Given that for hundreds of years Portsmouth has been the historic home of the Royal Navy, and the largest Naval Base in Britain, its not surprising that by far the most men from Portsmouth who died in the Second World War were serving with the Royal Navy.
1,291 naval officers and ratings from Portsmouth were killed between September 1939 and December 1947. This represents just over 50% of all Portsmouth servicemen who were killed during the war.
The nature of the Royal Navy in the Second World War warrants a mention. Particular naval ships were manned by men from one of the three manning ports – either Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham. Hence specific ships contained men mainly from one of these ports, although there were small exceptions. Terms of service were also relatively long, so men who joined the Navy who originally came from elsewhere in the country were likely to move to Portsmouth – particularly men who might rise up the ranks.
Due to the nature of naval warfare, many sailors who were killed in the war were lost at sea – almost 76% of them, in fact. 806 of the men are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, 86 on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and 65 on the Chatham Memorial. In addition 24 men of the Fleet Air Arm are remembered on the naval memorial at Lee-on-the-Solent.
The biggest single losses were sustained when the Battleships HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham were sunk. 66 Portsmouth sailors were killed when HMS Royal Oak was sunk on 14 October 1939. A total of 833 men were killed, and 386 survived. 98 men were lost when HMS Hood was sunk by the Bismarck on 24 May 1941. Out of a crew of 1,418 only three men survived. And 54 men were killed when HMS Barham was sunk in the Mediterranean on 25 November 1941. 861 men were lost on the Barham.
Other significant losses were suffered with the sinkings of HMS Acheron (Destroyer), HMS Cossack (Destroyer), HMS Culver (lend-lease coastguard cutter), HMS Daring (Destroyer), HMS Dunedin (Cruiser), HMS Eagle (Aircraft Carrier), HMS Fidelity (Special Service vessel), HMS Fiji (Cruiser), HMS Glorious (Aircraft Carrier), HMS Glowworm (Destroyer) and HMS Penelope (Cruiser).
112 men (8.68%) died whilst serving in Submarines, 28 (2.17%) in the Fleet Air Arm, 15 men (1.16%) were serving with the Royal Naval Patrol Service, 12 men (0.93%) in Coastal Forces, and 5 men died (0.39%) whilst crewing Landing Craft. 9 women also died during the war whilst serving with the Womens Royal Naval Service, 0.7% of all Portsmouth’s naval fatalities.
98 men (7.6%) died whilst serving at shore bases local to Portsmouth – HMS Victory, HMS Vernon and HMS Excellent. Many of these were older men serving in administration and support services, and seem to have died of natural causes -this suggests just how many men were required to keep the Royal Navy running. Although they did not die in action, their contribution to the war effort should be remembered.
The amount of men who died in each year reflect the wider activities and losses of the Royal Navy during the war:
74 men were killed in 1939 (5.73%)
319 in 1940 (24.71%)
329 in 1941 (25.48%)
205 in 1942 (15.88%)
149 in 1943 (11.54%)
112 in 1944 (8.68%)
65 in 1945 (5.03%)
45 in 1946 (3.49%)
35 in 1947 (2.71%)
The heavy losses in 1941 – and to a lesser extent 1942 – reflect the sinkings of not only HMS Hood and HMS Barham, but the Battle of the Atlantic. That 80 men (6.2%) died after the end of the war is significant, and suggests how many men were still in uniform for several years after the war ended.
The ages of Naval servicemen are also interesting to look at. 5 were Boy Seamen aged 16. 6 were aged 17,
23 aged 18, and 36 were 19. 422 men were in their 20’s, 407 in their 30’s, 211 in their 40’s, 72 in their 50’s and 17 were 60 or over. 83 men’s ages are as yet unknown. Their age groups are interesting. While most sailors were in their 20’s, a significant proportion of men were in their 30’s and 40’s. This shows how many Portsmouth sailors had served for a long-time, and also how long serving sailors very often ended up living in Portsmouth. Whilst we tend to think of men who died in the war as ‘young’, many of these older men would have left young families behind them.
In part 2 of my look at Royal Navy losses, I will examine ranks, areas of Portsmouth that they came from, and medals.