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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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