ON 6 April the expected
German invasion of Greece began. With characteristic Teutonic thoroughness
the Nazis threw in almost eight divisions, led by powerful armoured
units and supported by strong Luftwaffe squadrons. Britain and Greece
could offer little resistance in the air. The German Air Force, temporarily
grounded by bad weather for the first few days of the campaign, later
flew almost unchallenged ahead of the panzers, blasting a way through
the narrow ravines, daubing their flaming rouge across the pale face
Grecian ports were
no longer a haven for convoys and their warship escorts, for they were
within easy reach of the Nazis' long-range bombers.
Germans and Italians
launched attacks with almost every type of plane on British convoys
bound for Greece, and the Australian destroyers felt the full weight
of the Nazis' air strength when, with the destroyer Isis, they sailed
from Alexandria soon after the Battle of Matapan. This is the story
of that convoy-one of the largest to sail for Greece- as an officer
told it later.
fifteen ships with us, and they included everything from troopers to
tankers. We didn't have a great deal of ack-ack stuff and, as it was
to be a slow convoy of about six knots, we weren't sorry when the ack-ack
cruiser Carlisle joined the second day out.
"But she seemed
to bring trouble with her, because the fun started almost immediately.
We could hear the aircraft, but could not see them for the clouds and
as they roared overhead for about half an hour without us sighting them
we began to hope that perhaps they hadn't seen us either. But they certainly
"We heard them
go into their power dives, but it seemed ages before they broke through
the clouds, right above us. They were Junkers 88's, and were they screaming!
We threw everything but the anchor at them and Carlisle was putting
up a magnificent barrage. Her 4-inch, multiple pom-poms and lighter
weapons poured out such a hail of fire that it seemed impossible that
the Huns could get through.
"But they broke
off their dives just below the level of the clouds, let go their bombs,
and scurried back to cover. The bombs fell very wide, thank goodness.
us a rest then, but returned about 6.30. The clouds had cleared and
we could see the planes as they came in from five different directions-all
"It was great
fun-I don't think. All our guns were blazing, for the planes were very
low. Vampire's starboard Breda hit one machine in three places. Its
port engine sputtered and stopped. The plane circled round out of range
as if the pilot had been hit, and then left. I don't think it got back
dropping all around by now and giant columns of spray and water sometimes
hid the convoy. But the planes had to retire when it got dark and the
convoy gathered together again and went on.
the Aegean next day, and at 10 am. The Italians took over from their
Axis partners. Torpedo bombers approached, letting their 'fish' go as
soon as they were within range.
lucky, too. A tanker was hit amidships and Vampire went over to assist.
But the tanker's crew stayed aboard and I believe they reached port
at Suda Bay."
Axis efforts to
stop British convoys to Greece were not limited to the air. With their
surface fleet blasted by Admiral Cunningham only a few days before,
the Italians were loath to venture another surface action. But submarines
lurked beneath the still waters of the Gulf of Athens, warned of the
approach of the convoy by aerial reconnaissance reports.
Four merchant ships
left the convoy at Suda Bay and the torpedoed tanker was left astern.
The rest of the ships, with most of their escorting warships, were bound
for Greece itself. The Australian destroyers were out ahead when the
convoy entered the Gulf of Athens, their asdic gear seeking out enemy
At midnight Able
Seaman Keith Moffitt took over the asdic watch on Vampire. His "oppo",
ready to turn in, made his report, said "Good night" and stumbled
in the blackness towards the ladder. He had barely reached the messdecks
when Vampire heeled over, darted away on a new course. "Hippo"
Moffitt had detected a submarine.
attacked at high speed, dropping a pattern of depth charges as he passed
over the U-boat, put the helm over and dashed in for another attack.
The convoy barely
had time to obey urgent "Alter course!" signals before the
shattered hull of the submarine rose astern of the Australian destroyer,
her surface black and shiny against the background of white spray flung
aloft by the exploding charges. Torpedo-men, watching from Vampire's
quarterdeck could see jagged holes where the U-boat's hull had been
torn apart by the explosion. Then the submarine slithered back into
the dark waters.
formerly a haven, was now a menace. German planes, operating from bases
closer than any British airfield, had dropped magnetic mines in the
harbour. From the boom at the entrance to the port the Australians could
see something of the destruction resulting from the ceaseless German
On the shore, burnt
out, were three Greek merchantmen. In the deep waters of the harbour
itself were many more battered hulks-shells of what had once been ships,
blasted by bombs and mines and gutted by fire. The water itself was
murky and turbid with scum and the smell of oil was everywhere.
German dive bombers
attacked the port ceaselessly and ships in harbour opened up with every
gun they could bring to bear. From one hill a shore ack-ack battery
sent up a terrific barrage, until it seemed that the hill itself belched
fire from some bell-mouthed crater.
The Australian destroyers
entered the harbour to fuel and late in the afternoon they berthed alongside
an oiler close to the shore. They could see the town quite clearly and
among the smoking ruins were places they had "taken" in many
a shore run.
The Greeks, who
had been so friendly and hospitable, had no time to entertain the Australians
now. Above them hovered Nazi planes. Around them were their homes laid
waste by bombs. And when they prayed they lifted their eyes to where
finely ground plaster trickled from shattered masonry. Stained glass
lay in fragments beneath lead window-frames in the churches and mangled
rafters sprawled across the altars. The air was heavy with smoke and
dust and the stale smell of death.
Those women who
struggled with their few belongings along the road at the bottom of
the cliffs round the port, their wide-eyed terrified children shuffling
behind-they were friends. Watching from the decks of the destroyers,
the Australians swore vengeance.
"We could see
women and children digging holes under the cliff to hide from the nightly
terror. I never heard any one swear as the men did that morning,"
one of Voyager's ratings wrote at the time.
and kiddies, frightened to live in their own homes! A few weeks ago
we had visited their houses and they had fed and entertained us. Now
they looked pitiful as they found their way down to hide like animals
in holes in the side of the cliff and we could not help them.
in the harbour was the pilot of a Nazi bomber. It pleased us to see
that his head was missing, shot away as he bombed defenceless women
and children. . .
The Greek campaign
was a grim one. It was the story of patrols probing at the enemy, of
digging in under fire, of movement at night under constant air threat,
of withdrawal after withdrawal in the face of numerically superior and
more adequately equipped enemy. In vain did the Allies seek defensive
positions in which they could check the German advance. The line along
the Aliakrnon River, fringed by a sheer two thousand feet high escarpment,
seemed ideal. Artillery cunningly hidden in the rugged passes and ravines
of the escarpment could command the approaches to the river, perhaps
could prevent a crossing. But a weakening farther along the line forced
strafing grew fiercer as the rainy weather eased and Piraeus was repeatedly
attacked by heavy bombers. Allied troops were forced back, bombed and
strafed as they moved wearily along the winding roads. The Greeks themselves,
ill-equipped to meet the German panzers, still struggled desperately
at their side, but by 21 April the Greek Government was forced to inform
the British leaders that continued resistance was a matter of hours.
So, on that day,
it was decided that our troops were to be evacuated.
Vampire was to take
the last big convoy from Athens- thirty-nine ships of all shapes and
speeds. The convoy began to get under way about four o'clock in the
afternoon and for two hours ships steamed through the entrance to the
port. Then they formed up in a long line which seemed to stretch from
horizon to horizon-ships flying every Allied flag, freighters, tankers,
On board were many
women and children, some of them Greek. They wept as Athens faded into
the distance and the Acropolis was lost in the dusk.
The evacuation from
Greece had started. This was to be Vampire's largest convoy, and also
the slowest. For two days they would be in "Bomb Alley", and
they knew that the Germans would attack from dawn till dark.
Two hours after
dusk a light was sighted ahead. Vampire raced on to investigate, discovered
that it was a ship. As the vessel turned in the distance, the Australians,
clustered close to their guns, saw that she was blazing with lights
and they could easily distinguish the Red Cross in coloured lights.
Two days later this ship, with four other hospital ships, all clearly
marked, was dive-bombed and sunk off the coast of Greece.
Early next day Vampire
returned towards Athens to pick up three merchantmen escorted by units
of the Greek Navy. By noon they had rejoined the convoy-thirty-two merchant
ships, a Greek cruiser, two small Greek destroyers, two Greek torpedo
boats and two Yugoslav submarines. The British escort consisted of Carlisle,
the destroyer Isis and Vampire.
The first attack
came soon after dawn; two Junkers 88's diving through the white, fleecy
clouds and dropping their load of bombs from about five thousand feet.
One stick fell close to the tanker British Judge and she was stove in
amidships, so that she could make a maximum speed of about one knot.
It was decided to
abandon her and Vampire was detailed to take off survivors. Meanwhile
the Yugoslav submarines had submerged and Vampire was afraid of striking
one of them as she went to the tanker's assistance.
For an hour Vampire
made repeated efforts to reach the crippled British Judge, but each
time a Nazi dive bomber threatened to sink them as he screamed down
at the tanker.
There was no panic
on the tanker and as soon as Vampire could reach her the crew was taken
off. The Australians felt that their tiny ship had assumed gigantic
proportions as they stopped alongside the tanker and Nazi planes picked
them out for special attention. As each bomber screamed down in steep
power dives, it seemed that nothing could save the ships. Each stick
of bombs appeared to be aimed directly for Vampire, shrieking down to
whip away at the last minute into the water with a roar and a leaping
fountain of spray.
A lascar was blown
from the deck of the tanker by the force of one of the explosions, and
another jumped overboard. Both were rescued, but one was unconscious
when he was carried aboard Vampire. Two Able Seamen, Bill Potter and
Bill Bell, worked on him for an hour, but could not revive him. He was
buried the same day-the convoy's only casualty.
Just after noon
a British Blenheim appeared and shot down a German torpedo plane which
was turning to attack the convoy. At dusk a twin-engined bomber attacked
and the forty lascars in Vampire's messdecks began to panic when the
alarm rattlers sounded. Smiling Australians told them that everything
was all right, and just had them pacified when "A" and "B"
The concussion from
the two 4-inch guns, just above the messdecks, broke light globes and
crockery and the lascars began jabbering excitedly. Some of them raced
out on deck just in time to see the plane being ripped to shreds by
Vampire's fire. As it crashed into the water about a mile away, they
cheered, raced back into the messdecks, and urged the others to come
out to "see the fun".
The captain of British
Judge, who watched the action from Vampire's bridge, told Commander
Walsh that he had a crew of absolute fire-eaters and Carlisle made a
signal congratulating the Australians on the accuracy and speed of their
Stuart and Voyager,
fresh from their exploits along the North African coast, where they
had landed commandos at Bardia, left Alexandria on 23 April and steamed
towards Greece. Leave had expired before 11 p.m. the night before, and
the ships' companies guessed that there was something "in the wind".
Talk of an evacuation from Greece had become far more prevalent and
so when Suda Bay was announced as the probable destination, the "old
hands" in Stuart and Voyager wagged their heads.
Suda Bay first stop,
perhaps. But they knew that Greece was the real objective!
Before dawn the
two destroyers were ready for sea. Cable parties were closed up on the
fo'c'sles waiting for the order to slip and proceed. As the first faint
glimmerings of dawn stole through the darkness Captain Wailer edged
Stuart away from the buoy, and steamed out to sea, Voyager fifteen hundred
yards astern. Behind them was H.M.S. Calcutta and two converted merchantmen
with naval crews.
At the guns ready-use
stowages were crammed with barrage shells, and the light anti-aircraft
guns sputtered a few rounds as the ships left harbour. It wouldn't do
for them to be found wanting when they were really needed!
The test had not
begun yet, however. At about midnight the two destroyers patrolled off
Suda Bay while their charges entered and then they nosed between Suda
Island and the mainland, cables clattered in rusty hawsepipes, and they
anchored for the night. As the two ships approached Crete, empty lifeboats
floated past, some of them riddled with bullet holes, some torn by shrapnel,
some damaged by fire. They were British, too-grim reminders that the
sea and sky ahead were pregnant with danger.
At dawn the Australian
destroyers sailed for Greece. Both were short of oil, for they found
Suda Bay's only oiler sunk by Italian motor-boats laden with explosives.
Near the oiler they could see the British cruiser York lying crippled,
ghostlike and unreal in the dawn mists.
The cruiser Calcutta
followed them from the harbour, followed by three troopships and two
British light escort vessels. Barely had they cleared the entrance when
two submarines were sighted on the surface, steaming south. Never had
they ventured as far as this on the surface before and the Australians
eagerly looked for action, only to find that the submarines were friendly
refugees-a Greek and a Yugoslav. But they were to have their taste of
action; before midday a submarine was detected. Voyager, her action
alarms still ringing, wheeled to attack and dropped pattern after pattern
at high speed.
was reluctantly forced to break off the engagement, for his job was
to protect the large troopships, but the U-boat, if not lying shattered
on the sea-bed, had been badly shaken.
Calcutta and one
escort vessel left in the afternoon and Stuart and Voyager escorted
the three merchant ships towards Nauplia Bay. About 6 p.m. an Italian
reconnaissance plane was sighted in the distance and then, as was expected,
two Junkers 88's appeared, hovering like vultures above the convoy.
Then they dived. Their powerful engines roaring, wind shrieking through
the fuselage, they seemed to be hurtling vertically down on one of the
troopships. Tiny smoke puffs burst around them and then the staccato
chattering of the ack-ack guns was lost in the screaming of falling
bombs. Astern of the troopship spume shot a hundred feet into the air
and settled again. Then there was another scream, growing louder and
louder as the bombs fell.
On the fo'c'sle
of the troopship gunners kept up a continuous barrage until the first
bomb seemed to fall down the very muzzle of their lone 12-pounder. In
the smoke and leaping flame steel plates buckled and tore. 1~he gun,
grotesque and twisted, still pointed upwards, but the crew was killed
instantly. A heavy anchor splashed over the side and on deck ammunition
exploded among the flames.
The dive bombers,
their bombs exhausted, raced away, but more trouble was on the way.
Torpedo bombers, called out by the report from the reconnaissance plane,
darted in to attack the big transports. There were four of them, all
on Stuart's side of the convoy. However, the Australians' fire was so
fierce and accurate that the planes dropped their "fish" early,
and their escorts steamed on towards Greece and as darkness fell the
bows of the rear transport glowed a sullen red and still sizzled and
hissed with every bow wave. The ships entered Nauplia about 11 p.m.
There was no moonlight, no stars to dispel the pitch blackness which
seemed to hug them in an oppressive embrace, but here and there flames
leapt into the air, red and yellow torches that lit the harbour for
a moment. Then there was nothing more than a score of dull, glowing
patches until one or more suddenly burst into new life again.
In line ahead the
convoy steamed down the narrow gulf, guided only by the weird light
of burning ships. This time the Hun had been helpful!
So, in this strange,
flickering light, Stuart and Voyager entered Nauplia. At first it seemed
that the flames were from flares placed to guide them in, but as they
nosed cautiously farther into the harbour the Australians could make
out dim outlines of sunken ships. Some still blazed, glowed red and
vomited thick clouds of steam as the waters of the harbour lapped and
foamed across their searing decks. Those whose superstructure still
towered above the surface blazed fiercely and the crackle of flames
seemed to thunder in the weirdly silent night.
this, picking a way between the shattered hulks of sunken ships, guided
only by flames which died as suddenly as they flared up.
T he Ulster Prince,
one of the troopships, grounded in the narrow gulf. Voyager quickly
pulled her off. Then inside the harbour, Ulster Prince grounded again.
Farther down an
oiler burned fiercely and blazing oil spread across the waters of the
harbour. But the flames only seemed to make the darkness near the destroyers
more intense-murky, thick, oppressive blackness, hiding no one knew
Then, from the shore,
dozens of caiques, laden to the gunwales with soldiers and their precious
equipment, began to feel their way through the night towards the transports.
Greek seamen in charge of the caiques could see no ships in that Stygian
gloom and the swiftly blazing and dying fires only made them more blind.
Gradually some of the caiques nosed out to Voyager, bumped her sides
in the dark.
cobbers?" the ratings yelled at the soldiers below. Then, while
the Greeks interjected jabbered information, the sailors gave hurried,
rough directions and the caiques slid away into the night towards the
transports. It was still again-still, but for the buzzing drone of planes
which circled suspiciously overhead. But no pilot could pierce that
blackness, and it would be a lucky hit indeed if he scored with a bomb.
Soon Voyager's port
side was littered with caiques. Shouts of "Voyager" came from
the darkness, answered by cries of "Here" from the ship. Soldiers
began to pour over the side laden with rifles, Bren guns, revolvers
and what other equipment they had been able to collect and keep. Another
caique rounded Voyager's bows, crawled along the starboard side, and
began to drift away into the night.
"Throw a line
aboard, you stupid b--- b---s," seamen yelled. There was no reply
from the caique, no sign of a rope.
"Pass us a
bowline, quick," someone shouted from Voyager's guard-rails. "What
the hell do you think this is? Now the stern line. Buck up, you b---s."
The caique shuddered
as she struck the ship's side, hauled towards the destroyer by sweating,
cursing seamen. They made her fast, reached over the side to haul the
soldiers aboard. There was no sign of life in the depths of the caique
and shouted curses brought no response. Then a burly stoker reached
over the side, saw a hat, and grabbed the wearer round the middle.
"Hard to get,
eh?" he snapped. "Timid all of a sudden, you b---."
But somehow the
wriggling bundle seemed strangely soft. He hauled it aboard.
he gasped with an awful reverence.
The cursing stopped.
For a moment the starboard side was still and the shouts and curses
from the port side sounded very far away. Here were women! Here, laughing
and joking, coming aboard! Here-riding fearlessly in tossing caiques,
suddenly appearing out of the night. It all seemed so incongruous. Women.
Women-here in the middle of battle!
Then, as a damaged
freighter blew up, crimson and yellow flames rocketed high into the
darkness. In that instant, when night was turned into day, ratings saw
that the women were nurses-Australians. A score had clambered aboard.
Perhaps the sailors had helped them, but the men couldn't remember
it. They came to life again, lifting the girls aboard with infinite
tenderness, stammering apologies for the torrid greeting. And the evacuation
Then there was a
splash. From the dark water between the caique and the destroyer's side
came a muffled cry a woman's cry!
There was another
splash. Able Seaman Cyril James Webb dived between the caique and the
Voyager, narrowly escaping serious injury from the sides of the madly
rocking barge. He grabbed the nursing sister, held her while a rope
was cast over, in the blackness he could see the caique edge in towards
the ship, threatening to crush him and the nurse who clung grimly to
him. Holding her with one arm, he groped for the rope which had splashed
down beside him, found it, hung on until he and the nurse had been hauled
aboard. Other sisters attended the nurse, who fortunately suffered nothing
worse than shock. She appeared on deck later clad in a blue sweater
which had seen far better days and a pair of officer's trousers rolled
up so that she did not trip when she walked. "Spider" Webb,
quietly spoken, slightly built hero of the moment, was taken care of
by his "oppos" and a tot or two of wardroom rum.
Voyager took about
one hundred and fifty nurses aboard and nearly as many soldiers had
already swarmed over the guard-rails.
The two destroyers
had been in harbour for a few minutes less than four hours and more
than seven thousand troops had been embarked on all ships during that
Stuart was not to
take any troops, for it was essential that one ship should be available
to pick up survivors if any of the convoyed ships were sunk. One A.I.F.
private clambered aboard, however, complete with two rifles and a Bren
gun. He was lucky-Stuart's ratings quickly found a hammock for the Digger
passenger and he spent a comfortable night and day on the way to Suda
Bay. His cobbers were not so comfortable!
Voyager found that
the soldiers were fairly easily accommodated. The ship's company expected
to be at action stations continuously until they reached Crete and that
left the mess-decks relatively clear. The soldiers didn't have much
gear, either. This is the tribute one of Voyager's ratings paid them
when he told me of the evacuation:
came aboard laughing and joking. It might have been an invasion instead
of an evacuation. They were tired and dirty, and pretty hungry, some
of them, but they weren't beaten.
"The thing that impressed us most, I think, was the fact that they
all carried arms. Some of them had two or three rifles. There were dozens
of Bren guns, too-in fact we had light arms of every type.
"But they had
brought no personal equipment-no blankets or eating utensils or toilet
gear. They had to sacrifice something, but it wasn't their arms."
On the eve of their
evacuation General Sir Thomas Blarney had issued an order of the day:
"This is a time when all our training and control must be exerted
to the full. Duty is duty and every one on duty must be at his post.
Units must be ready with self-help to keep the withdrawal moving steadily
and under control. Every officer must pull his weight, using all his
initiative, energy and courage to carry out this movement in military
order. Cool heads!"
And cool heads it
was! Cool, but heavy with lack of sleep. They could still smile as they
clasped sailors' hands, and were hauled, stumbling, on to the decks,
their shoulders bowed beneath the weight of rifles, Bren guns, anti-tank
rifles. Their cherished personal belongings lay somewhere behind-in
devastated Larissa or Lamia, on the heights of Thermopylae, or in the
crags and ravines bordering the Aliakmon. Behind them, too, were brave
friends. They brought nothing from Greece but their equipment and treasured
memories of a warm-hearted people, of flowers, green valleys and snow
The nurses were
a different problem not because they had lots of gear (for they had
none), but because Voyager had been built as a fighting ship and there
was no waste space. The night was chilly and there would be no dry spots
on deck once the destroyer began to approach full speed.
As many as possible were sent to the wardroom aft. More were sent to
officers' cabins, and others to Commander Morrow's cabin and day cabin.
But there were still some left.
Below it was more
than stuffy-scuttles can't be opened at sea, nor can they be opened
when bombing attacks are expected. Some of the nurses preferred to remain
on deck in spite of the mist and spray, but others clustered in their
quarters aft. More were "stowed" in the ship's office, and
others went down to the petty officers' mess forward.
And the cooks worked
overtime. Soldiers and nurses were given steaming "kye" (thick,
nourishing cocoa), tea, and hastily made sandwiches. The nurses were
given towels and soap and even toothbrushes, and were provided with
what simple comforts a destroyer's stores contain.
An hour before sailing
time the embarkation had been completed as far as Voyager was concerned
and the men, most of them unshaven since leaving Alexandria forty-eight
hours before, went below to "tiddly up". It was a new crew
who weighed anchor at 4 a.m., a crew shaven, immaculate, well groomed.
Stuart and Voyager crept out, leaving Nauplia still shrouded with a
pall of impenetrable darkness. Then, clear of the entrance, full speed
as usual" was the motto when "Cooks to the galley" was
piped about 8 a.m., but the meal was eaten buffet style as the Australians
waited for the inevitable air attack.
It was quite calm
and the nurses soon appeared on deck, bright, cheerful, and laughing.
In spite of the strain of the past weeks they still managed, somehow,
to look fresh and dainty. They were still laughing about a joke one
of the nurses had played on "Chiefy" Edwards, the commissioned
mechanician. This is the story-I don't know if it's true, but every
one serving in Voyager at the time swears to it.
dressed in grimy overalls, had been down in the engine-room making sure
that everything was ready for a speedy trip back to Suda Bay and when
he came on deck he found nurses everywhere. He was told that his cabin
had been appropriated and asked one of the nurses if it was "all
clear" to go down to get some things. He knocked on his cabin door,
entered and found that he could barely move round among the girls. In
his haste to leave the nurses, he looked in every drawer but the right
one, felt that a dozen pairs of eyes were watching him. "Chiefy"
smiled, and said something about having too many drawers.
"You are lucky,
sir," one of the nurses said. "We only have one pair each-we're
"Chiefy" made a rapid exit.
Meanwhile the nurses,
soldiers and sailors were standing on deck exchanging yarns. The soldiers
were mostly Australians, the nurses were "Wallabies", "Kiwis",
and "Kippers". As the first planes appeared, alarm rattlers
sounded and crews trained their guns on the targets. Voyager's soldier
complement had rigged up mountings for their Bren guns on the quarterdeck
and the Germans received a warm reception.
The nurses, wearing
tin helmets lent by the ratings, urged the gunners on.
"Here comes one! Down a bit! There's another there! That got him."
One of the Junkers
88's wobbled, dropped its four bombs long before reaching the convoy,
and roared away losing height. The other dropped its bombs wide of the
target. It. too, found the ack-ack fire too fierce. The escort, in addition
to Stuart and Voyager (the latter's ack-ack armament considerably increased
by the Bren guns) included the British anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta.
Nearing Suda Bay, with an escort of British bombers overhead, the troops
once again relaxed. From Calcutta came a signal to Commander Morrow:
"I am leaving
you to make your own arrangements for disembarking those gorgeous girls."
And from Commander Morrow: "Thanks. Wish I could keep them with
me. Never have my crew been so well groomed!"
There were no more
air attacks and seven thousand troops and one hundred and fifty nurses
arrived safely at Suda Bay. It was 25 April, 1941-Anzac Day.
and Vendetta had evacuated a few troops from a small port about fifteen
miles west of Piraeus. As they steamed into harbour through the narrow
entrance they saw a flashing light, thought it was a guiding beacon,
and crept into the port. Then Waterhen's yeoman saw that the "flashing"
was meant to be morse. "Stop mines," he read. Lieutenant Commander
Swain altered course immediately and Vendetta quickly followed. A Greek
fishing-boat brought out a pilot to lead the Australian ships through
The destroyers anchored,
but, because the night was so black they could not find any troops to
evacuate. The whaler went ashore and Leading Seaman Smythe, from Waterhen,
clambered over the rocks, and began looking for soldiers. On a road
just near the water's edge he saw a number of trucks and then a group
of soldiers appeared. When he arrived, breathless, back at the whaler,
Smythe told this story:
"I saw the
soldiers, and went over fairly close to them. I thought they were Creek
but wasn't too sure, so I called out in English, 'Where are the blokes
we have to evacuate?' The soldiers immediately started to unsling their
rifles, so I didn't wait for them to reply."
The soldiers were
to be evacuated from a beach, so Waterhen's whaler's crew went farther
up harbour until they found a small sandy stretch. There an excited
Greek fisherman told them that a traitor had soaked a fishing-boat with
petrol, and was ready to light it to illuminate the evacuation for the
Stukas. The Australians set off, found the boat (which had certainly
been prepared for a bonfire), and towed it out to where it could not
be easily found. There was no one aboard, so they tossed over the anchor
and left it. When they arrived back at their ship, most of the soldiers
Next day Stuart, Voyager, Perth and Orion left Suda Bay together. The
destroyers were bound for Port Toulon, the cruisers for Nauphia.
In Port Toulon the
Australians found two thousand troops waiting to be evacuated, but they
could not possibly embark even a quarter of the number. At full speed,
carrying as many men as they could, the destroyers raced back to Nauplia,
transferred the troops to Orion, and steamed back to Port Toulon where
Perth had already embarked hundreds of men. Again the destroyer took
about one hundred and fifty men on board, and at dawn cleared the port
bound for Suda Bay.
Stuart and Waterhen
were waiting in Alexandria harbour when Vampire arrived with the Piraeus
convoy and the three Australian ships left immediately with a small
convoy to Suda Bay. At midday on the second day out the slops Grimsby
and Auckland joined and Stuart left the escort and steamed back to Alexandria.
At sunset the Australians
went to action stations in readiness for torpedo bombing attacks usually
launched about this time from the Italian base at Rhodes, less than
sixty miles away. Three British Blenheim bombers circled the ships about
five miles away and two miles astern were three more planes, also thought
to be Blenheims. They followed the R.A.F. round and round the convoy
until the British planes left. Then as the three planes dashed in from
astern, Grimsby opened fire. The planes were German-not British.
The trick was an old one, but the British ships were not caught napping.
Auckland, stationed astern of the convoy with Grimsby, was next to open
fire and then Waterhen and Vampire opened up from ahead of the five
merchant ships. The planes, which were carrying torpedoes, were so low,
however, that the Australians had to cease fire as they threatened to
damage the convoy. The bombers were over now and they were in no position
to loose their The three Germans wheeled away, circled for a moment,
then dashed back towards the convoy from three sides, met by a veritable
hail of fire. As they swooped, flattened out, and loosed their six torpedoes,
the ships turned towards them to present the smallest possible target.
The torpedoes passed between the columns.
Night came and there
were no more attacks, although all ships were at action stations in
case of motor torpedo boat attacks. At noon, when Suda Bay was almost
in sight, an S 0 S was received from the British freighter Scottish
Prince, which had been damaged by a near miss. Vampire and Grimsby were
detailed to assist her, and Waterhen and Auckland took the convoy into
Vampire, faster than the sloop, raced away at full speed, and reached
the disabled freighter about 5 p.m. The British destroyer Diamond had
arrived a few minutes before, and was picking up men from boats.
Vampire went alongside
the sinking ship, and took off the remainder of the crew and by this
time Grimsby had arrived, and was preparing to tow the freighter to
Suda Bay, about forty miles away. Scottish Prince had been in a convoy
taken from Alexandria to Greece about three weeks previously, and then
had taken supplies to Turkey from Athens.
"We were ordered
back to Suda Bay, unescorted, and we were bombed every hour throughout
the day while we were in the Aegean," one of the crew told Vampire's
ratings as he was given hot coffee in the messdecks.
Junkers 88's attacked and plates round the engine-room were stove in
by a near miss. Water began to pour in and as there were more bombers
attacking us and we could not get our engines to move, we had to abandon
As soon as it was
seen that Scottish Prince was in no danger of sinking, part of the crew
was put back. Grimsby put a line aboard, and began to tow, Vampire and
Diamond doing an anti-submarine patrol round the two ships. At 7 next
morning Suda Bay was sighted and the four ships entered shortly afterwards.
Vampire did not
see Diamond again, for the British destroyer was bombed and sunk two
days later when, with Voyager and Wryneck, she fought for three hours
with high-altitude and dive bombers. During the engagement H.M.S. Calcutta,
who had rendered wonderful anti-aircraft protection throughout the Grecian
campaign, fired more than twelve hundred barrage shells from her main
armament, in addition to thousands of rounds from her pom-poms.
But there were too
many planes and Diamond received a direct hit. She began to sink rapidly
and, as Wryneck stopped to pick up survivors, German aircraft roared
in from all directions, dropping bombs and concentrating fierce machine-gun
fire on survivors in the water.
Diamond was hit
again and Voyager's crew watched her overturn and sink. Wryneck was
struck then and her crew and her soldier "cargo" were soon
struggling in the water with the men from Diamond.
There were more than seven hundred men in the two ships and the carley
floats, rafts and boats were pitifully inadequate. Some of these, too,
had been struck by bombs or holed by shrapnel, and were useless. Men
sprawled on rafts, clung to drifting wood. They clung to anything, everything.
They clung to each other, and drowned each other. They could not all
On one float, laden
with wounded sailors and soldiers, two lieutenants and a midshipman
from one of the British destroyers clung. A few minutes later Commander
Lane, commander of one of the destroyers, joined them. The water was
bitterly cold, but the officers refused to get on the raft while there
were soldiers and sailors still struggling in the water. They hauled
a few aboard.
An hour later Commander
Lane said quietly, "I'm going now." A wounded sailor held
him for a while, but then he fainted. In the morning all the officers
had gone. .
Vampire had joined Stuart and Vendetta, and the three ships left Suda
Bay to screen four big troopships.
An hour later three
Junkers 88's swooped down from the clouds, and dropped their bombs together.
Giant fountains of spray appeared all round the 18,000-ton Penland,
completely hiding her from the escort. When the smoke and spray cleared
Pen/and was seen to be listing slightly and in a sinking condition.
The Dido class light cruiser Phoebe raced alongside the Penland, and
took off the entire crew and her complement of soldiers, while the other
three merchantmen with their escort steamed away at full speed for Alexandria.
The escort by this
time consisted of the Australian destroyers and the anti-aircraft cruisers
Carlisle and Calcutta, the cruiser Dido, and the sloops Auckland and
Grimsby. Keeping close screen round the three 10,000-ton merchant ships
which carried thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers,
the ships arrived outside Alexandria without further incident. The four
Australian ships were now flying the Australian Jack to cheer the members
of the A.I.F. disembarking at Alexandria and as they entered the port
the four tiny destroyers were given a rousing reception from Australians
on ships all round the port.
Waterhen was already
in harbour and the five destroyers left immediately with the Fleet-the
first time they had all screened the battleships for some time. The
immediate objective was Rhodes and the secondary purpose of the sweep
was to clear up the last of the evacuation of Greece.
Rhodes was bombed and for two days the Fleet steamed round Italian bases,
within reach of German dive bombers, but no planes were seen. German
aircraft had not been idle, however. While the Fleet was seeking battle
near Greece they had laid mines outside Alexandria itself, "mining
the Fleet out" as it was called.
decided to keep the Fleet at sea for an extra day while sweepers cleared
the way into the port, but Voyager and Vampire were desperately short
of oil, and had to get into port somehow. Creeping towards port at less
than four knots, the destroyers looked strangely different. Alexandria
had been used to seeing them enter and leave at fairly high speed, but
there were no foaming bow waves this time.
and Walsh ordered every one to wear their "Mae Wests", all
watertight doors and hatches were closed and the two ships steamed slowly
I'll say we were," one of the ratings told me.
face any number of Stukas than go through that again. They told us we
were doing four knots, but we really didn't seem to be moving and I'll
swear it took us hours to get through the entrance.
we'd been through minefields before, but this was different. We could
see the mines last time. Now we only knew that the mines were somewhere
below us and it doesn't help any to look round and see every one wearing
a Mae West and just waiting for the balloon to go up!"
The battle for Greece
The Navy had lost
ships, but there was another side to the story. On the night of 24 April
more than thirteen thousand five hundred men and women were evacuated,
another sixteen thousand were taken off on 26 April, and by midnight
on 30 April Admiral Cunningham was able to announce the evacuation of
forty-five thousand men and a number of refugees. And this in spite
of the unopposed might of the Luftwaffe!
The battle for Greece
had ended a courageous battle, but one which was virtually lost before
it had begun. The Allies' supply problem was such that they could not
hope to equip their troops to meet the numerically superior and better
armed Germans. So the scene moved southwards to the elongated rugged
mountains that form the island of Crete.