Engineer kept HMAS Napier going after bomb disabled her

Name: "Bug" Oliver
Date: 1941
Unit: HMAS Napier
Location: Crete

The Australian destroyer Napier was one of several ships which played a major role in the evacuation of Allied troops from Crete in May 1941, but she almost didn't make it.

The Australian destroyer Napier was one of several ships which played a major role in the evacuation of Allied troops from Crete in May 1941, but she almost didn't make it.

Napier was steaming at full speed for Alexandria in the company of her sister ship Nizam. Both ships carried in excess of 700 troops, plucked from the shore at Sfakia during the night.

As soon as dawn came, the ships were attacked by the Luftwaffe and put up a wall of fire. The rescued troops fired rifles and bren guns in support of the ships' guns. Miraculously both ships survived the attacks and the enemy aircraft eventually returned to base.

Then came an attack by a lone JU 88. Captain Steve Arliss watched through his binoculars, judging where the bombs would fall and making a last minute alteration to the ship's course. The bomb narrowly missed but exploded beside the ship.

Napier came to a halt as her engines lost power and Nizam circled to see if she could help whilst watching the skies anxiously for the return of enemy aircraft. In fact the turbine feet had been broken, putting the engine out of action and the oil fuel pump in the after boiler room had also been broken.

Commander 'Bug' Oliver was the Engineer Officer on Napier. It was his job to keep the ship going. According to an account written by Rear-Admiral O H Becher, Oliver

"appeared on the bridge - quite unperturbed as usual. 'Give me half an hour and we will be going again,' he said to the Captain and sure enough, in that time, we were on our way at 16 knots," Rear-Admiral Becher wrote.

"We had no more nastiness from the Huns and entered Alexandria Harbour at about 7pm to receive a rousing reception from the Fleet. We could not go astern so we were put alongside by tugs. Sir Andrew Cunningham slipped over the guard rails to give the Captain a big pat on the back. 'Bug' Oliver received a Mention in Despatches for his leadership in the engine room and outstanding ability in getting us going again so quickly. This was, I believe, one of the most worthy of the war and I believe should have been at least a DSC."

'Bug' Oliver's own account described what happened to Napier after she returned to Alexandria.

"After our second run to Sfakia, Napier spent several weeks moored in Port Said while a team of Suez Canal Co men removed two plates from our main deck, lifted our port high pressure turbine, and took it by lighter across to their work shops at Port Fuad," he wrote.

"The near miss which fractured our main and auxiliary machinery bases also bent that turbine shaft, making it unusable at full power. So the Port Fuad shop spun it in a lathe and skimmed the fore end shaft down a few thousandths to restore alignment, then re-metalled the bearing to suit."

Commander Oliver's daughter, Miss I A Oliver, said there was not a word in her father's memoirs about the condition of the engine room when the ship was brought to a halt.

"Word of mouth has it that there was a complete loss of power, including, of course, lighting. Captain Arliss's action on the bridge averted immediate death and destruction; my father and his stokers, working in the dark and confusion, got the ship moving, and made it possible for her and her human cargo to reach safe haven."

Once Napier was repaired she took part in a number of runs to help supply the garrison at Tobruk. These were known as 'Spud Runs'. Commander Oliver described an incident which occurred during one of these trips.

"About half way along the main deck of destroyers there used to be a steel superstructure supporting a four-barrelled pom-pom gun and enclosing the two circular hatches to the engine room. And between the hatches was a wooden bench, unofficially called the Engineer's Bridge. A destroyer chief would spend hours here at sea in the Med, it being the best location from which to proceed promptly forward, or aft, or below," he wrote.

"In the 1940s many engineer officers, including me, had taken to wearing white overalls instead of the brown jean garments customary up to that time. I had observed that many destroyer officers had their stripes of rank painted on the front of their tin hats, to facilitate recognition in the dust and smoke of battle, but decided it was unnecessary for me.

"There came a time when certain Australian troops in Tobruk were relieved by Polish units; thus our 'return cargo' one night was a company of Tobruk-tired but quite fit AIF infantry. And having been below while manoeuvring away from the wharf, I came up the ladder to the engineer's bridge - and found it occupied by a large soldier and his kit. He had managed to slip away from his blue-torch sailor guide and perch in a very cushy spot.

"Not having the heart to send him forward, I said, 'Move over, Digger. There's room for two.' 'Righto mate,' said he, and moved his clobber enough to let me sit beside him. And so we yarned away the middle watch and swapped views on many things. And his views on some subjects were very set.

"I sympathised with soldiers having to live in the dirt and discomfort of Tobruk, remarking that we were much better off in feeding and washing facilities. But my friend disagreed. 'I like firm earth under me. You can have your Navy.' And he disliked Pommies. 'But,' said I, 'aren't all your artillery men in Tobruk British units, and aren't they pretty hot stuff?' Then he gave me his opinion of officers - any officers, military, naval, etc. Apparently they were the bottom of the barrel. I said what I could in defence of these warriors, pointing out that most officers most of the time tried to do their best.

"In those days, British warships at sea used to close up at General Quarters (Action Stations) five minutes before dawn and dusk, and stay there for 10 or 15 minutes until full daylight or dark prevailed - to avoid being tricked or trapped in the dicey light conditions just before and after sunrise and sunset.

"On this occasion, during the dawn stand to my chief engine room artificer poked his head up the engine room hatch and reported something about the port main engine ~ and addressed me as 'Sir'. And a few minutes later, after dispersal from GQs, [General Quarters] my office messenger and cabin hand stoker, Gardiner, brought me a welcome cup of tea from the after galley, and called me 'Sir'. Whereupon my soldier friend, with rising suspicion in his voice, asked 'Just what are you in this ship?'

"'Well, I'm the engineer officer of the ship and staff engineer to Captain (D) 7th Flotilla,' I said. His jaw fell open and 'Jeese,' he exploded, 'I thought you was the cook!!' So, next day, in harbour, my winger, Gardiner, acquired brushes and paint and adorned my 'tin 'at' with three stripes.

"The weather was mostly fine and clear, but occasionally it played up. This occurred during one Spud Run on which we took to Tobruk some Polish soldiers. With the ship reacting to rough weather the way destroyers do, many of these poor devils were terribly seasick. A few even lost their rifles overboard, and when a soldier does that, he is pretty far gone. But with calmer weather as we neared Tobruk they recovered strongly, and marched away from the wharf singing! Singing on going in to Tobruk!! It nearly stopped us unloading."

'Bug' Oliver entered the Royal Australian Naval College, then at Jervis Bay, in 1917 as a cadet. He was sent to England in 1923/24 for training in marine engineering and remained in the RAN until 1959. He died on 9 July 1986 aged 83.

[Footnote: For further reading on N Class destroyers N Class - The Story of Nizam, Nestor, Napier, Norman, Nepal by L J Lind and M A Payne was published by the Naval Historical Society of Australia, PO Box 3, Garden Island, NSW, 2000, in 1993.]

The material for this article was supplied by Miss I A Oliver of New South Wales
8/01/2002 10:41:33 AM


Last updated: 17 February 2020

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Engineer kept HMAS Napier going after bomb disabled her, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/engineer-kept-hmas-napier-going-after-bomb-disabled-her
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