Battle of Crete veteran, 99, honours comrades
Last known survivor travels to UK memorial
A 99-year-old Grey High School alumnus who is the only living survivor from a World War 2 warship which was sunk in a 1941 battle will this month pay homage to his fellow servicemen who died on that fateful day in May.
May 22 marks the day in 1941 when 722 men out of a crew of 807 on board the HMS Gloucester died when the Royal Navy cruiser was sunk in what has become known as the Battle of Crete.
Port Elizabeth-born Mel Baker is one of the 85 men who survived the devastating bombing, when Nazi Germany began an airborne invasion of Crete during World War 2.
Clinging on to rafts, they spent an entire night in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea before being rescued.
Today, Baker, from Bedford, is the only known survivor still alive.
Speaking from his sister’s home at the Fairhaven retirement village on Friday, Baker’s eyes lit up as he remembered the dramatic events of 78 years ago – when he was just 21 years old.
“I can assure you his age is nothing but a number,” Baker’s brother-in-law, Chris Rhodes, said. “It’s like he’s 66, not 99.”
Baker said the experience was still fresh in his mind.
“We would never have survived if the Germans had not picked us up – none of us would’ve made it,” he said, deep in thought.
“There was no way we could get to any land.
“No way – especially on a raft.”
Baker, who matriculated at Grey High School in 1936, said he had joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1939, just a few months before he would be called up for peacetime training.
“There was a random callup for peacetime army training in 1939 and I was determined not to go into the army.
“The last thing I wanted to do was to march all around the place, carrying a rifle,” he said.
“So I volunteered for the navy – then it was called the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. “I started training on July 1.” In September of that year, Britain declared war on Germany. South Africa would join the British war effort three months later, in December 1939.
“But being the last intake, we were not called up for full service immediately.
“People who had received training were the first to be called up.
“We were only eventually called up on March 1 1940,” Baker said.
“And after a month in PE in so-called training – we weren’t trained for anything really – we went down to Simonstown and were seconded to British ships because South Africa had no navy of its own.”
He said the journey to the Mediterranean Sea on board the HMS Gloucester had commenced in May1940.
“And just after a year there – on May 22 1941 – we were sunk.”
Baker continued, at times closing his eyes as he recalled the historic event.“When we were sunk, unfortunately for us, the bombs that hit the ship destroyed the vessel and there was no boat that floated.“And most of our floats were damaged as well so we virtually had nothing to hold on to in the water,” he said.“Fortunately, another cruiser, the HMS Fiji, dropped some of her rafts and eventually I was able to hang on to a raft and, ultimately, in the night, I was able to climb onto it.”Baker said of a crew consisting of 805 men, a staggering 722 had died.“Eighty-five of us survived, 83 got home while two died in the . . . camp.“And of those 85, I’m the last survivor.“What went through my mind for half the night [was that] I was quite convinced that the destroyers would come back and pick us up, but for the first time in the history of the Royal Navy it didn’t happen. “They left us,” he said. “We would never have survived if the Germans had not picked us up.”Baker said they were subsequently put in transit camps.“We started off from Kythira and they took us to the mainland in Greece, and from there they put us on a train.“There were 57 of us in a small space for four days and nights.“They just gave each of us three of those army-type biscuits, a bun of bread about the size of my fist, and a little tiny tin of some kind of bully beef – that was our food for three days, when the train actually took four days.“They made no provision for water, no provision for anything else – that was it,” he recalled.Baker said there had been a lot of interest in his story.“And it’s really a long story – I made a 2½-hour tape that was recorded for the Imperial War Museum in London and have also had an interview with the BBC.”On Saturday he is travelling to Plymouth, where there is a war memorial, to commemorate the events of May 22 1941.“The service is held every year, usually the Sunday nearest to May 22.”