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Thursday, February 18, 1999 Published at 17:14 GMT


WWII battleship 'sunk by blunder'

Survivors commemorate their lost comrades

The sinking of HMS Gloucester - with the loss of more than 700 lives - may have been the result of serious blunders by Royal Navy commanders, new evidence obtained by the BBC suggests.

Clinton Rogers: "Many think that this was a tragedy that could have been avoided"
It was originally believed that the loss of the battleship off the coast of the Greek island of Crete in 1941 was an unavoidable consequence of enemy action.

But the documentary HMS Gloucester: The Untold Story, to be shown on BBC Two on Thursday night, alleges that military chiefs blundered by splitting the cruiser from the main fleet and sending it back into action when it was low on ammunition.

It also raises questions about why, contrary to usual naval practice, a boat was not sent back under cover of darkness to rescue the survivors from the Gloucester after she was sunk.

[ image: HMS Gloucester's final moments]
HMS Gloucester's final moments
The 9,400 ton vessel, nicknamed "The Fighting G" was directed away from the main fleet during the Battle of Crete to help evacuate British troops from the island.

The Gloucester subsequently came under attack from up to 200 German dive bombers and was sunk. Survivors were also strafed and bombed in the water.

From a complement of 807 men, only 84 of the cruiser's crew survived in the water until the next day, when they were taken to prisoner of war camps by German vessels.

BBC West of England Correspondent Clinton Rogers: "The letters throw a new light on the sinking"
Previously unpublished letters from senior officers about the sinking state that it was "a grave error" to deploy the Gloucester when it was so low on ammunition.

The fleet commander was heavily criticised for the decision and later removed from his command and sent to an office posting.

There are only 13 living survivors of the sinking of the ship, which was commemorated with a stained-glass window at Gloucester Cathedral.

[ image: Letters: The MoD had
Letters: The MoD had "no knowledge"
Mr John Stevens, 80, of South Ockendon, Essex, recalled the loss of the Gloucester: "We were low in ammunition when we came under attack from around 200 Stukas [dive bombers]. The ship began sinking around 4.50pm and was gone within an hour.

"The tradition in the Navy is that when a ship has sunk a vessel is sent back to pick up survivors under cover of darkness. That did not happen and we do not know why. We were picked up by Germans.

"I believe a fleet commander made a fatal error in taking the Gloucester away from the fleet. We were very low in ammunition and we should have withdrawn to Alexandria to refuel and get more ammunition."

Low on ammunition

Naval records show that the cruiser was given orders to "withdraw at discretion" an hour before it was sunk, but the Gloucester could have already been under attack at this point.

The Ministry of Defence said it was not aware of the existence of the senior officers' letters.

However, a spokesman confirmed that many of the vessels in the British fleet around Crete were similarly low on ammunition after "fierce exchanges".

The documentary HMS Gloucester: The Untold Story will only be broadcast on BBC Two in the south west area of England.

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