Chapter 4 - Odd Jobs

 

 
Scrap Iron Flotilla Part 4
 
Odd Jobs

 

Now came the “odd job” months. There were endless convoys, but each was different, packed with excitement andaction; there were bombings, day and night; there were bombardments; there was a brief but victorious fleet action.

 

Vendetta had steamed from Malta with a large convoy just as the Battle of Calabria began farther west. With Stuart and Waterhen she arrived at Alexandria only to find that the Italians had begun a large-scale bombing attack on the Egyptian port. Calabria had been a catastrophe for Italy’s navy, but Mussolini was determined that Britain should pay for her victory.

 

Has el Tin was first to open up again, their 3.7’s sending up a terrific barrage. Then the heavier guns of the Fleet joined in and the moon became hazy behind the white smoke of bursting shells. Batteries of powerful searchlights, from positions all round the port, lit the sky with their silver-blue glare, weaving intricate patterns as they probed out the raiders.

 

Amid the steady crashing of the bigger guns, the staccato rattle of small arms, the chatter of oerlikons, and the coughing of the pom-poms, the shrieking of bombs sounded strident discords. The silvery blue of the searchlights was interlaced with the flash of red tracer from pom-poms and the red, white and green from captured Bredas. Then there were the purple and yellow streaks from the Fleet’s oerlikons, mingling with the others in a fantasy of colour. It seemed more like coronation festivities than a war. It was hard to realize that each flashing colour was a deadly projectile bent on destruction.

 

Voyager and Vampire, who had had more than their share of bombing after Calabria, had barely secured to their buoys when the first bombers appeared. The Has el Tin battery was the first to open fire, and the Australians cheered as the tiny smoke puffs burst on the Italians’ tails. The three Italian planes flew closer together and then they seemed to fly straight into one of the smoke puffs. There was a stream of black smoke, a stream that spread quickly and then was whisked away. A shower of debris fell, and then the sky was clear.

 

Three planes with a single shell! The Australians could hardly believe their eyes. The raid had ended before the Italians could drop a bomb, and the destroyers’ crews were able to snatch a few minutes’ sleep. But immediately after dark the alarms sounded again, a strident wail that was almost as spine-chilling as the shriek of falling bombs.But the fires in the flimsy dwellings, and the stricken bombers which fell like flaming torches, were real enough.

On 17 July the destroyer men cheered as Sydney left for a cruise. Two days later she sank Italy’s Bartolomeo Colleoni.

 

The Sinking of Bartolomeo Colleoni by HMAS SydneyAt midnight on 23 July, Vendetta accompanied Vampire and light cruiser Orion on one of the “oddest” of all the odd jobs. They were to skirt the Turkish coast where a valuable Italian convoy was steaming back to Italy. The British ships were to make themselves as conspicuous as possible and, having drawn attention to themselves, were to pretend to attack the convoy from astern.

 

Another British force was lying ready to pounce on the Italians once their escort had left them. Admiral Cunningham couldn’t fight the escort and capture the convoy too. Give these Italians five minutes and they scuttle themselves!

 

Vendetta and Vampire, steaming at full speed, with Orion just astern, sighted the Turkish coast on 24 July. From outside territorial waters the coast looked like Port Kembla, mountains coming almost to the sea. Dashing in and out, the destroyers dropped single depth charges at regular intervals, did high-speed turns, and had the time of their lives. They certainly made themselves conspicuous—and the Italian convoy was captured.

 

The five destroyers spent the next month convoying between Alexandria and Malta and Haifa, but towards the end of August Stuart and Waterhen left Alexandria to bombard Bomba and Bardia.

 

Captain WaIler, as senior officer, led the attack on Bomba, an important Italian seaplane base, and the anchorage at Jez el Marakeb. With the British destroyers Diamond, Flex and Juno, Stuart and Waterhen sailed just before dawn on 23 August.

 

 

The five destroyers steamed away from the coast for more than twelve hours, and then at dusk altered course for Bomba.

 

An hour later Waterhen was detached. For twenty minutes Waterhen patrolled outside—twenty minutes that somehow seemed a lifetime.

 

Ladybird, the British river gunboat, steaming up towards Bardia in the darkness, was rapidly getting into position for a surprise bombardment of the Italian base and Waterhen raced off at full speed to screen and support her. From the hills around Bardia Italians were pouring fire of every description at the tiny ship which had dared invade their well-fortified harbour.

 

Cleverly navigated through the port, the small gun­boat was a poor target for excited Italian gunners. At first they found that their heavy guns, mounted in solid emplacements around the approaches to Bardia, would not depress low enough to bear on the British ship. And, for those fleeting seconds when their guns would bear, Ladybird somehow managed to disappear completely from view, swallowed up again in the impenetrable darkness shrouding the escarpment a ghost-like target shrouded by smoke from burning cordite.

 

As Waterhen neared the rendezvous position off Bardia, Ladybird had not been sighted. Speed was reduced, lookouts kept a strict watch all round the ship, but the old gunboat was invisible. Just after midnight “Chook” was barely a mile from the Italian port.

 

Suddenly the darkness was split by twin lances of red flame, right in the entrance. In the ruddy glow of exploding cordite, Ladybird could just be distinguished as she steamed right into the enemy base, her guns rumbling a dull challenge.

 

Waterhen could see only some of this. She had been ordered to wait outside for thirty minutes and then, if Ladybird did not come out, “Chock” was to steam into Bardia harbour to tow her out. If the British gunboat had been too badly mauled, Lieutenant-Commander Swain had orders to take off survivors and sink her.

 

But only twenty minutes had gone. Never, it seemed, had there been so dark a night. Waterhen barely skimmed the shore, yet the sheer escarpment was but dull and vague, the entrance to the port invisible. Occasionally the sky glowed an angry red as Ladybird’s shells found some oil dump, or was pocked with flaming debris as ammunition exploded with a roar. From the heights overlooking the port Italian machine gunners flung cascades of fiery tracer at the barely visible gunboat. Machine guns were the only weapons that would bear, and even they were useless against the elusive intruder.

 

Then Ladybird appeared again, and Waterhen’s men could hardly repress a cheer. But the heavy guns would bear now, so the Australian destroyer raced between the gunboat and the Italian gunners, laying a thick black smoke screen. For a few moments Waterhen was under fire from point-blank range. The dark water on both sides of the ship was churned into boiling white foam as shells burst, but then the destroyer altered course behind her own smoke screen and steamed off to shield Ladybird. As she altered course a torpedo exploded in her wake, not two hundred yards astern.

 

Meanwhile, keeping close station in the darkness, Stuart, Juno, hex and Diamond were approaching Bomba.

 

Captain Wailer’s charts were not accurate, nor were they clear, and he was forced to alter course by dead reckoning. With soundings as his chief guide, he plotted the division’s course.

 

The destroyers hoped to make the northern end of the Gulf of Bomba about 1a.m. and ten minutes before this time look-outs sighted land.

 

Through powerful glasses Captain Wailer and his officers studied the shoreline, looked for some prominent topographical feature to guide them. But through the heavy inshore mist they could distinguish nothing except very low headlands.

 

Then, slightly to port of Stuart’s course, a patch of lights appeared from behind a low cliff. Course was altered immediately, speed was reduced, and guns were trained on the lights. But the ships had been sighted and the lights snapped out. The target was known now, however, and Captain Wailer ordered: “Open fire.”

 

By the light of the gun flashes the four tiny destroyers were seen steaming in line ahead, their guns trained to starboard and launching salvo after salvo. Ashore, the crash of bursting shells and the flames and dull explosions in the target area testified to the accuracy of the gunnery.

 

Fire ceased a few minutes later, speed was increased to reach the southern objective, and then the bombardment began again.

 

The target could not be seen, but shells burst ashore and fires were started. The four destroyers wheeled away at twenty-five knots, and steamed out to meet H.M.A.S. Sydney, screening her back to Alexandria.

 

This was Stuart’s last “official” engagement before it was decided that she must have a refit. But so great was the demand made on the destroyers, it was to be a full month before she could be spared, and during that time she was to sink another submarine.

 

Minor defects continued to occur in the engines and the engine-room personnel worked miracles keeping the old ship running. Early in September, while passing through the Kythera Channel with part of the battle fleet, an auxiliary steam-pipe burst. While sweating stokers and engine-room artificers worked feverishly to patch up the damaged pipe, Stuart was stopped for two hours, quite alone, within a few miles of enemy territory.

 

It was becoming increasingly apparent that nothing but a complete refit would be sufficient and Captain Waller transferred to Vampire on 26 September, leaving Lieutenant-Commander Robison to take Stuart to Malta. Lieutenant-Commander Robison was placed on the sick list the same day, however, and Lieutenant Teacher assumed command. Two days later Stuart sailed for Malta.

 

But she was destined to see more action before having her well-earned and much-needed refit.

 

Just before midnight on 29 September a submarine was detected. Stuart attacked immediately, charges were dropped, and a calcium flare was dropped to mark the submarines position.

 

Then began the game of hide-and-seek which was to last until 10 a.m. next day—a game that ended in the capture of the submarine’s crew.

 

Time after time Stuart passed over the U-boat, sometimes dropping several charges, sometimes only one, sometimes none. Huddled close together in groups of four or five, the Italians waited for the explosion which was to shatter their submarine.

 

Stuart’s first attack, prisoners said later, put out the lights and as they sat huddled in the darkness the crew waited in terror for the second pattern of charges. These seemed to detonate all round the submarine. The sides threatened to buckle, the U-boat quivered and shook, an oil tank split. Oil trickled into the submarine from the shattered tank and the air-purifying plant did not seem to be working efficiently.

 

They could hear Stuart racing to and fro overhead and it sounded as if there were three destroyers there, all attacking them. At 4 a.m. Stuart dropped more charges. In the submarine the air was becoming thick and clammy. It was hot, but the crew huddled still closer together.

 

The engineer officer had been examining the air-purifying plant. He did not say anything to them, but they could see that it was not working as it should. He was trying to fix it. Then he reported to the captain. They saw the captain shake his head. He looked very worried. He ordered them to let out a little air. It might be colder, less stuffy. They let out some air. It was no better.

 

Stuart, her supply of charges limited, was racing across the target, waiting for dawn. Then at 6.25 a.m. she made the fifth attack.

 

Eagerly the members of the destroyer’s crew scanned the water for debris or oil. The sea was covered with black, dusty-looking scum, but they knew that had come from the depth charges. There were small patches of oil, too, and the Australians quickly discovered them. The Wop had been damaged, anyway.

 

As it grew lighter they could see that the oil patch was growing, but there was no sign of debris. Just oil and scum.

 

A Sunderland flying-boat was circling overhead and Stuart’s men waved a cheery greeting. The Sunderland had spotted the U-boat, too, and dropped a bomb. Apparently the submarine had been surfacing, because she rose a moment later, off Stuart’s starboard bow, steaming off at ten knots.

 

Stuart’s guns quickly centred on her conning-tower and all guns fired together. The submarine crew abandoned ship immediately, climbing from the conning-tower with arms raised, and flinging themselves, with cries to the saints, into the water.

 

Fire was ceased, and Stuart raced in, hoping to capture the submanne intact. But the Italian commander had been busy setting off scuttling-charges and there was a muffled explosion from inside the submarine. Stuart sheered off as the U-boat shuddered and sank.

 

The captain, engineer officer, a junior officer and a destroyer captain taking passage were among the twenty-eight survivors picked up by Stuart. The trawler Sidonis, which had arrived just as the submarine surfaced, picked up another nineteen. Only two were lost—one killed by the explosion of the Sunderland’s bomb, and one by drowning.

 

Wet, bedraggled and pale, the prisoners were a sorry-looking lot. Some were quite young—none of the crew had volunteered for submarine service. They had been badly shaken by their severe depth-charging, and were still terrified when they clambered aboard. They had never been depth-charged before, and could not understand how Stuart had detected them. The captain, who spoke fairly good English, said that they had to surface because the air-purifying plant had been shattered and they were unable to repair it.

 

So Stuart’s refit had to be postponed. She went back to Alexandria with the survivors, replenished her supply of depth charges, and left on 8 October for a refit which was to last until the new year.

 

Among Vendetta’s jobs were voyages to Haifa, Palestine’s oil port, whose modern buildings seemed to contrast so strangely with the country’s Biblical setting. Overlooking the fine harbour was beautiful Mount Carmel, its orange groves and fine gardens fresh-looking and inviting, the old Carmelite Monastery prominent against the skyline. Across the bay were the huge oil tanks of Acre and tankers were berthed at many of the wharves.

 

Vendetta’s crew were to witness Haifa’s first raid—a hit-run affair by three Italian bombers. The Australians had just been granted shore leave and some of them were about to land when the bombs fell. This is how Lieutenant Graham Kingsford-Smith described the raid to me later.

 

“Khaki-clad figures were just making their way along the wharf when there was the drone of planes overhead. Picking ourselves up from the deck, where we instinctively dropped as we heard the bombs falling, we saw that one tank across the bay was blazing. Then there was the scream of falling bombs on our port side. And two more to starboard.

 

“I felt the hot blast of the explosion, and debris pattered down on deck. I saw three Italian planes making off fast. Those of us not manning guns picked ourselves up off the deck. My clean white suit was plastered with wet grey paint. The telephone from shore rang and I answered it, to be told that enemy aircraft were approaching. What I said was nobody’s business!”

 

Haifa was caught napping that time, but it was not to happen again. Bombers paid dearly for other attempts to blast the valuable oil port.

 

Australian soldiers had landed in Palestine and when the destroyers entered Haifa they hoisted the Australian Jack— a welcome sign which told A.I.F. men that this was not just another destroyer. Soon sailors and their soldier cobbers were roaming the streets together. The slouch hat of the Diggers was a welcome sight to the destroyer men, for they had already had many weary months away from home. How many more months there were ahead they did not know. .

 

Vampire shot down her first plane when her 0.5 multiple machine gun brought down a dive bomber which was attempting to bomb Eagle.

 

With Voyager and Waterhen, she had been with the Fleet on convoys to Malta, trying to entice the Italians out at the same time. The Italians wouldn’t send out their ships, although they tried to bomb the Fleet on several occasions. Fighters from the aircraft carrier Eagle were doing good work, and had already shot down two Italian bombers when another appeared. It flew right into the Fleet’s ack-ack barrage and crashed in flames.

 

Illustrious joined the Fleet later in the day, and, screened by destroyers which included the three Australians, set out to bombard Rhodes. At dawn forty planes from Eagle and Illustrious plastered the Italian base with light and heavy bombs, and returned safely.

 

Vampire and Voyager screened Eagle as the Fleet turned back to Alexandria and an hour later a Nazi dive bomber attacked the aircraft carrier. Vampire had a multiple 0.5 machine gun now, added during a brief refit, and as the Nazi screamed down on Eagle, Vampire poured a hail of bullets into him.

 

The Nazi crashed into the water, a plume of black smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air.

 

Early in October Captain Wailer, now in Vampire, left Alexandria with a large convoy for Malta. Somewhere ahead of them was the British battle fleet, out again under Admiral Cunningham’s command in an effort to bring the Italians to action. The battle fleet was unlucky~four Italian bombers shot clown was the most they could do.

 

Then on 9 October the battle fleet sailed again, Vampire and Voyager with them this time. A large Italian fleet had avoided battle only a few days before, so Admiral Cunning­ham’s force steamed to the coast of Sicily in an effort to entice them out again. Again they met nothing but bombers.

 

The Fleet turned back on ii October, Ajax Scouting far ahead of the destroyer screen. Muffled against the chilly morning air, Captain Wailer kept ceaseless watch on Vam­pire’s bridge. Less than seventy miles from Italian harbours, he would not take chances with enemy submarines and torpedo boats.

 

Then, almost right ahead, the thick darkness of the hour before dawn was broken by the flashing of guns. From Vam­pire’s bridge it seemed that Ajax had engaged an entire fleet, but the crack of gunfire was destroyer, not battleship, salvos.

 

Captain McCarthy Ajax’s “owner” swung his ship to avoid torpedoes streaking from three sides. Six-inch guns swung outboard, belched rapid salvos. There were three ships to fight—three small, fast, fleeting targets with a deadly sting in their torpedo tubes.

 

Then the sky glowed red and angry. Vampire’s crew, standing by their guns, saw fiery fragments hurled high into the dark sky and then, seconds later, the dull booming explosion floated back to them. Ajax, conqueror of the mighty Graf Spee, had done it again!

 

The sky was still aflame when Vampire detected a submarine. Out on the starboard flank of the Fleet she dashed, dropping charges to keep the intruder down. Scarcely was she back in position again when Ajax claimed her second victim, another 679 ton Airone class light destroyer.

 

This time there was no single explosion but a series o. blasts accompanied by shooting wreckage and flames, tossed high into the air.

 

But Vampire was too busy to watch. There was a Fleet to guard and she had detected another U-boat. Again she dashed out of line, flashing warning signals back to the Fleet. Again the depth charges splashed astern, detonated with a roar and a leaping fountain of oil-spattered spray.

 

The sounds of battle died. The moon peeped for a moment from behind her cloudy screen, the second destroyer disappeared, her fiery hot decks sizzling angrily as she plunged below, and it was dark again.

 

The third destroyer had avoided Ajax’s murdering guns, and raced back to the shelter of Sicily’s harbours. Damaged by shellfire, Ajax ploughed on, still far ahead of the Fleet. She was to see more battle that night. Ahead were Italian heavy cruisers screened by destroyers, and Ajax sighted them. Rapidly the signal was flashed back to Warspite. Away on Vampire’s wing, Sydney and the British cruiser York were ordered to join Ajax. Men raced to action stations across decks awash with foam and the two cruisers shuddered forward under full steam.

 

Seconds later Ajax opened fie again, crippling the 1620-ton Artigliere, one of Italy’s most modern destroyers. The heavy cruisers steamed away into the night, Ajax, damaged forward, being unable to catch them.

 

At dawn Sydney and York raced up, far astern of the fleeing Italians. The Artigliere was burning, and had already been abandoned by more than half her crew. Some were swimming, some were in boats, some were on rafts. A few were picked up, but there was no time to pick up the rest. They were still less than one hundred miles from Italian air bases, SO York gave the Italians thirty minutes to abandon ship, then sank the Artigliere with an 8-inch salvo which shattered her stern and pierced the magazine.

 

Advance units of the Fleet saw a dense column of white smoke and steam as red-hot plates hissed in the cold water of the Mediterranean. Then there was a flashing, shooting flame and an umbrella-shaped pall of smoke drifted slowly back in the morning breeze. Admiral Cunningham had struck at Italy’s doorstep and the Italians had run away.

 

But three valuable ships lay bruised and broken at the bottom of what they liked to call “Mare Nostrum”.