Britain

HMAS Perth and the Battle of Crete

For the HMAS Perth and other Allied naval vessels serving in the Mediterranean in the Second World War, 1941 was a rough year. The ships that sailed under the azure skies of Crete and the surrounding Mediterranean Sea – referred to as Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea” by Benito Mussolini – were still menaced by Axis air power.

HMAS Perth brings her guns to bear during a battle in the Mediterranean, 1941

The Perth, at this time, despite only five months in the region, was already a veteran of Mediterranean Sea warfare. She had accompanied HMAS Orion and Ajax during the battle of Matapan; stood by the Illustrious during her dash to Malta; and withstood the German first fierce attack on that island. Other brushes with the seemingly indomitable Luftwaffe had followed over most of the eastern Mediterranean, with some of the heaviest fighting in the Aegean Sea occurring during the Allied evacuation from Greece in April 1941, in which Perth took part.

She had been patrolling the waters of the Aegean Sea and supporting Allied convoys to Malta since January of 1941 and was stationed at Crete when Germany launched its invasion of the Greek island on the morning of the 20th May.

No better example of the struggle the Allied fleets faced in the Mediterranean during the Battle of Crete could be taken than that of HMAS Perth. So much had air control passed to the hands of the enemy that some aerial bombing was expected. Yet no ship could ever have expected to find such a concentrated attack as Perth and her companion ships experienced north of Crete during the time of Hitler’s attack in the latter days of May.

In company with the Dido Class cruiser HMAS Naiad, and the converted six-inch cruisers Calcutta and Carlisle, Perth found herself at 8am on the 21st May standing off Candia. The entire night before had been spent sweeping through the Aegean islands with the hope of meeting the expected German sea-borne convoy. With the clear light of a Mediterranean morning came the first German warplanes.

It has been said that while the greater size of a ship helps in rough seas, the opposite is true when a ship is the biggest in a squadron under attack, and Perth’s few extra tons – judging by the number of bombs rained at her – must have made her appear far bigger than the others.

German paratroopers looking from a hill to the coastal plain during the invasion of Crete, May 1941 (Getty Images)

In this first attack, one of the first bombs fell so close that the complement of crew on the bridge were thoroughly soaked. One of the most popular men aboard was the master-at-arms Chief Petty Officer Jan Creber, and when recalling the bomb a young sailor said, “It was as big as the jaunty (Chief Creber) – and he is eighteen stone. Why, it took ten minutes for the hole in the sea to fill up!”

Being very close to their bases on Scarpanto and Rhodes, the Germans were able to keep machines constantly overhead, with devastating effect. The first raid lasted half an hour, followed by a five-minute respite, and then back came even more Axis planes – endless squadrons of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Stuka dive-bombers – and the anxious cat-and-mouse game of weaving and turning began again.

The chase wore on throughout the day, through the Kaso Strait, known as Bomb Alley, and at 3pm yet another attack on the Allied naval squadron was launched, and the HMS Juno was hit. It is estimated that 116 crew lost their lives after 3 high-powered explosions split Juno in two, sinking her in around 97 seconds. After survivors had been rescued, the ships moved once more towards Alexandria until dusk, when the squadron turned towards Crete and again found itself north of Candia as the sun rose next day. With the sun came Goering’s envoys. Many planes that day bore the yellow noses of the “Goering’s Boys” elite Focke-Wulf Fw190 squadrons, the fabled Jagdgeschwader 26 Schlageter or JG 26.

 

HMAS Perth in her distinctive dazzle livery

Unlike the previous day, however, the course this time was northward to meet the convoy which had been-reported by air as moving amongst the Greek islands. Every turn of the screws taking Perth northwards seemed to bring more planes, and when an Italian destroyer was engaged at 1030 enemy bombers seemed to reach plague proportions, and the destroyer got away.

The constancy of the attack on top of the previous day’s ordeal took heavy toll of the ship’s store of four-inch projectiles, and by noon the situation had become desperate. As a consequence,
Perth’s station at the rear of the squadron had to be surrendered to the HMS Naiad, and the course was set for Kythera Channel. So close had the near-misses been that no instrument, such as gyroscopic compasses and the like, still worked; and to add to the difficulties, the Naiad had been damaged so that the speed of advance was only fourteen knots. When their anti-aircraft shells were finally expended, fifty men a side were served with rifles to try to drive off the persistent aerial enemy.

HMS Warspite

The most welcome sight, at 1300, was the Battle Fleet led by HMS Warspite and Valiant, with cruisers Gloucester and Fiji. By this time the German invasion of Crete was well under way, and countless huge transport planes with gliders in tow could be plainly seen making for the island. The arrival of the Battle Fleet ships made the conditions much more favorable for Perth, as the bigger ships now drew the majority of the fire. Indeed, in the very first few moments Valiant and Warspite were both hit, fortunately without being seriously damaged. HMS Carlisle also survived a bomb on her boat deck, and staggered astern for some time before continuing on in her position.

The destroyer Greyhound went to try to shoot down some of the low flying transport planes, but was pounced on and mortally hit. To protect the destroyers Kandahar and Kimberley whilst picking up survivors, Fiji and Gloucester stood by while the remainder of the force plodded slowly out of the Kythera Channel. HMAS Perth’s last sight of these two ships was belching guns; eventually both disappeared behind a wall of bomb splashes. After two hours a message from the Fiji said that Gloucester had been badly hit, and that she herself was out of shells. HMS Fiji herself made it roughly 65 kilometres (40 miles) from that spot before being sunk.

When the final attack came that day the Perth had been bombed almost incessantly for thirteen hours, and, by a miracle, survived. She would fight valiantly for another year before being sunk in action, during the Battle of Sunda Strait (between the islands of Java and Sumatra in current-day Indonesia), on the 1st March, 1942.

Memory

In Sunda Straits she fought her fight.

‘Gainst hopeless odds that fatal night.

Brave men gave all, so great their worth

and glorified the “Fighting Perth

– Bandsman G.D Vanselow, RAN

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The Golden Eagles – RAAF Pathfinders

On May 30, 1942, the people of the German city of Cologne heard the wail of the air-raid sirens.  Cologne had been raided before, many times, and its people were as accustomed as anyone to the terrors of air raids – but this night was different. Above the din of the flak batteries came an awe-inspiring, terrifying engine roar. For the first time in history a thousand bombers were airborne with a single purpose: the obliteration of Cologne.

Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force B.II Srs IA from No 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943

RAF Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force aircraft of No. 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943 [image via aviation-news.co.uk]

An extraordinary, unprecedented fireworks display was the first introduction the people of Cologne had to a new era in a form of war the Luftwaffe itself had developed – saturation or ‘blitz’ bombing. Brilliant white flares cascaded down, red floating in the clouds above, yellow penetrating glares from where they settled on the ground. RAF and RAAF Pathfinders were at work in strength for the first time, marking the target for the stream of heavy bombers which followed close behind.

The Pathfinding technique was one of the great Allied triumphs of the war, and many Australians took an important part in its development. During the war the Pathfinder squadrons were designated No. 8 Group RAF and their work was so secret that no member of a Pathfinder crew could be named as such. Below their aircrew badges the men wore the covetedf Golden Eagle, the sign of the Pathfinder, however it was never worn on operations. The intrepid pilot chosen to command the first Pathfinders was an Australian, Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

This pre-war airliner pilot, who hailed from Toowoomba, Queensland, was also famous Australian aviation pioneer. In July 1938 he piloted the Mercury part of the Short Mayo Composite flying-boat across the Atlantic and was later co-founder of the Atlantic Ferry Organization, an important wartime delivery service.

In December 1941 Bennett was made wing commander of No. 77 Squadron based at Leeming in the United Kingdom, flying Armstrong Whitleys (the first allied military aircraft to fly over Berlin) as part of the No. 4 Group RAF Bomber Command, in December 1941. Then in April 1942, No. 77 Squadron was transferred to Coastal Command where Bennett was given command of No. 10 Squadron (Handley Page Halifax) and shortly afterwards led a raid on the German battleship Tirpitz. Shot down during that raid, he evaded capture and escaped to Sweden, from where he was able to return to Britain. Bennett and his copilot were awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 16 June 1942.

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO [© IWM CH13645]

Regarded as a superb navigator  – he authored two books on air navigation – it was Bennett who first suggested that a team of expert navigators should be formed into a force that could go to Germany in any weather, pinpoint a particular target, even through unbroken cloud or fog, and mark it for the bombers with special coloured flares and markers.

A top-secret report issued by German Air Force Intelligence Operations (Luftwaffenführungsstab Ic.) in March 1944 refers to the Cologne raid and the importance of the Pathfinders. “The success of a large-scale night raid by the RAF is in increasing measure dependent on the conscientious flying of the Pathfinder crews,” the report states. It also goes on to mention Bennett by name. “This 35 year old Australian – known as one of the most resourceful officers of the RAF – had distinguished himself as long ago as 1938 by a record long-range flight to South Africa in a four-engined seaplane launched in the air from a Sunderland flying boat.”

The Pathfinder Force (PFF) used fast-flying Mosquitoes and specially equipped Lancasters and Halifaxes; Australians flew in all types. As Commander Bennett never suggested more than he would do himself, he was, therefore, the first Pathfinder to fly. The Pathfinder technique enabled the greatest possible tonnage of bombs to be dropped in the shortest possible time. With the target clearly and exactly marked in advance the swarm of heavy bombers could now fly directly to the aiming point and cascade their loads.

Pathfinders were specially chosen from the most experienced bomber crews. They were chosen chiefly for their skill in navigation, the most important requirement in successful Pathfinding, and for tenacity and determination. They would be first at the target and at exactly the time decided before takeoff. Saturation raids, in which  hundreds of heavy bombers dropped their loads in a few minutes, hinged on accurate timing and no timing must be more accurate than that of Pathfinders.

The nature of night bombing raid would be changed, as well. The Pathfinders would find a target and mark it in conditions which helped the bombers evade not only night fighters but also searchlights and anti-aircraft guns by using cloud cover. On normal nights the markers were dropped on the ground with a few flares in the sky, but when cloud obscured the target entirely the markers were hung in the cloud blanket and the target area marked just as accurately as ground flares. In this way the Pathfinders made possible the first successful attack on the vital Krupp steel works in Essen. Before this it had been impossible to make an accurate and concentrated attack on the Ruhr because of the industrial haze in the valley, but when the Pathfinders went to work no smoke could hide the targets.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England. [AWM P08504.001]

The use of flares as markers was by no means new, but the way the Pathfinders used them was unique. Pyrotechnic experts provided a remarkable variety of markers and, by continually changing the colours and the patterns of the flares which mark the targets, they were able to confuse enemy defences. British scientists also provided markers which could be dropped accurately, had exceptional ballistic qualities and exact fusings.

Soon after D-day, June 6th, 1944, when night bombers were turned into day bombers, Pathfinders were ready with a method for marking targets by day just as successfully as by night. Weather made no difference to the accuracy of the technique and when targets began to burn, obscuring the aiming points with heavy smoke, the Pathfinders sent down more indicators and kept the target accurately marked throughout the attack.

Strong criticism from British Air Force heirarchy and from amongst their own units was at first levelled against the Pathfinder Force operations, but they were able to prevail because of the successes achieved during the years 1943 and 1944. The efforts of the PFF crews increasingly helped to sharpen the edge of Allied air supremacy in the skies above Europe as the tide of the war turned.

Lost to the Night: The Lancaster Crew

Lancaster Crew by Stella Bowen

Lancaster Crew by Stella Bowen

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

At the Binbrook RAF flying base in Lincolnshire, Britain during April 1944, the crew of a Lancaster bomber were posing – in their spare time – for Australian War artist Stella Bowen.

One of the first women artists to be appointed, Esther Gwendolyn “Stella” Bowen (b. 1893) was an Australian artist and writer. In 1944, she had been appointed an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial. Bowen’s brief as a war artist was to depict the activities of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) stationed in England. She also painted portraits of military commanders and Australian prisoners of war who had recently been repatriated from Europe.

Lancaster bomber maintenance at RAF Binbrook Bomber Command

Lancaster bomber maintenance at RAF Binbrook Bomber Command

For the Lancaster painting, and as opportunity offered, the six Australians and one Englishman would don their flying kits and look “business-like” for an hour or so while the artist worked on a painting intended to portray the typical crew of the giant bombers which were so successfully pounding targets in Europe, paving the way for an Allied invasion.

It  was a slow job though, with not much more than an outline completed by 27th April.

Shortly after nine o’clock on the night of the 27th the bomb-laden planes of 460 Squadron waddled down the dimly lit runway and roared away  into the darkness. The target was Friedrichshafen – a vital industrial centre on the shores of Lake Constance. There was nothing to make the operation any more exciting or spectacular for the crews: it was just another night raid.

But, by morning, the subjects in the unfinished painting had been reported missing.  Nothing more was known. Hope of the aircraft limping home gradually waned… then disappeared.

Bowen continued work on her picture and eventually completed it, with the aid of a few photographs of the airmen and an artist’s faculty for remembering detail.

Later, in September of that same year, came the  first news of the fate of the crew. The parents of Flight-Officer T. J. Lynch of  Queensland – the tail gunner – received a small postcard from Dulag Luft camp in Germany.

It was in the unmistakable handwriting of  their son – he was alive and a prisoner of war.  He was subsequently repatriated in the fifth exchange of prisoners arranged between the Allies and Germany, and arrived in England at Liverpool on 5 February 1945.

Their aircraft, he said, was shot down in  the vicinity of Lahr near the Swiss border that night in April. Lynch was unable to remember whether or not he had jumped from the plane. In fact, he remained unconscious until the 4th of May, when he awoke as a patient in a German Luftwaffe (air force) hospital at Baden-Baden.

Stalag IX-C

Stalag IX-C, German POW camp

A German doctor answered his anxious  inquiries concerning the fate of his comrades  and told him that all had been killed.

Lynch himself was badly injured and spent  many weary weeks in various hospitals. Following the amputation of his right leg, he was then sent to another large hospital at Nemmingen near Frankfurt, after which he was posted to Stalag IXC to await repatriation.

Information regarding the other crew members was vague and sketchy; but even before the war had ended it was evident that  Flying-Officer Lynch was the sole survivor. The crew, in addition to Lynch, was:

Squadron-Leader E. D. Jarman, DFC
Flight-Officer M. W. Carroll, D.F.C.
Flight-Officer R. L. Neal
Flight-Officer H. R.  Harrison
Flight-Officer F. G. Jackson, D.F.C.
Sergeant D. G. Champkin (RAF  MHS)

Lest we forget.

100th Anniversary of Jutland – The Australians who served

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

May 31st, 2016 marks 100 years since the Battle of Jutland, a naval battle fought between Britain and Germany during the First World War. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war.

Over 200 ships, ranging from destroyers to battleships, and 60,000 men took part in the battle in the North Sea just off the Danish coast at the Jutland Peninsula. By the end of the day over 9,500 British and German sailors were dead and 25 ships (14 British, 11 German) were sunk with many others badly damaged.

Whilst this was the largest engagement at sea during the war it has been considered by many historians and naval officers to have been strategically inconclusive. Germany claimed a tactical victory due to the simple arithmetic of ships sunk and lives lost while Britain claimed a strategic victory, as the German High Seas Fleet never sought to challenge them again and stayed in port for the remainder of the war.

For the British, the day was marked in particular by the losses of the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible, all of which were destroyed in spectacular style after German shells caused catastrophic damage to the vessels’ magazines, which subsequently exploded and sank the ships.

A little-known fact is the stories of a handful of Australian naval men who were involved that day – many of whom became casualties of the battle.

Australians at Jutland – The Sinking of the HMS Defence

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

While no RAN ship took part in the action this does not mean that the RAN, and Australia, was not represented at the battle. At least four members of the RAN were at the battle and another Australian serving in the Royal Navy was also present (and there may have been more). In the grim irony of war, of the five Australian’s known to have served at the Battle of Jutland; three were to lose their lives and all from the same ship.

Chaplain Patrick Gibbons was a Roman Catholic Chaplain serving in HMAS Australia and following the collision he was loaned to the old battle cruiser HMS Indomitable which was part of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron attached to the main Battleship Squadrons. Indomitable survived the battle with no damage or casualties but Gibbons later ministered to the dying and wounded Catholic sailors from the fleet.  Gibbons had joined Australia in 1913 and, apart from his brief sojourn in Indomitable, served in the Australian battle cruiser until 1920 when he resigned from the RAN.

Another Australian officer on loan to the Royal Navy was Gunner (Warrant Officer) John Henry Gill who served in the Battleship HMS Benbow which was the flagship of the 4th Battleship Squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee (who had destroyed the German East Asia Squadron at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914).  Benbow fired about 100 rounds during the battle with little or no effect and escaped without damage or casualties.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

The three Australians who lost their lives at the Battle of Jutland were all serving in the armoured cruiser HMS Defence which was part of the 1st Cruiser Squadron. At 1800 the Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, spotted a group of German cruisers and turned to engage them, but a few minutes later German battle cruisers appeared through the haze and opened fire on the leading British ships (Defence and Warrior). Warrior was badly damaged, set on fire and had over 100 men killed or wounded but managed to limp away.

Defence was less fortunate. One eyewitness later wrote:

The Defence was heavily engaged, salvos dropping all around her. At 1815 a salvo hit her abaft the after turret and a big red flame flashed up. The ship heeled, then quickly righted herself and steamed on. But almost immediately another salvo struck between the forecastle turret and the foremost funnel, and she was lost to sight in an enormous black cloud which, when it cleared, showed no signs of a ship at all.  Defence was sunk with the loss of her entire crew of 903 men. Among those killed were Sub Lieutenant George Paterson, RAN (a 20 year old who had been born in England but had joined the RAN in March 1914) and 19 year old Midshipman Joseph Mack, RAN who hailed from Berry Bank, (near Lismore), Victoria. Both men had joined the RAN but were loaned to the RN for further training. Also killed in the sinking of HMS Defence was Stoker 2nd Class Mortimer Hugh Froude.

Froude, from Balmain, had joined the RAN on 1 June 1912 as a 14 year old Boy 2nd Class and received his initial training in HMAS Tingira before being posted to HMAS Australia. He was an Ordinary Seaman when he deserted from the RAN in June 1915, when Australia was in British waters. He tried to join the British Army but was rejected due to his height. Froude then joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker and was posted to the cruiser Defence. On 31 May 1916, when the smoke cleared Paterson, Mack and Froude had simply ceased to exist.

The Australian Admiral at Jutland: Sir Ernest F. A. Gaunt (1865-1940)

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Ernest Gaunt was born on 25 March 1865 at Beechworth. In 1877 he went to England to join HMS Britannia as a naval cadet, serving on the Australia Station from 1880 to 1884; as sub-lieutenant on HMS Nelson, he hoisted the British flag when the British Protectorate over New Guinea was proclaimed. In 1896 he was promoted first lieutenant of the armoured cruiser HMS Narcissus, and in China in 1898-99 served in administrative posts; he was thanked by the Austrian and German Commanders-in-Chief for his services during the Boxer Rebellion. In early December 1903 he was severely wounded when he commanded a landing party to avenge the death of an Italian naval officer in Somaliland; in December that year he was promoted captain and subsequently commanded the battleships HMS Majestic, HMS Queen and HMS Superb.

In 1913, he became Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham, England, and in 1913 and 1914, he was aide-de-camp to King George V. Then, in 1916 during World War I, he served as second-in-command of the 1st Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland as Rear Admiral – his ship was the HMS Colossus. When the war began in August 1914, Colossus became the flagship of the 1st Battle Squadron. While commanded by Captain Dudley Pound she fought with distinction at Jutland, taking a number of German shell hits which caused minor damage and six casualties.

He was promoted vice admiral in February 1919 and admiral in June 1924 before retiring in March the next year. He was appointed KCB in 1919 and KBE in 1922. He retired to London, where he died on 20 April 1940 at Westminster Hospital, survived by a son and two daughters.