One of the finest sea stories of the war is that which tells of the magnificent fight put up by H.M. destroyer "Kelly" against German torpedo and bomb attacks last May. For months details were not permitted to be published, but now we are able to describe the way in which "Kelly" outfought the Nazis. She is now back with the Fleet.
One day last May the Germans published an official communiqué in which they claimed that in operations off the German coast one of their motor torpedo-boats had torpedoed and sunk a British destroyer. But in actual fact the ship in question – the flotilla leader "Kelly" – though she was torpedoed and badly damaged, was not sunk. By dint of tremendous efforts she was towed across the North Sea to England, there to be repaired and in due course go into service again.
It was a Thursday evening in May, and "Kelly" was leading a destroyer flotilla operating against a German minelaying force off the enemy coast. An escorting aircraft having reported a submarine ahead, "Kelly" and a sister destroyer, "Kandahar", proceeded to hunt her. A further report from the aircraft of having sighted the enemy minelaying force presently decided the captain of "Kelly", Lord Louis Mountbatten, to abandon the hunt and rejoin his flotilla, by then passing out of sight over the horizon. While overtaking them another destroyer, the "Bulldog", joined "Kelly" and "Kandahar".
It was now 10.30 p.m., twilight and windless, with banks of mist forming on the calm surface of the sea. A quarter of an hour later a blurred object was sighted in the mist from the bridge of the "Kelly" some 600 yards away on the port beam, and simultaneously the track of a torpedo was seen advancing swiftly towards them. It passed under the bridge, and then came the explosion. A sheet of flame rose above the level of the bridge. The "Kelly" lifted bodily with the force of the detonation, which blew a large hole in her side, extending downwards to the keel. The foremost boiler room was blown open to the sea. The entire ship was enveloped in steam, which escaped with a deafening roar, and in black smoke and fumes from the explosion. Everybody in the foremost boiler room was killed instantly. The men in the after boiler room and engine room remained quietly at their posts until ordered on deck.
"Bulldog", who had been some distance astern, presently reappeared, and, the smoke having cleared somewhat, sighted "Kelly" lying like a log on the water, down by the bows and with a heavy list to starboard. By this time the fog had become very thick, but "Bulldog", with assured seamanship, took "Kelly" in tow and was heading for home in an incredibly short time.
In the meantime, torpedoes, depth charges and all movable top-weight were thrown overboard, and wounded men were being extricated from the tangle of twisted metal and wreckage amidships. They were transferred to the after superstructure, as the sick bay had been completely demolished, and, working in the darkness by the light of a few hand-torches, the surgeon laboured just as in days past they worked in the cockpit of the "Victory". One man he mentioned specially – a stoker, terribly wounded and bleeding, who lay for hours without uttering a groan or a complaint. An 18-year-old telegraphist forced his way through a small hole into the main wireless office where five men were trapped and gave injections of morphia to the wounded, knowing that if the ship foundered he could not escape.
Early next morning "Kandahar" rejoined, and the wounded were transferred to her. Her Volunteer Reserve surgeon did marvels for the seriously hurt. During this operation, while the two ships were lying alongside each other, the first German bombers appeared. They were beaten off by gunfire, and by an air escort of three Hudsons which had just arrived. Later, two more destroyers joined as escort, and in the afternoon two cruisers as well. Repeated bombing attacks were made by the enemy and were beaten off. During the afternoon those of the dead who had been recovered from the wreckage were buried at sea, volleys being fired as each shotted hammock slid overboard.
Saturday wore on, the wind and sea rising steadily. The "Kelly" was labouring with a heavy list, and yawing from side to side almost unmanageably. As her list had increased and it seemed as if she might sink at any moment, the captain decided to send everybody out of the ship not required to fight the guns. The other destroyers had stopped when the enemy made another – their heaviest – bombing attack. No hits were scored. Eighteen officers and men, volunteers selected from a whole ship's company that volunteered to remain on board, were left in "Kelly". The two had repeatedly parted, and further attempts at towing were abandoned until the weather moderated. "Kelly" was then lying waterlogged and stationary, when aircraft reported two enemy submarines in her direct path, and her captain, realizing he was merely a sitting target, decided to transfer his volunteer party temporarily to "Bulldog".
So all through the hours of darkness the "Kelly" lay abandoned, with the seas churning through her boiler rooms. And all through the night the escorting destroyers steamed in an endless chain patrol round their stricken leader. In the dawn two tugs arrived, and the volunteer party returned to "Kelly" and got her in tow. The wind and sea, which had dropped in the night, rose again, and waves swept her from end to end. At noon further bombing attacks were carried out by the enemy, who this time nearly succeeded in hitting, but still did no damage. The whole electrical system of the ship being out of action, the guns were worked by hand, the crews scrambling over the wreckage from one gun to another as each came to bear on the attacking aircraft. The able seaman who had volunteered to act as cook kept rushing from his stew pots to his guns and back in the lulls to his cooking. He persisted in wearing a large white apron and steel helmet throughout these activities.
The spirit of this ship's company was dauntless throughout. Even when darkness fell for the fourth night and every moment increased the risk of capsizing of foundering, the little band of volunteers remained cheerful and enthusiastic.
One the Monday afternoon, having been 91 hours in two or hove-to, "Kelly" and her escort arrived at a repair yard through miles of cheering spectators.