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Harry Kempshall - Survivor from HMS Eagle

Memories of Operation Pedestal by a Survivor from HMS Eagle, Harry Kempshall - in his own words...

Harry Kempshall was born in 1918 and joined the Royal Marine School of Music aged 14 years, the youngest recruit for many years. This is Harry’s own account of what happened:

“My war commenced in Malta in 1939 whilst serving aboard HMS Arethusa, flagship of 3rd Cruiser Squadron.  In company with HMS Ark Royal and HMS Hood we formed Force H and were involved in the bombardment of the French fleet in Oran. After that we were involved in the Norwegian Campaign.

I joined HMS Eagle in December 1941 and sailed for Gibraltar from where we commenced operations to supply Malta for the next 8 months by carrying Spitfires and flying them off 200 miles from Malta, at the same time escorting convoys to Malta.  We also carried Spitfires for Malta in-between convoys.  Either way we always encountered plenty of activity from the German and Italian Air Forces, and often lost most of the Merchantmen we were escorting.

It became essential for a convoy to get through to Malta for her stocks of aviation fuel, ammunition and food were at a very low ebb, and rations of food were being reduced to starvation level.  Accordingly a great armada of warships, battleships, carriers and destroyers, was assembled to escort a dozen fast merchantmen in an attempt to break the blockade, and this Operation in August was codenamed “Pedestal”.

Many warships and most of the merchant ships were lost, the first of which was HMS Eagle, which was hit by 4 torpedoes when turning out of convoy to fly on its Hurricanes after their patrol.  She sank in 5 minutes, all of which I spent trying to get out of the Mess Deck, and then from deck to deck to reach the Flight Deck, whilst each moment the ship’s list was increasing, making it impossible to move quickly. 

She capsized before I reached the Flight Deck, and the in-rush of water swirled me from the Boat Deck to the underside of the Flight Deck, which was now perpendicular in the water, and I struck out for the surface.  It passed through my mind that something was on fire, but on surfacing, I realised that it was the brightness of the sunshine, and I had come up from a long way down.

I was picked up by the Destroyer HMS Lookout after a couple of hours, covered in oil and still half drowned and was among the last to be dragged from the water, and rightly so for the Captains of the Destroyers had proceeded first of all to the areas most thickly populated with survivors, most of whom had walked down the starboard side into the water, while a few like me had the extra hazard of being on the submerging port side and therefore that area had less survivors.

Sadly we lost 9 of the Royal Marine Band out of 15, and this was typical of the loss of Royal Marine Bandsmen when ships were sunk, mainly due to the fact that our Action Stations were always in the Transmitting Station, commonly known as the “TS” and always situated 2 decks below the Mess Decks.  It was virtually impossible to emerge from this position in any mishap, as every “TS” was surrounded by oil tanks or magazines.

At the time HMS Eagle was hit, we had reverted from “Action Stations” when all the Band were closed up in “TS” to “Cruising Watches”, when only half the Band were closed up in “TS”.  Needless to say, none of those in the “TS” survived.  I was among those off watch and not all of those survived.

Though the losses were great, the convoy was successful in so much that those few merchant ships, including the tanker Ohio, that got through saved Malta from starvation and possible surrender.

We were then taken back to Gibraltar, where we were directed to the Submarine Depot Ship for a bath and issue of emergency clothing and a casualty payment of £2 on account until the next pay day.  We were allowed to send two telegrams of set phrases of 3 words, for example, “Safe and well”, and “Home soon”, etc for half a crown a time. We could purchase toilet gear and writing materials.

We were temporarily based at an Army Camp somewhere up on the Rock, where they did their best to make us comfortable with bed and food.  Unfortunately they had no cutlery to spare, and so fingers were the order of the day, a routine we became quite used to for a couple of weeks, until one Sunday, as a special treat, we were served with prunes and custard!

I was given passage home on board HMS Nelson. I was given a revolver and the task of supervising 24 Italian ex sub-mariner Prisoners of War for the voyage. 

After some leave, kitting out and a very nice new instrument, I was posted to a Band in Chatham Naval Barracks for six months before being promoted Band Sergeant and joining HMS Birmingham in September 1943.

Harry W.M. Kempshall 

Harry and his wife Jean loved Malta and had many happy holidays there.  Harry died in 2001 aged 82.