Stuart was transferred from the RN to the RAN in 1933. Until the outbreak
of war Stuart served in the Australian waters. In 1939 she sailed for
the Mediterranean and undertook patrol work with HMA ships Vampire,
Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen. These five ships were to become famous,
called the Scrap Iron Flotilla by the German Propaganda Machine they
were commanded by the flotilla leader HMAS Stuart and performed stirling
service at a time when Britain and the Commonweath had their backs to
the wall against the might of Nazi Germany.
Often, we read about a historian's interpretation of events that might
have occurred during military or naval encounters. But do they really
get their facts, correct? Sometimes, the historians leave out important
details contained in such true eye witness accounts.
The record that
follows is an extract from my father's diary, Chief Petty Officer Watkins,
and is his own personal interpretation of the Battle and his feelings
whilst on board the famous Australian destroyer HMAS Stuart during the
'Battle of Matapan': a naval battle between ships of the Allied and
It should be remembered,
that this story was written some 60 years ago and well before the laws
regarding racial vilification came into practice, thus expressions on
race names used in this story, is in no way a reflection on today's
- Noel Watkins (Son of Chief Yeoman Watkins)
that were going to Greece at frequent intervals would sometimes assemble
at Alexandria or Port Said, or at both places. In the latter case the
two parts would rendezvous at sea and form one convoy. One day late
in March, a particularly important and valuable convoy (as Bob Blakey
in HMAS Vampire put it; "A nice big fat juicy convoy") was on its way
to pass the Kithera Channel.
the Wop(1) navy learnt of its existence and decided that it would be
a good idea to send it to the bottom. Reports had reached the Admiral(2)
that the Dagoes(3) were coming out.
: Warspite (C in C), Valiant, Barham
Cruisers : Orion,
Ajax, Perth, Gloucester
Destroyers : (2nd Destroyer Flotilla) Ilex, Hostile, Hereward, Hero,
Havock, Hotspur, Griffin, Greyhound (10th Destroyer Flotilla) : Stuart
(14th Destroyer Flotilla) : Janus, Juno, Jaguar, Mohawk and Nubian
to sea on the evening of March 27th. Throughout the night the fleet
steamed at high speed, the cruisers going ahead to try and locate the
main enemy force and if possible lure them down to our big ships.
dawn, aircraft from the Formidable took off to assist the cruisers and
pass in to the Admiral as much information as they could. After the
cruisers and aircraft had located the enemy force, which they did about
mid afternoon, we received position course and speeds which showed that
we were more than a hundred miles away. But we could still have a shot
at them, for away went nine aircraft from the flight deck of the carrier
each laden with a tinfish(4).
result was a crippled battleship able to steam at only 12 or 15 knots.
Reports towards evening showed that we were only about 40 miles from
this damaged bloke who had been left with several cruisers and a number
the cruisers had had the main force under observation at about fifteen
or sixteen miles range, the only parts visible were the fighting tops.
The battleship had opened fire and though some of the shells fell close,
both to the Orion and Perth, no damage was done. As evening was falling,
the cruisers who had by now fallen back on the Admiral, were ordered
to go some twenty miles ahead of us.
Formidable sent in another attacking force of eight Swordfish obtaining
one hit and this time stopping the vessel which is generally supposed
to be the Vittorio. The destroyers were organised into two flotillas
under the command of D14 leaving Stuart, Havock, Griffin and Greyhound
to remain with and screen the big ships. At dusk, the 14th and 2nd Flotillas
were sent ahead to search for and attack the disabled battleship with
torpedoes. Unfortunately, they never found her.
found the three battleships with Formidable astern steaming a course
of 250 degrees with Greyhound and Griffin on the Port box and Stuart
and Havock on the Starboard bow. We were somewhere between the Italian
ships and our convoy, which earlier had been ordered to turn back but
as we now between the two, had been ordered to continue towards Greece.
was a dark night, no moon, visibility was as good as it could have been
though very little light was given by the stars. At about 9.30 a report
came in by W/T(5) from the Ajax that she had 'seen' by her detection
gear an unknown ship, distant five or six miles. Our Navigating Officer
(Lieut. Teacher R.N.) gave the position as being less than ten miles
from where we were then. Griffin and Greyhound were ordered to come
over to the Starboard side with us.
was keeping a very good lookout peering through the darkness, when suddenly
right ahead of us loomed a shape which I reported to the Captain(6).
I was ordered to make the Night Alarm which I lost no time in doing
by W/T. I ran back to my position and this time picked up one - two,
three - seven ships. There may have been more but I never had the time
to count them.
Gun - 4.7" Gun Mount HMAS STUART.
were coming down fast from a position ahead to pass a mile or so on
the port beam of the battleships. All of a sudden, as the van ships,
8 inch cruisers, passed abreast of the Warspite, the sky opened up,
at least it seemed so, when first the Warspite and then Valiant followed
by Barham fired with both their main armament of 15 inch and secondary
armament of 6 inch guns. A moment after the Warspite fired the leading
cruiser burst into a mass of flames right from one end of the ship to
the second cruiser burst into flames a salvo from either the Barham
or Valiant caught her. By this time, a matter of seconds after the first
gun, the air was full of noise, searchlights, tracers and spray. The
Greyhound and Griffin who had been on their way to join us from the
Port side, and who would have been right in the way of the enemy had
they remained in their old position, had opened up on the destroyers.
shell were hovering in the sky and the tracers from Breda bullets twined
a vivid line across the dark background. Stuart had joined in the fun
and was engaging a destroyer or cruiser which was partly illuminated
by Greyhound's searchlight, firing just astern of Griffin. Shells were
fired by the Italians, and which were going over Griffin were falling
with a 'crack' very near to us. But no one seemed to notice. Our main
concern was to shoot and shoot straight.
battleships after the first two or three salvoes were turned away to
Starboard by fixed light manoeuvring signals. It was their only policy
as an attack by the Wop destroyers with torpedoes might have ended the
take quite differently. As the big ships turned, C in C made the signals
"Destroyers attack". This meant Stuart and Havock, as Greyhound and
Griffin had by this time drawn well ahead, guns still going.
big ships had ceased firing when they turned, and apart from the firing
from Griffin and Greyhound some distance away, all was quiet. Fires
were visible in the distance - remember we were going ahead at 24 knots
and we soon passed them steering in opposite directions as we were.
So we two, on our pat, went around and headed in the general direction
of the biggest fire, Stuart leading. As we closed ready to carry out
a "Subdivisional torpedo attack" we made out the shape of a cruiser
on fire amidships, and passed down the signal "Stand by to fire torpedoes".
As we turned to fire we made out also, a second cruiser slowly circling
the burning ship, so away went all our fish(8).
reports and events showed that we hit both ships. The ship that had
been burning sunk, though we had been too busy to see her. The second
ship which had previously undamaged, was hit amidships and her engines
and dynamos put out of action and as her guns were entirely controlled
by electricity - the ship was useless. It appears that the crew on finding
the ship hit, promptly took to the water. A survivor from the cruiser,
a Yeoman of Signals, stated "when the ship was torpedoed, I cried 'Mama
Mio' grabbed two lifebelts and jumped overboard". We saw this second
ship at a later period with a heavy list.
Havock never fired her torpedoes, as, she stated later, she did see
a definite target. Meanwhile our guns were not idle having found targets.
As we turned away after delivering the torpedoes into the bowls of the
Italian navy, a destroyer, large, single funnel emerged from the murk
only a couple of cables on our starboard bow. Around swung the guns
- Bang - up went a shower of sparks, flame and smoke as the first shells
burst around and on her bridge. Bang - this time the aft end of the
ship got hit. Bang - where this salvo went I'm not quite sure, for at
this moment, Havock following astern came between us, but I understand
we got at least one hit. A little later however we were to see Havock
silhouetted against this destroyer, which she had blown up. It was a
terrific burst. The magazine must have been hit for a billow of flame
shot up and from inside this rose a further mushroom head of flame of
even greater brilliancy. Then, suddenly as it rose, it vanished, leaving
I guess we didn't waste any time just lookin' at the sights. No sir.
On our Port bow loomed a ship. It looked like a cruiser, small fire
onboard. Round go the guns and as we turned around to get away from
her we have the satisfaction of seeing our shells hit home. Then around
on the Starboard bow is a ship on fire. This bloke fires back. Shells
fall close and then further astern but it looks like only the anti aircraft
guns are firing at us. The splashes are not large enough for those of
six or eight inch. Again we have the satisfaction of seeing our shells
arrive with the resultant outbreak of fire. At this moment I glanced
around and had the satisfaction of seeing five distinct fires burning
at the same time. Then came the Admiral's orders to retire to the North
East. Our course lay through this tangle of broken ships, but we managed
to Starboard a duel was going on. You could see the tracer and burst
of star shell and the flash as guns fired. But it must have been the
enemy having a shot at one another for practice as none of our ships
were doing any firing. We must have steamed through hundreds of men
during the course of the action because cries could be heard continuously.
An hour and forty minutes from the time of the alarm until the 'cease
fire' went eventually. I was dry - dry as a bone that had been on the
desert for a year. Not only in the mouth, but right down inside. It's
an uncanny feeling that gets you when you see splashes of shells near
you and to realise that someone is having a shot at you. Worse still
to see flashes of guns and NOT knowing whether you or someone else is
the target. When we engaged that destroyer at such close range there
wasn't a shot fired from her, her guns remained fore and aft. At first
this fact was not realised and every part of a second I spent anticipating
a burst of fire from her guns and the resultant shock as the shells
hit home. But nothing happened, thank God. I said my prayers fervently
that night and I've said them since. And I gave silent thanks when we
finally emerged with not a man hurt nor the ship damaged.
success of the action we fought was all the more remarkable because
a batch of the lads had just joined the ship direct from training. Then
didn't know much about the guns or the drill but they did their job
like trained seasoned hands and did it well. However, on drawing clear
of the battle area we made our report to C in C and received from him
a rendezvous for the morning.
set course and speed so as to reach it, made sure the lookouts were
in position then sat down and rested. I had a cup of cocoa about midnight
and I don't think a drink was appreciated by anyone as I appreciated
that one. This I followed with sandwiches which the Captain had sent
down for, and were they good.
signal received shortly after our report showed that Griffin, Greyhound
and Havock had joined with D14 and the remaining destroyers who had
made an unsuccessful search for the battleship. On their way back to
join C in C they ran into the cruiser we had damaged and sank her with
another fish. Just after dawn we sighted the 'big ships' who had been
joined by the cruisers. After identification we proceeded to join at
the same time as the remaining destroyers, under D14, came up on the
formed up on the screen and no sooner had we got into position, than
we, with Griffin and Hereward, were told to proceed to Athens and escort
a convoy leaving that night. So it was full speed ahead - thirty knots
and had been a quiet enough day. About 5 p.m. we passed the 'bait' of
the night before battle, Vampire, Voyager, Coventry and their ships.
We steamed past with battle ensigns flying whilst greetings were exchanged
this was the end of one story and so it was onto another during Stuart's
illustrious service in the Mediterranean during WW2.
2. Sir Andrew Cunningham
5. Wireless Telegraphy
6. Captain Hector Waller RAN
HMAS Stuart. Laid down in 1917, launched 1918, scrapped 1947.
Displacement - 1530 tons
Length - 332.5 feet
Beam - 32 feet
Speed - 36.5 knots
Armament - 5 x 4.7 inch guns, 1 x 3 inch gun, 7 smaller guns, 6 x 21
inch torpedo tubes.
Stuart had an eventful period of service. She took part in shore bombardments
off Libya, the battles of Calabria and Matapan in 1940 and 1941 and
troop transport in the Greek and Crete campaigns.
Stuart was ordered home in 1941 to protect convoys between Australia
and New Guinea. From 1944 to 1945 she was converted into a fast store
carrier and troop transport.
was credited with severely damaging the Italian cruisers Pola, Zara
and Victorrio during this infamous naval battle.
Minister Winston Churchill called the 'Battle of Matapan' the "greatest
sea fight since Trafalgar".
HMAS Stuart left the Mediterranean to sail to Australia for a refit
and service in the Pacific in October 1941, Captain Hector Waller RAN
was transferred to take command of the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth.
He was to loose his life when the Perth, along with the USS Houston,
were sunk during a naval battle with a Japanese armada in the Sunda
Cunningham, RN, when writing his auto biography, "A Sailor's Odessy,"
entitled the chapter on the Battle of Matapan "Stuart's Wild Night"
- such was his admiration of Stuart's performance that important night.
Truly the Commonwealth's greatest sea victory since Trafalgar. Apparently,
too, Cunningham was very fond of Hec Waller and deeply grieved when
he heard of his heroic loss onboard Perth. The cooks & stewards knicknamed
Waller "Hard Over Hec" as most of his wheel orders, in action, were
'Hard a Stbd or Hard a Port". Waller would lay back in his chair, with
pipe in mouth, on the bridge and actually wait for the dive-bombers
to release their bombs before ordering the wheel hard over one way or
in the mid 1990's built a class of submarine, which were known as the
Collins Class. Captain Waller will be remembered by having one of these
submarines named after him, being recognised as one of Australia's leading