A coder gained a firm
grip of the mess deck table and the leading sparker reached up for his
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
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
'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.
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
Not a sound could be
heard in the mess as the leading Sig paused to ruminate.
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
"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."