"The Tobruk Ferry Service"
the second week in April Tobruk was surrounded. Powerful German and
Italian divisions were pouring across the desert from their main base
at Tripoli and, on the eastern side of the town, the Bardia road had
been cut. Bardia itself was occupied and then Sollum fell, was retaken,
and fell again within a matter of hours.
three sides of Tobruk Axis troops were poised ready for the blow they
thought would crush opposition in this last British stronghold in Libya.
On the perimeter, in defence positions the Italians had carefully prepared,
Australian, British, Indian and New Zealand troops waited. And, in the
first hours of 14 April, the first real attack began.
by twenty-ton tanks, the Germans penetrated three miles inside the perimeter
before dawn; but, as the first grey streaks of sunlight flecked the
sky, intense anti-tank fire from field guns raked the panzers, forcing
them to flee. Seventeen tanks lay broken, their turrets and guns torn
off by 25-pounder shells. In their concrete “cubbies” in
the perimeter Australians, who had watched the tanks pass, waited for
the enemy infantry, forced them to turn back with nearly four hundred
Directing Operations in Nth Africa
forty aircraft which supported the tank attack, seventeen were certainly
shot down. The “Rats of Tobruk” had sharp teeth! But the
determination and success of the besieged garrison created its own problem
- the question of supply, of reinforcements, and of evacuating the wounded,
was one to which there was but a single answer. The seaward side of
Tobruk had not been blockaded by the Navy which still skulked at Taranto.
The Navy which had turned “Mare Nostrum” into “Cunningham’s
Pond” would transport to and from the desert citadel.
began the “Tobruk Ferry Service” - and another job for the
five “old crocks”.
would be impossible to record the details of every one of those thrilling
races from Alexandria and Mersa Matruh to Tobruk, for each was different
- and yet, somehow, all were the same. Waterhen, Vampire, Voyager, Vendetta
and Stuart were, for a time, the most popular “ferries”,
but British destroyers and gunboats and the Australian “N”
class destroyers played their part.
invariably the destroyers left Alexandria soon after 6 a.m. for a high-speed
run along the coast so that they would enter Tobruk harbour within an
hour or two of midnight. Ammunition of all types was packed tightly
on deck and round it were tinned stuff, vegetables, fruit and medical
supplies - enough to last until the next “ferry” arrived.
Sometimes the destroyers went alone; sometimes they went in pairs. But
always there was action, excitement and inde¬scribable weariness.
is the story of the “fetch and carry” service as it was
told to me.
leave Alex. in the early a.m. All yesterday afternoon and last night
we loaded stores and ammunition, pushing and lifting and packing until
our backs ached. ‘Number One’ made us shift everything just
where he wanted it so that our trim wouldn’t be upset and it took
us about eight hours to get everything into place. And we have to unload
it in a quarter of that time!
the time we turned in for our last few hours’ sleep for two days
the deck was littered with every kind of store - ammunition for field
guns, anti-tank guns and light weapons, explosives, boxes of carefully
packed detonators, land mines, great sacks of vegetables, boxes of oranges,
tins of everything from oil to peaches, rifles, machine guns and medical
went by ourselves. There’s not much room for manoeuvring in Tobruk
harbour these nights, what with bombs and wrecks and the pitch blackness
of the night. Besides, the jetty may be bombed before we get there and
then we have to dump everything into lighters.
sometimes we were bombed long before we reached Tobruk, but this time
we were lucky and we were well down towards the port by dark. It was
nearly full moon this night and that made things worse, Jerry sometimes
attacks at night and I always thought night bombing was worse than everything
else. In the daylight you can see just where he is, but at night you
have to guess. And I always guessed he was right overhead!
enough he came over this night. The moon was just made for bombing and
it seemed to rise earlier than usual. I heard the ‘Old Man’
curse it pretty fluently and when I went aft, and saw our glistening
white wake trailing out for a few hundred yards, I agreed with him.
Looking over the side of the ship I could see the phosphorescence gleaming
just as if a scuttle had been left open and the light was streaming
out on to the water.
seemed to be two bombers and this night they came in for their first
attack with their engines flat out. Sometimes they cut their motors
a few miles away and just glide down. Then the first you know about
them is that bombs crash into the water alongside with a crump and the
old ship shudders and shakes from stem to stern.
could hear the bombs whistling down and they exploded just on our starboard
quarter. But the ‘Old Man’ has been dodging bombs for a
long time now and we began to zigzag as soon as the planes were heard.
They made three or four attacks, and then left. But we knew they would
be back with their friends to try and stop us in Tobruk itself.
Messerschmidt - bf 110
had taken her pretty close to the shore and we could easily pick out
the escarpment. There were a lot of soldiers on deck and they began
to get fidgety as soon as they knew we were getting close. They haven’t
been to Tobruk before - we have. We’re not as keen to get alongside
as we used to be!
‘Pilot’ picked out the narrow entrance by some means known
only to himself. We couldn’t see it. All hands were on deck, of
course, and the ‘swoddies’ had pinched all the good spots
alongside the guard-rails to get their first look at the town. We were
more interested in the wrecks - San Giorgio was just inside and there
were about forty other hulks. There had been only twenty-seven when
we arrived the first time.
think we used to get a chart showing any new wrecks, but we never knew
if a ship had been sunk while we were at sea, so the look-outs were
pretty keen. We were down to about four knots by this time and twisting
through the passage between the hulks to go alongside what remained
of the wharf. Some of the ‘swoddies’ were ashore before
we had properly secured - but, as I said before, they haven’t
been here before. There was a bit of a fire on the end of the wharf
and we were told that a bomb had hit it about half an hour before we
arrived. That didn’t cheer us much.
the time the last soldier leapt ashore with his gear all the lashings
were off the stores and some food was going over the side. The food
was landed first because it was on top and then all the ‘Jimmy’s’
carefully stowed ammunition started to go. The hands had formed a chain
to the ship’s side and the boxes were moving smartly when Jerry
arrived again. You should have seen the activity then. Ammunition simply
flew over the deck!
bombers knew where we were, too, and their eggs fell not far away. One
hit the superstructure of a partly submerged hulk, and a fire started.
We all cursed the so-and-so, for the moon was bright enough without
any artificial illumin¬ation. We don’t fire back at the bombers,
of course - that would be just asking for it. It’s a bit galling,
too, because you can’t see them although you know that they can
spot you. And my idea of fun and games isn’t lying alongside a
jetty piled high with explosives when Jerry is dropping five-hundred-pound
eggs round the place. Especially when there are still a few land mines,
shells and detonators on deck waiting to be unloaded.
aft we embarked the wounded. Most of them had arrived on stretchers
this night and some of them were badly hurt. We laid the stretchers
out on the messdecks, on the messdeck tables, on deck, and even on the
gun platforms. There were more than a hundred of them and there were
about two hundred walking wounded as well. They sat round anywhere they
could find room. We gave them cigar¬ettes. It was a long time since
they had had a decent smoke.
was yelling out for mail and soon they were dragging the bags out from
the messdecks. Sailors are always careful with letters - because they
appreciate them, too, I suppose - and the mail bags are unofficially
considered the important cargo. Jerry was still flying about, but the
3.7’s put up a pretty fierce barrage and the bombs didn’t
fall so regularly or so close.
last cases of ammunition were manhandled over the side and we were ready
to sail by 2.30. It had been bad enough trying to avoid walking into
boxes on the way up, but I could see it would be almost impossible to
get from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck without treading
on someone. There were stretchers everywhere. ‘Doc’ went
round having a look at each case, giving those who needed it a shot
of morphia to put them to sleep. The sick-berth ‘Tiffy’
had a party of stretcher-bearers with him and the way they looked after
those soldiers was wonderful. We had a lot of bad cases this night -
legs and arms missing, and a number horribly burnt. Jerry’s flame-throwing
tanks are being used more than they used to be.
last we sailed. Most of the bombers had cleared off, but the nightly
artillery duel had begun and we could see the flashes of our guns on
the perimeter. Sometimes it begins before we get away from the wharf,
but it was our lucky night to-night apparently. As we moved along the
coast the flashes became more frequent. Patrols, stealing out from the
perimeter, had discovered something and the gunners were giving it everything
may have been another tank attack, because this is just about the time
Jerry makes his effort to crack the defences. The wounded soldiers were
watching the battle, and drawing hard on their cigarettes. Some of them
were crying. But I knew it wasn’t pain alone that brought the
tears. They had left a lot of good cobbers back there.
is the story of the “Tobruk Ferry Service”. The trip back
to Alexandria was usually worse than the run up to Tobruk, for the wounded
took up any space there was and the messdecks reeked with the smell
of dressings and anti¬septics. There was always a thin coating of
fine dust on deck. The heavy canvas “darken ship” screens
kept the dust from the messdecks themselves, but the same screens prevented
the passage of air and the atmosphere was thick and foul. There was
no such thing as “watch below”, for there was nowhere to
sleep. On the cushioned seats around the wardroom, wounded officers
lay fast asleep and on the deck beside them were rows of stretcher cases.
Those who could not sleep accustomed themselves to the roll of the ship
and lay thinking - thinking of Alexandria or of home or of a tiny concrete
machine-gun post on the perimeter “somewhere outside Tobruk”.
ships’ companies were always at action stations to greet the dawn.
They were tired, grimy, still sweating after their race to unload the
stores. Mechanically they trained and elevated the guns as the gunnery
officer carried out a “dummy run” and then the duty watch
closed up and the watch below (what a joke that was!) - the watch below
picked their way gingerly between the stretchers to talk to the less
seriously wounded soldiers.
wasn’t long before they knew Tobruk as well as the soldiers did,
and they could visualize every attack and counter-attack as the “swoddies”
described them. Not all the men taken from Tobruk were Australians,
of course. There were numbers of Tommies and Indians and New Zealanders.
in April the Axis forces had dropped leaflets over the besieged town
urging the Imperial forces to surrender. Men being evacuated from Tobruk
eagerly showed these treasured souvenirs to the destroyer crews. The
pamphlets were worded:
General Officer Commanding German Forces in Libya hereby requests that
British troops occupying Tobruk surrender their arms. Single soldiers
waving white handkerchiefs are not fired on. Strong German forces have
already surrounded Tobruk and it is useless to try to escape. Remember
Mechili! Our dive bombers and Stukas are awaiting your ships which are
lying in Tobruk.
you imagine us surrendering?” one Australian asked. “We
used to take more prisoners in a night than they took in a month and
we didn’t actually feel surrounded when we saw reinforcements
appearing regularly, and knew that our wounded were being taken out
and cared for at Alex. Besides, we couldn’t surrender under those
terms even if we wanted to. After a couple of days in Tobruk no one
in the entire garrison had a handkerchief that you could call ‘white’.
So we just had to fight on.”
in the wardroom similar stories were being told. There were Australians
who had been to Tobruk to spend their leave because they wanted to find
out “just what it was like”. There were Indian officers
who had led patrols far from the perimeter, and had killed silently
while the enemy prepared his attack. There was a British commando who
had escaped from Bardia after the April raid.
week, and often more than once each week, the story was retold. Sometimes
Stukas attacked the tiny destroyers as they crept along the coast, sometimes
they were bombed in Tobruk itself. Often they were shelled as the crews
worked with frantic haste to unload the huge pile of explosives which
had been so carefully stacked barely twenty-four hours before. ~ Then
there was the high-speed dash back to Alexandria or Mersa Matruh with
the wounded. Italian and German prisoners were taken out, too, and they
were provided with an escort which usually included some of the less
seriously wounded soldiers.
at Alexandria empty ammunition cases were unloaded, the wounded were
carefully lifted into waiting ambulances, and fuel tanks were topped
all-night leave was piped, but not a sailor went ashore. We didn’t
even wait to eat. We crawled into our ‘flea bags’ and ‘crashed’
- our first sleep after being on deck continuously for more than thirty-six
hours,” a seaman wrote home, describing the end of a typical “fetch
and carry” run.
the last crazy fortnight of the campaign in Crete most of the Australian
destroyers (including the “N” class ships) were too busy
to run up and down the Libyan coast, but the service to Tobruk had to
be maintained in spite of the increased demands on the Fleet. So while
Australian and British destroyers and cruisers were fighting to prevent
a Nazi sea-borne invasion of Crete, the China River gunboat Ladybird
was making her last gallant fight against a pack of howling Stukas in
her 6-inch guns and pom-poms pouring out defiance, the 625-ton gunboat
fought for twenty-four hours against formation after formation of Stukas.
Sometimes only a few dive bombers were poised above her, ready to hurtle
down to release their deadly load. Sometimes there were as many as forty-seven.
All day, all night they came and went. All day, all night, Ladybird
Ladybird - In Action, Crew, Making Engineroom Repairs
no matter how fierce the barrage, some bombers had to get through. One
five-hundred-pound bomb struck the tiny ship aft and then her boiler-room
was hit. Stokers stumbled blindly through the hissing steam that gushed
from shattered pipes. Others lay writhing on deck, burned or injured
by the explosion. Rescue squads dashed through the steam, and dragged
their mates up the iron ladders to the upper deck as more bombs crashed
down and the engine-room plates were opened up. Water began to stream
in through the holes and Ladybird gradually sank lower and lower.
wounded men passed ammunition from the magazines to the guns whose insatiable
muzzles were now almost red hot. As bomb after bomb exploded near by
and fires raged throughout the ship, it was only a matter of time before
the magazine would blow up. Wounded and those who had escaped injury
sweated and toiled to get as much ammunition as possible on deck. Soon,
if they did not blow up, the magazines would be flooded.
the water began to wash over Ladybird’s decks, Commander J. M.
Blackburn, RN., heard ratings yelling: “Carry on, sir, please.”
But he had no thought of surrender and the tiny gunboat’s last
gun was still firing as it slipped below the water.
was one of the most magnificent displays of devotion to duty I have
ever seen,” Commander Blackburn said later when he told of the
part played by his gunners and the wounded men.
had taken part in many operations with the Aus¬tralian ships. At
full speed she could manage a hare fourteen knots and, as she struggled
along, speedy destroyers dashed past accompanied by shouts of: “How
much for a trip up the river?”
Ladybird’s crew would wave back and grin. They knew that when
the test came the old “river barge” would fight as gallantly
as the mightiest ship that flew the White Ensign.
spite of the basic similarity of each “fetch and carry”
run, there was usually some incident to prevent monotony creeping in.
About noon, on one particularly hot day, Voyager was steaming at twenty-six
knots off Sollum, bound for Tobruk. On deck there was the usual cargo
- bombs, rifles, ammunition, food. There were boxes of shells for the
3.7-inch ack-ack guns which had made Tobruk a graveyard for Nazi planes.
There were land mines to be planted by daring sappers on patrol activity
outside the perimeter.
sky was clear, but there was a slight heat haze over the blue Mediterranean.
Suddenly, on the edge of the pile of explosives, there was a shot. Then
there was another. A rifle began to pitch about on deck as cartridge
after cartridge exploded in the magazine. The rifle had been left lying
on deck and the sun had heated the metal magazine until the ammunition
the bridge Commander Morrow saw the rifle bucking and pitching every
few seconds as another shot was fired. Behind him, jolly, rotund Petty
Officer Leslie Hickey saw the danger as bullets pierced cases of ammunition.
He slid down the two iron ladders from the bridge to the break of the
fo’c’sle, scampered along the deck, seized the still-firing
rifle, and hurled it over the side. Then he went back to his post at
main jetty was a popular target for Axis bombers and it was singled
out for attack at night when one of the destroyers was almost certain
to be alongside. Strangely enough the only times the Nazis found the
target was when the berth was unoccupied. The too-efficient Royal Air
Force had plastered the wharf before Imperial troops took the town,
but there was still enough of the jetty left to allow the “ferries”
to disgorge their cargo. Voyager arrived one night to find the wharf
still smouldering as a result of a direct hit. Vampire, on another occasion,
was just feeling her way through the maze of wrecks in the harbour when
the jetty was shattered by a five-hundred-pound bomb. The destroyer
had been alongside for about three hours. Frequently two of the Australian
ships made the trip together and the burden rested more heavily on Stuart,
Voyager, Waterhen and Vendetta when Vampire left the station in May.
and Waterhen made a fast run to Tobruk early in June and arrived at
the besieged port to find that an air raid was already in progress.
It usually started after they entered! Anchoring offshore, the destroyers
unloaded their one hundred tons of ammunition into lighters, and set
off at full speed for Mersa Matruh. As they steamed inshore towards
the port it seemed to the crews that the destroyers were heading directly
for a line of rocks, but the narrow opening was soon picked out. There
seemed to be no room for a ship to pass through and the Australians
entered at slow speed.
Mersa Matruh is another surprise. The channel is a narrow one and ships
must continue to steam towards the shore until they are only about one
hundred yards from the beach. Again it appeared certain that Voyager
and Waterhen would run aground, but a sharp turn to port took them parallel
to the sandy shore and they skirted the beach for several hundred yards
until they reached the “wharf” - several rough punts, lashed
together. There was no room for both ships to make fast, so Voyager
secured to the punts and Waterhen tied up alongside her.
leave” was piped almost immediately and the two ships’ companies
had their first swim in weeks. The beach was composed of brilliant,
fine white sand almost like chalk and the water was crystal clear. In
Mersa Matruh were the two Insect class gunboats, Cricket and Gnat, and
the Australian sloop Parrarnatta.
had joined the Mediterranean Fleet in May and by June she had become
a seasoned member of the Ferry Service. She had sailed from Alexandria
on 22 June with the tanker Pass of Balmaha and the British sloop Auckland.
They could not do a high-speed run, for the petrol carrier was slow
and neither sloop had the speed of a destroyer.
days later, just as the second dog-watchmen were preparing to close
up at their stations, three formations of dive bombers were seen flying
into position so that they could attack from the direction of the sun.
There were sixteen planes in each formation and Parramatta and Auckland
opened fire at extreme range.
were almost blinded as they tried to look into the blazing sun and the
bark of ack-ack guns was almost drowned by the whine and roar of diving
planes. Twisting and turning as they manoeuvred into position, they
presented an impossible target.
of the formations concentrated on the British ship, and the remaining
sixteen aircraft dived on Parramatta and the tanker. As the Stukas came
lower the staccato chattering of machine guns joined the “crack
crack” of heavier armament, but there were not enough guns to
stop all those hurtling aircraft. Then, as twenty planes dived over
Auckland, bombs fell with a piercing shriek and exploded with a series
of rumbling concussions, merging one into the other.
sea round the British sloop frothed and foamed and spray was flung aloft
from a score of spurting fountains. Thick smoke, brown and grimy, plumed
into the air and the Australians could see that Auckland’s stern
had been blown to pieces. Her forward guns were still firing, but her
steering gear had jammed and she steamed from the self-made smoke screen
headed directly for Parramatta. The Australian sloop managed to turn
just in time and Auckland staggered pathetically by, her stern torn
away, her gunners attempting to counter her heavy list to port as they
kept their undamaged guns firing at the wheeling, snarling Stukas.
this time Parramatta, too, was busily engaged. Planes roared over the
slowly zigzagging Pass of Balinaha, and bombs crashed round her and
her Australian escort. But again it was Auckland that was singled out
for concentrated bombing and she had barely cleared the smoke screen
when three bombs struck her directly.
all her guns had escaped being hit and the tiny sioop was still firing
when the Stukas, their bombs exhausted, flew off. As Auckland lay stopped,
listing heavily, flames and smoke gushing from her wounds, it seemed
that she must sink within minutes. Parramatta dropped both whalers,
a skiff, lifebelts, and carley floats. Auckland’s crew began to
abandon ship. Slowly the flames neared the magazine and then, with a
violent explosion, the British sloop was lifted from the water. At 6.30
she rolled over and sank.
Italians had taken up the battle, now, and six Savoia 79’s began
a low-level bombing attack on Parramatta and Pass of Balmaha. All the
bombs fell wide, but the Italians machine-gunned Auckland’s survivors
in their boats and floats.
attack developed just as Parramatta moved over to pick up survivors
and this time there seemed to be more planes than before. The sun had
almost set it was almost 8 o’clock and the bombers could not make
use of it as they had done so successfully in the first attack. This
time, however, there was only Parramatta to combat them and, as they
dived in rapid succession, it seemed that some of the bombs must have
scored. The sloop’s upper deck was awash with spray and piles
of shell and cartridge cases grew round gun positions.
an hour the bombers attacked without success. The sky was alive with
them, the blue sea was streaked with the white of twisted wakes and
studded with leaping waterspouts. There was debris, too, twisted, jagged
fragments of wood blasted from the stricken Auckland. At 8.30 the sun
set. The bombers flew off.
Vendetta and Waterhen were nearing the air-sea battle, but by the time
they reached Parramatta the attack was over. Survivors were picked up
and Parramatta, her ammunition almost exhausted, returned to Alexandria,
leaving the two destroyers to shepherd Pass of Balmaha into Tobruk.
the middle of June the destroyers were working in pairs - Voyager with
Stuart and Vendetta with Waterhen. There were variations, of course,
and Voyager and Vendetta entered Tobruk harbour at midnight one night
to find the port brilliantly lit. But the Nazis - not the “Rats”
- were responsible for the illumination. Their planes had dropped flares
and the silvery-blue torches shed an almost daylight brightness as they
tumbled slowly down.
was to be the lucky one, this time. The cargo of explosives was quickly
unloaded and the two ships were just clearing the entrance when another
flock of bombers appeared. More flares were dropped, and the destroyers’
wakes trailed silvery phosphorescence. Voyager was about a thousand
yards ahead of Vendetta when the first “stick” crashed down
and from Voyager’s quarterdeck it looked as if the other ship
had been hit. But then Vendetta appeared from behind a huge shower of
spray. The bombs had landed about a hundred yards ahead.
protection - unknown during the first long, weary months - was a welcome
change when it became a feature of the Tobruk service. The fighters
accompanied Stuart and Voyager on a trip from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk
and skilfully drove off a few Axis machines attempting to bomb the destroyers.
The fighters withdrew at dusk, however, and when the two ships arrived
at the entrance to Tobruk an air raid was already in progress. From
the sea the Australians could see the continuous flashing of heavy ack-ack
guns. There were bigger flashes, too - the flashes of bursting bombs.
On the perimeter field guns engaged in a lively duel, oblivious of the
planes overhead. A Nazi bomber tumbled out of the fight, a flaming,
twisting torch whose crimson glow was strangely beautiful against the
time the destroyers took on prisoners, mostly Libyan colonial troops
who had gladly surrendered to Australian patrols. Again the two ships
had just cleared the entrance when the bombers reappeared. Captain Wailer
and Commander Morrow decreased speed so the destroyers would leave no
seemed to crawl away, one rating said. “We could hear the raiders
above us, searching, searching. But at that speed we left no wake. Soon
the crackle of ack-ack guns ashore ceased, and the roar of the bombers’
engines became a faint hum. We wiped the sweat from our brows, clapped
on full speed, and beat it for home.”
made another such trip only a few days later and this was to be her
second last voyage in the Middle Sea. It was an unusual trip altogether
- and almost ended in disaster. There were no attempts to bomb the tiny
destroyer before she reached Tobruk and no Axis bombers appeared all
the time she was in harbour unloading some seventy tons of ammunition.
That was certainly unusual!
just as they thought they had escaped, the engines broke down. Sweating
ERA.’s worked frantically to repair the damage, for dawn was only
a few hours away. It seemed certain that the early morning raiders would
catch them helpless outside the port. Still there was no news from the
engine-room. Seamen looked to their guns, made sure they were ready
for instant action. Then the ship vibrated slightly, quivered as the
screws began to turn. At slow speed the old destroyer crept away to
Alexandria. It would take a month to repair the main engines and Voyager’s
crew were not sorry that they were to have a well-earned rest.
Australians freely admitted that they had been lucky. They had dodged
air raids by minutes, dodged bombs by what seemed mere inches, dodged
through well-directed shellfire. War in the Mediterranean was more than
twelve months old and they had come through without loss, almost without
casualties. But one of those five cheeky, gallant little ships was not
destined to fight much longer. On 29 June Waterhen began her first losing