Every year, without fail, even when he was dying a slow and lingering death, my Dad would trek up to the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. He would look up his brother Bill, who was killed in the Second World War, bow his head and say a silent prayer.
I’ve done this one before, but stumbled across a first hand account on that there internet about what happened when my Uncle Bill (Hamilton) got killed by that bastard Hitler.
“This is an extract from J.E. Price book, “Heels in Line “. The title refers to how the sailors left their shoes on the deck when they left the Gloucester for the last time. He was a gunner on the ship and spent the rest of the war in various POW camps in Greece, Austria and Germany . At the end of the war, he was in a camp in Poland and was freed by the Americans. He was suffering from frost bitten toes (which were amputated without anaesthetic). He was flown back to Britain suffering from Typhoid and was not expected to survive the journey. Eventually, he was de-mobbed back to his home in Exmouth where he became a postman and where he spent the rest of his life. He very patriotically died on Trafalgar Day in 1978 – a sailor until the end! The book is out of print, but is well worth reading if you can get a copy.”
|Forename||William George Bell|
|Place of birth||West Calder|
|Date of death||22 May 1941|
|Theatre of death||RN HMS Gloucester Crete|
|Cause of death||Unknown|
|SNWM roll||ROYAL NAVY AND ROYAL MARINES|
|Unit name||Unknown Unit attached to ROYAL NAVY AND ROYAL MARINES|
I had two Uncle Bills, one on each side of the family. But it was the Hamilton one who got killed in the Second World War.
William George Bell Hamilton
o 18 JAN 1920
o in West Calder, West Lothian, Scotland
o 22 MAY 1941
o in HMS Gloucester
My Dad used to go up to the Scottish National War Memorial every year and look him up in the book. You can still visit it without paying the admission to Edinburgh Castle.
I’ve got all the paperwork from my Gran, who had to wait what must have seemed like a lifetime, from the missing in action letter to confirmation of his death. I’ll get round to scanning that in sometime, but here’s a picture of the posthumous medals that got sent to my Grandad.
Sinking of the HMS Gloucester, 1941
22 May 1941 , Crete
Gloucester formed part of a naval force acting against German military transports to Crete, with some success. On 22 May 1941, while in the Kithera Channel, about 14 mi (12 nmi; 23 km)14 miles (26 km) north of Crete, she was attacked by German Stuka dive bombers and sank, having sustained at least four heavy bomb hits and three near-misses. Of the 807 men aboard at the time of her sinking, only 85 survived. Her sinking is considered to be one of Britain’s worst wartime naval disasters.
The circumstances of the sinking were featured by a BBC programme. According to this, the despatch of Gloucester, alone and low on fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition (less than 20% remaining), into danger was a “grievous error”. Furthermore, the failure to attempt to rescue survivors after dark was “contrary to usual Navy practice”. A survivor commented “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.”
Another account of the sinking differs from, and adds to, the BBC report. In this, Gloucester and Fiji, both already low on ammunition, had been sent to support the rescue of survivors from the destroyer Greyhound. Fierce air attacks further depleted their ammunition and they were given permission to rejoin the main fleet. It was during their return that Gloucester was sunk. Fiji was sunk later the same day.
On 30 May 1941, in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, Admiral Cunningham wrote, “The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to the Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes.”
The wrecksite is a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act.
Here’s the entry in the Book of Remembrance at the Scottish War Memorial;
Firstname William George Bell
Service number P/KX119526
Date of death 22/05/1941
Place of birth West Calder
SNWM roll ROYAL NAVY AND ROYAL MARINES
Rank Sto 2
Theatre of death
And here she is, before she got sunk.
And this is what it looked like when the Huns hit her; (Photograph taken by a German airman recording the sinking of Gloucester off the coast of Crete, 22 May 1941)