Service of HMS Arethusa 1933 to 1950

What follows is a transcription of a magazine article that seems to have been part of a series entitled "Yesterday's Navy". This article being written by Bill Johnson, the magazine itself is not identifiable. The photographs have been added from my own collection and that of the son of the late Edwin Moseley who served aboard Arethusa for the length of the war.

It is difficult in these days of nuclear powered aircraft carriers and ships that can launch cruise missiles, to understand the importance of ships like Arethusa. To put these ships into perspective, remember that ships the size of the Hood and Bismark were considered to be the ultimate weapons of their day (much like nuclear weapons today).

Arethusa was built at a cost of 1.25 million in 1935 (roughly 66 million in todays money) and was capable of delivering an awesome level of firepower, as such she would have been considered a rich target for the enemy.


Arethusa was the name ship of a class of four light cruisers. She was authorised under the 1931 programme and was laid down at Chatham Dockyard on 25 January 1933. Smaller than the earlier - Leander Class of cruisers to balance numbers of ships with current International Treaty limitations on tonnage, welding was used to save weight. She displaced 5,220 tons on a hull 506 ft by 51 ft and carried three twin 6 inch gun turrets, four single 4 inch anti-aircraft guns and two triple torpedo tubes.

Arethusa silhouette

She was built to carry two aircraft, the second, an Osprey, was to be stowed on the after superstructure with its wings folded. A stump mast was mounted beside the after tunnel in order to move this aircraft to the catapult. During trials this arrangement was found to be unacceptable, and was not fitted in the last two ships of the class. A bulletproof roof over the bridge was also fitted as an experiment, but was removed in May 1937.

Other differences between the first two ships of the class (Arethusa and Galatea) and the second pair (Aurora and Penelope) were that the later ships were completed with four twin 4 inch AA guns, and had an AA director abaft the mainmast. The searchlight carried in that position by the first pair, was mounted forward of the mainmast in the later ships. Galatea's single AA guns were replaced by twin mountings before the war but Arethusa was not modified until after the war had started.

The Arethusas had four engines with a boiler room/engine room layout differing from the earlier Leander Class giving them better damage protection. The visible sign of this was their two thin, streamlined funnels. Their appearance was similar to the contemporary Amphion Class, though they lacked the fourth twin 6 inch turret. Their engines developed 64,000 shaft horse power which gave them a speed of 32.25 knots.

Arethusa schematic

On trials Arethusa achieved 32.6 knots. The class was fitted with cruising turbines, with a fluid flywheel arrangement for transferring between main and cruising turbines. They were designed to have the acceleration and maneuverability to lead destroyers, and reports in service confirmed they met this requirement. They were also, like all cruisers, designed to have good endurance and could cover 8,200 miles at 12 knots and 1,900 miles at their maximum continuous speed of 30.3 knots.

Arethusa was launched on 6 March 1934 by Lady Tyrwhitt, the wife of Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt who had been in command of the previous Arethusa (also built at Chatham) in August 1914 when leading the destroyers of the Harwich Force in the action in the Heligoland Bight, when that Arethusa had been damaged and had to be towed home. She commissioned for trials on 26 February 1935 and paid off on 27 March. She was completed on 23 May 1935 and was brought up to full complement on 12 June 1935.

Arethusa - 1935

Arethusa as commissioned in 1935

She then became the flagship of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean relieving Delhi. Her arrival at Malta on 20 August 1935 was inauspicious as she touched bottom and had to be hauled off by tugs. At first she served in the Eastern Mediterranean but visited the Western Mediterranean the next year. In February 1937 she suffered from excessive rolling in bad weather off NW Sardinia and had to return to Malta for repairs. Three months later she towed the damaged Hunter to Gibraltar. Afterwards she returned to Sheerness to refit and recommissioned on 2 November 1937, again for the Mediterranean Station and once more became the flagship of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron.

Arethusa - 1937

Arethusa entering Grand Harbour - Malta 1937

Arethusa at Valetta circa 1935-37

Arethusa at Valetta sometime between 1935 and 1937
(photo courtesy of John Lawrance)

At the outbreak of war she was at Alexandria and in November it was decided that she and the Penelope should join the Home Fleet after being relieved by the Caledon and Calypso. The flag was transferred to the Capetown on 28 December and Arethusa left Gibraltar on 3 January for the Home Fleet, where the four of her class were to form the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. Arethusa was employed providing close cover to convoys to and from Norway.

The King inspecting the ship's company at the start of the war

On 14 February she, the Cossack and 4 other destroyers left Rosyth to sweep the Norwegian coast for enemy shipping and on 16th was ordered to search for the Altmark. On 17th she was the first to sight the German tanker off Egero Light. Attempts to board were frustrated by Norwegian vessels escorting the Altmark, but shortly afterwards the Cossack followed her into Jossing Fjord and carried out a successful boarding and rescued the merchant seamen held captive onboard.

In April 1940 she took part in the Norwegian campaign. She was at Rosyth when the news of the German movements was received and she was sailed to join the Home Fleet. On 17th she, with Galatea, Curacoa and two destroyers sailed with 1,000 troops of 148 Infantry Brigade for Namsos but later was diverted to Aandalsnes, where the troops were landed without loss. She left there on 19th. On 22nd she took stores, light AA guns and an advance party of RAF for a forward airfield to Molde, staying just 4 hours to land them all. On 30th she was involved with the evacuation of Aandalsnes. Four cruisers, two transports and six destroyers managed to pick up 2,200 troops safely and left the harbour before dawn. Arethusa was slightly damaged in air attacks during these operations.

AB William Cawley with 4 inch HA Gun

AB William Cawley (4th from right) with 4 inch HA Gun

a_16317.jpg

An official version of the same view this time aboard HMS Belfast - this photo is available from the IWM ref "A 16318"

In May, when the threat to the Low Countries by the Germans became apparent, she was transferred to the South and she operated off the Dutch coast and on 11th May escorted two bullion ships from Ljmuiden to Southend. On 24 May she and Galatea sailed from Portsmouth to bombard concealed batteries off Calais in support of the troops ashore, but could not arrive before dark, so went on to Sheerness. She returned on 26th when she carried out the bombardment. Seven destroyers operated with the two cruisers and the Wessex was lost during these operations. On 16 June she entered Le Verdon, where her Captain (Captain O D Graham) was involved in talks with the British Ambassador, First Lord of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord over the future of the French Fleet.

French Refugees

French Refugees aboard Arethusa

On 19th June the British Embassy staff from Bordeaux were embarked and the next day Arethusa sailed with the President of Poland and his staff, taking a total of 221 people to Plymouth. She was relieved by the Galatea at Le Verdon, where later the destroyer Fraser was lost in collision with the cruiser Calcutta during the evacuation.

On 28 June she left Portsmouth for Gibraltar wearing the flag of Vice Admiral Somerville and two days later transferred the flag to the Hood on the formation of Force H. She took part in the action against the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. Afterwards she was with Force H during the action off Calabria in July and the next month escorted Ark Royal whilst she attacked Cagliari and the Argus while she was flying off aircraft to Malta. That month she returned to Sheerness to refit.

She completed her refit and worked up at Scapa Flow. She was in collision with a merchant ship and had to undergo repairs on the Tyne from 31 October to 23 November then rejoined the 2nd Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet and was based at Scapa Flow, covering convoys and patrolling off Iceland. She covered minelaying operations off the Norwegian coast and in May 1941 with Manchester and Birmingham patrolled the Iceland-Faroes gap lest Bismarck and Prince Eugen should break out into the Atlantic through that route.

In August 1941 she returned to the Mediterranean to assist in convoys to and from Malta. During Operation Substance she was part of the cruiser force that escorted the merchant ships right through to Malta and also carried stores and troops for the island. Four days after their return to Gibraltar, Arethusa, together with the Hermione, Manxman and two destroyers returned to Malta with more troops who had been unable to sail with the earlier convoy when their troopship the Leinster had run aground leaving Gibraltar. This dash was supported by Force H and during the outward journey the Hermione rammed and sank the Italian submarine Tembien.

Arethusa's Crew relaxing on deck

Leading Seaman Edwin Moseley captured this photo of his shipmates for posterity

She was refitted in the Tyne from 24 August to 1 November 1941 and then rejoined the Home Fleet. In December she lead the raid on the Lofotens. It had been planned that this would be the major of two raids, but one of the two transports had to return to Scapa with defects, reducing the scope of the operation. Troops were landed and a fish factory and wireless station were destroyed. Two coasters were captured and a patrol boat sunk, while Arethusa was damaged by near misses. Because the force had no air cover it had to withdraw when German aircraft were reported to be moving north to intercept it. The force returned to Scapa Flow on 1 January 1942 with prisoners.

Arethusa April 1942 after refit

In May 1942 she sailed to join the Mediterranean Fleet via the Cape of Good Hope. By this time she had been refitted with tripod masts, radar and extra anti-aircraft guns. In June she took part in Operation Vigorous taking 11 ships from the East to Malta. The convoy had a close escort of destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers and also the old battleship Centurion, which had been disarmed between the wars and had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns. There was no heavy ship available to provide cover and Centurion was simulating a commissioned battleship. One merchant ship was damaged by air attacks on the 12th and had to divert to Tobruk. Another merchant ship sent to Tobruk because of engine trouble was sunk by further aircraft attacks.

Vigorous_under_attack_June42.jpg

Operation Vigorous under attack - photographed from Arethusa
(photo courtesy of Laurie Weston)

The cruiser Newcastle was damaged and the destroyer Hasty sunk during E-boat attacks off Derna. During air attacks on 15th the cruiser Birmingham and two destroyers were damaged, one destroyer (Nestor) having to be sunk the next day. The force was threatened by the Italian Fleet comprising two battleships and heavy cruisers which approached to within 150 miles of the convoy. As the convoy withdrew to Alexandria, the cruiser Hermione was sunk by U205 South of Crete. Arethusa suffered splinter damage durinq this convoy.

Eric Webb at Alex

Ordinary Seaman Eric Webb on shore leave at Alex', his mother wanted a photo of him in his "whites"

On the night of 12-13th August she, with the Cleopatra and four destroyers, bombarded Rhodes as one of the diversionary actions in support of the Pedestal Convoy to Malta.

Leading Seaman Edwin Moseley, far left, and other members of the crew take time out

In November 1942 Arethusa took part in Operation Stoneage, the story can be read here.

She left Alexandria in February 1943 for Charleston, South Carolina, where she refitted until December. During this refit her after funnel was shortened slightly to save top weight and quadruple AA guns were mounted between her funnels. She then returned to Britain via Norfolk, Virginia and Bermuda and was further refitted at Sheerness until April 1944.

During the Normandy Landings she was part of the Eastern Task Force, sailing from the Clyde on 2 June and arriving off the beaches at 0455 on 6th. She was part of Bombarding Force D which included the battleships Warspite and Ramillies and the monitor Roberts, four other cruisers and thirteen destroyers. They provided gunfire support for Force S landing at Sword Beach. Arethusa's main task was gunfire support to the Sixth Airborne Division which had dropped to the East of the river Orne to seize bridges over the river and Caen canal, and for a long time there was difficulty in gaining reliable information as to where the troops were. This caused problems in trying to avoid casualties to friendly forces during their support. She had used 392 rounds of 6 inch ammunition by 1600 on the first day, she returned to Portsmouth on 14th.

King George aboard Arethusa - June 1944

King George aboard Arethusa - June 1944
(photo courtesy of Gary Payne )

She sailed again for the beachhead at 0830 on 16th. this time wearing the standard of King George VI, Also embarked were the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief Admiral (Sir Bertram Ramsay), the First Sea Lord (Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham), the Chief of the Air Staff (Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal) and the Chief of Combined Operations (Major General Laycock). She was escorted by the destroyers Scourge and Urania. The visit to Juno Beach lasted from 1240 to 1700 during which time His Majesty landed in a DUKW. Arethusa returned to Portsmouth that evening. A week later, on 25 June, she was steaming off the beaches when she was attacked by an aircraft which dropped a mine near her the mine exploded in her wake and she suffered internal damage.

Repairs took until November and in January she sailed for Gibraltar to rejoin the 15th Cruiser Squadron. She remained there until November 1945 when she was relieved by the Liverpool. She then returned to the United Kingdom and was placed in reserve at Chatham. In 1948 she was moved to Portland, then Falmouth and later to Portsmouth whilst being used for ship target trials, and she was broken up at Troon in May 1950.

Back