Corvettes were minesweepers at Sicily landings
Name: Kevin Kimball
Unit: HMAS Maryborough
When the Allies invaded Sicily early in 1943, a number of Australian corvettes were used as mine sweepers to enable the landing craft to reach the shore safely. Among them were HMAS Maryborough and her sister ships Ipswich and Lismore.
Midshipman Kevin Kimball, not yet 19 years old, had recently joined Maryborough and after some convoy work, the ship became part of Operation Husky - the invasion of Sicily.
This was to be Kevin's baptism of fire - literally. Maryborough's job was to sweep for mines off the beaches, which brought danger from a number of fronts.
"We didn't need to be told that, apart from a possible encounter with a mine, the enemy would no doubt take strong exception to our activities - and we would be at very close range to his guns," Kevin wrote in his memoirs.
"According to my diary, we went to Action Stations at 2 am on the Saturday morning, and it was cold and pitch black, with a big sea still running. At 2.05 am we could just make out aircraft transports with gliders and paratroops passing overhead. [Kevin had decided to keep a diary "because of the momentous nature of the events we were about to take part in", even though it was strictly against the rules.]
"We learnt later that some pilots didn't realise the strength of the gale blowing from shore, and released their gliders too soon, while some paratroops jumped too early and were blown back to the ocean, many being drowned. We saw the evidence of these tragedies in the water when dawn came," Kevin recalled.
"By now the whole area was ablaze with star shells, tracer shells and bullets, flares and explosions. I remember being fascinated, in particular, by the tracer shells which seemed to criss-cross the sky in slow motion, like coloured beetles.
"A transport exploded not far away from us, whether from a mine, a torpedo, or bomb, we didn't know, but it must have been an ammunition ship from the size of the explosion. As dawn came, we moved in to the beach off the village of Pachino, near Cape Passero, to carry out our mine sweeping as planned, while the screening warships (including my old friend Erebus) were bombarding the beaches.
"Shells were exploding in the water ahead of us, but we weren't sure if they were from shore batteries shooting at us, or fire from our own warships falling short of the beach. As far as we were concerned, it didn't really matter which it was, because if any of it hit us the result would be the same. So we just got on with the job of getting our mine sweeping gear into the water, and starting our part of the landing operations, by trying to clear any moored mines out of the way of the landing craft."
However, they hadn't got very far with this task when landing craft began heading for shore. One blew up before it got to the beach, but it didn't deter the others. Someone on the troop transports must have decided to accept the risk of mines and sent the landing craft in before the corvettes had finished sweeping.
"At this stage the skipper concluded that our best contribution would be to get our mine sweeping gear back on board, and get out of the way, which we promptly did (as did the other minesweepers). By now there was a great deal of noise and confusion, with destroyers closing in to join in the bombardment of the beaches, which were still being shelled by the battleships and cruisers, while we had become little more than spectators hoping that we wouldn't be hit by some stray shell.
"We couldn't very well head back out to sea or we would probably have been run over by the landing barges, so we just had to sit there and (figuratively) keep our heads down. We watched as troops disembarked from the landing craft, and raced up the beach into the village of Pachino, closely followed by tanks which were now being landed also. Apparently the troops had made a pretty good recovery from the seasickness they had suffered from Friday's storm, because they seemed to be quickly overcoming any resistance on shore.
"As evidence of the quick progress made in overcoming resistance at our landing point, my diary note reads - 7.30 am Things going pretty well our way. We were a bit surprised at the absence of enemy planes over the beaches, as we had been warned to expect heavy air attacks, but we did have large numbers of Allied aircraft overhead, especially Spitfires.
"Enemy planes had finally appeared and there were three air attacks by 1pm, which caused little or no damage as they were soon chased away. By now, we had been at action stations continuously for about 12 hours and were getting pretty weary. The cooks had little or no chance to prepare hot food, as they had also been at their action stations (as ammunition handlers etc) and we had breakfasted and lunched on tins of fruit salad."
During the afternoon there were four more air attacks in which one ship was hit and one bomber was shot down. One stick of bombs fell about 450 metres from Maryborough and her guns crews were having a very busy time - though, unfortunately, with no discernible results, according to Kevin. When a lull eventually came about mid afternoon, Maryborough, Lismore, and Ipswich anchored at a "safe" distance from shore to give crews a chance to get some rest before nightfall, when things were expected to hot up again, possibly from E-boats as well as planes.
Enemy air activity increased at night and the crew of Maryborough were soon back at action stations, the anchor was raised, and they were ordered to do off-shore patrols against possible attacks by Italian E-boats which had been reported in the vicinity.
"We were told later that a stick of bombs had fallen on our anchorage shortly after we left it, so our timing was good," Kevin wrote. "Possibly a reconnaissance plane had observed our group at anchor in that spot during the day, and his friends had decided to work it over," Kevin wrote.
"About 11pm things got very hot and my diary entry (written next day) reads as follows: 11pm All hell let loose. Biggest raid so far. Bombs, shells, tracer, AA stuff all colours. Two planes down in flames. Ship torpedoed nearby. 3 shells burst overhead but no damage or casualties. Our anti aircraft guns were kept pretty busy during all this activity, but the difficulty at night time was to see an aircraft long enough to fire at it with much hope of success."
Kevin said that on the 50th anniversary of the landing in 1993, the Melbourne Age newspaper had reprinted its report of 12 July 1943 which read The Allied forces are reported to be consolidating their positions, despite violent bomber attacks.
"We couldn't have put it more succinctly," he said.
On the way to the landings at Sicily, Maryborough had had a close encounter with a mine while Kevin was on watch.
"I remember this incident very vividly," he wrote. "The mine appeared on the top of a wave directly ahead of the ship and the helmsman was given the order 'Hard a starboard'. But the ship's momentum kept us moving towards the mine for what seemed ages and it looked as if we were going to hit it.
"Then, as we got close I could feel the ship starting to swing right. The danger was, however, that this might cause the port side of the ship to hit the mine so the skipper then gave the order to the helmsman 'Hard a port' so the stern would swing around the mine. Fortunately, the skipper's judgement was spot on and we watched the mine drift down the ship's port side a few feet away. I remember there was total silence on the bridge as this was happening.
"Finally, as the mine passed astern I found myself clinging tightly to the side of the bridge. I felt as though I didn't have any knees and that if I let go my grip on the bridge rail, I would sink to the deck. I also remember thinking at one stage 'This is it - I won't see my family again'."
A few weeks later Maryborough had another close escape when the convoy for which she was providing escort was unexpectedly attacked by a large force of German bombers near Alboran Island.
"From time to time on this trip we had seen large numbers of aircraft flying from North Africa towards Italy, the Balkans, and the Romanian oilfields," Kevin wrote. "These were mainly Liberators and Flying Fortresses, so it didn't seem all that unusual when I spotted a considerable number of aircraft low down on the horizon towards the North African coast, on the port side of the convoy. The lookouts had also reported them, and we started counting them as a matter of interest.
"I had reached 42 in my count, when I heard someone remark 'Italy is going to get a pasting tonight', to which there was general agreement, since there had not been any of the usual warnings of enemy aircraft activity in our area.
"At that stage, we noticed that the planes, still too far off for us to identify, had altered course and were flying directly towards the convoy, still very low. This seemed a bit odd for planes going to attack Italy and while we were trying to fathom this unusual behaviour, the duty signalman (a little Englishman) who had his telescope trained on the Shoreham, shouted out 'Black flag on the Senior Officer, Sir'.
"The Captain had come up to the bridge by this time to enjoy the evening air, and he acknowledged the report. Then, since this was a new one on us, he asked the signalman 'What does the black flag mean?'
"The signalman shouted 'Unidentified aircraft', just as puffs of smoke started to appear in the sky ahead of the convoy. The signalman had come to us as a replacement from the Royal Navy pool in Alexandria, and he showed some depth of experience by focussing his telescope on the SO of the Escort Group, when everyone else was showing interest in the bunch of aircraft.
"He was probably a bit surprised at the initial calm reception of his report. From then on, there was wild activity - someone hit the button for the action alarm bells, and sailors who had been relaxing on the upper deck, getting fresh air and exercise, raced for tin hats, life belts etc and their Action Stations.
"Something like this would not have surprised us as we went past Sicily or Malta, or even the notorious Bomb Alley off Tunisia, but being so close to Gibraltar - and the planes coming from the wrong direction - we couldn't believe what was happening. Up to now, the air attacks we had suffered had come mainly under cover of darkness (except for the sporadic attacks on the first day of the Sicily landing), but this time the planes had arrived from a totally unexpected direction (the south) in a totally unexpected area, and in daylight - and there were a lot of them."
Kevin said that as he was on his way aft, he glanced back to see the planes had wheeled back to the right after passing the front of the convoy, and were flying in very low towards the lines of ships, all of which were firing furiously, on the side where Gawler and Lismore were stationed.
"It was now obvious that they were torpedo bombers, later identified as Heinkel 111s and JU 88s, Kevin said. "The sky above the convoy was full of exploding shells and lines of tracer bullets, and suddenly there were much bigger explosions as several aircraft blew up in balls of fire. Even though they were trying to sink us, I had a sick feeling thinking about the men in them, doing the job they were sent to do - just as we were.
"The scene by now was chaotic (I almost said indescribable except that I'll try to describe it.) Planes were flying between the lines of ships, after they had dropped their torpedoes, but the ships were still firing at them, and presumably at each other. At this stage also we were ordered to drop smoke floats to try to put a smoke screen around the convoy, which, of course, added to the general scene of total chaos.
"The tracks of torpedoes which had missed the convoy could be seen heading in our direction, to which the Skipper reacted very quickly by turning towards them to 'comb the tracks', thus presenting the smallest possible target to the torpedoes (the bows of the ship). At the same time, Jack Boyle had to be careful that he didn't take us too close to the ships, which were firing in all directions.
"At this point, we spotted another large group of aircraft coming in from our port quarter (from the opposite direction to the original attack) which suggested that this bunch had done all this before. Our pom pom and 20 mm Oerlikons on the after deck engaged them, they were JU 88s, as they swept past us towards the convoy, very close to the water.
"One of them which had apparently dropped his torpedoes, suddenly banked to the left as he flew past our stern, and then flew parallel and very close to our starboard side, with all the guns able to bear on him doing their best to bring him down. The plane flew so close I could see two airmen looking at us as it went past. It was quite a shock to actually see the faces of the airmen, and it made the encounter seem more personal. Soldiers of course, do this all the time, but it doesn't happen very often in the Navy - the killing business is usually much more remote," Kevin wrote.
The JU 88 continued along their starboard side, jinking up and down to upset the aim of the gunners, until he passed the bridge and gave their 4" inch gun on the fore deck a chance to get into the action, which they weren't slow to do. Their first shell apparently hit the water between Maryborough and the plane, but the second one burst just above the JU 88, which promptly pancaked on to the surface of the ocean. The roar that went up from the crew members who witnessed the event sounded like the winning goal at a football grand final.
"Shortly afterwards, the plane floated past us down the port side, with three crew members sitting on it and waving furiously to be rescued, but we were still too busy with the action to be able to turn back. However the Hythe, which was astern of us, did pick them up and landed them in Gibraltar.
"It was dusk before the last of the attackers departed the scene, about an hour after the action had begun. Gibraltar was only about 100 miles [160km] away; in fact, we could dimly see the coast of Spain, but we still hadn't sighted any of our fighter aircraft.
"Because of the amount of smoke around, the disorganised state of the convoy, and the fading light, it was difficult to know what damage had been done. There had been quite a few explosions, but whether they were ships being hit by torpedoes, or planes blowing up, we couldn't tell until next morning when some order had been restored. To our amazement, only two ships seemed to have been badly damaged and these had been taken in tow to Gibraltar by the RN corvettes, Hythe and Rye.
"Casualties among the crews of the convoy ships were not known, but of the Aussie corvettes, only the Gawler had some wounded. We had all seen aircraft bursting into flames and crashing (apart from our victim) but it was impossible at that time to come up with a number. My diary entry written on 14 August reads: Seven shot down for certain. Probably three or four more. The final confirmed figure was 14, out of a total attacking force of just over 50 aircraft.
"Our wireless telegraphists managed to pick up the German radio news in English the next day, which reported that Major Kluemperer had led an attack by a large force of torpedo bombers, from an airfield in Southern France, against an Allied convoy of 70 ships 'entering' the Mediterranean. The report claimed that air reconnaissance the next day had shown that the sea was covered with debris and burning ships, and that at least 30 ships had been sunk.
"Of course, we only had a total of 30 ships to begin with. The telegraphists were able to copy the German news bulletin and distribute it around the ship, where it was greeted with incredulity and great hilarity, serving as an object lesson of the unreliability of enemy propaganda. Probably ours wasn't much better at times, remembering the exaggerated claims of the number of German planes shot down on a day by day basis during the Battle of Britain.
"Even allowing for the usual practice of inflating the number of enemy losses, we were puzzled as to why German radio referred to the convoy as 'entering' the Mediterranean, when, even in the heat of battle, the attackers must have known we were going the other way. After all, they did fly a parallel course with us for a while after we first saw them, which was in the direction of the setting sun. Unless they were under the impression that the sun set in the east in the Med."
The mystery was eventually solved when, some time later the action was written up in the Royal Navy Intelligence Reports which were circulated amongst the Mediterranean Fleet. It turned out that there was in fact, a fully laden convoy of about 70 ships, bound for the Sicily front, which was 65km to the north of them at the time they were attacked.
"Four of the escorts were our old friends, the Aussie corvettes of the 22nd Mine Sweeping Flotilla, whom we hadn't seen for some time," Kevin recalled. "When we did eventually meet up with them back in Alexandria, they told us they could see the glow of explosions in the sky to the south of their position, and could hear the convoy's radio reports of the attack. It seemed clear that it was their convoy which was the intended target for Major Kluemperer and his boys, no doubt because it was reported by spies when entering the Straits of Gibraltar.
"The bomber squadron apparently flew too far to the east without seeing the inbound convoy, and found itself near the coast of North Africa. They had then flown west expecting to find their target convoy somewhere on the way, but found us instead, and decided they may as well get something for their trouble - but got more than they bargained for.
"Whether, when their decimated numbers returned to base, they admitted attacking the wrong convoy (or even if they knew they had) we never ever found out. Probably not, because when the reconnaissance aircraft reported only 30 ships afloat after the attack, they did the arithmetic and decided they had sunk the rest."
Kevin Kimball later transferred to HMAS Dubbo which served in and around New Guinea. He was discharged from the Navy in 1946.
The material for this article was supplied by Kevin Kimball of the Australian Capital Territory
8/01/2002 10:33:53 AM