HMAS STUART at the Battle Of Matapan

 

HMAS STUART's Wild Night at the 'Battle of Matapan'
 

An Eyewitness Account by Chief Signals Yeoman Watkins, BEM, RAN

 

 

HMAS Stuart was transferred from the RN to the RAN in 1933. Until the outbreak of war Stuart served in the Australian waters. In 1939 she sailed for the Mediterranean and undertook patrol work with HMA ships Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen. These five ships were to become famous, called the Scrap Iron Flotilla by the German Propaganda Machine they were commanded by the flotilla leader HMAS Stuart and performed stirling service at a time when Britain and the Commonweath had their backs to the wall against the wall.

 

Often, we read about a historian's interpretation of events that might have occurred during military or naval encounters. But do they really get their facts, correct? Sometimes, the historians leave out important details contained in such true eye witness accounts.

 

The record that follows is an extract from my father's diary, Chief Petty Officer Watkins, and is his own personal interpretation of the Battle and his feelings whilst on board the famous Australian destroyer HMAS Stuart during the 'Battle of Matapan': a naval battle between ships of the Allied and Italian fleets.

 

It should be remembered, that this story was written some 60 years ago and well before the laws regarding racial vilification came into practice, thus expressions on race names used in this story, is in no way a reflection on today's peoples.

 

- Noel Watkins (Son of Chief Yeoman Watkins)

 

 

QUOTE DIARY VERBATIM..................

 

"Convoys that were going to Greece at frequent intervals would sometimes assemble at Alexandria or Port Said, or at both places. In the latter case the two parts would rendezvous at sea and form one convoy. One day late in March, a particularly important and valuable convoy (as Bob Blakey in HMAS Vampire put it; "A nice big fat juicy convoy") was on its way to pass the Kithera Channel.

 

Apparently the Wop (1) navy learnt of its existence and decided that it would be a good idea to send it to the bottom. Reports had reached the Admiral (2) that the Dagoes (3) were coming out.

 

Result =
 

Aircraft Carrier : Formidable
 

Battleships : Warspite (C in C), Valiant, Barham
 

Cruisers : Orion, Ajax, Perth, Gloucester
 

Destroyers : (2nd Destroyer Flotilla) Ilex, Hostile, Hereward, Hero, Havock, Hotspur, Griffin, Greyhound (10th Destroyer Flotilla) : Stuart
(14th Destroyer Flotilla) : Janus, Juno, Jaguar, Mohawk and Nubian
put to sea on the evening of March 27th. Throughout the night the fleet steamed at high speed, the cruisers going ahead to try and locate the main enemy force and if possible lure them down to our big ships.

 

At dawn, aircraft from the Formidable took off to assist the cruisers and pass in to the Admiral as much information as they could. After the cruisers and aircraft had located the enemy force, which they did about mid afternoon, we received position course and speeds which showed that we were more than a hundred miles away. But we could still have a shot at them, for away went nine aircraft from the flight deck of the carrier each laden with a tinfish(4).

 

The result was a crippled battleship able to steam at only 12 or 15 knots. Reports towards evening showed that we were only about 40 miles from this damaged bloke who had been left with several cruisers and a number of destroyers.

 

Meanwhile, the cruisers had had the main force under observation at about fifteen or sixteen miles range, the only parts visible were the fighting tops. The battleship had opened fire and though some of the shells fell close, both to the Orion and Perth, no damage was done. As evening was falling, the cruisers who had by now fallen back on the Admiral, were ordered to go some twenty miles ahead of us.

 

The Formidable sent in another attacking force of eight Swordfish obtaining one hit and this time stopping the vessel which is generally supposed to be the Vittorio. The destroyers were organised into two flotillas under the command of D14 leaving Stuart, Havock, Griffin and Greyhound to remain with and screen the big ships. At dusk, the 14th and 2nd Flotillas were sent ahead to search for and attack the disabled battleship with torpedoes. Unfortunately, they never found her.

 

Dark found the three battleships with Formidable astern steaming a course of 250 degrees with Greyhound and Griffin on the Port box and Stuart and Havock on the Starboard bow. We were somewhere between the Italian ships and our convoy, which earlier had been ordered to turn back but as we now between the two, had been ordered to continue towards Greece.

 

It was a dark night, no moon, visibility was as good as it could have been though very little light was given by the stars. At about 9.30 a report came in by W/T(5) from the Ajax that she had 'seen' by her detection gear an unknown ship, distant five or six miles. Our Navigating Officer (Lieut. Teacher R.N.) gave the position as being less than ten miles from where we were then. Griffin and Greyhound were ordered to come over to the Starboard side with us.

 

I was keeping a very good lookout peering through the darkness, when suddenly right ahead of us loomed a shape which I reported to the Captain(6). I was ordered to make the Night Alarm which I lost no time in doing by W/T. I ran back to my position and this time picked up one - two, three - seven ships. There may have been more but I never had the time to count them.

 

4.7' Gun Mount HMAS STUART
'B' Gun - 4.7" Gun Mount HMAS STUART.

 

They were coming down fast from a position ahead to pass a mile or so on the port beam of the battleships. All of a sudden, as the van ships, 8 inch cruisers, passed abreast of the Warspite, the sky opened up, at least it seemed so, when first the Warspite and then Valiant followed by Barham fired with both their main armament of 15 inch and secondary armament of 6 inch guns. A moment after the Warspite fired the leading cruiser burst into a mass of flames right from one end of the ship to the other.

 

Then the second cruiser burst into flames a salvo from either the Barham or Valiant caught her. By this time, a matter of seconds after the first gun, the air was full of noise, searchlights, tracers and spray. The Greyhound and Griffin who had been on their way to join us from the Port side, and who would have been right in the way of the enemy had they remained in their old position, had opened up on the destroyers.

 

Star shell were hovering in the sky and the tracers from Breda bullets twined a vivid line across the dark background. Stuart had joined in the fun and was engaging a destroyer or cruiser which was partly illuminated by Greyhound's searchlight, firing just astern of Griffin. Shells were fired by the Italians, and which were going over Griffin were falling with a 'crack' very near to us. But no one seemed to notice. Our main concern was to shoot and shoot straight.

 

The battleships after the first two or three salvoes were turned away to Starboard by fixed light manoeuvring signals. It was their only policy as an attack by the Wop destroyers with torpedoes might have ended the take quite differently. As the big ships turned, C in C made the signals "Destroyers attack". This meant Stuart and Havock, as Greyhound and Griffin had by this time drawn well ahead, guns still going.

 

The big ships had ceased firing when they turned, and apart from the firing from Griffin and Greyhound some distance away, all was quiet. Fires were visible in the distance - remember we were going ahead at 24 knots and we soon passed them steering in opposite directions as we were. So we two, on our pat, went around and headed in the general direction of the biggest fire, Stuart leading. As we closed ready to carry out a "Subdivisional torpedo attack" we made out the shape of a cruiser on fire amidships, and passed down the signal "Stand by to fire torpedoes". As we turned to fire we made out also, a second cruiser slowly circling the burning ship, so away went all our fish(8).

 

Subsequent reports and events showed that we hit both ships. The ship that had been burning sunk, though we had been too busy to see her. The second ship which had previously undamaged, was hit amidships and her engines and dynamos put out of action and as her guns were entirely controlled by electricity - the ship was useless. It appears that the crew on finding the ship hit, promptly took to the water. A survivor from the cruiser, a Yeoman of Signals, stated "when the ship was torpedoed, I cried 'Mama Mio' grabbed two lifebelts and jumped overboard". We saw this second ship at a later period with a heavy list.

 

Below: POSY Watkins.

 

The Havock never fired her torpedoes, as, she stated later, she did see a definite target. Meanwhile our guns were not idle having found targets. As we turned away after delivering the torpedoes into the bowls of the Italian navy, a destroyer, large, single funnel emerged from the murk only a couple of cables on our starboard bow. Around swung the guns - Bang - up went a shower of sparks, flame and smoke as the first shells burst around and on her bridge. Bang - this time the aft end of the ship got hit. Bang - where this salvo went I'm not quite sure, for at this moment, Havock following astern came between us, but I understand we got at least one hit. A little later however we were to see Havock silhouetted against this destroyer, which she had blown up. It was a terrific burst. The magazine must have been hit for a billow of flame shot up and from inside this rose a further mushroom head of flame of even greater brilliancy. Then, suddenly as it rose, it vanished, leaving dense smoke.

 

But I guess we didn't waste any time just lookin' at the sights. No sir. On our Port bow loomed a ship. It looked like a cruiser, small fire onboard. Round go the guns and as we turned around to get away from her we have the satisfaction of seeing our shells hit home. Then around on the Starboard bow is a ship on fire. This bloke fires back. Shells fall close and then further astern but it looks like only the anti aircraft guns are firing at us. The splashes are not large enough for those of six or eight inch. Again we have the satisfaction of seeing our shells arrive with the resultant outbreak of fire. At this moment I glanced around and had the satisfaction of seeing five distinct fires burning at the same time. Then came the Admiral's orders to retire to the North East. Our course lay through this tangle of broken ships, but we managed it.

 

Away to Starboard a duel was going on. You could see the tracer and burst of star shell and the flash as guns fired. But it must have been the enemy having a shot at one another for practice as none of our ships were doing any firing. We must have steamed through hundreds of men during the course of the action because cries could be heard continuously. An hour and forty minutes from the time of the alarm until the 'cease fire' went eventually. I was dry - dry as a bone that had been on the desert for a year. Not only in the mouth, but right down inside. It's an uncanny feeling that gets you when you see splashes of shells near you and to realise that someone is having a shot at you. Worse still to see flashes of guns and NOT knowing whether you or someone else is the target. When we engaged that destroyer at such close range there wasn't a shot fired from her, her guns remained fore and aft. At first this fact was not realised and every part of a second I spent anticipating a burst of fire from her guns and the resultant shock as the shells hit home. But nothing happened, thank God. I said my prayers fervently that night and I've said them since. And I gave silent thanks when we finally emerged with not a man hurt nor the ship damaged.

 

The success of the action we fought was all the more remarkable because a batch of the lads had just joined the ship direct from training. Then didn't know much about the guns or the drill but they did their job like trained seasoned hands and did it well. However, on drawing clear of the battle area we made our report to C in C and received from him a rendezvous for the morning.

 

We set course and speed so as to reach it, made sure the lookouts were in position then sat down and rested. I had a cup of cocoa about midnight and I don't think a drink was appreciated by anyone as I appreciated that one. This I followed with sandwiches which the Captain had sent down for, and were they good.

 

A signal received shortly after our report showed that Griffin, Greyhound and Havock had joined with D14 and the remaining destroyers who had made an unsuccessful search for the battleship. On their way back to join C in C they ran into the cruiser we had damaged and sank her with another fish. Just after dawn we sighted the 'big ships' who had been joined by the cruisers. After identification we proceeded to join at the same time as the remaining destroyers, under D14, came up on the other bow.

 

We formed up on the screen and no sooner had we got into position, than we, with Griffin and Hereward, were told to proceed to Athens and escort a convoy leaving that night. So it was full speed ahead - thirty knots and had been a quiet enough day. About 5 p.m. we passed the 'bait' of the night before battle, Vampire, Voyager, Coventry and their ships. We steamed past with battle ensigns flying whilst greetings were exchanged all around."

 

UNQUOTE

 

Thus, this was the end of one story and so it was onto another during Stuart's illustrious service in the Mediterranean during WW2.

 

FOOTNOTE
 

1. Italian
2. Sir Andrew Cunningham
3. Italian
4. Torpedo
5. Wireless Telegraphy
6. Captain Hector Waller RAN
7. Torpedoes

POSTSCRIPT

HMAS Stuart. Laid down in 1917, launched 1918, scrapped 1947.
Displacement - 1530 tons
Length - 332.5 feet
Beam - 32 feet
Speed - 36.5 knots
Armament - 5 x 4.7 inch guns, 1 x 3 inch gun, 7 smaller guns, 6 x 21 inch torpedo tubes.

 

 

HMAS Stuart had an eventful period of service. She took part in shore bombardments off Libya, the battles of Calabria and Matapan in 1940 and 1941 and troop transport in the Greek and Crete campaigns.

 

HMAS Stuart was ordered home in 1941 to protect convoys between Australia and New Guinea. From 1944 to 1945 she was converted into a fast store carrier and troop transport.

 

Stuart was credited with severely damaging the Italian cruisers Pola, Zara and Victorrio during this infamous naval battle.

 

Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the 'Battle of Matapan' the "greatest sea fight since Trafalgar".

 

When HMAS Stuart left the Mediterranean to sail to Australia for a refit and service in the Pacific in October 1941, Captain Hector Waller RAN was transferred to take command of the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth. He was to loose his life when the Perth, along with the USS Houston, were sunk during a naval battle with a Japanese armada in the Sunda Strait.

 

Admiral Cunningham, RN, when writing his auto biography, "A Sailor's Odessy," entitled the chapter on the Battle of Matapan "Stuart's Wild Night" - such was his admiration of Stuart's performance that important night. Truly the Commonwealth's greatest sea victory since Trafalgar. Apparently, too, Cunningham was very fond of Hec Waller and deeply grieved when he heard of his heroic loss onboard Perth. The cooks & stewards knicknamed Waller "Hard Over Hec" as most of his wheel orders, in action, were 'Hard a Stbd or Hard a Port". Waller would lay back in his chair, with pipe in mouth, on the bridge and actually wait for the dive-bombers to release their bombs before ordering the wheel hard over one way or the other!

 

Australia in the mid 1990's built a class of submarine, which were known as the Collins Class. Captain Waller will be remembered by having one of these submarines named after him, being recognised as one of Australia's leading naval officers.