Navy

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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Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

“Stand by, I’m coming round!” – The HMAS Nepal

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

'HMAS Nepal in Colombo' by Roy Hodgkinson

‘HMAS Nepal in Colombo’ by Roy Hodgkinson

This thrilling first-hand account of a high-seas rescue takes place aboard the HMAS Nepal (G25), an N-class destroyer of the Royal Australian Navy.

Originally built as the Norseman at the John I. Thorneycroft shipyard at Woolston near Southampton in the UK, the 1,760 ton destroyer was one of two initially destined for the Royal Netherlands Navy, but when almost complete was she was virtually blown in half on the slipway by a direct bomb hit during a German air raid in December 1940. As a result, the ship was finally commissioned as HMAS NEPAL by Commander R.B. Morris RAN on May 1, 1942 – the last of the RAN ‘N’ Class to come into service.

In this account, we meet the Nepal in the Indian Ocean sometime in mid 1943, conducting operations with the Eastern Fleet out of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

The seaman telling the story is known only to us as ‘Maintop.’

nepal-01

HMAS Nepal (G25)

“The Navy always has, and still does, rate seamanship well above gunnery. Our captain’s steward can thank his stars for that. Destroyer Nepal in the Indian Ocean during the war was running before a sea that looked like an immense waterfall: one enormous roaring mass of foam. Occasionally, from out of this cataract, a Himalayan sea would gain on her and dash itself against her sides in a smother of green and flung white.

Down aft the captain’s steward was trying to get for’ard. He waited for a lull, found it, stepped from shelter and ran into a liquid wall that crushed him through the port rails and over the side. The lifebuoy sentry saw him go.

In such a sea the Old Man was, of course, on the bridge. Through speakers he ordered the first lieutenant to prepare lines and a buoy; the engine-room to be ready with full power. Then, conversationally, he said: “Stand by, I’m coming round.”

Five degrees at a time the destroyer edged round to meet the frenzied seas. She rolled and shuddered as her propellers raced. Then over again, until the torn seas raced level with her rails. A final hammer blow against her bows and she was round, slicing confidently into the troughs. Such was the skipper’s judgment that no line was needed; the steward reached out and grabbed the lowered scrambling net.

Half an hour later the Surgeon Lieutenant, one hand braced against the swaying bulkhead, was operating on a compound fracture of the rescued man’s right leg.”

HMAS Ballarat

HMAS Ballarat (J184)

Naval records indicate the ‘Old Man’ in question was Commander Franklyn Bryce Morris, RAN from Wycherproof in Victoria, Australia. He commanded the Nepal from May 11, 1942 to March 30, 1944. Little is known of Commander Morris apart from his next commission which was the HMAS Ballarat (J 184), which was his charge from December 1, 1944 to June 18, 1945.

At the end of February 1945, Nepal was assigned to the British Pacific Fleet until after the end of World War II. She earned four battle honours for her wartime service:

Indian Ocean 1942–44  / Burma 1944–45 / Pacific 1945 / Okinawa 1945

Knighthood on the Quarter-deck

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

On the 4th of April 1581 Queen Elizabeth went down to Deptford where the English galleon Golden Hind had been taken and, after a magnificent banquet on board with Francis Drake as host, she made him kneel before her in full view of the people. She told him that the King of Spain had demanded his head and then continued, “I have a gilded sword with which to strike it off.” Instead, the Admiral received the flat of the blade on his shoulder and rose Sir Francis Drake, Knight.

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Though it had long been the custom for distinguished naval oflicers to have conferred upon them the high honour of knighthood, either at an investiture at Buckingham Palace by the King, or abroad by their representative at an investiture on shore, it was not without precedent for the ceremony to take place on board one of His Majesty’s ships.

It was a rare distinction indeed, however, to receive the accolade on the quarter-deck.

It would be another three hundred years before a British Admiral was again to kneel on the quarter-deck before the Sovereign. This historic occasion is one of peculiar interest to the Royal Australian Navy because the rare ceremony took place on the quarter-deck of the battle cruiser Australia in the presence of the Prince of Wales, Sir George Reid (High Commissioner for Australia), and the ship’s company.

On 30 June 1913, King George V honoured the Australian Commonwealth by visiting the first flagship of the then newly-constituted Australian Fleet. Australia had shortly before commissioned at Portsmouth and was preparing to sail for Australia with the first HMAS Sydney. His Majesty was received on board with a royal salute, the officers were presented to him and, after inspecting the ship’s company at divisions, the King proceeded between decks to inspect closely the living quarters and internal arrangements of the battle cruiser.

On return to the quarter-deck King George was photographed with the ofiicers and then in the presence of the officers and crew, commanded Rear-Admiral Patey, the first commander of the Australian Fleet, to kneel before him. An equerry handed the King a sword, Admiral Patey received the accolade and rose Sir George Patey, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

As the commander of the Australian fleet, Admiral Patey is remembered chiefly for his part in the Australian occupation of German New Guinea – the takeover of the German Pacific colony of New Guinea in late 1914 – and in the events leading to the destruction of German Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee’s squadron at the battle of Falkland Islands in December 1914.

In September of the same year he received the intelligence that the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had appeared at Samoa. Australia, with Montcalm, was charged with covering Encounter and the New Guinea Expeditionary Force from probable attack by the enemy cruisers, and it was not until this and subsequent tasks had been accomplished that Patey was free to consider the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst his immediate quarry.

Patey made his base at Suva, but when finally he was released to pursue the enemy ships it was too late for, fearing the approach of the battle cruiser, they decided to run for their home port. Passing through the Straits of Magellan they ran into the trap that had been set by the Royal Navy and were destroyed.

Admiral Patey remained in command of the Australian Fleet until 1915. He died in 1935.