The Story of H.M.S. KIPLING

A lecture delivered to the Kipling Society at 106 Gower Street, London, on 16th October 1946

by Lieut N B Robinson, D.S.C., R.N.V.R., Croix de Guerre

Early days | Home waters | The Mediterranean

Crete | The Tobruk convoys | Our first U-Boat

In action against the Italian Fleet | The end of H.M.S. Kipling.

H.M.S. Kipling was built in Scotland by Messrs. Yarrow in Glasgow. I joined her in November 1939, and we were commissioned with our sister ships in December. At that time, we were the most important and powerful destroyers in the Navy, but I am going to speak almost entirely of Kipling herself and not of the flotilla. I know what you want to hear about is "your ship."

Kipling was particularly unfortunate in her start in life. We went straight down from Glasgow to the South Coast to '"work up", which means, more or less, teaching the sailors as quickly as possible how to fire the guns, training the control teams, teaching the officers how to manoeuvre the ship when working in flotilla and so on. Now in peace time, that would take a month or six weeks, but this was war time and we had to cut the time down to three weeks.

After about a week at this, our engines failed, so back we had to go to Yarrow for another three weeks there. After the engines had been put right, we went up to Scapa Flow where we had another week's " working up." It was, however, again found that the engines repeated their misbehaviour and this time we were packed off to Newcastle where we had to stay for three months.

That was about the worst thing that could have happened to us at the outset of our career. We had a very young ship's company; we had a number of officers who had had only a very short training, and we did not quite realise what troubles were in store for us through this enforced idleness. In those days one could ill afford to lose opportunities for training and what we failed to acquire in those days of comparative idleness at Newcastle had to be made up in the hard school of experience.

However to leave that melancholy period, I will jump to sometime about the beginning of April 1940 when we went up to Scapa, and from that time onwards we had very little trouble. Now that was about the time that Hitler was walking into Norway and I confess that it was with mixed feelings that we received a signal one day at Scapa that we were to take part in some operation off the Norwegian coast.

We went out with the cruiser Suffolk and four other destroyers of our own class when we found that we were going to bombard the air base at Stavanger. On arrival, Suffolk bombarded the air base and we steamed around to ensure that she was not torpedoed or otherwise interfered with.

When the bombardment was over, we set course again for Scapa. We were just thinking how easy all this had been, too easy perhaps, when all of a sudden there came a series of thuds and we as suddenly realised that here it was at last. We were receiving our first dose of German bombing.

I am happy to be able to say that bad as it was, it was by no means as efficient as it became later on in the Mediterranean. Well it went on until one of the German planes, a bit more enterprising than the others, came down lower with the obvious determination to drop a bomb on Suffolk. He did actually hit her.

At this time we were only about 100 miles from the Norwegian coast. "Suffolk" slowed down to 13 knots and we started in to escort her back and were bombed all the time. Once, considerably to our surprise, we found ourselves flat on our stomachs - the result of a near miss. However, round about four o'clock in the afternoon, the entire Home Fleet came out from Scotland to meet us, an extremely nice sight, and with them came one or two fighter planes. After that the Germans left us alone.

But then it was that the Engineer officer broke the news to us that we were probably one of the first ships in the Navy to have suffered a particular kind of damage. You see, when a bomb goes off near a ship, she rises up in the water and then goes down again with a thump.

But things like turbines are of such enormous weight that when the ship has completed its ascent and begins to go down again, the turbines having this great weight carry on going up! The result of this difference of opinion between the ship and her engines was to tear the latter off their bed, with the result that we had to limp home with the turbines just sitting on their bed by their weight and ready to slither goodness knows where if unduly provoked.

Anyhow considerable damage was done which meant another three and a half months in dry dock. This time we went down to Southampton and the sailors had a further taste of the 'fleshpots' and were not long in coming to the conclusion that life on the English sea-coast had much to commend it compared with what they had seen of life off the Norwegian!

Whilst we were at Southampton the evacuation from Dunkirk took place. The invasion of our port by the Germans was feared, with the pleasant prospect of our being captured there while we were in dry dock. However, all was well; we got away and were sent up to Immingham, where we did some escorting of convoys up and down the East coast. Nothing much happened there, though we had occasional excitements in the Channel, with planes and E-boats, though nothing worth telling you about now.

About November, just as we began to feel that we were really sailors and that the ship was becoming reasonably efficient, a situation arose on the South coast which soon became serious. The Germans had managed to get through six large destroyers much bigger than ours, indeed about twice our size, and mounted with 5" guns instead of our 4.7", out-ranging us by some 6,000 or 7,000 yards. These destroyers were stationed at Brest. This meant that we had to have eight or ten ships standing by at Plymouth to look after them, which was no small advantage to the Germans, who occasionally came out of Brest and tried to beat up some coastal convoys.

We then began what was one of the most trying periods of our lives. It was all night work; we went out as a complete flotilla, patrolling night after night steaming at 30 knots and keeping about 200 yards between each ship. It was very strenuous work in the dark at that speed for things happen very quickly at sea! We carried out innumerable patrols, never seeing anything at all; often we would be at one end of the Channel and the Germans would come out at the other end.

One night we happened to be in the right place. There was a fog and at that time, of course, we had no Radar. Off the Isle of Wight we got mixed up with about four small German torpedo boats. It was a blind dog-fight with all the guns apparently pointing all over the place and everybody blazing away at imaginary shadows. At the end of it all, nobody on either side, so far as we knew, was a penny the worse.

However, after a bit the Germans began to tumble to the fact that there was a flotilla of British destroyers at Plymouth, and they did not come out so much.

On one occasion we were sent to bombard the harbour at Cherbourg, seven of us, with the Battleship Revenge, got up to the Isle of Wight at about 8 o'clock at night and set a course due South, arriving off Cherbourg by midnight. We opened fire, cruising up and down the coast and saw tremendous fires breaking out in the town and docks. Having finished our task we turned to go home, with the destroyers forming round Revenge.

It wasn't long, however, when we got a pretty considerable surprise for suddenly six shells burst very close beside us. We were very mystified at the time for we had no idea that the Germans had Radar. They had it right enough and were using it with considerable success.

They picked us up although we were quite out of sight and from about seven miles at the start, up to something in the region of 18 or 19 miles - and in spite of the fact that we were doing about 16 knots - they lobbed large shells bang in the middle of us and all round us !

It was an uncanny experience and far from pleasant, but luckily none of the shells hit us. The captain of Revenge, realising that just one hit from these big shells would put paid to a destroyer, made a signal to us to proceed at 30 knots home. Somehow or other nobody got that wireless with the result that the destroyers all hung about at 16 knots much to the delight and astonishment of Revenge’s captain who subsequently had quite a lot to say about our courage !

One very queer thing happened on this occasion. One of the destroyers which, like the rest of us had been given a number of bearings on which to fire, either got out of position or had read their figures wrongly. Anyhow, so far as they could see, their shooting was without result. Well two years later we heard that the Germans were most perturbed about their security arrangements for on that very night a British Destroyer had mysteriously and persistently completely flattened a French village which contained the German Headquarters Staff !

Our next real excitement was when the German destroyers went. outside Brest and into the Atlantic. By that time, we had been reinforced by two cruisers, one Newcastle which had twelve six-inch guns and the other Emerald with six six-inch guns, besides, of course, the flotilla of seven destroyers, of which we were one. The moment information was received that the Germans had put to sea, we started off after them at about 6 o'clock in the morning. They were sighted a long distance away - about 14 miles - and the cruisers were soon close enough to open fire. Meanwhile Newcastle had sent a signal to the C-in-C at Plymouth, and to the R.A.F., saying that she was engaging seven enemy destroyers and asking for air support. However, here was our first experience of a daylight battle. Everybody put on top speed in a terrific chase and before very long our Commander made a signal which is always a very exciting one in the Navy: 'GENERAL CHASE'. On this occasion, Kipling went faster than anyone else, except for one cruiser which managed to keep up to us, which says a lot for Messrs Yarrow's engines!

Mind you, we could not see the enemy destroyers as they were below the horizon, but the Germans evidently knew they were for it, for they too sent out an urgent message to the Luftwaffe for air support.

I must explain here that in those early days, co-operation between the Navy and the R.A.F. left a great deal to be desired, I don't think that the average fellow in the R.A.F. felt much confidence in his ability to distinguish a British from a German destroyer, or even at any height a cruiser from a destroyer, and in the Navy aircraft identification was not one of our strongest points. Anyhow on this particular occasion, we had two cruisers in the middle of seven destroyers, three on one side and four on the other so from the R.A.F. point of view, it wasn't too easy.

Coming back then to the battle, the fact remains that the R.A.F. had received a signal that two of our cruisers were being attacked by seven destroyers, and here were two cruisers surrounded by seven destroyers all blazing away with their guns

Anyway, the R.A.F. beat the Luftwaffe to it and to our amazement twenty Blenheims descended upon us out of the sky and proceeded to try and blow us out of the water! We all danced and shouted and waved our arms, but when the bombs started coming down, one or two ships, probably after calculating the respective costs of an aeroplane and a destroyer, shot back. Unfortunately one of them did shoot down a Blenheim which was a great tragedy, and when we eventually got back to Plymouth, we heard that a precisely similar thing happened when the Luftwaffe met the German destroyers.

Anyway, we never caught the enemy; they got into their mine area about 20 miles outside Brest, and we thought it unwise to follow. However, we had achieved fame, for the next day the "Times" published a short paragraph headed "A Brush in the Channel".

Some four days later we had been doing some exercises in Dartmouth and had the misfortune to foul a mooring cable which wound some forty or fifty turns round our propellor. A diver had to go down to clear it, and no sooner had he gone overboard when a message came that the Germans were coming out and that we were to put to sea at once! So there we had to remain. What had happened was that the Germans, true to type, had attacked a small pilot boat. Our flotilla found them, and battle was joined in the course of which Javelin was hit by two torpedoes forward and the forward magazine blew up. Then she was hit aft, and the after magazine blew up. It says a lot for British shipbuilding when, in spite of this damage, Javelin happily remained afloat. Next morning we went out, our propeller having been cleared. The Luftwaffe came over in force but we were not hit, and what remained of Javelin was successfully brought back.

About this time, there were a lot of sinister rumours going about sun helmets and white kit coming aboard which could only, at that time, mean the Mediterranean and sure enough at the end of April, 1941 we set sail from Plymouth for Gibraltar. We refuelled at Gib. and from there went on to Malta. Dido, a cruiser, came with us and we were seven destroyers. We rushed straight through at 30 knots and got to Malta unscathed where we found the 14th Destroyer Flotilla. They were based on Malta to prevent Rommel sending his convoys across from Italy and Sicily down to Tripoli, and they looked to us to be pretty jaded. Just then, Rommel was sending over an enormous amount of stuff through the narrow straits, and from Malta, ships operating at night, which was the only time they could operate, had a good chance of wading into his convoys which went pretty slow, 10 or 15 knots; there was just time for a flotilla to slip out of Malta at night as soon as the Air Force marked them down and could show us where they were. The 14th Flotilla had been out the night before we arrived and had raided a convoy, sinking every single ship, and we all thought that we were in for a fine time.

When we arrived, this flotilla were preparing to go to sea again and we were told that they were going to Alexandria and that we would be taking their place in Malta. We were discussing our prospects that night at dinner when suddenly there broke out the worst air raid I have ever experienced in my life. The ships were lying in narrow creeks and there was nothing we could do about it and while it lasted it was just terrific. Nearly all our nights were pretty awful. Sleep was quite out of the question and the only thing we could do was to allow 90% of the ships' companies to sleep ashore in the caves, retaining only enough on board to fire the guns. After three or four days, back we went to Gibraltar again where we refuelled and made ready to go off with the "Tiger" convoy. The main objective of the convoy was to pass about six large merchant ships through the narrow Sicilian straits, an extremely dangerous neighbourhood where mines could be easily laid, and to get them into Malta. With us we had the Gloucester, which we picked up on the way out to Gib., and also an aircraft carrier. Malta was pretty hard up for aircraft in those days, and so, at a certain point on our route, the machines would fly off the carrier and make for that island.

Well, on the way, we had our first taste of Italian bombing. What they used to do was to send about 40 planes with only one bomb sight between the lot. The gentleman in front who had the bomb sight would get his target on and give a signal to the others, whereupon the whole bunch would drop their bombs. The German bombing was a different matter altogether. On that trip, they subjected us to a tremendous bombing all day long: still we had a certain amount of fighter protection until we got to the Straits when the fighters went on to Malta, and we went on alone - three cruisers and 10 to 15 destroyers. We got through all right till we met the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet who took over the convoy and continued on towards Alexandria. We were sent off alone to bombard Benghazi. The previous night, two ships from the Fleet had been sent there and they had gone in and beaten up three large merchant ships and set them on fire. Well we set off, and although it was a bright moonlight night we went in very close and poured shells into the town. It was an easy job; we just cruised slowly and leisurely up and down bombarding the place and did a great deal of damage, though nothing I should think, of much importance. Then we returned to Malta. There we resumed the same sort of life, terrific air-raids every night with most of us in the cave shelters which also got a good plastering. This shelter night life did not do us much good ; many of us got various kinds of stomach troubles and I myself got dysentery and had to go to hospital. The flotilla then went off to take part in the defence of Crete. Being in hospital in Malta, I was of course not with them and so missed the next phase which saw the finest performance Kipling ever put up. However, what happened was this.