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HMS Penelope (97)

HMS Penelope was an Arethusa-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy.


She was built by Harland & Wolff (Belfast, Northern Ireland); her keel was laid down on 30 May 1934. She was launched on 15 October 1935, and commissioned 13 November 1936. She was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat near Naples with heavy loss of life on 18 February 1944.

HMS Penelope, a 6-inch gun cruiser, won fame the hard way. At the beginning of the war it seemed she had become what sailors call a Jonah ship. She grounded in the Vestfjord during the Norwegian Campaign while searching for enemy shipping and the captain ordered her to be scuttled. But for a 'we can save her' hunch from the engineer in charge she would have expired then and there. Ed Gordon, who served in the cruiser, tells in vivid detail how she fought her way back to take a permanent place in the annals of the Royal Navy. After an extensive refit and with a new captain Penelope sailed to the Mediterranean and won seven Battle Honours, for she was always in the thick of the action. Although designed as a cheap, light vessel suitable for convoying, she was involved in the destruction of twenty-three enemy vessels and numerous aircraft. In one fifteen-day period in 1942, while based at Malta, she survived 2,000 sorties by Axis bombers which dropped 3,000 tons of bombs and 14 aerial torpedoes -  she was holed so many times by bomb fragments that she acquired the nickname "HMS Pepperpot".


At the outbreak of World War II she was with the 3rd Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean, having arrived at Malta on 2 September 1939.

Penelope and her sister ship Arethusa were reallocated to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron in the Home Fleet and arrived at Portsmouth on 11 January 1940. On 3 February she left for the River Clyde en route to Rosyth. She arrived on 7 February, and operated with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron on convoy escort duties, and in April and May 1940, she took part in the Norwegian operations.


On 11 April Penelope ran aground off Fleinvær while hunting German merchant ships entering the Vestfjord. Her boiler room was flooded and she was holed forward. The destroyer Eskimo towed her to Skjelfjord where an advanced base had been improvised. Despite air attacks, temporary repairs were made and she was towed home a month later. She arrived at Greenock in Scotland on 16 May 1940 where additional temporary repairs were carried out, before proceeding on 19 August to the Tyne for permanent repairs.

After repairs and trials were completed in August 1941, Penelope reappeared as 'a new ship from the water line down'. She returned to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow on 17 August 1941. On 9 September she left Greenock escorting the battleship Duke of York to Rosyth. Later that month she was employed in patrolling the Iceland - Faroes passage to intercept enemy surface ships


On 6 October 1941 Penelope left Hvalfjord, Iceland, with another battleship, King George V, escorting the aircraft carrier Victorious for the successful Operation "E.J.", an air attack on enemy shipping between Glom Fjord and the head of West Fjord, Norway. The force returned to Scapa Flow on 10 October 1941.


Penelope and her sister Aurora were then assigned to form the core of Force K based at Malta, and departed Scapa on 12 October 1941, arriving in Malta on 21 October. On 8 November, both cruisers and their escorting destroyers departed Malta to intercept an Italian convoy of six destroyers and seven merchant ships sailing for Libya, which had been sighted by aircraft at 37°53'N - 16°36'E. During the ensuing Battle of the Duisburg Convoy on 9 November off Cape Spartivento, the British sank one enemy destroyer (Fulmine) and all of the merchant ships.


On 23 November, Force K again sailed from Malta to intercept another enemy convoy; next day they sank two more merchant ships west of Crete. Force K received the Prime Minister's congratulations on their fine work. On 1 December 1941, Force K sank the Italian merchant vessel Adriatico, at 32°52'N - 2°30'E, the destroyer Alvise da Mosto, and the tanker Iridio Mantovani at 33°45'N - 12°30'E. The First Sea Lord congratulated them on 3 December.


On 19 December, while operating off Tripoli, Penelope struck a mine but was not seriously damaged, although the cruiser Neptune and the destroyer HMS Kandahar were sunk by mines in the same action. Penelope was sent into the dockyard for repairs and returned to service at the beginning of January 1942. On 5 January, she left Malta with Force K, escorting the Special Service Vessel Glengyle to Alexandria (Operation 'ME9'), returning on 27 January, escorting the supply ship Breconshire.




She left Malta, again with Breconshire, on 13 February 1942 and an eastbound convoy aided by six destroyers, Operation 'MG5', returning to Malta on 15 February, with the destroyers Lance and Legion. On 23 March, she left Malta with Legionfor Operation 'MG1', a further convoy to Malta, which met with heavy enemy opposition, both on the surface and in the air.Breconshire was hit and taken in tow by Penelope and was later safely secured to a buoy in Marsaxlokk harbour, the whole operation was under the charge of Penelope's commanding officer, Captain A. D. Nicholl, of whose work the N.O.I.C. (Naval Officer In Command), Malta expressed appreciation.

Penelope was holed both forward and aft by near-misses during air attacks on Malta on 26 March. While in the island, she was docked and repaired at the Malta Dry Docks. Day after day she was attacked by German planes, and the crew worked to fix a myriad of shrapnel holes, so many that she was nicknamed HMS Pepperpot; when these had been plugged with long pieces of wood - HMS Porcupine. She sailed for Gibraltar on 8 April and on the next day was repeatedly attacked from the air. She arrived in Gibraltar on 10 April, with further damage from near-misses. Later that day she received a signal from Vice Admiral, Malta: "True to your usual form. Congratulations."



The damage was extensive and would require several months at home after temporary repairs in Gibraltar. The ship was visited by theDuke of Gloucester on 11 April, who had originally laid down her keel plate.

The duke also visited Captain Nicholl in hospital. The First Sea Lord congratulated the ship on her successful arrival in Gibraltar.

Meanwhile, the question of Penelope's repairs had been reconsidered, and it was decided to send her to the United States. She accordingly left Gibraltar on 10 May 1942, for the Navy Yard at New York via Bermuda, arriving on 19 May. She was under repair until September and arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on 15 September, proceeding, again via Bermuda, to Portsmouth, England, which she reached on 1 October 1942.

The King, at an investiture at Buckingham Palace, decorated 21 officers and men from Penelope as "Heroes of Malta". Among their awards were two Distinguished Service Orders, a Distinguished Service Cross and two Distinguished Service Medals.

Penelope arrived at Scapa Flow on 2 December and remained in home waters until the middle of January 1943. She left the Clyde on 17 January for Gibraltar, where she arrived on 22 January. She had been allocated to the 12th Cruiser Squadron, in which she operated with the Western Mediterranean Fleet under the flag of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham during the follow-up of Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa.


On 1 June 1943, Penelope and the destroyers Paladin and Petard shelled the Italian island of Pantelleria. The force received enemy gunfire in return and Penelope was hit once, but suffered little damage. On 8 June 1943, with the cruiser Newfoundland and other ships, she took part in a further heavy bombardment of the island. A demand for its surrender was refused. The same force left Malta on the 10 June, to cover the assault (Operation Corkscrew), which resulted in the final surrender of the island on 11 June 1943. On 11 and 12 June Penelope also took part in the attack on another island, Lampedusa, which fell to the British forces on 12 June 1943.


On 10 July 1943, with Aurora and two destroyers, Penelope carried out a diversionary bombardment of Catania as part of the conquest of Sicily, (Operation Husky). The flotilla then moved to Taormina where the railway station was shelled. On 11 July, Penelope left Malta with the 12th Cruiser Squadron as part of Force "H" to provide cover for the northern flank of the assault on Sicily. During the remainder of July and August, she took part in various other naval gunfire support and sweeps during the campaign for Sicily.


On 9 September 1943, Penelope was part of Force "Q" for Operation Avalanche, the allied landings at Salerno, Italy, during which she augmented the bombardment force.


Penelope left the Salerno area on 26 September with Aurora and at the beginning of October she was transferred to the Levant in view of a possible attack on the island of Kos in the Dodecanese. On 7 October, with the cruiser Sirius and other ships, she sank six enemy landing craft, one ammunition ship and an armed trawler off Stampalia. While the ships were retiring through the Scarpanto Straits south of Rhodes, they were attacked by 18 Ju 87 "Stuka" dive-bombers of I.Group Stuka Wing 3 MEGARA. Although damaged by a bomb, Penelope was able to return to Alexandria at 22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph).


On 19 November 1943 the ship moved to Haifa in connection with possible developments in the Lebanon situation. Towards the end of 1943, she was ordered to Gibraltar for Operation Stonewall, (anti-blockade-runner duties), in the Atlantic. On 27 December, the forces in this operation destroyed the German blockade-runner Alsterufer which was sunk by aircraft co-operating with Royal Navy ships. Penelope returned to Gibraltar on 30 December.


Penelope took part in Operation Shingle, the amphibious assault on Anzio, Italy, providing gunfire support as part of Force "X" with USS Brooklyn on 22 January 1944. She also assisted in the bombardments in theFormia area during the later operations. She made eight shoots on 8 February.


On 18 February 1944, Penelope, under the command of Captain G D Belben, was leaving Naples to return to the Anzio area when she was torpedoed at 40.55°N 13.25°E by the German submarine U-410 under the command of Horst-Arno Fenski. A torpedo struck her in the after engine room and was followed sixteen minutes later by another torpedo that hit in the after boiler room, causing her immediate sinking. 417 of the crew, including the captain, went down with the ship; 206 survived. A memorial plaque commemorating those lost is in St. Ann's Church, HM Dockyard, Portsmouth.


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Launch of cruiser Penelope Harland & Wolff Belfast 15 October 1935
Penelope Damage
penelope (1)
Please click on link in blue above for a video (with sound). This dedicated to John Larmour 1916 -1992
and to all who served and died on the HMS Penelope 97.
HMS Penelope 97 

The Norwegian Campaign April-June 1940

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