Cruel toll from 'Dunedin' loss

HMS <i>Dunedin</i> at Lyttelton, on April 22, 1928.
HMS <i>Dunedin</i> at Lyttelton, on April 22, 1928.
Wartime sinkings are grim for naval staff and their relatives. Robert Hamlin reviews the demise of HMS Dunedin, 70 years after her loss.

Next Thursday, November 24, marks the 70th anniversary of the loss of the only warship to bear the name of the city of Dunedin, when the British light cruiser HMS Dunedin was torpedoed in the south Atlantic with heavy loss of life. More than 400 of her crew died, both in the ship and in the water as they waited for more than three days before they were rescued.

HMS Dunedin had connections with New Zealand that ran well beyond her name.

Although the Royal New Zealand Navy did not come into existence until 1941, its predecessor, the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy was a largely local affair, and Dunedin was part of the force from 1924, until she returned to the United Kingdom in 1937. During this period she formed part of the relief force that assisted the citizens of Napier after the earthquake that devastated that city in 1931.

U124 with the supply ship <i>Python</i>, possibly before the attack.
U124 with the supply ship <i>Python</i>, possibly before the attack.
Dunedin was commissioned just after the World War 1, and was a Danae class light cruiser of about 4500 tons.

When she was built, the British Empire still spanned a quarter of the globe and this vast fabric was maintained and connected by the arteries of its sea routes.

"Cruisers", as their name implies, were designed to "cruise" the high seas and act as the long-range policemen of the "Pax Britannica".

To this end they had long range with large storage capacities of fuel for both the ship and its crew.

Due to their requirement for longer endurance at sea, more provision was made for comfort than the larger and smaller units of the fleet - although "comfort" is very much a relative thing. In both peace and war there was one constant characteristic of cruisers: there were never enough of them.

The Danae class eventually consisted of eight ships. As was the British practice of the time, all the names of the class began with a "D", and they included a smattering of gods, goddesses, monsters, adjectives and two cities: Dunedin and Durban.

The last known photo of <i>Dunedin</i>. Leaving Cape Town in November 1941.
The last known photo of <i>Dunedin</i>. Leaving Cape Town in November 1941.
The fact that the ships bore these names, rather than Doncaster or Dundee, perhaps reflects the expectation that they would spend the majority of their lives patrolling the oceans of the southern hemisphere.

They were handsome ships, with six turrets, two funnels and a distinctive tripod mast that gave them the appearance of pocket-sized battle cruisers.

In common with all other cruisers, the Danae class delivered strenuous war service in World War 2 and their casualties were light compared to many other cruiser classes.

Only HMS Dunedin was lost to direct enemy action.

From the outbreak of war to the day of her sinking, Dunedin contributed actively to the war effort.

She searched for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the North Atlantic and helped to capture several German vessels in the Caribbean. Among these was the tanker Lothringen, which yielded valuable Enigma cipher material.

In November 1941 the British Admiralty became aware that the Germans were planning a major attack on shipping in the South Atlantic using surface ships and submarines. Dunedin, under Capt Richard Lovatt, formed part of the force despatched to disrupt the operation.

One of the vessels of the German force was U124. She was one of the most successful U-boats and her commander, Jochen Mohr, was one of the Kriegsmarine's most effective U-boat skippers.

On the afternoon of November 24, both vessels were in the area of the St Paul's Rocks, a strategically well-placed skerry in the mid Atlantic. The adversaries spotted each other at pretty much the same time. After some manoeuvring, U124 succeeded in torpedoing the Dunedin twice at extreme range.

The damage was fatal, and the Dunedin sank in less than 20 minutes. About half of her complement of 500 ended up in the sea.

Many of them were wounded, and very little in the way of survival equipment had survived the sinking.

U124 surfaced, examined the scene and then departed rapidly without picking anybody up. The survivors were left with only the open ocean to look at.

Just over three days later, the neutral American merchant ship Nishmaha happened by chance upon 72 men clinging to six small life rafts. Over the previous 78 hours nearly 200 more members of the Dunedin's crew had died of wounds, exposure, exhaustion, madness and injuries inflicted by predators.

Sharks were an obvious menace, but for men with open wounds and their skin softened by immersion in water for days, they were not the only killers.

The laconic language of the official report submitted by Lt Commander Watson, the senior surviving officer, conveys some of the horror:

"... an unknown type of small fish was extremely ferocious. They were less than a foot long and blunt nosed, quite unlike barracuda.

"During the first and each successive night many men sustained deep bites from these fish. The bites were clean-cut and upwards of an inch or more deep, and were mostly in the soles of the feet, although in some cases the fish sprang out of the water and bit into the men's arms.

"Frequently the bites resulted in severed arteries and many men died from this cause. The gratings and nettings of the rafts did not prevent the fish from attacking from inside the rafts."

The dying continued on the Nishmaha and she eventually disembarked 67 survivors at Port of Spain, Trinidad, on December, 1941.

That very day, the flames of Pearl Harbour would commit the Nishmaha herself to the World War.

The name HMS Dunedin died with the ship and no warship has carried it since.

U124 continued her successful career by the standards of her type. Over three years, she eventually sank 48 Allied ships totalling 224,953 tons, and sailed on 11 patrols.

Under the same skipper on her 11th patrol, on April 11, 1943, she was sunk by depth charges launched from HMS Black Swan and HMS Stonecrop. There were no survivors. For the Royal Navy, the Allied Merchant Marine and the U- Boat Arm, it was a very long war.

Lest we forget

The memory of HMS Dunedin is kept alive by the Dunedin Society, which maintains further details of the ship, its crew and its history on its website:

Several activities are planned to mark the anniversary of the ship's loss, and details are available on the website.

The writer of this article is grateful for the Dunedin Society's help in the preparation of this article and their permission to use photographs and other materials.




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