SCRAP-IRON FLOTILLA Pt. 2.
Enters The War
Off the Egyptian coast, almost within sight of Alexandria, four Australian
destroyers prowled through the calm, dark night. In the messdecks the
watch below played cards and Uckers, and wrote letters just as they
had always done at sea; but somehow everything was different. A few
stokers (who must rank with the world's most enthusiastic poker-players!)
shuffled cards listlessly, and on the seamen's mess-deck even a double
six couldn't raise the Uckers game from the doldrums. The wireless blared
raucous music. But in a few minutes that would stop and then they would
hear the news. It was 11 p.m. on 10 June 1940. Australia was at war
Official news had
come earlier from Admiralty, but that had been a cipher, seen only by
the officers. The messdeck wireless was for every one-it was the focal
point of every rating's attention, and games and letters were but to
while away the time until the official bulletin was broadcast. On deck,
men huddled closer round their guns, look-outs kept watch with new eagerness.
There was a chance of action now. Anti-British demonstrations had reached
their climax in Italy and black-shirted Fascisti had cheered their Duce
as he thumped his fists on the railing of the Palazzo Venezia's balcony
and bellowed: "Our destiny has arrived." The writing was clear.
In Alexandria itself
the "buzz" had been strong even before the destroyers sailed. "Gyppo"
hawkers, whose amazing grapevine of information had spread its tendrils
into the most secret places, confidently told the Australians that Italy
would declare war in a matter of hours. Now, as they patrolled off the
coast, officers and men felt something of the tingling thrill of expected
battle. Rear-Admiral Tovey had promised that they would have a go at
the enemy when the chance came. And now, at last, that chance had come.
Wireless speakers throughout the ships blared the news of Italy's entry
into the war. On the mess-decks the poker-players were still. Uckers
dice lay discarded on the cloth. Half-finished letters were tossed aside.
The news ended and
cheers rang throughout the mess-decks. In his new-found enthusiasm a
stoker opened a jackpot with a pair of sevens. The look-outs above kept
closer, grimmer watch. It was good to have a real "war of their own",
but Britain faced many serious problems in the Middle Sea. There was
a powerful base at Gibraltar, at the western end of the Mediterranean,
but the next base, Malta, lay a thousand miles to the eastward and Alexandria
was eight hundred miles farther on. The maintenance of sea communication
between these three bases was of fundamental importance, and depended
not only on command of the sea, but also (though to a lesser degree)
on aerial superiority.
Italy had every
chance to dispute these. Her bases in the Southern Italy, Sicily, Pantellaria
and Tripoli virtually divided Mediterranean into two, and should have
been a barrier to the passage of convoys and units of the Fleet from
Gibraltar to the ports of Egypt, Malta and Palestine.
immediately after declaring war that the narrow channel between Sicily
and the African coast had been mined. He had strong bases at Palermo,
Messina and Augusta in Sicily, Cagliari in Sardinia and at Tripoli on
the North African coast. Much of Italian naval strategy was based on
the geographical position of these ports in relation to the remainder
of the Mediterranean and it is not surprising to find that their ships
were built with more emphasis on speed than on armour. Fast light cruisers,
destroyers, motor torpedo boats and submarines could prove particularly
destructive in harrying convoys in the narrow straits so convenient
to Italy's bases.
It was on these craft that Mussolini (pictured left) staked
Italy's future in the Middle Sea, for the major problem for
both Italy and Britain was that of sea-borne supplies. Italy
had at her disposal more than sixty fast destroyers of a thousand
tons and over-modern ships indeed compared with the ancient
"V" and "W"' class! In addition to these were the torpedo
boats, whose tonnage ranged from two hundred to nine hundred
and of which Italy probably had nearly one hundred. Then there
were the vaunted M.A.S. (or motoscafi antisommergibili) which
later proved so vulnerable to almost any type of fire. And finally
there was the formidable submarine fleet (much larger, incidentally,
than that of Germany). Its potential menace, though, was much
greater than its actual accomplishments.
of course, the larger ships-battleships both old and new, and
some really first-class heavy cruisers. But these were more
for use outside the restricted waters of the straits. On the
other hand, the Royal Navy could spare only part of its forces
for the new war in the Mediterranean.
menace in the Atlantic necessitated close guard on all convoys
and the movement of large surface raiders kept the bigger ships
engaged. When Mussolini declared war, the Allies' naval strength
in the Mediterranean was stronger than it had ever been. But
within a month, the French collapse, with the consequent loss
to Britain of the services in the Middle Sea of nine battleships,
eighteen cruisers, sixty destroyers and about forty submarines,
gave Italy undoubted superiority. No longer were the French
bases available to the British ships, whilst Italy was faced
with no great distances between ports, docks or fuel supplies.
That was the problem
facing Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne
Cunningham, K.C.B., D.S.O. And his solution can be summed up in this
one word: "Attack". He refused to admit that superiority in tonnage
and numbers of ships meant victory, and his strategy was to strike at
the Italian Fleet whenever and wherever possible, even if it meant fighting
almost at the entrance to Italy's own fortified ports.So with a new
war to fight, Stuart, Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen were among
the British ships which prowled off the coast looking for action.
was not on patrol that night. Stripped by dockyard "maties", she lay
in dock at Malta almost in the middle of her badly needed rest. Members
of the crew, who heard the news of Italy's declaration as they clustered
round the wireless at the Ricasoli rifle range, raced back to the ship,
began loading belts for machine guns, and emergency parties were detailed.
Then, dressed in their oldest clothes, officers and men collected their
steel helmets, respirators and whatever arms they could find, and lay
in heaps among the debris in the dockyard awaiting the inevitable call
At dawn, Malta's
powerful sirens wailed their melancholy warning and a few minutes later
Malta's first air raid began. Running along the deck to their guns the
Australians heard for the first time the roar of hostile aircraft, saw
tiny spurts of dust rise along the dockside, and knew, vaguely, that
they were under fire. Then the first bombs fell, great yellow bombs
that seemed to float down from the fleeting planes which were already
zooming up to join the less daring machines above them. A few hundreds
of yards from the dockside the bombs exploded. There were six roaring
detonations, each merging into the other, and shattered fragments of
rock were hurled into the air to shower like falling hail.
A huge column of
smoke and finely ground dust mushroomed into the sky and the planes
were hidden from Vendetta's gunners who had poured rapid but hopeless
bursts of fire at their first enemy target.
In a huge tunnel
not far away the Australians saw doctors working on a number of wounded
civilians, but deaths had been few and there were no naval casualties.
Vendetta's crew were detailed to assist the Army and many of them set
off in motor lorries to guard wireless stations and other important
positions. Malta expected parachutists, for it was believed that the
bombing was but a prelude to an attempted air-borne invasion. Gun crews
waited grimly by their guns in pits hewn from the solid rock; the Maltese
(whose hatred of the Italians is almost as great as their patriotism
and faith) waited with their sharp, wicked-looking knives. The paratroops
did not arrive.
From the airfield
three British fighters took off to engage the enemy bombers. It seemed
a hopeless mission, for they were old and slow antiquated biplane Gladiators
that had been hurriedly assembled by eager ground crews. But they were
flown by pilots whose courage and skill somewhat offset the machines'
deficiencies, and an Italian bomber was shot down within a few minutes.
The quick "kill"
was announced over the dockyard loudspeaker system, and Maltese workmen,
oblivious of the bombers which still flew overhead looking for targets,
stood to attention and sang 'God save the King" with soul-stirring fervour.
The Australians joined in, then burst into cheering as the Italians
left and the three old Gladiators circled round the airfield and landed.
The planes were
christened "Faith" "Hope" and there were too many pilots to man three
machines and every time the aircraft warning sounded there was a race
for the honour of taking the "old crates" up.
For some weeks Vendetta
lay helpless in dock, with workmen racing to complete the refit. Her
crew, resembling dervishes, wore ammunition belts, pouches and bayonets,
carried almost every type of weapon.
Dusty, weary, they
were scattered in strong-points throughout the island, with no thought
of leave. Vice-Admiral Malta in a message to Vendetta's captain, Lieutenant-Commander
B. Rhoades (later D.S.C.) spoke highly of the work the officers and
ship's company had done in improving the defences of the island. "They
have produced astonishing results, and in true Australian fashion, have
turned their hands to everything," he said.
under air attack
Stuart was to be
the first to go to action stations. On the morning of 11 June, less
than twenty-four hours after Italy declared war, an excited look-out
at the mast-head screamed down the voice-pipe: "Ships on the horizon
bearing green three-oh." Alarm gongs shrilled throughout the ship. They
had only been used for exercise before, so the cry: "Dinkum, dinkum,
dinkum", went round from stem to stern, from wardroom to messdeck. Seamen
on watch below swept away pens and writing pads, threw down packs of
cards, stuck needles hurriedly in suits being "tiddlied" for a shore
run, raced to their action stations.
Magazine doors swung
open, and eager supply parties waited to feed hungry guns. Fire and
repair parties gathered, ready with their kits to patch up any damage
caused by enemy fire. The sick bay was cleared, dressings and bandages
laid out ready for instant use. On the bridge Captain WaIler peered
through powerful glasses. "Four of them, sir, murmured his Gunnery Officer,
Lieutenant-Commander Robison (later D.S.C.).
Four of them there
were, and they looked like warships. Shipping information ciphers were
scanned again, but there were no British ships reported in the vicinity.
Four against one is good odds, and, as Stuart shuddered forward at Lull
speed, her guns were already trained on the targets. The distance lessened.
A cruiser and three destroyers, they seemed to be, the cruiser leading,
and the destroyers strung out in line astern.
Glasses were trained
as officers and men tried to identify the four ships. Then, as they
drew nearer, Captain Waller and the others on the bridge began to laugh.
The four "warships" were the tug Respond and three barges she was towing
from Malta! "Secure from action stations," was piped round the ship.
Cards and writing materials appeared again. And almost every letter
continued: "We have just been at action stations. Thought it was four
Wops, but our luck was out again." The peace of the Mediterranean was
to be broken abruptly for them next day, however.
Just about dusk
on 12 June, a moored mine was sighted a few feet from the ship's bows.
Main engines were stopped immediately, but more mines were seen nearby
bobbing about in the slight swell, black spheres covered with wicked-looking
spikes. Moving slowly, feeling every inch of her way, Stuart edged out
of the field. It seemed as if she must be blown to pieces, as the mines
swayed across to her in the swell, bobbed hesitantly for a second, then
swayed away again. Amidships, seamen took out handkerchiefs to wipe
foreheads suddenly beaded with sweat in spite of the coolness of the
The mines had been
laid in a pattern, though, and Captain Waller (pictured below) decided
that they had been laid by a submarine. The limits of the field were
carefully buoyed to warn other British ships, and Stuart set off after
the minelaying U-boat. It was getting dark now and no one relished the
job. Then, suddenly, six miles farther on, a second field was found
and Stuart repeated her edging tactics. Escape was more difficult this
time, for the black shapes were hardly discernible in the dark, ruffled
Captain Hec Waller |
Three miles farther on another group surrounded the ship, bobbing
up and down, inches, it seemed, from the sides. All hands who
could be spared were ordered amidships, for Captain WaIler (pictured
left) declared that if he struck a mine he would see to it that
his bows or stern took the blow. Nerves, frayed by two previous
attempts to dodge the deadly mines, neared breaking point. Stuart
moved forward, stopped, went astern. In the white wake black balls
bobbed slowly, menacingly. Somehow they got clear.
dawn the flotilla leader was back again at the buoyed field. Rifles
were levelled at the mines which had threatened them not so long
before and there were cheers as each one exploded or sank.
Suddenly the crackle
of rifle-fire ceased. A seaman, looking over the side, saw a moored
mine inches from the ship's side. No one moved. The mine bobbed
up and down, almost beneath them. Stuart crawled away, the mine
splashing and foaming in the slowly churning wake. Any one who
was in Stuart that day will swear that the mine scraped the ship's
side as it drew astern
Ships had to go
in and out through the minefield, however, and Stuart led them - a slow,
nerve-racking business, when any minute could bring the end. Then, in
the afternoon, the crew saw the tiny minesweepers approaching.
their bridge to the sweepers, and Stuart turned away from the field.
There were sighs of relief; the tension lapsed like a pricked bubble.
But there were chilly sensations in many a spine when the sweepers began
to bring up and explode mines. It might have been them.
Meanwhile the other
Australian ships, on patrol nearby, had not been idle. Lieutenant-Commander
Morrow (later Commander Morrow, D.S.O.), in Voyager, was also on the
trail of the minelaying submarine and, though the U-boat dodged behind
its own minefields, it could not shake him off.
The chase went on
until dark. Voyager knew there was a submarine about, but didn't know
The submarine knew
it was being chased, but couldn't get far away from its pursuer. Relentlessly
Voyager searched. it was a clear night and from stem to stern look-outs
kept watch. This was one U-boat that wouldn't get away! On the bridge,
Lieutenant-Commander Morrow and the anti-submarine officer watched,
On the quarterdeck
young torpedo-men fondled depth charges which had been primed and set
at the beginning of the hunt. They had never used them against a submarine
before. But this was a good time to begin. Then the submarine was detected.
Lieutenant-Commander Morrow snapped brief helm orders, Voyager swung
round, and the chase was really on. On the quarterdecks depth-charge
buzzers sounded the "Stand by". At his control position on the bridge,
Lieutenant Cook brought Voyager's main armament ready for instant action,
trained the guns on the submarine's bearing.
At almost twenty
knots, Voyager raced towards the submarine, passed over it. The buzzers
sounded and depth charges rolled slowly out of the traps, splashing
slightly in the madly churning wake. Seconds later there were muffled
thuds as the charges exploded. Giant geysers shot up astern and Voyager
shuddered as she took the shock of the explosion.
Doubling back in
her tracks like an angry terrier, the old destroyer darted in for a
second attack. Depth-charge crews, working feverishly to reload their
traps and throwers, seemed barely to have completed their job before
the buzzers sounded again. Once more the charges rolled from the stern,
were flung from throwers. Once again there were the explosions, the
shock. Then they were turning again, a foaming bow wave almost cresting
For a third time
the charges were launched. They exploded and there was a cheer from
astern. There in the darkness a giant black shape broke surface awkwardly.
The submarine had been crippled. For less than a minute she lay there
on her side. But a minute was enough. Voyager's gun crews, their keenness
whetted by the brief action, brought their 4-inch guns to bear, and
split seconds after the submarine appeared a salvo tore into her hull.
its sides battered and ripped by the depth charges, the U-boat shuddered
under the impact, lurched over and disappeared.
Italy had been in
the war three days, and had lost her first submarine. H.M.A.S. Voyager
had destroyed the first Italian U-boat of the war.
Excitement ran high
throughout the ship. The antisubmarine personnel were thrilled with
their victory. Gun crews laughed and joked as they thought of the destruction
of the submarine with a single salvo. The depth-charge party had used
their "ash cans", and were more than satisfied with the result.
Yes, the night of
13 June had been more than satisfactory. But one submarine was not enough.
Stuart, attracted by the gunfire and depth-charge explosions,
was racing up to assist. Again she had to stop, surrounded by the last
field that submarine would ever lay. For two tortuous hours, in darkness
broken only by the dim moonlight, she dodged between mines. It seemed
more difficult this time than it had been before. The crew, closed up
at action stations, waited tensely for the explosion that they thought
dodged round the last mine, safe, and still looking for action.Then,
at 3.14 a.m. on 14 June Voyager had another success. Her "Kipper"
submarine-detector, lean, brown Leading Seaman George Cooper, had discovered
another submarine. Voyager prepared to attack again, but she had no
more charges left. The
submarine's position was flashed to Stuart, the tiny blue-glassed box
lamp winking out its message with amazing speed across the dark water.
Captain Waller, a signals officer himself, read the message even before
the yeoman, gave his orders, and Stuart raced in to the attack.
But the flotilla leader was not lucky enough to blow the U-boat to the
surface. Captain Wailer made attack after attack, dropping charges each
time he raced over the submarine's position. The last charge exploded
astern. Then the black waters of the Mediterranean shimmered calmly,
ruffled only by a slight breeze, Stuart resumed her patrol.
In the morning a
marked patch of oil was seen over the submarine's position. At noon,
Vampire signalled that she had discovered another oil patch, thick and
unbroken, in the same position. It was two and a half miles long. The
second U-boat had been shattered.Patrol
work was to play an important part in the Australian destroyers' routine,
but it was not long before the monotony was broken for Stuart.
On 20 June she left
Alexandria to screen the force which was to give Bardia its baptism
of fire-thundering broadsides from a French battleship, British and
Australian cruisers and cheeky destroyers.
On the destroyer
screen with Stuart were Dainty, Decoy, and Hasty. Sydney,
who was to get her first taste of action, accompanied Orion and Neptune.
The French battleship Lorraine ploughed powerfully in their wake
on her first and last mission in the war against Italy.
against the chilly air, the men in Stuart watched eagerly for
the Libyan coast. The first yellow streaks of dawn flickered dimly on
the white barracks which sat solid and prominent on the dark escarpment.
The destroyers felt their way closer inshore, Captain Wailer listening
attentively to reports from leadsmen in the chains.
Charts of this coast
were not very reliable and the enemy were but a mile or two away. Neptune
opened the battle just before 6 am., a screaming salvo of shells plummeting
into Bardia. Stuart fired a round from "B" gun. The gunnery officer
observed its fall near the tall wireless mast and a broadside followed.
was steaming slowly up and down the coast, her 13.4-inch guns belching
flame and black and yellow smoke. Sydney, Neptune and Orion poured
broadside after broadside into the town.
tiny guns snapped vicious salvos. And the guns of sleeping Bardia made
no reply! Shell after shell burst in the target area and Stuart
fired three more salvos into the area allocated to her before a thick
pall of smoke rose from the town, mingled with the fine brown dust,
and provided an impenetrable screen.
The barracks, town
and harbour were hidden and smoke and dust drifted slowly out to sea,
eddying and swirling slowly in the breeze. At five past six the bombardment
ceased. Stuart had fired forty rounds of. high explosive into Bardia
and months later when, after Wavell's victorious advance, members of
the crew walked through the town they picked up pieces of the shells
near the twisted wreckage of the radio mast.
been the only ship firing 4.7-inch high explosives. It had been fun!
They had raced in unseen, flung shells into the Italian stronghold and
departed as silently as they had come, unharmed and without casualty.
GUN HMAS STUART
Bardia, one of the
strongest of all Mussolini's fortified towns, had not fired a shot during
the entire bombardment. Taken by surprise, the battery crews had fled,
abandoning their guns in what was later recognized as true Italian fashion.
Back on patrol,
Vampire had rapidly caught up with Stuart and Voyager as a submarine-hunter.
Within a week she had claimed two. In three attacks she dropped eighteen
charges on the first, shattering its hull. So heavy were the explosions
that some of Vampire's electric light globes were smashed. Next
night Vampire was in the middle of a minefield, and for an hour
skirted round the "black bastards", as the crew called them.
Then they were safely
out of the field, but seconds latex a look-out reported a mine right
ahead. Commander Walsh ordered: "Hard a'starboard," and Vampire
swung round. The look-out watched as the mine wallowed in the swell
scant feet from the sides. Then, in the darkness he saw that it was
a buoy. It tapped lightly on the stern as Vampire swung away.
A week later Vampire
again contacted a submarine, and raced in to the attack. The submarine
went deep after the first pattern, but surfaced suddenly when blasted
by another charge. Commander Walsh headed Vampire directly for the black
hull, but the U-boat crash-dived, only to have a full pattern explode
Voyager picked up
thirty-eight prisoners from one of her U-boat victims-thirty eight Italians,
terrified as a result of the blasting of depth charges. They had been
told that the English killed without mercy, and took no prisoners. They
suspected the Australians when they took them into the mess and gave
These were not the
British surely-the British Mussolini had told them about? Most of the
crew were under twenty-one. A number had only left high school a month
before. They had had no training, were totally unprepared for the terrible
undersea war in which they were involved.
In Malta, Vendetta
was nearing the end of her refit, and her ship's company weren't sorry.
A curfew was imposed and sentries fired after one challenge. The Maltese,
intensely patriotic and bitterly hating any one who even indirectly
aided the despised Italians, saw that the curfew was strictly adhered
to. But before the end of June the island suffered its first real loss.
One of the three
gallant Gladiators was shot down in combat. The ancient trio had fought
battle after battle against impossible odds, but somehow they always
managed to return. There were often bullet holes in the fuselage. Sometimes
they had been damaged more seriously, but they had always come back
to be patched up ready for the next encounter. And now one of them had
By unanimous consent
it was "Charity" that was lost -"Faith" and "Hope" remained.
By the end of June
night raids were becoming more popular and often the inquisitive silver-blue
lances of the searchlights would pick out a plane. Then the bombs could
be seen, too - glistening specks that fell with a fearful shriek and
burst with an angry roar on the rock-clad fortress.
were a problem at first, for they seemed more menacing than those which
fell with a faint "swish"; but when the Maltese saw that they did no
more damage than any other bomb, work was no longer interrupted.
Soon the Hurricanes
arrived. At first there was just the "buzz" that "Faith" and "Hope"
had been reinforced, but then the darting, dashing new fighters were
seen, and two Savoia bombers toppled out of the fight in flames.
stood at the entrance to their deep shelters, tears of gratitude welling
from their eyes. Britain was hitting back -faith and hope, literally,
were not so important as they had been.
The Hurricanes brought
their own problem, however, and caused the first "paratroop alarm".
In one particularly large raid they shot down so many planes in such
a short time that the sky seemed to be full of parachutes.
crew, in common with the others on the island, believed that the threatened
invasion had really begun. In a few moments the island bristled with
weapons. Troops appeared as if by magic from a score of innocent looking
positions, and their machine guns covered the long lines of concertina
barbed-wire. But when the Italian machines fled, with the Hurricanes
close on their heels, it was obvious that the "paratroops" were only
air crews whose planes lay mangled and burning throughout the island.
And far behind the Italians and the Hurricanes flew "Faith" and "Hope"-
still eager to fight.
Faith is no small
thing in the life of the Maltese. Every house, every bus, every church
has a crucifix. Statues of the Virgin Mary can be seen on street corners
and even in the long tunnels that are now air-mid shelters. There was
one shelter just outside the dockyard gates which was not hewn from
Malta's rocky face-a flimsy construction in which some fifty wives of
dockyard workmen occasionally sheltered. Outside the shelter was a little
statue of the Virgin, a handful of withered flowers at her feet.
One day late in
June a large yellow bomb landed almost at the statue's feet. Inside
the shelter, on their knees, were women and children. The bomb made
a large hole in the street, pieces of the casing showered over the statue
and the inside of the bomb was strewn right to the entrance of the shelter,
But there was no explosion. The women left their children inside the
rough shelter, and carried what was left of the two hundred and fifty
pound bomb to the water's edge. Faith means something in Malta.
So ended June and
the first month of the war with Italy.
On the Australian's
scoreboard, chalked up boldly for all to read, was an impressive tally
for 21 days work.
The only casualty
was Vampire's cat. He fell down a hatch into the engine room and broke
his back. They buried him at sea with the appropriate ceremony.
At the other end
of The Med, France had just asked for an armistice with Germany.