A walk on the Suffolk coast brought me face to face with a story of courage and tragedy from the Second World War
Where the Rivers Stour and Orwell meet
The photos are of a military cemetery in a quiet and peaceful spot on the Suffolk coast, overlooking the estuary of the River Orwell (you can see the container terminal at Felixstowe in the background of the second photo). Out of sight to the right is the town of Harwich on the far side of the estuary of the River Stour which joins the Orwell at this point.
A group of headstones
What caught my eye in particular was a group of headstones that were placed much closer together than most of the others. These all bore the inscription “HMS Worcester” and the date 12th February 1942 (some of them were a few days later, suggesting that the men in question had died from their wounds rather than been killed instantly). The name of the ship meant nothing to me, so I decided to investigate a bit further and discover the story behind these graves.
The story of HMS Worcester
HMS Worcester was a W-class destroyer that was launched in October 1919 and was brought out of the reserve fleet at the outbreak of World War II. At various times she was part of the 16th Destroyer Flotilla, based at Harwich, and would therefore have been visible from the site of the cemetery when at anchor in Harwich Harbour. The main function of the flotilla was to protect merchant shipping in the North Sea and to undertake patrols.
On 11th February 1942 three large German warships, namely the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, left the French port of Brest with the intention of sailing along the English Channel to return to Germany by the shortest possible route. This operation, officially named Operation Cerberus, has also become known as the “Channel Dash”. This was a daring move, given that the ships would have to pass within a few miles of the British coast and right under the nose of the Royal Navy.
HMS Worcester was part of the flotilla sent to intercept the German ships as they emerged through the Strait of Dover into the North Sea, on 12th February. In the exchange of fire HMS Worcester came off worse, with shells hitting her from all three German ships. Despite serious damage, HMS Worcester survived the encounter, but seventeen lives were lost on board the ship.
After repairs, HMS Worcester returned to active service but struck a mine in December 1943 which again put her out of action. The damage was so great that she was decommissioned and ended the war as an accommodation ship with a new name, HMS Yeoman. She was eventually scrapped in 1947.
The sailors who died in 1942 were buried close together where they lie to this day, in a small cemetery within sight of the sea.
© John Welford