HMS Latona was an Abdiel-class minelaying cruiser, one of the most modern ships in the Royal Navy. She was only commissioned in April 1941 and spent her short service life entirely on assignment to the Mediterranean, where the Abdiel-class acted in a variety of roles, often as fast transports to supply the besieged port of Tobruk, and the island of Malta. (HMS Latona history)
HMS Latona in port. IWM FL 14541
The Loss of HMS Latona, 25 Oct 1941
On 25 October, as part of Operation CULTIVATE, a series of troop transport movements to replace the Australian garrison of Tobruk, HMS Latona, escorted by destroyers HMS Encounter, HMS Hero and HMS Hotspur, departed Alexandria with stores and 38 army personnel on board for the tenth and final movement under CULTIVATE, and her thirteenth run to Tobruk.
On her return HMS Latona was to bring out the last Australian troops in Tobruk, about 1,000 men, mostly the infantry men of 2/13 Battalion who had been assembled at the port for a night-time embarkation. Following her sinking however, the lift of this unit was cancelled and they remained as the only Australian contingent in Tobruk, contributing greatly to the fighting in the breakout salient at the end of November. They finally left the fortress by the land route. As the text below indicates, the men were not entirely pleased about this.
Poem/lyrics by Mat. Kirby, 14 Platoon, “C” Company, 2/13 Australian Infantry Battalion, December 1941. AWM52/8/13/32
Moving from Alexandria to Tobruk along the coast under fighter cover (22 sorties were reported, but no interceptions were made), HMS Latona and her consorts reached a location north of Bardia by the afternoon of the 25th October, when the vessels were spotted by an Axis aircraft. It was a beautiful day at sea, calm and visibility about 30 miles. When darkness fell the fighters disappeared, but it brought no protection as the moon was almost in its first quarter.
At 18.55 hours HMS Latona’s radar detected airplanes, and within minutes the first attack, delivered by 10 Stukas from I./StG1 and three SM.79 of 279a Squadriglia A.S., a specialized torpedo bomber unit based in Derna, went in. From then on HMS Latona and her consorts received almost constant attacks, at 19.09, 19.25, 19.30 and 19.47 hours. She engaged the attackers with circling barrages fired from her twin 4” dual-purpose turrets, a fact noted by a German observer (see below). At 20.00 hours radar picked up a number of aircraft circling the Royal Navy vessels, and at 20.08 another attack struck. Almost immediately HMS Latona received a crippling hit, leaving her without power, electricity, and on fire. Her damage control office and equipment had been wrecked, and the fire threatened the ammunition stores.
The German and Italian attackers reported night fighters, and a further 8 sorties were reported by No. 204 Group, some in response to a help request by HMS Latona, but no interceptions were made.
While efforts were made by her crew to rescue her she ended up under further air attacks and HMS Hero was near-missed, leaving her with structural and damage to her steering gear and only able to proceed at reduced speed. Ultimately the futility of the effort was accepted and the order to abandon ship was given. Before HMS Encounter could scuttle her with a torpedo, she slid under the waves.
The initial reports by the German command in the Mediterranean, the 10th Air Corps (10. Flieger Korps) are below.
German attack operations: At 16.00 hours two bombers attacked two enemy destroyers 25 miles north-borth-west of Mersa Matruh without success.
From 19.10 to 22.30 hours 10 Stukas in two waves were tasked for an attack on a heavy cruiser and three destroyers east-north-east of Bardia. At 20.10 hours they achieved a hit with SD500 on the stern of the cruiser and at 20.45 hours another hit with SD500 amidships. Crews observed fires after the first hit, several explosions after the second. Around 22.30 hours the cruiser sank.
Italian attack operations:
At 19.40 hours two torpedo bombers attacked the naval formation northwest of Ras Azzaz. One cruiser was hit by an aerial torpedo. The same cruiser was later attacked and sunk by German dive bombers.
The Italian report in the war diary of the 5th Air Command (5a Squadra), the Italian operational air command for North Africa, went into considerable detail for the actions of the Italian torpedo bombers.
3 S.79 torpedo bombers of 279th Squadron, taking off at 18.10 hours for armed reconnaissance, saw at 19.40 hours an enemy formation consisting of two destroyers and two cruiser ca. 20km north-west of Ras Azzaz,navigating at a speed of 26 knots on a course of 270 degrees. The formation was attacked between 19.40 and 19.45 hours. The plane commanded by Lt. Aligi Strani launched a torpedo which certainly hit a cruiser, causing a violent explosion noted by all members of the crew. The plane commanded by Lt. Guglielmo Ranieri launched a torpedo against the other cruiser, without being able to ascertain the result. The plane commanded by Captain Giulio Marini did not attack because it did not see the enemy vessels. The anti-air reaction was violent and night fighters were over the target. The first two planes returned at 21.05 and 21.10 hours respectively, while the plane of Capt. Marini returned at 22.00 hours with its torpedo.
A SM.79 torpedo bomber being prepared for a mission. Unknown unit or location. Wikipedia.
The following document is a monthly report to the High Command of the German Air Force (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe), which tracked enemy shipping losses to air attack. HMS Latona was the only such loss in October 1941, and her identity was not clear.
Sunk and damaged war ships in the Mediterranean, Month of October 1941
Date and Time: 25/10/41 1910-2230 hours
Unit: I./Stuka 1
Type of vessel: heavy cruiser of London class or auxiliary cruiser of 7-12,000 tons
Reporting station: X. Flieger Korps
Type of damage: 2x SD500 bombs
Location: North-east Bardia
First wave 10 Ju 87. At 20.10 hours direct hit of one SD500 on stern. Ship on fire. Second wave 4 Ju 87. At 20.45 hours direct hit of one SD500 amidships. Following second hit several explosions, cruiser sank at 22.30 hours.
1. Description of vessel by X. Flg. K.:
Three funnels same height, central funnel stronger. 2 masts, large superstructure ahead of or on the forward mast.
Based on this: heavy cruiser of London-class.
2. Description by submarine captain:
Unit with 3 straight and same height funnels, medium strength. Camouflage not excluded. High superstructures, no gun turrets, 2 straight masts. Heavy AA defense from bow and stern.
Based on this: auxiliary cruiser of 7-12,000 tons.
Submarine captain also noted:
During the fire continuous explosions of ammunition of varying calibers. Crew was apparently taken off by one of the destroyers. Sinking after prolonged fire witnessed without any doubts.
The official account of HMS Latona’s loss has some discrepancies with the events as described by eyewitnesses in “Very Special Ships”, and interestingly also underestimate the size of the ordnance that sank HMS Latona by a factor of more than four.
M I S C E L L A N E O U S S H I P S – 1941
SHIP LATONA (Fast Minelayer)
DATE OF INCIDENT 25th Oct, 1941
NATURE OF ATTACK i) One Direct Hit 250 lbs, delay action fuzed Bomb. (ii) Torpedo fired by own forces
TIME OUT OF ACTION Sunk
BRIEF ACCOUNT OF DAMAGE AND LESSONS LEARNED
LATONA was on passage to Tobruk at 26 knots when enemy aircraft attacked and one bomb passed through the port side and burst in the engine room. A serious fire broke out amongst the cargo of munitions and in the engine room. The firemain was cut and out of action, *Y’ gun and pom-pom were also out of action. A heavy explosion aft caused the fire to spread.
LATONA was abandoned and sunk by own forces.
Eyewitness account of HMS Latona’s sinking.
A very good history of the class has recently been published by Arthur Nicholson, and I would highly recommend it. (Book Review – Very special ships).
 Some sources claim that HMS Latona carried 1,000 Polish soldiers on this mission, but this is incorrect.
 I am grateful to Andy Mitchell for providing me with the document.
 App. 17 Situation Report 778 and App. 18 Situation report 788, T77R927, TSAMO – German Docs in Russia collection.
 County class.
 Showing the difficulty of assessing ship sizes. HMS Latona was 3,780tons displacement in deep condition, with a length of 417ft. A London-class cruiser came in at 14,150 tons at full load and had a length of 630ft overall.
 I am again very grateful to Andy Mitchell for providing me with the information.