Collision between HMSs Gambia and Phoebe

Collision with HMS Phoebe (2)

HMS Liverpool taking station to the starboard of Gambia

HMS Liverpool taking station to the starboard of Gambia
One of John Birch's photographs

What happened next is a bit confusing. Either Phoebe misjudged the how far she was ahead of Gambia and steered to port which caused her stern to move to starboard, towards Gambia OR Gambia was caught in Phoebe's bow wave and swung to port OR Gambia steered to port.

Whatever happened, the stern of Phoebe collided Gambia about 20 feet back from Gambia's bow. The ships began to slew around and the Gambia's bow hit Phoebe a little forward of her stern, the momentum of the ships caused them to both start to roll and crewmen were knocked off their feet. By now Liverpool was in danger of colliding with Gambia. Phoebe then steered to starboard and increased speed to full ahead to clear her stern away from Gambia. While doing this she had to pass in front of both Gambia and Liverpool. Don Cruikshank says that both Gambia and Liverpool ordered full astern  then opened the boiler safety valves, but he was on Euryalus and several people have emailed to say that they didn't. Nobody was in the jackstays at the time but the stores that were being transferred went into the sea. The fuel line between Gambia and Liverpool parted and Liverpool was sprayed with bunker oil. Don Cruickshank was Midshipman of the Watch on Euryalus and said that "it became inevitable that a collision would occur. Indeed it looked as though three quarters of the Second [First?] Cruiser Squadron might well go to the bottom that afternoon."

In his article Don said that he was in the Second Cruiser Squadron on HMS Euryalus, but Gambia, Liverpool and Phoebe were all in the First Cruiser Squadron.

Gambia's bow collided with Phoebe's stern and the damage to both ships was extensive. Liverpool managed to barely able to squeeze between the two just after. Don said that "They must have been incredibly fast in their engine rooms to have reacted so quickly."

The scene from Phoebe's flag deck shortly after the collision

The scene from Phoebe's flag deck shortly after the collision.
Gambia astern of Phoebe, with Liverpool approaching from starboard with the apparent intention of ramming Gambia!
Photo by Telegraphist Les Jefferies using Geoff's Box Brownie camera, kindly sent to me by Geoff Flewitt

Phoebe from Gambia shortly after the collision

One of John Birch's photographs taken just after the collision.
John was port side bofors gun deck, just below the flag deck of HMS Gambia
John wrote that "You will see by Phoebe's extended wake, that she was running around like a "chook" with its head cut off!!!"
(A chook is a chicken)

Gambia's port bow was damaged below the water line which produced flooding in some forward compartments and some bulkheads had to be shored. John Birch was aboard Gambia and said that "The ship was placed in a relaxed state of damage control, 'X' doors and hatches were closed and the manhole covers to the lower deck were opened. Since the incident took place during the dinner hour mess decks were crowded. People in the forward lower mess deck must have thought that the world had come to an end."

The blades from Phoebe's outer starboard propeller were ripped off leaving the hub on the shaft which was buckled all the way to the engine room.

The squadron made its way back to Grand Harbour, Malta and arrived there early the next morning. On Monday 23rd October Gambia went into Number 5 Dry dock, where she stayed until the 17th November. Sailing on the 20th November to anchor in St. Paul's Bay to paint ship for three days.

Phoebe was refitted in Malta. She spent Christmas there and sailed for home, the damaged shaft secured to her deck, to arrive in Chatham on 14th March 1951 at the end of her foreign commission and put into reserve.

Damage to HMS Gambia after collision with HMS Pheobe

Damage to HMS Gambia's bows after the collision with HMS Phoebe during exercises off of Malta ~ 1950

I should imagine that like the Army, the Navy doesn't like having its goods and chattels damaged. I expect there was a lot of form filling and gnashing of teeth over this incident.

Damage to HMS Gambia after collision with HMS Pheobe

Damage to HMS Gambia's bows after the collision with HMS Phoebe

Damage to HMS Gambia after collision with HMS Pheobe

Damage to HMS Gambia's bows after the collision with HMS Phoebe
One of Steve McAllister's photographs

In November 2002, Ken "General" Booth sent me some more details on this collision. This comes from his 1950 diary...

Monday 16th October, at sea with the 1st Cruiser squadron and 1st Destroyer flotilla. At approx. 11.30, Phoebe was passing up the Port side when she came in too close and damaged our bows by cutting gouges in it with her propeller. This took place in the Eastern Med. We broke off the Exercise and proceeded to Malta, where we arrived the next morning at 07.00. On Monday 23rd October we went into Number 5 Dry dock, where we stayed until the 17th November. Sailing on the 20th to anchor in St. Paul's Bay to paint ship for three days. Phoebe was due for return to the UK but had to remain in Gibraltar for repairs to her propeller, they were not best pleased with Gambia!!

Ken also very kindly sent me the following photograph of the damage to HMS Gambia.

Damage to HMS Gambia's bows after the collision with HMS Phoebe

Damage to HMS Gambia's bows after the collision with HMS Phoebe
One of Ken Booth's photographs

In August 2003, Geoff Flewitt sent me the following ...

NB. Where Geoff says "you" he's referring the notes that Ken Booth emailed me and which I put on the page.

The date of the incident is about the only thing on which you and I agree!!
You say that "at approx 1130 Phoebe was passing up the port side when she came in too close and damaged our bows by cutting gouges in it with her propeller". In fact, Phoebe and Gambia had just successfully completed a jackstay transfer, Gambia having come out from Malta - bringing mail - to rendezvous with the rest of the squadron; the purpose of the rendezvous as I remember it was to facilitate the taking of an aerial photo of the 1st CS for that year's Christmas card. The transfer was effected with both ships at 14 knots, and on completion Phoebe increased to 16 knots, to make way for Euryalus to carry out her jackstay transfer. Before Phoebe was clear of Gambia, the latter turned to port, and raked the starboard quarter of Phoebe with her port bow. Phoebe was dry-docked on arrival in Grand Harbour, and we were able to see that the starboard outer screw had just three stumps around the hub where the blades had been! The attached photo (above) was taken from Phoebe's flag deck just after the collision, and shows Gambia astern of Phoebe, with Liverpool approaching from starboard with the apparent intention of ramming Gambia!! Fortunately Liverpool was able to pass between the other two, albeit with not much room to spare! You say the the incident took place in the Eastern Med; as we were all in Grand Harbour the following morning, we could not have been very far east. Further, you state that "Phoebe was due for return to the UK, but had to remain in Gib for repairs to her propeller". Phoebe was actually due home by March `51 at the end of her foreign commission, and did indeed arrive in Chatham 14th march `51. She did not see Gib until on passage home. The starboard outer shaft had been put out of alignment by the collision, and the upshot of this was that it was decided to refit Phoebe in Malta (we spent Xmas in dry dock, where else would you rather be!!), then send her home and put her into reserve. She sailed home with the damaged shaft secured on the upper deck. I was a telegraphist aboard Phoebe, the photo was taken by one of my messmates (Tel Les Jefferies) with my good old Brownie Box camera!

Whilst researching the accident I came across the following article by Don Cruikshank at the Marine Studies and Information newsgroup, dated 23rd September 2000 ...

NB. Don seems to have confused Gambia and Phoebe in this account. Everyone else agrees that Gambia was in the centre, Liverpool to starboard and Phoebe was to port. Gambia suffered damage to her bow and Phoebe to her stern and propeller and shaft. Don also says the accident occurred on Sunday, but other people insist it was a Monday. Despite these inaccuracies, the article still helps to illustrate what happened that day.

A brief account of an notable collision between two warships in the Mediterranean in 1950.

I was serving in the Second Cruiser Squadron of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet as a Midshipman aboard H.M.S. Euryalus. The squadron comprised four cruisers, HMS Liverpool (the flagship with an admiral aboard), HMS Phoebe, HMS Gambia and ourselves. We were at sea on a fine sunny Sunday afternoon in company with a number of escorting destroyers. A replenishment exercise was under way in which only the other three cruisers were directly involved; Euryalus had been ordered to take station three and a half cables astern. My duty as Midshipman of the Watch on the bridge was to squint into the rangefinder and keep us on station by adjusting our rpm fractionally up or down as required.

The three cruisers taking part were to rig jackstays to exchange mail, personnel, stores and ammunition and to connect hoses to transfer oil fuel back and forth between them. They were steaming at 18 knots, with Liverpool to starboard, Phoebe in the centre and Gambia on the port side. This type of exercise was undertaken routinely to keep all the crews familiar with the operations involved. The three ships took station and established a flow of oil and goods satisfactorily. Gambia completed the required transfers first, disconnected, retrieved all her gear and increased rpm to clear ahead. Liverpool and Phoebe were still connected and exchanging goods and fuel.

As Gambia went ahead the forward part of her hull cleared the effect of Phoebe's bow wave and the ship's head started to swing to starboard. A bit of port helm was applied to correct this swing. Her stern, alas, drifted perilously close to Phoebe's bow, requiring a sharp correction to starboard to prevent the starboard outer propeller from opening Phoebe like an oversized can opener. At this point things started happening fast and silence fell on the bridge of my ship as we watched with fearful anticipation.

With the application of starboard wheel Gambia's head passed through the exercise course and again swung into the path of the still connected cruisers. Faced with the need for an immediate decision, Gambia ordered full ahead (that's navy for emergency power) and hard to starboard in an effort to pass ahead of Phoebe and Liverpool. From our vantage point it was clearly impossible for her to make it across. A serious accident was about to happen, and it did.

Seeing Gambia's plight, both Phoebe and Liverpool went full astern (emergency power again). Happily there was nobody on the personnel jackstay at the time, as stores cascaded into the water, fuelling hoses parted and black bunker oil sprayed over the side and superstructure of the the flagship, Liverpool. Both Phoebe and Liverpool lifted their boiler-room safety valves and a scene of devastation unfolded before us. Time seemed to stand still from the moment at which it became inevitable that a collision would occur. Indeed it looked as though three quarters of the Second Cruiser Squadron might well go to the bottom that afternoon.

When Phoebe plowed into Gambia's quarterdeck the noise was horrific. Still not a word was spoken as our Captain, Commander and Officer of the Watch stood with binoculars trained on the scene. Miraculously, and to this day I don't know how they did it, Liverpool managed to slow and swing clear without direct involvement in the actual collision. They must have been incredibly fast in their engine rooms to have reacted so quickly. Equally amazing was the merciful fact that nobody was seriously hurt in what could easily have been a most costly incident in human terms.

The damage to H.M.S. Gambia was extensive, both starboard shafts buckled with consequences all the way to the engine rooms, and the ship was retired from service. Phoebe's bow was rebuilt and she returned to service for a short while before also being consigned to the scrapyard. I was back in college again when the courts martial rendered their decisions and apportioned responsibility for the fiasco, but I'm sure one or more officers' careers took abrupt turns for the worse as a result.

Being from the engineering fraternity myself I heard little of the fallout from this accident though I have always assumed that the ship handlers of the future must have had this incident dissected in some detail for them countless times to ensure that the lessons associated with bow wave pressure effects were learned in the classroom rather than via the more expensive school of hard knocks.

John Birch was an Able Seaman on Gambia at the time of the collision, on the HMS Gambia Association web site he wrote ...

I would like to add my memories of the incident. It took place during the first hour of the afternoon watch, I was on the fo'c'sle at the time. Gambia was steaming a fixed course and speed, transferring oil fuel to Liverpool from the starboard side; Phoebe was on the port side receiving a transfer by Jackstay.
On completion of the transfer, Phoebe gathered speed and proceeded to steam ahead but her stern swung to starboard and came into contact with Gambia's port bow. The finding of the enquiry are unknown to me but, on reflection, I assume that someone on Phoebe's bridge misjudged the distance that they were ahead and executed a turn to port, which would explain the swinging stern. The resulting damage was rather more than a "bent bow", as reported in the Times of Malta. It was quite extensive below the waterline, as the attached photographs illustrate. Flooding took place in some forward compartments and bulkheads had to be shored. Gambia proceeded at reduced speed to Malta and dry dock. The ship was in a relaxed state of damage control 'X' doors and hatches being closed, manhole covers to the lower deck were open. Since the incident took place during the dinner hour mess decks were crowded. People in the forward lower mess deck must have thought that the world had come to an end.
Note! The rum was stored aft and perfectly safe.

John Harris was on HMS Gambia at the time, he writes ...

I was up on the Port Wing of the Gambia's bridge on the Bofor gun deck taking a break, looking right down on the action watching the transfer of mail to the Phoebe. When the transfer was completed the Phoebe began to draw away however her stern began to slide in towards us, the swinging stern (propeller) caught us in the lower under water portion of the Port bow back from the bow about 20ft, the Upper Starboard Quarter whacked us right on the bow and stem. The whole forward portion of the ship (Gambia) jumped and juddered with the rotation of the Phoebe's props, the Gambia's bow contacted the Phoebe's Port Quarter and began to push the Phoebe and ride her over about midway along her Quarterdeck the whole ship began to rollover crew members on the deck began to slide down the deck however she was going hard over to Starboard and moving the ship manage to tear and slew out from under us, whipped about a bit and cleared herself. As for the Liverpool she was almost up against us with her bow off the Starboard Waists, Mountbatten was standing up on the rim of the Liverpool's bridge giving directions or asking what was going on, I unfortunately cannot remember what he said.

John adds ...

Standard procedure if I remember my Seamanship was for the ship doing the transferring of cargo, mail, oil or whatever was to maintain course and speed at all times whilst performing the function. All ships to have completed receiving and moved out of maneuvering area of delivering ship before she altered course or speed.

John Harris, Christmas 1950

John Harris, Christmas 1950, extracted from the photo on the Gambia crew pages

My thanks once again to Bernard Mouzer OBE RVM, John Birch, Ken Booth, Don Cruikshank, Geoff Flewitt, John Harris, Bill Hartland, Les Jefferies, Steve McAllister and Roy Pavely who both knowingly and unknowingly contributed to this page.

I'm sorry to say that I was informed by his granddaughter, Clare, that Geoff Flewitt died in February 2006.

Websites about this incident :-

HMS Gambia Association - Run by Bill Hartland and containing the article by John Birch
Marine Studies and Information - The article by Don Cruikshank

If anyone has any comments about this incident, or my interpretation of it, please email me. I'd be especially interested in learning about the Court of Inquiry findings or any photographs of the damage to HMS Phoebe. My email address is

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This page created 15th November 2002, last modified 19th February 2006