HMS Charybdis Operation Pedestal

Discussion in 'The War at Sea' started by J Andrew Campbell, Sep 10, 2019.

  1. HMS Charybdis fought in “Pedestal” in August 1942. Originally she was part of Force Z, escorting the two battleships and three aircraft carriers as far as the Skerki Bank, where she turned back towards Gib with the capital ships. But when HMS Nigeria was disabled and HMS Cairo sunk, she was sent back east to augment Force X escorting the merchant ships on the last leg to Malta. Nigeria and Cairo were the only ships in Force X equipped with VHF radio enabling them to communicate with fighter aircraft and direct them.

    My question is: was Charybdis also equipped with fighter direction radio? The Wikipedia article on Pedestal says she was (without quoting a source for that information) but other sources such as Peter Smith are silent about the point. An on-line memoir for 1943 records Charybdis communicating with a Sunderland in attacking a U- boat, using Aldis lamps, which suggests that either she wasn't or if she was, it wasn't working that day.

    The important point is that, if she was equipped with FDR, why didn’t Admiral Burrough commanding a Force X in 1942 transfer his flag to her when she fought up with what was left of Force X? Ships and, I think, RAF aircraft were lost because of the inability to communicate, so the point matters.

    Can any kind soul point me in the right direction?
  2. Ewen Scott

    Ewen Scott Active Member

    It is an interesting point, particularly since the Wiki article on Charybdis makes no similar comment.

    Howse's "Radar at Sea" and Friedman's "Fighters over the Fleet" only mention Nigeria and Cairo as having VHF radio installed that would allow them to talk to RAF Beaufighters. (To use the term "fighter direction" is maybe pushing it a bit however as it was all a bit rudimentary at the time, with only the fleet carriers beginning to have organised systems for this.). Crabb's "Operation Pedestal" specifically notes that Nigeria and Cairo were the only VHF equipped ships (p76) but was that in Force X which was the subject of the discussion at that point or in the whole escort? He does not give any reason for the selection of Charybdis by Syfret from amongst his 3 Dido class cruisers. So a lot of research by respected authors doesn't appear to have turned anything up to suggest Charybdis had VHF.

    So are there reasons other than a possible VHF radio fit to select Charybdis? I think there are at least 2.

    1. I've always understood that prior to Pedestal the 3 principal carriers, Victorious, Indomitable and Eagle, had each been paired up with a Dido class cruiser as a close AA escort, being Sirius, Phoebe and Charybdis respectively. With Eagle having been sunk Charybdis was effectively "spare". If ships have been working closely together it makes little sense to break up teams. That would allow Charybdis to be sent to join Force X.

    2. Charybdis, as one of the Toothless Terrors, was probably the best AA cruiser available to the fleet following the loss of Cairo. Her 4.5" guns were certainly rated better than the 5.25" guns of her sisters in the AA role. Clearly the threat the next day would be from the air rather than from the sea. The surface threat evaporated overnight anyway when the Italian cruiser force turned back, although that wouldn't have been known when Charbdis was sent from Force Z to Force X.

    As you say Burrough didn't move his flag to her on the 13th. So I would conclude that there was no immediate advantage to him doing so, and possibly some downside due to disruption when the convoy was so spread out, which again suggests no VHF.

    So looking at the whole picture, and until someone can come up with an actual source to support the Wiki comment, I would conclude that Wiki is simply wrong about Charybdis having VHF radios fitted during Operation Pedestal. Having said that someone will now undoubtedly turn something up to prove me wrong!!
  3. Orwell1984

    Orwell1984 Senior Member

    Some sources that are worth combing through:

    HMS Charybdis 1941-43, Her Career

    The Armoured Carriers site has the following overview:

    Armoured Aircraft Carriers

    As well as the following after action reports:
    Report by Vice-Admiral E.N. Syfret. Operation Pedestal
    + ADM199/1242: Report from Commanding Officer HMS Victorious
    + ADM199/1242: Report from Commanding Officer HMS Indomitable

    Which seem to confirm Ewen Scott's post above that Charybdis was not being used for 'fighter direction' during Pedestal.
    J Andrew Campbell likes this.
  4. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

    25. The Malta Beaufighters and Spitfires were
    now in sight of Force X and seen to be making
    contact with the enemy at times. Rear-Admiral
    Commanding, 10th Cruiser Squadron reports
    that, observing they had no fighter direction
    aid from Force X,
    he considered the fighters
    performed a magnificent job of work throughout the day.

    J Andrew Campbell and Ewen Scott like this.
  5. Thank you, very much, Ewen.

    What you say about Charybdis being "spare" makes a lot of sense. So does what you say about her main armament. Peter C. Smith quotes a member of her crew saying (about her part in the overnight - 12th/13th - battle with the MAS boats): "... this was another occasion when we were glad to have the 4.5-inch guns and not the 5.25-inch, because our rate of fire was so superior at close range." I suppose Syfret must have expected at least the possibility of an MAS attack. So Charybdis was a better choice than the other two Dido class ships in the context of defence against MAS boats as well as attacks from the air.

    Thank you again for your cogent thoughts. I'll assume Charybdis was not VHF-equipped.

  6. Thanks for that. The first of your kind internet links was the source (which I'd forgotten) of the "Sunderland story (see Chapter 3) about Aldis signalling. I'll look t the others as soon as I can.
  7. Thank you to Orwell and TD too. The "Her career" link contained (Chapter 3) the Sunderland Aldis lamp signalling incident, but I'd forgotten where I found it.
  8. timuk

    timuk Well-Known Member

    This link will give you the W/T outfits of the ships. Unfortunately it may not correspond with exactly what was fitted during Pedestal. I have extracted the info for Charybdis.

    I agree with Ewen #2 on Fighter Direction. You may find more in this book, if you can get a copy via the library:
    Fighter-Direction Matériel and Technique, 1939–45
    Fighter-Direction Matériel and Technique, 1939–45
    Prewar lack of any concept for control and direction of a carrier’s fighters — lack of efficient ship-to-air R/T — no liaison with RAF — traditional acceptance of gun defence for ships — prewar aircraft interception techniques. Origins of Naval Fighter Direction Branch in HMS Ark Royal in the Norwegian Campaign, 1940 — initially only involved information on enemy’s course and speed to fighters by W/T — but soon friendly fighters tracked as well as enemy, permitting intercept course, and sometimes height to be passed (‘directive method’) — took too long. Fighters controlled by HMS Sheffield in Force H by the ‘informative method’ using data from Type 79 — success of HMS Illustrious in Eastern Mediterranean using her own radar. Lack of trained officers and men for FD duties, and of specially developed FD radar — ad hoc arrangements in early FD offices. Limited intership radar reporting — loss of all-round warning when carrier’s radar used for fighter direction — lack of effective R/T communications — unduly cautious initial radio policy inhibited radar air search. Formation of first Fighter Direction Training School. Success of HMS Victorious in intercepting Focke-Wulf long-range reconnaissance aircraft in the Atlantic, and during heavy attacks on Malta convoys.

    I would not consider the use of an Aldis lamp to communicate with an aircraft particularly meaningful as it would often be used to observe radio silence to avoid detection.

    Are you aware of the papers at the Imperial War Museum of Captain Ellerton (at the time the Secretary to Admiral Burrough)?
    Private Papers of Captain J Ellerton DSC RN
    Content description
    Microfilm copy of letters and reports of proceedings and other official records retained during his appointments as a junior paymaster officer in the cruiser HMS DANAE, mainly covering her employment on 'showing the flag' cruises on the North America and West Indies Station (September 1930 - October 1932) and as Secretary to the Captain (D) of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla in Home waters and on cruises to Portugal and Scandinavia (June 1933 - July 1935); and as Secretary to Rear Admiral (later Admiral Sir Harold) Burrough during his appointment as Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff, with daily operations reports prepared for the First Lord of the Admiralty (September - December 1939), his command of the 10th Cruiser Squadron at the time of Operation Pedestal, the bitterly contested passage of a supply convoy to Malta in August 1942, with reports of proceedings from many of the ships in the escort force and reports by the Shipping Casualties Section in the Admiralty of interviews with the senior survivors of some of the merchant ships lost from the convoy (August - December 1942),

  9. Ewen Scott

    Ewen Scott Active Member

    Re the rate of fire, Charybdis’ guns were capable of nearly double that of Sirius and Phoebe. However the problem was maintaining that, particularly at low angles of elevation, due to the weight of the one piece fixed rounds. At c90lbs to be raised to shoulder height or above at low angles the ammunition handlers needed to be good strong lads.

    United Kingdom / Britain 5.25"/50 (13.4 cm) QF Mark I - NavWeaps
    United Kingdom / Britain 4.5"/45 (11.4 cm) QF Marks I, III and IV - NavWeaps

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