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6th Jul, 2022

Sinking of HMS Warwick marked by anniversary events

Ian Hughes 20th Feb, 2019 Updated: 26th Feb, 2019

TRIBUTE is being paid to those who served on HMS Warwick which was sunk 75 years ago today.

The destroyer was hit by a Nazi U-boat torpedo off the Cornish coast in on February 20, 1944 – killing 66 crew members.

To mark the 75th anniversary people will gather at Padstow Harbour in Cornwall, in the grounds of Warwick Castle and at the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent.

There will also be services held at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire, on Plymouth Hoe and at the city’s Devonport naval base, Penzance Cemetery and the Old Cemetery on the Isles of Scilly.

The destroyer was commissioned in March 1918 and saw action in the last months of the First World War.

Too out-dated for modern destroyer work in the Second World War, she became an escort ship protecting convoys, searching for and attacking U-boats which attacked ships in convoy, and rescuing survivors.

Ken Holmes, who served as a telegraphist, was 20-year-old at the time and was among the survivors. He recalled the moment the ship was struck.

“I was in my mess when an explosion shook the ship violently and a cloud of dust fell from the overhead pipes that ran through the mess. My first thoughts were to get my life belt and head for the upper deck. My life belt was the type that had to be blown up like a car inner tube, was rolled up and hung on a hammock hook near the door. I grabbed the life belt and made for the door.

“On looking up I could see some burning wreckage across the hatch top. I proceeded on to the upper deck where I found oil, some of it burning on the deck, and seemingly spurting up somewhere near the funnel.

“I could see that the stern was no longer there. I was actually standing on the port side of the ship by the whaler, and efforts were being made to lower it. Unfortunately, burning oil had dropped into it and it was obvious that it would not float when it got into the water. I had, by this time donned my life belt and was in the process of blowing it up, and seeing that the whaler was useless, I moved to the starboard side where efforts were being made to lower the motor boat. This was also proving fruitless as it appeared that the lowering gear had jammed.

“The ship heeled over to port and I grabbed the wire hand rail that went round the ship. I was fortunate, as I got hold of it, but some of the others waiting by the rail didn’t and they slid down the oily deck out of my sight. I climbed over the rail and on to the side of the ship which was now almost level, I slid down it and jumped off the bottom of the ship into the water. I was fully dressed in overalls and wearing boots, but my life belt was inflated and I remembered during my training being told that if such an emergency happened to me, that I should hold my life belt down to prevent it striking me under the chin when I hit the water. This I did, and I arrived in the water amid a flurry of arms and legs belonging to the others who had jumped with me.

“The water was icy cold and came as a bit of a shock, but my first thought was to swim away from the ship before she sank and pulled me down with her. There was a heavy swell on the sea and I found that I would go up on one rise, and then down, but I didn’t come up quick enough before the next rise, consequently that one came over my head. So, half the time I was in the water I seemed to be under water as well. The oil that covered the top of the water was a problem as well, it meant that I had to make sure it did not get into my eyes. At first I could hear men shouting, but from the time I jumped into the water I never saw another soul. For all I knew I could have been the only survivor.

“Having swam away from the ship as far as I thought safe, I turned to look behind me. The bows of the Warwick were still above water and I could see a man sitting on the capstan on the forecastle. Who he was I didn’t know (the lad was Jamie Norburn – he could not swim, thought he might be rescued, but went down with the ship). I was treading water or doing a bit of breast stroke whilst looking round to see if any help was in view, when I saw a destroyer heading our way. I began swimming towards it and I could see some of the crew lowering scrambling nets down the side. Then just when I thought I was going to be saved the destroyer sped away. To make matters worse, a few minutes later she started dropping depth charges, although I was a good distance away, as each one exploded it was like being punched in the stomach.

“I swam away to increase the distance from the explosions, and, after some time (I don’t know how long) still not having seen any other person in the water, or the Carley floats, which I found out later had been launched, I sighted on one of my upliftings on the swell what appeared to be three boats heading in my direction. I started to swim towards them. At first I thought that I had done too well as it appeared that I was going to be run down by one of them, but, I adjusted my direction and found myself alongside one of them. I raised myself up in the water and shouted. There seemed to be no one on deck, but as I shouted a man came out of the deck house. How he saw me I don’t know as the water was covered in oil and so was I. He did see me though and threw me a rope. I grabbed it gratefully but was dismayed to find that because of the oil it was sliding out of my hands. I promptly took a turn round my wrists and hung on. My saviour must have been a very strong man because he hauled me up the side of the ship with no help from me and threw me on the deck. He said something to me in a language I did not understand and for a few minutes thought that I was going to end up in a prison camp! He realised that I did not understand, and then in English he told me to go down below. I went to a cabin with a roaring stove blazing in it, and I began stripping off my clothes. I could not do anything with my boots, which were of course wet through, then a man came down and cut them off for me. At that time there was no one else in the cabin, and I stood over the blazing stove and was unable to feel the heat. I was so exhausted that I got into a bunk. I must have passed out, because I don’t remember any more until I was awakened by another survivor still in his wet and cold clothes! This was quite a shock as I was in the nude and was just started to get warm. I looked round and saw that there were a number of the Warwick’s crew aboard, but they were unrecognisable to me as they were all covered in oil. I understood by this time that we were on our way to Padstow, but I lost all track of time and have no idea how long it took us.

On arriving at Padstow a member of the fishing vessel’s crew gave me a pair of trousers and an old blanket to go ashore in. I climbed up the ladder to dry land and the realised how lucky I had been to still be alive. I owed grateful thanks to the man who had hauled me out of the water. It seemed that most of the survivors had been landed by this time and we were directed to get into a lorry which was standing by and we were transported to the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) at St Merryn. We were greeted with a basin full of rum and given a cup full. It was only after that I began to feel human again. We were fed, kitted out in Battle dress, and given a bed for the night before being transported to the Royal Navy Base at Plymouth. There we went through the joining routine, issued with new kit and eventually sent on survivors leave.”

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