Chapter 3 - Calabria

 

 

THE SCRAP-IRON FLOTILLA - Chapter. 3

Calabria

 

 

The tempo of war was rising rapidly. The battle for the Mediterranean was less than a month old, but already could be seen the prelude to the struggle which was to end almost twelve months later at Matapan.

 

July brought the first real bombings. July brought the first naval engagement in the Mediterranean. July brought the fall of France.

 

Vampire was first to meet the bombers. With Nubian, and three other British destroyers she left Alexandria to convoy ships from the Black Sea, skirting round the island of

Rhodes, through the beautiful islands of the Greek Archipelago, and into the Aegean.

 

On deck, keeping alert look-out for aircraft, - the crew saw Lemnos of Anzac fame, and then, not far from the heights of Gallipoli themselves, the convoy was sighted. There were eleven ships, including two tankers, and their maximum speed was six knots. The five destroyers turned back, picking their way more slowly this time through the picturesque isles and into the blue Mediterranean. So far it had been easy.

 

 

 

At noon next day the look-outs sighted aircraft, flying high, obviously approaching the convoy. Warning signals were signalled from ship to ship and the convoy spread out in open order, destroyers dashing round them to give them the maximum cover with their tiny guns.

 

The first bombs hurtled down, fourteen of them, splashing impotently into the calm sea. Vampire’s baptism of fire had been a mild one. Then the planes released more bombs. They were better aimed this time and ten fell round the Australian destroyer, sending giant waterspouts high into the air. The gentle breeze whipped the spray back across the bridge. The chattering cough of the lone pom-pom mounted aft was almost drowned by the clicking of cameras. There was no fear, no great excitement, only disappointment as camera fans yelled at the bombers to come lower so that they could photo- graph them.

 

For an hour the planes flew overhead, almost too high to be seen. The convoy, still in open order, plunged on towards Alexandria, while eager sailors on the decks of warships and merchantmen alike taunted the “skyscraping Wops”. Just after dusk twenty more bombs crashed down wide of the convoy. Then darkness brought relief.

 

At dawn the planes appeared again, six of them, still flying high. Vampire, stationed astern, dropped back to investigate a submarine report. The Italians dumped their full outfit. There was a dull “crump”, and clouds of spray and black smoke shot into the air as thirty-eight bombs crashed into the water a mile astern of the convoy. But for the submarine report Vampire would have been in station there. The convoy reached Alexandria unscathed.

 

France had signed an armistice with Germany on 22 June and in British ports where units of the French Fleet were anchored there was an atmosphere of tense speculation. The Royal Navy would be taxed hard enough in the Mediterranean now that the services of the French ships had been lost. They could not afford to have the ships of their former ally used against them. in English ports two old battleships, two cruisers, eight destroyers and a number of submarines had already been taken over. In Alexandria were the battleship Lorraine, heavy and light cruisers and destroyers, still fully manned.

 

By Thursday, 4 July, the French commanders had given no indication of their attitude to Marshal Petain’s order to return to French ports, although they had been informed that Britain could not allow them to move from the harbour. At 7.45 a.m., while the Frenchmen were considering British proposals, Alexandria’s air-raid sirens wailed their strident warning. British guns opened fire and it was not many minutes before Frenchmen were firing, too. Whether this action resulted from pro-British sympathies or from a desire to protect their ships, one thing is certain—immediately after the raid French officers and matelots decided that they would allow their ships to be demilitarized.

 

But these were a small part of France’s Mediterranean Fleet. Some of France’s mightiest and newest warships lay in Oran Bay, and the 35,000-ton Richelieu swung at her moorings at Dakar. These were French ports and their naval commanders refused to disarm their ships. Within a few days, in the melancholy battle of Oran, and in the swift blows struck by a tiny depth-charge-laden launch and Swordfish bombers at Dakar, the potential menace of France’s armada was~ removed.

 

Nevertheless, Allied naval superiority in the Mediterranean had been lost. Italy had six battleships, twenty-five cruisers, more than sixty destroyers, more than one hundred motor torpedo boats (some of which were virtually destroyers) and some one hundred odd submarines. All of these were based in the Middle Sea, while Britain could spare only part of her forces for service between Gibraltar and Suez. To whittle down Italian superiority and to provide protection for convoys from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, Admiral Cunningham, aboard his flagship Warspite in Alexandria harbour, was planning his first “Mediterranean sweep”.

 

On the morning of 7July the grey battle fleet in harbour at Alexandria slipped quietly from its moorings. White Ensigns fluttered gently in the breeze and salt spray shipped across lean fo’c’sles.

 

The destroyers left harbour first, Stuart, Voyager and Vampire among them. This was to be their first sweep with the Fleet, and they eagerly looked forward to the next few days.

 

There was a “buzz” that the Eyeties had actually put to sea! Behind the nine destroyers were heavy and light cruisers leading Warspite and Malaya, with the aircraft carrier Eagle astern. So began Admiral Cunningham’s first sweep of Italy’s “Mare Nostrum”. It was not to be long before British might had won the right to send ships where and when she wished, and Mare Nostrum became known throughout the Fleet as “Cunningham’s pond”.

 

 

 

 

There was a large area to sweep, so the force was divided into three, each force being instructed to rendezvous at 6 a.m. on 9 July. Force A, which included the Australian destroyers, was sighted by Italian reconnaissance planes early on 8 July, and five bombing attacks followed in the next eight hours. On two other occasions British ack-ack fire drove off the Italians before they could get in position to unload their bombs. One of the other destroyers, with a force near Crete, sank a submarine, and an E-boat was blasted out of the water.

 

Air attacks, E-boat attacks, submarine attacks! In vain did Italy try to keep Cunningham’s fleet away from her fleeing warships.

 

At dawn on 9 July Eagle sent off her Swordfish planes on reconnaissance. Back came their reports, the Italians’ position was quickly plotted, and course was altered to intercept. In the Australian destroyers screening the battleships, gun crews cleared away the ready-use racks, saw that they had plenty of shells close by. Torpedo-men had a final look at their deadly fish, well greased, loaded and ready. Eagerly the crew discussed the latest reports. They should meet the Wops about 2 p.m.

 

From Eagle’s shiny flight deck flashed nine Swordfish torpedo bombers, wicked looking “fish” slung ready beneath their bellies. But the Italians managed to evade them. Altering course rapidly the enemy attempted to avoid a decisive action. Superior in tonnage, superior in speed, the Italians were still trying to get away!

 

Screening the battleships, the Australians had a wonderful view of the British Fleet. ‘With Stuart, Voyager and Vampire were British destroyers, their slender bows cutting foaming white wakes in the calm blue sea. Out on the wing the cruisers were no less impressive, creaming bow-waves frothing up almost over their fo’c’sles, sparkling wakes churning and bubbling astern. Then there were the battleships, imperturbable, powerful, wallowing slightly in spite of the calm. Behind them steamed Eagle, squat, like a block of flats, the sun shimmering on her polished flight deck. Visibility was perfect, the sky blue and cloudless. Warspite controlled the Fleet. A few gaily coloured flags fluttered to her yardarm and answering pendants were hoisted throughout the Fleet. Then the flagship’s signal tumbled down and the answering pendants came down together. Helms went hard over and the Fleet altered course, the trim, tiny destroyers leaning outboard and straining against the wheel, the battleships, still unhurried, turning more slowly. They had practised this in peace-time. Now it was war! As the minutes flew by, tension grew. Would the Wops escape again.

 


HMS WARSPITE - MEDITERRANEAN

 

Then, with a crashing salvo from the more excitable Italians, the battle began. The British cruisers, ten miles ahead of the battle fleet, checked their range, sent 8-inch and 6-inch shells screaming twenty thousand yards into the Italian Fleet.

 

From Voyager it seemed that the Italian cruiser squadron stretched the length of the horizon. Behind this line, barely visible yet, were the Italian battleships and their attendant destroyers.

 

Three minutes after the battle opened, Admiral Cunningham sent his destroyers in to attack. Voyager and Vampire were detailed to screen Eagle while Stuart accompanied the attacking flotilla.

 

The destroyers turned together, plumes of brown smoke billowing out as they increased speed to thirty knots, boiling wakes trailing astern. By the tubes the torpedo-men stood ready. Gun crews waited impatiently for the range to close. Enemy bombers roared overhead, dropping bombs aimlessly. Eagle’s Swordfish struck at the Italians, probably torpedoed a cruiser.

 

It seemed that every one was firing now. Miles astern, Warspite steamed majestically into battle, spewing giant 15- inch shells across both lines of cruisers into the Italian battle fleet. With a tremendous roar she disappeared behind a pall of black and yellow smoke with every salvo—a pall through which the flash of her ack-ack guns showed dull and angry.

 

The Italian destroyers dashed in and out between their heavier ships, laying a dark smoke screen. Everywhere was the acrid smell of cordite, of oil fumes. On Stuart’s starboard wing were our cruisers, flame belching from their guns as they poured salvo after salvo into the smoke screen which was covering the Italian Fleet. Stuart was firing, too, shuddering forward at her maximum speed, snapping quick salvos whenever a target appeared.

 

Then enemy 8-inch cruisers found her range and three salvos straddled her. Giant spouts of water rose on both sides, Stuart pitched forward, staggered a little, and plunged on undamaged.

 

 

That had been close! The Italians’ shells were apparently high explosive, for they burst when they hit the water. The British preferred to use the more damaging armour-piercing projectiles. A minute later six streaks of foam cut the calm blue water, but the torpedoes, fired from behind the Italian smoke screen, passed harmlessly by. Gun crews, eagerly watching for targets in the thickening smoke screen, saw a line of enemy destroyers. Quickly the guns were brought to bear and two shells struck one of the ships.

 

Behind the destroyers, Warspite, who had already damaged one Italian battleship, was rapidly decreasing the range. It seemed that the Italians might yet be brought to decisive action in spite of their rapid flight.

 

Then a lone Italian destroyer dashed from behind the curtain of smoke, thick black fumes belching from her funnels. Amazed at her daring, Stuart’s men watched as she raced down the line, every British ship pouring salvos at her.

 

Drenched with spray from near misses, covered with spume and spattered with shell fragments, she staggered across in front of the British cruisers, her tiny guns pouring out ineffectual fire.

 

Then, just as it seemed that she might get away, a salvo struck her magazine. There was a blinding flash, and flame and smoke and twisted wreckage were hurled into the air. When the smoke had settled there was nothing on the surface but scum and oily, tangled debris. The destroyer’s name was Zefliro.

 

The British ships, heedless of torpedoes and gunfire, plunged through the smoke, firing for almost half an hour at indistinct, flitting targets which appeared spasmodically and vanished. By this time the Italians’ superior speed had enabled them to draw out of range, and Admiral Cunningham was forced, reluctantly, to cease fire almost on the enemy coast. “The action was disappointing,” he said later. “We had no opportunity of dealing with them at close range.” But that opportunity was to come later.

 

The Battle of Calabria had not ended. Stung by the loss of a destroyer and damage to one of their biggest battleships almost within stone’s throw from their own coast, the Italians sent out swarms of bombers. From 4.50 p.m. until 7.30 there was no respite. ‘Nave after wave of planes dropped heavy and light bombs, and Voyager and Vampire had more than their share of action. Still screening Eagle, they were the bombers’ favourite target. Twisting and turning, they dodged “stick” after “stick”, their tiny guns barking defiance at the high flying Italians.

 

On deck the crews of each ship kept tally of the falling bombs. Quickly they chalked up the thousand, and had almost reached double that number when the bombers retired, beaten.

 

Commanders Ivlorrow and Walsh had altered course so skilfully that less than thirty bombs fell within two hundred yards of either ship. The confidence they inspired in their crews was to prove invaluable during the next few weeks, for the real bombing had not yet begun!

 

Two nights later Voyager and Vampire left Malta on convoy. They steamed out of the harbour in bright moonlight, look-outs keeping alert watch ahead for ships, listening intently for aircraft. Then fifty yards away from Vampire there was a dull “crunch”, and a column of smoke and spray was tossed into the air. An aircraftengine roared into life above them.

 

 

The two destroyers twisted and turned away. The plane had spotted their wakes in the moonlight, glided down unheard, released a bomb and left before they could fire a round. The bomber was not alone, however, and within a few seconds the crews of both destroyers were to witness their first night raid on Malta.

 

From the bridge and deck, officers and men watched the powerful searchlights pointing inquiring fingers into the sky, probing for the bombers. Then the “flak” started, stabbing bursts of flame flashing from a thousand gun positions. The dull roar of the big guns conflicted with the vicious snapping of smaller weapons and the ceaseless cough-cough-cough of the pom-poms.

 

The sky was alive with tracer, the darkness split by red and yellow lances which seemed to float lazily upward for a second, then whipped through the night with a whine. Then, for a second, the whole sky was aflame. One of the Italian raiders was on fire—a Roman candle, indeed. Slowly it turned over and over as it tumbled down, its engine coughing weakly. Red and yellow flames licked round it greedily, leaving a trail of fiery smoke. The plane struck the ground, exploded in a sheet of flame, and the sky was dark again.

 

The convoy steamed on, Voyager and Vampire keeping station easily in the bright, clear moonlight. It seemed so peaceful, looking back from the destroyers to where the five black shapes of the merchantmen ploughed through the shimmering water. Shortly after 5 a.m. Voyager dashed away from the convoy and dropped five charges on what might have been a submarine. Commander Morrow took no chance when he had a convoy to look after.

 

Then the bombers returned and Vampire, out to starboard of the convoy, had just altered course to give the ships greater protection when eight bombs crashed down, straddling her. Some of the bombs fell less than twenty feet away, and the decks were awash with spray. Shrapnel flew in all directions, penetrated the ship’s side forward, holed an iron stanchion, peppered the funnel and blew the door off the wheelhouse.

 

The Gunner (T) Mr J. Endicott, R.N., standing on the porn-porn platform, was badly wounded by shrapnel. Two minutes before he had been in his cabin, resting after his watch. Chief Petty Officer Galley, the gunner’s mate, who had been checking the ammunition supply at the porn-porn, had found some empty belts, and reported to the gunner.

 

“I’ll bet you’re wrong. Let’s go and have a look,” Mr Endicott said. The pair had just reached the porn-porn plat forrn when the bombs fell, and shrapnel grazed Chief Petty Officer Galley and badly wounded the gunner.

 

Mr Endicott was the only casualty and, though he was still conscious, it was obvious that only an immediate operation could save him. Commander Walsh made a signal and was ordered to steer a course to meet the Fleet. The next hour was hell let loose. Neither destroyer had many ack-ack guns and these puny guns seemed useless against the bombers. Dive-bombed from almost masthead height, bomb after bomb landed within two hundred feet of the ships.

 

The chattering of ack-ack guns was drowned by the roar of planes, screaming down in almost vertical dives. Then there was the shriek of falling bombs and the sickening, terrible explosions as they burst in spouts of water, smoke and shrapnel.

 

Vampire was alone, now, steering at full speed for the Fleet, while the sick-berth attendant and stewards tended Mr Endicott as best they could.

 

The bombers left, and the tiny destroyer plunged on until HMS Mohawk was sighted. The gunner was placed in the whaler, and taken across to the British destroyer, where the doctor and his assistants were preparing to operate. Then, as the whaler made back to the ship, the bombers came again. Sturdy seamen strained at their oars and the boat seemed to lift from the water. In a matter of seconds it reached Vampire’s side, was made fast to the boat’s falls and hoisted inboard. Never before or since has a whaler been hoisted in such quick time!

 


HMS MOHAWK

The bombing began again. Twice before Vampire rejoined the convoy sticks of bombs fell so dose that the crew were drenched with spray as they lay face downwards on the deck. On the bridge Commander Walsh watched every movement of the Nazi planes, altering course swiftly as he judged the flight of the bombs with amazing skill.

 

The porn-porn and Lewis guns kept up an ineffectual barrage, their crews sweating and cursing as they kept the guns pouring out a continuous hail of fire. From the deck it seemed that the screaming bombs would always hit them. Then, at the last minute, the ship would shudder round under full wheel and the bombs seemed to whip away in a rapid curve, hitting the water with a crash. Eight times the bombers attacked; eight times they were beaten off. More than fifty bombs had fallen within two hundred yards of the ship, and shrapnel holes were a grim reminder that Vampire had been very lucky.

 

Then a signal was received ordering Vampire to escort the Fleet back to Alexandria. Voyager and another destroyer continued on with the convoy and Vampire turned back. During the afternoon the Fleet was attacked several times without result, but a cloudy night brought relief and much needed rest.

 

There were ten attacks before noon next day, but this time Warspite, not Vampire, was the target. It was comforting to hear the crackle of the Fleet’s fierce barrage and the bombers lost some of their daring.

 

Commander Walsh, who had spent almost a week on the bridge under the fiercest fire the Mediterranean had known, kept up the crews spirits by his personal bravery and masterly seamanship.

 

Looking aft he saw Able Seaman Bell, the after anti-aircraft look-out, sitting unconcernedly on a depth charge, surrounded by five thousand pounds of T.N.T. A tin helmet on his head and his life-jacket round his chest to protect him from shrapnel, Bell spotted for the bombers through powerful glasses. He didn’t have long to wait. Eleven times during the afternoon the raiders dropped their five-hundred-pound bombs, but the Fleet was not hit.

 

In less than twelve hours Vampire had been through twenty-one attacks, during which three hundred bombs were dropped. In the ship’s log they entered up the tally—fifty-six raids in ten days, one thousand eight hundred bombs dropped, one hundred and fifty of them being within five hundred yards of the ship! But it had not been without casualty.

 

During the afternoon of 12 July, while enemy bombers made ceaseless attacks, news of Mr Endicott’s death was received. He had not lost consciousness during the hours before he was transferred to Mohawk. His one concern was that he might not keep any one away from their action stations. So, during a lull in the fighting, Australia’s first naval casualty was buried beneath the now placid waters of the Mediterranean.

 

Bombings were not confined to the Fleet. Malta, strategically placed to interfere with Axis plans in North Africa, was singled out for special attention by the Italian Air Force, and the raids increased both in size and in number. Vendetta, in dock, had been a popular target, but somehow every bomb missed and, though the area round the dockyard was pitted with huge craters and a tug oniy a few yards away was directly hit, the destroyer escaped except for a few shrapnel scars. “Marooned” now that their ship was laid up for repairs, the Australians had heard of France’s collapse and ultimate surrender.

 

“Half-sailors, half-soldiers”, they helped with Malta’s ever-growing defences. They knew little of the tense atmosphere at Alexandria or of the battles of Oran and Dakar, but the arrival of a French submarine at Malta made France’s defeat seem more real.

 

The submarine was spotted by aircraft a few miles from Valetta and a British destroyer raced out to meet it. At first it appeared to be flying the red, white and green tricolour of Italy, but as the destroyer approached officers could see that the U-hoat was flying two flags—France’s tricolour and the Union Jack. Although the submarine made no attempt to dive, the Royal Navy men were still suspicious and they escorted her into port.

 

The submarine had been based on Algiers and, in the few hours which preceded France’s collapse, officers and men decided to steal out and proceed to a British port. Secretly they approached officers and crews of other French ships— they outlined their plan, urged the others to accompany them. But while their comrades debated among themselves someone informed the authorities of the submarine com- mander’s scheme.

 

Orders were immediately given from the shore officials that the submarine was to move to a wharf farther up the harbour, and a strong guard waited for the U-boat to berth. Slipping from their moorings at the buoy, the submarine seemed to be headed up-harbour. Then she turned. At full speed she raced downstream directly for the strong anti-submarine boom stretched across the entrance. They could not force their way through that stout barrier!

 

But they were not the only ones with pro-British sympathies in Algiers that day. The boom-master left the boom open after a ship passed through; and the submarine headed out to the open sea. Signals flashed threats and warnings, but they took no notice of the winking lights. At the radio, the operator tapped with rapid urgency on the morse key. At a small table near by sat two officers, surrounded by books of secret codes, carried only by French naval ships and establishments. They passed sheets of paper covered with hastily scrawled groups of numbers to - the operator and, in spite of the apparent urgency of the message and the grim threats being made by signal from shore batteries on the coast, every one in the ship seemed to be laughing at some secret joke. They were still laughing when they arrived at Malta. The message had been addressed to all French warships at sea. Purporting to come from Admiral Darlan himself, it had ordered all Frenchmen to proceed immediately to the nearest British port!

 

For a few days the French Submarine remained in harbour, and then, as suddenly as they came, they steamed out to patrol off the Italian coast. Within a fortnight they were back again, their torpedo tubes empty, their supply of ammunition dangerously low. White and shiny against the dark grey of the conning tower were two newly-painted swastikas.

 

Four times they slipped quietly from their moorings, four times they crept back into harbour. The number of swastikas grew. Again they took on torpedoes and ammunition, and left for their patrol area. Weeks passed, grew into months, and there was nothing but silence. . . . They had served their country faithfully and with a courage that knew nothing of surrender. But the price of patriotism is often high.