Now came the odd
job months. There were endless convoys, but each was different,
packed with excitement andaction;
there were bombings, day and night; there were bombardments; there was
a brief but victorious fleet action.
Vendetta had steamed
from Malta with a large convoy just as the Battle of Calabria began
farther west. With Stuart and Waterhen she arrived at Alexandria only
to find that the Italians had begun a large-scale bombing attack on
the Egyptian port. Calabria had been a catastrophe for Italys
navy, but Mussolini was determined that Britain should pay for her victory.
Has el Tin was first
to open up again, their 3.7s sending up a terrific barrage. Then
the heavier guns of the Fleet joined in and the moon became hazy behind
the white smoke of bursting shells. Batteries of powerful searchlights,
from positions all round the port, lit the sky with their silver-blue
glare, weaving intricate patterns as they probed out the raiders.
Amid the steady
crashing of the bigger guns, the staccato rattle of small arms, the
chatter of oerlikons, and the coughing of the pom-poms, the shrieking
of bombs sounded strident discords. The silvery blue of the searchlights
was interlaced with the flash of red tracer from pom-poms and the red,
white and green from captured Bredas. Then there were the purple and
yellow streaks from the Fleets oerlikons, mingling with the others
in a fantasy of colour. It seemed more like coronation festivities than
a war. It was hard to realize that each flashing colour was a deadly
projectile bent on destruction.
Voyager and Vampire,
who had had more than their share of bombing after Calabria, had barely
secured to their buoys when the first bombers appeared. The Has el Tin
battery was the first to open fire, and the Australians cheered as the
tiny smoke puffs burst on the Italians tails. The three Italian
planes flew closer together and then they seemed to fly straight into
one of the smoke puffs. There was a stream of black smoke, a stream
that spread quickly and then was whisked away. A shower of debris fell,
and then the sky was clear.
Three planes with
a single shell! The Australians could hardly believe their eyes. The
raid had ended before the Italians could drop a bomb, and the destroyers
crews were able to snatch a few minutes sleep. But immediately
after dark the alarms sounded again, a strident wail that was almost
as spine-chilling as the shriek of falling bombs.But the fires in the
flimsy dwellings, and the stricken bombers
which fell like flaming torches, were real enough.
On 17 July the destroyer
men cheered as Sydney left for a cruise. Two days later she sank Italys
Colleoni under fire from
SYDNEY and sinking
midnight on 23 July, Vendetta accompanied Vampire and light cruiser
Orion on one of the oddest of all the odd jobs. They
were to skirt the Turkish coast where a valuable Italian convoy
was steaming back to Italy. The British ships were to make themselves
as conspicuous as possible and, having drawn attention to themselves,
were to pretend to attack the convoy from astern.
force was lying ready to pounce on the Italians once their escort
had left them. Admiral Cunningham couldnt fight the escort
and capture the convoy too. Give these Italians five minutes and
they scuttle themselves!
Vampire, steaming at full speed, with Orion just astern, sighted
the Turkish coast on 24 July. From outside territorial waters
the coast looked like Port Kembla, mountains coming almost to
the sea. Dashing in and out, the destroyers dropped single depth
charges at regular intervals, did high-speed turns, and had the
time of their lives. They certainly made themselves conspicuousand
the Italian convoy was captured.
The five destroyers
spent the next month convoying between Alexandria and Malta and
Haifa, but towards the end of August Stuart and Waterhen left
Alexandria to bombard Bomba and Bardia.
WaIler, as senior officer, led the attack on Bomba, an important
Italian seaplane base, and the anchorage at Jez el Marakeb. With
the British destroyers Diamond, Flex and Juno, Stuart and Waterhen
sailed just before dawn on 23 August.
The five destroyers
steamed away from the coast for more than twelve hours, and then
at dusk altered course for Bomba.
An hour later
Waterhen was detached. For twenty minutes Waterhen patrolled outsidetwenty
minutes that somehow seemed a lifetime.
the British river gunboat, steaming up towards Bardia in the darkness,
was rapidly getting into position for a surprise bombardment of
the Italian base and Waterhen raced off at full speed to screen
and support her. From the hills around Bardia Italians were pouring
fire of every description at the tiny ship which had dared invade
their well-fortified harbour.
through the port, the small gunboat was a poor target for
excited Italian gunners. At first they found that their heavy
guns, mounted in solid emplacements around the approaches to Bardia,
would not depress low enough to bear on the British ship. And,
for those fleeting seconds when their guns would bear, Ladybird
somehow managed to disappear completely from view, swallowed up
again in the impenetrable darkness shrouding the escarpment a
ghost-like target shrouded by smoke from burning cordite.
neared the rendezvous position off Bardia, Ladybird had not been
sighted. Speed was reduced, lookouts kept a strict watch all round
the ship, but the old gunboat was invisible. Just after midnight
Chook was barely a mile from the Italian port.
darkness was split by twin lances of red flame, right in the entrance.
In the ruddy glow of exploding cordite, Ladybird could just be
distinguished as she steamed right into the enemy base, her guns
rumbling a dull challenge.
see only some of this. She had been ordered to wait outside for
thirty minutes and then, if Ladybird did not come out, Chock
was to steam into Bardia harbour to tow her out. If the British
gunboat had been too badly mauled, Lieutenant-Commander Swain
had orders to take off survivors and sink her.
Italian Submarine Ambra
But only twenty
minutes had gone. Never, it seemed, had there been so dark a night.
Waterhen barely skimmed the shore, yet the sheer escarpment was but
dull and vague, the entrance to the port invisible. Occasionally the
sky glowed an angry red as Ladybirds shells found some oil dump,
or was pocked with flaming debris as ammunition exploded with a roar.
From the heights overlooking the port Italian machine gunners flung
cascades of fiery tracer at the barely visible gunboat. Machine
guns were the only weapons that would bear, and even they were useless
against the elusive intruder.
Then Ladybird appeared
again, and Waterhens men could hardly repress a cheer. But the
heavy guns would bear now, so the Australian destroyer raced between
the gunboat and the Italian gunners, laying a thick black smoke screen.
For a few moments Waterhen was under fire from point-blank range. The
dark water on both sides of the ship was churned into boiling white
foam as shells burst, but then the destroyer altered course behind her
own smoke screen and steamed off to shield Ladybird. As she altered
course a torpedo exploded in her wake, not two hundred yards astern.
close station in the darkness, Stuart, Juno, hex and Diamond were approaching
charts were not accurate, nor were they clear, and he was forced to
alter course by dead reckoning. With soundings as his chief guide, he
plotted the divisions course.
The destroyers hoped
to make the northern end of the Gulf of Bomba about 1a.m. and ten minutes
before this time look-outs sighted land.
glasses Captain Wailer and his officers studied the shoreline, looked
for some prominent topographical feature to guide them. But through
the heavy inshore mist they could distinguish nothing except very low
Then, slightly to
port of Stuarts course, a patch of lights appeared from behind
a low cliff. Course was altered immediately, speed was reduced, and
guns were trained on the lights. But the ships had been sighted and
the lights snapped out. The target was known now, however, and Captain
Wailer ordered: Open fire.
By the light of
the gun flashes the four tiny destroyers were seen steaming in line
ahead, their guns trained to starboard and launching salvo after salvo.
Ashore, the crash of bursting shells and the flames and dull explosions
in the target area testified to the accuracy of the gunnery.
Fire ceased a few
minutes later, speed was increased to reach the southern objective,
and then the bombardment began again.
The target could
not be seen, but shells burst ashore and fires were started. The four
destroyers wheeled away at twenty-five knots, and steamed out to meet
H.M.A.S. Sydney, screening her back to Alexandria.
This was Stuarts
last official engagement before it was decided that she
must have a refit. But so great was the demand made on the destroyers,
it was to be a full month before she could be spared, and during that
time she was to sink another submarine.
Minor defects continued
to occur in the engines and the engine-room personnel worked miracles
keeping the old ship running. Early in September, while passing through
the Kythera Channel with part of the battle fleet, an auxiliary steam-pipe
burst. While sweating stokers and engine-room artificers worked feverishly
to patch up the damaged pipe, Stuart was stopped for two hours, quite
alone, within a few miles of enemy territory.
It was becoming
increasingly apparent that nothing but a complete refit would be sufficient
and Captain Waller transferred to Vampire on 26 September, leaving Lieutenant-Commander
Robison to take Stuart to Malta. Lieutenant-Commander Robison was placed
on the sick list the same day, however, and Lieutenant Teacher assumed
command. Two days later Stuart sailed for Malta.
But she was destined
to see more action before having her well-earned and much-needed refit.
Just before midnight
on 29 September a submarine was detected. Stuart attacked immediately,
charges were dropped, and a calcium flare was dropped to mark the submarines
Then began the game
of hide-and-seek which was to last until 10 a.m. next daya game
that ended in the capture of the submarines crew.
Time after time
Stuart passed over the U-boat, sometimes dropping several charges, sometimes
only one, sometimes none. Huddled close together in groups of four or
five, the Italians waited for the explosion which was to shatter their
attack, prisoners said later, put out the lights and as they sat huddled
in the darkness the crew waited in terror for the second pattern of
charges. These seemed to detonate all round the submarine. The sides
threatened to buckle, the U-boat quivered and shook, an oil tank split.
Oil trickled into the submarine from the shattered tank and the air-purifying
plant did not seem to be working efficiently.
They could hear
Stuart racing to and fro overhead and it sounded as if there were three
destroyers there, all attacking them. At 4 a.m. Stuart dropped more
charges. In the submarine the air was becoming thick and clammy. It
was hot, but the crew huddled still closer together.
The engineer officer
had been examining the air-purifying plant. He did not say anything
to them, but they could see that it was not working as it should. He
was trying to fix it. Then he reported to the captain. They saw the
captain shake his head. He looked very worried. He ordered them to let
out a little air. It might be colder, less stuffy. They let out some
air. It was no better.
Stuart, her supply
of charges limited, was racing across the target, waiting for dawn.
Then at 6.25 a.m. she made the fifth attack.
Eagerly the members
of the destroyers crew scanned the water for debris or oil. The
sea was covered with black, dusty-looking scum, but they knew that had
come from the depth charges. There were small patches of oil, too, and
the Australians quickly discovered them. The Wop had been damaged, anyway.
As it grew lighter
they could see that the oil patch was growing, but there was no sign
of debris. Just oil and scum.
A Sunderland flying-boat
was circling overhead and Stuarts men waved a cheery greeting.
The Sunderland had spotted the U-boat, too, and dropped a bomb. Apparently
the submarine had been surfacing, because she rose a moment later, off
Stuarts starboard bow, steaming off at ten knots.
quickly centred on her conning-tower and all guns fired together. The
submarine crew abandoned ship immediately, climbing from the conning-tower
with arms raised, and flinging themselves, with cries to the saints,
into the water.
Fire was ceased,
and Stuart raced in, hoping to capture the submanne intact. But the
Italian commander had been busy setting off scuttling-charges and there
was a muffled explosion from inside the submarine. Stuart sheered off
as the U-boat shuddered and sank.
The captain, engineer
officer, a junior officer and a destroyer captain taking passage were
among the twenty-eight survivors picked up by Stuart. The trawler Sidonis,
which had arrived just as the submarine surfaced, picked up another
nineteen. Only two were lostone killed by the explosion of the
Sunderlands bomb, and one by drowning.
and pale, the prisoners were a sorry-looking lot. Some were quite youngnone
of the crew had volunteered for submarine service. They had been badly
shaken by their severe depth-charging, and were still terrified when
they clambered aboard. They had never been depth-charged before, and
could not understand how Stuart had detected them. The captain, who
spoke fairly good English, said that they had to surface because the
air-purifying plant had been shattered and they were unable to repair
refit had to be postponed. She went back to Alexandria with the survivors,
replenished her supply of depth charges, and left on 8 October for a
refit which was to last until the new year.
jobs were voyages to Haifa, Palestines oil port, whose modern
buildings seemed to contrast so strangely with the countrys Biblical
setting. Overlooking the fine harbour was beautiful Mount Carmel, its
orange groves and fine gardens fresh-looking and inviting, the old Carmelite
Monastery prominent against the skyline. Across the bay were the huge
oil tanks of Acre and tankers were berthed at many of the wharves.
crew were to witness Haifas first raida hit-run affair by
three Italian bombers. The Australians had just been granted shore leave
and some of them were about to land when the bombs fell. This is how
Lieutenant Graham Kingsford-Smith described the raid to me later.
figures were just making their way along the wharf when there was the
drone of planes overhead. Picking ourselves up from the deck, where
we instinctively dropped as we heard the bombs falling, we saw that
one tank across the bay was blazing. Then there was the scream of falling
bombs on our port side. And two more to starboard.
I felt the
hot blast of the explosion, and debris pattered down on deck. I saw
three Italian planes making off fast. Those of us not manning guns picked
ourselves up off the deck. My clean white suit was plastered with wet
grey paint. The telephone from shore rang and I answered it, to be told
that enemy aircraft were approaching. What I said was nobodys
Haifa was caught
napping that time, but it was not to happen again. Bombers paid dearly
for other attempts to blast the valuable oil port.
had landed in Palestine and when the destroyers entered Haifa they hoisted
the Australian Jack a welcome sign which told A.I.F. men that
this was not just another destroyer. Soon sailors and their soldier
cobbers were roaming the streets together. The slouch hat of the Diggers
was a welcome sight to the destroyer men, for they had already had many
weary months away from home. How many more months there were ahead they
did not know. .
Vampire shot down
her first plane when her 0.5 multiple machine gun brought down a dive
bomber which was attempting to bomb Eagle.
With Voyager and
Waterhen, she had been with the Fleet on convoys to Malta, trying to
entice the Italians out at the same time. The Italians wouldnt
send out their ships, although they tried to bomb the Fleet on several
occasions. Fighters from the aircraft carrier Eagle were doing good
work, and had already shot down two Italian bombers when another appeared.
It flew right into the Fleets ack-ack barrage and crashed in flames.
the Fleet later in the day, and, screened by destroyers which included
the three Australians, set out to bombard Rhodes. At dawn forty planes
from Eagle and Illustrious plastered the Italian base with light and
heavy bombs, and returned safely.
Vampire and Voyager
screened Eagle as the Fleet turned back to Alexandria and an hour later
a Nazi dive bomber attacked the aircraft carrier. Vampire had a multiple
0.5 machine gun now, added during a brief refit, and as the Nazi screamed
down on Eagle, Vampire poured a hail of bullets into him.
The Nazi crashed
into the water, a plume of black smoke rising hundreds of feet into
Early in October
Captain Wailer, now in Vampire, left Alexandria with a large convoy
for Malta. Somewhere ahead of them was the British battle fleet, out
again under Admiral Cunninghams command in an effort to bring
the Italians to action. The battle fleet was unlucky~four Italian bombers
shot clown was the most they could do.
Then on 9 October
the battle fleet sailed again, Vampire and Voyager with them this time.
A large Italian fleet had avoided battle only a few days before, so
Admiral Cunninghams force steamed to the coast of Sicily
in an effort to entice them out again. Again they met nothing but bombers.
The Fleet turned
back on ii October, Ajax Scouting far ahead of the destroyer screen.
Muffled against the chilly morning air, Captain Wailer kept ceaseless
watch on Vampires bridge. Less than seventy miles from Italian
harbours, he would not take chances with enemy submarines and torpedo
Then, almost right
ahead, the thick darkness of the hour before dawn was broken by the
flashing of guns. From Vampires bridge it seemed that Ajax
had engaged an entire fleet, but the crack of gunfire was destroyer,
not battleship, salvos.
Ajaxs owner swung his ship to avoid torpedoes streaking
from three sides. Six-inch guns swung outboard, belched rapid salvos.
There were three ships to fightthree small, fast, fleeting targets
with a deadly sting in their torpedo tubes.
Then the sky glowed
red and angry. Vampires crew, standing by their guns, saw fiery
fragments hurled high into the dark sky and then, seconds later, the
dull booming explosion floated back to them. Ajax, conqueror of the
mighty Graf Spee, had done it again!
The sky was still
aflame when Vampire detected a submarine. Out on the starboard flank
of the Fleet she dashed, dropping charges to keep the intruder down.
Scarcely was she back in position again when Ajax claimed her second
victim, another 679 ton Airone class light destroyer.
This time there
was no single explosion but a series o. blasts accompanied by shooting
wreckage and flames, tossed high into the air.
But Vampire was
too busy to watch. There was a Fleet to guard and she had detected another
U-boat. Again she dashed out of line, flashing warning signals back
to the Fleet. Again the depth charges splashed astern, detonated with
a roar and a leaping fountain of oil-spattered spray.
The sounds of battle
died. The moon peeped for a moment from behind her cloudy screen, the
second destroyer disappeared, her fiery hot decks sizzling angrily as
she plunged below, and it was dark again.
The third destroyer
had avoided Ajaxs murdering guns, and raced back to the shelter
of Sicilys harbours. Damaged by shellfire, Ajax ploughed on, still
far ahead of the Fleet. She was to see more battle that night. Ahead
were Italian heavy cruisers screened by destroyers, and Ajax sighted
them. Rapidly the signal was flashed back to Warspite. Away on Vampires
wing, Sydney and the British cruiser York were ordered to join Ajax.
Men raced to action stations across decks awash with foam and the two
cruisers shuddered forward under full steam.
Seconds later Ajax
opened fie again, crippling the 1620-ton Artigliere, one of Italys
most modern destroyers. The heavy cruisers steamed away into the night,
Ajax, damaged forward, being unable to catch them.
At dawn Sydney and
York raced up, far astern of the fleeing Italians. The Artigliere was
burning, and had already been abandoned by more than half her crew.
Some were swimming, some were in boats, some were on rafts. A few were
picked up, but there was no time to pick up the rest. They were still
less than one hundred miles from Italian air bases, SO York gave the
Italians thirty minutes to abandon ship, then sank the Artigliere with
an 8-inch salvo which shattered her stern and pierced the magazine.
Advance units of
the Fleet saw a dense column of white smoke and steam as red-hot plates
hissed in the cold water of the Mediterranean. Then there was a flashing,
shooting flame and an umbrella-shaped pall of smoke drifted slowly back
in the morning breeze. Admiral Cunningham had struck at Italys
doorstep and the Italians had run away.
But three valuable
ships lay bruised and broken at the bottom of what they liked to call