26th May 1941
This day, 26th May, 70 years ago was a critical one in the hard struggle of the forces of the British Empire to hold out, then alone, against the combined might of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. If two key events and one important command decision had gone differently that day, then the war would have followed a very different course.
The German battleship Bismarck, after sinking HMS Hood with the loss of 1,415 RN sailors, had slipped away from pursuing forces of the Home Fleet. At 1030 hrs on 26th May a British Catalina sighted Bismarck 690 miles WNW of Brest, then a torpedo strike by Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal, of Force H from Gibraltar, at 2100 hrs jammed Bismarck's rudder and ensured that Home Fleet ships found and sunk her next day.
No Orcadians lost their lives in the hunt for the Bismarck, but most of the ships that completed it successfully sailed from the Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow.
After a week of desperate close quarter fighting, on 26th May German paratroopers and mountain troops broke the Allied front at Canea in northern Crete. Despite the loss of two RN cruisers, Gloucester and Fiji, on the 22nd to German air attack while opposing their sea landings, C-in-C Mediterranean Admiral Cunningham decided the Navy could not let the Army down and committed his ships to evacuate in the days that followed most of the Allied garrison.
British commandos and remains of New Zealand and Australian units covered a retreat to Crete's southern shore at Sphakia. Royal Navy ships brought 16,500 soldiers safely back to Alexandria in Egypt, but the cruiser HMS Calcutta was sunk within a hundred miles of there on 1st June. Her loss with that of six destroyers took naval casualties to nearly 2,000, while about 13,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded and taken prisoner on Crete.
109 of the crew of HMS Calcutta went down with the ship, including Orcadian James Chalmers, while 7 of the 255 rescued by HMS Coventry died of wounds in the next week. James Chalmers is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial in Hampshire and on the Stromness War Memorial in Orkney.
John Berston survived the fighting in Crete as a Bofors gunner in 129 LAA Battery RA, only to be taken prisoner at Sphakia. John died of diphtheria in a PoW Camp in Poland on 21st October 1941. He is buried in Krakow Rakowicki Cemetery and his name was added to South Ronaldsay Memorial in Orkney last September.