra”. The existence of Bletchley Park and its function was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the entire war.
7. Extract from HMS Ajax ship’s Log held in National Archive, Kew.
8. The names of the destroyers in company with Ajax during the morning’s “near miss” incident vary across the range of published accounts. Those named in this account are taken from Ajax’s Daily Diary which also states that Hasty and Hereward were replaced by Imperial and Isis later in the day. Vincent O’Hara in his book “The Struggle for the Middle Sea – The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean 1940 – 1945”, P118 -119, agrees with those in Ajax’s Daily Diary as do the Daily Diaries for Kimberley and Hereward.
Confusion may also have arisen in that the disposition of the various ships across the four Forces also changed, in fact Force A on one change became Force A1 with a completely different composition of ships. Whereas Forces B, C and D had undergone changes which do not appear to have resulted in their being recoded as for example Force A to A1 had been.
Cunningham’s report of May 24th to the Admiralty published as a Supplement to The London Gazette on 24 May 1948, P3106 para 14 (a) states that at “2200 hrs on May 20th the destroyers were Kimberley, Imperial, Isis and Juno”.
In this article I have therefore taken the Daily Diaries for Ajax, Kimberley and Hereward to be the primary source documents as I judge it these three ships are most unlikely to have all made the same error.
9. An eye witness describes it as two blazing funeral pyres.
10. Ibid, Bibliography - “The Royal Navy, An Illustrated Social History 1870 - 1982", Page 184. A contemporary account by Admiral Le Bailly, then Senior Engineer Officer in HMS Naiad, a Dido Class Anti-Aircraft Cruiser. Involved in the battle that same day she suffered several air attacks and received some splinter damage and flooding forward. In heavy air attacks the next day 181 bombs were aimed at Naiad causing serious damage including two gun turrets disabled and her speed reduced to 16 knots. On 11 March 1942 she was torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat U565 south of Crete.
11. At the conclusion of this campaign in August 1941 Admiral Cunningham wrote in his report to the Admiralty: “More than once I felt that the stage had been reached when no more could be asked of officers and men, physically and mentally exhausted by their efforts and by the events of these fateful weeks. It is perhaps even now not realised how nearly the breaking point was reached, but that these men struggled through is the measure of their achievement and I trust that it will not lightly be forgotten. The Mediterranean Fleet paid a heavy price for the achievement. Losses and damage were sustained which would normally only occur during a major fleet action, in which the enemy fleet might be expected to suffer greater losses than our own. In this case the enemy fleet did not appear (though it had many favourable opportunities for doing so) and the battle was fought between ships and aircraft”.
Max Arthur, “Lost Voices of the Royal Navy”, Hodder & Stoughton,2005
Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, “A Sailors Odyssey”, Hutchinson, 1951
Alan Clark, “The Fall of Crete”, Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1962
J J Colledge & Ben Warlow, Lt Cdr.R.N. (Retd), “Ships of the Royal Navy”, Casemate, 2010
Mike Carlton, “Cruiser, The Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and Her Crew”, William Heinemann Australia, 2010
Hugh Hodgkinson, ILt Cdr. R.N., DSC, “Before The Tide Turned, The Mediterranean Experience of A British Destroyer Officer in 1941”, George G Harrap & Co Ltd, 1944
Gordon Holman, “The King’s Cruisers”, Hodder & Stoughton, 1947
Donald Macintyre, “The Battle for the Mediterranean”, B.T. Batsford,1964
Ministry of Information, “East of Malta, West Of Suez, The Admiralty Account of the Naval War in the Eastern Mediterranean September 1939 to March 1941”, H.M. Stationary Office, 1943
S.W.C. Pack “The Battle for Crete”, Ian Allan, 1973
Alan Raven & John Roberts, “British Cruisers of World War Two”, Arms & Armour Press, 1945 (London) & Naval Institute Press 1980 (USA)
Peter C Smith, “Stukas over the Mediterranean 1940-1945”, Greenhill Books, 1999
Jeff Stevens, “HMS Ajax 1935-49”, Self-Published, 2014
David A Thomas, “Crete, the Battle at Sea”, Cassell, 1972 & Efstathiadis Group, Athens, 1972
Peter Thomson “Anzac Fury” William Heinemann, Australia, 2010
Pattie Wright, “Ray Parkin’s Odyssey”, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2012
Rowland Langmaid, “The Med, The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1939 -1945”, The Batchworth Press, 1948
Sharplin Family Archive
Vincent O’Hara, “The Struggle for the Middle Sea, the Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean” 1940-1945,Conew, 2009
Ben Warlow, Lt Cdr.R.N. (Retd), “Battle Honours of the Royal Navy”, “Maritime Books”, 2004
Captain John Wells, CBE, DSC, (RN Retd), “The Royal Navy, An illustrated Social History 1870-1982”, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994.
Various Newsletters of The HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association. England.
World at War. #41 April- May 2015.
Alan Strachan BA Hons History, MA in Maritime History - family archive.
Elizabeth Penny, Archive, Administration and Editor
Malcolm Collis, Archivist, The HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association.