My name is Charles E. Pyles and among other names, I was always known as 'Charlie'. I served aboard HMS Fiji as a Leading Cook, joining her with the advance party during the latter part of 1940. I remember Fiji as a clean and happy ship with an efficient ship's company with a good sprinkling of Hostilities Only who proved their worth. Others of the cooks staff who come to mind were - Jimmy Green, Jimmy Twiss, Slinger Woods, Brophy, Reg Kean who incidently was the ships hairdresser, Chief Cook Tosh Harding , Chief Cook Dance, both of whom were recalled from pension and sadly never survived.
We had a very efficient Captain who could close the ship up to action stations in less than two minutes. The last hot meal to be cooked aboard Fiji was stuffed sheep's hearts which was never finished because we went to action stations. Suffice to say, I haven't touched a sheep's heart since. My action station was in "B" shell room where I operated the hoist which delivered the six inch shells to the gun turret. I was at this station during the time Fiji was damaged by a near miss. She was holed and took a list to port, the lights failed also a loss of power to the gun turret. When the emergency lighting was switched on it revealed that the latrine bucket had overturned, adding to our misery. There was no panic except by a Leading Seaman who thought it safer on the upper deck, to where he dashed. The remainder took on the air of resignation and wondering what was to happen next.
The order came to evacuate the magazine and shell room into the working chamber, where if the ship had been on an even keel the turret could have been traversed by hand but this was impossible owing to the increasing list. We were ordered on the upper deck as another attack was imminent. It arrived as a lone bomber and when the bomb was released it seemed to hang in the air for several seconds and then with an almighty crack pierced the armoured deck, followed by a terrific explosion. Fiji shook like a dog shaking surplus water from its back after a swim. I lost my hearing completely. When it returned I heard the order to abandon ship, which had now listed nearly on to her beam ends. This allowed me to walk down the ship's side before stepping into the water. I was helped on to a carley raft by Reg Kean which was submerged owing to the number of shipmates aboard; most of the time we were up to our necks in water. During this time I saw a young Assistant Cook, who was a non-swimmer, clinging to the back of a dining room chair with his legs across the seat. I asked him if he was OK, but he only smiled. Sadly, the owner of that smile never survived.
After what seemed an eternity, two destroyers moved in and started a rescue operation but had to withdraw in case of further bombing which would have taken a lot of life. Through loud hailers we were told to keep together and they would return. It was getting dusk and also getting cold with a lot drifting away. With superb navigation the Kingston and Kandahar returned. By now it was almost dark but the rescuers remained as long as possible and then at full speed made for Alexandria.
Next day speed was lessened to carry out a burial service for survivors who had died from their injuries during the night. A scene I don't wish to witness again - as the bodies were committed to the deep, they re-surfaced with head and shoulders above the water as in a last farewell then, slowly drifting astern, sinking as the air was forced from their canvas shrouds. This will never be erased from my mind.
On arrival at Alexandria we went aboard the depot ship where we cleaned up and given an assortment of uniform. Next day we entrained for Port Tewfick accompanied with jerry cans of water which proved unfit to drink. On arrival, as if by magic, an Arab set up a hairdressing salon - a rickety chair under the boiling sun. He did a brisk trade and calling on Allah for those who refused to pay. A little Arab boy was running around shouting "big ship gone mister". We later discovered it was the Hood, unbelievable and demoralizing. We embarked aboard the Strathmore calling at Durban where we received a royal welcome. Here we transferred to the Empress of Australia which had been taken as a prize from Germany during the First World War. From Durban we sailed for Cape Town to another great welcome. Some of the people of Cape Town sent telegrams to our loved ones to say we were safe and well and returning home. I could write more about the welcome but a little episode comes to mind. Two of us decided to go ashore on our own and while window shopping we had a tap on the shoulder, turning round a coloured uniformed chauffeur asked if we would like a drive to see the sights - we didn't need a second bidding. The car turned out to be a Daimler which was used by the late King George V and subsequently purchased and shipped out for use by the Mayor of Cape Town. Such royalty, with us giving a little wave from the wrist to the passer-bys. We had a wonderful day taking in most of the town, with a trip to a game reserve. Then we were driven back to the ship with the Mayor's flag flying from the bonnet. At the gangway we were given a salute by the sentry. When he saw us alight from the car, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. When we thanked him and said ‘carry on please sentry' , he was livid.
Leaving Cape Town we sailed well out into the Atlantic before turning about, putting on a few extra knots to go alongside at Liverpool. On the jetty our Captain gave a short speech to thank us for the way we carried out our duty in the way expected of us. He also wished us a safe journey home with the best of luck for the future - he received three rousing cheers. This ended Fiji's second commission. We entrained for 'Pompey' and arrived in the early hours of the morning at the rail siding actually inside the barracks. After cleaning up, we were re-kitted, handed ration cards, given back pay less the £1 which the Paymaster had handed to us before we went ashore at Cape Town and finally the rail warrant and fourteen days survivors leave.
Now for the aftermath, if the reader can stick it. As referred to before and with all due respect to those who served at Dunkirk, they did have the blessing of the R.A.F. Crete was left in the lap of the Gods - 'the gods of dante inferno'. Much research and many books have been written regarding Crete but no author has come up with who was to blame for such carnage of ships and men. The true authors are those who were on the receiving end, especially those who are resting in the beautifully kept graves at Suda Bay and those who have none other graves than the sea surrounding it - and they will keep it secret. Churchill, when he heard of the loss of Crete with such loss of men and ships, was said to be in great sorrow. He had every reason to be, for he and the brass hats including those at the M.O.D. must have known what the outcome would be without support from the air. I remember Churchill saying ‘give us the tools and we'll finish the job'. Those tools were in short supply at Crete, such as air support and as Mark Twain aptly said 'conspicuous by their absence'. Shortage of ammunition, drinking water, food, oil fuel etc. But Fiji and sister ships resharpend what tools they had left with tenacity and fortitude to finish the job.
Now, at the age of eighty seven I look back and wonder if it was all worth it as there is no real peace in the world as yet. The graffiti on the wall near my home sums it all up and reads - ‘Greed kills'. To all surviving survivors of Fiji I offer a toast ‘up spirits' and I know what the answer will be.
Finally, a tribute to our Padre, the late Rev. Tanner. Truly a modern day Saint who gave his life for those he loved. May his soul and the souls entrusted to him ‘Rest in Peace'.
MAY 1941 - JUST OFF CRETE
Lying on my back in the workshop of HMS Fiji, I cursed the stupidity of war and all war makers. But doing that didn’t keep out the deadly, but reassuring, ‘crack’ of our four inch guns, nor the steady chatter of our ‘pom-poms’, a lovely chatter right then. The last two days have been pretty ‘hot’, but today Jerry means to get us. Since 7am they have thrown everything they have at us and now at 2.30pm we have little to throw back. In fact only when our own ship is attacked do we fire back, for sailors on a warship it is a horrible way to be. The reason being, of course, to treat our ammo. gently, its getting low.
I wonder how Harold is ? He was hit this morning by stray pieces of shrapnel from a near miss and has been unconscious since. There go the guns again, the hun must be coming in so I’d better stand by for the thud of his bombs. What the devil happened, a minute ago I was lying on my back, now I’m head over heels in the corner, all the tools etc. are flying all over the place. Now the lights have gone, we must be hit somewhere. I’m sure the whole ship jumped a foot or two. She has a heavy list but is straightening up slowly, thank God ! We have been hit. I wonder where (hope it missed my locker ! Oh Yea !) I can’t go and see where, my job is to keep the lights going and right now I, likewise all our party have our hands full. Our Chief, always cool and quiet, sent us to our respective places where we run the emergency lighting.
In the quickest time ever we have the lights on again and most of the shattered lamps renewed. If only we knew what was going on up top, but the ship is level so can’t be holed, at least not so that we need worry about it. Not knowing what’s really happened when working down below, can try ones nerves, but fortunately we have our hands full here and little time to worry or think of anything but the job on hand. Our Chief leaves us to it, he being called to the engine room where the ventilation system has had a knock and the stokers are in danger of suffocation. Again the ship rumbles as all our guns let fly and again we lurch all over the place, but now the lurch doesn’t seem so terrible, because we know they are only near misses (did I say ‘only’). We get a little news from up top, the Port pom-pom has lost some men and the twin 4" aren’t there any more.
They need help with the little ammo. we have left, now is the chance to look up top. It isn’t so hot up top here, Jerry aircraft are everywhere, I never thought there was this many in the world. First he comes in low raking the upper deck with machine gun fire and making the gun crews jump. Then close behind comes the bombers, hell! he can lay them close. How we dodge them the angels only know. A destroyer on the starboard side has just disappeared, the whole stick of bombs hit her square - it’s the Greyhound - there’s hardly any wreckage left, as for men - well its better not to know that, we may be next. No we aren’t next, the Cruiser behind us on our port side is on fire and the crew are going over the side, they look so helpless. We dare not stop to help them, a destroyer tried to and was pounced on. But we go back and drop almost all our ‘Floats’ to them. I never thought a Float could look so well (!!!). But not one of us grudged throwing them over to those in the water. We shout encouragement to the lads down there, they looked so pitiful, if only we could help them more. We get a slight lull. Tons of Jerries in the sky but they must be troop carriers heading for Crete, if only we could smack a few of them !
We manage a ‘corn-beef’ feed. I haven’t eaten since 7am but somehow don’t feel hungry.‘Eat it’, says Chief, just in case (??). After all there’s no canteens in the sea. I’m on the bench again down below, the Captain speaks, praising us for the way we are behaving ourselves. We are all feeling shaky and he knows it. We get the latest news, Jerry is meaning to have Crete, our ships are trying to get our soldiers off and are paying heavily in doing so. We need air support, need it badly, but have none. The other half of the Fleet met Jerries sea-borne force and wiped it out, they went right through the hun force and left nothing afloat, wiping out the lot. The Navy had kept their promise that Jerry would land no forces on Crete from the sea.
(But he sure has tons of room up in that there sky !!). I’m glad they got that Jerry convoy though - AND HOW !!.
Things on board are quiet, giving us a little time to ‘lick our wounds’ and do a little thinking. A guy thinks a lot and thinks strongly when licking war wounds. I thought of home and how quiet it would be there. I speak to all of them at home and wondered how they were and thanked God they weren’t here with me. Its for them at home we are going through this, that alone makes it worth it. I spoke to God, yes I prayed to him with all my heart. ‘Smidy’ keeps looking at his wedding photograph, its funny how he should think to bring it with him this morning, just as I had, somehow, wanted to have my pocket book with me, when at other actions we hadn’t.
These things are strange. We smile at each other but can’t find much to say. This waiting is the devil ! There go the pom- poms again, ‘ give them hell boys’ we thought aloud. Jerry is back at us again, we heel over and jump all over the place. Its getting almost unbearable. We have nothing to do but listen to the scream of the planes and the horrible thump of bombs. If only we had something to do !! I lie and curse the war, curse everyone who causes war and I pray too, pray for this terrible noise to stop, for the ship to sink, let anything happen that will stop this thing from jumping and rattling, to stop the roar of these planes and bombs. If only we had aneven chance, on land with a rifle, we have a fighting chance then. We feel trapped and suffocated in this house of steel. The noise of the guns is terrible down here, we know when they go that Jerry is coming in for us, so although rotten on the ears and nerves, we bless the crews and pray that they keep firing. Shoot everything down you see boys. Home seems a swell place now, and all in it. I’m glad they have no idea that all this is going on. Bella and Anne are in my thoughts too, a big lot.
The injured are coming down and being very roughly dressed, we try making a joke or two with them. We all feel damned shaky but kid each other that we don’t. Smidy keeps blowing up his lifebelt, I wish he wouldn’t, some of these blows he will burst the darned thing. Rogers has his hand bandaged, he was the one who always kept cheery with playing the piano. Now playing it again is worrying him. When picking up a shell a piece of shrapnel nicked off his ‘pinky’. But he is still handling the shells. In fact he is more worried about Ginger who is lying in a horrible mess beside the gun. I land up top again, the ship is in a bad way, the funnels and and hangers are riddled paper.
The port 4" are a shambles, the crew are lying around looking like something we can’t talk about. The one survivor from both guns crews, sits down looking dazed. A Petty Officer tells someone to clear the mess up - with a brush and shovel. The port pom-pom took a plunge when a bomb went down through the hanger. Fate took Harold away just in time, the rest of the crew went over the side. Bates was a strange one, he never said very much, he is quiet even now, when he has a hole six inches wide in his side. His face is twisted but he isn’t saying anything, just covering the hole with his hands and walking towards the sick bay - he never made it. The one survivor of the port 4" comes along, he is looking at the blood on his hands, its all over his face too, but he doesn’t seem to know it. He said, ‘kind of funny - look at the mess, but I’m not hurt’, neither he was, but he was standing behind his pal on the gun and he had been hit badly. Old stripy didn’t get down quick enough, he caught a shower of machine gun bullets, I thought he was dead but was too sick to worry about it much just then.
If only this would stop, no matter how, the next world (if any) can’t be any worse than this. Pincher didn’t know what hit him, we think it was a cannon shell, it didn’t stop. Lights out again, down below I go, the sick bay is full up and a proper shambles, lots of lads are lying in the ‘flat’ outside. Its strange how quiet they are, yet all with a dozen questions in their eyes. Questions, we, more fortunates, don’t want to answer. What lights we have are put on again. It’s a bit ‘thick’ down here now. I get back to the workshop and lie down on the bench, waiting our next call. I don’t give one damn what happens now, I feel that I’ve seen about everything - as the saying goes - but I guess there’s more to come - then let it hurry. Daft maybe, but wished I was at home, in thoughts I was home, every inch of me. It’s much nicer to think of home, than to wonder just what part of the deck- head above you that a bomb will come tearing through. Smidy is back at his life-belt again and his wedding photograph. He kisses his photo and smiles. We call him a soppy goat but feel the same way ourselves. We can’t smoke now, the ventilation being too bad. Suddenly there is a terrific thump and the ship heels well over to starboard, I, with the other two, find myself on the deck, surrounded with everything that was movable.
The ship comes back and we breathe again ! But she keeps going over, we didn’t like it. We can hear water rushing in somewhere and fast, we must be hit and holed somewhere on the port side. She is lying at too steep an angle for comfort. ‘Lets get up top’ was the general idea. Just as I got to the workshop door water rushed into our compartment, it reached my ankles but I went fast enough to keep it from going any further. Terry was behind me, I yelled to him to get out of it fast, he always was slow, the water reached his waist. Stokes, who was at this end of the Damage Control Headquarters Telephone and out of the waters depth, asked me my opinion of the sound in his ear-piece. I took the phone and listened. Like Stokes, I said that D.C.H.Q. had had it and that noise was rushing water. No orders would come to us from there so we groped our way to the starboard side- the high side - wishing that the lights had stayed on. Then I remembered the escape hatch and made for it. A little twinkle of light let me know that the emergency hatch light had worked - it goes on when all the other main lighting fails - I blessed it. Getting to the hatch I met lots of the others. The ‘Sparkies’ had been sent kicking all over the wireless room, but few very badly hurt. Alongside us was the engine-room hatch, steam was roaring down there.
Some of the stokers were trapped, those that got up had to pass that roaring steam and got badly burned doing so. I joined the line waiting to go through the hatch. We urged the slow ones on, but not one in the line was panicky. The ship was still sliding over and nobody liked it at all. I thought it time then to blow up my life-belt, I did so.
Up the hatch I went and putting my head above I was met by lots of orange streaks. I didn’t know at first what they were, but the Zip ! Zip! Zip! along the upper deck soon worked my brain, I ducked quick, only then really hearing the roar of the plane. I sweat quite a lot. Up I got again, just in time to see the Gunnery Officer carried past on a stretcher, he was saying deliriously, ‘Make way for God’. I laughed to myself, not a nice laugh. ‘God’ him, he was the one who only hours ago was crying out for action. Telling us to kill everything we met and apologizing for us not having met action the night before. True it was his job but he took such a savage delight in it. Well, he got action, I wonder if it satisfied him. Now the upper deck is like a wrecked house, everything is in an uproar. Poor ‘Fiji’ looks badly wounded yet she is limping on at 5 knots.
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