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The Scrap Iron Flotilla - Venerable Destroyer Contribution From Australia but With a Venomous Sting.
As the dark clouds of war gathered over Europe, tens of thousands of miles away in the Australian Admiralty building in Melbourne at 0950hrs Sunday 3rd September 1939 the telegraph machine clattered its message:
“Total Germany repeat total Germany”,
These were the words nobody wanted to see or hear as it meant Britain was now at war with Nazi Germany and in consequence so now was Australia. The whole .mobilisation of the Australian Navy reservists and the pre-planned conversion of civilian vessels to wartime use, swung into action.
The Australian nation was advised by the following radio announcement:
“At 2115 in a radio broadcast, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced; ‘It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that as a result, Australia is also at war’.”
Within a matter of weeks from the signal being received, three armed merchant cruisers were fitted out and in commission and Australia’s only destroyers had left home waters heading for the Mediterranean Sea.
The strength of the Royal Australian Navy at the commencement of hostilities in WW2 was:
2 heavy cruisers,
HMAS AUSTRALIA (The Aussie) - 8 inch Kent class completed 1928
HMAS CANBERRA - 8 inch Kent class completed 1928
4 light cruisers,
HMAS SYDNEY - (HMS Phaeton nickname Stormy Petrel) - 6 inch Modified Leander Class Light Cruiser completed 1934
HMAS HOBART - (ex HMS Apollo) - 6 inch Leander/Perth-class Light Cruiser completed 1936
HMAS PERTH - (ex HMS Amphion) - 6 inch Modified Leander-class light cruiser completed 1936
HMAS ADELAIDE - (nicknamed HMAS Longdelayed) - 6 inch Town-class light cruiser laid down 1915 finally completed 1922
HMAS STUART - (ex HMS Stuart) - 4.7 inch Scott-class flotilla leader completed 1918
HMAS VAMPIRE -(ex HMS Wallace) - 4 inch V class destroyer completed 1917
HMAS VOYAGER (ex HMS Voyager) - 4 inch W class destroyer completed 1918
HMAS VENDETTA (ex - HMS Vendetta) - 4 inch V class destroyer completed 1917
HMAS WATERHEN (ex HMS Waterhen - nicknamed “The Chook”) - 4 inch W class destroyer completed 1918
HMAS SWAN - Grimsby class sloop - 2 x 4.7 inch completed December 1936
HMAS YARRA - Grimsby class sloop 2 x 4.7 inch completed December 1935
1 survey vessel,
HMAS MORESBY - (ex HMS Silvio) 24 class survey sloop completed 1918
2 armed merchant cruisers
HMAS MANOORA - 10,856 tons gross completed 1935 converted to armed merchant cruiser with 7 x 6-inch guns and later converted to landing ship infantry.
HMAS WESTRALIA - 8,108 tons gross completed 1940 converted, while building, to an armed merchant cruiser with 7 x 6 inch guns and later converted to a landing ship infantry.
Three more liners, MORETON BAY, ARAWA, and KANIMBLA, were converted into armed merchant cruisers and manned by Australian crews, but officially as units of the RN.
HMAS KURUMBA, (fleet oiler), was commissioned 1916 armed with 1 x 4-inch QF gun, 4 x machine guns. The ship had served with the RN between 1916 and 1919, being later transferred to the RAN.
Eleven smaller vessels were requisitioned from various sources refitted, armed and equipped as minesweepers. These were:
HMAS Doomba (ex HMS Wexford - Hunt class minesweeper) laid down 1919
HMAS Tongkol laid down 1926 into private hands. Complete convertion to auxiliary minesweeper.
HMAS Goolwali laid down and transferred from Red Funnel trawlers Canada
HMAS Korowa laid down in 1919 and transferred from Red Funnel trawlers Selby.
HMAS Olive Cam laid down in 1919 in Wales and transferred from Cam Sydney.
HMAS Beryl II laid down 1914 and transferred from Cam Sydney.
HMAS Gooranga laid down 1919 in Newcastle NSW and transferred from Cam Sydney.
HMAS Orara laid down 1907 in Kinghorn Scotland and transferred from North Coast NSW.
HMAS Uki laid down in 1923 Port Glasgow Scotland and transferred from North Coast NSW.
HMAS Bermagui laid down in 1912 Troon Scotland and transferred from Illawarra and South Coast Sydney.
HMAS Coolebar laid down in 1911 at Ardrossan Scotland and transferred from North Coast Steam.
The permanent naval forces totalled 5440 and the reserve naval forces totalled 4819 personnel.
The five ex Royal Navy destroyers, although some 31-32 years old, had the greatest immediate value and were sent straight away to the Mediterranean. These five venerable warships had been mockingly described by the German propaganda minister, Paul Joseph Goebbels, as the “scrap iron flotilla” because of the age of the vessels. It is true, they were old ships, built at the end of the First World War, but as with British built warships of this period they proved to be very tough and capable in action and all have a very distinguished battle history. Later, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham commented: “Nobody will appreciate the term ‘scrap’ better than the officers and men of the Australian destroyers.” [For non-English as a first language speakers, 'scrap' is also slang, especially in the 1940s, for a fight or brawl].
The destroyers all rendezvoused at Singapore and worked up on some anti-submarine training exercises as Australia had not experienced working with submarines for many years. On 13th November 1939, all five vessels sailed from Singapore heading to Colombo.
It was whilst in Colombo that news was announced of the attack and sinking of the small British freighter Africa Shell off Mozambique in the Indian Ocean. Some had suggested that the KMS Deutschland was responsible; but it was later confirmed that the KMS Graf Spee carried out the deed. (At the time the Kriegsmarine were very concerned that the Deutschland was performing so badly and consequently rather than sully the name of Germany renamed her KMS Lützow).
The actual ship did not really matter as in either case the flotilla members worked out the best strategy to handle either vessel if they were encounter. The fact that it took three cruisers (one heavy and two light) to force the scuttling of the KMS Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate didn’t seem to have occurred to the crews of these lightly armed venerable destroyers.
The flotilla then sailed to the harbour of Diego Suarez in Madagascar and from there; they sailed through the Red Sea and then passed into the Suez Canal and onward into the Mediterranean Sea. The vessels then sailed, in the company of HMAS Perth and entered Malta just before Christmas 1939.
Immediately the destroyers were put to work at convoy escort duty over the following months, sailing with and providing protection for convoys to and from France (Marseilles in particular) as well as convoys between Egypt and Malta and Malta and Gibraltar.
On the 25th Jun 1940 France capitulated and Admiral A. B. Cunningham concentrated the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria to restrict the French Squadron to the port and avoid them falling into the hands of the Vichy French. Australian ships with the Mediterranean Fleet were the cruiser HMAS Sydney and HMAS Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager, and Waterhen, (destroyers, of the ‘Scrap Iron Flotilla’).
By mid-1940, the five destroyers from the so called Scrap Iron Flotilla had been incorporated as part of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain Waller. Italy entered the war on 10th June 1940. At this time, only four of the Australian destroyers were on patrol (Stuart, Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen - HMAS Vendetta being in dock in Malta at that time under refit). The greatest threat that Italy posed in the Mediterranean at this time, was from their submarine fleet, which was even larger than the U boats of Germany. In fact, the Italian Navy also consisted of a large number of powerful surface vessels, many of them newly built.
Vendetta was therefore found in dock when the first Italian air raid was made on Malta. The total air defence of Malta, at that time, was provided by the famous three aging Gloster Sea Gladiator bi-planes.
The crew from Vendetta were detailed to assist the Army defenders during the raids using the ships anti-aircraft armament that had been removed and manning shore batteries.
The three bi-planes were nicknamed “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity” and they fought fiercely against the Italian Air Force. On 21st June two Hurricanes, followed the next day by three more, joined the Gladiators after landing on Malta while en-route to the Middle East. Unusually there were more pilots than aircraft, on the island, at this time and plans were made to ferry some additional Hawker Hurricane fighters by carrier to within range to fly off to Malta. On 2nd August 1940 12 Hurricane Mk Is of 418 Flight under operation “Hurry“ left the old aircraft carrier HMS Argus, to be flown the remaining 380 miles to Luqa airfield where they joined the surviving fighters to form 261 Squadron. These operations continued under the control of Gibraltar and were known as “The Club Run”. On 17th November, under operation “Coat” HMS Argus again dispatched to Malta a further 12 Hurricanes, this time accompanied by two Fleet Air Arm Blackburn Skuas. Tragically, eight of the RAF fighters ran out of fuel before reaching their destination and plunged into the ocean, sadly killing the pilots, while one of the Skuas was shot down by AA fire after becoming hopelessly lost and almost completely out of fuel while accidentally flying over Sicily. Only four Hurricanes and one Skua landed with pretty much dry tanks.
Vendetta continued to remain in refit for some weeks. Her captain at this time was Lieutenant-Commander R. Rhoades, who was later awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.
Actually, Vendetta has made quite a habit of being in dock and under air attack. Malta was not the last time that this happened and there is the famous tale of Vendetta being in dock in Singapore when the Japanese attacked, which I will relate towards the end of the article.
HMAS Stuart was the first ship of the Scrap Iron Flotilla to be called to action stations genuinely. Previously all calls had been drills, but on the morning of 11th June a lookout spotted the tiny silhouettes of ships on the horizon and the call to action stations also famously included the Australian slang expression “Dinkum, dinkum, dinkum” so that the crew knew the call was real and not another drill. They could see there were four ships and Stuart went to action stations. As the distance closed, they quickly estimated they would be facing a cruiser and three destroyers. As the distance closed even further it was discovered that the small enemy fleet that Stuart was preparing to engage was, embarrassingly the Rollicker class tug HMS Respond and three barges being towed from Malta.
On 12th June, Stuart encountered and crossed a number of minefields. On 13th June 1940, Voyager, under Lieutenant-Commander Morrow was chasing a submarine suspected of laying mines. The submarine was detected that night and three passes with depth charges were made. This forced the submarine to the surface into the 4″ guns of the Voyager who quickly engaged the boat. The submarine crash dived again and whilst at the time they felt they had sunk it, it was not until several days later that Voyager had her first confirmed kill. At this point, Italy had been in the war only for three days and had lost its first submarine destroyed to an overage destroyer.
Stuart however had noticed the gunfire and the depth charge explosions and changed course to assist. Again she had to carefully make her way through a minefield – one laid by the very submarine – for two hours. At 0314hrs on 14th June 1940, Voyager detected a second submarine but unfortunately, had expended her depth charges so transmitted the position of the submarine to Stuart.
Stuart made a series of depth-charge attacks. This did not force the submarine to the surface but the discovery of a two and a half mile long oil patch in the position of the attack the following morning by Vampire indicated that the submarine had almost certainly exploded under the surface and sunk.
This all happened the first six months of the Scrap Iron Flotilla’s service in the Mediterranean. The ships of the flotilla engaged at various times in anti-submarine work, shore bombardment, convoy protection and fleet actions (Stuart and Vendetta were in action at the Battle of Matapan. In this battle the Duke of Edinburgh served on the battleship HMS Valiant as Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten). The Scrap Iron Flotilla was in the Mediterranean for two years (until September 1941). All in all, the losses suffered by them were the loss of the HMAS Waterhen to aerial bombardment (although no crew were lost). In total, there were less than 20 casualties overall from all five vessels. On the other hand the Scrap Iron Flotilla had sunk nearly 20 Italian submarines (there may have been more), two cruisers torpedoed, the shelling of a destroyer and the capture and sinking of other vessels. as well as shore bombardment along the North African coast from Sollum to Tripoli.
In addition to those mentioned we will look at a few of the more notable actions involving ships of the “scrap iron flotilla”
On 6th April 1940 HMAS Vampire, took aboard the crew of the tanker SS British Lord, (6,098 tons gross built 1922) which had been attacked and disabled by German bombers north of Crete. The tanker was then safely towed by the Egret class sloop HMS Auckland to the port of Gavdhos, then onwards to Alexandria.
The destroyer HMAS Stuart detected and marked an Italian minefield 17 miles from Alexandria while returning there with HMAS Vampire and Voyager.
HMAS Voyager, with HMS Decoy, (D class destroyer) on 13th June 1940, engaged the surfaced Italian minelaying submarine “Foca”, which was laying mines, with gunfire off Alexandria. The submarine submerged and Voyager, dropped depth charges without success.
On the 21st Jun 1940 HMAS Sydney, (cruiser), and Stuart, (destroyer), supported a combined British and French Squadron in the bombardment of Bardia. During the action Sydney’s Supermarine Seagull amphibian aircraft was shot down by three Italian fighters, and crashed on landing. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant. T. McB Price, RAAF, was awarded the DFC for this action.
On the 27th Jun 1940 HMAS Voyager, rescued 13 of the crew of the new Italian submarine Liuzzi, sunk by HMS Dainty, Defender and Ilex off the coast of Crete.
The final fate of these five fine destroyers are as follows:
HMAS Stuart - Survived the war and decommissioned 27th April 1946 finally sold for scrap.
HMAS Vampire - Sunk on 9th April 1942 by Japanese aircraft while escorting the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes from Trincomalee.
HMAS Voyager - Destroyed 23rd September 1942, when she ran aground delivering troops to Timor and was bombed and finally scuttled.
HMAS Vendetta - Survived the war and was deliberately scuttled off Sydney, 2nd July 1948
HMAS Waterhen - Sunk by Axis aircraft about 50 nautical miles north-west of Sidi Barani, Egypt on 29th June 1941.while serving in the “Tobruk Ferry Service”
HMAS Waterhen became famous for a number of heroic rescues in the Mediterranean. On April 14th, 1941, both she and HMAS Vendetta were under heavy attack by Stuka dive-bombers in Tobruk Harbour, and later in the day the clearly marked hospital ship HMHS Vita was disabled by a cowardly near miss from Stuka dive-bombers outside the Harbour. While Vendetta circled fiercely holding off further attacks Waterhen attempted to take the disabled hospital ship in tow. Despite many brave attempts this proved unsuccessful, and still under cover from Vendetta, 'The Chook' took off 432 wounded patients and the medical staff from the disabled ship and made her way, crowded to the gunwales, back to Alexandria. I will expand on the experiences of HMHS Vita a little later.
On June 25th, 1941, Waterhen and Vendetta had also rushed to the assistance of the sloop HMAS Parramatta, which was picking up survivors from the RN sloop HMS Auckland, which had been sunk in an attack by 48 aircraft while the two ships were escorting a small British petrol tanker, “SS Pass of Balmaha” to Tobruk. After helping to hold off further attacks, while Auckland's survivors were picked up, HMAS Waterhen later towed the petrol carrier almost to Tobruk before being relieved outside the port by a tugboat.
Earlier in the year, on March 21st, HMAS Waterhen and her crew recovered a bombed, burning and abandoned Danish tanker “SS Marie Maersk” in the Aegean, boarded her and extinguishing the fires and finally towed her into Sunda Bay, Crete.
The previously mentioned attack on the unarmed hospital ship HMHS Vita was so disgraceful and inhumane it deserves telling in more detail and we should start when she was first requisitioned in May, 1940, and was converted at Bombay on 3rd August.(Hospital Ship No.8)
She started her life as a hospital ship by taking patients was from Berbera to Aden and Bombay, and from September until February, 1941, where she acted as a base hospital ship at Aden.
As briefly described above when loaded with over 400 casualties, she was attacked by nine Stuka aircraft while lying off Tobruk. Mercifully she was not hit directly, but a near miss lifted her bow completely out of the water resulting in damage to the superstructure and putting both engines and dynamos out of action, completely damaging five wards and setting the laboratory and dispensary on fire. She developed a serious list to port and the patients and most of the medical and nursing staff had to be evacuated, in the teeth of the raid, to HMAS Waterhen. The Principal Medical Officer and remaining medical staff and the ship's officers were only taken off when the vessel seemed about to founder. However, a few hours later, although still under enemy aircraft attack, the Vita was still afloat and the decision was made to tow her into harbour. The fact she was a clearly marked hospital ship seemed to mean nothing to the Nazi pilots and she remained under frequent attack. On 21st April she was towed to Port Said, still being attacked and bombed twice on the voyage. Eventually she got through the Suez Canal to Port Tewfik in Egypt (now known as Port Suez) where she had minor repairs and was re-joined by her staff and crew. The courageous but battered HMHS Vita then made the perilous journey to Bombay, running on only one engine and without lighting or ventilation since the dynamos were still out of action.
When repairs and refitting were completed she headed back to Aden, but was at Addu Atoll in the Maldives in November, 1941, and at Colombo on New Year's Day, 1942. The Vita then returned to Addu Atoll where on 8th April, 1943, she was close to British warships that were in action. The aircraft carrier HMS Hermes was sunk by enemy aircraft in the same area as heavy cruisers HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire that had been sunk some 4 days previously. HMHS Vita closed into the scene of the sinking and honouring her status as a hospital ship, the Japanese stopped their attacks and she was able to embark 595 survivors, who were landed at Colombo on 10th April.
Six days later she was once more at Addu Atoll and again embarked casualties from sunken British warships this time taking them to Durban, which was reached on 31st May. She acted as a base hospital at Kilindini Kenya followed which she had a long overdue refit at Bombay, leaving there on 27th September for carrier duties at Diego Suarez. The Vita underwent yet a further refit at Bombay before joining the Eastern Fleet in January, 1944, returning again to the dockyard at Bombay. Base hospital duties at Trincomalee were followed by acting as a carrier between Colombo and Durban, but by April, 1945, she was at Cochin, Southern India. On 28th April she called at Kyankpyu on the west coast of Burma and in May took army casualties from Rangoon to Calcutta. The pursuit of the Japanese from Burma was at that time at its height, and the Vita made a journey to Chittagong where she embarked casualties for Madras. This was followed by a further spell as base hospital at Trincomalee, in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before she made her last visit to Bombay for yet another refit. Her busy career as a hospital ship ended in January, 1946, when she was paid off. She resumed her commercial life briefly before finally sold for scrap in 1949, a rather ignominious end for a noble ship. Between them the Scrap Iron Flotilla and HMHS Vita certainly created a fine reputation for themselves and was a welcome sight to allied troops everywhere (and a few captured injured enemy men also.)
It’s worth returning to the early comment from Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels who dismissively called the five destroyers, scrap iron. He welcomed them to the Mediterranean in December 1939 as a "consignment of junk" and “Australia's Scrap-Iron Flotilla", he ridiculed their fighting power, scoffed at their age and their small size. Of course, in some ways he was correct they were old, they were small, comparatively slow, and only lightly armed. But they had been laid down and completed in 1918 in an age when ships were slower and aircraft little more than cloth and wire with unreliable spluttering petrol engines. Herr Goebbels now compared them with the state of the art fast, deadly planes of the Luftwaffe and the speedy modem ships of the German and Italian fleet, perhaps his derision was justified, but he was to find to his cost there is no substitute for strength, tenacity and bravery.
These five destroyers had been built by the steel men of Scotland’s Clyde whose tradition was in building ships for war and ships for peace that was the finest and toughest in the world. At the stern they flew the enigmatic White Ensign that signifies power and honour and is respected the world over.
They were manned originally by British seamen and then Australians who scorned danger and were often found scrapping and were game to battle against any odds, for honour and with only thoughts of victory. For two years they fought, against overwhelming odds and when they finally steamed away from the Mediterranean they left in their wake a score of sunken modern submarines, damaged and battered cruisers and destroyers, and the scattered remains of some of the Luftwaffe's finest aircraft. They defied Italian battleships at Calabria, and took on heavy cruisers at Matapan. They ran the gauntlet of every type of bomber as they plucked troops from the Nazis' grasp in Greece and Crete. They prowled up and down the North African coast at will, meting out destruction out of all proportion to their limited size and firepower.
Goebbels may have called them "scrap iron", but Admiral Cunningham, in a message read in Australia's House of Representatives, commented: "Nobody will appreciate the 'scrap' better than the officers and men of the Australian destroyers. Australia was proud of these ships. They were her first contribution to the Empire's armed might. Long before the first troopships left with the men who were to make their own "lightning war" in Egypt and Libya, the five little destroyers had sailed without fuss or farewells or bands or streamers, and three months after war was declared they were in the battle arena. They pitted their strength against an opponent whose ships were faster and bigger and more modem than they were, and they left him beaten. “
Of course they did suffer damage and losses during those long months of constant battle. They were scarred; their tired engines were strained almost beyond their limits, due to constant high speed runs. But they shirked no fight, avoided no action. Their names would be remembered with awe, HMAS Stuart, Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and Waterhen.
To expand the article let’s take a look at their various actions in more detail.
The crew of these ships were divided into three classes: "permanent" navy men, naval reservists drawn from the merchant service, and the "rookies" who had done peacetime training as "Saturday afternoon sailors". Some of the officers wore service ribbons won in 1914-18 Great War; some of the ratings wore active service decorations, some wore the blue and white ribbon of "Long Service".
Australia is a huge country and the destroyers had been spread widely, but met in Singapore where the first anti-submarine exercises were carried out, for Australia had no experience of submarines warfare since HMS Oxley and Otway left the station some years before. So at Singapore, they exercising again with British submarines and the anti-submarine personnel of the five destroyers learnt their job so well that in the months ahead they were to sink a score of Italian U-boats and damage many more.
The destroyers entered Malta just before Christmas, and Rear-Admiral J. C. Tovey, Rear-Admiral Commanding Mediterranean Destroyers, went aboard HMAS Stuart to address the ship's company. He told them that to all intents and purposes the five Australian destroyers represented the entire Mediterranean Fleet. There would be plenty of hard work ahead and there would be many long days at sea, but he promised that they would have their share of action if there was any chance of having a go at the enemy.
So, from the scorching heat of the Red Sea, they steamed in line ahead through the Canal and into the Mediterranean where they escorted their first battleship and were proud to be carrying out their designed task. They steamed ahead and protected convoys that sailed from the eastern Mediterranean to the west, and brought other ships back safely with supplies for Egypt and Malta.
Unlike their home waters they pounded through heavy seas that sent deluges of water over the foredecks. Icy spray whipped back, kept at bay only by the minimal canvas bridge dodger screens, and the bitterly cold winds that cut through the thick duffle coats, woollen hats and gloves. At this time of year the nights were dark and long, and the merchant convoys were inexperienced and had not become accustomed to protocol and to keeping station.
Stuart, Waterhen and Vendetta found themselves at sea for their first Christmas away from home-somewhere battling heavy seas between Malta and Marseilles.
Voyager and Vampire were more fortunate and spent Christmas in Malta. At this time it was not the scarred and bomb-pitted Malta that was to come in the next twelve months, but an island whose rocky face was covered with the familiar picturesque battlements and the bright red and green shutters of traditional dwellings.
It was, however no peaceful isle, now prepared for the war to come with giant modern guns bristled in the old forts and mine fields protecting the sea around its short coastline. Malta was ready for what the Nazis and Fascists could throw at them.
In January Vampire sailed escorting a convoy for Marseilles, she arrived there with her torpedoes frozen in the tubes and ice inches thick on her sides. The temperature was below twelve degrees Fahrenheit, and icy spray whipped back and froze on the upper deck, guns, and superstructure. On arrival the wharves were piled high with valuable war material, unguarded and apparently unwanted by the French military that were already planning their capitulation to Germany.
In the middle of March, Vampire had to enter dry-dock at Malta for a brief refit; she had already steamed some twenty-six thousand miles at an average of almost five thousand a month. With Vampire temporarily out of action, this drastically increased the pressure on the other destroyers.
On the 24th March 1940 Volunteers from ships of Australia’s “Scrap Iron Flotilla”, in the Mediterranean, undertook a British secret service mission to block the Danube River at a feature known as the Iron Gates (Djerdap gorges which divide Serbia and Romania). The operation was planned by DNI (Director of National Intelligence) from a suggestion made by LCDR (Lieutenant commander) M. Minshall, RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) who had voyaged down the river on an intelligence mission shortly before the outbreak of war. Coordinator for the operation was LCDR Ian Fleming, creator of the fictional hero James Bond. Fleming managed, somehow to smuggle 14 tons of explosives across Europe on the Orient Express, but the operation was discovered by German agents before the RAN-manned barges reached the target. During the withdrawal one barge loaded with explosives was successfully detonated beneath a railway viaduct. All Australian members of the Commando-style mission succeeded in returning to their ships.
On 26th March 1940 Stuart received a message that the British tanker “SS Trocus” had suffered a broken propeller shaft, and the flotilla leader steamed at high speed to give assistance. Within a few hours of the distress signal Stuart had located the damaged tanker quite close to the Maltese coastline and she was ordered to stand by until a tug arrived from the island. However, the wind had increased in force and by daylight the sea had become rough with strong currents. Trocus was unable to anchor because of the depth of water and there was some likelihood of her drifting onto the coast of Italy or Sicily, so Commander WaIler decided to try to take her in tow.
Both ships were badly affected by the tumultuous sea and effort after effort was made to get a line aboard the crippled tanker. In spite of the steep seas a line was taken from Stuart by boat, but line after line snapped almost as soon as they took the strain. For five hours operations continued, and then, visibility became poor, it was decided to tow from the forecastle. Stuart was ready to tow late in the afternoon and the ships began to nose towards Malta at just over two knots. The tug HMS Respond, (Rollicker Class rescue tug) which had also been battling with rough seas since dawn, arrived about 0630hrs, but visibility was still pretty poor so it was decided it made sense to let Stuart continue her tow. The fog lifted about three hours later and Respond took over, Stuart remaining to provide protection until Malta was sighted at midnight. The flotilla leader had carried out Australia's first salvage operation of the war, but in the busy months that followed all the destroyers were to salve ships and valuable cargoes. The first six months of war in the Mediterranean bad been peaceful and almost uneventful.
The ships had been fully occupied and they had been busy months and not easy, as the chilly khamsin (dry, sandy local wind, blowing from the east) and the freezing mistral (strong, cold and north-westerly wind that blows from southern France) had been an unpleasant change from the tropical heat of Singapore and Suez. Large numbers of troopships had been escorted from Gibraltar to Malta and Alexandria and suspected blockade runners had been stopped and searched, with vessels with suspicious cargoes being diverted to British ports for closer examination. They even ventured out into the Atlantic to rendezvous with approaching convoys.
The Germans advanced and the collapse and capitulation of France was inevitable. Hitler's Italian fascist partner grew in confidence and increased their attacks on the Allies. A large number of Italians were uncomfortable with the war against Britain as we were allies in the Great War 1914-1918. However, Mussolini was an effective orator and thundered his challenges to the tremendous applause from his well-schooled Faseisti, and anti-British demonstrations that were no longer officially frowned upon. The five destroyers, now part of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain Waller, assumed a new importance.
Passing through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, with the destination of Malta and Alexandria, steamed huge powerful grey battleships and aircraft carriers and cruisers and destroyers in their camouflage colours. They steamed in perfect formation, their White Ensigns flown in defiance of the spotless unbloodied grey ships of Italy, still waiting in the harbours of Naples and Messina and Taranto.
British Mediterranean naval bases were rapidly undergoing strengthening and Vendetta, docked for repairs at Malta. The island had changed almost overnight since Vendetta had taken her last convoy from Marseilles less than twenty-four hours before German bombers made their first major raid on France's best-known port.
The crew were quartered at the Ricasoli rifle range while the destroyer was given a long overdue thorough overhaul. Officers and men enjoyed their first real leave in seven long, weary months and ever the explorers; they came to know Malta as well as they knew Sydney or Melbourne.
The tiny, rocky island survived some of the heaviest bombings of the war and some of its oldest relics only remain as craters and rubble, but the spirit that enabled the Maltese to defeat the Ottoman Turks four hundred years before has kept the island alive, and caused it to grow stronger, in spirit, not weaker, with every assault. The Australians wandering through the narrow stone streets, and up and down countless steps, passed stone houses, rocky battlements, forts and moats which were-and are-the secret of Malta's strength. However, modern guns now defend the approaches and beneath the crystal clear blue water around the island deadly black mines lurk to catch the unwary.
In the palace of the Governor were shining suits of armour, and beside them pikes and culverins and knives from their past military history. In Valetta Harbour picturesque little Dhaisas were rowed to and fro between the massive grey battleships and cruisers. The little island became a serious target for both the Nazis and Faseisti as the heat of war rose in the Mediterranean.
Malta drastically increased and modernised her defences. A greater number of gun pits were hollowed out of the solid rock and anti-aircraft weapons bristled in readiness. With the black-out starting at midnight, Valetta became apparently a dark dead city. Double curtains covered doorways of the many bars and cabaret, street lights were turned off, and the tiny island became a dark, rocky fortress, but alert for the inevitable air raids. Early in June not only was the black-out enforced all night but a 2300hrs curfew was imposed. Blacked out vessels moved stealthily in and out of the harbour, bringing munitions and food or taking waiting troops to Egypt and in Alexandria it was the same. The Fleet was never still and convoys seemed to arrive and depart on a regular basis. By comparison the huge Italian fleet lay dormant awaiting the call to action but seemed reluctant to take on the Royal Navy.
The Australian navy lost two ships during the 'Tobruk Ferry' supply runs in 1941. On 30th June 1941, the seemingly indomitable HMAS Waterhen was crippled by heavy air attacks and finally sunk, but with no loss of crew. However HMAS Parramatta was sunk off Tobruk on 27th November 1941 with only 23 survivors from the crew of 160 officers and men.
The main purpose of these trips was to take in badly needed stores such as ammunition, spare gun-barrels, medical supplies and mail, and bring out the wounded.
In all, the Australian destroyers made a total of 139 runs in and out of Tobruk during the period of the regular ‘Ferry’. Vendetta held the record with 39 individual passages into Tobruk, 11 from Alexandria and 9 from Mersa Matruh (north coast of Egypt); and from Tobruk 8 to Alexandria and 11 to Mersa Matruh. From the end of May until the first week in August she toiled without a break on the Tobruk shuttle service, and carried 1,532 troops to Tobruk; brought 2,951 away, including wounded and prisoners of war; and transported 616 tons of supplies into the port.”
For a long period the ships of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla did the run “solo”. The pattern was to leave Alexandria early in the morning after loading the night before and steam the 350 miles at high speed so as to arrive at Tobruk about midnight. There they would unload stores and embark the wounded and depart a couple of hours later. They then sped back at full speed to Mersa Matruh halfway along the coast towards Alexandria, put the wounded ashore there and sailed again in the afternoon with fresh stores for Tobruk, where they unloaded, embarked wounded and then sailed for Alexandria about 0200hrs.
After a number of these “solo” runs, they agreed to do the run in pairs, so as to be able to support each other when under attack and if one is damaged or sunk the other is able to act as a rescue ship.
Almost immediately the scheme proved successful HMS Defender (D class destroyer) one of four RN destroyers in our 10th Flotilla sailed from Tobruk about 0100hrs on the 11th July 1941. At about 0500hrs when returning to Alexandria, off the coast north-east of Bardia, the ships came under air attack from a single Junkers JU88 bomber (piloted by Gerhard Stamp) and HMS Defender’s back was broken and she lay helpless wallowing with her engine-room completely flooded.
HMAS Vendetta picked up one of her crew, who had been blown overboard. When they closed alongside Defender and asked her Captain by loudhailer how things were, he replied cheerfully, “Mustn’t grumble. Can you take me in tow?”
They got a line aboard, but hardly had they got moving towards Alexandria than they were attacked again. Vendetta had to slip the tow and take on the bomber, with its anti-aircraft guns. This scenario went on until midday with tows parted and replaced until they were down to towing her with just Defender’s cable directly on to their towing clench. This remarkable feat was achieved by backing the ship down stern first till Defender’s razor like bows were literally only a foot away. First Lieutenant John Smallwood, RN (an Australian officer who had joined the RN and was on loan to the RAN), personally put the towing shackle on to Vendettas clinch. This was a remarkable feat of strength under the most arduous circumstances.
With engines at dead slow at last they started moving through the water at no more than five knots. The strain caused Defender to break up amidships and Vendetta was dragged back by the heavy cable and had to go full speed ahead to break the cable, otherwise it would have damaged its propellers on the sunken midships section, which was now well under water. All that remained was to take off her remaining crew, including the ship’s cat, leaving Vendetta with an extra 650 men on board (many wounded) and very little fuel. The hulk of HMS Defender had to be dealt with and one torpedo and a few well-placed rounds and she sank to the depths33. Vendetta turned away and steamed for Alexandria, arriving with less than 10 tons of fuel oil.
Although nothing to do with the destroyers, just a week earlier, on 19th November 1941, back at home, the 1935 built cruiser HMAS Sydney had been involved in a battle and been sunk off the West Australian coast by the German raider HSK Kormoran who also sank due to the battle damage incurred. Although the Sydney outgunned the raider its inexperienced Captain allowed it to come too close and the raider’s first shots from their 5.9 inch guns took out Sydney’s bridge and forward guns leaving only the aft guns operational. With most of the senior officers dead and fire control inoperative Sydney’s first salvo missed completely or just passed through the light superstructure, but the second causing fatal damage to Kormoran. Strangely the Sydney was last seen steaming away, on fire, and never seen again. Regrettably none of HMAS Sydney's crew of 645 survived. HSK Kormoran had 318 from its crew of 399 rescued by allied ships in the area. The encounter was surrounded by controversy, suggestions being made of a combined Japanese submarine involvement and the execution of all of Sydney’s survivors by the Japanese. The wreck of HMAS Sydney was finally located on 17th March 2008.
1942 was a black year for the Australian navy, particularly in the Pacific theatre. Due to clashes with the Japanese in Malaya, Java, Timor, the Bay of Bengal and the Solomon Islands the following vessels were lost - HMAS Perth, Yarra, Vampire and Voyager (part of scrap iron flotilla), Canberra and the corvette HMAS Armidale with the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul sunk in Sydney Harbour during a sneak Japanese midget submarine attack on 31st May. The destroyer HMAS Nestor (one of 5 N class destroyers commissioned on the Clyde Feb 1941 and transferred to Australian Navy) was lost due to bombing by Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean in June 1942 with the loss of four crew members. Although the RAN lost other vessels of various classes during the next three years of the war, with some badly damaged, the months of 1942 were the RAN's blackest months.
We digress for a moment to relate the story of HMAS Vendetta in dry dock again. Due to her amount of service to and from Tobruk, she was sent to Singapore for complete refit to be carried out immediately after HMAS Vampire, whose need for refit due to even worse condition was much more urgent. When Vendetta arrived at Singapore in early November 1941, war with Japan was only 25 days away, but life in Singapore was a lot more peaceful at the time than the Mediterranean was before Vendetta had left. She entered King's Dry Dock on 12th November 1941, and soon there were well trained workers continuously swarmed all over her. The next day ship's crew took some well-deserved leave while the vessel was thoroughly stripped and her machinery repaired or replaced before she went back into service.
On 8th December 1941, the Japanese bombed Singapore. A bomber passed close to Vendetta and dropped its payload, resulting in a cluster of bombs landing approximately halfway between the ship and Ghost Island, two hundred yards to the port bow. It was immediately obvious that stripped of her guns; Vendetta was a sitting duck for any passing Japanese bomber. One of the ship's officers was ordered to organise defences for the disarmed vessel in the dock. Vendetta's machine guns and a 12-pound anti-aircraft gun were mounted on the wharf adjacent to Vendetta and proved very effective.
The ship refit took an inordinate length of time, because, not unreasonably, the labour force would scurry away at the first sound of an air raid siren. Other ships also came to the dock for repair and vessels and those that could move under their own power took priority. At this stage Vendetta needed towing if she was to move. On New Year's Eve 1942, Vendetta's crew witnessed their first Japanese massed air raid, 54 bombers launched a heavy attack on Singapore. 21st January saw the heaviest blitz so far on the fortress, with 125 Japanese bombers bombarding the imperial fortress and its naval base. This time Vendetta, with all her guns refitted, was ready for the attack, and hit a Japanese bomber's bomb rack with her high angle 12-pound gun, blowing the aircraft to smithereens and damaging bombers on either side of it. The ship's log observed "The whole of the gun crew acted in a most praiseworthy manner". The siege of Singapore was approaching, but Vendetta would, fortunately, not be present to experience it.
On 2nd February she was taken in tow by the tug boat, HMT St Just, and rendezvoused with HMS Stronghold (an equally old S class destroyer built 1919). A few miles out of Keppel Harbour a squadron of 54 Japanese planes flew overhead to bomb the city, causing heavy damage to the very dock Vendetta had occupied only hours previously. The three ships, now underway, were set on by eleven Japanese aircraft. Between a hundred and 120 bombs were observed falling around the three Allied vessels but none struck the ships, However, Tokyo radio, not unexpectedly falsely reported their destruction that evening.
Later in the day towing duties reverted to HMS Stronghold. Regularly Japanese aircraft attacked the ships at which point Vendetta's HA 12-pound anti-aircraft gun took on the enemy planes quite effectively. While the Allied ships were hit by debris, from close explosions neither vessel was damaged. Vendetta arrived in Batavia Indonesia on 10th February, remaining in port until the requisitioned Shanghai ferry of 3,105 tons, HMAS Ping Wo, (forma Indo-Chinese river steamer) attached the tow and began the long haul to Australia on 17th February. They formed a small convoy called SJ37 which also included the merchant vessels SS Giang Ann and Darvel and escorts HMAS Yarra and HMS Electra (both sunk over the next few days).. HMAS Adelaide took over escorting duties on 24th February, releasing Yarra for other duties. Vendetta reached Freemantle on 3rd March and the crew took some well-deserved shore leave in Freemantle, the first Australian city they had been in since fighting a war in the Mediterranean. They enjoyed six days before they were reunited with Vendetta. The day after Vendetta's arrival in Freemantle the tug HMAS Whyalla towed Vendetta out of the harbour while Ping Wo had engine repairs. Ping Wo was assigned the towing duties for the long journey across the Great Australian Bight. She collected Vendetta at Rottnest Island, then returned to Freemantle to re-embark the crew sailing again on 9th March. Shortly after beginning the journey Ping Wo, despite her recent engine repairs, experienced machinery difficulty. Following some emergency repairs her captain believed that, Ping Wo would be able to reach Albany, which she did, albeit slowly. The two ships arrived off Albany on 14th March. Altogether the journey from Freemantle to Albany had taken five days and five hours, and by the time they arrived in port a gale was blowing and Vendetta was rolling and drifting uncomfortably on the tow. It was clear that under these conditions Ping Wo alone could not be expected to tow Vendetta the length of the Bight.
On the morning of 24th March the 1598 ton vessel, SS Islander, arrived in Albany to assist Ping Wo in towing Vendetta eastwards towards Melbourne. Islander departed in the direction of King George Sound and Ping Wo followed with Vendetta in tow to rendezvous with SS Islander at King George Sound later on 24th March. As Islander and Ping Wo shared the tow for the entire length of the Great Australian Bight the weather deteriorated and the wind howled and the seas ran rough, the bad weather making Vendetta roll badly. The tow broke away five times during the journey and a faulty chain broke on the tow attached to Islander, causing Vendetta's only casualty during her trip from Singapore to Australia. Ping Wo had to resume the solitary towing duty while Islander retrieved her tow cable, enabling Ping Wo to bob and bounce in an easterly direction, blown ahead of the wind like a lost surfboard. Islander towed Vendetta herself until a tug from Port Adelaide met them off the coast of South Australia, and towed both ships to the port city, arriving in Adelaide on 10th April. Resuming the tow, Islander took Vendetta on the final leg of her arduous journey, to Melbourne. Arriving in Port Phillip Bay on 15thApril, concluding her journey across the Bight, which was undertaken under tow in heavy seas. During the five times that the tow parted Vendetta was at the mercy of the sea and wind. With no power, for the entire journey, and no adequate arrangements for refrigeration, the crew had to resort to tinned and packet food to sustain them and without adequate sanitary arrangements. The journey across the Bight took forty days, while the trip from Singapore to Melbourne took approximately 72 days. For his part in this ordeal the senior officer aboard Vendetta, Lieutenant Whitting, received the Distinguished Service Cross. Vendetta then had an extensive refit in Melbourne between April and September 1942.
She was re-commissioned at Melbourne on 29th September under the command of Commander C. J. Stephenson, RAN. On 14th October she proceeded to Sydney, finally pressing ahead under her own power. Here she resumed her refit, which was not completed until mid-December. During January 1943 she was based in Brisbane, on escort duty in Queensland waters. On 10th February she travelled to Milne Bay, escorting transports. In May Vendetta was assigned to destroyer transport, carrying 501 troops and 53 tons of stores to Madang in Papua New Guinea between 1st and 6th May 1943. On 2nd June, Vendetta returned to Milne Bay for a few days exercising. During 1944 Vendetta was kept occupied with escort duties and anti-submarine patrols. On 9th January 1945 Vendetta bombarded three unspecified targets in the Anumb River area in New Guinea with 206 rounds of 4-inch ammunition; she then relieved HMAS Katoomba (Bathurst Class corvette) on an anti-submarine patrol.
On 13th May she set out for Brisbane for a refit. While still in dockyard hands in Brisbane, Lieutenant W. K. Tapp assumed command of Vendetta on 31 May 1945. After the refit was completed on 18th August, Vendetta underwent trials, and completed her war service in New Guinea waters until the end of August. She served in the waters of New Britain until 11 September, when she returned to Madang. She then set a course for Brisbane, then Sydney. When Vendetta slipped from her mooring at Garden Island on 5 October, she moved under her own steam for the last time to secure to Cruiser Wharf, Garden Island. In her total service during the Pacific war Vendetta had steamed 120,639 miles under her own power. Vendetta was paid off for disposal on 27th November 1945. She was sold to Penguin Pty Ltd, Sydney on 20th March 1946. Her hull was scuttled off Sydney Heads on 2nd July 1948.
The Scrap Iron Flotilla is commemorated in the top row of a stained glass window honouring Australian destroyers of World War II, in Garden Island Naval Chapel, Sydney.
This article is in memory of the bravery of the 20 casualties from
The Scrap Iron Flotilla
The Royal Australian Navy
Copyright Peter Geekie 2014
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