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Category: RAN WW2/Hobart

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By P. R. BURING, R.A.N. Written 1947

The mess deck conversation had turned to lucky ships and the leading Sig took a hand.

"You know," he said, adjusting the fan louvre so that a nice cool stream of air played on his bare back, "a good many ships have earned for themselves the title of 'lucky ship', but we on Hobart reckoned we had a better claim than most."

A coder gained a firm grip of the mess deck table and the leading sparker reached up for his "anti-drowners".

The leading Sig smiled at the banter and continued. "We left Sydney early in May 1941 -that was when I joined her. We steamed across the Indian Ocean to relieve our sister ship Perth in the Med. The voyage was uneventful until our arrival at Suez, the fringe of the war zone, and the furthermost bombing point of Italian and German long-range bombers. We were scheduled to pass through Suez the same day, but owing to mine-sowing activities conducted from the air by enemy aircraft the Canal was temporarily closed during sweeping operations. As a matter of fact we actually entered the Canal but permission to proceed was withheld at the last moment. The captain was of two minds whether to remain where we were or to retrace our steps to the bay.

"Eventually we re-entered the Bay of Tewfik and anchored just off the entrance to the Canal. That night the enemy bombers came. They very systematically bombed the spot at which it had been proposed to anchor, opposite the French Club. Not content with this they then proceeded to drop bombs of some size on the shipping in the harbour. A stick of five fell on our anchorage of the afternoon. A further stick completely gutted the 28,ooo-ton vessel Georgic which swung a little over three hundred yards from us."

There was a brief pause while "rounds" went through and the leading sparker had his towel scranned. The Jimmy disappeared through the port alleyway, and the leading Sig resumed.

"The following day we proceeded through the Canal. On arrival at the Bitter Lakes, we anchored temporarily, then proceeded to Ismalia. Twenty minutes after leaving the lakes they had an air raid, during the course of which they dropped many bombs on the anchorage there. Passing though Ismalia the Canal area was subjected to another raid, and on this occasion we saw enemy planes flying overhead caught in the searchlight beams from the defences on the Canal bank. They failed to see us, but it goes to show how good the German Intelligence was.

"On arrival at Alexandria we were allotted a berth next to the hospital ship Maine. The first night we had an air raid. The next day we left for Haifa. On arrival there we learnt that they had been raided consistently for weeks. From the day of our arrival to the day of departure-fourteen days-we didn't have one alarm, but ten hours after leaving they were again raided heavily. On our return to Alex we discovered that our berth could not be occupied and we had to proceed alongside the Kamaria breakwater. That night the harbour was subjected to a heavy raid and three one-thousand-pounders were dropped across our rightful berth. Maine which swung two hundred yards away was badly blasted and several killed aboard her.

"A week later we left for Port Said to ferry troops to Cyprus. Port Said had been raided even, night for weeks and weeks. We renamed one night during which there was no alarm. Sailing next morning for Famagusta Cyprus) where we arrived just before midnight we learnt that they had barely finished their nightly heavy raid. Twenty minutes after we left they had a second, during which bombs were dropped all over the harbour. We went to sea with the battle fleet a few days later. It was the first occasion on which the fleet had put to sea without being subjected to air attack. Returning to harbour we were attacked by three Italian torpedo bombers but no nits were scored.

"Three weeks later found us off Bardia at midnight pouring six-inch 'projie's' into the Italian shore installations. A few miles astern of us, Latona was torpedoed and sunk. In all we made four trips up the Libyan coast bombarding, and on all occasions remained undetected by enemy aircraft, and on one occasion a nine-point-two German shore battery got our range just as we fired the List broadside."

The leading Sig lit another cigarette. "Towards the end of October," he continued, "we crept out of harbour with two cruisers and three destroyers on a secret mission to the south of Crete, the enemy Stuka base. This was the closest any Allied vessel had been to Crete since it had been lost to the Germans. We were without air support and as a sop they had sent the British ack-ack cruiser Coventry along with us. Sunday morning found us some sixty miles off the Cretan coast. A hundred miles to the cast of us the escort vessel Scud was getting into holts with an Itie sub. Ahead of us Ajax and Neptune were being badly mauled by enemy planes. On our beam fifty miles away, Flamingo had been torpedoed and was badly damaged. Along the Libyan coast the hosp161 ship Somerset was being dive-bombed. We never saw an enemy plane. The battle fleet put to sea to cover the Libyan offensive. We were forced to dock on account of a propeller defect. In the meantime the battleship Barham was torpedoed and sunk, Jackal torpedoed, Glenroy torpedoed, and Ajax near-missed by a thousand-pounder. We languished in dock.

"Well, the Japs came in and of course we had to be in that. We hurried through the Canal, sped through the Red Sea and picked up a convoy at Colombo, our destination Singapore, from which all cruisers and above had been evacuated. It was deemed suicide to leave large units anchored or berthed in Singapore or the adjacent waters. We went. Singapore was being raided day and night. Our first night we secured alongside a shed containing five hundred torpedoes! There was only one spasmodic raid!"

The light started to die and the duty stoker growled something about "flamin' Diesels" and hastened to the engine-room. The lights finally went out and the leading Sig continued his dit in the gloom, the pale light from a fitful moon drifting through a scuttle.

"We left Singapore and returned to Fremantle to pick up another convoy. Returning up Banka Strait we were attacked by five Japanese heavy bombers. All bombs missed. We secured in Keppel harbour for two days. Twenty-seven bombers raided the docks in the afternoon of the first day. Many fires were started but all missed us. The following day we left Singapore for the last time and missed a minefield by feet when our escorting destroyer frantically signalled us.

'Proceeding down Banka Strait with the destroyer Tenedos in company a single Jap bomber fastened upon us and dropped many small bombs, all of which missed. We arrived at Batavia and secured. A week later saw us in company with the British cruiser Exeter attempting to intercept a superior enemy force off Banka Island. Three Japanese bombers picked us up and tried to discourage the operation with an assortment of heavy stuff which failed to connect, though we had a few casualties.

"Two days later in company with a fairly substantial force we again attempted the Banka and Rhio straits. From shortly before noon until sunset we were subjected to what at that time was the severest bombing any vessels had suffered in the Eastern theatre. Few of the ship's company at that time will ever forget it. In all one hundred and thirteen planes were involved and about a couple of hundred bombs were dropped. They didn't score a hit and we skittled a couple of them.

"Returning to Batavia to fuel and take Perth and Exeter down the Java Sea in a 'door-die' attempt to stem the invasion of Java we were again attacked by a formation of aircraft and suffered a few casualties from antipersonnel bombs. We commenced fuelling alongside the tanker War Sirdar. A heavy raid commenced and a stick estimated at forty bombs fell a few yards in a dead straight line on the starboard side. Apart from superficial damage and a few minor accidents the ship was undamaged. War Sirdar collected a bomb through her fo'c'sle head and salt water contaminated her fuel tanks as she commenced to list. Through lack of fuel we were unable to put to sea and join the force which was going out to fight the final Battle of the Java Sea. The fate of that force is now history. Not one ship survived."

Not a sound could be heard in the mess as the leading Sig paused to ruminate.

"Yes," he continued, "we were lucky. We ran the Sunda Strait and escaped, but before this happened we made a final attempt to stop the rot with two old English cruisers, Dragon and Danae. A Jap 'recco' sighted us and Intelligence at Colombo advised us that the Jap 'recco' report falsely classed us as a battleship and two cruisers with the result that the superior force we were steaming to engage retired northward under the protection of their bombing planes.

"Making our run through Sunda the following evening we were mistaken for a Jap force by enemy planes and allowed to proceed unmolested. By hugging the enemy-occupied coast of Sumatra we evaded their searching squadrons and by some miracle won out to the free and open waters of the Indian Ocean, the sole survivors of the Far Eastern Fleet.

"A month or two followed and then northward we went to the Coral Sea Battle. Three torpedoes dropped from attacking planes passed down either side of us and disappeared astern.

"The Battle of the Solomons-well, some of you know about that. We took part in the entire operation, the only casualty a bloke who had his overalls blown off by our own six-inch guns' blast during a torpedo attack. On this occasion we survived an attack by forty planes. During the night it was our job to guard the lower approach to Tulagi. At 2 a.m. that Sunday an enemy force sneaked in and sank four of our cruisers with heavy losses of our men. A few miles away within sight of the battle we steamed unscathed.

"It was in June 1943 that we really collected when a 'fish' struck us aft, but the loss of life was amazingly small considering everything and we were able to make Sydney under own steam, after a patch job had been effected.

"Well, it's 'lights out', and it's me for the cart, but whenever you hear matelots talking about lucky ships, remember the luckiest of them all was Hobart."

from "AS YOU WERE", pages 82, 83, 84 by the AWM 1947


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