top of page

HMS Phoebe Torpedoed off Congo - Many Killed by Poisonous Fumes

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

23rd October 1942

HMS Phoebe was torpedoed by U-161 off the Congo Estuary, while on passage to French Equatorial Africa. Her route was from Simonstown in South Africa to Freetown Sierra Leone, but the ship had to refuel at Pointe Noire. Two U-boats (U-161 and U-126), were patrolling that area at the time.

The cruiser HMS PHOEBE with HM King George VI and HM Queen Elizabeth on board, coming alongside the quay at Belfast.

After the hit, a corvette coming up from the harbour prevented the U-boat from finishing off the cruiser.

About 60 crew members were killed (and three more died from malaria in the following days). [1]

5 Royal Marines were killed:

ERRIDGE, Albert C, Bandmaster 2c, RMB/X 145:

LANCEFIELD, Ronald V, Marine, CH/X 1682:

MALLETT, Henry A, Marine, CH/X 100273, DOW:

TAYLOR, Harold, Marine, CH/X 104558:

WOODROW, Harold F, Sergeant, RM, CH/24720, DOW

After temporary repairs, Phoebe made for New York for complete repairs. It was an incredible feat to sail 10,000 nautical miles (19,000 km) with a hole (60 by 30 feet (18.3 m × 9.1 m)) in her hull. The repairs were not completed until June 1943. In October 1943, she returned to the Mediterranean to take part in the Aegean operations.

British and French officers and ratings at the Ceremony of Remembrance for HMS ‘Phoebe,’ 1944. © Imperial War Museum A 28132.

In May 1944, Phoebe was transferred to the Eastern Fleet and was involved in strike operations against the Andaman Islands, Sabang in Northern Sumatra and the Nicobar Islands. In January 1945, she was switched to supporting amphibious operations in Burma and was engaged in actions against Akyab, Ramree Island off the Arakan Coast, and Cheduba Island. From April to May 1945, Phoebe was involved in the amphibious assault on Rangoon as part of the East Indies Fleet's, 21st Aircraft Carrier Squadron. [2]

The roll of honour at the base of the memorial to HMS ‘Phoebe’, Pointe Noire, 1944. © Imperial War Museum A 28131. The message on the wreath in the foreground reads: ‘Les Anciens Combatants A Leurs Camarades Britanniques Du “Phoebe” In Memorium’. Trans. ‘War Veterans to their British Comrades in the “Phoebe”. In Memo

Gas Poisoning

On 23 October 1942, the British light cruiser HMS Phoebe was torpedoed by an enemy submarine 6 miles off Pointe Noire on the coast of French Equatorial Africa. 49 sailors lost their lives in the attack. As a result of this action, a number of the ship’s company sustained curious respiratory injuries, producing an intense medical crisis that required all the best efforts of local British, French, and US military medical personnel to overcome. For years after the war, the official report of the ship’s Medical Officer, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander R. Noraworthy, RN, remained classified as ‘Secret’. Nevertheless, the disastrous plight of the Phoebe in 1942 unfolds an impressive story of transnational medical co-operation in a difficult and remote location, in which Allied generosity and willingness to share medical supplies and knowledge helped to save many British lives.

When the torpedo struck, the ship sustained heavy damage to its ‘B’ turret and magazine. Reports rapidly filtered through of a thick column of ‘particularly yellow’, ‘very acrid and choking’ smoke. The toxic fumes spread out quickly to fill the Boys’ and Marines’ Messdecks and other nearby spaces, including the Sick Bay. Although it was known that there were casualties in these areas, immediate rescue proved impossible and it was some time before the smoke cleared sufficiently for help to be rendered. When the bodies of the dead were pulled out, it was noticeable that their skin colour was largely bluish rather than pink, and a horrid froth dribbled from their noses and mouths. These signs indicated intense pulmonary irritation.

Among the survivors, although some men had managed to don anti-gas respirators, most had not time to respond. A number of cases had to be treated immediately after exposure to the smoke, which left men coughing and vomiting copiously. With only a few exceptions, these sailors recovered rapidly and were able to resume their duties. However, this recovery was a deceptive temporary state of affairs, and matters were soon to become very much worse.

After about an hour and a half, men were beginning to report to the medical distributing station, complaining of difficulty in breathing and tightness across the chest. It became evident that there had been a strange latent period between the attack itself and men succumbing to breathlessness. Throughout that afternoon and evening, continuing for up to 16 hours after Phoebe was torpedoed, increasing numbers of new cases reported sick. Most of the casualties who began to besiege the ship’s medical staff had initially (after brief choking and retching upon first contact with the yellow smoke) then felt fine and put in hours of hard work before suddenly being forced to report sick later on.

The unusual respiratory injuries sustained by the ship’s company as a result of the torpedo attack gave rise to fears that a new form of chemical weapon had been used against the Phoebe. However, despite these initial suspicions, the hard-pressed medical staff realised they were dealing with the effects of gassing by nitric and nitrous fumes which had, in all likelihood, been formed as a result of the torpedo explosion and subsequent fire in the ship’s ‘B’ turret and magazine. The mystery of the poisonous gas had been solved; the problem of how to keep the injured breathing had not. Read the full article here..[4]

References/ Further reading

[1] Soldier and Sailor Too

[2] Royal Marines Roll of Honour and Graves Database - Search: HMS Phoebe

[3] Wikipedia - HMS Phoebe

[4] Breathing Assistance: British, French and US Medical Co-operation and the Curious Affair of HMS ‘Phoebe’, October 1942

208 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page