James and George Murphy – Brothers in the Navy…

Ellen Swatton was my grandfather’s cousin. In February 1908, she married a man from Jersey who had Irish ancestry called Patrick Murphy (I know, how much more Irish can you get!).

Together they had four sons, two of whom, James and George, joined the Royal Navy and served in WW2.

George, born in 1919, was the younger of the two and was the most junior rank of Electrical Artificer when he served aboard HMS Fiji, a light cruiser launched just prior to the war.

HMS Fiji

Fiji was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet commanded by Admiral Andrew Cunningham.

British intelligence received information that the Germans would attack the island of Crete on 17 May and Admiral Cunningham ordered his ships to sea on the 15th. Fiji and the light cruiser Gloucester (designated Force B) were tasked to patrol west of the island. The Germans began landing paratroopers on 20 May when Force B was en route to rendezvous with the battleships Warspite and Valiant and their escorts west of Crete. The ships rendezvoused the following morning and German air attacks began a few hours later. They caused little damage but served to run down the ships’ anti-aircraft ammunition. That afternoon, Cunningham ordered the cruisers to disperse and search for any German troop convoys in the Aegean. The Germans spotted Force B shortly after dawn on 22 May as the cruisers were steaming south to rendezvous with the battleships again and re-commenced air attacks.

By 08:30 that day Fiji was down to only 30% of its anti-aircraft ammunition remaining.

But at 14:02 and 14:07 respectively, Fiji and Gloucester were detached to provide anti-aircraft support for the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston, the two destroyers having already been ordered to rescue the survivors of the destroyer Greyhound, which had been sunk at 13:50.

The Luftwaffe focused its attention on the four ships dispatched to Greyhound and they were under near-constant attack for several hours. By 15:30, Fiji had exhausted its supply of anti-aircraft ammunition but she closed on Gloucester at 15:50, right when that ship was struck by four bombs. Fiji dropped life rafts, but was forced to depart the area with the two destroyers. These ships fought on and shot down one attacker and severely damaged two others. The aerial attacks continued despite the heavy cloud cover; at 19:00 a German fighter bomber struck the Fiji amidships with a bomb. The forward boiler and engine rooms flooded and gave her a severe list. Despite this damage Fiji was able to maintain a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph) until she was hit by another bomb that increased her list to 30 degrees. Abandon ship was ordered in the face of the uncontrollable flooding and she capsized around 19:30. Her accompanying destroyers were unable to rescue any of the crew until after dark when almost all of them who had gone into the sea were recovered.

Sadly, 20 year old George Murphy was killed in the air attacks on his ship, one of 233 men who were killed in the sinking of the Fiji.

On 30 May 1941, in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Cunningham wrote, “The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition, but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes.” Following the loss of both Fiji and Gloucester to air attacks after their anti-aircraft ammunition was exhausted, all British cruisers were instructed to not allow their anti-aircraft ammunition reserves to fall below 40%.

HMS Fiji memorial in Portsmouth Cathedral

James Murphy, the elder brother, was a career sailor, having joined the service in 1928. He was also an Electrical Artificer and, by the middle of the war was a Chief EA aboard HMS Formidable, a 23,000 ton aircraft carrier.

HMS Formidable

At 740ft long and with a crew of 1300, Formidable was one of the biggest ships in the Royal Navy and, crucially as it was to turn out, had an armoured flight deck and hangar whereas the American carriers had wooden flights decks.

Note: the British design took into consideration that their carriers would generally be operating in more restricted sea space such as the North Sean and Mediterranean, therefore generally being within range of heavier land-based aircraft. Hence, they opted for defence and survivability against heavy bombing attacks whereas the Americans, operating mostly in the Pacific, assumed they would generally be under attack mostly from other carrier-based, lighter aircraft and could rely on their own combat air patrols to fend off those attacks.

When James Murphy joined Formidable she was in home waters and shortly afterwards was sent north to Norway to launch air attacks on the Tirpitz, at anchor in a remote Norwegian fjord. Formidable, in conjunction with Furious and Indefatigable launched three separate attacks on the huge German battleship but failed to inflict and serious damage. These attacks convinced the British to turn over future attacks on the Tirpitz to the RAF’s heavy bombers.

Meanwhile, Formidable was sent to the other side of the world to join the British Pacific Fleet. She arrived off the Sakishima Islands on 4th April 1945 and took part in operations to neutralise airfields on the islands as part of the preparation for landings on Okinawa.

The crowded flight deck of Formidable in November 1944

After refuelling and re-arming in the Philippines the fleet returned to operations of the Sakishima Islands on 4th May. Vice-Admiral Rawlings, in command, detached his battleships away to bombard the islands thus removing the best anti-aircraft defence the carriers had and the Japanese sought to exploit this weakness.

At 11.31 on the morning of 4th May a Japanese zero fighter armed with a 500lb bomb on a Kamikaze mission got through the air defences and slammed into the flight deck of Formidable.

The detonation of the bomb and impact of the place caused a big dent in the armoured flight deck, twenty feet wide and two feet deep and the fireball on deck killed two men and wounded 55 other crewmen. However, the fires on the flight deck and in the hangar were extinguished by 11:55, and seven Avengers and a Corsair which were damaged beyond repair were dumped over the side. By 5pm that day the ship was once again fully operational. Air operations continued the following day then the carriers were withdrawn to refuel. Three days later on 8th May they were back on station continuing air operations. But the following day, 9th May Formidable was struck again by another Kamikaze attack. Pilot, Yoshinari Kurose, penetrated the combat air patrol at low altitude and crashed his plane into Formidable’s flight deck and deck park at 17:05. The impact did little damage to the ship, but caused an explosion and large fire that destroyed 18 of her aircraft. One crewman, Petty Officer George Hinkins, was killed and four were wounded but the carrier was able to resume flight operations just fifty minutes later.

Formidable immediately after being hit by a Kamikaze – May 1945
Clearing up the flight deck after the Kamikaze attack

After refitting in Sydney, Formidable with the rest of the British Pacific Fleet joined forces with the US Third Fleet to carry out operations off Osaka in the last two weeks of July. The fleet had been scheduled to withdraw after 10th August to prepare for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November, and the bulk of the force, including Formidable, departed for Papua New Guinea on 12 August. The Japanese surrender a few days later ended the war.

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