THE SCRAP-IRON FLOTILLA Chapter 1.
Iron or "Scrap" Iron?
Propaganda Minister GOEBBELS called them scrap iron. He
welcomed them to the Mediterranean in that bleak, cold December of
1939 as a "consignment of junk" and "Australia's Scrap-Iron
Flotilla", he ridiculed their fighting power, scoffed at their age
and their infirmities.
Of course, there
was a germ of truth in his statement. They were old, They weren't
very big, or very fast, or very powerful They had been
laid down and completed in 1918 when ships were slow and aircraft still
in their infancy, and as Herr Goebbels looked at the fast, deadly planes
of the Luftwaffe, and at the speedy modem ships of the Italian fleet,
perhaps his derision was justified.
But these five
had been built by the men of the Clyde whose fathers and forefathers
had built ships for war and ships for peace that were the finest in
the world, and they flew that proud White Ensign that dips for no
man or nation except in honour.
They were manned
by seamen who scorned danger, who would cheerfully steam into
battle against any odds, and who thought only of victory. For two
years they fought, and when they steamed away from the Middle Sea
they left behind a score of sunken submarines, scarred and battered
cruisers and destroyers, and the mangled remains of some of the Luftwaffe's
finest machines. They defied Italian battleships at Calabria,
and heavy cruisers at Matapan. They ran the gauntlet of every type
of bomber as they plucked troops from the Nazis' grasp in Greece and
They ran up and
down the African escarpment at will, striking the enemy with their
them "scrap iron". Admiral Cunningham, in a message read in Australia's
House of Representatives, commented: "Nobody will appreciate the 'scrap'
better than the officers and men of the Australian destroyers." Australia
was proud of these ships. They were her first contribution to the
Empire's armed might. Long before the first troopships left with the
men who were to make their own "lightning war" in Egypt and Libya,
the five little destroyers had sailed without fuss or farewells or
bands or streamers, and three months after war was declared they were
in the battle arena. They pitted their strength against an opponent
whose ships were faster and bigger and more modem than they were,
and they left him beaten.
losses during those long months of constant battle. They were scarred;
their timeworn engines were strained almost beyond their limits. But
they shirked no fight, avoided no action. Their names were, HMA Ships
Stuart, Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and
FLOTILLA LEADER HMAS STUART LIBYA - 1940
The men who manned
the ships were divided into three classes: "permanent" navy men, naval
reservists drawn from the merchant service, and the "rockies" who
had done peacetime training as "Saturday afternoon sailors". Some
of the officers wore service ribbons won in 1914-18; some of the ratings
wore active service decorations, some wore the blue and white ribbon
of "Long Service".
But for the majority
war was a new experience, a new job. They learned that job well, though.
Lack of experience was compensated by boundless enthusiasm, youth
by courage, brevity of service by concentrated training. Within a
few months there were no "rockies". The youngest ordinary seaman
had become a veteran under the guidance of the Navy's finest seamen-
For the Navy the
war began at 9.50 PM. on Sunday, 3 September 1939. At Navy Office,
Melbourne, where England's declaration of war was expected hourly,
the telegram "Total Germany, repeat total Germany" was the signal
for rapid mobilization of reservists, conversion of modern liners
into auxiliary cruisers and of tugs and trawlers into minesweepers,
and for the defensive armament of merchant ships. A month later three
armed merchant cruisers were in commission, and our only destroyers
had left Australia for the Mediterranean.
did not leave together, but met in Singapore where exercises were
carried out in an atmosphere that seemed far removed from war. It
was here that the first anti-submarine exercises were carried out,
for Australia had seen no submarines since Oxley and Otway
left the station some years before. So at Singapore, exercising
with British submarines, the anti-submarine personnel of the five
destroyers learnt their job so well that in the months ahead they
were to sink a score of Italian U-boats and damage many more.
On 13 November
the ships sailed from Singapore, and five days later, in line ahead,
they arrived at Colombo and made fast to the buoys. It was
peaceful here, too, but that peace was suddenly shattered. A German
raider-some said the Deutschland, some the Graf Spee-had
sunk the British freighter Africa Shell in the Indian Ocean.
In the destroyers' messdecks the ratings planned their "strategy".
They would shadow the raider until dusk, then race in from different
directions and loose their torpedoes.
I wonder what
Herr Goebbels would have thought if he could have heard them,
confident and eager for battle even though some had been in the Navy
less than three months? Stuart had 4.7-inch guns, the others
had 4-inch - just twenty tiny weapons between them and yet they were
hunting the vaunted pocket battleship with its l6-inch guns.
It was just as
well they didn't sight the raider, for it took three cruisers to sink
the Graf Spree in the River Plate. The Australians were disappointed,
but disappointment gave way to disgust when, in the magnificent harbour
of Diego Suarez, they were told that their job would have been to
carry supplies to the larger ships hunting the raider.
So, from the scorching
heat of the Red Sea, they steamed in line ahead through the Canal
and into the Mediterranean. There they escorted their first battleship
and were proud again. They steamed ahead of convoys that sailed from
the eastern Mediterranean to the west, and brought other ships back
with supplies for Egypt and Malta. It was December- winter in the
Middle Sea. Back in Australia their families were preparing for Christmas.
entered Malta just before Christmas, and Rear-Admiral J. C. Tovey,
Rear-Admiral Commanding Mediterranean Destroyers, went aboard Stuart
to address the ship's company. He told them that to all intents
and purposes the five Australian destroyers represented the entire
There would be
plenty of hard work ahead and there would be many long days at sea,
but he promised that they would have their share of action if there
was any chance of having a go at the enemy.
had been proud before. They were doubly so now. Even the ships themselves
seemed to realize their importance, and they shuddered tirelessly
through heavy seas that sent green water thumping fiercely on to the
foredecks. Icy spray whipped back and spattered a ceaseless tattoo
on the bridge screens, and the bitterly cold winds cut through thick
duffle coats with razor-like keenness. The nights were dark and long,
and convoys had not become accustomed to keeping station. Nor were
the grey, heaving waters of the Mediterranean the placid blue lake
of tourist posters.
Waterhen and Vendetta were at sea for their first
Christmas away from home-somewhere between Malta and Marseilles, battling
into heavy seas, shuddering and plunging and rolling. As Commander
WaIler (later Captain Wallet D.S.O. and Bar) said of the voyage: "The
passage was uneventful, if one accepts the usual difficulties of manoeuvring
an inexperienced convoy. Such difficulties disappeared, in any case,
after the first twenty-four hours, after certain lengthy but tactful
remarks had been passed from the escort to the convoy."
and Vampire were more fortunate and spent Christmas in Malta.
It was not the scarred and bomb-pitted Malta that they were to know
so well in the next twelve months, but an island whose rocky face
was covered with picturesque battlements and the bright red and green
shutters of quaint dwellings. It was no peaceful isle, though, for
giant modern guns bristled in the old forts and mines studded the
sea around its short coastline. Malta, too, was at war. In January
Vampire sailed with a convoy for Marseilles, arrived there
with her torpedoes frozen in the tubes and a mantle of ice inches
thick on the side. The temperature was something below twelve degrees
Fahrenheit, and sleet-like spray whipped back and froze on the upper
deck, guns, and superstructure. Some of the "permanent" hands had
visited France in peace-time and they saw little change. There were
pretty girls. There were wine and champagne at absurd prices and in
endless quantity. And on the wharves were piles of forgotten war material,
unguarded and apparently unwanted.
When, in the middle
of March, Vampire entered dock at Malta for a brief refit,
she had already steamed some twenty-six thousand miles-an average
of almost five thousand a month. With Vampire temporarily laid
up, work for the other destroyers was increased. On 26 March Stuart
received a message that the British tanker Locus had been forced to
stop owing to a broken propeller shaft, and the flotilla leader steamed
at high speed to give assistance.
Within hours of
the reception of the S 0 S Stuart had located the damaged tanker
not many miles from Malta and she was ordered to stand by until tows
arrived from the island. The wind had increased in force and by daylight
the sea had become rough and confused. Trocas was unable to
anchor because of the depth of water and there was some danger of
her drifting on to the coast of Italy or Sicily, so Commander WaIler
decided to make an attempt to take her in tow.
Both ships were
drifting quickly and effort after effort was made to get a wire aboard
the crippled tanker. In spite of the steep seas a grass line was taken
from Stuart by boat, but line after line snapped almost as
soon as they had been made fast. For five hours operations continued,
and then, visibility became poor, it was decided to tow from the fo'c'sle.
Stuart was ready to tow late in the afternoon and the ships began
to nose towards Malta at just over two knots.
The tug Respond,
which bad been battling with heavy seas since dawn, arrived about
6.30 p.m., but visibility was so poor that it was decided to let Stuart
continue her tow. The fog lifted about three hours later and Respond
took over, Stuart remaining to screen them until Malta
was sighted at midnight. The flotilla leader had performed Australia's
first salvage operation of the war, but in the busy months that followed
all the destroyers were to salve ships and valuable cargoes. The first
six months of war in the Mediterranean bad been peaceful and almost
They had been
busy months and they had not been easy, for the chilly khamsin in
the east and the freezing mistral in the west had been an unpleasant
change from the tropic heat of Singapore and Suez. Countless troopships
had been convoyed from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria; would-be
blockade runners had been stopped and searched, and vessels with suspicious
cargoes had been diverted to British ports for closer examination.
There were even short voyages out into the Atlantic to rendezvous
Then, in Europe,
the "phony" war of stalemate and inaction abruptly ended, and in its
stead there developed the threatened lightning war, Hitler's Blitzkrieg.
Giant tanks rumbled into battle probing for weak spots in the Allies'
defence line, found them, and surged through. Defence line after defence
line crumbled before this mechanized assault, Holland and Belgium
found their resistance sapped by a "fifth column" which seemed to
spring up overnight, and France shuffled her leaders, military and
political, in an effort to stem the Nazi tide.
As the Germans
advanced and France's collapse drew nearer, Hitler's Italian partner
increased his attacks on the Allies. He thundered his challenges to
the accompaniment of tremendous applause from his well-schooled Faseisti,
and anti-British demonstrations were no longer officially frowned
upon. Italy's declaration of war was expected hourly and the five
destroyers, now part of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain
Waller, assumed a new importance. But they were no longer "to all
intents and purposes the entire Mediterranean Fleet".
Through the narrow
Straits of Gibraltar, and down the long Middle Sea to Malta and Alexandria,
steamed giant grey battleships and aircraft carriers and camouflaged
cruisers and destroyers. They came in long lines, steaming in perfect
formation, White Ensigns fluttering an almost gay defiance at the
spotless grey ships of Italy, still leashed in the harbours of Naples
and Messina and Taranto.
naval bases were rapidly strengthened and Vendetta, docked
for repairs at Malta, saw the island change almost overnight Vendetta
had taken her last convoy from Marseilles less than twenty-four
hours before German bombers made their first major raid on France's
were quartered at the Ricasoli rifle range while the destroyer was
given a thorough overhaul. Officers and men enjoyed their first real
leave in seven long, weary months and they learned to know Malta as
well as they knew Sydney or Melbourne. The tiny, rock-bound island
has survived some of the fiercest bombings of the war and craters
and rubble are all that remain of some of its oldest relics, but the
spirit that enabled the Maltese to defeat the Ottoman Turks four hundred
years before has kept the island alive, has caused it to grow stronger,
not weaker, with every assault. Wandering through the narrow stone
streets, and up and down countless steps, the Australians saw stone
houses, rocky battlements, forts and moats which were-and are-the
secret of Malta's strength. But now modern guns command the approaches
and beneath the blue water around the island deadly black mines sway
to and fro with the tide.
In the palace
of the Governor were shining suits of armour, and beside them pikes
and culverins and knives. On the surface of Valetta Harbour picturesque
little dhaisas scudded to and fro. As the tempo of war rose in the
Mediterranean, Malta looked more closely to her defences. More and
more gun pits were hollowed out of the solid rock and anti-aircraft
weapons poked their long muzzles towards the sky. The black-out commenced
at midnight and Valetta became a dead city. Patriotic Maltese believed
that only traitors would show lights in the street and they had an
effective method of dealing with traitors! Double curtains covered
doorways of every bar and cabaret, street lights were extinguished,
and the tiny island became a dark, rocky fortress.
Early in June
the black-out was enforced all night and an 11 p.m. curfew was imposed.
Dark shapes moved slowly in and out of the harbour, bringing materials
for war or taking troops to Egypt. In Alexandria it was the same.
The Fleet was never still and convoys seemed to arrive and depart
interminably. The White Ensign moved out and steamed from east to
west and north to south. The red, white and green tricolour lay at
anchor. The Mediterranean prepared for war.
- War comes to "The Med"