THE SCRAP-IRON FLOTILLA Chapter 15.
War In The East
What was then designated as Force G, consisting of the modern battleship Prince of Wales, the World War I era battlecruiser Repulse, and the four destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Express, HMS Encounter, and HMS Jupiter, arrived at Singapore on 2 December, 1941. They were then re-designated Force Z. They spent a few days there with shore leave and refit, while waiting for orders. On 1 December, it was announced that Sir Tom Phillips had been promoted to full Admiral, and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet. A few days later, Repulse started on a trip to Australia with HMAS Vampire, and HMS Tenedos, but the force was recalled to Singapore to assemble for possible operations against the Japanese.
Also at Singapore were the light cruisers HMS Durban, HMS Danae, HMS Dragon, and HMS Mauritius, and the destroyers HMS Stronghold, Encounter, and Jupiter. The heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, Dutch light cruiser Java, 2 more British destroyers (Scout and Thanet), and 4 United States destroyers (Whipple, John D. Edwards, Edsall, and Alden) would be there within 3 days.
WAR IN THE FAR EAST
THE four that remained came home almost as quietly as they had steamed away two years before. Few people knew just where” they had arrived. There were a few newspaper announcements that officers and men from Stuart, Vendetta, Voyager and Vampire had arrived at “an Australian port”. Brief details were given of some of the old destroyers’ most dramatic adventures, one or two Ministerial statements were made and some of the men were interviewed.
Then the destroyers were forgotten again There was more important news than the fact that the “scrap-iron flotilla” had returned. To the north of Australia Japan was steadily marching nearer and nearer to war.
Back in Australian dockyards the destroyers underwent their first real refit since before September 1939. It was now September 1941. Two years of war had weakened plates, engine bearings showed signs of strain. There were important modifications in armament to be carried out, too, for the war had taught valuable lessons.
Crews went on twenty-eight days’ “foreign service” leave and then most of them were drafted to other ships of Australia’s rapidly growing Navy. These men, nearly a thousand had seen some service in the destroyers, were seasoned veterans who had seen every type of sea and aerial warfare. They provided a never exhausted source of information and instruction for recruits who, so far, had seen no action.
Prime Minister Menzies had jokingly declared that some people thought the old ships were “tied together with pieces of string”. Dockyard “maties” who stripped the destroyers still wonder how they floated, let alone fought! Guns were landed for renewal; torpedo tubes were lifted from their beds by giant cranes and completely overhauled; weak plates were replaced; engines were thoroughly repaired, and renewed where they had worn. It was no small job.
For months the ships lay in that state of complete mess and confusion known throughout the world as “in dockyard hands”. Red lead was splashed liberally on new parts as well as old. Gaping holes were torn in the decks and sides. Riveters plied their noisy trade from engine-room to bridge, from fo’c’sle to quarterdeck. Shipwrights tore down buckled wood, and hammered away at new doors and new cupboards and new paneling.
Coppersmiths and engineers, painters and fitters, riggers and boilermakers, electricians and shipwrights, they were all there, with their multitudes of labourers, to transform the old into the new. Piece by piece the old ships seemed to disappear; but then, as the days grew into weeks and the weeks into months, they were built again.
New officers were appointed, new crews were chosen. Some of the old hands were drafted back, but few of the original officers. These were “new” ships now and they had a new war to fight. Japan had hurled her bombers against Singapore. American naval units were sunk in Pearl Harbour. When the four “new-old” ships sailed again they were directly charged with the defence of Australia.
Japan’s actual “declaration” of war was as surprising as it was dramatic, but few people had seriously thought, in those first few days of December 1941, that war could be avoided. The Government of the Netherlands East Indies ordered mobilization on 1 December. On 2 December Britain’s new 35,000-ton Prince of Wales led powerful naval units into the Strait of Johore and to Singapore’s anchorages. In the United States Mr Kurusu, the “special” Japanese envoy, and ambassador Admiral Nomura conferred with Mr Sumner Welles.
But while Mr Kurusu blandly talked of peace, Japan was making final preparations for the blow against Britain and the United States. More and more Japanese forces were pouring into “French” Indo-China. The British Legation at Bangkok advised all Britishers to evacuate Thailand immediately.
Mr Kurusu, after a thirty-five minute conference with Mr. Sumner Welles (who was deputizing for Mr Cordell Hull) made this statement: “There is still a chance of success. I don’t give up very easily.” Admiral Nomura said: “Nobody wants war. War wouldn’t settle anything. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t settle these questions by diplomacy.”
Next day Japan was at war.
Her aircraft bombed Singapore and Hawaii and before long messages were being flashed to British and American wireless stations telling of the bombing of Bangkok, Manila, Nauru and Ocean islands, and Guam. Japanese troops landed on the Malayan coast and made for Kota Bharu. Thailand surrendered after a token resistance of a few hours.
In Singapore Repulse was the first (indeed, almost the only) ship to open fire on the twenty-seven bombers which raided the island from twenty thousand feet. Anchored not far away, Vampire was to witness the opening moves in the new war in the Pacific.
A few weeks before, while steaming not far from the coast of Borneo, the Australian destroyer had picked up wireless messages indicating that a Japanese destroyer force was exercising just off the island. Vampire investigated the signals, but did not catch a glimpse of the other ships, which were apparently just over the horizon.
On 8 December the British Fleet steamed to sea. Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, flying his flag in Prince of Wales, was anxious to engage heavy Japanese units which were supporting landing operations along the northern Malayan coast. With Prince of Wales and Repulse was a destroyer screen which included Vampire, now commanded by Commander Moran, R.A.N.
This is the story of that grim voyage as it was told to me by one of Vampire’s crew:
“We were picked up by a reconnaissance plane, and were shadowed until dusk. We expected that he would call his pals before dark, but nothing appeared and after dark we altered course. We guessed that they would be out after us next day, but if we could get close enough to have a go at Kongo and her heavy cruiser escort it would have been well worth while.
“But we didn’t make it. About 11 a.m. next day two flights of bombers appeared and they pattern-bombed Repulse from about twenty thousand feet. A couple of bombs hit her and a fire broke out just near the aircraft hangar. I think some petrol there must have caught fire, too, because there was a pretty big blaze for a while. Another bomb pierced the deck, and exploded in the messdecks. That caused a big fire, too, and I think marines were still fighting it when the order to abandon ship was given later.
“About ten minutes afterwards another attack developed, this time from torpedo bombers. Altogether there were more than eighty planes and they adopted a peculiar form of attack. They came in in formations of seven and all loosed their ‘fish’ together. Then as they followed the torpedo towards us they would machine-gun the decks.
“We managed to shoot down seven of them, and later heard that thirty-eight failed to return to their bases. “The Prince was putting up a good barrage and so was Repulse. After the battle had been going for a few minutes, Prince of Wales made to Repulse: ‘Are you hit?’ “Repulse replied: ‘I have dodged nineteen torpedoes till now, thanks to Providence.’
“There were ‘fish’ everywhere never less than about fourteen in the water together. We knew that it would only be a matter of time before something was hit. No ship could dodge all the torpedoes.
“Then both Repulse and the Prince were hit. Repulse seemed to be hit twice on the same side, and began to lean over slightly almost immediately. Prince of Wales staggered away out on the port quarter and I could see that a couple had got her, too.
“Both ships were badly damaged, but they were still firing. The Japs had not varied their tactics, and were still coming in in waves of seven, one wave from the port bow and another from the starboard quarter. The big ships were both hit again and Prince of Wales could not manoeuvre. I think her steering had been damaged when one ‘fish’ struck her aft.
“We had a narrow escape then, when one of the planes came down low. He flew across out on our beam first and I could see the gunner looking over at us. I remember thinking it would not be long before he came down and had a go. I was right, too.
“Suddenly he seemed to peel off, and roared towards us. At first his bullets spattered harmlessly on the iron deck near the after funnel, but then I could see them cutting into the bridge splinter mats. The bridge personnel ducked and no one was hurt, but the athwartships splinter mats were cut about.
“A few seconds later a second machine came towards us, but we scored a direct hit with our 12-pounder. The shell did not explode, but went right through the fuselage and the Jap seemed to stop dead. Then he flopped over, and tumbled into the sea. We were pretty pleased, because after that they left us well alone.
“Meanwhile Repulse had turned over, and was sinking slowly. Prince of Wales was not much better, but a British destroyer ran her bows alongside her and took off survivors when it was seen that nothing could be done and most of her guns were out of action.
“We picked up survivors from Repulse. The sea was dotted with them and it was surprising that more of them were not drowned. Among those we rescued was Captain W. G. Tennant, Repulse’s commanding officer. He had a nasty wound on his forehead, and was bleeding pretty badly.
“As we were picking up the men more aircraft appeared, but they dropped their bombs a long way off. Then they dipped their wings in a sort of salute, and made off. “About four hours after the Japs left, three Brewster Buffalo fighters and a Lockheed Hudson appeared. We nearly fired on them.
“We had been lucky to escape without a single casualty. We were not bombed because the Japs concentrated on the big ships, but in other ships many men had been killed and wounded by machine-gunning. Numbers of the men we picked up had been hit and many of the engine-room personnel were suffering from bad burns.
“Some officers and men died after we got them aboard and we buried them at sea. We went back to Singapore with the wounded and other survivors at twenty-seven knots, and did not arrive there until about midnight. By the time we had helped the last of Repulse’s men ashore it was after 3 a.m. We slept with our clothes on because most of us were too tired to take them off.”
The sinkings aroused a storm of controversy which contrasted strangely with the Admiralty’s brief, sombre announcement: “The Board of Admiralty regrets to announce a report has been received from Singapore that Prince of Wales (Captain J. C. Leach) and Repulse (Captain W. G. Tennant) have been sunk while carrying out operations against the Japanese.”
Details of other ships engaged in the epic sea-air battle were not announced for some time. Indeed before it was made known that Vampire had been in the fight the Australian destroyer had shared in another battle. This was to be more favourable, but again the Japanese forces were considerably greater than ours.
With the small British destroyer Thanet, Vampire had been ordered to proceed to Landau Bay to carry out a torpedo attack on troopships landing Japanese soldiers. Endau Bay was at this time well behind the British lines in Malaya and the daring attack caught the enemy naval units completely unawares.
At about 2 a.m. Vampire led the way into the bay. A large Japanese destroyer was sighted almost immediately and Commander Moran spun Vampire round to bring her tubes to bear. Two torpedoes were fired, but the range was too short and both “fish” passed under the enemy ship. In spite of the darkness, the Australians could see men running along the deck and then the Japanese ship slipped her moorings.
Vampire headed out of the bay at full speed, Thanet following closely in her wake. Then the destroyers turned to make another attack. This time, just before they entered the bay, a heavy cruiser loomed out of the darkness. Another torpedo was fired, but accurate fire was impossible in the dark, and the torpedo passed under the cruiser’s bows.
By now three enemy destroyers had joined the cruiser and the first in line switched on a searchlight. Immediately the other three ships followed suit, and within a few seconds Vampire was centred in the 8-inch cruiser’s powerful beam. The cruiser opened fire immediately and huge waterspouts shot up on either bow as shells ploughed into the sea.
Commander Moran dropped a smoke float over the stern and the Japanese fell into the trap. The searchlight followed the smoke float as it floated astern of the Australian destroyer. Then, as the beam pierced the smoke screen, the Japs could see the vague outline of a destroyer. The cruiser opened fire, and scored two hits on the smaller ship but it was one of their own.
One of the Japanese destroyers mistook Vampire for a friendly ship, and settled into station astern, signalling “U .K.” and “N.O.” as identification letters. Vampire made no attempt to reply, and was manoeuvring to open fire when the other destroyer abruptly altered course.
Now out ahead of the smoke float, Vampire snapped a quick salvo at the Japanese ship. The Australians saw a brilliant crimson and yellow flame shoot up as the shells struck the enemy destroyer beneath the bridge. A few seconds later the Jap blew up, cascading sparks and red-hot metal.
The enemy force could not be seen as the ships moved off into the darkness, but the heavy cruiser had sunk Thanet with a salvo from her main armament. Many of Thanet’s crew scrambled ashore, for Vampire had no chance of rescuing them in the darkness.
Vampire made back to Singapore, arriving there in the middle of an air raid. The Japanese were bombing the airport. A number of bombs fell wide, and landed just astern of the Australian destroyer as she passed through the boom. There were to be busy days in Singapore as the Japanese drew nearer to the Island itself. Vampire was engaged in convoy duty, and escorted convoys carrying evacuees to Java before the middle of February. Then, when enemy troops were only a few miles across the causeway, shells from Japanese guns screamed over Vampire’s anchorage. British troops replied and Vampire was between the rival batteries for some minutes.
But Singapore fell. Once again Vampire took part in the last moments of a fighting withdrawal, although this was to be different. There was no mass evacuation of troops from Singapore as there had been from Greece and Crete, and so, for the great mass of the British and Australian troops who had fought in Malaya, the war was temporarily over.
But for Vampire there were other oceans, other bases. A few days before the epic Battle of the Java Sea she was with the gallant Australian sloop Yarra, escorting the last convoy from Singapore. The destroyer and sloop parted company, Vampire meeting two Dutch merchant ships which were to be escorted to Colombo. Yarra, within a few days, was to fight a magnificent losing battle against greatly superior Japanese forces.
For two days Vampire had no news of the actions being fought off the coast of Java. Then came the story of the sinking of Perth and Exeter, and the loss of the tiny Yarra was announced almost simultaneously.
During the next few weeks the Australian destroyer’s main job was to be escorting the British Fleet based at Trincomalee (Ceylon). Then, on 8 April, Japanese aircraft made another smashing assault on the British units on patrol in the Bay of Bengal. At 10.30 a.m. Hermes, the British aircraft carrier, made a signal indicating that hostile aircraft were approaching. Before 11 a.m. the first planes appeared. Hermes was singled out for special attention and the enemy dive bombers hurtled down in pairs. Once again the bombing did not follow German and Italian lines. The planes did not circle and manoeuvre into position overhead, but seemed to be attempting to alter the course of their dives as they came down.
The Japanese made good use of the sun, diving out of the glare so that British and Australian gunners could not see them until it was too late. More than forty planes attacked together, sometimes coming in pairs, sometimes in larger formations, but always coming out of the sun and diving low before releasing their bombs.
Hermes twisted and turned, her wake white against the blue of the tropic sea. The heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire had been sunk almost at this position only two days before. It was not long before Hermes, too, was hit. Bomb after bomb exploded on her long, shiny flight deck and she was sinking before Vampire had been damaged.
The tiny Australian destroyer was less than twenty miles from shore when the first bombers attacked her. Already numbers of enemy planes had been shot down, but the sky still seemed to be alive with aircraft that dived and zoomed amid tiny smoke puffs from bursting ack-ack shells.
Two machines made the first attack on Vampire, and two of their bombs struck the after boiler-room. Then a third bomb struck the same section and a number of men were killed or wounded. Plates glowed red with heat and steam gushed from broken pipes. Swearing stokers carried their wounded mates to the upper deck where gunners were still firing at the enemy planes. Some of the smaller ack-ack armament had been damaged and some guns leaned drunkenly on deck plating that was buckled by bomb blast.
Fire and repair parties worked feverishly to quell fires and to patch up damaged equipment. Medical aid was given to the wounded on deck while spray from near misses spattered over them. More and more bombs struck the tiny ship as it up from Vampire were some who had taken part in the operations off the Libyan coast when Vita was saved.
Commander Moran and Signalman A. S. Shaw were officially listed as “killed in action”. Few survivors could give accurate information regarding Commander Moran, although the majority believed that he was killed on the bridge soon after he had ordered “Abandon ship”. Others stated that he had been seen walking aft, apparently to make sure that every one had left the ship, and that he may have been killed when the after magazine blew up. Though there was some doubt as to the manner of his death, there was no question as to his leadership, bravery or popularity with all ranks. This is one seaman’s tribute:
“I served in Vampire in the Med. under Commander Walsh and when he was appointed to another ship I was disappointed. But Commander Moran soon showed us that he lacked nothing of Commander Walsh’s skill and courage. That is saying something, too. We had been set such an example that we expected more of Commander Moran; and we weren’t disappointed. From our first taste of action against the Japs until Vampire was sunk, he was an inspiring and skilful leader.”
The other casualties listed as “missing, believed killed” were: Chief Stoker R. E. Lord, Stoker Petty Officers J. A. Carey and L. A. Gyff, Stokers C. H. Williams, A. J. Blakeney, and J. H. Hill, and Petty Officer R. A. H. Macdonald.
Vita took the survivors back to Colombo and the Australians were sent to a Ceylon rest camp. Soon they were back in Australia, where after twenty-eight days “survivor’s leave” (for the lucky ones), they went back to sea. There were more ships to man new ships, straight from Australian shipyards.
Above: HMAS VAMPIRE
And what of Stuart, Voyager and Vendetta? Nothing has been heard of them and perhaps until it is all over nothing will be heard. But silence does not indicate inactivity, and lack of publicity does not mean lack of success. These ships were built for battle. Somewhere these three “old crocks” are prowling through the calm, tropic nights, thrusting at full power through long Pacific rollers, or threading their way between the thousand islands at Australia’s northern doorstep.
The story of this flotilla is not yet ended. Waterhen has gone and Vampire has gone. They were old before the war began, but they, and the men that manned them, gave unstintingly of their best until they could give no longer. They seldom knew a fight when the odds were favourable and yet they fought only one losing battle - their last.
One day, when the history of World War II is written, the story will be set down in full. The story of five ships and the men that manned them.
The story of Australia’s “Scrap-iron Flotilla”.