ADVANCE ACROSS THE DESERT
- British armoured cars raid Italian frontier positions in Cyrenaica.
9th - Italians
occupy Berbera, capital ot British Somaliland.
13th - Italian
invasion of Egypt. Tenth Army occupies Sollum.
16th - Italian
Army captures Sidi Barrani.
18th - Italians
stop advance and construct desert forts.
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.
5th - British
22nd - British
30th - Australian
infantry capture Derna.
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
7th - Italians
surrender at Beda Fomm. 20,000 prisoners taken.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
General Sir Archibald Wavell - Commander In Chief Middle East
- Marshall Rodolfo Graziani - nicknamed 'The Butcher' after
his slaughtering of the Sanussi Arabs in Libya after they rebelled
against italian rule in the 1930s.
was Commander In Chief of Italian Forces in North Africa.
Mussolinis insistence he timidly attacked Egypt as his troops
were both poorly trained and equipped for this task.
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.
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.
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!
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.
A long line of Italian Prisoners of War - Libya 1941
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
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.
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.
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
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overlooking the cove at Bardia - Main town centre out of picture upper
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
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Italian/German African Campaign Medal.
designed in 1941, this decoration was intended for issue once
the Axis Armies captured Cairo, (Egypt) from the British. Of course
this never happened.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
City and Harbour - January 1941 after the Italian Surrender, Oil Tanks
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.