Australians in World War II:
RAN in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, 1939—45
As Prime Minister Robert Menzies addressed the nation on 3 September 1939 and informed Australians they were again at war with Germany, the light cruiser HMAS Perth was in the south Atlantic steaming off the Venezuelan coast, far from home and just as far from the political tensions enveloping the Western world. As in 1914, the ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had been pre-deployed in preparation for hostilities. Twenty-five years later, Australian warships and their personnel were ready for action, whether in the familiar oceans adjacent to the continent or in distant seas adjoining nations whose attitude to the coming conflict and the Allied cause was unknown.
A Signals Yeoman in Perth passed a short message from the Admiralty in London to his commanding officer, the often brusque Harold Farncomb, the first graduate of the RAN College to be promoted captain: 'Commence hostilities at once with Germany'. The Yeoman recalled:
We immediately sped towards the islands of the Dutch West Indies where it was known that at least twelve enemy ships were lying. 'Lower deck' was cleared and the Articles of War read by the captain, who at the conclusion called for three cheers for His Majesty the King. Never in my life have I heard such a rousing response, and it came as from the bottom of the men's hearts with the will to serve. Within three hours we sighted a vessel which, on sighting us, turned away. We immediately altered course to intercept her. The vessel completely ignored our signals to stop and to reveal her nationality by hoisting her ensign. Gun crews were closed up at their stations and the order was given to train our secondary armament on the defaulting vessel. This apparently had the desired effect and the Dutch Tri-colour fluttered from her ensign staff. Ascertaining that her destination was Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies, we allowed her to continue her voyage.
Perth continued to search for German ships caught in open water or neutral ports. In October 1939 the German pocket battleships Deutschland and Admiral Graf Spee were suspected of operating in the Atlantic. Farncomb said at the time:
They are very modern ships capable of matching up with bigger battleships. As we have no British battleships in this area, it is considered that the only chance is to attack with a heavy cruiser of 8-inch guns and a light cruiser of 6-inch guns from different directions.
Not surprisingly given his enthusiasm for engagement, the ship's company nick-named him 'Fearless Frank'. In December, Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled off Montevideo in Uruguay after the Battle of the River Plate. Other Australian ships prepared to put to sea as the scope of the war widened and the nation prepared for another bloody conflict on land, in the air and at sea.
In the six years of war that followed, most attention might have been focused on seizing and holding land and gaining access to material resources but the course of the war turned on controlling the seas and projecting maritime power. With the start of hostilities, the Atlantic Ocean was critical to the Allies' determination to blockade Germany's ports and harbours. Enemy combatants and supply ships would be prevented from leaving their bases. This strategy, if successful, would debilitate the German economy and prevent the German Navy — the Kriegsmarine — from attacking Allied and neutral shipping and supporting the advance of German troops. The Battle of the Atlantic was to be the longest campaign of the war. When Italy decided to join its Axis Alliance partner and declare war on the Allies on 10 June 1940, a new naval campaign began in the Mediterranean with the Allies taking on the very substantial Italian navy, assisted by German ships and aircraft.
The two campaigns were very different in context and conduct for the Allied navies, although they occurred in adjacent bodies of water. The Atlantic campaign consisted of several major fleet actions, convoy protection, anti-submarine warfare, shore bombardment, harbour raids and troop transport. Operations in the Northern Atlantic extended from the Equator to the Arctic Circle and reached greatest intensity between mid-1940, when Germany gained access to conquered French Atlantic ports, and the end of 1943. The Mediterranean campaign, which was highly dependent on unhindered access to the island of Malta and its ship repair facilities, was marked by a series of flotilla engagements, supply and support missions in support of the land war, enemy interdiction operations, and anti-air and carrier-based warfare. While the Atlantic campaign continued until the German surrender in May 1945, the Mediterranean campaign was effectively won by the Allies in July 1943 when Mussolini's dictatorship fell and Italy commenced secret negotiations for an armistice that came into operation from September of that year.
Allies and adversaries
Not unlike 1914, when Britain's declaration of war included Australia and led to the RAN being placed at the disposal of the Admiralty, the British decision to fight in 1939 was predicated on a commitment from Australia to assist the Admiralty in the prosecution of the war at sea. Britain was, of course, the world's pre-eminent naval power when the war began in 1939. The Royal Navy comprised fifteen battleships, seven aircraft carriers, fifteen heavy cruisers, forty-one light cruisers, eight anti-aircraft cruisers, more than 180 destroyers, sixty-five submarines and more than a hundred corvettes and escort vessels. Britain also had an established Fleet Air Arm that would extend the surveillance reach of the Royal Navy and provide additional defensive and offensive capabilities. Although they were not large by comparison, the Admiralty was depending upon the Dominion navies to complement its units. This made Australia integral to British plans.
Despite the debilitating effects of the Great Depression on the Australian economy, the Commonwealth defence program that began in 1937 resulted in the RAN being ready for war in 1939 with a substantial force, including two heavy cruisers, three new light cruisers, two new sloops (with another two being built at Cockatoo Island), six aged V & W Class destroyers (on loan from the Admiralty since 1933), a survey vessel and a number of support craft. Two new Tribal Class destroyers would be ordered in January 1939. The Australian Government deemed the operational priorities of the navy to be higher than those of the army and the air force. Consequently, the RAN had the largest number of permanent members, with 430 officers and 5010 sailors by 1939. While there was bipartisan political recognition that the surrounding seas offered Australia the best protection against a possible Japanese invasion, a strong navy would be needed to protect its trade, which was concentrated on Britain and Europe, and the maintenance of secure trade routes in and through the Mediterranean.
Neither of the Axis powers — Germany and Italy — had the naval power that was available to the Allies. The Kriegsmarine was restricted by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which limited both its size and composition. New ships built in the 1930s were not to displace more than 10,000 tons. Germany was prohibited from designing or building vessels such as aircraft carriers, submarines, carrier-borne aircraft and heavy coastal fortifications. To address this imbalance, the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, negotiated the Anglo- German Naval Treaty in 1935. Although the Kriegsmarine could not be more than 35 percent of the size of the Royal Navy, Germany was now able to build submarines and other classes of ship previously forbidden. A massive naval rearmament program commenced in 1937 but the Kriegsmarine was far from ready to take on the Allied navies in 1939. It had not expected to fight until 1944. Only two of a planned eleven new battleships were nearing completion, and neither of the aircraft carriers under construction was finished. When hostilities commenced, the German surface fleet comprised two new battleships, two older battleships, three pocket battleships, one heavy cruiser, six light cruisers, twenty-two destroyers and twenty torpedo boats. Its tactical strength lay in submarine warfare, with sixty-two U-boats in commission. Germany would try to enforce its own counter-blockade against Britain by sinking as many merchant ships as possible in order to disrupt its economy.
The Italian Royal Navy — the Regia Marina — appeared to be a formidable adversary with the capability to disrupt British imperial trade along the shortest route to India and Asia. There had been substantial investment in naval forces by Mussolini's fascists, who were convinced that a strong navy would deliver Italy an empire like that achieved by ancient Rome. The navy would prevent any Allied attempt to land on Italian soil, including the islands of Sardinia and Sicily; defend Italy's North African possessions; support and supply Italian and German troops engaged in combat operations in Europe and Africa; fight offensive actions against Britain and its Allies; and destroy what was left of the British Empire in the Mediterranean.
Italian warships, although more heavily armed and often faster than comparable units of other navies, tended to have less armour-plating and smaller fuel tanks. Nor did they enjoy the technological or operational advantages of the Allies: they were not fitted with radar and were obliged to operate without carrier-based air support, hoping that shorebased aircraft would provide air cover for the fleet. The Italians hoped that the superior firepower and speed would be decisive in short surprise actions and 'hit and run' raids, thereby denying the Allies an opportunity to exercise their supremacy in longer major fleet actions. However, Italian naval operations would be handicapped by a lack of fuel, with the prolonged presence of its warships in ports and harbours giving the Allies time to make detailed plans and to complete careful preparations for attack.
The Italian navy consisted of battleships, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers and an array of support craft. Its four Great War vintage battleships were substantially refitted before 1939 with new armament, better engines and the ability to operate reconnaissance aircraft. Although capable, they lacked the firepower of their Allied equivalents. Two new 35,000-ton battleships of the Littorio Class were nearly ready for service when Italy entered the war. A third ship in this class would be completed in 1943. They remain the most powerful warships ever built in Italy. The seven heavy cruisers ranged between 10,000—12,000 tons and were fitted with 8-inch guns. Twelve light cruisers ranged from 5500 to 8000 tons and were fitted with 6-inch guns. They were renowned for their speed, some capable of making good nearly 40 knots. The remainder of the fleet consisted of sixty destroyers and a large number of torpedo boats, none of which were afforded any armour plating, and a small number of submarines that were not used with the same success as the German U-boats. More effective were the 'human torpedoes': small submersible craft launched from submarines, manned by divers and armed with explosive charges that would be attached to enemy vessels.
The 'inevitable' war
Australia had been preparing for a European war for some time. The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 came, then, as no surprise. While the forces of Imperial Japan were causing concern in Asia, the threat posed by a re-armed Germany appeared more imminent. In 1936 Germany militarised the Rhineland and started construction of the giant battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. While Germany rebuilt its naval forces, the Royal Navy would be preoccupied with the North Sea, and few of its ships would be available for service in Asia or the Pacific should they be needed there. With the world situation deteriorating rapidly, there was no question that Australia's defence would depend upon a combined Allied naval effort. The Commonwealth Government concluded that:
The first line of security against invasion is naval defence, with the army and air force supplementing and cooperating. If the enemy attempts aggression and must be resisted, it is far preferable to fight him away from our shores than when he is seeking to land on our coasts or has actually established himself in our territory.
Prime Minister Joseph Lyons was assured that with Australia's help, Britain could defend the Empire's sea lines of communication. But how could the RAN best contribute to the Allied war effort?
In September 1939, the Dominions Office in London had outlined its views on how Australian naval assets could be most effectively employed in Europe. Australia was asked to contribute a light cruiser and five destroyers to join HMAS Perth, which was already under Admiralty operational control:
So long as Japan remains neutral it is considered that Australian waters may be regarded as unlikely to suffer submarine attack. The most likely danger to be guarded against on [the] Australian station under present conditions is that of attack on shipping by enemy raiders. It is considered that two [light] cruisers and [the heavy cruiser] HMAS Australia (when ready) should prove adequate for this purpose.
As the V & W Class destroyers (Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen) were technically 'on loan' from the Royal Navy, there could be no reasonable objection to the request. They would help replace the British 8th Destroyer Flotilla in the Mediterranean by Christmas 1939. Stuart, the flotilla leader, was the only destroyer fitted with modern armaments — 4.7-inch guns. The other ships of the class were equipped with 4-inch guns and were deemed to be second-string combatant vessels. They were to prove their worth time and time again.
But the Australian Cabinet stipulated that the second cruiser should not proceed further west than the Suez Canal. After further consultation with the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin, a Royal Navy officer on exchange who was based with the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) in Melbourne, the Cabinet was persuaded that there was no realistic submarine threat and accepted a recommendation from the ACNB that:
... a second 6-inch [light] cruiser (HMAS Hobart or Sydney) should be made available forthwith for service when required. With two cruisers playing their part in the defence of sea communications to and from Australia in distant waters, and the remaining cruisers employed in Australian waters, the best distribution of our available force is achieved.
On 7 November 1939, the ships of the RAN were formally made available to the Admiralty. The challenge now was to acquire the required number of suitably trained naval personnel. The Directorate of Reserves and Mobilisation was almost overwhelmed by the number of pre-war Naval Reserve men who were willing to serve. There were also officers and sailors on the Emergency and Retired Lists who wanted to put on their uniforms again. In the space of a few months, the navy almost doubled its size as men from all walks of life volunteered for service at sea and ashore. The training establishment Flinders Naval Depot, located in HMAS Cerberus at Western Port, was rapidly expanded to cope with new entry officers and sailors, and specialist training in communications, gunnery, anti-submarine warfare, intelligence and engineering was conducted at a number of shore bases around the country.
Those who were serving at sea for the first time quickly became members of a special fraternity with peculiar customs and a language all of its own. After overcoming the protracted ordeal of seasickness and steadily becoming familiar with the cramped and confined conditions in which they were obliged to live and work, those who joined for wartime duty were faced with uncertainty about where they would serve and whether they would even return home alive. Those sent to cruisers and destroyers accepted long periods at sea in ships that were not designed for the tropics. Those posted to corvettes faced the hardships and deprivations of being in a small ship that did not handle rough weather well. Whether engaged in convoy escort work or major fleet actions, every ship was threatened by submarine or air attack at a moment's notice. When a watch-keeping officer or bridge lookout believed he had sighted a periscope plume or when an unidentified aircraft was noticed above the horizon, every ship, irrespective of class or configuration, was brought to action stations and prepared for combat. Every man was assigned a place and given a task to perform. Those not involved in operating the ship's weapons systems were formed into firefighting, evacuation and medical parties. As the majority of wartime recruits were young men, many were away from their families and friends for the first time, travelling to places they had never heard of, let alone ever seen, before the outbreak of hostilities. War was a new experience for most RAN personnel and little could prepare them for its horrors.
Despite the ever-present fear of continuing Japanese aggression in East Asia, Australia's immediate priority in 1939 was preventing the fascist conquest of Europe. What took the Allies by surprise was the speed and devastation of the German onslaught in the opening weeks of the war. By the end of September 1939 the German army had overrun Poland and negotiated the country's partition with the Soviet Union, which had launched its own invasion on 17 September. When the last large Polish force surrendered on 5 October, the partition was complete. After attacking Denmark and Norway, the German army launched a massive assault on Belgium, Holland and France on 10 May 1940. Striking through the Ardennes, German armour separated the British Expeditionary Force from the French army. Six weeks later, France capitulated and the British army was withdrawn from Dunkirk across the English Channel. Shortly after the German army entered Paris on 14 June 1940, Italy entered the war on Germany's side. Having given the Kriegsmarine a few additional months to prepare and the Italians a chance to avoid fighting the bulk of the French navy, it was now time for the Axis powers to project their power at sea.
The Axis powers at sea
The war in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had three major components: the first was halting the German U-boat campaign against Allied merchant shipping; the second was neutralising the ability of the German and Italian navies to exploit the seas in support of their land campaigns; the third was using Allied maritime superiority to influence the course of the war ashore. Australian warships and their ships' companies were accustomed to operating in the North Sea and Northern Atlantic and were especially familiar with British home waters, as most Australian warships were built and trialled in Britain, the bulk of overseas trade had Europe and Britain as its destination, Australian officers received much of their training in Britain, and many Royal Navy officers and sailors transferred to the RAN. When hostilities were declared in September 1939, there was no doubt that the 'Battle of the Atlantic' would be a significant campaign, because it would determine the extent to which Britain could support its own forces and supply its Allies.
Over the ensuing six years, the ability to control (in the case of the Allies) or disrupt (in the case of the Axis powers) the sea lines of communication would be the subject of a daily grind that would see merchant ships torpedoed, valuable cargoes lost, escorts multiplied and submarines hunted. Such was the significance of these operations, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later wrote that the Battle of the Atlantic was 'the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome'.
The main trade routes were to the north-eastern coast of the United States and south to either the Mediterranean or the Cape of Good Hope, where ships would alter course to the east into the Indian Ocean and on to Asia and Australia. While there were no single battles or major engagements that settled the outcome, it was the consistent application of superior strategy and better tactics that would determine the victor. Germany would deploy its impressive battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, but would increasingly rely upon its U-boats; the Allies would respond with their capital ships, which included the mighty Hood and King George V, Nelson and Rodney. The Allies would depend principally upon the strength of their surface ships and long-range aerial reconnaissance to achieve victory. The character of the coming battle was foreshadowed on 3 September 1939 — the day the war began — when the German submarine U-30 sank the British passenger ship SS Athenia some 300 nautical miles west of the Irish coast as the ship was on a passage between Glasgow and Montreal. The stakes were high and the results were costly in terms of men and machines.
Between 1939 and 1945, a series of Australian warships were deployed to the Atlantic, including HMAS Australia, her sister-ship HMAS Shropshire, and the five newly-commissioned N Class destroyers Napier, Nizam, Nestor, Norman and Nepal. Australian officers also commanded British ships deployed to the Atlantic, a small number volunteered for special operations to sink the German capital ships at their moorings, and a large group of Australians were deployed to Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) as gunners. There were few places in the European theatre of naval operations where Australian personnel were not to be found. High levels of training and an advanced state of readiness, when coupled with an almost innate sense of seafaring, made Australian officers and sailors valuable assets in both the British and Dominion navies. The RAN's professional standards were showcased in its largest and most prestigious vessel, HMAS Australia.
HMAS Australia in the Atlantic
The heavy cruiser HMAS Australia was laid down in 1925 and commissioned three years later. 'The Aussie', as she was known to the more than 800 men who comprised her ship's company in wartime, was an impressive ship in all respects despite being more than a decade old when the war began. With her 8-inch main armament, comprehensive array of secondary weapons, enormous range, impressive speed, and capacity for aerial reconnaissance provided by the ship-borne Walrus seaplane, the Australian flagship was a formidable fighting unit, which had been honed by two years of exchange service with the British Mediterranean Fleet in the mid-1930s. She had been modernised in 1938 and was considered ideal for a range of 'blue water' operations under her highly experienced commanding officer, Captain RR Stewart, RN.
Australia operated in local waters for the first eight months of the war. After hunting the Admiral Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean and conducting convoy escort work, she was offered to the British Government in late May 1940 for service where the Allied operational need was greatest. The offer was accepted and Australia sailed for European waters, being sent initially to Dakar on the West African coast, where the cruiser HMS Devonshire was attempting to deny the Axis powers use of the powerful French battleship Richelieu. After attempting to disable rather than destroy the battleship, Australia escorted a convoy bound for British home waters (Convoy US 3) and joined the First Cruiser Squadron based at Scapa Flow in Scotland. She joined the search for the German battleship Gneisenau in early July 1940, before attempting to intercept and destroy German trawlers in waters off the Faroe Islands and Bear Island in early August. This was the only time in her long service that Australia wore distinctive camouflage paint.
On 6 September 1940, Australia returned to West Africa and waters off Sierra Leone to join 'Operation Menace' — the invasion of Vichy French controlled Dakar in the colony of French West Africa (modern day Senegal) by General Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces. In company with HMS Cumberland, Australia sighted three French cruisers — 26 Gloire, Georges Leygues, and Montcalm — sailing south of Dakar on 19 September. Des Shinkfield, a 19-year old midshipman in Australia, described what followed:
... the climax came about midnight. Australia was steaming at full speed through a rain squall when, suddenly, on passing out of the rain squall into brilliant moonlight, there, on the starboard beam, and heading for Australia was Gloire, only a cable or two away. A collision appeared inevitable. Only the smart handling of the ship by Captain Stewart averted what would have been a major disaster.
Australia took station astern of Gloire, which was described by a young sailor in Australia was a 'rather new and smart looking ship'. The French ship was directed to enter Casablanca, with the warning that any attempted submarine attack would lead to them being fired upon.
After seeing the cooperative Gloire safely into Casablanca, Australia returned to Dakar and on 23 September came under heavy fire from 9.4-inch shore batteries erected on Goree Island, off Dakar, as she intercepted and then forced two Vichy French Fantasque Class destroyers back into port. No damage was sustained from the shore batteries, which were equipped with heavy guns taken from a pre-Dreadnought Danton Class battle-cruiser. One sailor later recalled:
Our superstructure shuddered as we roared reply to the challenge. Salvo after salvo, and high up on the skyline, through rifts in the smoke, we saw earth and concrete flying as the heavy shells silenced a fort. Around us was growing a rumble of heavy guns. The squadron roared into action, a thunderous symphony ... now we were fighting forts, a battleship, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and dodging mines. To complete the inferno that went on, the bugler sounded 'Repel Aircraft'.
Australia, in company with the British destroyers Fury and Greyhound, then engaged the destroyer L'Audacieux, with the RAN ship firing eight salvoes in sixteen minutes at close range. The French ship was set alight and was left burning from stem to stern for the next thirty-six hours, with the wreck eventually running aground in Rufisque Bay. One member of Australia's ship's company, Harold Eastick, declared his sympathy for those on board: '... it was a terrible sight watching the poor devils rushing right forward on the forecastle to get out of the way as she was one mass of flames'. This was anything but a stunning victory, despite L'Audacieux firing two torpedoes and two rounds at Australia. A 10,000-ton well-armed heavy cruiser with 8-inch guns had accounted for an opponent of just 2570 tons equipped with 5.4-inch guns that had been, just a few months earlier, an operating partner. But there are few fair fights in war and the RAN ship did what needed to be done.
The Allied force exchanged fire with the Vichy shore batteries over the next two days, with Australia struck twice with 6-inch shells. The damage was minor but her Walrus seaplane, operated by a detachment from No. 9 Squadron of the RAAF, was shot down and the aircrew killed. The 'battle' ended the following day. It was subsequently deemed a failure by the Allies. The battleship Resolution had been badly damaged by a torpedo from a Vichy French submarine and took a year to repair; the Free French were not welcomed by the local inhabitants (although General De Gaulle was offshore and waiting to land) and the Richelieu managed to get away. Both the British and Australian governments were critical of the conduct of this unsuccessful operation as Australia returned to Britain.
In late October while serving in British home waters, Australia was ordered to recue the crew of a Sunderland flying boat that had made a forced landing on waters west of the Hebrides in a ferocious gale. Harold Eastick recorded in his diary: 'a great deal of gear was smashed on the forecastle and all forward mess decks were awash. Visibility getting worse and damned foggy'. An 18-year-old midshipman, Mackenzie Gregory, recalled the drama that followed:
Just after noon we received a message from the flying boat: 'Hurry up ... am breaking up'. During the afternoon watch, the flying boat kept up transmitting on her radio, so that we could use our directional finding equipment to locate her ... The weather was awful, and as we approached closer to her estimated position we made smoke at intervals, hoping her crew might spot us ...
At 1435 the Sunderland hove into view right ahead, her tail only occasionally visible above the huge waves, a crew member constantly operating a flashing light to guide us. When but a half a mile from the flying boat, one of the floats dropped off, a moment later, an enormous wave picked up the Sunderland and flipped it over completely onto its back. We could only see one crew member perched on the upturned boat. We now approached from upwind, allowing the gale force winds to drift us down onto the site of the wreckage, ropes had been prepared over our starboard side, scrambling nets, and jumping ladders were also in place over the starboard side. We suddenly sighted a group of airmen in the water with life jackets on, the ship drifted down to them and ropes were passed.
However, the rough and icy Atlantic was not going to give up this group easily, the conditions prevented the airmen from securing a rope around themselves, they were just too exhausted to tie a knot, salvation at hand, but were the elements going to win this struggle after all? Australia was rolling heavily, one minute the starboard side would be feet under water, then a heavy roll would reverse to port, and the starboard side would be well clear of the water. Given the wind force, and the state of the sea, the only way to pluck our survivors from the clutches of the Atlantic was to send several officers and sailors over the side with bowlines to secure to each airman. These volunteers were led and encouraged by the ship's Executive Officer, Commander JM (Jamie or 'Black Jack') Armstrong. One-by-one the airmen had to be hauled on board, with the ship rolling heavily, the airmen's water logged gear making each rescue a long and difficult task.
Persistence and sheer bravery from those over the side securing each airman finally triumphed. Nine of the crew of thirteen were finally on board, suffering from exposure, and seasickness, but they were now safe, and would all be fine after time spent in our sick bay. The remaining four airmen drifted out of reach, just clear of Australia's bow, and could not be reached. I was up in the bows with a team of seamen, trying to reach this group with heaving lines, but the force of the wind made this task impossible to cast a line, it merely blew back into one's face before achieving its objective, to reach the doomed four. It was total frustration, rescue but several yards away, and we could not reach the group, no boat could have survived in these seas.
The memory of the airmen Australia was unable to save remained with many of her ship's company for decades, Harold Eastwick among them:
God, I shudder as I think of them waving us goodbye but we would no doubt have turned over had we made another turn. About half an hour later when we drifted back again, the plane had gone and we couldn't see the other way, only a great deal of wreckage.
Australia continued to operate in British home waters before a refit in Liverpool which lasted until the end of the year, a period made more lively by a German air raid which saw a 1600 kilogram bomb land in the heavy cruiser's dry dock but not explode. The following night Australia was not so fortunate, with a 230 kilogram bomb exploding on the port side of the ship, cracking a number of scuttles and damaging the seaplane catapult. On completion of the refit, which included the fitting of 'radio direction finding' or radar as it became known, the heavy cruiser began the long trip home. Australia escorted Convoy WS5B to the Middle East and then participated in an unsuccessful search for the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. After another unsuccessful sortie for the armed raiders Pinguin and Atlantis, this time in the Indian Ocean, Australia arrived in Sydney on 24 March 1941 with two troopships. She remained in the Indian and Pacific oceans for the duration of the war and never again saw action in either the Atlantic or the Mediterranean before her eventual paying off in 1954.
After a brief hiatus, Australian warships returned to the Atlantic in late 1941, when the newly commissioned HMAS Nestor attacked and sank the German submarine U-127 off Cape St Vincent on the coast of Portugal on 15 December 1941. The captain, Commander AS Rosenthal, who was known as 'Rosy', won a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for this action. The modern N Class destroyers maintained a near constant presence in the Atlantic until 1943, when they were joined by HMAS Shropshire. This County Class heavy cruiser was loaned to the RAN after the loss of HMAS Canberra off Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on the night of 8—9 August 1942. Completed in 1929, Shropshire spent much of the war in the South Atlantic until she was presented to the RAN after an extensive refit, which was completed between December 1942 and June 1943. After sailing from Britain in August 1943, Shropshire escorted a convoy to Gibraltar and then proceeded through the Mediterranean, bound for Australia, where she remained until the end of the war. Her service in the Atlantic and Mediterranean as an RAN warship was no more than a few weeks in duration and was not marked by any significant offensive or defensive actions. The ship was paid off and later towed back to Britain via the Mediterranean and North Atlantic for scrapping in 1954.
Operations in the Mediterranean Sea, usually known simply as 'the Med', were different from those in the Atlantic Ocean, and not simply because the latter was so much bigger. Before the Great War, the Mediterranean was considered the strategic centre of the world and had preoccupied much of Britain's operational planning. After the Great War, however, Britain did not have a capital ship base east of Malta. In their alliance negotiations with the Germans, the Italians regarded the Mediterranean as their primary sphere of influence. They were deeply worried about British naval power and objected to the British presence at Gibraltar and its control of the Suez Canal — two points of entry into the Mediterranean which Italy regarded as its own. Their plan was to divide the sea into two halves by making it impossible for the Allies to pass through the 'bottleneck' between Sicily and North Africa, which Italy would mine to prevent safe passage. British naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean would be 'imprisoned', assuming closure of the Suez Canal, and subjected to coordinated air and sea attack, allowing the Italians to seize and hold territory in Greece and Crete. The Germans were mainly concerned with the Western Mediterranean, hoping that fascist Spain would join the war on the side of the Axis Alliance and invade and capture the British base on Gibraltar. Although they shared a political outlook and professed common geopolitical goals, the Italians and the Germans did not collaborate effectively and were never close friends.
The initial objective of Britain and her allies in the Mediterranean was securing the passage of ships and cargoes through the Red Sea, including unhindered passage of vessels through the Gulfs of Aden and Suez, so that Allied operations in the Eastern Mediterranean could be supported adequately. The challenge was dealing with Italian air power in the Horn of Africa (modern day Eritrea and Somalia) which would restrict Red Sea shipping movements. The port of Aden was deemed crucial and needed to be defended. The challenge was not to provoke the Italians prematurely, as their intentions remained unclear and the Allied response unformed.
By the end of 1939, after an initial build-up, the Mediterranean Fleet had been reduced in size, with a number of ships relocated to the Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic. It appeared that operations in these waters were not reasonably expected over the next few months. The Australian ships deployed to the region were engaged in long and unrelenting convoy escort and patrol work, accompanying merchant and troop ships from one end of the Mediterranean basin to the other. Vice Admiral JC 'Jack' Tovey, commander of the Royal Navy's 'Light Forces', told the Australian ships' companies they had plenty of hard work and long dull days at sea ahead of them. The severe winter conditions made the work arduous and uncomfortable. The mess decks in the old V & W destroyers were cold and poorly ventilated. They were also fitted with ice boxes rather than refrigerators, limiting their ability to carry fresh supplies like milk and meat for extended periods. Off the famed French Riviera city of Marseilles in January 1940, the air temperature approached minus 11 degrees Celsius, freezing shut the torpedo tubes in Vampire and leaving two inches of iced saltwater spray on the upper decks. As George Hermon Gill, the official Australian naval historian noted, the bleak weather 'caused nostalgic yearnings for the Indian Ocean days'. He went on:
The change from the heat and smooth waters of the tropics to the cold and high seas at times experienced in the Mediterranean was sudden. As often as not the passages between ports were made slamming into heavy weather, when green water cascaded over the forecastles and the ships dived and cork-screwed in a way that made life on board anything but comfortable. On the sea-swept upper decks, lifelines were rigged; and sea boots, oil skins and sou'westers replaced the shorts and shoes of sunnier latitudes; while down below, the mess decks, awash with swirling water, were a chaos of floating clothing and gear which had come adrift with violent plunging.
A sailor in Stuart later remarked: 'I always count those early months in the Mediterranean before Italy came in as the worst period of the war by a long chalk'.
Thankfully, there was respite in Malta and ports in Palestine which afforded novel experiences to those young Australians who had never been abroad. Despite the hardships, they were nonetheless well prepared for what lay ahead.
The Mediterranean Fleet had what the Italian Navy lacked — ships built as efficient fighting units for service in all seas and all weathers; officers and men imbued with a team spirit and with mutual esteem founded on experience; hard training which had brought them to a high degree of efficiency; a long and unbroken tradition of a kind to induce confidence; and resolute and aggressive leadership unhampered by outside interference.
With Italian intentions still unclear, a blockade of Italian cargoes which could be used to help the war effort was instituted on 1 March 1940. This inflamed anti-British feeling. A Red Sea Force, including HMAS Hobart, was hastily assembled. Its task was to stop and search suspect merchant vessels. The deployment of this force also meant that Hobart was well placed to move against Italian forces when hostilities commenced. By this time, the Mediterranean Fleet was being strengthened again. It consisted of five light cruisers, including Sydney, and twenty-two destroyers, of which five were Australian. With Australia in the Atlantic, much of the RAN's combat capability was in the northern hemisphere, leaving many at home to fear that the country was being left susceptible to attack. Of the major fleet units, only the aged HMAS Adelaide remained at home, patrolling the port of Sydney five miles out to sea at night and fifteen miles by day.
The news of Italy's declaration of war at midnight on 10 June 1940 did not reach the ships in the Mediterranean until the evening. But the delay did not matter as each ship was at the highest state of readiness for operations. Sydney was alongside at Alexandria. After dinner the wardroom mess president asked for silence and shared the news. The waiting had ended. An air raid on Alexandria was expected the next morning. The V & W Class destroyers (except Vendetta, which was refitting in Malta) were at sea engaging in anti-submarine patrols when the news came through. The 1st Division of the 7th Cruiser Squadron proceeded to sea and patrolled between Benghazi and the Ionian Islands and then, after refuelling in Alexandria, proceeded to Bardia, which was bombarded on 20 June by the British cruisers Orion and Neptune, the French battleship Lorraine, and Sydney. During this operation, Sydney's Seagull reconnaissance aircraft was attacked by three Italian fighters just below the cloud line, which was at 9000 feet. After sustaining serious damage to the tail section and diving 7000 feet, the pilot regained control and proceeded to Mersa Matruh, a town on the Egyptian coast, to make an emergency landing. It was then discovered that one of the plane's tyres was bullet-ridden and the locking device on the strut of another had been shot away. Thankfully the aircrew survived.
With French surrender looming, the British Fleet returned from its opening foray and remained in Alexandria to prevent any French naval or merchant ships from falling into enemy hands. While the Admiralty had wanted initially to secure Allied control of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, British Prime Minister Churchill proposed an early offensive action against the Italian navy and air force in the Central Mediterranean 'in order that we can see what their quality really is'. The bulk of the fleet sailed the next day and headed towards the Gulf of Taranto and along the North African coast. Sydney's first patrol did not produce an enemy contact. One officer later remarked:
I had pictured the Mediterranean alive with enemy submarines lurking in wait for us at every turn, and accordingly I expected all kinds of 'fireworks', but at the end of those four days, when nothing at all happened, I felt quite 'flat', and rather like the little boy who went to the circus to see the ferocious man-eating lion and found that it was only an overgrown cat.
But it did not take long for the Australian warships to encounter submarines, mines, shore batteries and enemy aircraft.
With the French agreeing to an armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940 and with Italy two days later, French naval power was lost to the Allied cause, leaving the Admiralty to consider abandoning the Eastern Mediterranean and concentrating its strength at Gibraltar. While this option was resisted, the immediate need was for adequate protection of the key naval bases at Malta and Alexandria. Because Malta was under constant air attack and was anything but a safe haven for Allied vessels, the Italians were able to despatch convoys between its bases and Libya with little resistance. Alexandria was under close Italian air surveillance, giving the Italian fleet a general sense of British naval movements and fleet dispositions, with convoys proceeding from Alexandria bound for the Aegean being subject to random air attack. Alexandria was itself vulnerable to attack. In late 1940, Admiral Cunningham's flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was mined by two intrepid Italian divers delivered to the mouth of the harbor by a submarine. They managed to blow holes in the ship's bottom, causing her to sink three metres into the mud. To hide the effect of the attack, the ship's gangways were raised to the normal height above the waterline. Queen Elizabeth was later repaired in Bombay. The lack of effective air defence ashore and at sea was also hampering Allied operations. Ships in the Mediterranean Fleet needed anti-aircraft guns, radar and shore-based fighter aircraft protection. The Allies also needed to move against Axis air bases to restrict Italian air offensives.
But there was some good news. By the end of June 1940, Allied anti-submarine warfare had already proved its effectiveness. The Italian navy had lost ten submarines, of which six were sunk in the Mediterranean, two in the Red Sea, and one each in the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf. The Italian submarine threat, something the Italian regime felt was a distinct advantage in their efforts to expel the British from the Mediterranean, was effectively ended. In contrast to the highly successful German U-boat campaign, the Italians had lost twice as many submarines as the number of ships sunk by them. As one contemporary headline reported, 'the hunter had become the hunted'. Their use of air power was another matter. Admiral Cunningham later explained:
[It] appeared that they had some squadrons specially trained for anti-ship work. Their reconnaissance was highly effective, and seldom failed to find and report our ships at sea. The bombers invariably arrived within an hour or two ... in those early months the Italian high-level bombing was the best I have ever seen, far better than the Germans.
With its invasion of Britain shelved, the German Army wanted to support the Italians in North Africa while the German Navy wanted the British deprived of the Suez Canal. The Axis position would be advanced by a Spanish advance in the west (relying on support from General Franco's fascist regime that did not eventuate) while a joint Italian—German offensive in the east would lead to the occupation of Egypt, drive the British from the Mediterranean and secure the Axis position in Europe from the south. Neither happened. Instead, the Germans turned their attention to invading Russia and the Italians moved into Greece.
The Battles of Cape Spada and Calabria
The light cruiser HMAS Sydney led the Australian presence in the Mediterranean. When the war started Sydney was commanded by Captain John Collins, a member of the inaugural 1913 entry of cadet-midshipman at the RAN College then located in Geelong. A great deal of expectation rested on his shoulders. Before departing for the Mediterranean, Sydney was involved in countering the immediate naval threat posed by the two German 'pocket battleships' Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland, which were tasked with attacking British merchant shipping in the southern Atlantic. While alongside at Colombo in May 1940, Sydney was ordered to the Mediterranean.
On 27 June 1940, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, ordered the 7th Cruiser Squadron, which included Sydney, to rendezvous with an Egypt-bound convoy near Cape Matapan. Cunningham knew the waters well, having commanded the 850-ton destroyer HMS Scorpion throughout the Great War. He was one of the most experienced destroyer men in the Royal Navy. The cruiser squadron sighted three Italian destroyers at 1800 on 28 June 1940 and immediately engaged. Within an hour, the Espero was incapacitated and Sydney was directed to sink her. But as the Australian cruiser closed in, the Italian destroyer Espero returned fire and dispatched torpedoes. As Collins had prudently kept Sydney 'bows on' to the enemy ship to reduce the size of the target area, he was able to avoid the underwater threat. Sydney fired four salvos, scoring ten direct hits on Espero. In the darkness, Collins could hear the cries of the Italian sailors and commenced a rescue operation. Sydney remained at the scene for two hours picking up survivors, three of whom died, disembarking them in Alexandria a few days later. Those who could not be rescued were left with one of Sydney's cutters supplied with food, milk and water.
The sinking of Espero was costly in several respects. Over 5000 rounds of 6-inch ammunition were expended by the pursuing ships. An important tactical lesson was learned: firing at a fast-fleeing ship laying down a smoke screen while engaged in a zig-zag manoeuvre at long-range in fading light was an exercise with a low-probability of success. This kind of action would exhaust the magazines of Allied units very quickly and require their return to port for resupply. As the Espero was being sunk, the Console General Liuzzi was scuttled south of Crete after being depth-charged by Voyager and four British destroyers. The next morning Sydney rejoined the Squadron just as Italian bombers attacked south of Crete. No damage was sustained during the attack and the ships returned to Alexandria on 1 July. By this time, five destroyers, including Voyager, had sunk two Italian submarines off Crete.
Sydney returned to sea on 7 July 1940 and, as part of the Mediterranean Fleet, intended to meet a convoy east of Malta while preparing to engage the Italian fleet in a major action. The next day, a submarine sighted an Italian fleet 500 miles away; the Allied fleet, including Sydney, Stuart, Vampire and Voyager, altered course to intercept. Later in the day, three enemy battleships, six cruisers and a number of destroyers were reported by reconnaissance aircraft to be north of Benghazi. The Allied fleet then manoeuvred to cut the route between the Italian fleet and its base. At 1500 on 9 July in clear weather, Sydney observed a ship's funnel smoke on the horizon and eight minutes later the enemy force was in sight. An observer in Stuart recalled:
The British force, steaming at full speed in battle trim, in the perfect visibility, blue sea and cloudless sky, the cruisers on the wing and the destroyers in semi-circular formation screening in front of the battleships, made a picture no-one who saw it can ever forget ... a few flags flutter up to the flagship's yardarm and answering pendants to the yardarms of the other ships. Then, in unison, down would come the flagship's signal and answering pendants and over all helms would go together, and the fleet would alter course like so many well drilled soldiers, the destroyers leaning over with the sea creaming from their bows. The battleships, more ponderous, but not the less spectacular, moving more slowly around in their constricted circle to take up their new course.
The Italians opened fire at maximum range. The 6-inch cruisers of the 7th Cruiser Squadron did not return fire until the range had closed to 23,000 yards. The Italian fleet made for Calabria at full speed behind a smoke screen. When the Italian fleet began to withdraw, the Allied destroyer squadron was ordered forward at 1614. Stuart was leading the destroyer force.
It was Stuart's moment. With her battle ensign streaming from the foremast and the Australian flag at the main, the oldest destroyer in the action, she was in the van when speed increased to thirty knots at 1617, and was the first to open fire two minutes later; her opening salvo, at a range of 12,600 yards, appearing to score a hit. The 2nd and 14th Flotilla opened fire shortly afterwards, and the 7th Cruiser Squadron also engaged the enemy destroyers.
Both fleets retired, although Italian aircraft continued to attack the Allied ships. Sydney, which came under heavy air attack, was believed by the Italians to have been lost. The only enemy ship to be sunk was the destroyer Zeffiro. The Battle of Calabria was the first full-scale naval surface engagement since the Battle of Jutland in 1916. It was a notable Allied success that dented Italian confidence. The Italians responded with air attacks the next day without success. Between 8—12 July, more than 1350 bombs had been directed at Vampire and its consorts without a direct hit. Vampire's captain, Lieutenant Commander John Walsh, described the experience:
The blast effect when straddled blew everybody on the upper deck flat, some ratings finding themselves some yards from where they had been standing. The morale effect of the bombing was negligible until the straddle occurred on 11 July, after which there were signs of irritation at not being able to reply and a slight nervousness when the penetrating power of splinters was observed.
When Vampire was straddled by bombs on 11 July, the main superstructure, bridge, funnels and boats were damaged, with the ship sustaining five holes below the water line. Tragically, Gunner John Henry Endicott RN was struck by splinters and fatally wounded. He was transferred to the destroyer Mohawk in the hope of receiving more expert medical attention but died during the night. Aged 33, he became the first combat death at sea in an Australian warship during World War II. The Allied fleet returned to Alexandria on 13 July. By the time they arrived, few of the ships had much fuel oil left in their tanks.
On 17 July 1940, HMAS Sydney and the destroyer HMS Havoc were ordered to support a British destroyer squadron on an anti-submarine sweep north of the island of Crete. Sydney put to sea the next day. Although Sydney was able to operate independently after escorting the anti-submarine destroyers through the Kaso Strait, Collins remained approximately 20 miles to the north of the destroyers rather than proceeding towards Piraeus, the port of Athens, in search of enemy shipping. The Kaso Straits are approximately 15—20 miles wide and run between Crete, which was then in Greek possession, and Kaso Island to the east, which was the site of an Italian fast attack craft and air base. Shortly after dawn on 19 July, Sydney received an enemy sighting report from HMS Hyperion. The destroyers turned towards Sydney and were followed by the Italian cruisers Bartolomeo Colleoni and Giovanni delle Bande Nere. Both ships, which displaced over 5000 tons and were armed with eight 6-inch guns, were reputed to be capable of speeds of over 40 knots. Few, if any, warships in the world could match them for speed. Sydney turned towards the destroyers at full power but kept radio silence to avoid detection.
Collins took a risk in engaging the Italian ships as determining fall of shot was extremely difficult. But just as Sydney sighted the Italian cruisers at 0829, Collins sent an enemy report and, making best use of the available light and the prevailing misty conditions, engaged the Bande Nere at 19,000 yards apparently undetected. In his post-action report Collins stated: 'It was not possible to distinguish what type of cruisers they were and I was concerned in case they were heavy 8-inch cruisers. However, I decided to go for them and opened fire'. The Italians were caught completely by surprise and took some time to determine the origins of the firing. By this time the destroyers were in a suitable position to launch their torpedoes. In the mistaken belief that the destroyer HMS Havoc was a cruiser, the two Italian ships made smoke and turned away to the south. At 0848, with Bande Nere hiding behind a smoke screen, Sydney shifted the fire of her forward gun turrets to Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Nearly one hour after the initial sighting, Sydney altered course to bring a broadside salvo to bear on the Italian cruiser at 0933. The Colleoni lost speed. She was on fire and appeared to be down by the bows. The destroyers would finish her off. By this time the Bande Nere had abandoned the stricken Colleoni to her fate. After firing a salvo which struck the fore funnel of Sydney, she fled at full speed. Sydney attempted to pursue Bande Nere but with very little prospect of success. Although a shell from Sydney managed to hit Bande Nere, the Italian ship was too fast and escaped. Sydney ended her pursuit at 1027. The Italian warship was out of range and was dangerously low on 6-inch ammunition. Collins had reason to be alarmed when he heard that another enemy force was expected and that Havoc was operating at reduced speed after a near miss disabled her boiler room. Some 550 Italian officers and sailors were recovered from the water. The only damage to Sydney during the battle was caused by a shell from Bande Nere at 0921, which knocked a hole in the forward funnel, and wounded a sailor through splinter damage.
Sydney rejoined Havoc and headed back towards Alexandria. One of her officers, Lieutenant John Ross, later recorded:
Our berth was at the inner end of the harbour, a distance of about two miles from the boom, and as we moved down between ships of the fleet we were given a wonderful ovation — a 'royal welcome', in fact. Every ship had cleared lower deck and as we passed gave us three cheers followed by a burst of clapping and whistling. Naturally we were simply bursting with pride at such a stirring and heart-warming gesture and wouldn't have changed places with the King himself.
Other than intermittent air attacks, the Italian fleet did not return. Sydney returned to Alexandria on 20 July. Admiral Cunningham was overjoyed with Sydney's important morale-boosting success in what became known as the Battle of Cape Spada. Mussolini's son-in-law and Italy's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, noted in his diary entry for 22 July that the Duce 'was depressed on account of the loss of the Colleoni, not so much because of the sinking itself as because he feels the Italians did not fight very brilliantly'. The captain of the Colleoni, Captain Umberto Navaro, died in an Allied hospital ship from wounds he received during the action and was buried in Alexandria on 24 July. Sydney had finally achieved a surface action with the Italian Fleet and demonstrated the Allied superiority in that mode of warfare. Like the first ship to bear the name, the second Sydney had earned a worldwide reputation for her success. The action off Cape Spada was significant because the Italians were disinclined to head towards the Aegean Sea. Cunningham wrote of Sydney's actions:
The credit for this successful and gallant action belongs mainly to Captain JA Collins who by his quick appreciation of the situation, offensive spirit and resolute handling of HMAS Sydney, achieved a victory over a superior force which has had great strategical effects ... Sydney's gunnery narrative is of great interest technically and from the more general point of view. It shows the reasonable results obtainable by an efficient control team backed by good material, and it should be given the due weight to the experience of a ship which has had the unique opportunity of firing 2,200 main armament rounds in action in six weeks.
The Italians seemed to lack a tenacity and determination, while their naval and air forces were poorly coordinated. The British noted that their willingness to collect survivors from the Colleoni allowed Bande Nere to escape and exposed Allied units to air attack. Additionally, the presence of Italian POWs who had to be fed and accommodated reduced the operational capability and the fighting ability of Allied units.
After repairs, minor maintenance and the provision of a new Walrus aircraft, Sydney was refuelled and rearmed and ready for sea on 27 July. That afternoon in another convoy escort operation, Sydney again came under attack from enemy bombers but evaded being struck. The following morning in company with Neptune, the Australian cruiser was detached from the main force to intercept and sink the tanker Ermioni, thought to be in the Aegean Sea delivering fuel to the Dodecanese. After another unsuccessful bomber attack, Sydney identified the Ermioni at 2130 and, after removing the crew, sank the tanker. Neptune and Sydney returned to Alexandria on 30 July in time for final preparations for another patrol operation in company with Orion, lasting until 2 August. Sydney's ship's company was granted a well-earned rest. Having engaged the Italians at sea, in early August Hobart was used to transport British troops from Aden to reinforce Berbera, the capital of British Somaliland, from invading Italian forces. Hobart patrolled along the coast and deployed her RAAF amphibian aircraft for a bombing mission at Zeila, which the Italians had occupied on 5 August. When Berbera was abandoned on 19 August, Hobart shelled the port to deny valuable equipment to the invading Italians.
Sydney, impressively camouflaged for the first time, returned to sea on 12 August. Her mission was to locate enemy shipping off the North African coast and in the Aegean Sea. The operation lasted two days and failed to locate the enemy. Shortly afterwards, the Mediterranean Fleet was bolstered by the modernised HMS Valiant, replacing the aged Royal Sovereign, and the aircraft carrier Illustrious, supplementing the Eagle. After showing that the Fleet could contain the Italian navy, it was now in a position to project its power to strategic advantage.
At the end of October 1940, Sydney sailed with the main battle-fleet into the central Mediterranean in an effort to prevent attacks on Greece from Italy. Another short stay in Alexandria on 3—4 November preceded Sydney's departure for Port Said in company with Ajax for the embarkation of military stores, guns and ammunition destined for Crete. After supporting the establishment of a new advance base at Suda Bay, Sydney returned to the main battle-fleet, which was preparing for Malta convoy MB 8 and the Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto.
The Italian Navy suffered its first devastating blow in November 1940, when the British launched a surprise night attack on Taranto Harbour. The attack was carried out by a squadron of aged Swordfish bi-plane torpedo bombers launched from the carrier Illustrious. All of Italy's battleships and many of her cruisers were at anchor or alongside. They were caught completely by surprise. Two separate waves of torpedo bombers attacked the harbour. In the end, three Italian battleships had been heavily hit. One of them, the Conte di Cavour, sank upright on the harbour bottom with decks awash. Although later raised and repaired, she would never return to operational service. The other two, the Littorio and Caio Duilio, were heavily hit but did not sink outright. They were eventually repaired and returned to see further service. One half of Italy's battleship strength had been eliminated from this single British operation, while the Allied losses amounted to two aircraft. One RAN officer, Victor Smith, flew as an observer in a Fulmar fighter aircraft launched from the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Smith later played an instrumental role in establishing the Australian Fleet Air Arm and became a four-star Admiral, serving as Chairman of the Combined Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1975.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that the success at Taranto 'will affect decisively the balance of naval strength in the Mediterranean and in other parts of the world'. The numerically superior Italian fleet had proved to be operationally inferior. Admiral Cunningham was now able to exploit sea communications between Alexandria, Malta, Greece and Crete, while convoys sailing between Britain and Asia were largely free of naval interdiction.
Mussolini recognised too late his nation's need for aircraft carriers. Conversion of two auxiliary vessels into aircraft carriers was commenced but the realisation came too late. Italian industry simply could not complete the carriers, due to a constant lack of supplies and materials. As a consequence of the attack on Taranto, the Italian navy relocated its main naval base to Naples. This decision had the affect of diminishing the likelihood of a surface action against either the Aegean or Malta convoys, while the Italians faced greater difficulty in securing their sea lines of communication in the Central Mediterranean because Malta had been reinforced and was able to provide reconnaissance of Italian movements. Indeed, the opportunity presented to the Italians to seize Malta had now passed after heroic resistance from the island's inhabitants. It was to become a staging point for Allied advances in coming months. The German Naval Liaison Officer in Rome, Vice Admiral Eberhard Weichold, was dispirited by the defensive mindset of the Italian naval staff, who appeared preoccupied with protecting their ships rather than using them to project naval power. This attitude, he lamented:
... cripples their power of decision, and eventually the offensive spirit of the Italian Fleet; it invites an even stronger British offensive in Italian waters. If the strategic situation in the Mediterranean continues to develop in the present way, serious consequences are unavoidable in all theatres, especially in the land operations in Greece and North Africa.
Greek forces had begun to threaten Italian positions in both Greece and Albania, while their presence in Egypt and Libya would shortly be tested, following a British offensive which commenced on 8 December.
By this time a decision had been made for Hobart to return to Australia and be replaced by Perth, which arrived in Aden on 12 December and Alexandria on Christmas Eve. Sydney would be relieved by HMS Southampton and return to Australia in February 1941. Her presence would help to protect Australian trade from the growing threat of German armed raiders.
Six months into the campaign, the ability of the Australian ships to remain on station was little short of remarkable. They had spent long periods at sea and covered thousand of miles. The destroyers in particular were poorly ventilated and this made life uncomfortable below decks when the ships had to be closed up in the evening when 'Darken Ship' was piped in the summer months. Heavy weather left many of the mess decks damp and disorganized, leading to the spread of disease. Yet, morale remained high and the capability of the ships to fight was undiminished. The contribution of Naval Reserve officers and sailors was the subject of effusive commentary. The Flotilla Engineer Officer in Stuart wrote:
The Reservists brought something fresh into the Navy. Instead of being a ship full of sailors talking about nothing but the sea and ships and grog and women, we were a team of sailors, clerks, rabbiters, chemists, students, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, talking about everything under the sun ... and women. War at sea is 99 percent utter boredom and 1 percent spine chilling excitement. The 'Rockies' entertained us 99 percent of the time and behaved like heroes during the 1 percent of action. What more could one ask?
The Australian ships which celebrated Christmas 1940 far from home included the cruisers Sydney, Perth and Hobart (then at Bab-el-Mandeb — the strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden); the five V & W destroyers and the two newly-commissioned sloops Parramatta and Yarra (south of Suez). Not only had the Australians assisted in the containment and destruction of Italian naval power, they had kept open the sea lines of communication that allowed the safe passage of cargoes and the supply of manpower and material to the war effort. The war had naturally taken its toll on men and machines. After a brief refit at Malta, Sydney rejoined the fleet on 8 January. Admiral Cunningham ordered Sydney to detach from the main force, conduct a final sweep along the coast of North Africa and close any convoys which might require escorting during the ship's return to Australia. After a brief diversion to Mogadishu in Somalia for an impromptu patrol and refuelling at the Seychelles, Sydney arrived in Fremantle on 5 February 1941 and then returned to Garden Island, where the ship's company was feted by the press and people. The ship dubbed the 'Stormy Petrel' had been replaced in the Mediterranean by Perth. Sydney never returned to either the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. She was sunk after a brief engagement with the German raider HSK Kormoran on 19 November 1941. All 645 men of the ship's company were lost. The commanding officer, Captain Joseph Burnett, was a Naval College term-mate of both Harold Farncomb and John Collins.
The Battle of Cape Matapan
After relieving Sydney, Perth operated in waters around Crete and Greece in support of Allied land operations. By this time, Malta was being subjected to almost daily air attack, with ships alongside struck by bombs and strafing fire. On 16 January 1941, Perth was fortunate not to have suffered the damage inflicted on other major vessels, although the hull was slightly damaged below the waterline. One of her cooks recorded in his diary:
... the only consolation is that we can't have much worse experience without being blown to atoms and then we'll be beyond caring ... the captain cleared lower deck and gave a speech to the effect that we were very lucky to be back in Alex [Alexandria] with so little damage. He also has the idea that the hand of God must have reached down to protect us that day.
Perth had spent twenty-four days at sea in the first month of the new year, steaming 8370.5 miles at an average speed of 19.8 knots. It was now time for Perth to have the minor damage repaired in the floating dry dock at Alexandria, where the ship was visited by the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. In contrast to the previous month, Perth had spent ten days at sea and steamed more than 3323 miles at an average speed of 20 knots.
In early March, a decision was made to reinforce Greek resistance to the Axis advance with Allied troops. Perth was deployed to protect Allied troop convoys sailing between Alexandria in Egypt to Piraeus (the port for Athens) in Greece. The prevalence of air attack on escort ships increased steadily in this period as German forces tried to reverse Italian losses. The attention the Australian cruiser attracted on 21 March was causing alarm. One member of the ship's company wryly noted: 'Maybe size helps in a big sea, but it does not help when a ship is the biggest in the squadron, and Perth's extra tons (by the number of bombs rained on her) must have made her appear far bigger than the others'. The first aerial attack saw one bomb hit the water so close to the ship that those on the bridge were completely soaked with sea water. The British destroyer was hit and sunk in the Kaso Strait. The next day, air attack seemed to reach 'plague proportions':
The constancy of the attack on top of the previous day's ordeal took heavy toll of the ship's store of four-inch projectiles, and by noon [on 22 March] the situation had become desperate. As a consequence, Perth's station at the rear of the squadron had to be surrendered to Naiad ... so close had near misses been that no instrument, such as gyro compasses, etc., still worked; and to add to the difficulties, Naiad had been damaged, so that the speed of advance was only 14 knots. When ack-ack [anti-aircraft] shells were finally expended, fifty men a side were served with rifles to try to drive off the persistent enemy.
For their part, the Italians decided to attack the troop convoys to prevent the Allied reinforcement of Greece. At noon on 27 May, a Sunderland flying boat spotted the main Italian fleet and alerted Admiral Cunningham to their location. By this time the Italians had learned that a British aircraft was at sea but decided to persist with their plan to demonstrate their naval superiority and fighting resolve.
At 0755 on 28 March, Perth and Vendetta were part of a squadron that sighted three Italian 8-inch cruisers south of the Greek Island of Gavdos. After engaging in a long-range gun battle lasting an hour, in which a great deal of Italian ammunition was expended without much precision (firing ranges were around 24,000 yards), the Italians sailed away to rejoin their battleship Vittorio Veneto. One of the ship's company recorded:
Round we swept to follow them — away from the direction of our main striking force — we had to keep in contact with them at all costs though it seemed so unequal for us. And blindly we fell into the same trap which we had been luring them into. Without warning we were suddenly startled by 15-inch shells firing about us. We almost sat up on our tail the way we turned and with every ounce of speed under a pall of black smoke we raced the dagoes at their own game. We had blundered into Italy's new class of battleship Littorio or Vittorio Veneto — 32 knots and 15-inch guns (ten of 'em).
By this time Vendetta had been sent back to Alexandria to deal with a main machinery problem and played no further part in the action. Her sister Stuart was, however, to have a decisive role in the operation. Earlier in the month Stuart was waiting to be docked at Alexandria after a near miss at Benghazi had substantially damaged her rudder. But when Admiral Cunningham sent the general signal from Warspite 'Raise steam for full speed with all despatch', Stuart joined the fleet, notwithstanding her restricted steering. On 28 March, Stuart was one of the screening units for the Allied battle fleet, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable and the battleships Warspite, Barham and Valiant, which tried to close the distance with the Italian ships in the hope of a major engagement.
Just as air reconnaissance reported that the Italian ships appeared to be returning to base, there was news that a 35,000 ton Littorio Class battleship appeared to have been damaged by an Allied air attack earlier in the day and was slowing down. A striking force of cruisers and destroyers was sent to find and sink the battleship — the now stricken Vittorio Veneto. By this time the cruiser Pola had also been hit by torpedoes launched from British aircraft and was drifting.
At 1600 on a calm and cloudless afternoon which provided perfect conditions for naval gunnery, a warship was observed on the horizon. HMS Orion had drawn the Italian battle fleet into a pursuit which would lead them directly into the path of the advancing British units. Realising the Italians would flee once they observed the Allied fleet, a cruiser squadron and two destroyer squadrons were dispatched to encircle the Italians. Night descended and the Italians, whose ships were not fitted with radar, were unaware that the Allied ships were closing quickly. In Stuart, what appeared to be an enemy force of five cruisers and destroyers was observed passing down the port side of the battle fleet. The Australian destroyer reported the observation. The battle began at 2230 with opposing forces exchanging fire at a range of 1.5 miles. Stuart concentrated her fire on the Fiume and turned to close the range after the Italian ship was drawn out of line.
To those in Stuart,
... the blackness of the night was first split by Warspite's searchlight beam, accurately trained on a cruiser which, almost simultaneously, exploded under the impact of the salvo of 15-inch shells. Thereafter it seemed all hell was let loose. The snarl and snap, bark, bristle and rapid yap of a dogfight with its circlings and dashes would be the best way to draw a parallel of the next fifteen minutes. Faint splashes in the darkness indicated enemy shells falling unpleasantly close, the flame and roar of our guns, a searchlight suddenly switched on, to circle a moment and then, shut off, to leave the night blacker than before. For one awful moment Stuart was centred on Warspite's searchlight. Would she be recognised? She was! There was the pallid light of slowly falling star shell, brief silhouette of an enemy frantically firing streams of brightly coloured tracer bullets, the phosphorescent wake, the ting-ting of fire gongs and the shouts of the supply party sweating as they sent up ammunition for the insatiable guns — thus, the Battle of Matapan.
The Italian battle fleet was engaged by the Allied 15-inch battleships with Stuart astern. Searchlights illuminated the Italian ships, with a number of enemy vessels struck in close succession. When Stuart was directed to sink the stricken Italian cruisers, she observed another ship fine on the port bow so close that Captain Waller had to alter course to port to avoid a collision. The two ships passed at a range of just 150 yards. A nearby explosion illuminated the unknown vessel, which was quickly identified as Oriani, an Italian Grecale Class destroyer which had managed to avoid being fired upon until Stuart engaged with a salvo at short range. The irony of this action was the role played by the Italian Breda guns mounted on the Australian destroyer against Italian targets. A sailor from Stuart later noted:
The Breda guns, with their beautiful tracer bullets, were the means of saving Stuart from a sticky end on what Admiral Cunningham called her wild night at Matapan. While the main armament was busy pumping 4.7-inch bricks into an Italian destroyer at the unsporting range of 150 yards or so, the boys on the starboard side joined in for good measure with a few clips of Breda. This must have deceived the cruiser which Stuart almost rammed in the darkness shortly afterwards, because the cruiser failed to blow her out of the water and allowed her to withdraw, in Captain Waller's words, 'softly to the south-west'.
At 2300, with the Italian battle fleet devastated, Admiral Cunningham ordered his ships to retire with the famous signal: 'I have no friends except ships steering 045 degrees'. The Allies lost one aircraft in the action, while five Italian ships were sunk — the cruisers Zara, Fiume and Pola, and the destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Geosue Carducci. More than 2300 Italians had perished.
The Battle of Cape Matapan was Italy's worst naval defeat of the war in several respects. In addition to losing a cruiser division, the Italians now doubted their ability to wage war at sea. The Italian naval commander, Admiral Angelo Iachino, thought the key outcome of the battle was:
... the consequence of limiting for some time our operational activities, not for the serious morale effect of the losses, as the British believed, but because the operation revealed our inferiority in effective aero-naval cooperation and the backwardness of our night battle technology.
The Italian fleet remained in port until the fall of Crete two months later. Although it was an impressive victory for the Allies, Admiral Cunningham lamented the failure of the destroyers to engage and sink the Vittorio Veneto. It was, he said, 'much to be regretted'. He did, however, find much to be encouraged in the Australian contribution.
HMAS Stuart performed distinguished service in this duty of a standard which I have come to expect from ships of the Royal Australian Navy. She fired torpedoes into damaged ships and was in action with them and with enemy destroyers that attempted to interfere. I am glad, as the case with all ships, no damage or casualties to Australian personnel was caused.
Despite Cunningham's misgivings about the overall outcome, those who fought the action were affected by its violent ferocity. A member of Stuart's ship's company contrasted this action with previous engagements:
There was all the difference in the world between the Battle of Calabria and the Battle of Matapan. The former was carried out in brilliant sunshine, with our ships steaming magnificently in formation, deploying in response to fluttering signals, wheeling in line, altering course in columns, every aspect of the fight easily visible. The Matapan affair was a dog fight on a pitch black night in which collisions were narrowly averted and only a quick and snap judgment could distinguish friend from foe in the weird light from star shell and the glare of burning ships.
The Battle of Cape Matapan was the last main fleet action fought by the Royal Navy during the war and, as it happened, the twentieth century.
Greece and Crete
In contrast to naval successes against Italy, German military advances in Yugoslavia and Greece prompted the withdrawal of Allied forces after Athens capitulated on 22 April and both the Greek King and the government relocated to Crete. Perth assisted in the evacuation of troops at Porto Rafti on the night of 24—25 April, and at Kalamata on 28—29 April; Stuart and Voyager were sent to the port of Navplion, where they engaged German combat aircraft and protected Allied shipping sent to transport troops; Waterhen and Vendetta recovered troops from Megara, and later joined Stuart and Vampire to escort convoy GA12 from Suda Bay in Crete to Alexandria. By the end of the month, 45,000 troops from a total of 60,000 had been withdrawn from Greece. Despite the persistence of the Luftwaffe and the possibility of submarine attack, the Australian and New Zealand soldiers evacuated from Greece seemed to think they were safe in the Australian ships and, once revived, they could return ashore to halt the Axis advance. A sailor in Perth explained that:
But the ships were far from safe and their ability to support land operations was being questioned by the Admiralty in London. Withdrawal seemed the best option. Most of the ships had spent much of the month on active service, like Perth which had been at sea for twenty-six of the previous thirty days with almost no opportunity for the men to recuperate in the face of continuous threat of attack.
With German dominance of Greece and superiority in the air, naval operations in the Aegean had become very dangerous. The Germans sought to enhance their position by occupying Crete. Despite an order from Berlin that the operation was to be completed by the end of April, it was not until 20 May that the German invasion was finally launched. As the small Allied garrison on the island of 40,000 men (including 6500 Australians) resisted a major German airborne landing, Allied control of the waters surrounding Crete was strengthened with the arrival of two new N Class destroyers Napier and Nizam. Together with Perth, the Allied naval force prevented the landing of any German reinforcements on the island. On 19 May, Perth was deployed to the eastern tip of Crete in an attempt to prevent a German landing which was expected under cover of darkness. At dawn on 21 May, the ship was attacked by two low-flying aircraft.
We were very close in to the coast at this time making southward. So started one of the most hellish days we have yet experienced. We were constantly and heavily bombed throughout the day until 1425 by formation after formation of JU 87s and 88s ... bombs landed all around us at one stage — they all seemed to concentrate their attacks on one ship at a time and near misses absolutely drenched the decks and exposed personnel ... our 4-inch guns have fired over 800 rounds — the empty shell cases practically fill the entire starboard shelter. All spare hands were busy the whole time feeding the 4-inch deck with shells.
Similar tales were being told in Napier:
We were attacked by Junkers 88s, about twenty of them. They were dropping 1,000-lb bombs, and one, landing in our path, sprayed the bridge personnel with oil and water. No loss was suffered by either side. After lunch, as things were getting hot, more ships joined us and, sure enough, Jerry came over again at dusk — this time with Junkers 87b-s, the famous Stukas, and a number of low-flying torpedo bombers. They were greeted with intense anti-aircraft fire, but came on relentless, loosing their loads on us but without any luck. One Stuka was shot down during the raid.
Perth was sent back to Alexandria on 23 May to have the 4-inch gun barrels replaced. They had simply been worn out with incessant heavy use.
When the situation on land gradually deteriorated in favour of the invading Germans, a decision was made to withdraw the remaining Allied troops and to abandon Crete. The Luftwaffe was not far away and fears of air attack for ships at sea and alongside were unrelenting. Ships that sailed for Alexandria found it more a base than a haven as nowhere was safe from the reach of German air power. Each of the three RAN ships was involved in the evacuation of Crete at the end of May. Leaving those defending the island to the mercy of the advancing German army was unimaginable. They had to be recovered, a fact not lost on the Luftwaffe.
An officer from Nizam recalled his experience of sailing to Crete on 28 May:
As dawn broke we were proceeding at 30 knots towards Kasa Straits [off the southern coast of Crete]. We sighted the first enemy reconnaissance aircraft at 0445, and from 0530 until 0800 were bombed by the single aircraft from about 15 000 feet. As we approached the straits about 30 dive bombers took up the battle, and we had a merry hour and a half with them, shooting down two and damaging one. Luckily the only damage to our force was one hit, and two near misses on a British destroyer, reducing her speed to 22 knots. This was somewhat alarming as at 1000 hours we were only 15 miles from Crete. However, we were left alone, apart from two high-level bombing attacks by single aircraft. We entered harbour at 1700, oiled and embarked provisions and ammunition throughout the night.
When water was discovered in the oil fuel tanks the next day, it became apparent that Nizam had sustained minor hull damage after a very near-miss. One of her officers recalled:
The engineer officer then endeavoured to calculate whether we could get to Crete and back again on the remaining oil at 30 knots, a total distance of 800 miles. He announced that we would just do it, but I don't think anyone believed him until we were secured to the buoy after the trip.
With 1188 troops on board the following night, Perth sailed from Sfakia, bound for Alexandria, when a bomb exploded in a boiler room and killed four sailors, seven soldiers and two marines. This was the Navy's single greatest loss of life in the war to that time. The badly damaged Perth returned to Alexandria in the early hours of 31 May. One of her cooks, Roy Norris, had discovered several of the bodies shortly after the ship was hit. He recalled that when the ship was alongside:
... the forenoon was spent trying for some semblance of order out of chaos. The starboard waist was a gruesome sight. Charlie Garside had an unenviable job cleaning up — they found the top half of one of the [dead] stokers but as he had already been 'officially' buried, they placed 'it' in a weighted flour bag with all the other bits and pieces and dumped it all over the side.
The next night, Napier and Nizam were again off the southern coast of Crete to recover Allied troops. They were not expected to be seen again by their Royal Navy counterparts, such was the danger inherent in their mission. When they sailed at 0250, there were 850 soldiers onboard Nizam and over 800 in Napier. An officer remembered:
Dawn broke at 0530, and we still seemed very close to Crete, as our course lay along the coast for about 40 miles. We loaded every gun and waited for the inevitable attacks. At 0700 we had our first dose of high-level bombing by about five aircraft, without any damage to either side. It was obvious the Germans knew we had only one 4-inch AA gun, as they persistently remained overhead out of reach of our 4.7-inch low-angle armament. We were being shadowed by one enemy aircraft and knew that the divebombers were not far away. They came at 0845 and at 0930, in two waves, out of the sun. The first attack was unsuccessful but during the second Napier was damaged by two near misses, and had her speed reduced to a questionable 20 knots.
One of Napier's sailors recounted:
Our guns hardly ceased fire and from all corners of the ship our gallant 'passengers' were firing rifles and Bren guns. Never afterwards did the Napier put up such a thick barrage. In the midst of the roar of guns and the scream of bombs, it came to my mind what a ridiculous thing war is. There we were, two flimsy destroyers with approximately 1,800 men on board, and a horde of planes on our tail doing their utmost to kill every one of us. It all seemed a dream until I noticed a bomb heading straight at me.
With only one operational engine, the stricken Napier managed to make Alexandria and spent the next month being repaired. Nizam made history for an Allied destroyer in recovering over 850 men in one overnight trip.
After defeats in Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete, the only successes were the defeat of Italian forces in Abyssinia and Somaliland, allowing warships, including Parramatta, operating south of the Suez Canal to be deployed into the Mediterranean, and securing the rich oil fields adjacent to the Persian Gulf.
The Persian Gulf
Control of the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal was critical to the Allied position in the Mediterranean. The Allies needed to have the port of Abadan on the Shatt-el-Arab remain open at all costs. The waters of the Gulf would also attract enemy submarines deployed to sink tankers proceeding to and from the principal oil-field ports. Although Allied shipping was again convoyed to and from the Gulf and enjoyed some protection from surface raiders, both the German and Italian navies had submarines beyond the Straits of Hormuz by early 1940. For its part, the Iraqi government was finally acceding to a British request to have troops stationed in Iraq when it was toppled by a coup d'état on 3 April 1941. Britain responded by despatching troops in anticipation of an opposed landing. Yarra escorted the troop ships.
Under the operational control of the Senior Naval Officer Persian Gulf, Commodore Cosmo Graham RN, Yarra spent the first three weeks of May 1941 supporting the land forces occupying Basra at the head of the Shatt-el-Arab and its port of Ashar. On 24 May, Yarra's captain, Commander WH 'Arch' Harrington RAN, who was known as 'Ming the Merciless', commanded the naval force which would 'attack and disperse all enemy found on the right bank of the Shatt-el-Arab in the vicinity of Habib Shawi (seven miles up river from Ashar) and inflict maximum casualties'. Two companies of Gurkhas would be put ashore with Yarra to bombard other targets. The night before, six sailors from Yarra disguised as Arab fishermen took soundings of the river to aid the landing. The attack was successful, with Iraqi opposition and several fortifications destroyed. Yarra fired forty-three 4-inch high explosive shells and more than 750 smaller rounds. When the armistice with Iraq was signed on 31 May, the Australian sloop was at anchor off Ashar. For their efforts, twenty-five of the ship's company were rewarded with malaria.
To prevent Germany from attacking the oil fields from the north, the British decided to invade Syria on 8 June 1941, with Perth, Stuart and Nizam supporting the invasion force. But no sooner had the Allies reached an agreement with the Iraqis than the Persians (Iranians) started to augment their defences along the Shatt-el-Arab and the island of Abadan, after refusing to expel Axis power nationals. The British planned a landing of troops supported by a naval force including Yarra and the Australian-manned armed merchant cruiser Kanimbla, which arrived from the East Indies Station on 7 August. The operation had three aims: to capture the naval base at Khorramshahr; to occupy Abadan without damaging its refinery or oil installations; and to capture Axis shipping at the port of Bandar Shapur, at the terminus of the Trans-Persian railway from the Caspian Sea. Captain William Adams in Kanimbla was told by Commodore Graham that 'You will be — must be — in charge of the Bandar Shapur party' while Yarra would be in the Khorramshahr force. With the operation set to begin on 25 August, Yarra remained in Basra, with Kanimbla lying at anchor south of the Shatt-el-Arab.
Kanimbla arrived at Bandar Shapur as the Germans were beginning to scuttle their ships. Prompt action by Australian boarding parties prevented all but one of the ships from sinking, while the crews of several Persian gunboats surrendered. The captured ships were sailed to India and subsequently made a useful contribution to the Allied war effort. Yarra proceeded to Khorramshahr independently. Arriving undetected in the dark, Harrington observed the Persian sloop Babr, which Yarra attacked to prevent her resisting the landing. After ten salvos the sloop was set on fire and later sank. The Australian ship then proceeded up the Karun River and silenced gunfire from a naval barracks before forcing two Persian gunboats to surrender. By the early evening, Khorramshahr had been occupied and the Allies had achieved their objectives.
Two days later Yarra was sent to capture the Italian merchant vessel Hilda, which was at anchor off Bandar Abbas, on the northern shore of the Strait of Hormuz. Although the Italian ship was engulfed in flames when Yarra arrived, they were gradually brought under control. To the amazement of Harrington, Yarra was instructed to tow the Hilda towards Karachi, which he did at 2.5 knots. After being relieved of the merchantman, Yarra proceeded to Kuwait with a kitten and a Sind gazelle rescued from the burning Italian ship. This swift and successful operation resulted in the resignation of the Persian government, with its successor ordering resistance to cease the following day. The oil supplies, so precious to the Allies, were safe. It also opened a new line of communications with the Soviet Union, something that was vital at this point in the war. By November, and with their work done, Yarra was in the Mediterranean while Kanimbla was in Singapore. Both Captain Adams and Commander Harrington were awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
By this time, the Allied position in the Eastern Mediterranean had started to improve. Although the Axis powers dominated the Eastern Mediterranean by early June, securing major cities and entire countries and exerting control in the skies, they lacked the naval forces needed to drive the Allies from the sea. Failing to capitalise on their successes, Allied forces overthrew the pro-German government in Iraq and invaded the Vichy French territories of Syria and Lebanon. Australian sailors were especially impressed with the area around the Palestinian port city of Haifa, which was to be their base for several weeks:
The country is very reminiscent of Australia — gumtrees have been imported to lend further to the illusion. The Jewish villages are very clean contrasting vividly with the squalor of the Bedouin camps ... the Jews are making Palestine really worthwhile to live in — mostly they are university men applying modern day science to the job.
The Australian cruiser was no safer in Haifa than she had been in Alexandria. While alongside, one sailor recorded:
At least 25 Germans kept us busy for a couple of hours in one of the worst night raids I have yet experienced. They came right down at us until the pilots could be seen in the cabin — it was as brilliant as day in full moonlight and our smoke made conditions for us worse. One doesn't see sense in the strategy of making smoke but maybe the powers that be know best. They hit several oil tanks ashore rather too close for comfort. One bomb was a near miss — about 20 to 50 yards away causing the 'old girl' to leap convulsively.
After completing the operation in Syria, Perth returned to Alexandria on 15 July, where the long-awaited and much-anticipated news of the ship's return home was confirmed. Hobart arrived in Alexandria on 17 July to cheers and shouts of joy. One of Perth's men explained:
The Hobart will think she is popular but it was sheer relief on our part after all the weary war torn months to at last see our relief in absolute concrete form and to know it is not a buzz ... the buzz is for tomorrow night to leave Alex. I for one will be very pleased to see the last of this fly-bitten, wog-infested, urine-ridden smelly hole. If I never ever see it again it will be too soon. Roll on Sydney. August 11th buzz?
Perth prepared to sail for home on 18 July 1941. She did not return to the Mediterranean. After refitting, the ship remained on the Australia Station until deployed to South East Asia to support retreating Australian troops from Singapore, which fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. On the night of 28 February — 1 March 1942, Perth was sunk by a vastly superior Japanese invasion taskforce in the Sunda Strait. Of the 680 men onboard, 23 officers and 329 sailors were killed. Of the 320 who became prisoners of war, 105 were to die in captivity.
The North Africa Campaign
After success against the Italian navy at sea, Allied attention turned to the Italian military forces in Libya, Albania and Greece. The embarrassing collapse of the Italian position in North Africa required a rapid German response. Troops and anti-shipping aircraft were deployed to Libya. By April, the gains of January had been substantially eroded. The Australian forces were besieged at Tobruk and their situation was becoming dire. Captain HML 'Hec' Waller RAN was appointed to command the Mediterranean Fleet's Inshore Squadron to support Allied armies operating in the Western Desert.
Waller was a personal favourite of Admiral Cunningham, who had boundless confidence in Waller's judgment and ability. When Prime Minister Robert Menzies visited the Australian ships in Alexandria, Cunningham said ahead of his personal introduction to Waller: 'and now you are going to meet one of the greatest captains who ever sailed the seas'. The squadron consisted of the Australian destroyers and HMS Terror, together with a flotilla of minesweepers, anti-submarine trawlers and smaller craft. Waller's main task was to support land operations against the Italians, who were attempting to advance from Egypt into Libya and to patrol offensively along the coast, protecting supply vessels and water carriers. As the front was constantly and quickly moving, the sea lines of communication needed to remain open while resisting air attack and fire from shore batteries. The Inshore Squadron assisted in the capture of Bardia at the beginning of 1941 before Stuart, Vampire and Voyager were involved in the assault on Tobruk by the 6th Australian Division on 22 January and the entry into Benghazi the following month.
The Commander-in-Chief Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, emphasised the crucial character of the Squadron's service:
The maintenance problem in this quick moving operation over a distance of 500 miles would have been insurmountable without the Navy's assistance in keeping open the supply lines and opening up Salum, Bardia and Tobruk, thereby shortening lines of communication and releasing motor transport for the vital task of stocking up successive field supply depots.
The V & W Class destroyers, the mainstay of the Inshore Squadron, might have been paid off had the war not started in 1939. They were old but resilient. Their engines were reliable and their capabilities adaptable. The main drawback was their lack of a 3-inch high altitude air defence gun. Similar British vessels had their after torpedo tubes replaced by these weapons. In 1940, the Australian ships acquired an ironic new name. They were dubbed the 'Scrap Iron Flotilla' after the Nazi propaganda minister Dr Joseph Goebbels referred to the aged ships scathingly as 'another consignment of scrap iron from Australia', The British traitor and German propaganda broadcaster William Joyce (also known as 'Lord Haw Haw') announced on their arrival: 'Your ships are tied together with bits of wire. We shall blast them from the face of the sea and make you rue the day you left your homes'. Each of the Australian destroyers participated in the 'Tobruk Ferry Service' or the 'Spud Run' as it was known among the men who were involved. They rendered service that exceeded expectations and defied detractors.
Vendetta's ship's company was similar to those of her sister-ships, men who would come to rely on their shipmates for 'the courage, the endurance, and the unexpressed faith, the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship's company'. A year before, they had not even known one another:
Her men came from all walks of life. There was a tram driver, a gun-layer who fitted skates at a Sydney Ice Palais, a former kangaroo shooter ... and a lad from Brisbane who made patterns for printing on ladies silk dresses.
Vendetta was assigned to the 'Tobruk Ferry Service', carrying supplies to the besieged Allied forces at Tobruk, and would complete twenty voyages, more than any other ship appointed to the task. After her last Tobruk run, she sailed for Singapore on 3 August 1941. By this time she had seen almost two years of continuous service in the Mediterranean and was in desperate need of a refit.
During these months, life in an Australian destroyer was hectic and unpredictable. A British army officer on passage between Alexandria and Malta in Vampire was a little surprised by the mood on board in early July as the Fleet looked for a major engagement with Italian surface units:
In the Royal Australian Navy things are slightly different to the Royal Navy. The captain's servant was a very pally sort of cove, and he woke me with a cup of tea and the remark: 'I shouldn't lie around all day if I were you. Get up on deck. You'll like it. There's going to be a battle'. 'A battle', I echoed stupidly. 'What sort of battle?' 'Just an ordinary bloody battle', he replied. 'The sea's lousy with ships, Looks like all the Med. Fleet's here'. I went on deck as I was, in a pair of pyjama-trousers, with a cup of tea in my hand. Remember it was mid-July in the Med. The morning was fresh and glorious, with a brilliant young sun still painting the new sky with the effulgence of its coming. The sea was sapphire, set with diamonds. The wake of Vampire's passing was like coiled ropes of pearls. It was a morning for poesy. It was also a morning for something grimmer. The young Australian rating was right. The sea was lousy with ships.
An Australian sailor who spent much of 1941 off North Africa described the deployment as:
... a wild life, almost devoid of comfort, involving long hours of wakeful watchfulness, night of back-breaking toil, brief periods of hair-raising excitement and, between runs, long nights of privilege leave in Alexandria and occasional lazy afternoons on the white sands at Mersa Matruh.
A member of Stuart's ship's company described the routine 'ferry runs' to Tobruk:
The following fits any or all of the runs. Morning of the first day, sailed from Alexandria with troops, ammunition and stores. Air attacks at so and so during the day. Arrived Tobruk after dark, unloaded and took on so many wounded, 200 troops and ammunition empties and proceeded to Mersa Matruh. Air raid at Mersa. Next day embarked ammunition and stores and sailed for Tobruk. Air attacks ... Arrived Alexandria. And then 36 hours later, the same thing all over again.
A sailor from Voyager noted the unrelenting pace of North African operations and said 'a spell would have been heavenly':
Forty-six days up the Libyan coast, out with the fleet, out with convoys, up on a stunt with commandos, transporting prisoners, rescuing crews of sinking ships, sinking enemy subs, offensive sweeps, tedious patrols, rushing urgent dispatches, carrying troops and wounded. These were just a few of our jobs.
The Australian destroyers providing vital protection to Allied convoys were subjected to constant attack. Vampire's captain reported that of the 1350 bombs aimed at his ship and the vessels she was screening, the high level bombing raids had not inflicted any damage. But the good fortune could not and would not last forever. As the evening descended on 30 June 1941, another routine day in an Australian destroyer in the Mediterranean was coming to a close. Waterhen, affectionately known as 'the Chook', was on her way to Tobruk loaded with supplies and ammunition and the Provost Traffic Control Branch of the 6th Australian Division. As usual, the ship was 'closed up' for action at the fourth degree of readiness with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine lookout posted on the upper deck. At 1945 as the sky darkened, forty-two German Stuka aircraft were observed high in the sky. The attack soon followed:
Fifty yards off the ship's side the sea was convulsed into spouting columns of climbing white, discoloured at the base with bursting high explosive. Missed. The first flight swept up into the sky again, where the rest circled round, waiting their turn. Then, in position again, they fell off on one wing and dropped headlong upon her. Twisting and weaving at full speed the gallant little craft strove to escape the downpour.
Despite some very erratic avoidance manoeuvres and some able ship handling, Waterhen was hit by a German bomb at the base of the forward funnel and against the ship's side adjacent to the main engine space:
A hole big enough to sail the whaler in was blown in her side ... she slowed down and listed to port as the water poured in, a black scum of escaping fuel oil spreading from her wound ... Every man was transferred and they drew off to watch her go. She made a sad picture, rolling sluggishly on the oily sea, guns pointing at all angles in the direction of their last targets, boats smashed to splinters, jagged holes in her funnels and upper works.
Waterhen quietly slipped below the glassy sea and was gone. She was the first RAN ship to be lost in the war. Thankfully, no-one on board was killed.
By mid-1941, questions were being asked about the future of the Mediterranean campaign. The leader of the Federal Opposition, John Curtin, raised the possibility of withdrawing Australian assets from the area and bringing them near to home given that fears of Japanese aggression were increasing almost daily. He proposed closing the Suez Canal, defending Palestine and abandoning North Africa. Curtin's proposals were dismissed by Churchill and then by Prime Minister Menzies. The Eastern Mediterranean would be held and defended. But a change of government in Canberra led to a decision in September to withdraw all Australian troops from the Middle East and North Africa. The last Australian troops left Tobruk in mid-November.
The Australian naval presence in the Mediterranean was also being slowly scaled down. The North African campaign took a particular toll on the V & W Class destroyers. The unrelenting demands that had been placed on these old ships — sustained high-speed transits — required a herculean effort from the engineering staff. Vampire had left for home in May after her engines were found to be in need of a major overhaul, to be followed by Voyager's departure in July. Stuart was scheduled to leave in August for the China Station. On her departure, Admiral Cunningham conveyed his thanks to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board in Melbourne:
It is with great regret that we part with HMAS Stuart from the Mediterranean Station. Under the distinguished command of Captain Waller she has an unsurpassed record of gallant achievement. She has taken the leading part in all the principal operations of the Mediterranean Fleet, and has never been called upon in vain for any difficult job. The work of her engine-room department in keeping this old ship efficient and in good running order has been beyond all praise. The Mediterranean Fleet is the poorer by the departure of this fine little ship and her gallant ship's company.
More often than not, Waller's custom when approaching the Great Pass before entering Alexandria Harbour was to drop a depth charge at 50 feet to announce Stuart's return. This would lead Admiral Cunningham to remark: 'Waller's back'.
The last of the V & W destroyers to leave was Vendetta, which passed through the Suez Canal on 21 October. Of the four ships to have survived operations in the Mediterranean during 1940—41, Vampire was subsequently lost to enemy action off Trincomalee in April 1942; Voyager was wrecked in Betano Bay on the coast of Timor in September 1942; Vendetta was paid into reserve in October 1945 and scuttled off Sydney Harbour in July 1948; and Stuart, which was converted to a troop transport ship in 1944, continued to serve until being paid off in early 1946 and then sold for scrap in February 1947.
Throughout September and October, Hobart and the two N Class destroyers participated in the operation to replace the Australian Sixth Division with the British 70th Division. In November, they were joined by the two sloops Yarra and Parramatta, which were deployed for escort work and in the resupply of Tobruk when the 'Crusader' offensive was launched in the western desert on 18 November. Ten days later, on 26 November 1940, Parramatta was escorting the ammunition ship Hanne, bound for the Allied operating area 25 miles north of Bardia. It was a dark night. There was driving rain and a heavy sea made the passage uncomfortable. When Hanne became confused about her pilotage run into Tobruk, Parramatta's captain, Lieutenant Commander Jefferson Hirst Walker RAN, brought his ship within loud-hailer range. Their lights were extinguished as a protective measure against submarines, although a German U-boat had detected and then shadowed them. For the next thirty minutes Hanne and Parramatta proceeded in line abreast at 3 knots until the ships were attacked just after midnight by U-559. A pattern of three torpedoes was fired at a range of 2200 yards but failed to hit either ship or the Avon Vale, a British escort destroyer, which had lost contact with her consorts in the darkness. The range was closed for another shot. The captain of the German submarine later wrote: 'I cannot wait because the convoy is just off the Tobruk approach route'. At 1245, he recorded:
I fired a single torpedo at a range of 1,500 metres using the same estimations. The target is a destroyer with one funnel. Hit! Two explosions one after the other. The destroyer breaks up and sinks. Shortly afterwards another heavy explosion. Probably her depth charges. I make off towards the south east.
The successful attack was launched while most of the ship's company were asleep in their bunks. The torpedo had struck amidships, causing two explosions. The second was almost certainly from the main magazine. The ship's lighting failed as the sloop rolled onto her starboard side. Walker was on the bridge when the torpedo hit. He gave the order to abandon ship immediately and was heard to ask the officer of the watch whether all the men had 'got away'. He then ordered the officer of the watch to follow. Walker was not seen again.
The stricken ship plunged into the depths but then suddenly the forecastle and stern broke the surface. At 0145, the stern of the sloop began to tilt. This time, Parramatta sank, taking 138 of her men to the bottom. Commissioned into the RAN just eighteen months earlier, Parramatta's short commission ended as she descended to her final resting place. A small group of survivors clung to floating debris in the hope of being rescued. Eventually, twenty-four of Parramatta's ship's company were rounded up. None of the officers were among them. It is likely that another half dozen men survived the attack, only to be lost at sea. While Hanne reached harbour safely, the Naval Board received a signal from Admiral Cunningham:
I deeply deplore the loss of the Parramatta. This fine little ship had built up for herself a splendid standard of efficiency and achievements fully in keeping with the record of HM Australian ships in the Mediterranean.
Following the evacuation of Crete, Napier and Nizam had joined the Tobruk Ferry Service. A sailor from Napier described the experience:
At 9 am one morning ... we sailed on our first trip to Tobruk, carrying troop, stores and mail. During the afternoon twenty Tomahawk fighters hovered above us, and when an Italian bomber appeared from behind a cloud he lasted approximately two minutes. It was close on midnight when the six ships [of the flotilla] sneaked into the wreck filled harbour, each going alongside a previously-appointed wreck to unload the troops and stores.
The Australian ships' companies quickly became proficient at moving men and cargo.
[One] night [Napier] broke a record in unloading and loading. In 38 minutes we transferred 60 tons of stores to waiting lighters, and at the same time disembarked troops and took on our top load of stretcher cases as well as other troops. Some of the wounded were in a terrible mess: one Polish captain was a mass of blood and mud-stained khaki, with his head swathed in bandages. Not being able to speak English, he could rely only on the boys thinking that he needed some little thing done for him, and to see the look of gratitude in his eyes brought a lump to my throat.
When not transiting to and from Tobruk, which some RAN sailors referred to as the 'Libyan pleasure resort', the Australian destroyers participated in the resupply of Malta during the height of the enemy siege. On 25 November, Napier and Nizam were escorting the British battleship HMS Barham when she was sunk by U-331 in a most daring attack. Three torpedoes hit the battleship amidships just after 1600. An Australian destroyer sailor observed:
[Barham] was turning on her side very fast, and men could plainly be seen scrambling over her exposed 'blister' right up to the moment when the funnel hit the water. Then she blew up. It was the most revolting sight I have seen: huge pieces of steel hurled towards the heavens as the mighty battleship disintegrated with a terrific roar. A shaft of smoke shot hundreds of feet into the air and hung there like a tombstone long after the rest of the wreckage had gone. It took four minutes for the Barham to disappear, taking with her over 500 men. Five hundred were rescued, yet, after seeing the way she went up, one would have backed for all the world against there being any survivors at all.
Nizam assisted with the recovery of more than 450 survivors before she was deployed to intercept an Italian naval taskforce in the Ionian Sea. While Napier was docked for repairs, Nizam escorted the supply vessel Breconshire on a passage to Malta. This was a precursor to the first Battle of Sirte, when Rear Admiral Philip Vian, commander of the 15th Cruiser Squadron, managed to distract an Italian surface group led by two battleships. After a short stay with 'Force H' based at Gibraltar, Nestor was sent to the Eastern Mediterranean with a convoy from Malta on 29 December. It was the first to reach Alexandria unscathed since the fall of Crete. For those in Nestor it was their first rendezvous with another RAN ship. During a formal inspection of the Napier in Alexandria harbor, Admiral Vian remarked the Australian ship was the cleanest he had seen in wartime. The Australians took as much pride in the appearance of their ship, because it was also their home, as in its fighting capabilities.
The last operation involving the three N Class destroyers was a New Year's Eve bombardment of Bardia. Three days later, they departed for Australia and operations against the Imperial Japanese Navy, whose southward thrust through Malaya and the Dutch East Indies towards New Guinea was seeming almost impossible to stop. By this time Hobart and Yarra had gone as well. Those serving in the N Class were pleased to be leaving after a long absence:
This was our fourth trip through the [Suez] Canal, and we hoped it would be our last. There was a bitterly cold wind blowing off the desert, but everyone was in good spirits, glad to be leaving that clear blue sea of high-speed action where so many men and ships lay in a watery grave.
The N Class ships, now strengthened by the arrival of the newly completed Norman, operated in the Northern and Eastern Indian Ocean, where a substantial naval force had been concentrated. In May 1942, four of the N Class destroyers (Napier, Nizam, Nestor and Norman) were sent back to the Mediterranean to protect and preserve the vital strategic base of Malta. The men were surprised and initially disappointed, especially given the mess deck 'buzz' that they would be in the Mediterranean for the next six months. Once again, the Australian ships operated along the coast of Palestine and the route to Malta in convoy escort work. This proved to be a dangerous and costly undertaking but being able to depend on a secure Malta would allow the Navy to prosecute the war in North Africa from a more advantageous position. The return of a strengthened Luftwaffe to the Mediterranean meant that air attack was the major threat to the Allied ships. Wrote one sailor:
When the Stukas retired, out came the 88s again. The sky was full of them. On all sides they swooped to loose their missiles of death while others hovered high up, waiting their turn to join the fun. Bombs were literally raining down at the time when the Hunt Class destroyer received a full stick and simply disintegrated.
It was during one operation — codenamed 'Vigorous' — that Nestor made history as the first and the only RAN warship never to see the 'Great Southern Land'.
Commissioned in February 1941 at Govern Shipyard near Glasgow, Nestor was owned by the British Government but manned and operated by the Australian Government. Her first deployment was to the North Sea for patrol and escort duties, including the pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck, before she was sent in May 1942 to the Mediterranean and Malta convoy work. After sinking the German submarine U-127 off Cape St Vincent in December 1941, Nestor was transferred to the Pacific in January 1942 and was based at Colombo. She returned to the Mediterranean just four months later. On the night of 12 June 1942, Nestor had sailed from Haifa with a Malta convoy.
On the afternoon of the third day at sea, naval intelligence suggested that a large Italian fleet was in the path of the convoy, which had been harassed by shore-based aircraft since its departure. A decision was made to turn the convoy towards Alexandria. Very late in the day, Nestor was attacked by enemy aircraft near Crete, straddled by two bombs which ripped a hole in her side adjacent to the boiler room, and mortally damaged. Four of her men were killed.
Despite the best efforts of damage control parties to extinguish fires and shore-up damaged bulkheads, and attempts by HMS Javelin to tow the stricken destroyer, the Senior Office of the convoy signalled: 'If Nestor cannot make her own way, sink her'. Just after 0600 on 15 June 1942, the destroyer was abandoned and depth charges set in the Asdic compartment exploded to end Nestor's brief commission. Her men were subsequently returned to Australia in Napier. The operation had been costly. Not only did the convoy not reach its destination, but one cruiser, one merchantman and two destroyers had been sunk. With the loss of Nestor, the three remaining N Class destroyers then returned to the Indian Ocean. Many of the men had been away from home for three years. At the end of the war the ships were returned to the Royal Navy. Napier was sold for scrap in 1945, Nizam and Nepal in 1955, and Norman in 1958. One small part of Nestor did manage to reach Australia — her bell was recovered and placed on display in the museum of HMAS Cerberus.
Turning the tide against Italy
The North African campaign was marked by a series of changing fortunes for the Allies. Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta, Parramatta, Waterhen, Voyager, Nizam and Napier made 139 runs in and out of besieged Tobruk during 1941 against fierce enemy opposition. A total of 1532 troops were transported to Tobruk and 2951 men were withdrawn. The Australian ships delivered 616 tons of supplies. In November 1942, two Australian Q Class destroyers, Quiberon and Quickmatch, supported the Allied landings in North Africa as part of 'Operation Torch'.
The Q Class ships were ordered in the early stages of the war to provide an immediate supplement to the Royal Navy's destroyer complement. Three ships of the class were transferred from the shipbuilders to the RAN in 1942: Quality, Quiberon and Quickmatch. They were manned almost entirely by Australians. Shortly after her commissioning, Quiberon formed part of a cruiser-destroyer detachment called 'Force Q', which was deployed to cut Axis sea lines of communication between Bizerta, the northern-most city in Africa, and Tunis, located 65 kilometres to the south. Quiberon came to notice when she sank the Italian submarine Dessie and was part of a British force which sank three enemy warships and four merchant ships attempting to re-supply the Axis stronghold at Tunis. By this time, the Allies were preparing to reopen the Mediterranean to through shipping by gaining control of the Italian island of Sicily. The three Q Class destroyers were joined in 1945 by two of their RN sister-ships, Queenborough and Quadrant, and served well into the 1950s before being paid off.
The Allied occupation of Sicily in July 1943 was code-named 'Operation Husky'. It was supported by eight Australian corvettes — Cairns, Cessnock, Gawler, Geraldton, Ipswich, Lismore, Maryborough and Wollongong — whose work was minesweeping, anti-submarine screening and general patrol duties. Part of a 3000-ship Allied force, the corvettes arrived from the Indian Ocean in May 1943 and formed part of the 21st and 22nd Minesweeping Flotillas — four ships allocated to each. Their first engagement with enemy forces was on 17 June 1943, when Gawler and Lismore were deployed in convoy escort duties off Libya. One ship from the convoy, the troopship SS Yoma, was torpedoed and quickly sank. The two Australian ships recovered hundreds of survivors, providing clothing, food and personal items to men who had lost everything.
At the end of the month, Ipswich, Maryborough, Lismore and Gawler were ordered to Benghazi in preparation for the Sicily invasion. The small but capable corvettes were to be Australia's representatives in a force of 560 ships that would clear the waters of mines and then land a massive Allied force on 10 July. Conscious of air attack, the Australian ships swept the landing area for mines and conducted anti-submarine patrols. As the Italians were determined to resist the invasion force on the beach and in the air, Midshipman Brian Fernandez in Ipswich recorded the scene:
Imagine the biggest fireworks you have ever seen, magnify it a thousand times, include all the beautiful lights imaginable, add the clattering of 5,000 heavy machine-guns, the thumping of hundreds of falling bombs, the throbbing and screaming of 100 big aircraft and the whole show lit up by the brightest arc lights in the world drifting slowly, slowly down only to be replaced by more and still more of them — imagine all this bursting forth in a single second of time, so suddenly that most of us were incapable of movement, and you have a fair idea of the night attack on Cape Passaro.
The other four corvettes reached Sicily shortly afterwards as an escort for a 36-ship convoy before engaging in anti-submarine patrols off the port of Syracuse. In his diary, Joe Downie in Maryborough recorded the events of 9—10 July:
We were entirely surrounded by ships. Huge liners to starboard — a mass of freighters and tank landing craft to port. As always the little ships are here. Must be about 50 destroyers and corvettes ... by 1700 the other convoys have gone, and we go into defence watches. At 0200 we will go ahead to sweep. No trouble anywhere to date!
Most amazing to think of all these ships approaching an enemy stronghold without any interruption being attempted. At 1900 the sea has come up and we are having an unpleasant time, bouncing all over the ocean. We have passed numerous floating mines. We do not know if they are safe — so keep well clear. At night we will pray for the best, I hope the darned things miss us. One of them could make a horrible mess of us!
Although none of the ships sustained any battle damage or suffered any human casualties during the invasion of Sicily, Maryborough was nearly struck during a German air attack. When asked by Gawler's captain whether his ship had been damaged, Maryborough replied 'no damage except to my underpants'.
An example of the work done by the small Australian ships was Convoy KMS 21. Consisting of forty-one large merchant ships, the convoy sailed from Alexandria, bound for Malta, on 13 August 1943. Anti-submarine protection was provided by five British ships and the corvettes Gawler, Ipswich, Maryborough and Lismore. The captain of HMAS Ipswich, Lieutenant Commander John McBryde RANR, observed:
It was not a strong escort for such a large number of ships, or for those waters, but then times were not ordinary and destroyers and other large units were urgently required at the Italian landings and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, so little ships were doing the work of big ones. Anywhere in the Mediterranean escort work was not easy; it meant long dreary spells at quarters during dusk and dawn stand-to's, it meant also nerves keyed up continually in expectation of anything in the book. The fact that the powers-that-be had considered it fit and proper to withdraw all air cover, and that we were over 500 miles from the nearest enemy territory eased our minds.
Just before 2100, around forty Heinkel III bombers and ten Junkers 88s of the Luftwaffe — based at Montpellier in southern France — assumed attack formation and flew towards the convoy at thirty feet above the water, seemingly impervious to the naval ships providing defensive fire. The corvettes responded with their Oerlikon and 12-pounder guns, scoring a number of direct hits on enemy aircraft at close range. More than ten German planes were either downed or abandoned before the action ended. Although the Germans reported the next day that thirty-two ships of the convoy and its escort had been lost, in fact only two of the merchant ships were unable to continue with the convoy, and they ultimately reached Gibraltar. The only casualty suffered by the Allies was a sailor in Gawler who was hit in the thigh by a machine-gun round. Ipswich's captain later commented:
This action was quoted as one of the finest defensive actions against very heavy torpedo-bomber attack that had ever taken place in the Mediterranean; particularly as there was no air cover, and the escort was a light one.
The Australian ships were then given a range of duties to conduct in and around Gibraltar. An example of their versatility was Wollongong's mission to Morocco with the British corvette HMS Hyacynth to destroy the German submarine U-617, which had been beached after suffering battle damage inflicted by RAF bombers. Sub-Lieutenant Barton, who was serving in Wollongong, described what followed:
When we got there, the submarine was on the rocks and Hyacynth, as senior ship, decided to go in first and fire ten rounds at the submarine, then it would be Wollongong's turn. Hyacynth fired off her ten rounds and missed every time, then we went in and hit it three times. We were inside Spanish territorial waters and while we were doing a shoot, a very senior Spanish officer, smothered in gold braid, came charging around the corner in a large impressive motorboat, shaking his fist and yelling out something in Spanish which we didn't understand, but we got the drift of what he meant.
When Maryborough arrived at Suez on 21 November 1943, the last RAN ship had departed the Mediterranean. The performance of the corvettes had brought great credit to the RAN. Not only had the ships performed efficiently and effectively, they were manned by men who had come from civilian life at the start of the war and, after training at Flinders Naval Depot, had shown the Navy knew how to recruit and prepare competent personnel for naval combat. Of the fifty-six Bathurst Class corvetteminesweepers to be commissioned into the RAN during the war, the last left service in October 1960.
After several fleet actions which ended in substantial defeats, the Italian navy essentially became a 'fleet in being', which needed to be observed rather than destroyed. While the Italian navy was unable to engage in extending or defending Italy's position, its existence required the presence of Allied ships that might have been used elsewhere in the event of an Italian 'break out'. When Italy announced its capitulation to the Allied forces, the Italian fleet was ordered to sortie and proceed to Malta, where the ships would be interned. The Italians attempted to convince their German allies that the fleet was sailing to attack Allied invasion forces. The Germans were not persuaded and organised air attacks that sank and damaged a number of ships. The war was virtually over for the Italian navy. On 9 September 1943, Italy surrendered unconditionally after the first Allied troops landed on the mainland. Three years and three months after hostilities commenced, the naval war in the Mediterranean had ended with the arrival of the surrendered Italian fleet at Malta. The RAN had been there at the beginning and it was there at the end.
Success and sacrifice
The first two years of war had demonstrated the ability of Australian officers and sailors in naval combat in a wide range of operations. Whereas at the start of the war British officers held almost all of the major fleet appointments, Australians were now commanding the RAN's cruisers. Captain John Collins had been made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) for his skill during the sinking of Bartolomeo Colleoni; Captain 'Hec' Waller had received a DSO and Bar for his work in the Mediterranean; Commander AS Rosenthal had also received the DSO and Bar for his 'skill and enterprise against enemy submarines'; Captain HL Howden, Lieutenant TK Morrison and Commissioned Shipwright EV Gooch had been honoured for their service with the Somaliland Force. Four Chief Petty Officers and two junior sailors were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for their service in Sydney during the sinking of Bartolomeo Colleoni; three Petty Officers and a Steward were decorated for their actions during operations in the Persian Gulf. There was ample evidence of the aptitude and ability of RAN personnel. They were every bit the equal of their British, French and Dutch counterparts.
Australia had also lost its share of accomplished seafarers, with some enduring consequences. On the night of 1 March 1942 while in command of HMAS Perth, Hec Waller lost his life and the navy was deprived of a highly competent officer and a firstrate leader who would have made a significant mark on the post-war RAN. As the stricken Perth began to sink in the Sunda Strait, Waller directed the men in the cruiser's wheelhouse to leave their posts. He then turned to the Action Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant WL Gay RAN, and said unceremoniously: 'Get off the bridge, Gay'. The young officer was the last person to see Waller alive as the ship disappeared into the remorseless sea. The most celebrated Australian naval officer of the Mediterranean campaign and the man who had perhaps done most to exemplify the nation's fighting spirit in the darkest days of the war was gone.
Many Australians are surprised to learn that their navy was so heavily involved in combat operations in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea during World War II. As both bodies of water are far from Australia, there is a natural assumption that they were equally removed from the interests of the Australian people. Given that the Australian continent sits astride the vast Indian and Pacific oceans, there is a ready expectation that the RAN would operate in these waters. But why the Atlantic and 'the Med'? As these pages have shown, the answers lie in the importance of the sea lines of communication for an island nation.
Australia is the world's largest island continent. Geography remains Australia's principal strategic asset. The nation's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, was quoted in the Melbourne Argus's editorial on 1 January 1901 saying 'there is a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation'. The sentiment was reflected in the song that later became the national anthem: Advance Australia Fair announces that 'our home is girt by sea'. Although perhaps a little obscure, this assertion highlights what has been perhaps the single most critical factor in this country's development. Australia's national security, prosperity and even its recreation is linked to the seas. As the RAN's founding father, William Rooke Creswell, remarked in 1902:
For a maritime state furnished without a navy, the sea, so far from being a safe frontier is rather a highway for her enemies; but with a navy, it surpasses all other frontiers in strength.
In the 1930s and 1940s, seaborne trade was integral to Australia's national life and much of it was routed through the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, bound for Europe and Britain. Australian ships and cargoes needed to be protected, hence the deployment of RAN ships to both theatres of war. In no time at all, RAN officers and sailors serving in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had shown themselves to be every bit the equal of their British counterparts, and worthy of the trust placed in them by the parliament and the people.
The RAN is one of Australia's oldest continuously existing national institutions and is integral to its continuing survival as a sovereign nation in a violent and disordered world. As this history reveals, the strongest argument for the Australian navy is its own history.