Chapter 12 - The Tobruk Ferry Service

 

 

Scrap Iron Flotilla
 

Libya- The Tobruk Ferry Service

 

The Rats Of Tobruk Part One The Rats Of Tobruk Part 2

 

 

Aussie Rat of TobrukBy the second week in April Tobruk was surrounded. Powerful German and Italian divisions were pouring across the desert from their main base at Tripoli and, on the eastern side of the town, the Bardia road had been cut. Bardia itself was occupied and then Sollum fell, was retaken, and fell again within a matter of hours.

 

On three sides of Tobruk Axis troops were poised ready for the blow they thought would crush opposition in this last British stronghold in Libya. On the perimeter, in defence positions the Italians had carefully prepared, Australian, British, Indian and New Zealand troops waited. And, in the first hours of 14 April, the first real attack began.

 

Led by twenty-ton tanks, the Germans penetrated three miles inside the perimeter before dawn; but, as the first grey streaks of sunlight flecked the sky, intense anti-tank fire from field guns raked the panzers, forcing them to flee. Seventeen tanks lay broken, their turrets and guns torn off by 25-pounder shells. In their concrete “cubbies” in the perimeter Australians, who had watched the tanks pass, waited for the enemy infantry, forced them to turn back with nearly four hundred casualties.

Above: Australian 'Rats' of Tobruk

 

 


 

Rommel Directing Operations in Nth Africa

 

Of forty aircraft which supported the tank attack, seventeen were certainly shot down. The “Rats of Tobruk” had sharp teeth! But the determination and success of the besieged garrison created its own problem - the question of supply, of reinforcements, and of evacuating the wounded, was one to which there was but a single answer. The seaward side of Tobruk had not been blockaded by the Navy which still skulked at Taranto. The Navy which had turned “Mare Nostrum” into “Cunningham’s Pond” would transport to and from the desert citadel.

 

Thus began the “Tobruk Ferry Service” - and another job for the five “old crocks”.

 

It would be impossible to record the details of every one of those thrilling races from Alexandria and Mersa Matruh to Tobruk, for each was different - and yet, somehow, all were the same. Waterhen, Vampire, Voyager, Vendetta and Stuart were, for a time, the most popular “ferries”, but British destroyers and gunboats and the Australian “N” class destroyers played their part.

 

Almost invariably the destroyers left Alexandria soon after 6 a.m. for a high-speed run along the coast so that they would enter Tobruk harbour within an hour or two of midnight. Ammunition of all types was packed tightly on deck and round it were tinned stuff, vegetables, fruit and medical supplies - enough to last until the next “ferry” arrived. Sometimes the destroyers went alone; sometimes they went in pairs. But always there was action, excitement and indescribable weariness.

 

This is the story of the “fetch and carry” service as it was told to me.

 

“We leave Alex. in the early a.m. All yesterday afternoon and last night we loaded stores and ammunition, pushing and lifting and packing until our backs ached. ‘Number One’ made us shift everything just where he wanted it so that our trim wouldn’t be upset and it took us about eight hours to get everything into place. And we have to unload it in a quarter of that time!

 

“By the time we turned in for our last few hours’ sleep for two days the deck was littered with every kind of store - ammunition for field guns, anti-tank guns and light weapons, explosives, boxes of carefully packed detonators, land mines, great sacks of vegetables, boxes of oranges, tins of everything from oil to peaches, rifles, machine guns and medical dressings.

 


 

Tobruk Harbour

 

“We went by ourselves. There’s not much room for manoeuvring in Tobruk harbour these nights, what with bombs and wrecks and the pitch blackness of the night. Besides, the jetty may be bombed before we get there and then we have to dump everything into lighters.

 

“Well, sometimes we were bombed long before we reached Tobruk, but this time we were lucky and we were well down towards the port by dark. It was nearly full moon this night and that made things worse, Jerry sometimes attacks at night and I always thought night bombing was worse than everything else. In the daylight you can see just where he is, but at night you have to guess. And I always guessed he was right overhead!

 

“Sure enough he came over this night. The moon was just made for bombing and it seemed to rise earlier than usual. I heard the ‘Old Man’ curse it pretty fluently and when I went aft, and saw our glistening white wake trailing out for a few hundred yards, I agreed with him. Looking over the side of the ship I could see the phosphorescence gleaming just as if a scuttle had been left open and the light was streaming out on to the water.

 

“There seemed to be two bombers and this night they came in for their first attack with their engines flat out. Sometimes they cut their motors a few miles away and just glide down. Then the first you know about them is that bombs crash into the water alongside with a crump and the old ship shudders and shakes from stem to stern.

 

“We could hear the bombs whistling down and they exploded just on our starboard quarter. But the ‘Old Man’ has been dodging bombs for a long time now and we began to zigzag as soon as the planes were heard. They made three or four attacks, and then left. But we knew they would be back with their friends to try and stop us in Tobruk itself.

 


 

German Messerschmidt - bf 110

 

‘Father’ had taken her pretty close to the shore and we could easily pick out the escarpment. There were a lot of soldiers on deck and they began to get fidgety as soon as they knew we were getting close. They haven’t been to Tobruk before - we have. We’re not as keen to get alongside as we used to be!

 

“The ‘Pilot’ picked out the narrow entrance by some means known only to himself. We couldn’t see it. All hands were on deck, of course, and the ‘swoddies’ had pinched all the good spots alongside the guard-rails to get their first look at the town. We were more interested in the wrecks - San Giorgio was just inside and there were about forty other hulks. There had been only twenty-seven when we arrived the first time.

 

“I think we used to get a chart showing any new wrecks, but we never knew if a ship had been sunk while we were at sea, so the look-outs were pretty keen. We were down to about four knots by this time and twisting through the passage between the hulks to go alongside what remained of the wharf. Some of the ‘swoddies’ were ashore before we had properly secured - but, as I said before, they haven’t been here before. There was a bit of a fire on the end of the wharf and we were told that a bomb had hit it about half an hour before we arrived. That didn’t cheer us much.

 

“By the time the last soldier leapt ashore with his gear all the lashings were off the stores and some food was going over the side. The food was landed first because it was on top and then all the ‘Jimmy’s’ carefully stowed ammunition started to go. The hands had formed a chain to the ship’s side and the boxes were moving smartly when Jerry arrived again. You should have seen the activity then. Ammunition simply flew over the deck!

 

“The bombers knew where we were, too, and their eggs fell not far away. One hit the superstructure of a partly submerged hulk, and a fire started. We all cursed the so-and-so, for the moon was bright enough without any artificial illumin¬ation. We don’t fire back at the bombers, of course - that would be just asking for it. It’s a bit galling, too, because you can’t see them although you know that they can spot you. And my idea of fun and games isn’t lying alongside a jetty piled high with explosives when Jerry is dropping five-hundred-pound eggs round the place. Especially when there are still a few land mines, shells and detonators on deck waiting to be unloaded.

 

“Down aft we embarked the wounded. Most of them had arrived on stretchers this night and some of them were badly hurt. We laid the stretchers out on the messdecks, on the messdeck tables, on deck, and even on the gun platforms. There were more than a hundred of them and there were about two hundred walking wounded as well. They sat round anywhere they could find room. We gave them cigar¬ettes. It was a long time since they had had a decent smoke.

 

“Someone was yelling out for mail and soon they were dragging the bags out from the messdecks. Sailors are always careful with letters - because they appreciate them, too, I suppose - and the mail bags are unofficially considered the important cargo. Jerry was still flying about, but the 3.7’s put up a pretty fierce barrage and the bombs didn’t fall so regularly or so close.

 

“The last cases of ammunition were manhandled over the side and we were ready to sail by 2.30. It had been bad enough trying to avoid walking into boxes on the way up, but I could see it would be almost impossible to get from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck without treading on someone. There were stretchers everywhere. ‘Doc’ went round having a look at each case, giving those who needed it a shot of morphia to put them to sleep. The sick-berth ‘Tiffy’ had a party of stretcher-bearers with him and the way they looked after those soldiers was wonderful. We had a lot of bad cases this night - legs and arms missing, and a number horribly burnt. Jerry’s flame-throwing tanks are being used more than they used to be.

 

“At last we sailed. Most of the bombers had cleared off, but the nightly artillery duel had begun and we could see the flashes of our guns on the perimeter. Sometimes it begins before we get away from the wharf, but it was our lucky night to-night apparently. As we moved along the coast the flashes became more frequent. Patrols, stealing out from the perimeter, had discovered something and the gunners were giving it everything they had.

 

“It may have been another tank attack, because this is just about the time Jerry makes his effort to crack the defences. The wounded soldiers were watching the battle, and drawing hard on their cigarettes. Some of them were crying. But I knew it wasn’t pain alone that brought the tears. They had left a lot of good cobbers back there.

 

That is the story of the “Tobruk Ferry Service”. The trip back to Alexandria was usually worse than the run up to Tobruk, for the wounded took up any space there was and the messdecks reeked with the smell of dressings and anti¬septics. There was always a thin coating of fine dust on deck. The heavy canvas “darken ship” screens kept the dust from the messdecks themselves, but the same screens prevented the passage of air and the atmosphere was thick and foul. There was no such thing as “watch below”, for there was nowhere to sleep. On the cushioned seats around the wardroom, wounded officers lay fast asleep and on the deck beside them were rows of stretcher cases. Those who could not sleep accustomed themselves to the roll of the ship and lay thinking - thinking of Alexandria or of home or of a tiny concrete machine-gun post on the perimeter “somewhere outside Tobruk”.

 

The ships’ companies were always at action stations to greet the dawn. They were tired, grimy, still sweating after their race to unload the stores. Mechanically they trained and elevated the guns as the gunnery officer carried out a “dummy run” and then the duty watch closed up and the watch below (what a joke that was!) - the watch below picked their way gingerly between the stretchers to talk to the less seriously wounded soldiers.

 

It wasn’t long before they knew Tobruk as well as the soldiers did, and they could visualize every attack and counter-attack as the “swoddies” described them. Not all the men taken from Tobruk were Australians, of course. There were numbers of Tommies and Indians and New Zealanders.

 

Early in April the Axis forces had dropped leaflets over the besieged town urging the Imperial forces to surrender. Men being evacuated from Tobruk eagerly showed these treasured souvenirs to the destroyer crews. The pamphlets were worded:

 

The General Officer Commanding German Forces in Libya hereby requests that British troops occupying Tobruk surrender their arms. Single soldiers waving white handkerchiefs are not fired on. Strong German forces have already surrounded Tobruk and it is useless to try to escape. Remember Mechili! Our dive bombers and Stukas are awaiting your ships which are lying in Tobruk.

 

“Can you imagine us surrendering?” one Australian asked. “We used to take more prisoners in a night than they took in a month and we didn’t actually feel surrounded when we saw reinforcements appearing regularly, and knew that our wounded were being taken out and cared for at Alex. Besides, we couldn’t surrender under those terms even if we wanted to. After a couple of days in Tobruk no one in the entire garrison had a handkerchief that you could call ‘white’. So we just had to fight on.”

 

Down in the wardroom similar stories were being told. There were Australians who had been to Tobruk to spend their leave because they wanted to find out “just what it was like”. There were Indian officers who had led patrols far from the perimeter, and had killed silently while the enemy prepared his attack. There was a British commando who had escaped from Bardia after the April raid.

 

Each week, and often more than once each week, the story was retold. Sometimes Stukas attacked the tiny destroyers as they crept along the coast, sometimes they were bombed in Tobruk itself. Often they were shelled as the crews worked with frantic haste to unload the huge pile of explosives which had been so carefully stacked barely twenty-four hours before. ~ Then there was the high-speed dash back to Alexandria or Mersa Matruh with the wounded. Italian and German prisoners were taken out, too, and they were provided with an escort which usually included some of the less seriously wounded soldiers.

 

Back at Alexandria empty ammunition cases were unloaded, the wounded were carefully lifted into waiting ambulances, and fuel tanks were topped up.

 

“Then all-night leave was piped, but not a sailor went ashore. We didn’t even wait to eat. We crawled into our ‘flea bags’ and ‘crashed’ - our first sleep after being on deck continuously for more than thirty-six hours,” a seaman wrote home, describing the end of a typical “fetch and carry” run.

 

For the last crazy fortnight of the campaign in Crete most of the Australian destroyers (including the “N” class ships) were too busy to run up and down the Libyan coast, but the service to Tobruk had to be maintained in spite of the increased demands on the Fleet. So while Australian and British destroyers and cruisers were fighting to prevent a Nazi sea-borne invasion of Crete, the China River gunboat Ladybird was making her last gallant fight against a pack of howling Stukas in Tobruk harbour.

 

With her 6-inch guns and pom-poms pouring out defiance, the 625-ton gunboat fought for twenty-four hours against formation after formation of Stukas. Sometimes only a few dive bombers were poised above her, ready to hurtle down to release their deadly load. Sometimes there were as many as forty-seven. All day, all night they came and went. All day, all night, Ladybird defied them.

 


 

Above: Ladybird - In Action, Crew, Making Engineroom Repairs

 

But no matter how fierce the barrage, some bombers had to get through. One five-hundred-pound bomb struck the tiny ship aft and then her boiler-room was hit. Stokers stumbled blindly through the hissing steam that gushed from shattered pipes. Others lay writhing on deck, burned or injured by the explosion. Rescue squads dashed through the steam, and dragged their mates up the iron ladders to the upper deck as more bombs crashed down and the engine-room plates were opened up. Water began to stream in through the holes and Ladybird gradually sank lower and lower.

 

The wounded men passed ammunition from the magazines to the guns whose insatiable muzzles were now almost red hot. As bomb after bomb exploded near by and fires raged throughout the ship, it was only a matter of time before the magazine would blow up. Wounded and those who had escaped injury sweated and toiled to get as much ammunition as possible on deck. Soon, if they did not blow up, the magazines would be flooded.

 

As the water began to wash over Ladybird’s decks, Commander J. M. Blackburn, RN., heard ratings yelling: “Carry on, sir, please.” But he had no thought of surrender and the tiny gunboat’s last gun was still firing as it slipped below the water.

 

“It was one of the most magnificent displays of devotion to duty I have ever seen,” Commander Blackburn said later when he told of the part played by his gunners and the wounded men.

 

Ladybird had taken part in many operations with the Australian ships. At full speed she could manage a hare fourteen knots and, as she struggled along, speedy destroyers dashed past accompanied by shouts of: “How much for a trip up the river?”

 

And Ladybird’s crew would wave back and grin. They knew that when the test came the old “river barge” would fight as gallantly as the mightiest ship that flew the White Ensign.

 

In spite of the basic similarity of each “fetch and carry” run, there was usually some incident to prevent monotony creeping in. About noon, on one particularly hot day, Voyager was steaming at twenty-six knots off Sollum, bound for Tobruk. On deck there was the usual cargo - bombs, rifles, ammunition, food. There were boxes of shells for the 3.7-inch ack-ack guns which had made Tobruk a graveyard for Nazi planes. There were land mines to be planted by daring sappers on patrol activity outside the perimeter.

 

The sky was clear, but there was a slight heat haze over the blue Mediterranean. Suddenly, on the edge of the pile of explosives, there was a shot. Then there was another. A rifle began to pitch about on deck as cartridge after cartridge exploded in the magazine. The rifle had been left lying on deck and the sun had heated the metal magazine until the ammunition exploded.

 

On the bridge Commander Morrow saw the rifle bucking and pitching every few seconds as another shot was fired. Behind him, jolly, rotund Petty Officer Leslie Hickey saw the danger as bullets pierced cases of ammunition. He slid down the two iron ladders from the bridge to the break of the fo’c’sle, scampered along the deck, seized the still-firing rifle, and hurled it over the side. Then he went back to his post at the director.

 

Tobruk’s main jetty was a popular target for Axis bombers and it was singled out for attack at night when one of the destroyers was almost certain to be alongside. Strangely enough the only times the Nazis found the target was when the berth was unoccupied. The too-efficient Royal Air Force had plastered the wharf before Imperial troops took the town, but there was still enough of the jetty left to allow the “ferries” to disgorge their cargo. Voyager arrived one night to find the wharf still smouldering as a result of a direct hit. Vampire, on another occasion, was just feeling her way through the maze of wrecks in the harbour when the jetty was shattered by a five-hundred-pound bomb. The destroyer had been alongside for about three hours. Frequently two of the Australian ships made the trip together and the burden rested more heavily on Stuart, Voyager, Waterhen and Vendetta when Vampire left the station in May.

 

Voyager and Waterhen made a fast run to Tobruk early in June and arrived at the besieged port to find that an air raid was already in progress. It usually started after they entered! Anchoring offshore, the destroyers unloaded their one hundred tons of ammunition into lighters, and set off at full speed for Mersa Matruh. As they steamed inshore towards the port it seemed to the crews that the destroyers were heading directly for a line of rocks, but the narrow opening was soon picked out. There seemed to be no room for a ship to pass through and the Australians entered at slow speed.

 

Inside Mersa Matruh is another surprise. The channel is a narrow one and ships must continue to steam towards the shore until they are only about one hundred yards from the beach. Again it appeared certain that Voyager and Waterhen would run aground, but a sharp turn to port took them parallel to the sandy shore and they skirted the beach for several hundred yards until they reached the “wharf” - several rough punts, lashed together. There was no room for both ships to make fast, so Voyager secured to the punts and Waterhen tied up alongside her.

 

“Swimming leave” was piped almost immediately and the two ships’ companies had their first swim in weeks. The beach was composed of brilliant, fine white sand almost like chalk and the water was crystal clear. In Mersa Matruh were the two Insect class gunboats, Cricket and Gnat, and the Australian sloop Parrarnatta.

 

Parramatta had joined the Mediterranean Fleet in May and by June she had become a seasoned member of the Ferry Service. She had sailed from Alexandria on 22 June with the tanker Pass of Balmaha and the British sloop Auckland. They could not do a high-speed run, for the petrol carrier was slow and neither sloop had the speed of a destroyer.

 


 

HMAS Parramatta

 

Two days later, just as the second dog-watchmen were preparing to close up at their stations, three formations of dive bombers were seen flying into position so that they could attack from the direction of the sun. There were sixteen planes in each formation and Parramatta and Auckland opened fire at extreme range.

 

Gunners were almost blinded as they tried to look into the blazing sun and the bark of ack-ack guns was almost drowned by the whine and roar of diving planes. Twisting and turning as they manoeuvred into position, they presented an impossible target.

 

Two of the formations concentrated on the British ship, and the remaining sixteen aircraft dived on Parramatta and the tanker. As the Stukas came lower the staccato chattering of machine guns joined the “crack crack” of heavier armament, but there were not enough guns to stop all those hurtling aircraft. Then, as twenty planes dived over Auckland, bombs fell with a piercing shriek and exploded with a series of rumbling concussions, merging one into the other.

 

The sea round the British sloop frothed and foamed and spray was flung aloft from a score of spurting fountains. Thick smoke, brown and grimy, plumed into the air and the Australians could see that Auckland’s stern had been blown to pieces. Her forward guns were still firing, but her steering gear had jammed and she steamed from the self-made smoke screen headed directly for Parramatta. The Australian sloop managed to turn just in time and Auckland staggered pathetically by, her stern torn away, her gunners attempting to counter her heavy list to port as they kept their undamaged guns firing at the wheeling, snarling Stukas.

 

By this time Parramatta, too, was busily engaged. Planes roared over the slowly zigzagging Pass of Balinaha, and bombs crashed round her and her Australian escort. But again it was Auckland that was singled out for concentrated bombing and she had barely cleared the smoke screen when three bombs struck her directly.

 

Somehow all her guns had escaped being hit and the tiny sioop was still firing when the Stukas, their bombs exhausted, flew off. As Auckland lay stopped, listing heavily, flames and smoke gushing from her wounds, it seemed that she must sink within minutes. Parramatta dropped both whalers, a skiff, lifebelts, and carley floats. Auckland’s crew began to abandon ship. Slowly the flames neared the magazine and then, with a violent explosion, the British sloop was lifted from the water. At 6.30 she rolled over and sank.

 

The Italians had taken up the battle, now, and six Savoia 79’s began a low-level bombing attack on Parramatta and Pass of Balmaha. All the bombs fell wide, but the Italians machine-gunned Auckland’s survivors in their boats and floats.

 

Another attack developed just as Parramatta moved over to pick up survivors and this time there seemed to be more planes than before. The sun had almost set it was almost 8 o’clock and the bombers could not make use of it as they had done so successfully in the first attack. This time, however, there was only Parramatta to combat them and, as they dived in rapid succession, it seemed that some of the bombs must have scored. The sloop’s upper deck was awash with spray and piles of shell and cartridge cases grew round gun positions.

 

For an hour the bombers attacked without success. The sky was alive with them, the blue sea was streaked with the white of twisted wakes and studded with leaping waterspouts. There was debris, too, twisted, jagged fragments of wood blasted from the stricken Auckland. At 8.30 the sun set. The bombers flew off.

 

Meanwhile Vendetta and Waterhen were nearing the air-sea battle, but by the time they reached Parramatta the attack was over. Survivors were picked up and Parramatta, her ammunition almost exhausted, returned to Alexandria, leaving the two destroyers to shepherd Pass of Balmaha into Tobruk.

 

By the middle of June the destroyers were working in pairs - Voyager with Stuart and Vendetta with Waterhen. There were variations, of course, and Voyager and Vendetta entered Tobruk harbour at midnight one night to find the port brilliantly lit. But the Nazis - not the “Rats” - were responsible for the illumination. Their planes had dropped flares and the silvery-blue torches shed an almost daylight brightness as they tumbled slowly down.

 

Vendetta was to be the lucky one, this time. The cargo of explosives was quickly unloaded and the two ships were just clearing the entrance when another flock of bombers appeared. More flares were dropped, and the destroyers’ wakes trailed silvery phosphorescence. Voyager was about a thousand yards ahead of Vendetta when the first “stick” crashed down and from Voyager’s quarterdeck it looked as if the other ship had been hit. But then Vendetta appeared from behind a huge shower of spray. The bombs had landed about a hundred yards ahead.

 

Fighter protection - unknown during the first long, weary months - was a welcome change when it became a feature of the Tobruk service. The fighters accompanied Stuart and Voyager on a trip from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk and skilfully drove off a few Axis machines attempting to bomb the destroyers. The fighters withdrew at dusk, however, and when the two ships arrived at the entrance to Tobruk an air raid was already in progress. From the sea the Australians could see the continuous flashing of heavy ack-ack guns. There were bigger flashes, too - the flashes of bursting bombs. On the perimeter field guns engaged in a lively duel, oblivious of the planes overhead. A Nazi bomber tumbled out of the fight, a flaming, twisting torch whose crimson glow was strangely beautiful against the dark sky.

 

This time the destroyers took on prisoners, mostly Libyan colonial troops who had gladly surrendered to Australian patrols. Again the two ships had just cleared the entrance when the bombers reappeared. Captain Wailer and Commander Morrow decreased speed so the destroyers would leave no wakes.

 

‘We seemed to crawl away, one rating said. “We could hear the raiders above us, searching, searching. But at that speed we left no wake. Soon the crackle of ack-ack guns ashore ceased, and the roar of the bombers’ engines became a faint hum. We wiped the sweat from our brows, clapped on full speed, and beat it for home.”

 

Voyager made another such trip only a few days later and this was to be her second last voyage in the Middle Sea. It was an unusual trip altogether - and almost ended in disaster. There were no attempts to bomb the tiny destroyer before she reached Tobruk and no Axis bombers appeared all the time she was in harbour unloading some seventy tons of ammunition. That was certainly unusual!

 

Then, just as they thought they had escaped, the engines broke down. Sweating ERA.’s worked frantically to repair the damage, for dawn was only a few hours away. It seemed certain that the early morning raiders would catch them helpless outside the port. Still there was no news from the engine-room. Seamen looked to their guns, made sure they were ready for instant action. Then the ship vibrated slightly, quivered as the screws began to turn. At slow speed the old destroyer crept away to Alexandria. It would take a month to repair the main engines and Voyager’s crew were not sorry that they were to have a well-earned rest.

 

The Australians freely admitted that they had been lucky. They had dodged air raids by minutes, dodged bombs by what seemed mere inches, dodged through well-directed shellfire. War in the Mediterranean was more than twelve months old and they had come through without loss, almost without casualties. But one of those five cheeky, gallant little ships was not destined to fight much longer. On 29 June Waterhen began her first losing battle.