Chapter 10 Libya - Race Across The Desert

 

 

Scrap Iron Flotilla
LIBYA
ADVANCE ACROSS THE DESERT

 

 

Less spectacular than the mighty Fleet sweeps of the Mediterranean, or giant convoys to and from Malta and Gibraltar, were the actions fought off the hot, sandy escarpments of the North African coast.

 

Heavy and light naval units had been in action against Mussolini’s fortified towns in Libya long before General Sir Archibald Wavell began his swift drive across the desert. Bardia had been shelled by British and French forces just ten days after Italy’s entry into the war—a brief bombardment lasting less than fifteen minutes, but fierce enough to shatter transport massed by Graziani for a push into Egypt.

 

When Wavell’s army began to move forward the Fleet steamed farther along the Libyan coastline. Town after town was blasted, transport, both German and Italian, was smashed as it moved in long convoys along the desert road, and advancing British and Australian troops attacked from behind a comforting barrage of fire from naval guns whose calibre ranged from 4-inch to 15-inch.

 

Australian soldiers were destined to play a glorious part in the British advance and it was not surprising to find the Australian destroyers in the forefront of the sea battles which were fought night and day for twelve long, weary months.

 

wavell.jpg
General Wavell

 

By December Stuart was refitting at Malta and Vampire badly needed a complete overhaul. The other destroyers had been alternating with convoys to Malta and Suda Bay when Voyager and Vampire were ordered to accompany the force which was leaving to bombard the Libyan coast. So, on 6 December 1940 the two Australian destroyers joined Royal Navy escort units screening the battleships Bahram and Valiant and the aircraft carrier Illustrious. Sidi Barrani was to have been the chief target, but news of the town’s surrender to the British forces came just as the ships were steaming in towards the coast. Italian prisoners flocked along the road leading to the town, thousands awaited capture inside and others streamed away towards the Libyan border. Vampire and Voyager nosed slowly into harbour, wary of minefields, and the Australians went ashore on leave.

 

Native troops were still chained to their guns where the Italians had left them. Some Italians (who were not hampered by chains!) had fled when the British troops advanced, but the majority had waited to be captured. The town itself was in ruins. Destroyer ratings roamed among the debris, their chief aim being to “souvenir” Italian anti-aircraft guns. Masses of equipment were available and both Voyager and Vampire received their share. The ratings passed casually through groups of more than a thousand Italians and saw only a few British guards. In what was left of the barracks over three thousand enemy troops huddled, waiting to surrender. There hadn’t been time to deal with them yet!
 
 
 
Left - Marshall Rodolfo Graziani - nicknamed 'The Butcher' after his slaughtering of the Sanussi Arabs in Libya after they rebelled against italian rule in the 1930s.

 

Graziani was Commander In Chief of Italian Forces in North Africa. At Mussolinis insistence he timidly attacked Egypt as his troops were both poorly trained and equipped for this task.

 

By February 1941 the Italians were a 'spent force' in the Middle East and following their defeat at Beda Fomm. Graziani relinquished his command in North Africa.

 

He was held to account by a court of inquiry in Italy bust insisted that it was Mussolinis interference that was the major contributing factor to his defeat
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Leave, however, was only a matter of hours. A submarine had been sighted near Sollum and the Australian destroyers left at high speed to hunt for it. But they were thwarted again. Barely had they cleared the entrance when they received news that the British destroyer Hyperion had already sunk the U-boat. Ten miles from Bardia, Voyager and Vampire met the 7200-ton monitor, Terror, a squat, low, floating gun-platform with two great I5-inch guns.

Strangely enough Terror was responsible for Malta’s one and only panic. At the outbreak of war in the Mediterranean, British authorities had been worried about the Maltese, but they soon learned that the “Malts” could take it. Air raids became so common that the entire population grew blasé.

 

Then, one day, the unbelievable happened. The “Malts” began to complain! Excitedly they implored British soldiers and police to “Stop it. Stop it.” But it wasn’t the bombing they wanted stopped. In the harbour, Terror’s 15-inch guns were throwing up a terrific barrage and the concussion had broken windows all round the port.

 

“Please stop it,” begged the Maltese, “We would rather put up with the raids.” Now Terror was steaming into position to attack Bardia, and the Australian destroyers darted round her searching for submarines. Gradually the old monitor neared the coast and Voyager and Vampire went inshore to screen her. Then the bombardment started. Terror’s starboard gun muzzle rose slowly as the layer sighted on the target. There was a roar, a yellow and red flash, and a 15-inch projectile hurtled almost ten miles across the calm water. An eerie silence followed—a silence broken only by the faint moaning of the shell. There was a faint smudge inside the town as a pile of debris shot into the air.

 

Terror’s other gun fired. In the centre of the fort there was a cloud of dust. Fragments of brick and twisted steel were flung skywards. Faintly, but clear in the silence, the sound of the explosion was heard. Then there was a pause as the British gunnery officer waited for the dust to settle. He picked a new target, the giant barrels swung, steadied, and roared again.

 

At intervals for two whole days, while the Australian ships steamed round her on anti-submarine patrol, Terror bombarded Bardia. More than six hundred shells blasted the Italian strong-point in those forty-eight hours and they were fired by one of the most accurate of all Britain’s gunnery ships. Each target was selected with deliberate care. Not a shell was wasted. Then, on the second day, Vampire steamed in to within three miles of the shore. “We’re the bait!”

 

Quickly the word spread round as it became known that they were to try to draw the batteries’ fire. Terror would fire at the flashes, but the flashes would have to come first. And those same flashes would mean shells fired from big shore guns! Vampire was not quite three miles from shore when the Italian batteries opened up. Shells screamed towards the tiny ship. Every one heard them coming, waited for them to burst. But the enemy gunnery was poor and some of the splashes of falling shells could hardly be seen.

 

Left: A long line of Italian Prisoners of War - Libya 1941

 

Terror fired and as her shells struck there was a tremendous sheet of flame in the centre of the main battery. The Australians were so close to the shore that they could see men and guns hurled into the air as Terror pumped shell after shell into the Italian gun positions. Even seasoned gunnery officers in the destroyers could hardly refrain from cheering such magnificent shooting. The Australians shouted their applause as explosion after explosion demolished enemy emplacements. Italian fire had abruptly ceased and Bardia lay silent. Columns of smoke rose from every quarter of the town and the glow of burning buildings was clearly visible as the destroyers raced away, the monitor following more slowly.

 

 

 

 

 

Vendetta and Waterhen were in the vicinity now, doing a continuous anti-submarine patrol between Sollum and Bardia. As they kept an all-night vigil off Bardia, officers and men in Voyager and Vampire could see that Terror had left the Italian base in flames. The glow was visible from more than thirty miles away and Royal Air Force bombers had no difficulty in finding the target. Bombs dropped in the town with crashing explosions and bursts of flame that seemed insignificant in the general inferno. Field guns poured fire into Bardia from positions only a few miles from the outskirts and the night was alive with multi-coloured tracer from ack-ack guns. On the Sollum “leg” of her patrol Vendetta went in about a mile from the town. The little fort had fallen the day before and in the early morning light the great craters caused by bombs and shellfire could be seen quite clearly. The town had been mashed into pulp. Among the wreckage of the white buildings were piles of uncounted booty—guns, ammunition, stores.

 

From the sea it seemed that Sollum was nothing but a town built on arid, sandy waste. There was no sign of green vegetation, nothing to. break the yellowy-white monotony of the desert. Even the sea-bed was devoid of growth and a mile from shore tiny pebbles could be seen rolling to and fro on the sandy bottom as the tide washed over them.

 

Back at Bardia, Voyager and Vampire steamed up and down a few miles offshore. The Italians had apparently abandoned all hope of saving the town. No effort was made to send supplies or reinforcements by sea and ships in harbour made no attempt to escape. British gunners kept up their merciless bombardment from just outside the town. Australian soldiers, waiting eagerly for the order to advance, had seen the sun set blood red against the golden sky.

 

“That afternoon there was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, one of Voyager’s ratings told me later. “The sun went down directly behind Bardia, a blood-red ball that looked hazy through the smoke from burning buildings.

 

Left: Overlooking the cove at Bardia - Main town centre out of picture upper left corner

 

“I was on watch on the bridge and I heard one of the officers say, ‘Old Sol is set in blood to-night.’ He said it very quietly, as if he were sorry for the Italians. I think we all were, really, but they had started the fight, not us, and we were out to show them what war really meant.

 

“I remember looking at the high cliffs and thinking how dark they looked with the sun setting right behind them. I was glad the sun was set in Italian, not Australian, blood, and somehow I knew that before long I would be walking through the streets of Bardia.”
By midnight that night Vampire had again made rendezvous with Terror and the monitor was moving into position just off the dark escarpment. Morning dawned cold. grey, miserable. Visibility was poor, but gradually improved throughout the morning, and the afternoon was clear. All day Terror hammered away until it seemed that nothing could be left alive inside Bardia.

 

 

 

 

To seaward Vendetta patrolled in search of lurking sub¬marines, but found none. Then eager look-outs spotted two planes, low down on the horizon. Alarm bells sounded: “Repel aircraft” signals fluttered to the masthead to warn Vampire, Voyager and Terror. But already men were racing to anti-aircraft stations and guns were swinging to meet the planes. Newly “souvenired” Italian Breda guns, mounted aft, were manned for the first time. The aircraft hovered on the horizon, about fifty feet above the water, obviously waiting until visibility decreased.

 

“Come on, you dago b———s,” gunners yelled, as Vampire and Voyager swung between the monitor and the enemy. The Italians were torpedo bombers, sent out to sink Terror before she could add to the havoc inside Bardia. It was surprising that they had not arrived earlier!

 

Ten minutes after they had been sighted the cry “Planes approaching,” went up from the four ships. The destroyers altered course towards the bombers, and speed was increased to twenty-six knots. The Australian ships opened up with their 4-inch guns, but they had no barrage shells for their ready-use stowages were crammed with high explosive shells for bombardment and semi-armour piercing for surface action.

 

The Italians came in less than a hundred feet from the surface. One of the aircraft dipped slightly, flattened out and a shiny torpedo slipped from beneath the undercarriage, disappeared with a splash, bobbed up and plunged again. Vampire swung round sharply and the “fish” passed forty yards astern, missing the nearest other ship by some five hundred yards. Then the planes flashed down the port side, launching three more torpedoes. Feathery white streaks cut the blue Mediterranean, white streaks that seemed to head directly for Terror, who wallowed round in an ungainly manoeuvre. But the Italians were unlucky and the deadly torpedoes passed harmlessly by.

 

Vendetta and Waterhen took over then and the two other ships raced back to Alexandria to fuel. Three hours after they had entered harbour, Voyager and Vampire sailed again for Bardia, but Vampire’s port turbine broke down just off Sollum. Commander Morrow went on to Bardia while Vampire patrolled off Sollum until dark, and then limped back to Alexandria. The engine trouble proved serious and the destroyer secured alongside the mother ship Woolwich for repairs which were to keep her in port until after Christmas.

 

Voyager was to be more fortunate. Patrolling just west of Bardia, look-outs sighted a black shape that was barely visible against, the dark escarpment. “Action stations” sounded and Commander Morrow, peering through powerful night glasses, closed the range to investigate.The shape grew clearer as Voyager moved towards the coast. The gurgling of water swirling past the bows sounded like thunder in that tense silence and the creaking of the Ship as it “worked” could be plainly heard. Guns were brought to bear on the target, Lieutenant Cook passing his orders through the phones to eager ratings who laid and trained their guns silently, speedily. In the dark the search¬light manipulator fumbled for the switch, lost it, cursed, found it again. Torpedo-men swung their tubes outboard and stood waiting.

 

“Open shutter,” ordered Commander Morrow, and the 250-ton motor schooner Zingarella was centred in the silvery-blue beam of Voyager’s searchlight. Almost simultaneously a shot from “A” gun splashed into the water just ahead of the schooner. There were yells from the Italians and a white sheet (apparently kept handy for such an “emergency” as this) fluttered over the side in surrender.

 

Left: Italian/German African Campaign Medal.

 

Originally designed in 1941, this decoration was intended for issue once the Axis Armies captured Cairo, (Egypt) from the British. Of course this never happened.

 

Then, from the holds, ten British soldiers appeared. Quickly they disarmed their former guards, and convinced Commander Morrow of their identity. The Tommies, members of the Queen’s Own Regiment, had been captured at the approaches to Bardia, and were being taken to Tobruk. Instead, they offered to take the Italians to Egypt.

 

“We’ll sail her back, capt’n,” they shouted as they rounded up the hundred members of the crew. And sail her back they did!
Next night Terror continued her bombardment and at dawn British battleships, cruisers and destroyers completed the destruction of Bardia. As they flung hundreds of tons of shells into the town it seemed that the tops of the buildings were being lopped off with a giant scythe. For an hour they hammered away at the port, silencing the last few shore guns with terrible salvos from 15-inch guns. Then they moved along the coast to plaster transport and tanks which fled in long, ragged columns, from the town.
Australian troops took Bardia that day.

 

 

There were other ships operating off the Libyan coast about whom nothing has been written—tiny craft of every type and size, manned by bronzed young seamen who led a life as daring and adventurous as that of any sixteenth century pirate.

 

Their boats were more Italian than British. They were armed mainly with captured Breda guns, they were stocked with Italian food and supplies. Even the clothing worn by the crews was predominantly Italian. But the White Ensign fluttered defiantly from their tiny masts and the equipment had been “borrowed” by night raiding parties who had scoured enemy supply dumps and returned laden with food and ammunition. Because they had no base nearer than two hundred miles from where they operated, they depended almost entirely on the Italians for food and ammunition and fuel. But the enemy didn’t know it!

 

Vendetta rescued one of these ships a few hundred yards from the coast between enemy-occupied Bardia and Tobruk, the Australian destroyer creeping inshore until she was in danger of grounding, and then lowering a whaler to tow the disabled motor-boat out. The boat had damaged her propellers, and was drifting towards the coast when Vendetta intercepted a radio message and steamed in to assist.

 

With hands at action stations, the destroyer moved towards the dark escarpment, expecting Italian guns to open fire at any minute. But they were unseen and the tiny boat was towed to Sollum, bobbing in Vendetta’s boiling wake.

 

Another of these boats had been used to capture three Italian generals who attempted to flee from Bardia less than
twenty-four hours before the town fell. The officers were escaping in a staff car along the bitumen road that winds along the foreshores towards Tobruk when they were sighted by the boat’s look-outs. As the fast craft raced along, keeping pace with the Italians, captured Bredas poured fire into and ahead of the staff car. The officers decided to surrender and a special landing party brought them back on board, covered with their own weapons.

 

With Stuart and Vampire laid up for repairs the three other destroyers found their work considerably increased. From a month before Christmas until after the New Year, Voyager was at sea every day, taking part in bombardments, screening the Fleet, acting as “bait” to draw fire from shore batteries, and maintaining an anti-submarine patrol between Tobruk and Alexandria. For forty-four days she steamed up and down the African coast, the crew on constant look-out for enemy planes, submarines and surface craft. During those forty-four days there were only twelve hours of leave and officers and men welcomed a short relief of an hour or two in harbour to take in fuel.

 

There was not much relief from the monotony of patrol, but ratings from Vendetta and Waterhen, as well as from Voyager, were able to roam about in Sollum and Bardia for a few hours.

 

Sollum, nestling at the foot of a mountain range, was in ruins. Unlike Bardia, the town was comprised solely of one-story houses, most of which had been reduced to rubble by British shellfire. On the eastern side were barbed-wire enclosures where thousands of Italian prisoners waited quietly for transportation to Egyptian prisoner-of-war camps.

 

Outside the town the bitumen-surfaced highway wound like a ribbon, stretching out until it was lost in the desert. On the road trucks moved in an endless stream, some speeding up to the front with supplies, some carrying captured war material back to British supply bases. Many of the trucks were large Italian diesel transport lorries and the Army was putting them to good use. As ratings from the destroyers walked round the trucks they were amazed to see Italians still working on them—repairing engines and carrying out routine lubrication.

 

An Australian transport sergeant grinned at the bewildered sailors, told them that the Italians were eager to help.
“We treated them pretty decently when they were captured and so they decided to help. They are pretty good mechanics, too, and it makes work lighter for us. We really have more trucks than we can cope with now that we’ve captured this lot.”

 

In the town and outside it there was no sign of grass or trees or shrubs—nothing but yellowy sand and dry brown dirt. At the quayside stood column upon column of dejected prisoners. On the harbour itself were about twenty captured Italian schooners. The Italians had large numbers of these ships, craft of between 250 and 500 tons, invaluable as supply ships. Many of them were to fall prize to the Royal Navy as British troops pushed farther into Libya.

 

Vampire was in the middle of her refit at Christmas, but her ship’s company could not be given all-night leave on Christmas eve. “Liberty men fall in” was piped and nearly half the ship’s company filed ashore, all trying to devise some excuse for staying the night in Alexandria. Then somebody rang the Wallaby Club.

 

“The First Lieutenant, Vampire, speaking,” he said. ‘Would you mind telling any of our ship’s company that they can have leave until 7.30 a.m., please?”

 

Even those who doubted the authenticity of the message decided to stay ashore, for they realized that Vampire could not possibly go to sea. Next morning sixty-seven ratings were up before the First Lieutenant for overstaying their leave.

 

Each gave the same excuse, and (as only sailors can!) looked most grieved that they had been “imposed upon”. The “Jimmy” had no option but to send them before Commander Walsh. But Vampire’s captain took the joke in good spirit, told the men that it would only work once, wished them a Merry Christmas on behalf of the officers, and dismissed them. Things like that made the Australian ships the happiest in the Mediterranean.

 

A week later Vampire successfully completed her trials, and sailed for Sollum. Vendetta met her just outside the port and the two ships began a sweep to Tobruk, meeting Voyager on the way.

 

The sweep was without incident, however, and the three destroyers went back to Alexandria to meet Stuart, who had finished her long period of refit at Malta. The flotilla leader arrived at 10 p.m. and Captain (D) and his staff transferred from Vampire immediately. Three hours later the four Australian ships slipped to sea with Wryneck, the aircraft carrier Eagle and the old Barham, bound for Suda Bay and Greece.

 

But bombing by this time had reached a new peak and in a short bleak week two Town class cruisers, Birmingham and Southampton, were bombed, and the latter had to be sunk. Illustrious was badly damaged by Italian torpedo bombers and the Polish-manned destroyer Gallant sank after a bombing attack which lasted for more than two hours. Convoys to Crete and Greece had to be maintained and there were really not enough ships in the Mediterranean Fleet to cope with the work.

 

 

Stuart and Vampire were sent to Sollum, and then on to Tobruk, which was being hammered by advance British armoured units. Swinging at anchor inside Tobruk harbour was the Italian heavy cruiser San Giorgio and Royal Air Force reconnaissance reports suggested that she might be getting ready to make a dash for Benghazi or Taranto. The two Australian destroyers had orders to stop her. Two tiny ships to stop a heavily armoured cruiser carrying four 10-inch and eight 3.9-inch guns!

 

So, at 10 p.m. on 21 January, the two ships arrived outside Tobruk. There was no moon and dark clouds covered-most of the sky so that visibility was reduced to about half a mile. With gun crews closed up ready for instant action and torpedo-men resting beside their “fish”, itching for a chance to have a shot at the Italian cruiser, Stuart and Vampire patrolled to and fro across the entrance less than two miles from the shore. Captain Wailer would have gone in closer, but the approaches to the port had been thickly sown with mines and he had seen enough of them in the first week of war!

 

At midnight Vampire’s starboard look-out sighted a black shape moving westwards along the coast. Commander Walsh increased speed, torpedo tubes swung outwards and guns were brought to bear. But it was not San Giorgio. As they drew closer they could see that the ship was an Italian schooner, trying to sneak up the coast to Benghazi.

 

A boarding party left in Vampire’s whaler and the entire Italian crew of thirty-six was brought back. Even the schooner’s mascot, a small pup, was not forgotten. The captured Italians told questioners that they were trying to get to ports farther along the coast. Their schooner, San Diego, was a small one of about 250 tons. Shivering with fright, the Italians were not put at ease by Vampire’s crew. “You try to sneak away from us, I think. No?” a burly stoker asked. “You try to get back to Musso, eh? You want to sell ice-cream?”

 

Meanwhile Vampire prepared to sink the schooner. In the darkness gunners could not see the target and Commander Walsh was forced to switch on his searchlight. As the beam centred on the captured ship a salvo struck her squarely and she began to sink. The searchlight snapped out and the Australian destroyer raced off, expecting shore batteries to open fire at any minute.

 

Next night Tobruk was ablaze. R.A.F. bombers dropped high explosives and incendiaries. Field guns plastered the town from dusk until dawn. Then thc Fleet arrived, battleships, cruisers and destroyers, steaming up the coast belching broadside after broadside from a hundred guns.

 

They turned then, destroyers inshore, cruisers beyond them, and the battleships, screened by more destroyers, to seaward. Salvo after salvo shrieked across the water. Shell after shell pounded into Tobruk, battering the few remaining buildings into shapeless ruins, silencing the town’s artillery, overturning transport in the streets. A gentle breeze carried the cordite fumes from the Fleet’s guns towards the blazing town and, even in the darkness, smoke could be seen rising from the smashed port. There was no opposition and the ships steamed back towards Alexandria.

 

Tobruk was still in sight when Australian troops entered the town for the first time. Little did they know that within a few months this same Tobruk would be an isolated citadel surrounded on three sides by the enemy. Little did they know that the Australian destroyers were to supply this port with food and ammunition, that they were to take reinforcements into the town and to evacuate the wounded from it, that one of the five was to be lost just outside the entrance. That was to come later. Just now Tobruk was another milestone in the advance.

 

The following day the Australian ships arrived. An hour before the town was sighted a column of pungent black smoke could be seen rising from the shattered fuel tanks. One of the Italians from the captured San Diego, eager to repay the Australians for their kindness (Italians believed that the British took no prisoners) had previously offered to show Commander Walsh a route through the minefields, but at that stage the information was of little value. Now, though the aid was accepted suspiciously, it proved of immense importance. Careful to avoid mines and wrecks, Vampire edged through the tricky passage and so the first Australian ship entered Tobruk.

 

Tobruk Harbour under AttackLeft: Tobruk City and Harbour - January 1941 after the Italian Surrender, Oil Tanks burning

 

The harbour is not large and, as the ships steamed through the entrance, crews straining• to catch the first glimpse of the town, there was a gasp of amazement at the havoc wrought by British shellfire.

 

The ring of low, sandy hills enclosing the port were devoid of vegetation, and the desolation spread to the town itself. A sunken Italian submarine lay at the entrance to the harbour. Its plates, buckled by near misses, were torn like paper. Waves washed over the deck astern, and splashed out from a hundred wounds. The conning tower was split, and lolled drunkenly. The periscope had disappeared.
Just inside the harbour was San Giorgio, her after end almost completely blown away, her four 10-inch guns leaning, bent and scarred, from crippled turrets. The bridge section, badly damaged, lurched to and fro as if it would collapse at any minute. Ratings in Vampire and Stuart looked at her with more than passing interest.

 

 

 

 

“I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened to us if she had come out, one of them said later. “The R.A.F. had hit her after magazine, but somehow she still looked powerful.

 

“We could see her heavy armour and I wondered how many of our ‘fish’ it would have taken to sink her. She had four 10-inch guns and eight smaller, but they were all out of action now. They looked silly, somehow, pointing all askew into the sky. Her decks sizzled when the swell washed a bit higher than usual and we could see that in some parts she was still red hot.”

 

 

Two big passenger liners had been run aground and the larger ship still burned fiercely. The destroyers picked their way very slowly down a harbour whose surface was dotted with the tops of masts. In shallower water parts of the bridges, too, were visible. And below the mast-tops and bridges lay the gutted hulks of twenty-seven Italian supply ships. The once-blue water of the harbour was covered with debris— tangled wreckage, splintered wood, oil, refuse and scum.

 

After lunch, when shore leave was piped, all hands prepared to “take Tobruk”, and they found the same desolate picture ashore. Lorries had been overturned in the streets, not a building was intact. Thousands of Italians were herded together in large groups, guarded by Australian soldiers carrying rifles slung across their backs and a bottle of wine in each hand. In the Army store, just outside the town, was enough equipment for a division. Hand grenades, guns of every description, rifles, steel helmets, ammunition, gas masks, uniforms and blankets—stores piled without any great regard for classification.

 

Repair gangs were already working on pipelines and storage tanks which had been severely damaged by the bombing and shelling preceding the capture of the town. In the streets were queer tractors with tall ladders mounted on them mobile observation posts. Tanks which had been damaged still lay in small ditches where they had been used as fixed defences and in the perimeter were anti-tank ditches and concrete emplacements for machine and anti-tank guns.

 

The air-raid shelters were good and the Australian ratings could easily see that they had been used as bedrooms during the bombardment. These shelters, cleaned, enlarged and improved, were later to provide “cubbies” for the Australian Tobruk garrison — the “Rats of Tobruk” as Goebbels chose to call them. But Imperial troops were still racing forward. Derna fell. Then, a week later, Benghazi surrendered and the destroyers were kept busy patrolling backwards and forwards from Sollum. Vampire and Voyager escorted the first convoy to Benghazi, sinking thirty mines with rifle-fire as they went.

 

Beyond Derna the desert gives way to more fertile country and the tall palm-trees and attractive white buildings of the colonization settlements reminded the Australians of scenes in the tropics at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

 

In the clear water just off Benghazi, Vampire dropped a depth charge on a supposed submarine. Half an hour later, when they steamed back, hundreds of large fish had floated to the surface, stunned by the explosion. Boats were quickly lowered, for the destroyer had been at sea for twenty days almost without a break and fresh fish was a welcome change in diet. An air-raid alarm had sounded ashore, but no one in Vampire took much notice. Guns were manned just in case, but those who had no guns to attend dived over and brought back the best fish they could see. The catch was a good one. They could even afford to pick and choose! The smallest fish recovered weighed fifty-six pounds and the largest about one hundred pounds - all tunny. There were three fish meals that day and when Vampire returned to Tobruk that night they were able to distribute some fish ashore.

 

On 22 February, Stuart and Vampire left “Inshore Squadron”. This squadron comprised the destroyers, gunboats and monitors responsible for supporting the Western Desert land forces, and the work it carried out was to become increasingly important and increasingly hazardous during the next few months. Two days later one of the relieving destroyers, H.M.S. Dainty, was sunk just off Derna. Dainty was engaged on a mission which had fallen to Stuart, Vampire and Voyager on a number of occasions, but she was not as fortunate as they were. During an attack by swarms of dive bombers, a bomb struck her bridge, killing every one on it and the destroyer gradually sank.

 

“Things like this convinced us that we were lucky,” one of Vampire’s ratings told me. “Dainty had relieved us only two days before, and no doubt we would have been under that bomb if she had not taken our place. Of course, Jerry might have missed us, but chances are that we would have gone west.

 

“It was the same at Tobruk. We were just picking our way out through the minefield when a small minesweeper, which was astern, blew up. How we missed the mine which sank her, I don’t know. We raced over, but could only find one survivor. The rest had been killed.

 

“A few days later a similar thing happened. A delayed-action mine left by the ‘Eyeties’ blew up less than half an hour after we had shifted berth. And we had been tied up directly above it for more than four hours.”

 

The old monitor, Terror, was sunk the same day as Dainty. “Old Scrap Iron”, as the twenty-six year old sea fortress was called, fought a gallant losing battle with a formation of dive bombers, but gallantry was not enough. Her old plates, weakened by near misses, had begun to buckle, and soon a five-hundred-pound bomb hit her directly. Wallowing deeper in the water, her decks seemed almost awash, but still her high-angle 15-inch guns spat huge barrage shells at the tormenting bombers. Unable to move and gradually sinking, she defied the Stukas until they flew off. But the 7200-ton monitor had fought her last fight. Her crew were taken off by a British destroyer and she was sunk by a torpedo. Well known to the Australians, who had often screened her as she blasted Italian bases, Terror had played a big part in the advance across Libya and the loss of this floating gun platform was to be felt acutely in the next few months.

 

HMS TERROR

 

Waterhen and Vendetta, meanwhile, continued to take convoys as far as Benghazi, but the others were transferred temporarily to convoy work on the other side of the Middle Sea. There had been many trips already to Suda Bay and Piraeus, but these voyages were to become more numerous and far more hazardous. There had been war in Greece since October. But now it was to be “total” war a mechanized blitzkrieg among rugged hills and winding mountain roads.

 

1940

 

June

 

11th - British armoured cars raid Italian frontier positions in Cyrenaica.

 

August

 

9th - Italians occupy Berbera, capital ot British Somaliland.

 

September

 

13th - Italian invasion of Egypt. Tenth Army occupies Sollum.

16th - Italian Army captures Sidi Barrani.

18th - Italians stop advance and construct desert forts.

 

December

 

9th - Operation Compass begins. Western Desert Force under
O’Connor captures Italian desert forts.

11th - British capture Sidi Barrani. Retreating Italians cut off along the coast at Buq Buq.

17th - British capture Sollum and Fort Capuzzo.

 

1941

 

January

 

5th - British capture Bardia.

22nd - British capture Tobruk.

30th - Australian infantry capture Derna.

 

February

 

4th - 7th Arnroured Division captures Msus. Coombe Force detached to cut off Italian retreat at Beda Fomm.

5th - Coombe Force in position at Beda Fomm.  Italians attempt breakthrough.

6th - Italian tanks try to break British line at Beda Fomm. Australians capture Benghazi.

7th - Italians surrender at Beda Fomm. 20,000 prisoners taken.