Sailor forced to swim on four occasions

Name: Francis Rupert Chesterman
Date: 1940-1941
Unit: RAN
Location: Greece, Crete

Many merchant seamen were torpedoed or bombed during World War II. Some survived to serve on other ships, many were killed.

But Francis Rupert Chesterman must have set a record in that he was forced to swim on four occasions when ships he was sailing on were hit by enemy bombs, mines or torpedoes.

Although he joined the Royal Australian Navy at the ripe old age of 36, Rupert served much of the war in merchant ships as a gunnery officer.

He joined the TSS Clan Cumming (a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) in January 1940 where, among other things, his job was to train a gun crew. The ship left Port Melbourne in March that year and Rupert's wife, June, wondered if she would ever see him again who saw him off.

After a fairly uneventful voyage, his ship reached Liverpool in England where it was loaded with troops and transport equipment worth 21 million pounds sterling for use by the AIF in the Middle East.

While Rupert was ashore on leave, the ship was bombed by German aircraft, with one bomb landing right on Rupert's cabin. The ship was eventually repaired at the Clyde shipworks and delivered its cargo before returning to Australia to load wool for France.

Whilst in France, they were called to give help at Dunkirk, evacuating both civilians and troops before leaving England with another load of equipment for the Middle East.

They left in a huge convoy which included the mammoth British aircraft carrier Illustrious. The Germans could not resist such a tempting target and threw everything into attack against the convoy, concentrating on Illustrious.

"I have never seen such a barrage of fire as the Illustrious put up," Rupert told a meeting in Hobart town hall on his return to Australia. "It was an absolute blanket of fire and we could not see the sun through it. "The Germans went right into it but although they hit Illustrious they could not sink her."

But several other ships were sunk and many others were damaged. The Clan Cumming had to go for repairs to Greece, which was still a neutral country. Parts for the repairs were actually obtained from Germany.

When the Clan Cumming set out for sea once more, she was struck by a torpedo and had to return for further repairs. These completed, she sailed again but this time her luck really ran out. She struck a mine in the Aegean Sea and sank in four minutes.

Rupert Chesterman was forced to swim for his life, the third time he had to do so. The survivors were picked up by a Greek destroyer which put them ashore. They were able to walk as far as Athens where Rupert was admitted to hospital suffering from dermatitis caused by the oil he had been covered in during his swim.

When news came through that Greece had declared war on Germany and that German troops were heading for Athens, Rupert discharged himself from hospital and went straight to the British Embassy.

Despite all the turmoil and confusion, he was asked to drive two cars, a Daimler and a Rolls Royce belonging to Prince Philip into the harbour. On returning to the Embassy he learned that a crew member who understood Thornycroft engines was required to sail on the 250-ton Admiralty yacht moored in the harbour.

He reported to Commander Brass and they left Pireaius for Santorini where they sheltered until dawn. The women and children on board were put ashore on a small island.

Soon afterwards, a German Stuka bomber flew over and dropped a direct hit on the bridge of the yacht. Commander Brass was blown into the water, losing an arm in the process. Rupert dived in to help rescue him and later attended to the wound. When told later that he would get a citation for his bravery he said he'd rather return to Australia as he felt his age was also against him and his health was deteriorating.

Against all the odds, and with the help of local fishermen, the survivors made it to Crete where they were hidden by Greek policemen. The Allied troops had been evacuated a few days earlier and as Rupert had only the clothes he stood up in, he decided to collect some of the garments that had been discarded on the beaches. He became the owner of an army greatcoat, a French beret and a pair of sand shoes.

Several days later they were picked up by a British destroyer and taken to Port Said where Commander Brass made good his promise and arranged for Rupert to be sent home.

But his troubles were far from over. His voyage was a working passage on a Norwegian freighter where he was required to work four hours on and four hours off duty. It was an ordeal, for his nerves had been shattered by his adventures, the food was terrible and he found it hard to sleep.

When the ship tied up at Melbourne's Victoria Dock, he walked off with a few possessions including a German Mauser rifle, his money belt studded with insignia from German and Italian officers who had been taken prisoners of war, his army greatcoat, French beret and grubby sand shoes.

Having reported to the naval authorities at Port Melbourne and obtaining leave, he proceeded to the family warehouse, Nott's Novelties, in Flinders Lane, run by his wife's uncle. Because Ronald Nott and his partner were busy when he arrived unexpectedly, they suggested he have a beer for an hour or so at the Port Phillip Club Hotel across the road.

He was enjoying his cool beer when a hand fell on his shoulder - it was the military police who had been attracted by his strange outfit. They told Rupert he was under arrest and when he asked them why, they wanted to know where he had stolen the greatcoat. He told them he had got it on Crete but they didn't believe him and took him off in a military paddy wagon to lock him up.

He was allowed to make one telephone call, and as the warehouse was by then closed, he called the manager of the Equity Trustees Company, George Legg, who managed his father-in-law's estate. George Legg confirmed the story and Rupert was eventually released.

Having spent the night in a hotel, Rupert borrowed some clothes from Ronald Nott, called his wife in Tasmania and caught the ferry for Burnie. A few weeks later Rupert was given an honourable discharge on medical grounds.

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs J R Chesterman from Tasmania, Rupert's wife
8/01/2002 10:44:15 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Sailor forced to swim on four occasions, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/sailor-forced-swim-four-occasions
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