- A FIGHTING RETREAT
JANUARY and February had been months of victory. The
British desert advance, which had miraculously developed from a swift,
though merely tentative, thrust at Sidi Barrani early in December, had
progressed beyond expectations. The last enemy strong-post in Bardia
surrendered on 5 January and seventeen days later Australians hauled
down Italy’s tricolour from the flagstaff outside the Naval Barracks
at Tobruk and hoisted a Digger hat in its stead.
fell at the end of the month and the Australian troops raced forward
to take Giovanni Berta, Cirene, Slonta, Barce and Benghazi within a
week. By 8 February British armoured forces had reached the road to
Tripoli eighty miles south of Benghazi, cutting off General Bergonzoli’s
army’s only line of retreat. With less than a hundred tanks in
fighting condition, the armoured division, which had led the rapid cross-desert
advance from Egypt, routed the remainder of Italy’s Cirenaican
forces, and took another twenty thousand prisoners.
ammunition convoy on the Derna Road - Smashed by allied bombing
March brought reverses. German panzer divisions had arrived to strengthen
the Italian Army in Libya and, across the Mediterranean, the Nazis occupied
Bulgaria. Greek troops continued to advance in their battles with Mussolini’s
Blackshirts, but marked increases in German “diplomatic pressure”
indicated that Hitler’s thrust to help his weary Fascist ally
was a matter of days rather than weeks.
withdrawals from Libya followed as a natural corollary to her aid to
Greece, and the work of Inshore Squadron increased a hundred-fold. Waterhen
and Vendetta, for a time, bore the brunt of the work along the North
African coast, while Stuart, Voyager and Vampire concerned themselves
with convoys which took troops and materials to meet the growing menace
in the Balkans.
Libyan coastline differed entirely from the shores of Greece and Crete.
There were no lofty, snow-clad mountains, no green foreshores planted
with olive-trees - there was only dust and sand and mile upon mile of
dry, monotonous, infertile desert. Nor was the sea patrol route as attractive
as that which wound between the thousand tiny islands of the blue Aegean.
Frequently there were dust-storms when clouds of fine, brown-red dust
swept far out to sea, reducing visibility to sometimes as little as
fifty yards. As the dust settled on the ship, often inches thick, it
was dampened by spray and then caked hard under the fierce heat of the
Mediterranean sun. Then, as the seas tumbled aboard, it oozed across
the deck in dirty streams, was trampled throughout the ship. Officers
and men wore dust-covered clothing for days, for the finely ground dust
defied the heartiest beating and “clean ship” was a long
and tedious business.
was sorely in need of a refit and boiler clean by the beginning of March,
and it was decided that she should take a convoy to Athens, and remain
there for a week. In the sixty days since Stuart arrived back from 1\’Ialta
Vampire had spent no less than fifty-six days at sea, and had steamed
more than twenty-two thousand miles.
reconnaissance during the last weeks of March revealed that German armoured
units were massing in Tripoli and, though there was no accurate information
as to their strength, they were estimated at something like a division.
Sixth Australian Division, which had played so striking a role in the
advance across the desert, had arrived in Greece and the relatively
ill-equipped Ninth Division occupied the forward area in Libya. They
could not hope to oppose the heavily armoured German force and the British
withdrawal began in the third week of March.
troops retreat to Tobruk under the onslaught of Rommels Armour
British and Australian units moved back towards Egypt the Royal and
Royal Australian Navies steamed along the coast towards Tripoli, blasting
German transport as it moved along the coastal road. Tripoli, main supply
base for the Axis armies, was bombarded by a powerful force which included
Warspite, Barham, Valiant, Formidable, heavy and light cruisers, including
H.M.A.S. Perth, and a number of destroyers, among which were Stuart
was pounded by more than 550 tons of high explosives and not many shells
were wasted. An ammunition ship dissolved in a shattering explosion
as a 15-inch shell burst in one of her holds. Flame and twisted red-hot
metal were flung skywards, and the Spanish Quay, alongside which the
ship had been lying, was torn and battered by the explosion. A ship
near by disappeared as a full 15-inch salvo mashed her into flaming
pulp. Three transports or suppiy ships were hit and one is believed
to have been sunk. South of the Karamanti Mole the main oil fuel depot
was wreathed in fire and smoke, and barracks, supply dumps and Stores
were left burning.
bombardment of the’ Libyan capital was described as “highly
successful”. But the most spectacular part of the operation was
to come, not from the battleships, but from two small destroyers.
and Griffin were detached from the Fleet on the way back to Alexandria.
They had orders to make contact with land forces believed to have been
defending Sollum. But the German advance was speedier than had been
anticipated and Captain Waller, who was senior officer, was not certain
who occupied Sollum. The question was answered very quickly!
daylight on 21 April Stuart approached the entrance, Griffin keeping
station astern, and at about 4 a.m., when the destroyers were less than
two miles from the shore, the Germans opened fire. Captain Waller turned,
opened the range slightly, then made “Follow me” to Griffin
and turned towards the port. Several salvos from field guns fell round
the ships, but neither destroyer was hit. As the range closed the Germans
appeared to be using guns mounted in their tanks to supplement the fire
of the larger guns, but Stuart and Griffin plastered them with shell
after shell until fire from ashore fell short. Then the destroyers steamed
up and down the coast shelling the Nazis’ positions.
concentrated her fire at the fort and at the Bardia road, while Griffin
shelled troops and transport. Outside Sollum the Australian ships had
contacted the British river gunboat Gnat, and the gunboat took over
the shelling of selected targets inside the town while the destroyers
cruised up and down blasting troop convoys as they moved along the road
British gunboat, expecting to find Sollum in the hands of Imperial forces,
was sending rapid “What the hell?” messages to the Army
at Halfaya, but the first reply they received was a message asking that
the ships cease fire. The short bombardment had dented the spearhead
of the German mechanized units and Sollum had been reoccupied by British
troops! Stuart and Griffin left Gnat in the bay, steamed at high speed
to Alexandria, fuelled, and left again for Greece where the evacuation
had already begun.
prior to Stuart’s impromptu bombardment of Sollum, Waterhen had
rescued soldiers, doctors and nurses from the sinking hospital ship
Vita. On 14 April Vita sailed from Tobruk with 437 wounded soldiers.
Those who had been left behind in the besieged town watched her as she
cleared the entrance, for her brilliant white hull was reminiscent of
peace-time cruises, and seemed strangely out of place among ships that
were now black or grey or streaked with camouflage.
was easily distinguishable as a hospital ship, for her white hull and
decks gleamed in the sunlight and the narrow green band and huge red
crosses were plainly visible. There were red crosses on deck, too, so
that they could be seen from the air. But German pilots were (and are)
no respecters of the internationally accepted insignia. Within a fortnight
they were to bomb and strafe hospital ships in the harbours of, and
approaches to, Greece. Vita would be excellent practice!
after the hospital ship steamed slowly from the harbour Stukas roared
towards the town. Doctors, nurses and wounded men on deck watched the
bombers, glad that they had left ‘Tobruk, and could not be hit
accidentally as Nazis bombed the town. But the Stukas circled above
them and the high-pitched drone of powerful engines developed into a
fullthroated roar as the bombers hurtled down in steep dives. Then the
first bombs fell, exploding with a shuddering crash and tossing showers
of spray on to the hospital ship’s white decks. The red cross
amidships dripped rivulets of salty water.
doctors and sick-berth attendants rushed their patients to doubtful
shelter below decks. Bandages had been drenched with spray and wounds
smarted with the, salt.
Vita carried no weapons to keep the dreaded Stukas at bay. The red cross
was no protection against bombs. Plane after plane dived, released its
stick of bombs, flew off unchallenged. Miraculously the ship was not
hit, but near misses had opened up some plates and she was taking water
when Waterhen arrived.
strong swell was running, but the destroyer ran along¬side and the
wounded and the medical staff were taken off. There were six doctors,
six nurses and about forty sick-berth attendants in addition to the
wounded. Some of the soldiers had received fresh wounds when the Nazis
strafed the decks of the defenceless hospital ship, and doctors and
nurses attended them as they waited their turn to be taken off.
first it was thought that Vita might be towed to port and Lieutenant-Commander
Swain, who had already saved one ship to fight again, made repeated
efforts to salve her. But the hospital ship had taken too much water,
and threatened to take Waterhen down with her. So the tow had to be
slipped and the vessel was beached. Vita’s entire complement,
numbering almost five hundred, were taken to Alexandria.
April, Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen took part in surprise landing operations
at various points along the Libyan coast. In these attacks British and
Australian Commando troops played an important part and the landings
themselves were responsible for immobilizing large enemy forces who
were stationed as garrison troops in areas completely under Axis control.
of all the attacks was that on Bardia in mid-April when transport, supply
dumps and oil fuel tanks were wrecked by specially-trained “saboteur”
squads. The des¬troyers sailed to reach the Italian base about 10
p.m. Lolling unconcernedly in the messdecks the troops seemed to treat
the operation as some grand joke and ratings, who had heard that the
commandos were “supermen”, began to feel that the stories
were greatly exaggerated.
didn’t take us long to wake up, though,” a seaman said when
he told the story of the raid. “They had all sorts of explosives
and they passed them round as casually as you might offer a cigarette.
When grenades began to appear we decided that it would be healthier
on deck because I, for one, wasn’t going to stay in the messdeck
with a lot of soldiers who were throwing bombs and things from table
to table like cricket balls.
had landing craft with us and the commandos went ashore in them, disappearing
in the blackness almost as soon as they left the ship’s side.
They had certainly picked a night just made for the job. We were pretty
close inshore, too, and it wasn’t long before the troops were
scaling the escarpment. We couldn’t see them, of course, but we
guessed they were inside Bardia when we saw a series of small explosions
and then a couple of really big ones. Someone on board was keeping count,
and I think there were twenty-nine different fires visible from the
first commandos apparently went round looking for more trouble after
they had used all their explosives because they didn’t begin to
arrive back for about five or six hours. Five o’clock in the morning
had been agreed on as the zero hour for sailing and some of them weren’t
back by then. Still, we couldn’t wait outside the port because
we knew that the bombers would be over to look for us as soon as it
was light enough to see.
who re-embarked told us that they had ‘put paid’ to transport,
barracks, fuel dumps and supply dumps. They certainly left a pretty
decent fire blazing ashore. Later we heard that some of those who had
been left behind had sailed up the coast in their landing craft to join
the garrison at Tobruk. We met some of them again later, when we were
on the Ferry Service, and they were still fighting. Their special training
came in mighty handy when they took part in patrols outside the perimeter.
‘Detonator demons’ I called them.
the “detonator demons” were now “Rats of Tobruk”.