Chapter 6 - Greece - Rising Temo

 

 

Scrap Iron Flotilla

GREECE - RISING TEMPO

 

HMA Eagle and Barham in MaltaTHE opening of the Western Desert campaign provided another task for the Australian destroyers and the sandy escarpments of the Libyan coast were the scene of operations for the greater part of December, January, February and March. Voyages to Greece and Crete were less frequent for a time as British ships took over convoys to the Aegean and the Australians were mainly concerned with bombardments and anti-submarine sweeps between Alexandria and Benghazi.

 

Stuart arrived from Malta in mid-January, and at 1 a.m. next day sailed with Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and Wry-neck to screen Bar/tam and Eagle. Dawn found the seven ships off Bardia. Eagle's pilots had just been given their final instructions for the bombing of Tobruk and planes were almost ready to take off when a signal was received ordering the ships to Suda Bay at full speed.

 

 

 

It had been a grim day in the Aegean. Illustrious had been torpedoed by torpedo bombers, Birmingham had been bombed, Southampton was bombed and later sunk and Gallant, a destroyer manned by Poles, was sunk by dive bombers. The bombing and bombardment of Tobruk had to be postponed-it was to come a few days later, and it was to be a much "bigger and better" battering than Bar/tam and Eagle could have delivered!
Dive bombers, which had met with such success earlier in the day, did not trouble the five destroyers and their charges and they arrived at Suda Bay without having sighted a hostile aircraft. At midnight Eagle and Barham sailed for the Italian base at Rhodes, escorted by Ajax and Perth. Eagle's planes dropped tons of bombs on various parts of the island and the other ships carried out a brief but successful bombardment without opposition.

 

At 9 a.m. Vampire and Vendetta sailed with Ilex and Wryneck to join the bombardment force, carrying out an anti-submarine sweep along the northern coast of Crete at the same time. The British force was sighted at noon and the destroyers formed close screen ahead.

 

An hour later Vampire was detached to investigate mysterious explosions on the tiny island of Santorin, almost due north of Candia in Crete. As the Australian destroyer approached, clouds of smoke could be seen on the horizon and then the island itself was sighted. The smoke rose in great puffs rather than in a continuous plume and as Vampire drew closer it could be seen that the "explosions" were nothing more mysterious than the eruptions of an active volcano.
 

For two days Vampire and Vendetta patrolled in Kaso Strait-a peaceful stretch of water which in a few months was to run red with the blood of Nazi troops. Then, after oiling, the destroyers steamed from Suda Bay to pay their first visit to Athens.

 

As they steamed through the picturesque islands of the Aegean the destroyers passed a convoy of twelve ships escorted by two British escort vessels and the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry. At about 5 p.m. they entered the Gulf of Athens.

 

"It was like coming out of gaol and going into paradise," an officer told me. "We had become accustomed to the monotony of the dusty Libyan escarpment, but here were beautiful little islands, green and fresh. The grass on the hilly foreshores was strange after the sand of Egypt and Libya and in the distance lofty mountains poked up into the clouds.

 

"We arrived at Piraeus just after dark and leave was piped immediately. Our money was changed-five hundred drachmae for a Gyppo pound-and we felt like millionaires because all we could get were fifty drachmae notes.

 

"We travelled to Athens free. Wherever we went the Greeks surrounded us, wanted to give us presents, wanted to 'shout' us and wouldn't let us pay for anything. What a change after those robbing Gyppo hawkers!

 

"The Greek girls were lovely. They were carryiing on their menfolk's work, and were very proud of it. I had always thought of Greece as a place where the girls wore gaudy native costumes and danced folk dances most of the time. However, there wasn't much of the gaudy costume business in war-time Greece and the girls always refused to dance. They would just shake their heads and say, 'Not till victory,' and that was that."

 

Two days later Vampire and Vendetta sailed for Suda Bay and just before dawn Vendetta was forced to slow down as a result of engine trouble. Vampire reduced speed to twelve knots just as a mine was detected right ahead. If they had been steaming at full speed they could not have sighted it in time. The two destroyers arrived at Suda Bay just as Eagle, Barham, Ajax, Stuart, Wryneck, Hasty and Griffin were leaving, so they joined the destroyer screen.

 

The name Suda Bay is pregnant with bitter memories for most Australians, but to those who saw it that morning it will always be thought of as one of the world's most beautiful bays. The sun was just rising and the snow-capped mountain peaks were tinged a delicate orange. Reflected in the placid blue waters of the bay they assumed a new grandeur, the white snow, tinted with orange and pink, merging into the brilliant green of grass and shrubs on the slopes. But soon this was left behind-ahead lay drab, uninviting Egypt.

 

No enemy aircraft were sighted during the day, but in the brilliant moonlight bombers made a number of fruitless attacks. At daylight they fled back to their bases as British fighters came out from Alexandria, but the Fleet entered the harbour six hours late-the first time enemy aircraft had delayed the Australian destroyers.
Meanwhile the Western Desert campaign had developed rapidly and the Australian destroyers were kept more than busy along the North African coast. Vampire, however, left Alexandria with Hots pur late in January and arrived at Port Said next day to convoy six large ships bound for Crete and Greece. The merchantmen were loaded with war material and carried thousands of soldiers, so Commander Walsh expected trouble from U-boats and aircraft. Somewhere ahead the British battle fleet was screening them, but it was not in sight.

 

By dusk on the first day out a fairly heavy swell was running and the barometer was dropping rapidly. By morning the wind had reached gale force and the ships were struggling into giant seas. Conditions grew worse instead of better-the Mediterranean at its worst is not the placid lake of Riviera advertisements. Vampire began to "pile-drive" into the seas, the wind whipping icy spray back from the fo'c'sle across the bridge and the decks were constantly awash as green seas thumped down on the bows. Life-lines were a grim necessity and men going on and off watch clung to them while waves broke over the deck and the tiny destroyer leaned over at startling angles.

 

As Vampire pitched and lurched into the sea the messdecks became a shambles. Lockers came adrift from their fastenings and water poured into the messdecks from a leak in the deckhead. Soon the water was inches deep and fruit and vegetables, boots and socks and clothing were swished from side to side as the ship rolled. Hammocks were slung all the time-men could not stand upright long enough to unlash and stow them. Men came off watch wet and bedraggled and cold, but still cheerful. Somehow they managed to strip, dry themselves on damp towels and climb into swinging hammocks.

 

Next day they tried to bale out the water on the mess-deck, but as soon as they hurled one bucketful over the side, another wave would thump down on the fo'c'sle and streams of water poured back. After four hours the water was still about an inch deep, but all hands declared they were satisfied. By dusk the water was rising again, and more bucket and mopping-up parties were formed to try and clear the messdecks.

 

In the meantime, however, the forward store had sprung a leak and water was pouring so fast that the bilge pumps could not cope with it. Messdeck mopping-up parties had to be used on the Downton pump and, aided by the bilge pumps, they managed to keep the water in check.

 

On the second night out three of the troopships left the convoy and proceeded in to Suda Bay. The seas were still mountainous. In the galley cooks tried to lash pots to the stove and for two and a half days the entire ship's company lived on stew and sandwiches. The deck in the galley was awash and the steam made conditions in the messdeck so stuffy that the men preferred to stand out in the spray during their watch below.

 

'We could not see Hotspur at times, and I suppose they lost us too," a seaman told me. "I have never been so scared. The pitching was bad enough, but when we caught the sea on our beam Vampire almost rolled over a dozen times. Even the big merchant packets were tossing about like corks, and I hate to think how sick the soldiers must have been. I don't think I was ever so glad to see anything as I was to see the Gulf of Athens that time. We took a fast troopship with uS, left Hots pur with the slower ones, and made for Piraeus at high speed to dry dock for repairs. There were plenty of holes to patch up and forty-eight hours' leave sounded pretty good."

 

British troops were arriving in Greece in large numbers by this time and while Vampire lay in dock Ajax, Perth, Orion, Bonaventure, Gloucester and Coventry landed thousands of soldiers in Piraeus.

 

February was a month of convoys and patrols. British and Imperial forces moved across the Libyan desert to capture Benghazi on 7 February, and the North African coastline became a supply line which had to be maintained in the face of constant submarine and air attacks. Meanwhile, in Greece and Yugoslavia the tempo of battle was rising and the Australian destroyers knew Suda Bay and the Gulf of Athens as well as they knew the harbours of Bardia and Tobruk and Sollum.

 

Late in March, while escorting a convoy from Alexandria to Suda Bay, Waterhen was attacked by swarms of dive bombers. Lieutenant-Commander Swain swung his ship skilfully and avoided the falling "eggs" which exploded with a dull crump near the ship's sides. But the convoy was not so lucky. The 8700-ton tanker Marie Maersk was hit by two bombs, and burst into flames. Fanned by the gentle breeze the flames became fiercer and the tanker's crew abandoned ship just as the bombers left, their deadly work done.

 

Lieutenant-Commander Swain was not beaten. He considered the tanker could be saved, and called for a volunteer crew to board her, fight the flames, and sail the tanker to Suda Bay. There was no shortage of volunteers, and Lieutenant C. G. Hill (now Lieutenant-Commander, M.B.E) a Sydney man, led them. He had been second officer in the Canadian-Australasian liner Niagara before the war. Among the volunteers were Leading Seaman Smythe, Able Seamen Rigby, Haydock, Mann, Woods, and Parkes, Signalman Palmer, the tanker's captain, and the Danish second engineer, Rasmussen. As they clambered aboard by means of ropes, Able Seaman Mann slipped, and fell heavily into the whaler. He was badly injured, and had to be rowed back to Waterhen for medical attention.

 

By the time it was dark the volunteer crew had boarded the blazing vessel, and had begun to get the fire under control. The whaler was made fast astern so that they could get away if the flames grew too fierce, but a fairly strong sea was rising. When forced back to the stern by the heat Leading Seaman Smythe shone his torch to look for the whaler. He could see only the frayed end of the rope. The whaler had broken adrift! Water/ten had been swallowed up in the night! The salvage party were alone.

 

Most of the tanker's crew had been saved, but many had been killed by the explosion and their bodies still lay on Marie Maersk's steaming deck. In the engine-room Rasmussen and one of Waterhen's stokers sweated as they tried to get the engines going. It was hot enough on deck. It was almost unbearable below.

 

As the engines began to move the engineer started the pumps, hoses were rigged, and water played on the burning decks. The spirit store burned fiercely and a deck cargo of coal was threatened. Below, in the tanks, were 13,000 tons of oil fuel. Standing on the steaming "cat-walks" the seamen directed salt water at the flames, watched them gradually die.

 

Meanwhile Lieutenant Hill had studied the damage. The bomb had struck the tanker amidships and the bridge section was almost entirely gutted. Only the mangled frame of the wheel remained and the steering-gear itself had been damaged. Until midnight Lieutenant Hill steered by main engines. Seamen who had never been in an engine-room before took their turn in the moist heat below and varied the revolutions under instructions from Rasmussen and the stoker, Meanwhile, from Suda Bay, a tug was approaching the still-blazing tanker.

 

Zigzagging slightly, Marie Maersk wallowed along like a moving torch, visible for miles. The tug arrived at 12.30 a.m. and efforts were made to tow. A minesweeper stood by, and, when steering by engines became im-. possible due to course alterations, the minesweeper attempted to tow the tanker by the stem. This proved a failure, but Able Seaman Haydock had, in the meantime, managed to get the hand steering in operation and the vessel was steered towards harbour. Then for another seventeen long, weary, hot hours, the volunteer steaming-party stood at their posts, playing hoses on the flames which still burned brightly as the tanker entered Suda Bay.

 

Vampire left Alexandria in March with a convoy of ten troopships. There was a "buzz" that this was to be an unusual trip and the rumours grew stronger and stranger as the bos'n's mate piped: "The ship is proceeding on a secret mission." At noon Voyager joined Vampire, and the convoy had increased to twelve ships all laden with troops. There seemed nothing secret about the voyage. Soon familiar little islands were sighted and the convoy entered the Gulf of Athens. But no leave was piped and no one was allowed ashore- the secret mission was about to begin.

 

Commander Walsh was not aboard when the destroyer sailed, but Vampire stopped just outside the port and a small yacht, which had been waiting, began to move towards her. The motor-boat was lowered and Vampire's crew lined the rails to see who was coming back to the ship.
As the boat approached they could see Commander Walsh and a foreign-looking man sitting in the sternsheets. As they came aboard there were wild guesses as to the stranger's identity, but no one knew until later when a broadcast communiqué announced that the Premier of Yugoslavia, M. Milan Stojadinovich, was in British hands.

 

"The announcer said that this chap was hand in glove with the Axis, so we hoped he would be seasick. And sure enough he was! A stern sea, slightly on our quarter, made us roll and twist and huge waves were thumping aboard. Three of the lads were knocked down by one wave which swept inboard, and one-Fredingham, I think-was unconscious," a seaman told me.

 

"There was no one near enough to help him and he would have been washed overboard if the engineer officer hadn't seen him and grabbed him just before the next wave rolled aboard.

 

"We called the stranger 'Stinko', and every few minutes there would be a communiqué passed round as to how green he was or how sick he looked. We were a bit sorry that there weren't a few more Axis fifth-columnists aboard, too; but a Nazi Premier is quite a decent-sized fish. And I'll bet he agreed with old Goebbels about us being 'scrap iron' after the dusting we took."

 

By the end of March German pressure on Greece had increased to such an extent that their declaration of war was expected hourly. Convoys to Piraeus had increased in size and number. Voyager and Vampire left Alexandria on 26 March with seven ships laden with troops and war material which included American Tomahawk fighters. Italian reconnaissance planes sighted the convoy early next morning and in the afternoon a signal was received warning the Australian destroyers of the presence of an Italian battle fleet in the vicinity.

 

Course was immediately altered back to Alexandria, for the troops, ships and equipment were too valuable to risk. But the convoy could do no more than ten knots and it was nearer the Italians than the slower British battle fleet. It was touch and go. The stage was set for Matapan.