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Lost at Sea: The Sinking of HMS Charybdis

We look back at the final time the Kriegsmarine defeated a British surface naval force in World War Two with the story of the sinking of HMS Charybdis.

HMS Charybdis

A military funeral in Guernsey

Shot showing row of CWGC headstones against a slate grey stone wall amdist the greenery of Foulon Cemetery.

Image: Foulon Cemetery, Guernsey, where several crewmembers of the HMS Charybdis are buried.

Wednesday, November 17, 1943, at Foulon Cemetery, Guernsey. 

Beneath slate grey skies at Foulon Cemetery, the flag-draped coffins of some 21 Royal Navy sailors and Marines lay waiting for burial. Full military honours will be accorded, of course, despite the ceremony taking place under the auspices of the Nazi German occupiers.

A cavalcade of locals, carrying tokens of mourning, gratitude, and defiance, including a tricoloured array of British flags, filed past the coffins, some 5,000 in total.

Around 900 wreaths were laid at the funeral: enough of an act of defiance against Guernsey’s Nazi occupiers for them to ban further military ceremonies for Allied casualties for the duration of the Second World War.

The interred bodies of those washed ashore on Guernsey were also powerful reminders of resistance: young folk from across the world giving their lives to defeat the Nazi menace.
But who were the British sailors and marines buried that grey November day in Foulon Cemetery? They were the victims of the final voyage of HMS Charybdis.

What was HMS Charybdis?

WW1 war ship HMS Charybdis at sea.

Image: HMS Charybdis at sea (© IWM A 6739)

HMS Charybdis was a Royal Navy Dido-class cruiser in service from September 1940 and October 1943.

Charybdis was built at the Cammell Laird shipyards at Birkenhead, Merseyside, and laid down in November 1939.

She had a sister ship, Scylla, with both ships named for the terrible sea monsters of Ancient Greek myth.

HMS Charybdis in World War Two

Prior to her tragic sinking in October 11943, Charybdis accrued six major battle honours, serving in Malta, North Africa, Salerno, the Atlantic, the English Channel, and the Bay of Biscay.

Upon completion of sea trials, Charybdis was initially assigned to the Home Fleet in December 1941. Soon, Charybdis was working on escort missions in the Mediterranean, operating out of Gibraltar, including the escorting of aircraft carrier USS Wasp as part of Operation Calendar.

A terrific explosion sends seawater high in a huge splash during at an attack on HMS Indomitable.Image: Charybdis screens HMS Indomitable during Operation Pedestal (Wikimedia Commons)

Charybdis was also part of the 15-ship relief convoy known as Operation Pedestal carrying vital supplies to Malta, which was enduring a brutal island siege, in August 1942.

From there, Charybdis took her back to the Atlantic where she undertook operations hunting for German blockade runners. Later, she served in fire support and screening roles during Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria in May 1943.

In September 1943, the Allies launched Operation Avalanche: the invasion of mainland Italy. At Salerno, the key landing zone, Charybdis was part of Force V, the naval component providing cover for the forces assaulting the beach.

While in Italy, Charybdis also carried Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ashore following the Salerno landings.

Charybdis sailed back to Plymouth, UK, following the action in Italy. Her crew were looking forward to a sport of rest and relaxation after a trying few months at sea.

Almost immediately, however, leave was cancelled, and Charybdis was back at sea under the command of former submariner Captain George Voelcker. It was to be her last journey.

Operation Tunnel

For many, the Battle of the Atlantic was the most important theatre of the Second World War.

Transportation of vital supplies, food and equipment across the Atlantic Ocean was essential for the war effort. Without them, there was a real danger Britain could starve and be crippled economically as well as militarily.

WW2 era Royal Navy shops crossing the Atlantic taking from the deck of a Destroyer.

Image: An Atlantic convoy braves rough seas and enemy craft to deliver supplies to the UK (© IWM A 4587)

In the first couple of years of the war, German U-boats stalked the oceans, sinking millions of tons of Allied shipping.

By 1943, however, the battle had swung in the Allies’ favour. Advances in inter-service cooperation between the Royal Navy, Merchant Marine and Air Force, new technology, and the refinement of the convoy system all helped – alongside the introduction of the US Navy to the Atlantic theatre.

The Royal Navy decided to go on the offensive.

Royal Navy Plymouth Command and its Commander-in-Chief Vice-Admiral Ralph Leatham were charged with developing operations to harass German shipping.

Leatham’s solution was Operation Tunnel: a series of offensive sweeps across the western coast of France, targeting shipping in and around the Atlantic Coast and Brittany.

The first such sweep took place in early September 1943, with three more following without incident.

On the night of 3-4 October, several Royal Navy craft clashed with multiple German “Elbing” Class Torpedo Boats. Four more tunnels, as the sweeps were known, followed, with the Royal Navy encountering and engaging more boats.

A problem of the sweeps was that each tunnel used the same tactics with little to no deviation between missions. Soon German Kreigsmarine commanders were able to accurately predict their opponents' movements, something which would have deadly consequences as Operation Tunnel continued.

22 October 1943. British intelligence service had caught wind of the movement of German blockade runner Münsterland. She was steaming out of Brest, Normandy, carrying a cargo packed with latex and important metals.

Bearing in mind the Royal Navy crews were guilty of a lack of adaptation when on Tunnel sweeps, it is very likely Münsterland was simply bait.
Lieutenant Commander Roger Hill, commander of tunnel sweeper HMS Grenville, went as far as suggesting they ignore the German vessel. His words went unheeded.

With Hill overruled, Plymouth Command ordered its ships to put to sea with Münsterland as their target. Charybdis was accompanied by HMS Grenville and Rocket as well as the Hunt-class destroyers Limbourne, Wensleydale, Talybont and Steventstone.

Münsterland herself was accompanied by six German minesweepers, two patrol boats, and five torpedo boats. 

They had been training hard on formations and methods to beat the Plymouth tunnel sweepers, so were well-organised and motivated, even in the face of the Royal Navy’s superior firepower.

The Battle of Sept-Îles

Shortly after midnight on the 22nd, the British ships conducted a radar sweep some 17 miles away from Brittany and the series of rocky reefs and craggy islands called the Sept-Îles.

German radar operators, keenly scanning their readouts, picked up the British pings, carefully tracking their movement, and relaying them to the vessels at sea.

This worrying German radio activity was picked up by the British destroyers and even Plymouth Command itself. Charybdis, for reasons not explained, did not pick them up.

Münsterland was carefully manoeuvred out of the way of its pursuing vessels. Little did they know, but the Royal Navy ships stalking the Sept-Îles were sailing into a trap.

The German torpedo boats lay in wait.

Black and white painting showing two Royal Navy ships driving through hard seas and rain. Great swells wash over each ship with tremendous splashes.

Image: HMS Charybdis (right) and HMS Limbourne (left) in an English Channel gale, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons)

Charybdis spotted them on her own radar and signalled to her escorting destroyers to pick up their pace. Only one craft, Wensleydale, received the instructions and powered ahead, outstripping her fellow destroyers.

The British fleet was now out of formation and lacked cohesion.

As British star shells, air-bursting ordinance that casts a bright light over battlefields, began bursting over their friendly ships, it was too late. German torpedoes began slamming into the British fleet.

But how? Charybdis had spotted the five German torpedo boats on her radar and had been tracking them. However, despite seeing the blips of light on the radar screen, none of the British vessel’s crew had provided visual confirmation of the vessels.

From the Germans' perspective, the British fleet was clearly visible against the night sky. Soon, Charybdis’ silhouette appeared, providing a choice target for the German torpedoes. 

The superior firepower of Charybdis could have caused carnage amongst the German fleet but the element of surprise lay with the Kriegsmarine.

The German commander, Franz Kohlauf, ordered his charges to open fire with 24 torpedoes unleashed on the unsuspecting British ships.

Charybdis’ lookouts spotted the tell-tale white foam tracks skirting through the cold Atlantic waters, but it was too late to change course.

David “Rocky” Royle was aboard Charybdis in its transmitting station when the torpedoes struck, and recorded his experience:

“Suddenly there was a terrific explosion. I left my seat, hit the deckhead and fell back across the table. I did not need to be told we had been torpedoed. All the lights had failed, my earphones were silent and had slipped round my neck. Water was rushing in somewhere and I heard the Bandmaster calling for the emergency lighting This too had failed.”

The Royal Navy vessel was struck full on the port side, causing seawater to surge into its No.2 dynamo room and B boiler room. Electrical circuits were also fried.

Following the impact, Charybdis listed heavily, leaning 20 degrees to port.

The German onslaught continued. Torpedoes narrowly missed Granville and Wensleydale but Charybdis was hit again. 

This time, Charybdis’ aft engine room was struck. Power was completely wiped out at this point and the ship began to roll again.

Just half an hour after the first torpedoes had hit Charybdis, she was sinking. Soon, she was lost beneath the waves, many of her crew consigned to a watery doom. 

Charybdis was not the only Royal Navy vessel to be struck that fateful night. 

HMS Limbourne saw her forward magazine obliterated by a skilful shot from a German torpedo, blowing her bows off, and listing Limbourne dangerously to starboard. Her crew abandoned ship and Limbourne was later scuttled.

The Royal Navy fleet was soon heading for home, this time with Granville at its head. The German force, including the bait vessel Münsterland, returned to harbour intact.

The Battle of Sept-Îles was the final time in the Second World War that a Royal Navy surface attack was defeated by German surface vessels. 

Casualties of HMS Charybdis

Plymouth Naval Memorial silhouetted against a blue sky

Image: Plymouth Naval Memorial where many victims of the sinking are commemorated

HMS Charybdis went down with the loss of over 400 officers and naval ratings of other ranks.

Four officers and 103 ratings survived the sinking. A further 40 men serving aboard HMS Limbourne lost their lives at the Battle of Sept-Îles.

These casualties are commemorated in a mixture of places, as some sailors and officers’ bodies drifted ashore on the Channel Islands or northern France.

Those with no known grave but the sea, whose bodies were never recovered, are commemorated on our various naval memorials:

The majority of the dead from Charibdys are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, some 292 in total

The bodies of others were recovered or washed up on beaches in the Channel Islands and France. Those who went down with Charybdis who have war graves are buried in, amongst others:

Captain George Arthur Wallis Voelcker

Captain George Arthur Voelcker was a career naval man.

George first joined the Royal Navy in 1914, passing out of the Training Establishment at the outbreak of the First World War in August.

Arthur was appointed to the HMS Prince of Wales, a pre-Dreadnought battleship, and served with her during the Gallipoli Landings in April 1915.

He remained aboard Prince of Wales until 1917 when Arthur applied to serve beneath the waves with the Royal Navy’s submarines.

In October 1917, George was assigned to HMS Dolphin for two and a half months, learning the submariner’s trade. For the rest of the First World War, Arthur remained aboard subs.

Following the 1918 Armistice, George elected to stay in the navy. He continued to climb the ranks, gaining promotion to Lieutenant Commander in February 1927, taking command of the submarine L 53.

In 1928, upon the expiration of his command of L 53, George was loaned to serve in the Royal Australian Navy for two years. Upon his return, George once more headed beneath the waves with the submarine service.

By 1933, George had reached Commander rank. Six years later, Arthur was promoted to Captain. 

In October 1943, George was killed alongside more than 80% of his crew when Charybdis was sunk, putting a full stop to the end of a highly successful naval career sadly ended by tragedy.

Captain George Arthur Voelcker is buried at Dinard English Cemetery, France. He was 44 at the time of his death.

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