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Category: Battles/WW2

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28/29 March 1941


 "I have no friends except ships steering 045 degrees."

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.

Although firing 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.

Little things...

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:

"Speed 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.

The ship leaped ahead through the sea, a white cloud of foam opening at her bows.

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 enemy fleet.

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 speed.

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.

Then Warspite's 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 bottom.

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 white-painted ships.

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 target.

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 roar.

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 darkness.

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.

Stuart, still 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.

Stuart's guns, 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 actions.

Then he made his famous signal: "I have no

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


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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces