Scrap Iron or "Scrap" Iron?

The Chapters

1.   Introduction
2.   Scrap Iron or "Scrap' Iron
3.   Enter Italy
4.   Calabria
5.   Odd Jobs
6.   Greece - Novembers New War
7.   Greece - Rising Tempo
8.   Greece - Battle Of Matapan
9.   Greece - The Evacution
10. Crete - A Losing Battle
11. Libya - Adavance Across The Desert
12. Libya - A Fighting Retreat
13. Libya - The "Tobruk Ferry Service"
14. Libya - And Then There Were Four
15. War In The East
16. Stuart At Matapan - Eyewitness Account
17. Italian Navy At Battle Of Matapan
18. Crew List (Stuart)
19. Crew List (Vampire)
20. Crew Lists - Voyager, Vendetta, Waterhen


NAZI 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 Crete.

They ran up and down the African escarpment at will, striking the enemy with their puny guns.

Goebbels called 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.

They suffered 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 Waterhen.


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- destroyer men.

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.

The destroyers 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.

The destroyers 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 Mediterranean Fleet.


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.

The Australians 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.

Stuart, 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."


Voyager 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 uneventful.


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 with convoys.

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.

British Mediterranean 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 best-known port.

The Australians 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.

Next - War comes to "The Med"
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