Chapter 11 Libya - A Fighting Retreat

 

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LIBYA - A FIGHTING RETREAT

 

JANUARY and February had been months of victory. The British desert advance, which had miraculously developed from a swift, though merely tentative, thrust at Sidi Barrani early in December, had progressed beyond expectations. The last enemy strong-post in Bardia surrendered on 5 January and seventeen days later Australians hauled down Italy’s tricolour from the flagstaff outside the Naval Barracks at Tobruk and hoisted a Digger hat in its stead.

 

Derna fell at the end of the month and the Australian troops raced forward to take Giovanni Berta, Cirene, Slonta, Barce and Benghazi within a week. By 8 February British armoured forces had reached the road to Tripoli eighty miles south of Benghazi, cutting off General Bergonzoli’s army’s only line of retreat. With less than a hundred tanks in fighting condition, the armoured division, which had led the rapid cross-desert advance from Egypt, routed the remainder of Italy’s Cirenaican forces, and took another twenty thousand prisoners.

 

But March brought reverses. German panzer divisions had arrived to strengthen the Italian Army in Libya and, across the Mediterranean, the Nazis occupied Bulgaria. Greek troops continued to advance in their battles with Mussolini’s Blackshirts, but marked increases in German “diplomatic pressure” indicated that Hitler’s thrust to help his weary Fascist ally was a matter of days rather than weeks.

 

British withdrawals from Libya followed as a natural corollary to her aid to Greece, and the work of Inshore Squadron increased a hundred-fold. Waterhen and Vendetta, for a time, bore the brunt of the work along the North African coast, while Stuart, Voyager and Vampire concerned themselves with convoys which took troops and materials to meet the growing menace in the Balkans.


Australian Infantry haul down the Italian Flag from the Town Hall at Bardia

The Libyan coastline differed entirely from the shores of Greece and Crete. There were no lofty, snow-clad mountains, no green foreshores planted with olive-trees - there was only dust and sand and mile upon mile of dry, monotonous, infertile desert. Nor was the sea patrol route as attractive as that which wound between the thousand tiny islands of the blue Aegean. Frequently there were dust-storms when clouds of fine, brown-red dust swept far out to sea, reducing visibility to sometimes as little as fifty yards. As the dust settled on the ship, often inches thick, it was dampened by spray and then caked hard under the fierce heat of the Mediterranean sun. Then, as the seas tumbled aboard, it oozed across the deck in dirty streams, was trampled throughout the ship. Officers and men wore dust-covered clothing for days, for the finely ground dust defied the heartiest beating and “clean ship” was a long and tedious business.

 

Vampire was sorely in need of a refit and boiler clean by the beginning of March, and it was decided that she should take a convoy to Athens, and remain there for a week. In the sixty days since Stuart arrived back from 1\’Ialta Vampire had spent no less than fifty-six days at sea, and had steamed more than twenty-two thousand miles.

 

 

 

Aerial reconnaissance during the last weeks of March revealed that German armoured units were massing in Tripoli and, though there was no accurate information as to their strength, they were estimated at something like a division.

 

The Sixth Australian Division, which had played so striking a role in the advance across the desert, had arrived in Greece and the relatively ill-equipped Ninth Division occupied the forward area in Libya. They could not hope to oppose the heavily armoured German force and the British withdrawal began in the third week of March.

 

Australian troops retreat to Tobruk under the onslaught of Rommels Armour

 

As British and Australian units moved back towards Egypt the Royal and Royal Australian Navies steamed along the coast towards Tripoli, blasting German transport as it moved along the coastal road. Tripoli, main supply base for the Axis armies, was bombarded by a powerful force which included Warspite, Barham, Valiant, Formidable, heavy and light cruisers, including H.M.A.S. Perth, and a number of destroyers, among which were Stuart and Griffin.

 

Tripoli was pounded by more than 550 tons of high explosives and not many shells were wasted. An ammunition ship dissolved in a shattering explosion as a 15-inch shell burst in one of her holds. Flame and twisted red-hot metal were flung skywards, and the Spanish Quay, alongside which the ship had been lying, was torn and battered by the explosion. A ship near by disappeared as a full 15-inch salvo mashed her into flaming pulp. Three transports or suppiy ships were hit and one is believed to have been sunk. South of the Karamanti Mole the main oil fuel depot was wreathed in fire and smoke, and barracks, supply dumps and Stores were left burning.

 

The bombardment of the’ Libyan capital was described as “highly successful”. But the most spectacular part of the operation was to come, not from the battleships, but from two small destroyers.

 

Stuart and Griffin were detached from the Fleet on the way back to Alexandria. They had orders to make contact with land forces believed to have been defending Sollum. But the German advance was speedier than had been anticipated and Captain Waller, who was senior officer, was not certain who occupied Sollum. The question was answered very quickly!

 

At daylight on 21 April Stuart approached the entrance, Griffin keeping station astern, and at about 4 a.m., when the destroyers were less than two miles from the shore, the Germans opened fire. Captain Waller turned, opened the range slightly, then made “Follow me” to Griffin and turned towards the port. Several salvos from field guns fell round the ships, but neither destroyer was hit. As the range closed the Germans appeared to be using guns mounted in their tanks to supplement the fire of the larger guns, but Stuart and Griffin plastered them with shell after shell until fire from ashore fell short. Then the destroyers steamed up and down the coast shelling the Nazis’ positions.

 

Stuart concentrated her fire at the fort and at the Bardia road, while Griffin shelled troops and transport. Outside Sollum the Australian ships had contacted the British river gunboat Gnat, and the gunboat took over the shelling of selected targets inside the town while the destroyers cruised up and down blasting troop convoys as they moved along the road from Bardia.

 


HMS Griffin

 

The British gunboat, expecting to find Sollum in the hands of Imperial forces, was sending rapid “What the hell?” messages to the Army at Halfaya, but the first reply they received was a message asking that the ships cease fire. The short bombardment had dented the spearhead of the German mechanized units and Sollum had been reoccupied by British troops! Stuart and Griffin left Gnat in the bay, steamed at high speed to Alexandria, fuelled, and left again for Greece where the evacuation had already begun.

 

Just prior to Stuart’s impromptu bombardment of Sollum, Waterhen had rescued soldiers, doctors and nurses from the sinking hospital ship Vita. On 14 April Vita sailed from Tobruk with 437 wounded soldiers. Those who had been left behind in the besieged town watched her as she cleared the entrance, for her brilliant white hull was reminiscent of peace-time cruises, and seemed strangely out of place among ships that were now black or grey or streaked with camouflage.

 

Vita was easily distinguishable as a hospital ship, for her white hull and decks gleamed in the sunlight and the narrow green band and huge red crosses were plainly visible. There were red crosses on deck, too, so that they could be seen from the air. But German pilots were (and are) no respecters of the internationally accepted insignia. Within a fortnight they were to bomb and strafe hospital ships in the harbours of, and approaches to, Greece. Vita would be excellent practice!

 

Just after the hospital ship steamed slowly from the harbour Stukas roared towards the town. Doctors, nurses and wounded men on deck watched the bombers, glad that they had left ‘Tobruk, and could not be hit accidentally as Nazis bombed the town. But the Stukas circled above them and the high-pitched drone of powerful engines developed into a fullthroated roar as the bombers hurtled down in steep dives. Then the first bombs fell, exploding with a shuddering crash and tossing showers of spray on to the hospital ship’s white decks. The red cross amidships dripped rivulets of salty water.

 


German Junkers 87b

 

Nurses, doctors and sick-berth attendants rushed their patients to doubtful shelter below decks. Bandages had been drenched with spray and wounds smarted with the, salt.

 

But Vita carried no weapons to keep the dreaded Stukas at bay. The red cross was no protection against bombs. Plane after plane dived, released its stick of bombs, flew off unchallenged. Miraculously the ship was not hit, but near misses had opened up some plates and she was taking water when Waterhen arrived.

 

A strong swell was running, but the destroyer ran along¬side and the wounded and the medical staff were taken off. There were six doctors, six nurses and about forty sick-berth attendants in addition to the wounded. Some of the soldiers had received fresh wounds when the Nazis strafed the decks of the defenceless hospital ship, and doctors and nurses attended them as they waited their turn to be taken off.

 

At first it was thought that Vita might be towed to port and Lieutenant-Commander Swain, who had already saved one ship to fight again, made repeated efforts to salve her. But the hospital ship had taken too much water, and threatened to take Waterhen down with her. So the tow had to be slipped and the vessel was beached. Vita’s entire complement, numbering almost five hundred, were taken to Alexandria.

 

During April, Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen took part in surprise landing operations at various points along the Libyan coast. In these attacks British and Australian Commando troops played an important part and the landings themselves were responsible for immobilizing large enemy forces who were stationed as garrison troops in areas completely under Axis control.

 

Typical of all the attacks was that on Bardia in mid-April when transport, supply dumps and oil fuel tanks were wrecked by specially-trained “saboteur” squads. The des¬troyers sailed to reach the Italian base about 10 p.m. Lolling unconcernedly in the messdecks the troops seemed to treat the operation as some grand joke and ratings, who had heard that the commandos were “supermen”, began to feel that the stories were greatly exaggerated.

 

“It didn’t take us long to wake up, though,” a seaman said when he told the story of the raid. “They had all sorts of explosives and they passed them round as casually as you might offer a cigarette. When grenades began to appear we decided that it would be healthier on deck because I, for one, wasn’t going to stay in the messdeck with a lot of soldiers who were throwing bombs and things from table to table like cricket balls.

 

“We had landing craft with us and the commandos went ashore in them, disappearing in the blackness almost as soon as they left the ship’s side. They had certainly picked a night just made for the job. We were pretty close inshore, too, and it wasn’t long before the troops were scaling the escarpment. We couldn’t see them, of course, but we guessed they were inside Bardia when we saw a series of small explosions and then a couple of really big ones. Someone on board was keeping count, and I think there were twenty-nine different fires visible from the ship.

 

“The first commandos apparently went round looking for more trouble after they had used all their explosives because they didn’t begin to arrive back for about five or six hours. Five o’clock in the morning had been agreed on as the zero hour for sailing and some of them weren’t back by then. Still, we couldn’t wait outside the port because we knew that the bombers would be over to look for us as soon as it was light enough to see.

 

“Those who re-embarked told us that they had ‘put paid’ to transport, barracks, fuel dumps and supply dumps. They certainly left a pretty decent fire blazing ashore. Later we heard that some of those who had been left behind had sailed up the coast in their landing craft to join the garrison at Tobruk. We met some of them again later, when we were on the Ferry Service, and they were still fighting. Their special training came in mighty handy when they took part in patrols outside the perimeter. ‘Detonator demons’ I called them.

 

But the “detonator demons” were now “Rats of Tobruk”.