If you were walking along Southsea seafront on the afternoon of July 9, 1940, you might have heard a commotion out to sea and looked towards the Nab Tower.
On the horizon, the funnels of minesweeping trawlers appeared escorted by HMS Foxglove, a Portsmouth-based minesweeping sloop.
The ship’s company was tired. They had been working non-stop off the beaches of Dunkirk.
Foxglove was the oldest serving ship in the Royal Navy – 25 years. Almost every one of the men was believed to be a Portsmouth rating.
As she headed around the eastern tip of the Isle of Wight, the look-outs could see people strolling along Southsea seafront.
Suddenly, with the ship so close to home there was an urgent shout: ‘Aircraft on the starboard beam.’
Foxglove’s commander, Captain Bell, spotted a single yellow plane. At first he thought it was a Fleet Air Arm trainer. Then Bell saw black crosses on the wings. He gave the order to open fire. There were now eight attackers with three JU87 dive bombers aiming their bombs directly at Foxglove. ‘For Christ’s sake fire,’ ordered Captain Bell to his machine gunner.
‘Can’t sir,’ the gunner replied, ‘gun will not bear.’
Captain Bell was hit by shrapnel. In his report he said: ‘Blood poured down my cheek which was rather cooling and brought me to my senses.
‘The ship quivered and shook as four explosions shook her, tearing out her entrails. I could feel a list and had the uneasy feeling the ship was about to sink.’
Captain Bell saw blood seeping from his gunner’s thigh. He seized the gun but found the man was right – he could not bring it to bear. He wrote: ‘If I had had a rifle I could have shot the pilot easily.’
Flames burned amidships. In the wheelhouse Bell found five motionless men who gradually came round. ‘Shall we abandon ship?’ asked one. Bell said he wanted to get the wounded off first.
The yeoman in the wheelhouse had been killed and the ship was motionless. The roar of escaping steam was fading and above the low crackling of flames a sweet voice could be heard. ‘Somewhere over the rainbow...’ A wireless had survived. It was the voice of Judy Garland.
Captain Bell entered the wrecked wireless office. At the telegraph key the young operator lay slumped, killed as he sent a report.
Another telegraphist was still able to work and Bell ordered him to get a message through for a tug. But it was hopeless. ‘Aerials are gone and the gear is smashed sir,’ he replied.
As Bell left the office he met a chief petty officer. He was dirty, oil-spattered and looked grim. ‘Any chance of getting us on the move chief?’ asked Bell.
‘Not a hope sir. The main steam pipe has gone. The number two boiler room and engine room are finished. There’s no power, the ship is holed and taking in water fast.’
Bell replied: ‘I think the old girl will float for a while longer chief, but we seem to have overdone it this time, eh?’
Reaching the quarterdeck Bell was cheered to see some of his company standing.
All were wounded but stood at their posts by machine guns.
The trawler Avalanche arrived from Portsmouth Harbour. The walking wounded were ordered to take doors off their hinges to use as stretchers.
Taken in tow at last, Foxglove slowly moved towards the harbour and Bell looked across from the bridge to see familiar hotels, the piers and the Common.
When she arrived alongside more of her company were dead than alive.
HMS Foxglove later served as harbour guardship at Londonderry and was scrapped in 1946.