SCRAP-IRON FLOTILLA - Chapter. 3
The tempo of war
was rising rapidly. The battle for the Mediterranean was less than a
month old, but already could be seen the prelude to the struggle which
was to end almost twelve months later at Matapan.
July brought the
first real bombings. July brought the first naval engagement in the
Mediterranean. July brought the fall of France.
Vampire was first
to meet the bombers. With Nubian, and three other British destroyers
she left Alexandria to convoy ships from the Black Sea, skirting round
the island of Rhodes, through the beautiful islands of the Greek Archipelago,
and into the Aegean.
On deck, keeping
alert look-out for aircraft, - the crew saw Lemnos of Anzac fame, and
then, not far from the heights of Gallipoli themselves, the convoy was
sighted. There were eleven ships, including two tankers, and their maximum
speed was six knots. The five destroyers turned back, picking their
way more slowly this time through the picturesque isles and into the
blue Mediterranean. So far it had been easy.
At noon next day
the look-outs sighted aircraft, flying high, obviously approaching the
convoy. Warning signals were signalled from ship to ship and the convoy
spread out in open order, destroyers dashing round them to give them
the maximum cover with their tiny guns.
The first bombs
hurtled down, fourteen of them, splashing impotently into the calm sea.
Vampires baptism of fire had been a mild one. Then the planes
released more bombs. They were better aimed this time and ten fell round
the Australian destroyer, sending giant waterspouts high into the air.
The gentle breeze whipped the spray back across the bridge. The chattering
cough of the lone pom-pom mounted aft was almost drowned by the clicking
of cameras. There was no fear, no great excitement, only disappointment
as camera fans yelled at the bombers to come lower so that they could
photo- graph them.
For an hour the
planes flew overhead, almost too high to be seen. The convoy, still
in open order, plunged on towards Alexandria, while eager sailors on
the decks of warships and merchantmen alike taunted the skyscraping
Wops. Just after dusk twenty more bombs crashed down wide of the
convoy. Then darkness brought relief.
At dawn the planes
appeared again, six of them, still flying high. Vampire, stationed astern,
dropped back to investigate a submarine report. The Italians dumped
their full outfit. There was a dull crump, and clouds of
spray and black smoke shot into the air as thirty-eight bombs crashed
into the water a mile astern of the convoy. But for the submarine report
Vampire would have been in station there. The convoy reached Alexandria
France had signed
an armistice with Germany on 22 June and in British ports where units
of the French Fleet were anchored there was an atmosphere of tense speculation.
The Royal Navy would be taxed hard enough in the Mediterranean now that
the services of the French ships had been lost. They could not afford
to have the ships of their former ally used against them. in English
ports two old battleships, two cruisers, eight destroyers and a number
of submarines had already been taken over. In Alexandria were the battleship
Lorraine, heavy and light cruisers and destroyers, still fully manned.
By Thursday, 4 July,
the French commanders had given no indication of their attitude to Marshal
Petains order to return to French ports, although they had been
informed that Britain could not allow them to move from the harbour.
At 7.45 a.m., while the Frenchmen were considering British proposals,
Alexandrias air-raid sirens wailed their strident warning. British
guns opened fire and it was not many minutes before Frenchmen were firing,
too. Whether this action resulted from pro-British sympathies or from
a desire to protect their ships, one thing is certainimmediately
after the raid French officers and matelots decided that they would
allow their ships to be demilitarized.
But these were a
small part of Frances Mediterranean Fleet. Some of Frances
mightiest and newest warships lay in Oran Bay, and the 35,000-ton Richelieu
swung at her moorings at Dakar. These were French ports and their naval
commanders refused to disarm their ships. Within a few days, in the
melancholy battle of Oran, and in the swift blows struck by a tiny depth-charge-laden
launch and Swordfish bombers at Dakar, the potential menace of Frances
armada was~ removed.
naval superiority in the Mediterranean had been lost. Italy had six
battleships, twenty-five cruisers, more than sixty destroyers, more
than one hundred motor torpedo boats (some of which were virtually destroyers)
and some one hundred odd submarines. All of these were based in the
Middle Sea, while Britain could spare only part of her forces for service
between Gibraltar and Suez. To whittle down Italian superiority and
to provide protection for convoys from one end of the Mediterranean
to the other, Admiral Cunningham, aboard his flagship Warspite in Alexandria
harbour, was planning his first Mediterranean sweep.
the morning of 7July the grey battle fleet in harbour at Alexandria
slipped quietly from its moorings. White Ensigns fluttered gently
in the breeze and salt spray shipped across lean focsles.
left harbour first, Stuart, Voyager and Vampire among them. This
was to be their first sweep with the Fleet, and they eagerly looked
forward to the next few days.
a buzz that the Eyeties had actually put to sea! Behind
the nine destroyers were heavy and light cruisers leading Warspite
and Malaya, with the aircraft carrier Eagle astern. So began Admiral
Cunninghams first sweep of Italys Mare Nostrum.
It was not to be long before British might had won the right to
send ships where and when she wished, and Mare Nostrum became
known throughout the Fleet as Cunninghams pond.
There was a large
area to sweep, so the force was divided into three, each force being
instructed to rendezvous at 6 a.m. on 9 July. Force A, which included
the Australian destroyers, was sighted by Italian reconnaissance planes
early on 8 July, and five bombing attacks followed in the next eight
hours. On two other occasions British ack-ack fire drove off the Italians
before they could get in position to unload their bombs. One of the
other destroyers, with a force near Crete, sank a submarine, and an
E-boat was blasted out of the water.
Air attacks, E-boat
attacks, submarine attacks! In vain did Italy try to keep Cunninghams
fleet away from her fleeing warships.
At dawn on 9 July
Eagle sent off her Swordfish planes on reconnaissance. Back came their
reports, the Italians position was quickly plotted, and course
was altered to intercept. In the Australian destroyers screening the
battleships, gun crews cleared away the ready-use racks, saw that they
had plenty of shells close by. Torpedo-men had a final look at their
deadly fish, well greased, loaded and ready. Eagerly the crew discussed
the latest reports. They should meet the Wops about 2 p.m.
shiny flight deck flashed nine Swordfish torpedo bombers, wicked looking
fish slung ready beneath their bellies. But the Italians
managed to evade them. Altering course rapidly the enemy attempted to
avoid a decisive action. Superior in tonnage, superior in speed, the
Italians were still trying to get away!
Screening the battleships,
the Australians had a wonderful view of the British Fleet. With
Stuart, Voyager and Vampire were British destroyers, their slender bows
cutting foaming white wakes in the calm blue sea. Out on the wing the
cruisers were no less impressive, creaming bow-waves frothing up almost
over their focsles, sparkling wakes churning and bubbling
astern. Then there were the battleships, imperturbable, powerful, wallowing
slightly in spite of the calm. Behind them steamed Eagle, squat, like
a block of flats, the sun shimmering on her polished flight deck. Visibility
was perfect, the sky blue and cloudless. Warspite controlled the Fleet.
A few gaily coloured flags
fluttered to her yardarm and answering pendants were hoisted throughout
the Fleet. Then the flagships signal tumbled down and the answering
pendants came down together. Helms went hard over and the Fleet altered
course, the trim, tiny destroyers leaning outboard and straining against
the wheel, the battleships, still unhurried, turning more slowly. They
had practised this in peace-time. Now it was war! As the minutes flew
by, tension grew. Would the Wops escape again
WARSPITE - MEDITERRANEAN
Then, with a crashing
salvo from the more excitable Italians, the battle began. The British
cruisers, ten miles ahead of the battle fleet, checked their range,
sent 8-inch and 6-inch shells screaming twenty thousand yards into the
From Voyager it
seemed that the Italian cruiser squadron stretched the length of the
horizon. Behind this line, barely visible yet, were the Italian battleships
and their attendant destroyers.
Three minutes after
the battle opened, Admiral Cunningham sent his destroyers in to attack.
Voyager and Vampire were detailed to screen Eagle while Stuart accompanied
the attacking flotilla.
The destroyers turned
together, plumes of brown smoke billowing out as they increased speed
to thirty knots, boiling wakes trailing astern. By the tubes the torpedo-men
stood ready. Gun crews waited impatiently for the range to close. Enemy
bombers roared overhead, dropping bombs aimlessly. Eagles Swordfish
struck at the Italians, probably torpedoed a cruiser.
It seemed that every
one was firing now. Miles astern, Warspite steamed majestically into
battle, spewing giant 15- inch shells across both lines of cruisers
into the Italian battle fleet. With a tremendous roar she disappeared
behind a pall of black and yellow smoke with every salvoa pall
through which the flash of her ack-ack guns showed dull and angry.
The Italian destroyers
dashed in and out between their heavier ships, laying a dark smoke screen.
Everywhere was the acrid smell of cordite, of oil fumes. On Stuarts
starboard wing were our cruisers, flame belching from their guns as
they poured salvo after salvo into the smoke screen which was covering
the Italian Fleet. Stuart was firing, too, shuddering forward at her
maximum speed, snapping quick salvos whenever a target appeared.
Then enemy 8-inch
cruisers found her range and three salvos straddled her. Giant spouts
of water rose on both sides, Stuart pitched forward, staggered a little,
and plunged on undamaged.
That had been close!
The Italians shells were apparently high explosive, for they burst
when they hit the water. The British preferred to use the more damaging
armour-piercing projectiles. A minute later six streaks of foam cut
the calm blue water, but the torpedoes, fired from behind the Italian
smoke screen, passed harmlessly by. Gun crews, eagerly watching for
targets in the thickening smoke screen, saw a line of enemy destroyers.
Quickly the guns were brought to bear and two shells struck one of the
Behind the destroyers,
Warspite, who had already damaged one Italian battleship, was rapidly
decreasing the range. It seemed that the Italians might yet be brought
to decisive action in spite of their rapid flight.
Then a lone Italian
destroyer dashed from behind the curtain of smoke, thick black fumes
belching from her funnels. Amazed at her daring, Stuarts men watched
as she raced down the line, every British ship pouring salvos at her.
Drenched with spray
from near misses, covered with spume and spattered with shell fragments,
she staggered across in front of the British cruisers, her tiny guns
pouring out ineffectual fire.
Then, just as it
seemed that she might get away, a salvo struck her magazine. There was
a blinding flash, and flame and smoke and twisted wreckage were hurled
into the air. When the smoke had settled there was nothing on the surface
but scum and oily, tangled debris. The destroyers name was Zefliro.
The British ships,
heedless of torpedoes and gunfire, plunged through the smoke, firing
for almost half an hour at indistinct, flitting targets which appeared
spasmodically and vanished. By this time the Italians superior
speed had enabled them to draw out of range, and Admiral Cunningham
was forced, reluctantly, to cease fire almost on the enemy coast. The
action was disappointing, he said later. We had no opportunity
of dealing with them at close range. But that opportunity was
to come later.
The Battle of Calabria
had not ended. Stung by the loss of a destroyer and damage to one of
their biggest battleships almost within stones throw from their
own coast, the Italians sent out swarms of bombers. From 4.50 p.m. until
7.30 there was no respite. Nave after wave of planes dropped heavy
and light bombs, and Voyager and Vampire had more than their share of
action. Still screening Eagle, they were the bombers favourite
target. Twisting and turning, they dodged stick after stick,
their tiny guns barking defiance at the high flying Italians.
On deck the crews
of each ship kept tally of the falling bombs. Quickly they chalked up
the thousand, and had almost reached double that number when the bombers
and Walsh had altered course so skilfully that less than thirty bombs
fell within two hundred yards of either ship. The confidence they inspired
in their crews was to prove invaluable during the next few weeks, for
the real bombing had not yet begun!
Two nights later
Voyager and Vampire left Malta on convoy. They steamed out of the harbour
in bright moonlight, look-outs keeping alert watch ahead for ships,
listening intently for aircraft. Then fifty yards away from Vampire
there was a dull crunch, and a column of smoke and spray
was tossed into the air. An aircraftengine roared into life above them.
The two destroyers twisted and turned away. The plane had spotted their
wakes in the moonlight, glided down unheard, released a bomb and left
before they could fire a round. The bomber was not alone, however, and
within a few seconds the crews of both destroyers were to witness their
first night raid on Malta.
From the bridge
and deck, officers and men watched the powerful searchlights pointing
inquiring fingers into the sky, probing for the bombers. Then the flak
started, stabbing bursts of flame flashing from a thousand gun positions.
The dull roar of the big guns conflicted with the vicious snapping of
smaller weapons and the ceaseless cough-cough-cough of the pom-poms.
The sky was alive
with tracer, the darkness split by red and yellow lances which seemed
to float lazily upward for a second, then whipped through the night
with a whine. Then, for a second, the whole sky was aflame. One of the
Italian raiders was on firea Roman candle, indeed. Slowly it turned
over and over as it tumbled down, its engine coughing weakly. Red and
yellow flames licked round it greedily, leaving a trail of fiery smoke.
The plane struck the ground, exploded in a sheet of flame, and the sky
was dark again.
The convoy steamed
on, Voyager and Vampire keeping station easily in the bright, clear
moonlight. It seemed so peaceful, looking back from the destroyers to
where the five black shapes of the merchantmen ploughed through the
shimmering water. Shortly after 5 a.m. Voyager dashed away from the
convoy and dropped five charges on what might have been a submarine.
Commander Morrow took no chance when he had a convoy to look after.
Then the bombers
returned and Vampire, out to starboard of the convoy, had just altered
course to give the ships greater protection when eight bombs crashed
down, straddling her. Some of the bombs fell less than twenty feet away,
and the decks were awash with spray. Shrapnel flew in all directions,
penetrated the ships side forward, holed an iron stanchion, peppered
the funnel and blew the door off the wheelhouse.
The Gunner (T) Mr
J. Endicott, R.N., standing on the porn-porn platform, was badly wounded
by shrapnel. Two minutes before he had been in his cabin, resting after
his watch. Chief Petty Officer Galley, the gunners mate, who had
been checking the ammunition supply at the porn-porn, had found some
empty belts, and reported to the gunner.
bet youre wrong. Lets go and have a look, Mr Endicott
said. The pair had just reached the porn-porn plat forrn when the bombs
fell, and shrapnel grazed Chief Petty Officer Galley and badly wounded
Mr Endicott was
the only casualty and, though he was still conscious, it was obvious
that only an immediate operation could save him. Commander Walsh made
a signal and was ordered to steer a course to meet the Fleet. The next
hour was hell let loose. Neither destroyer had many ack-ack guns and
these puny guns seemed useless against the bombers. Dive-bombed from
almost masthead height, bomb after bomb landed within two hundred feet
of the ships.
The chattering of
ack-ack guns was drowned by the roar of planes, screaming down in almost
vertical dives. Then there was the shriek of falling bombs and the sickening,
terrible explosions as they burst in spouts of water, smoke and shrapnel.
Vampire was alone,
now, steering at full speed for the Fleet, while the sick-berth attendant
and stewards tended Mr Endicott as best they could.
The bombers left,
and the tiny destroyer plunged on until HMS Mohawk was sighted. The
gunner was placed in the whaler, and taken across to the British destroyer,
where the doctor and his assistants were preparing to operate. Then,
as the whaler made back to the ship, the bombers came again. Sturdy
seamen strained at their oars and the boat seemed to lift from the water.
In a matter of seconds it reached Vampires side, was made fast
to the boats falls and hoisted inboard. Never before or since
has a whaler been hoisted in such quick time!
The bombing began
again. Twice before Vampire rejoined the convoy sticks of bombs fell
so dose that the crew were drenched with spray as they lay face downwards
on the deck. On the bridge Commander Walsh watched every movement of
the Nazi planes, altering course swiftly as he judged the flight of
the bombs with amazing skill.
The porn-porn and
Lewis guns kept up an ineffectual barrage, their crews sweating and
cursing as they kept the guns pouring out a continuous hail of fire.
From the deck it seemed that the screaming bombs would always hit them.
Then, at the last minute, the ship would shudder round under full wheel
and the bombs seemed to whip away in a rapid curve, hitting the water
with a crash. Eight times the bombers attacked; eight times they were
beaten off. More than fifty bombs had fallen within two hundred yards
of the ship, and shrapnel holes were a grim reminder that Vampire had
been very lucky.
Then a signal was
received ordering Vampire to escort the Fleet back to Alexandria. Voyager
and another destroyer continued on with the convoy and Vampire turned
back. During the afternoon the Fleet was attacked several times without
result, but a cloudy night brought relief and much needed rest.
There were ten attacks
before noon next day, but this time Warspite, not Vampire, was the target.
It was comforting to hear the crackle of the Fleets fierce barrage
and the bombers lost some of their daring.
who had spent almost a week on the bridge under the fiercest fire the
Mediterranean had known, kept up the crews spirits by his personal bravery
and masterly seamanship.
Looking aft he saw
Able Seaman Bell, the after anti-aircraft look-out, sitting unconcernedly
on a depth charge, surrounded by five thousand pounds of T.N.T. A tin
helmet on his head and his life-jacket round his chest to protect him
from shrapnel, Bell spotted for the bombers through powerful glasses.
He didnt have long to wait. Eleven times during the afternoon
the raiders dropped their five-hundred-pound bombs, but the Fleet was
In less than twelve
hours Vampire had been through twenty-one attacks, during which three
hundred bombs were dropped. In the ships log they entered up the
tallyfifty-six raids in ten days, one thousand eight hundred bombs
dropped, one hundred and fifty of them being within five hundred yards
of the ship! But it had not been without casualty.
During the afternoon
of 12 July, while enemy bombers made ceaseless attacks, news of Mr Endicotts
death was received. He had not lost consciousness during the hours before
he was transferred to Mohawk. His one concern was that he might not
keep any one away from their action stations. So, during a lull in the
fighting, Australias first naval casualty was buried beneath the
now placid waters of the Mediterranean.
Bombings were not
confined to the Fleet. Malta, strategically placed to interfere with
Axis plans in North Africa, was singled out for special attention by
the Italian Air Force, and the raids increased both in size and in number.
Vendetta, in dock, had been a popular target, but somehow every bomb
missed and, though the area round the dockyard was pitted with huge
craters and a tug oniy a few yards away was directly hit, the destroyer
escaped except for a few shrapnel scars. Marooned now that
their ship was laid up for repairs, the Australians had heard of Frances
collapse and ultimate surrender.
half-soldiers, they helped with Maltas ever-growing defences.
They knew little of the tense atmosphere at Alexandria or of the battles
of Oran and Dakar, but the arrival of a French submarine at Malta made
Frances defeat seem more real.
The submarine was
spotted by aircraft a few miles from Valetta and a British destroyer
raced out to meet it. At first it appeared to be flying the red, white
and green tricolour of Italy, but as the destroyer approached officers
could see that the U-hoat was flying two flagsFrances tricolour
and the Union Jack. Although the submarine made no attempt to dive,
the Royal Navy men were still suspicious and they escorted her into
The submarine had
been based on Algiers and, in the few hours which preceded Frances
collapse, officers and men decided to steal out and proceed to a British
port. Secretly they approached officers and crews of other French ships
they outlined their plan, urged the others to accompany them. But while
their comrades debated among themselves someone informed the authorities
of the submarine com- manders scheme.
Orders were immediately
given from the shore officials that the submarine was to move to a wharf
farther up the harbour, and a strong guard waited for the U-boat to
berth. Slipping from their moorings at the buoy, the submarine seemed
to be headed up-harbour. Then she turned. At full speed she raced downstream
directly for the strong anti-submarine boom stretched across the entrance.
They could not force their way through that stout barrier!
But they were not
the only ones with pro-British sympathies in Algiers that day. The boom-master
left the boom open after a ship passed through; and the submarine headed
out to the open sea. Signals flashed threats and warnings, but they
took no notice of the winking lights. At the radio, the operator tapped
with rapid urgency on the morse key. At a small table near by sat two
officers, surrounded by books of secret codes, carried only by French
naval ships and establishments. They passed sheets of paper covered
with hastily scrawled groups of numbers to - the operator and, in spite
of the apparent urgency of the message and the grim threats being made
by signal from shore batteries on the coast, every one in the ship seemed
to be laughing at some secret joke. They were still laughing when they
arrived at Malta. The message had been addressed to all French warships
at sea. Purporting to come from Admiral Darlan himself, it had ordered
all Frenchmen to proceed immediately to the nearest British port!
For a few days the
French Submarine remained in harbour, and then, as suddenly as they
came, they steamed out to patrol off the Italian coast. Within a fortnight
they were back again, their torpedo tubes empty, their supply of ammunition
dangerously low. White and shiny against the dark grey of the conning
tower were two newly-painted swastikas.
Four times they
slipped quietly from their moorings, four times they crept back into
harbour. The number of swastikas grew. Again they took on torpedoes
and ammunition, and left for their patrol area. Weeks passed, grew into
months, and there was nothing but silence. . . . They had served their
country faithfully and with a courage that knew nothing of surrender.
But the price of patriotism is often high.