The outstanding Second World War Battle of Crete Force C 22nd May 1941 ’immediate’ Distinguished Service Medal group awarded to Chief Petty Officer Steward N.A. Coombes, Royal Navy, who originally saw service towards the very end of the Great War ...

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The outstanding Second World War Battle of Crete Force C 22nd May 1941 ’immediate’ Distinguished Service Medal group awarded to Chief Petty Officer Steward N.A. Coombes, Royal Navy, who originally saw service towards the very end of the Great War as a Boy Servant aboard the depot ship Maidstone with the 9th Submarine Flotilla at Harwich. Having seen service right through the inter-war period, and awarded the long service medal in July 1935, it was however during the Second World War that he distinguished himself. Present from September 1939 to August 1941 aboard the destroyer Kingston under Lieutenant Commander Somerville, he was initially employed on convoy defence and anti-submarine duties in the North Sea, and was present when in company with the destroyers Kashmir and Icarus, Kingston attacked U-35 with depth charges in the North Sea off Shetland on 29th November 1939, and forced her to scuttle. In May 1940 she was transferred to the Red Sea, and in June she took part in the sinking of the Evangelista Torricelli off Perim Island, and later attacked the Italian submarine Perla. On 17th March 1941 she supported landings at Berbera, British Somaliland, and on 5th April found the Italian destroyers Pantera and Tigre aground south of Jeddah whose hulls, having been scuttled, were then destroyed by gunfire and air attack. Later that month, Coombes transferred with Kingston to the Mediterranean to lend a hand during the evacuation of Greece as part of Force C, and fought in the Battle for Crete from 20th to 23rd May 1941. On the night of 21st May 1941 Force C intercepted a convoy of 20 troop carrying caiques escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Lupo heading for Crete. Ten of the caiques were sunk and the landing prevented, but Lupo successfully covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the convoy. On 22nd May 1941 Force C was sent to the Aegean Sea through the Kasos Strait to intercept a further invasion convoy of 30 caiques, escorted by the Sagittario. One detached caique was sunk and, although the British did not press the attack on the main convoy, the Germans were forced to abort their attempt to reach Crete. Nonetheless, Sagittario covered the convoy's retreat by lying a smoke screen and firing her guns and torpedoes at the British squadron. According to British sources, Kingston suffered no damage from the naval engagement but splinter damage was reported from German air attacks. Force C was the target of fierce airstrikes which continued when they joined up with Force A1 at the Kithera channel, when Kingston and Kandahar were sent to pick up survivors when the destroyer Greyhound was bombed and sunk. Later the same day the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji were also lost to air attacks. It was on 22nd May 1941, the climactic day of the Battle for Crete that Coombes won a superb ‘immediate’ award of the Distinguished Service Medal. He displayed courage and leadership while in charge of ‘X’ supply party during a prolonged engagement with enemy aircraft on 22nd May 1941. His steady bearing throughout the action, and particularly when three bombs near missed the ship, were an encouragement to all working with him between decks and his devotion to duty in attending survivors from HMS Fiji throughout the ensuing night was untiring.’ Coombes’s ‘immediate’ award of the Distinguished Service Medal was announced in the London Gazette for 6th January 1942 ‘for outstanding gallantry, fortitude and resolution during the Battle of Crete’. After near enough 35 years service, he was pensioned in February 1953.

Group of 9: Distinguished Service Medal, GVI 1st type bust, with officially impressed naming; (P/L.11127 N.A. COOMBES. P.O. STD. H.M.S. KINGSTON.); British War Medal and Victory Medal; (L.11127 N.A. COOMBES. B.SVT. R.N.); 1939-1945 Star; Atlantic Star; Africa Star; Italy Star; War Medal; Royal Navy Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, GVR Coinage bust; (L.11127 N.A. COOMBES. L.STD. H.M.S. VERNON.), mounted swing style for display.

Condition: Good Very Fine.

Norman Arthur Coombes was born on 15th April 1902 in Southampton, Hampshire, and with the ongoing Great War, joined the Royal Navy as a Boy Servant (Portsmouth No.L.11127) with Victory I from 21st May 1918. Coombes then joined the submarine depot ship Maidstone from 7th September 1918. Maidstone was based with the 9th Submarine Flotilla at Harwich, she being the principal depot ship for the offensive submarine force at Harwich for the duration of the hostilities. Rated as an Officers Steward 3rd Class on 18th April 1920, he remained with Maidstone till posted to the submarine depot ship Lucia out in the Mediterranean from 26th May 1922, being then posted home to Victory II from 8th May 1923, and to Excellent on 9th September 1924, being there when rated as an Officers Steward 2nd Class on 19th June 1928. Coombes then joined Victory XI at Portland for service trawler Doon on anti-submarine and minesweeping duties from 21st July 1928.

Coombes was promoted to Leading Steward whilst with Victory II on 1st October 1931, and having been with Vernon when he was awarded the Royal Navy Long Service and Good Conduct Medal on 4th July 1935, was aboard the battleship Nelson when he was promoted to Petty Officer Steward on 20th August 1935.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Coombes who was then with Victory II, then found himself posted aboard the destroyer Kingdom from 15th September 1939. Seeing service initially with the 5th Destroyer Flotilla as part of the Home Fleet, for convoy defence and anti-submarine duties in the North Sea, in company with the destroyers Kashmir and Icarus, Kingston attacked U-35 with depth charges in the North Sea off Shetland on 29th November 1939, and forced her to scuttle. All the crew of the U-boat were rescued and taken prisoner.

In May 1940 she was transferred to Nile, the base ship in the Red Sea. Her pennant number for visual signalling purposes was changed to G64. In June she took part in the sinking of the Evangelista Torricelli off Perim Island, and later attacked the Italian submarine Perla. On 17th March 1941 she supported landings at Berbera, British Somaliland. On 5th April Kingston found the Leone-class destroyers Pantera and Tigre aground south of Jeddah whose hulls, having been scuttled by the Italians, were destroyed by gunfire and air attack.

In April 1941 Kingston was deployed to Alexandria to join the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. There, she was involved in the evacuation of Allied troops from mainland Greece to Crete. On 20th May she deployed as part of Force C to the Battle of Crete. On the night of 21st May 1941 Force C intercepted a convoy of 20 troop carrying caiques escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Lupo heading for Crete. Ten of the caiques were sunk and the landing prevented, but Lupo successfully covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the convoy. The cruiser Orion was damaged in the action.
On 22nd May 1941 Force C was sent to the Aegean Sea through the Kasos Strait to intercept a further invasion convoy of 30 caiques, escorted by the Sagittario. One detached caique was sunk and, although the British did not press the attack on the main convoy, the Germans were forced to abort their attempt to reach Crete. Nonetheless, Sagittario covered the convoy's retreat by lying a smoke screen and firing her guns and torpedoes at the British squadron. According to British sources, Kingston suffered no damage from the naval engagement but splinter damage was reported from German air attacks. Force C was the target of fierce airstrikes which continued when they joined up with Force A1 at the Kithera channel. Kingston and Kandahar were sent to pick up survivors when the destroyer Greyhound was bombed and sunk. Later the same day the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji were also lost to air attacks. On 23rd May Kingston and Kandahar returned and rescued 523 survivors.

It was whilst in action on 22nd May 1941 that Coombes earned his Distinguished Service Medal. As a Petty Officer Steward, when in action his usual duties were done away, and he was positioned below deck, as part of the ammunition supply party for ‘X’ turret. Those below deck usually had little idea of what was going on above. For his part, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Somerville, would recommend Coombes for an ‘immediate’ award of a decoration.

The recommendation reads as follows: ‘For courage and leadership while in charge of ‘X’ supply party during a prolonged engagement with enemy aircraft on 22nd May 1941. His steady bearing throughout the action, and particularly when three bombs near missed the ship, were an encouragement to all working with him between decks and his devotion to duty in attending survivors from HMS Fiji throughout the ensuing night was untiring.’

Coombes’s ‘immediate’ award of the Distinguished Service Medal was announced in the London Gazette for 6th January 1942 ‘for outstanding gallantry, fortitude and resolution during the Battle of Crete’.

Kingston returned to Alexandria on 24th May 1941, and was taken in hand for repairs and modifications, among which was the replacement of the aft set of torpedo tubes with a four-inch anti-aircraft gun in recognition of the devastating effect of the air attacks suffered by Force C. Kingston was engaged in defensive convoy duties to Tobruk and often as part of the escort for Breconshire on runs to Malta. She was also in action against Axis convoys and against the Vichy French in Syria.

Coombes was posted home to Victory II from 5th August 1941, and was promoted to Acting Chief Petty Officer Steward on 7th September 1941, being subsequently confirmed in that rank on 10th April 1942. Released from service and transferred to the Class ‘A’ Reserve on 30th January 1946, he then re-entered service on 31st August 1946, being posted to Victory II. Seeing service aboard the aircraft carrier Venerable from April 1947, and aboard the light cruiser Glasgow from October to November 1947, and ultimately aboard the aircraft carrier Theseus from December 1947 to July 1948, when he was posted to shore shore service, being eventually released from service on 28th February 1953, after near enough 35 years service. Coombes then went to live in Milton, Portsmouth, Hampshire, where he died in December 1972.