Chapter 5 - Greece - Novembers New War

 

 

Scrap Iron Flotilla

 

GREECE
 

NOVEMBER'S NEW WAR

 

HMS Eagle and Indomnitable in Convoy in the MedITALY'S war with Greece was a fortnight old. Already the Greeks had begun to push into Albania and in the mud of rugged mountain passes lay Italian dead and Italian equipment.

 

It was bad weather for making war. In driving rain, through slimy, sticky mud, the Italians were forced back from strong-point to strong-point and town to town. Their transport lay bogged, their mountain artillery sprawled, helpless and abandoned, in a dozen slushy ravines.

 

In Alexandria harbour, Admiral Cunningham assessed his chances of bringing the Italian Fleet to action. Air reports disclosed that the enemy had not ventured from his harbours of Taranto and Messina. When British forces raced across the Libyan desert, Admiral Cunningham's forces preceded them, blasting Italian towns and transport along the desert road. But Mussolini was not offering naval support to his Army in their invasion of Greece. Once again it seemed that the Navy was to be denied its chance of a decisive engagement.

 

Vampire was the only Australian destroyer at Alexandria. Stuart was in Malta refitting and Voyager, Vendetta and Waterhen were convoying to Malta.
Early on 10 November, while bells rang out their message of peace from Alexandria's churches, the grey battle fleet slipped silently from harbour. Noisy Gladiators swarmed overhead, searching the narrow entrance for lurking submarines.

 

Dirty little minesweepers had been out in the grey dawn, sweeping a lane for the Fleet. And now the big ships, some grey, some wearing strange dazzling camouflage, steamed ponderously out between the scudding barges and feluccas. But this time Vampire was not to accompany the destroyer screen.

 

 

Her ship's company lined the decks and enviously followed every manoeuvre of the "boats". They saw Frenchmen spring to attention on the decks of the French battleship Lorraine. They heard the French bugler "sound off" to Admiral Cunningham in Warspite, heard the British bugler reply with all the ceremony of peace-time.

 

The Australians did not hear the story of that sweep for some days. Then their cobbers in Sydney told them of the debacle at Taranto and of slaughter in the Adriatic. For while Alexandria prayed the Royal Navy had looked for battle.

 

Sydney's crew told the destroyer men how the forty-mile-long battle fleet had hovered unmolested within range of the huge coastal guns of Pantellaria -Italy's Malta. But the guns were silent. Even the Italian Air Force was reluctant to venture into the air where the Fleet Air Arm's Fulmars waited. There was no battle there they would seek it nearer Italy. In the bright sunlight signals fluttered gaily at Warspite's yard. Then, as they tumbled down, the Fleet turned. Admiral Cunningham was disappointed, but he still had another plan.

 

Screened by sleek, darting destroyers, Eagle and Illustrious who had shared so many adventures, steamed up almost to the entrance to Taranto harbour. The carriers turned, bows into the wind, their flight decks alive with bombers and torpedo bombers. The dusk had just settled into the quiet of evening. Moonlight played on the calm water. There was no sound but the monotonous "swish", "swish", as lean bows cut through the swell. Then powerful engines roared into lifc. Plane after plane flashed across the flight decks and swooped away into the night, moonlight flashing silver on their wings, as they wheeled off to strike at the harbour-bound enemy fleet. It was 8.35 p.m.

 

The light bombers dropped parachute flares and incendiaries. When the Swordfish arrived, lean, shiny torpedoes slung beneath their bellies, Taranto was blazing. The Swordfish, swooping, skimmed the placid waters of the harbour, roared towards battleships lying helpless at their moorings.

 

Then the battleships belched flaming broadsides of fire. A Swordfish was hit, collapsed in a flaming ball. But the others screamed in to the attack. The placid waters churned into life as deadly torpedoes flashed towards the battleships like sleek sharks, leaving trails of white foam. Forward on one of the 35,000-ton battleships there was an orange flash. Plates bent and buckled with the explosion, flamed red hot, sizzled in the cold water of the harbour. From below the waterline a thin column of smoke trickled, yellow in the moonlight. Two Cavour class battleships collapsed, stricken, under blows from half a dozen slim "fish". One lay crippled on its starboard side, its guns pointing impotently into the water which glowed ruddy and horrible. The other, its stern smashed, wallowed drunkenly.

 

Four of the Swordfish roared across the battleships in the inner harbour, launching their torpedoes at two cruisers and two fleet auxiliaries. One of the heavy cruisers disappeared in a sheet of flame, the other lay surrounded by oily scum. Outside, Admiral Cunningham waited patiently. Perhaps the Italians would be "smoked out". And in the Adriatic, bounded on one side by Italy itself and on the other by Italian-occupied Albania, Australia's sole representative among this British fleet was already under fire.

 

With Ajax and Orion, Sydney was steaming towards Valona. The moonlight played on her decks and the other cruisers were clearly visible-not a happy position when the whole of Italy's Fleet and Air Force lay between them and the Mediterranean!
Then ships were sighted ahead, tiny black shapes which grew bigger and bigger in the moonlight. Somehow the British ships weren't sighted. Perhaps the Italians felt that here, at least, they would be safe. Surely the British wouldn't venture past the minefields off Otranto! Surely the Adriatic was "Mare Nostrum"-even if the Mediterranean wasn't.

 

At ten thousand yards the British cruisers opened fire. Two Italian destroyers raced away from their four-ship convoy, laying black smoke screens. A 6-inch salvo bracketed one; tore gaping holes amidships. But the merchantmen were the chief prize. One had been sunk within five minutes of the opening salvo. Another blazed from stem to stern and flames licked greedily at the third. The sea was alive with rafts and boats and men. Smoke floats, dotting the calm waters, sent clouds of billowing white smoke into the sky. In the wireless-room, telegraphists heard the Italians' urgent and repeated cries for assistance.

 

VW Class Warship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the Italian Fleet was busily engaged with eleven Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers! Admiral Cunningham waited in vain. The Italians stayed at home, so in the dawn he steamed back to Alexandria. As far as fleet action had been concerned, the sweep had been a failure. But Italy would remember 11 November 1940 and the loss of three battleships, two heavy cruisers and two auxiliaries. Meanwhile Vampire had taken a convoy of oil tankers to a port on the north coast of Crete. The Australians had never heard of it, but in the months ahead it was to become as familiar as Alexandria. The port was called Suda Bay.

 

With two armed merchant cruisers carrying troops and ammunition, the Australian destroyer sailed two days after the Fleet left for Taranto. Alexandria was bare of naval ships, except for Lorraine and other Frenchmen. How different from the Italian naval bases! Leading Phoena and Checkla, Vampire steamed out at noon, the Lorraine "sounding off" with bugle in reply to the destroyer's "pipe". The first stage of the Greek campaign had started!

 

Early next morning the convoy joined some oil tankers, and all ships went to second-degree readiness. E-boats were prevalent in these waters and this was a valuable cargo. But there was no "interference" and in the afternoon of 13 November the Australians sighted the entrance to Suda Bay. In brilliant sunshine, Vampire raced ahead to make sure no enemy submarines lurked beneath the unruffled surface. Lining the rails, men off watch had their first glimpse of the new base.

 

A lone mountain stands at the entrance on the port side of the bay, with the main range rising in the background. Suda Island, a rocky sentinel, guards the mouth of the bay itself-an old-world treasure island complete with the ruins of an old stone church and sprawling battlements. On Suda Point, on the starboard side, are more ruins, with a lone mountain in the distance.

 

So, closed up ready to deal with submarines, Vampire was the first British warship to enter Suda Bay. There was no time to waste sight-seeing, however, and when Commander Walsh was satisfied that no submarines waited inside, Vampire steamed out to bring the main convoy in. Already a boom-net layer had begun to lay submarine nets the entrance, and a British minesweeper had begun to sweep a safe channel. Two hours later, when the main convoy entered, the net was almost complete. The Navy wastes no time!

 

Vampire did not enter again, but remained outside on anti-submarine patrol. Two destroyers passed through the net during the night, oiled, and came out again. In the morning another convoy entered, led by Ajax, fresh from her triumph in the Adriatic. The British cruiser's decks were packed with transport vehicles, and soldiers lined the rails. Just after noon Suda Bay had its first air raid. Italian planes were sighted, flying high, but a strong wind had sprung up and the bombs were blown half a mile out to sea as they fell. Greek fighters went up, intercepted the seven bombers, and shot three of them down.

 

Later twelve planes were sighted flying in perfect formation. They were coming in across the island and were hard to distinguish against the dark mountain background. Gun crews raced to their stations, and supply parties dumped belts of ammunition near the quick-firing weapons. The planes drew nearer, still in perfect arrow formation, and then it was seen that they were geese, flying high. They flew overhead squawking their protest at the unwonted activity below.

 

At dusk Vampire re-entered Suda Bay to oil, ready to sail early next day. The crew were up at dawn to have their first real glimpse of this strange new port. The sun rose, a vivid orange, behind the blue hills, and reflected in a thousand shimmering lights on the glassy waters of the bay. In the first strange light of dawn, the ruins on the foreshores were ethereal, ghostlike. Gold-capped mountains, rugged and forbidding, swept right down to the water's edge and were reflected in the placid surface. Olive-trees grew along the waterfront on the northern shore and a rough road wound around the foreshores on the southern side.

 

The crew had hoped for leave to explore the island with its tumbling ruins, but at 6.30 a.m. "Special sea-dutymen" was piped, anchor chains rattled in the hawsepipes, and Vampire turned out to sea.

 

Towards sunset second-degree readiness was again ordered as the southernmost Dodecanese Islands were sighted on the port bow, but Vampire was unmolested, and arrived at Alexandria without further incident. Next morning Voyager and Vampire left for Malta with the biggest convoy they had ever taken. Four ships were detached at Suda Bay and then the convoy steamed on to Malta. Excited Maltese, thrilled with the sight of the convoy which seemed to take hours to enter Valetta harbour, thronged the high, rocky walls lining the harbour.

 

This was Malta's first big convoy for some time and the welcome was so sincere that it brought tears to some of the Australians' eyes. Vampire entered first, cheered by thousands of Maltese. Bells chimed and the strains of patriotic songs floated across the waters of the Grand Harbour. The children, no less excited (though perhaps they did not value the convoy as did their parents), waved flags and gaily coloured pieces of material. The local papers that day printed long ovations to the Fleet, letters of praise and thanks.

 

We are inclined to think only of Malta as a much-bombed brave little island. Most of us do not stop to think that the need for war materials was so great in those early days that the "importation" of food was strictly limited. Malta was- and is-a brave little island, but often the Maltese contended with more than "mere" bombing.

 

Australians from Voyager and Vampire visited their cobbers in Stuart, for the flotilla leader still lay in dock. There, for the first time, they listened to a British pilot's description of a dogfight-a description broadcast from a fighter as it twisted and turned after Italian bombers.

 

"We will now give you a bullet-to-bullet description of the fight between J. Bull and Ben Musso. No holts barred, only one to win," one pilot began.

 

"Tally-ho. Tally-ho," they heard, above the powerful roar of a Hurricane's engine.

 

"Someone's on a Wop's tail," one of Stuart's ratings cried. "That is the signal for the attack."

 

The pilot's voice broke in again, a little more tense and excited this time.

 

"Tally-ho. Tally-ho, there. Go down, you Dago b----! Ah! There he goes." -
 

And down the Italian went.

 

The following day the Australians were to listen to another wireless-Rome radio-and they derived just as much pleasure from it as they had from the R.A.F. broadcast. The Italians weren't very good liars.

 

With two British destroyers, a cruiser and the battleship Ramilles, Voyager and Vampire sailed from Malta with a fast convoy bound for Egypt. On the first night out two dull explosions were heard far astern. They sounded like depth charges, but there were no alarm signals and questions next morning revealed that no ship had dropped a charge. A lurking Italian submarine had obviously fired two torpedoes which had exploded in the convoy's wake.
 

Eagerly the men gathered round the messdeck wireless to hear Italy's version. Sure enough the announcer claimed:

 

 

 

 

"Two British ships sunk while being closely convoyed by one of our most daring submarine commanders." Ambiguous grammar and not any more accurate news than usual!

 

Italian raids on Alexandria were becoming more frequent, \ and when the destroyers arrived they found that King Farouk's palace had again been struck by a heavy bomb. The arrival of the convoy provided the enemy with more targets and heavy bombers came over just after dark. At first they were stopped by the fierce barrage, but a few planes managed to get through, hurriedly dropped their bombs, and fled. They were lucky, though.

 

One bomb struck Decoy, moored not fifty yards away from Vampire, and other bombs landed in the water between the two ships, peppering the Australian destroyers with shrapnel. Decoy had been hit astern and there were some casualties. Fire began to spread, but volunteers from Voyager and Vampire lowered a sea-boat, rowed across to the British destroyer, and helped get the flames under control.

 

Then the planes appeared again, and an eighteen-year-old seaman raced to Vampire's Vickers. With a tin hat jammed tightly on his head, he crouched behind the gun, firing at the unseen enemy overhead. Bombs again crashed down, this time wide of their targets, but the concussion blew a torn scrap of a letter on to the deck. He picked it up. It only had three complete words on it. They were "Sailors don't care . .

 

Next day the Australians attended the funeral of the eleven members of Decoy's crew. Prayers were said, the funeral firing-party fired a volley, and the Last Post was sounded. As they trudged away from the graveside, the Australians paused for a moment at another grave, only a few steps away. There lay the remains of Umberto Narvi, captain of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, who died of wounds after his action with H.M.A.S. Sydney.

 

In Alexandria, the first convoy for Greece was being loaded. Troops, transport and a number of Australian nurses had already been embarked, and there were anxious moments when at 10 p.m. the first Italian raiders appeared. They were greeted with one of the fiercest barrages of the war, as the Fleet and shore batteries opened up. Some of the Australian seamen were enjoying shore leave. Others, duty watch on board, manned the ack-ack guns and poured a hail of fire into the dark sky. Men without tin hats could not venture on deck and those who had no ack-ack action stations remained in the messdecks, listening to the shrapnel from bursting shells pinging on the fo'c'sle.

 

There were two more raids that night, but each was futile. In spite of the full moon, the Italians' aim was poor and the Fleet and the laden transports were unscathed. At midnight next night the convoy sailed. There were three transports laden with Australian soldiers and they cheered Voyager and Vampire as they darted into position ahead of the convoy.

 

The seamen cheered, too. The troopships were an inspiring sight-thousands of cheery bronzed troops, laughing, joking and outwardly unconcerned by the battle that lay ahead. With their life-jackets already in position, they were a strange but no longer unfamiliar sight and as the destroyers raced past they could distinguish the slouch hats of wiry Diggers and the pointed hats of the "Kiwis". They would get the best protection the destroyers could give. There were brothers and cobbers there-yes, and sisters too.

 

The trip to Athens the first British convoy was a fast one, but the Australians were not destined to see the famous Greek capital. At the entrance to the port, after shepherding the convoy in, the destroyers turned, and raced back to Alexandria.

 

Next night at 2 a.m. the alarm gongs sounded. Men, sleepy from constant guarding of the precious convoy, tumbled from their hammocks and raced to action stations. On the starboard bow a dark shape loomed in the moonlight. Vampire's guns swung on to the target. A signalman flashed the challenge for the night, received the correct reply. Ramilles, her 15-inch guns pointing at the cheeky destroyer, wallowed slowly past. . .

 

There was no leave at Alexandria, either. Back to Malta went Voyager and Vampire with another fast convoy, but this time the trip was not to be uneventful. Just off Suda Bay two planes were sighted, flying low down on the horizon. "Repel aircraft!" was piped and crews raced to their guns. Two Italian torpedo bombers came in from the convoy's starboard side, sunlight flashing on their wings, their torpedoes clearly visible.

 

Voyager and Vampire turned to meet them, every gun blazing. This was a new kind of warfare to the Australians and they knew that they could count on Commanders Morrow and Walsh to dodge the "fish". So fierce was the destroyers' fire that the Italians circled away, but then they came in again on the port side. One plane let go his torpedo, but it missed badly. The other darted in, loosed his "fish" and zoomed away. The torpedo passed harmlessly astern of the convoy.

 

That night the destroyer men listened to the Rome broadcast telling how an entire convoy had been wiped out by torpedo bombers. "Our daring pilot returned to the scene and not a sign of a ship did he see," the announcer boasted, amid cries of "Probably the b--- got lost" from the mess-decks. Rome radio was the Australians' chief diversion at sea. There were cries of "What's the news, you liar," and "What's to-night's fairy tale," whenever the announcer began his broadcast, and many were the laughs unwittingly provided as ship after ship was "sunk" or "heavily damaged and probably destroyed".

 

So ended November and Italy's first month of war with Greece. Vendetta and Waterhen had taken their share of convoys to and from Malta, and in the last few days of November they took another convoy to Athens. Vampire and Voyager had been as far afield as Haifa, had taken the first convoy to Suda Bay, the first Australians to Greece. Stuart, at Malta, was nearing the end of her refit.