The day before the
victory at Matapan HMAS Stuart was lying up in Alexandria waiting to be
docked. A near miss off Benghazi had blown half her rudder off. Then a
string of flags was hauled up Warspite's foremast. It was a general
signal from Admiral Cunningham, and it read: "Raise steam for full
speed with all dispatch."
||Men of Stuart had been
praying for such a signal ever since Calabria and it would have taken
more than the matter of half a rudder to keep them back; so Stuart
sailed out through the boom that day with the rest of the fleet, to
glory and a place in the annals of Australian naval history.
With the destroyer
clearing the boom mouth into the open sea her crew prepared her for the
stern trial they knew was coming. Everything according to the drill
books had of course been done. But here was where training and
initiative and that intelligent cooperation existing between officers
and men, qualities which have given the British Navy through the years
that edge over its enemies entered the picture.
Instead of standing
around waiting for the bombers to arrive, or surface craft to come in
range, after having done all that was required of them by the training
manual, the gun crews kept working. The gun layer gave his telescope a
final wipe and focused it on the next destroyer in line. It was a
hundred to one that he wouldn't use it, as all guns would be
"on" by director, but just in case an unlucky hit caught the
director the guns would not miss a broadside, because he would be ready
to go straight into local control.
mechanism of all guns had been tested at the commencement of the watch,
captains of guns gave it another run through, just in case. And on the
electric interceptor, because he had been trained to look for little
things, one spotted a lump of grease which could easily have caused a misfire.
It was wiped off.
The trainer had
trained his heavy mounting through the full limits to ensure no obstacle
to training existed and everything seemed O.K. But, restless, he
examined every portion of his connecting rods and found that the jolt of
the mounting coming to a stop had dropped a thick wad of cotton waste
into the cogs of his gear wheels.
All over the ship,
from controlling bridge down to the bowels of the smoking engine room
men were doing every conceivable thing which might help to turn the
scale of ultimate victory. They appreciated fully, through training,
force of example, and above all, through the influence of that man on
whom devolves, in the final count, the whole responsibility for the
fighting efficiency of the ship, the captain, that they must if they
were to return safe to old Alex.
So the ships of the
British Battle Fleet, battleships, cruisers and speedy destroyers, in
all their organized perfection steamed to sea.
It was at four o'clock
of a calm, cloudless afternoon that the masts and high fighting top of a
warship were sighted far ahead above the rim of blue. The weather was
perfect for gunnery, unlimited visibility, clear blue sky, and roll
negligible. Even the destroyers stayed on an even keel as they increased
speed to close this ship ahead.
The moment she was
sighted a three-flag signal hauled up the flotilla leader's mast-so
quickly it seemed pretty certain it had been bent on to the halliards
already. The signal yeoman on Stuart's bridge had his glasses up and in
a second spoke over his shoulder to the captain:
twenty-eight knots, sir. Executive!"
The captain bent to
the wheelhouse voice pipe.
Down in the
engine-room they were waiting; the indicators steadied on "full
ahead". Before the clang of the bells had died, the engineers spun
the huge throttle wheels till they jammed wide open against the stops.
The engine-room hum was changed in a second to a mighty, drumming roar.
ship leaped ahead through the sea, a white cloud of foam opening at her
Then a flickering
light stuttered from the ship on the horizon. As they drew nearer, the
bridge officers distinguished the superstructure of a British cruiser.
It was Orion, and her signal said: "Have Italian Battle Fleet
astern in chase."
With consummate skill,
manoeuvring his ship so that he was always just in range, coaxing them
along with this promising bait, Orion's captain was drawing the whole
enemy fleet into the hungry jaws of Cunningham's hounds.
Knowing that the
Dagoes would run once they knew what they had to contend with, the
admiral dispatched a cruiser squadron, with the 2nd and 14th Destroyer
Flotillas, to sweep ahead and position themselves on the far side of the
His strategy was of
course justified, the enemy running for their lives before our
battleships could come in range. The British Fleet followed at full
It was not until 10.20
p.m. that night that contact was again made. The fleet was steaming
through a sea as flat as a river. Above the masthead the stars hung
countless in a luminous haze. The moon had not yet risen and the faint
starlight served only to accentuate the darkness which fell wide and
dense on all sides. A night officially described as "clear and
dark. Then at 10.20 p.m. radar contacts were made with objects in the
darkness ahead and on either side. Enemy in sight!
Stuart was directly
astern of the line of battleships as they swept up. Looming out of the
night six big ships rushed to meet them. From their course it seemed
that the battleships hadn't been sighted. On Warspite, the leading
British 15-incher, the huge barrels of her twin turrets trained smoothly
round. With perfect timing a destroyer turned her searchlight on the
leading ship of the enemy line.
She stood out stark and clear, every
detail revealed in the brilliant beam; an 8-inch cruiser.
terrible guns thundered in one single broadside. The Italian ship
dissolved into a mane of searing flame. She heeled, stricken under the
onslaught, transformed in a few awful seconds from a proud fighting ship
to a twisted tangle of iron falling through the starlit upper waters of
the Mediterranean down into the freezing darkness of the unfathomed
The whole British
battle line was in action now, their guns spokes of flame whose fierce,
revenging monotone of thunder struck terror into the hearts of those
In almost as many
minutes five enemy ships lay blazing on the sea, and Stuart, with the
destroyer Havock, was ordered to quench their betraying glare. She went
in to finish off a burning cruiser, the light from the fires playing in
flickering shadows on her superstructure, when she sighted on the outer
circle of light another enemy cruiser.
The torpedo officer
rapidly trained his sight left until it bore on the enemy's foremast.
She made a beautiful target, silhouetted against the curtain of night.
In rapid succession he loosed six torpedoes. The long steel shapes,
propellers already whirling, leapt roaring out of their tubes, hit the
water in a cloud of spray and started their underwater run to the
She was turning
desperately, but the range was too close. The lines of smooth water
reached out, touched. From her sides spewed suddenly a solid sheet of
flame; a wall of water climbed up, higher than her masts. Then came the
That ship, a 10,000
ton cruiser, five times her size, little Stuart claimed for her own.
All this time, due to
the Italians using flashless cordite, in the signal yeoman's words,
"they could just hear the stuff lobbing". Some of it was close,
the pillars of white as the shells landed ghostly-looking in the
On Stuart's for'ard
gun the crew was composed almost entirely of brand-new ordinary seamen
just come from Australia. This was their baptism of fire! But soon they
were to prove that their depot gunnery training was thorough enough to
stand the test of the most stringent action conditions.
with Havock close astern, had hauled out of line of the burning
cruiser to complete her job, when, appearing suddenly un her starboard
bow, steering a course which would take her down the starboard side at a
range of five hundred yards, an Italian destroyer leaped to meet her.
alert and ready, caught her bridge with the first salvo. It seemed to
crumple and cave in. Again and again the guns roared, raking the Italian
with a sweeping, searing blast from stem to stern. The enemy boat
staggered on, past Stuart's stern, then on to
Havock. A torpedo tube on the
Britisher flamed redly. There was a moment's pause, then the Dago
was lifted clean out of the water. A foaming patch of debris-littered
water marked her grave, then Stuart and Havock went on,
into the night.
At eleven o'clock the Admiral ordered
all units to retire to the north-east, in order to line up those of the
fleet which had disengaged the main body during their individual
Then he made his famous signal: "I
One hears that all ships discovered
first class station-keeping abilities!
Astern, as they steamed off, the
British Fleet left devastation. It was a macabre scene. In five
different places the darkness of the night was slashed with the leaping
red of burning ships, now and then a tongue of flame shooting up as
a magazine exploded or petrol tank ignited. The Italian Fleet,
caught at last, was burning. The red glows had dwindled to pinpoints
when from back there came again the dull mutter of heavy gunfire. The
enemy were engaging each other.
At three in the morning the cruisers
and destroyers sent on ahead rejoined the main fleet. Steaming on, a
damaged enemy cruiser, was sighted. She offered no resistance so the
destroyer Jervis went alongside. She was deserted. Jervis hauled
off, swung broadside on, and finished her.
When daylight broke over the sea
they found survivors everywhere. These were picked up until German
bombers coming over picked the stationary
ships and their rescuing boats for targets, so the survivors were left.
On the way back to base the admiral
called up an Italian shore station, suggesting a hospital ship be sent
out, and gave the position of the action. A Sunderland bomber later
guided her to the spot.
That day, tired, smoke-blackened, the
paint of their guns blistered and peeling, all the ships of the British
Fleet secured to their berths in Alexandria Harbour.
While round the world flashed the news
of the Battle of Matapan.
J. E. MACDONNELL (R.A.N.) from
"AS YOU WERE !" 1946