opening of the Western Desert campaign provided another task for the
Australian destroyers and the sandy escarpments of the Libyan coast
were the scene of operations for the greater part of December, January,
February and March. Voyages to Greece and Crete were less frequent for
a time as British ships took over convoys to the Aegean and the Australians
were mainly concerned with bombardments and anti-submarine sweeps between
Alexandria and Benghazi.
arrived from Malta in mid-January, and at 1 a.m. next day sailed with
Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and Wry-neck to screen Bar/tam and Eagle.
Dawn found the seven ships off Bardia. Eagle's pilots had just been
given their final instructions for the bombing of Tobruk and planes
were almost ready to take off when a signal was received ordering the
ships to Suda Bay at full speed.
had been a grim day in the Aegean. Illustrious had been torpedoed by
torpedo bombers, Birmingham had been bombed, Southampton was bombed
and later sunk and Gallant, a destroyer manned by Poles, was sunk by
dive bombers. The bombing and bombardment of Tobruk had to be postponed-it
was to come a few days later, and it was to be a much "bigger and
better" battering than Bar/tam and Eagle could have delivered!
Dive bombers, which had met with such success earlier in the day, did
not trouble the five destroyers and their charges and they arrived at
Suda Bay without having sighted a hostile aircraft. At midnight Eagle
and Barham sailed for the Italian base at Rhodes, escorted by Ajax and
Perth. Eagle's planes dropped tons of bombs on various parts of the
island and the other ships carried out a brief but successful bombardment
9 a.m. Vampire and Vendetta sailed with Ilex and Wryneck to join the
bombardment force, carrying out an anti-submarine sweep along the northern
coast of Crete at the same time. The British force was sighted at noon
and the destroyers formed close screen ahead.
hour later Vampire was detached to investigate mysterious explosions
on the tiny island of Santorin, almost due north of Candia in Crete.
As the Australian destroyer approached, clouds of smoke could be seen
on the horizon and then the island itself was sighted. The smoke rose
in great puffs rather than in a continuous plume and as Vampire drew
closer it could be seen that the "explosions" were nothing
more mysterious than the eruptions of an active volcano.
For two days Vampire and Vendetta patrolled in Kaso Strait-a peaceful
stretch of water which in a few months was to run red with the blood
of Nazi troops. Then, after oiling, the destroyers steamed from Suda
Bay to pay their first visit to Athens.
they steamed through the picturesque islands of the Aegean the destroyers
passed a convoy of twelve ships escorted by two British escort vessels
and the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry. At about 5 p.m. they entered
the Gulf of Athens.
was like coming out of gaol and going into paradise," an officer
told me. "We had become accustomed to the monotony of the dusty
Libyan escarpment, but here were beautiful little islands, green and
fresh. The grass on the hilly foreshores was strange after the sand
of Egypt and Libya and in the distance lofty mountains poked up into
arrived at Piraeus just after dark and leave was piped immediately.
Our money was changed-five hundred drachmae for a Gyppo pound-and we
felt like millionaires because all we could get were fifty drachmae
travelled to Athens free. Wherever we went the Greeks surrounded us,
wanted to give us presents, wanted to 'shout' us and wouldn't let us
pay for anything. What a change after those robbing Gyppo hawkers!
Greek girls were lovely. They were carryiing on their menfolk's work,
and were very proud of it. I had always thought of Greece as a place
where the girls wore gaudy native costumes and danced folk dances most
of the time. However, there wasn't much of the gaudy costume business
in war-time Greece and the girls always refused to dance. They would
just shake their heads and say, 'Not till victory,' and that was that."
days later Vampire and Vendetta sailed for Suda Bay and just before
dawn Vendetta was forced to slow down as a result of engine trouble.
Vampire reduced speed to twelve knots just as a mine was detected right
ahead. If they had been steaming at full speed they could not have sighted
it in time. The two destroyers arrived at Suda Bay just as Eagle, Barham,
Ajax, Stuart, Wryneck, Hasty and Griffin were leaving, so they joined
the destroyer screen.
name Suda Bay is pregnant with bitter memories for most Australians,
but to those who saw it that morning it will always be thought of as
one of the world's most beautiful bays. The sun was just rising and
the snow-capped mountain peaks were tinged a delicate orange. Reflected
in the placid blue waters of the bay they assumed a new grandeur, the
white snow, tinted with orange and pink, merging into the brilliant
green of grass and shrubs on the slopes. But soon this was left behind-ahead
lay drab, uninviting Egypt.
enemy aircraft were sighted during the day, but in the brilliant moonlight
bombers made a number of fruitless attacks. At daylight they fled back
to their bases as British fighters came out from Alexandria, but the
Fleet entered the harbour six hours late-the first time enemy aircraft
had delayed the Australian destroyers.
Meanwhile the Western Desert campaign had developed rapidly and the
Australian destroyers were kept more than busy along the North African
coast. Vampire, however, left Alexandria with Hots pur late in January
and arrived at Port Said next day to convoy six large ships bound for
Crete and Greece. The merchantmen were loaded with war material and
carried thousands of soldiers, so Commander Walsh expected trouble from
U-boats and aircraft. Somewhere ahead the British battle fleet was screening
them, but it was not in sight.
dusk on the first day out a fairly heavy swell was running and the barometer
was dropping rapidly. By morning the wind had reached gale force and
the ships were struggling into giant seas. Conditions grew worse instead
of better-the Mediterranean at its worst is not the placid lake of Riviera
advertisements. Vampire began to "pile-drive" into the seas,
the wind whipping icy spray back from the fo'c'sle across the bridge
and the decks were constantly awash as green seas thumped down on the
bows. Life-lines were a grim necessity and men going on and off watch
clung to them while waves broke over the deck and the tiny destroyer
leaned over at startling angles.
Vampire pitched and lurched into the sea the messdecks became a shambles.
Lockers came adrift from their fastenings and water poured into the
messdecks from a leak in the deckhead. Soon the water was inches deep
and fruit and vegetables, boots and socks and clothing were swished
from side to side as the ship rolled. Hammocks were slung all the time-men
could not stand upright long enough to unlash and stow them. Men came
off watch wet and bedraggled and cold, but still cheerful. Somehow they
managed to strip, dry themselves on damp towels and climb into swinging
day they tried to bale out the water on the mess-deck, but as soon as
they hurled one bucketful over the side, another wave would thump down
on the fo'c'sle and streams of water poured back. After four hours the
water was still about an inch deep, but all hands declared they were
satisfied. By dusk the water was rising again, and more bucket and mopping-up
parties were formed to try and clear the messdecks.
the meantime, however, the forward store had sprung a leak and water
was pouring so fast that the bilge pumps could not cope with it. Messdeck
mopping-up parties had to be used on the Downton pump and, aided by
the bilge pumps, they managed to keep the water in check.
the second night out three of the troopships left the convoy and proceeded
in to Suda Bay. The seas were still mountainous. In the galley cooks
tried to lash pots to the stove and for two and a half days the entire
ship's company lived on stew and sandwiches. The deck in the galley
was awash and the steam made conditions in the messdeck so stuffy that
the men preferred to stand out in the spray during their watch below.
could not see Hotspur at times, and I suppose they lost us too,"
a seaman told me. "I have never been so scared. The pitching was
bad enough, but when we caught the sea on our beam Vampire almost rolled
over a dozen times. Even the big merchant packets were tossing about
like corks, and I hate to think how sick the soldiers must have been.
I don't think I was ever so glad to see anything as I was to see the
Gulf of Athens that time. We took a fast troopship with uS, left Hots
pur with the slower ones, and made for Piraeus at high speed to dry
dock for repairs. There were plenty of holes to patch up and forty-eight
hours' leave sounded pretty good."
troops were arriving in Greece in large numbers by this time and while
Vampire lay in dock Ajax, Perth, Orion, Bonaventure, Gloucester and
Coventry landed thousands of soldiers in Piraeus.
was a month of convoys and patrols. British and Imperial forces moved
across the Libyan desert to capture Benghazi on 7 February, and the
North African coastline became a supply line which had to be maintained
in the face of constant submarine and air attacks. Meanwhile, in Greece
and Yugoslavia the tempo of battle was rising and the Australian destroyers
knew Suda Bay and the Gulf of Athens as well as they knew the harbours
of Bardia and Tobruk and Sollum.
in March, while escorting a convoy from Alexandria to Suda Bay, Waterhen
was attacked by swarms of dive bombers. Lieutenant-Commander Swain swung
his ship skilfully and avoided the falling "eggs" which exploded
with a dull crump near the ship's sides. But the convoy was not so lucky.
The 8700-ton tanker Marie Maersk was hit by two bombs, and burst into
flames. Fanned by the gentle breeze the flames became fiercer and the
tanker's crew abandoned ship just as the bombers left, their deadly
Swain was not beaten. He considered the tanker could be saved, and called
for a volunteer crew to board her, fight the flames, and sail the tanker
to Suda Bay. There was no shortage of volunteers, and Lieutenant C.
G. Hill (now Lieutenant-Commander, M.B.E) a Sydney man, led them. He
had been second officer in the Canadian-Australasian liner Niagara before
the war. Among the volunteers were Leading Seaman Smythe, Able Seamen
Rigby, Haydock, Mann, Woods, and Parkes, Signalman Palmer, the tanker's
captain, and the Danish second engineer, Rasmussen. As they clambered
aboard by means of ropes, Able Seaman Mann slipped, and fell heavily
into the whaler. He was badly injured, and had to be rowed back to Waterhen
for medical attention.
the time it was dark the volunteer crew had boarded the blazing vessel,
and had begun to get the fire under control. The whaler was made fast
astern so that they could get away if the flames grew too fierce, but
a fairly strong sea was rising. When forced back to the stern by the
heat Leading Seaman Smythe shone his torch to look for the whaler. He
could see only the frayed end of the rope. The whaler had broken adrift!
Water/ten had been swallowed up in the night! The salvage party were
of the tanker's crew had been saved, but many had been killed by the
explosion and their bodies still lay on Marie Maersk's steaming deck.
In the engine-room Rasmussen and one of Waterhen's stokers sweated as
they tried to get the engines going. It was hot enough on deck. It was
almost unbearable below.
the engines began to move the engineer started the pumps, hoses were
rigged, and water played on the burning decks. The spirit store burned
fiercely and a deck cargo of coal was threatened. Below, in the tanks,
were 13,000 tons of oil fuel. Standing on the steaming "cat-walks"
the seamen directed salt water at the flames, watched them gradually
Lieutenant Hill had studied the damage. The bomb had struck the tanker
amidships and the bridge section was almost entirely gutted. Only the
mangled frame of the wheel remained and the steering-gear itself had
been damaged. Until midnight Lieutenant Hill steered by main engines.
Seamen who had never been in an engine-room before took their turn in
the moist heat below and varied the revolutions under instructions from
Rasmussen and the stoker, Meanwhile, from Suda Bay, a tug was approaching
the still-blazing tanker.
slightly, Marie Maersk wallowed along like a moving torch, visible for
miles. The tug arrived at 12.30 a.m. and efforts were made to tow. A
minesweeper stood by, and, when steering by engines became im-. possible
due to course alterations, the minesweeper attempted to tow the tanker
by the stem. This proved a failure, but Able Seaman Haydock had, in
the meantime, managed to get the hand steering in operation and the
vessel was steered towards harbour. Then for another seventeen long,
weary, hot hours, the volunteer steaming-party stood at their posts,
playing hoses on the flames which still burned brightly as the tanker
entered Suda Bay.
left Alexandria in March with a convoy of ten troopships. There was
a "buzz" that this was to be an unusual trip and the rumours
grew stronger and stranger as the bos'n's mate piped: "The ship
is proceeding on a secret mission." At noon Voyager joined Vampire,
and the convoy had increased to twelve ships all laden with troops.
There seemed nothing secret about the voyage. Soon familiar little islands
were sighted and the convoy entered the Gulf of Athens. But no leave
was piped and no one was allowed ashore- the secret mission was about
Walsh was not aboard when the destroyer sailed, but Vampire stopped
just outside the port and a small yacht, which had been waiting, began
to move towards her. The motor-boat was lowered and Vampire's crew lined
the rails to see who was coming back to the ship.
As the boat approached they could see Commander Walsh and a foreign-looking
man sitting in the sternsheets. As they came aboard there were wild
guesses as to the stranger's identity, but no one knew until later when
a broadcast communiqué announced that the Premier of Yugoslavia,
M. Milan Stojadinovich, was in British hands.
"The announcer said that this chap was hand in glove with the Axis,
so we hoped he would be seasick. And sure enough he was! A stern sea,
slightly on our quarter, made us roll and twist and huge waves were
thumping aboard. Three of the lads were knocked down by one wave which
swept inboard, and one-Fredingham, I think-was unconscious," a
seaman told me.
was no one near enough to help him and he would have been washed overboard
if the engineer officer hadn't seen him and grabbed him just before
the next wave rolled aboard.
called the stranger 'Stinko', and every few minutes there would be a
communiqué passed round as to how green he was or how sick he
looked. We were a bit sorry that there weren't a few more Axis fifth-columnists
aboard, too; but a Nazi Premier is quite a decent-sized fish. And I'll
bet he agreed with old Goebbels about us being 'scrap iron' after the
dusting we took."
the end of March German pressure on Greece had increased to such an
extent that their declaration of war was expected hourly. Convoys to
Piraeus had increased in size and number. Voyager and Vampire left Alexandria
on 26 March with seven ships laden with troops and war material which
included American Tomahawk fighters. Italian reconnaissance planes sighted
the convoy early next morning and in the afternoon a signal was received
warning the Australian destroyers of the presence of an Italian battle
fleet in the vicinity.
was immediately altered back to Alexandria, for the troops, ships and
equipment were too valuable to risk. But the convoy could do no more
than ten knots and it was nearer the Italians than the slower British
battle fleet. It was touch and go. The stage was set for Matapan.