C42 - A Gallant Commission
These wartime observations were recorded during, or immediately after, the First Commission of H.M.S. Euryalus C42, and I hope that the reader will make allowances for imperfections, or incidents, that may not be in chronological order. Following the end of hostilities these memoirs were put aside and forgotten for more than fifty years.
H.M.S Euryalus was the last cruiser to be built in Chatham Dockyard. The keel was laid down on 21st October 1937 and she was launched on 6th June 1939. The first commission commenced on 26th June 1941.
She was the Fifth ship to carry the name - the first being the frigate that sighted the French Fleet at Trafalgar. Euryalus was a DIDO class light cruiser with a main armament of 10 x 5.25" A.A. guns mounted in five turrets. Her sister ships included HMS's Dido; Naiad; Cleopatra; Phoebe and Charybdis.
When Euryalus was commissioned on that very warm sunny afternoon in June 1941 her compliment was approximately 346 the majority being "Hostilities Only" personnel, many of whom had never been to sea.
After all these years and, in fact, after a few months, the Commissioning Ceremony is rather hazy but I seem to remember all the ratings being assembled on the dockside at Chatham, and possibly there was a blessing from the Padre or an address by the Captain and we then filed aboard. It probably made no impact because to the average H.O. rating he was there with very little enthusiasm and it was just a ship to which he had been unlucky enough to be drafted instead of skulking around in barracks. Generally speaking, anything was better than Chatham Barracks where life consisted of running across the Parade Ground or in front of the Gunnery School, dodging Petty Officers waiting to pounce, trudging down to the Tunnels at 4.00pm to find a place to hang or position your hammock ready for occupation later in the evening. Then, to emerge from the rabbit warren the following morning to breathe fresh air and leave behind the stench of sweaty bodies. Hopefully, one emerged with his own boots, assuming they had not been stolen during the night. Even receiving your fortnightly pay was a marathon ordeal; all the residents would be martialled on parade and it generally took 2 to 3 hours to receive the few shillings due.
HMS Euryalus was a light at the end of the tunnel and it only became real after months or years on board. My only recollection now is receiving a piece of cardboard indicating mess details, and more important, the Carley Float designated in the event of abandoning ship. In fact, I can only hazily remember leaving the Medway and steaming up the east coast eventually to find oneself in a place called Scapa Flow. Thereafter, for many weeks we continually and daily exercised in the Pentland Firth with a view to turning the ship's company into a fighting force. This was no easy task as the majority of the crew were novices and H.O. ratings. Exercises included firing at targets towed by aircraft or by a trawler, at considerable peril to the crews' involved, or, dropping dummy depth charges at a submarine that probably would have preferred the Mediterranean to playing with a new cruiser. All of this was to the constant criticism of the Captain, Gunnery Officer, Torpedo Officer, and all the way down the line to the unhappy and uninterested rating.
My own memories are of signal flags inefficiently attached to a halyard so that they floated into the air, much to the derisory comments of other ship's companies and the bellowing of the Chief Yeoman.
It was apparent to us inefficient H.O's that the R.N. was still living in the past when, in thick mist, we were expected to polish to a high standard any piece of brass on the flag deck. Only we were aware that a shaft of sunlight on the brass would make our position available to the enemy. Any comment to that effect produced the threat of appearing at a court martial for questioning an order. Strangely enough, after a few months all those pieces of brass became covered up in some way.
The weeks in Scapa Flow drifted slowly and my only recollection of going on to dry land was a combined signals marching procedure where ships' signalmen joined together in walking across sheep filled fields making "Blue or "Red" turns, much to the amusement or disgust of the petty Officers. Eventually, we moved away from Scapa and from the overall view of the big ships of the Home Fleet, south to Rosyth. The ship's company was given 48 hours to leave, two watches at a time, which in itself was ominous. To the chagrin of those of us on the first leave, the second batch of leave was extended to three days.
In early September we sailed north and round to the west coast of Scotland to the River Clyde where it became obvious we were to become part of a convoy to a destination unknown. On a misty but crisp September morning, together with other ships, we edged our way down the mouth of the Clyde. Past Gourock, the ships gradually formed into some kind of order; a battleship, several cruisers and many destroyers and a flock of all kinds of merchant shipping. A very large convoy - too large to be anything but something special. Gradually, as order prevailed, each cruiser guarded its particular sector of merchant ships, with a protective screen of destroyers guarding every possible inlet into the centre of the convoy, from the battleship in the centre to lagging merchant ships astern. Aircraft were obviously shadowing us but rapid changes in course plus continuous steaming into the eastern Atlantic made it difficult for aircraft to cover our course.
It is difficult to describe life aboard under these conditions, one has to experience it, there isn't any glamour. A ship is a prison, with all scuttles closed, mess decks like ovens due to the lack of air. The air reeks of fumes and one aches for a calm sea and the sight of land.
For a week we tossed about in the Atlantic seas and lines were rigged along the upper decks to be grasped at all times as one moved forward or aft for fear of a inboard wave sweeping you over the side. Most unusual, we carried several hundred R.A.F. personnel passengers who decided that life with sea-sickness was not that worth living and in despair lay in all manner of positions around the mess decks. After a weeks steaming in a westerly direction the main convoy moved southwards leaving several liners to speed their way alone to Canada or America. It was generally accepted that their speed, aided by zig-zagging, enabled them to elude U-boats. We left the convoy temporarily both for fuel and strategical reasons knowing that we would rejoin eventually for a dash through the Mediterranean to Malta.
And so, in our second week at sea we were in the Mediterranean steaming eastwards and supported by Force H of the Western Mediterranean Fleet and fully aware that our fate would be decided on nearing the Pantellaria Straights. We knew that we would be sunk, or get through.
Whites had replaced our blue uniforms and as we sailed eastwards hands went to action stations to test the 5.25" A.A., pom-pom and the Bofor guns but in a very short time we were under attack from enemy aircraft, mainly torpedo bombers. It is difficult to describe the scene - clear blue sky with tiny dots circled by puffs of smoke indicating the effective A.A. fire - then out of the sun would appear a bomber sweeping down to level off above the sea to release its torpedoes. Evasive action by the ship attacked, or in one particular instance, a direct hit on the aircraft causing the remains to hit the sea leaving just a patch of oil.
The days passed with spasmodic attacks and now the main fleet prepared to return westwards leaving cruisers, destroyers and merchant ships to dash through Pantellaria in darkness. Part of our force broke off to attack the coast and draw the enemy fire but nevertheless, suddenly, we were attacked by aircraft or E-boats, presumably the latter. In any case it was daunting enough to see tracer bullets darting out of the darkness. Tired, after 36 hours continual action stations, the following morning saw the damaged convoy approaching Malta - our first glimpse of the Middle East. These two crowded weeks of our voyage had taken us through North Atlantic waters, through the beautiful moonlit waters of the near South Atlantic, and the blue Mediterranean. Later, we were to realise that it was not always blue and/or pleasant.
Entering Grand Harbour was like sailing into a lake surrounded by walls - a walled sea - with the Maltese lining the terraces as we sailed in, as they did on later occasions when we were able to relieve the Island for good. This was September 1941 and we little thought that it would be many months until the time we would enter the harbour again, late in 1942 from the eastern Mediterranean, although we were to sail to within 100 miles of Malta and pass over depleted convoys to the care of HMS's Penelope and Aurora, who were both stationed there.
Our stay was but a matter of hours as we disposed of our cargo and R.A.F. personnel. Leaving the merchant ships in the harbour, we sailed west to Gibraltar with high hopes of a return to home waters, but we were not really surprised that this was not to be.
Gibraltar from the sea was a disappointment, so dull and grey after viewing Malta. On a hot Sunday afternoon with blue skies, from the deck of a warship, the white or near white, buildings with their flat roofs and terraces, surrounded the harbour which appeared to be in a valley. The town seemed to rise up on hills and the Maltese dockies gave the whole place a hidden feeling of the near east. As we steamed out of Valetta Grand Harbour the inhabitants cheered us on our way, just as they had cheered our arrival that morning. The Royal Marines Band, on the quarterdeck, played us out of the harbour and then all went quiet except for the throb of the engines as we headed west through the Pantellaria Straights to Gibraltar. Grey and depressing, after the brightness of the Malta sky and buildings, The Rock was not as outstanding or forbidding as one had always imagined in the books describing 'the gateway to the eastern countries'. Surprisingly, we left harbour in the afternoon of the day of our arrival and turned south, and not northwards, as we had hoped.
We had no idea whither we were bound and was not to discover the answer for many weeks. So began a voyage that was to become almost a pleasure cruise compared with the weeks to come. Our life jackets could be discarded as in those early days of the war, with Japan not yet involved, the south Atlantic was reasonably safe from submarines. We were able to lounge in our whites in warm and pleasant weather, spending as much time as possible on the upper decks to avoid the stifling temperature below deck. A calm sea, beautiful days and bewitching nights when you saw the sun as a massive ball of fire, sink quickly below the horizon and the stars emerge against a light blue sky that gradually took o a hidden beauty as the moon rose. Electrical storms over the Sahara were visible in the distance and during the day one could see a haze that was obviously sand dust, just as when the sun set you could always see a vivid green flash as it dipped beneath the horizon.
As far as my memory allows, we sailed for a week before catching our first glimpse of darkest Africa as we steamed up a river to arrive at Freetown. It was most beautiful and gripping to the newcomer. Jungle on either side, with coloured rooftops appearing above dark green trees and shrubs. From a distance it was a lovely sight, but hardly that ashore. The air was still with a damp oppressive heat. Fortunately we had been allowed ashore for a few hours - the first break for a number of weeks. In out tropical whites, we were immediately surrounded by crowds of black children offering their services as guides to take us into the more dubious quarters of the area. In the air was the odour of damp leaves and we could sense the jungle that stretched from the town hundreds of miles into the mountains. It was most amusing to move about the town which was composed of mud hovels and wooden buildings lining the streets with such contrasts as a Barclays Bank opposite a dirty native shop full of curios and stale beer at two shillings and sixpence a bottle. This then, was next to a modern chemist shop stocked entirely by Boots & Co. Ltd., and a credit to any English chemist. Assistants in the shop were native girls speaking good English and wearing clean white overalls. In contrast, outside, crouching in the gutters, were a group of native girls stripped to the waist selling limes and bananas. They were beautifully formed with flashing white teeth, cheerfully bartering their wares. In the main street natives in western garb mingled with their fellows clad in nothing else but a loincloth and most likely carrying an umbrella. This is just a brief description of my few hours ashore which terminated in a tropical downpour that did us little good seeing as we were carrying over-ripe fruit that stained our clothes.
My only other experience of Freetown was, having been sent to the Naval Command Ship with signals, our motor boat broke down and I had the difficult task of trying to semaphore to the Euryalus from a pitching motor boat. The ship left within a few hours minus one rating who had decided not to rejoin us and to the best of my knowledge, never did.
We crossed the equator on a Saturday with all the usual ceremonies. Some 500-odd officers and ratings entered Neptunes realm and after the first hundred or so, it all became rather boring. One was glad when he had been lathered and catapulted from the Sweeney Todd chair into the bath for ducking. (See separate papers on Crossing the Line Ceremony.)
Escorted by our two destroyers we steamed lazily southwards. It must be remembered that at this time there was nil threat from submarines in the south Atlantic and we never wore our life jackets. Calm seas gave way to heavy swells and wind and we were very glad to anchor off St Helena on 14th October 1941. This stop was short lived and only the Captain went ashore. Within a few hours after refuelling we left the rocky barren lonely island astern and looked ahead to our next port of call - Simonstown and Cape Town.
This trip was devoid of interest except for us deciding to chase a puff of smoke on the horizon which turned out to be a fully loaded foreign liner, the rails lined with gleeful American tourists clicking cameras.
As we neared Cape Town we were warned by the Captain over the tannoy
"Do not mix with black people
It was in Cape Town we sensed the colour bar and the unreal life being led. Negroes away from their native haunts but not being allowed to mix freely with white people. They could not sit in the same bus as whites, etc. They have to step into the gutter if the sidewalk is crowded. A week in Cape Town, after six or more weeks at sea, would take too long to describe but I was struck by the similarity to London, only much cleaner. A smaller version of the Shell Mex House on the Thames embankment, huge stores with all the colourful dresses, etc. disappearing in the U.K. Hospitality was there if required but so very English. At that time you could pay for and have sent home silk stockings, etc. that were becoming in short supply back home.
A week can be quite hectic and we left with mixed feelings. Table Mountain dominated us as we left Simonstown and passed the golden beaches and blue seas on our port side and presumably heading north and to a then unknown destination. We passed through the Mozambique Channel with Madagascar on our starboard beam as we sailed to Mombasa for fuel. I was very surprised in this port. One anticipated a big modern harbour but to me, with only a fleeting glimpse, it seemed only a few quays. I was intrigued with the approach - up a long narrow river with flat scorched grass stretching away on either side with an occasional tree. You expected a lion to stick his head round the tree at any moment.
We next called at Aden and then into the Red Sea. The heat was suffocating. Land with barren rocks rising from shingle beaches.
Next call was to Suez and through the Canal. Always a fascinating experience at first with desert on one side and fertility on the other. This was our first glimpse at the Middle East, plodding camels, dark skinned natives shrouded in dirty white robes. Every few miles on the western shore we would find a signal station or a small township with green trees and signs of fertility, similar to Europe.
When we reached Port Said the Canal widened out into a reasonable sized waterway and we were able to overlook the main street and what appeared to be a department store, i.e., the Selfridges of Port Said. We, of course, were besieged by small boats and vendors and one could, for the first time, see how cosmopolitan Egypt is - Greeks, French, Sudanese, etc.
From here we sailed westwards to arrive in Alexandria harbour at 11.00 am on 11th November 1941 to join the 15th Cruiser Squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Vian, flying his flag in HMS Naiad.
MONDAY, 25th NOVEMBER 1941
The period immediately following arrival in Alexandria was taken up in bombardment of the North African coast in support of the 8th Army, plus convoy duties. This was very much over shadowed by the loss of the battleship HMS Barham which was torpedoed and sank in two minutes whilst providing us with a backup on a bombardment. HMS Barham suffered very heavy losses, including Ordinary Signalman George Tott, a very close friend of mine from our training days at HMS Ganges.
Shortly afterwards, on the 14th December, as we entered the swept channel to Alexandria the cruiser HMS Galatea was torpedoed and sunk. Again, with heavy losses. We had suffered a particularly bad day at sea with constant bombing and during that time the Galatea had many near misses. It was about 11.00 pm as we entered the approach to Alexandria and I was on watch on the bridge. One moment as I looked astern she was immediately behind us but with the swing of the ship she was lost to sight behind our funnel. I never saw her again. In those few minutes she was hit and disappeared.
Our introduction to the 15th Cruiser Squadron was very tragic and there was more to come before the end of the year.
WEDNESDAY, 17th DECEMBER 1941
I quote this because to my mind this day brought us, as a ship's company, to the nearest of modern naval warfare for the first time. We had previously passed through the western Mediterranean and Pantellaria with its hordes of torpedo-bombers but we had had the support of an augmented fleet as well as an aircraft carrier. I emphasise this because modern naval warfare depends so largely upon adequate protection in the air. What better way of counteracting the enemy than formations of fighters leaving the deck of a carrier, rising to terrific heights ready to swoop down upon Torpedo and Dive bombers as they unsuspectantly prepare to attack the fleet. All the modern achievements of science can detect planes and supply ranges, but what surer way of preventing damage, if not a fatal blow, is meeting the enemy in the sky and preventing that dive which sometimes can defy modern gunnery and register a blow in a ships' vital section. Once again, I most strongly emphasise that fighter protection, whether from a carrier or land, is most essential to the success of any operation which must, in this modern age, encounter air opposition. How often I have heard of Dunkirk, where soldier and sailor alike prayed for the planes that couldn't come. How often have tales been told of Crete, possibly far worse than Dunkirk, where our fighters could not operate because of the distance from the mainland. At last I realise, to a smaller degree, what it is to look at the sky and think 'if only one of our fighters could appear, the sky would soon be free of enemy planes', but no, we took it all throughout the day - bombs, torpedoes - and furthermore, a surprise that certainly rounded off a full day.
This incident opened up on the Monday previous when, together with our sister cruiser and a strong force of destroyers, course was set for Malta. With us, was an important convoy, it was small but of vital importance and it was essential that these ships arrived intact. As usual, one could, more or less, rely on the first day being free of anything but a stray 'plane and in this instance we passed off the first day quietly having been joined by a smaller cruiser of First World War vintage - HMS CARLISLE to be exact. Wednesday morning dawned the usual Mediterranean day in the winter - se- with a slight swell and the sky broken with clouds. Very soon our instruments detected aircraft approaching in the region of forty or fifty miles away. Soon, we had each plane plotted - first closing the fleet, then circulating and waiting with each circle bringing attack nearer. On the flag deck the halyards were continually being hoisted - "Aircraft in this Sector" - "Aircraft are Torpedo Bombers" etc. One must realise that the Communication Branch of the service is a key link. All hoists are in code, and likewise W/T signals when transmission is permitted and consequently a Signalman must have each code book at his finger tips - there is no time for fumbling and rapidity combined with accuracy is essential. Pity the Signal-boy who stands all day, without a break, with a halyard in his hand - pity the Signal rating who spent all day at action stations peering at flag hoists and flickering lights only to have a night watch before him. They cannot relax when the raiders have passed. They make their way through the day under the biting tongue of a Yeoman who desires speed, speed and more speed. If only the senior ratings of the service realised that bullying and shouting doesn't produce efficiency. There is a pet saying in the Navy "The ignorance of the lower deck". How true! But, to return to my story.
Very soon the destroyer screen was firing occasional bursts and then, within the space of seconds, hell broke loose. The steady crash of the heavy armament made the ship shudder from stem to stern and as these guns ceased, the fierce rat-a-tat-tat of multiple pom-poms indicated that the aircraft was uncomfortably close. With this din in your ears, eyes were turned to the skies watching the diving aircraft, then, with the swish of a train and the roar of a dragon, bombs fell, leaving the ship shuddering as it broke through the spray untouched from near misses. Gradually, the flag deck personnel picked themselves up from the iron deck from which they had sought some sort of protection and others appeared from the Ready Use Store where they had dived, halyards as well!
This is but a few minutes of one day in a Malta convoy and the ship's company is ready and alert for the next attack, possibly a torpedo bomber diversion. Here the planes attack very low along the surface of the water, launch their torpedoes and climb away. Skill is required to approach a modern fleet, fire tin-fish and escape. To my mind this must have always been a very expensive proposition for the Axis. The pilots usually let their lad go too early when, a keen lookout could report and the ships course be altered accordingly causing the torpedo to pass harmlessly down the beam.
On this particular Wednesday we had, more or less, continuous attacks and although the Axis Air Force had not developed definite skills, planed attacks that we were to face in years to come, by early evening the strain was telling. All day long a significant factor was the presence of a float-plane (seaplane), and although most of the ship's company were ignorant of the fact we were fast approaching the Italian unit; of this I was aware being in the happy position of seeing the aircraft reconnaissance signals as they were received by wireless. Nevertheless, it was to be expected that we should attempt a detour to miss them in view of our small force and the added burden of merchant vessels. Therefore, it was with surprise that the lookout reported smoke on our starboard bow. Without another warning we saw a flash from the horizon and heard the roar of an express train as the fifteen-inch shell passed overhead to fall uncomfortably close. It was good firing but we were all too paralysed to notice a lot. We were in the unhappy position of being completely outranged and the three Italian battleships and escorting cruisers and destroyers could shell us at random, while we could but manoeuvre round the merchant vessels laying a smoke screen.
It is impossible to pen ones inner feelings; to all intents we could not even fight and as we perceived each flash we, on the flag deck, just fell flat, and feeling somewhat frightened prayed that each shot would miss and that dusk would soon come. As each shell whistled by we rose to our stations only to feel the rush of another as it roared, or seemed to, between the masts. The first few minutes was a horrible experience but as we received the order to lay a smoke screen it was strangely comforting even if one was in a bewildering maze.
Admiral Vian played a bold card. Leaving one cruiser with the convoy he ordered the destroyers and cruiser squadron to attack. Followed by us, the Naiad turned with the destroyers, firing a broadside in defiance. We felt better then although it wasn't a happy position - two cruisers and a few destroyers against such odds - but our bluff worked.
Bewildered by the smoke and rather anticipating a torpedo attack by the destroyers, the enemy withdrew possibly at the same time as the Admiral countermanded his orders and returned to the convoy. Our first duty was the delivery of these valuable cargoes to Malta and strangely enough, amidst this sortie, the escort for the convoy into Malta arrived and with darkness falling we turned for the return voyage to our base knowing only too well that, if possible, we were going to deliver a night torpedo attack on the enemy; something they cannot understand - the grit and courage behind the British Navy when, under overpowering odds, they look for an opening to attack.
Consequently, worn out from such a hectic day we, more or less, rested at our posts for action stations had to be maintained all night, ready for any emergency. As the hours passed we realised that our path had not, and would not, cross the enemy's, and dawn broke with but one scare - an aircraft reported us as enemy ships and we began to look for our shadows.
And so dawned a new day that ended another successful Malta Convoy, but this was only to be the prelude of harder days when we had to literally fight our way to the strategic island. Days when success has been crowned with disappointment when we had returned feeling that we had let the gallant people of Malta down. Days when we have over a convoy to the local escort to wait, with baited breath the wireless signals that told how bombs were being rained on these sturdy merchant vessels. But still the supplies got through, depleted in many cases, but vital materials and food so badly needed.
My story now turns into the New Year of 1942 which was to be the worst year experienced in the Mediterranean, dogged with bad luck. A gallant depleted fleet of a handful of destroyers and two or three cruisers fighting to keep Malta alive. There is but one way to describe those voyages - plain HELL! One goes to sea out here knowing that attack is eminent; there are no quiet periods where relaxation is possible. Nerves are at fever pitch all the time, each time being worse than its predecessor. Bombs, bombs, all the time. WHY?? Well, we never had adequate air protection, or co-operation. You could be sure that if Jerry appeared, the R.A.F. wouldn't, and day after day we searched the sky without result. This was not remedied until it was too late - when our armies were fighting at the gates of Egypt and then the air fields were denied us.
And so the weeks passed by. With happenings that cannot all be recorded and, it brings me to March which was to be the most glorious month of the year - and so to March 22nd.
It would take far too long to relate every single incident, every operation we took part in and describe them separately so I shall endeavour, collectively, to give my impressions of 1942 in the Mediterranean giving the finer points in detail.
In my opinion 1942 was by far the worst year of the war, and most definitely, the worst experience in the Mediterranean at any time. Just glance at the scene - 1941 ended with the Japanese throwing us out of the East with heavy Naval losses - the Prince of Wales and Repulse were but a part of those losses. Cruisers, destroyers and even an aircraft carrier, an old one it is true, perished, and to us in the Middle East all was gloom. Ourselves, in the Med. Fleet, we looked upon it with apprehension for we were, by the fortunes of war, reduced to a small fleet of destroyers and cruisers with which to challenge the Italian Fleet. True, we had chased them away once with two cruisers, but what of the next time? Crete and the Libyan desert, both held by the Germans - Benghazi being evacuated early January - our air force at a minimum. What chance had we against hordes of dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers, low and high-level bombers? As it happened we were on our way back from a Malta convoy when our armies retreated. Imagine our disappointment at this! We had bombarded and endeavoured to assist knowing that a advance was so necessary to our convoys. We had to have fighter support and even with Benghazi in our hands there had been little or no support, but we always had hope. And so, Jerry was on the borders of Egypt - true, we still had Tobruk - but from a Naval point of view we could expect little help from anywhere.
And so the weeks passed by! We occasionally dashed from our base Westwards to try to intercept Italian cruisers, periodically dragging towards Malta with a few merchant ships. Bombed continually from dawn to dusk, attacked at night by torpedo bearing aircraft, the voyage became a dread. How we prayed for fighters - how we cursed the RAF - without justification at times, I fear. On and on, for days, till two hundred miles from Malta we would hand the merchant ships over to Penelope and Kenya and a handful of destroyers then, would commence a dash back to Malta to await another 'bomb alley' run. Nerves began to get frayed although it was noticeable that they were at their worse just before a 'club run', an expression we used to describe our Mediterranean jobs.
It was on such an occasion that we lost our ship, the Naiad. We were returning from Malta having been joined by another ship of our class fresh from England, the Cleopatra. It was a very dark night and the day had been hell let loose, with bombs falling all around us. How we had survived I hardly know, but we had, with one casualty. Poor fellow, we had to bury him at sea, and it was a subdued ship's company that listened to the burial service in the Canteen Flat and subsequently filed on to the quarterdeck, the Last Post sounding as we paid our last tribute and his body was given to the deep. The ship was quiet as we rushed through the inky darkness of the night and suddenly, to be awakened by the alarm to action stations. A mad rush to our appointed posts to await the fresh onslaught only to fins ourselves one cruiser less. The Naiad had been torpedoed and was somewhere in that awful night sinking to her grave. The destroyers so allocated had fallen astern to rescue those possible while we made off from the danger area, one cruiser gained, one cruiser lost. Our spirits were low, we seemed to be fighting a hopeless battle in this area, outnumbered at every turn we made, the Navy still had to fight on.
Very subdued by the loss of our flagship we did not feel in high spirits when we slipped out of harbour one weekend in early March 1942, accompanied by the Cleopatra as senior officer. The weather was very pleasant for the time of the year and the sea calm and unruffled by the gales, but as I said, our spirits were very low. It is amazing though how one does shake off that awful dread and by the afternoon - I can't quite remember if it was a Saturday or Sunday - the pleasant weather had lightened our burden despite the fact that our destination was problematical, although definitely a bombardment. I can remember clearly drinking a cup of tea and looking over the sea as Cyprus faintly appeared on the beam. Please don't imagine that life was a bed of roses for in that particular area we had to be prepared for submarines even if aircraft were not so prevalent. Consequently, as night wore on, our nerves became a little jumpy and as twilight gave way to darkness we discovered our target for the night was a small Italian island off Turkey - Rhodes, to be precise. Just before midnight the Turkish mainland was visible for a short while and then we were on target. In line ahead, we entered the waters adjoining the island. The destroyers went ahead to actually attack the harbour area whilst we attacked targets that were now being illuminated by bombs and flares of the RAF having started an attack earlier in the night. I was below decks when the first salvo left our guns. The tenseness was broken and calmly we waited as the wireless gave us our ranges and the aircraft reports of fall, or short. The range lessened and another salvo gone, so it went on for another fifteen minutes till the air reeked with cordite fumes and our eyes smartened from peering as well as excessive smoking. Then the earphones crackled again as the Senior Officer in the Cleopatra ordered an increase in speed. The throb of the engines became louder, the sway of the ship more marked as she responded to the added pressure. I had the good fortune to go on to the flag deck at that moment and the sight was impressive if not frightening. Land was on either side of us but three or four miles off ahead, was the harbour installations, now a pall of smoke and flames. Tracer bullets, H.E. shells and aircraft flares made the sky an impressive November 5th night, but the enemy did not appear to grasp the fact that the main attack was from the sea. Only one shell screamed uncomfortably close, although, a slight panic was caused when a submarine was reported to have dived under our bows. The smoke drifted across the harbour and as we turned in succession to leave, the destroyers came gracefully through the haze, their work completed. In single line ahead we left the harbour. Astern, fires lighted the sky and tracer bullets together with yellow flares showed us that we had caused considerable devastation.
We were all on edge expecting E-Boats and aircraft to attack immediately but as the distance grew and the hours slipped by, we were able to relax from action stations to defence stations. At dawn we were well on our way towards Cyprus but within a very short time our apparatus soon indicated that enemy aircraft were searching for us. Our Senior Officer, with much aforethought, immediately signalled a course that would enable us to cruise in the neighbourhood of Cyprus and personally I think it was this subtle move that thwarted a heavy air attack. All day we were in this vicinity with air support in the event of attack but, with the sinking of the sun, we turned for our base, to arrive there early in the forenoon. Bombardments are always unsatisfactory to those who take part and one never really knows the true details of damage but in this particular instance, I think the audacity of penetrating the enemy minefields, and the surprise element gave the Axis quite a lot to think about.
By this time we were into the month of March having been mainly employed on convoys to Malta, the latter on each occasion causing us headaches for the whole of the operation, consisting of repelling torpedo-aircraft and high and low-level bombers. Looking back, I can hardly credit those days ever happened. Days of nervous tension as bombs screamed passed, as guns roared and as we periodically dived for the deck to protect ourselves against a near miss. We survived, mainly due to the sound judgement of our skipper, Captain Eric Bush, DSO.,DSC., who stood on the compass platform calmly manoeuvring the ship as the bombs screamed down. Watching the bombs leave the 'plane he tersely altered course once more to avoid a direct hit. Not only with bombs but with torpedoes, his efficiency, coupled with the entire crew, saved us. Perhaps it would give a better idea of a convoy if I described the greatest of them all - Sunday 22nd March 1942 - when we put the Italian Fleet to flight.
The sun had slowly disappeared beneath a distant horizon, the blue sky rapidly assuming a greyish hue and the warm spring day gradually cooled as the water lapped against the ships anchored peacefully in Alexandria. Peaceful, yet ominous, for as each ship had orders for steam, each member of the crew realised that once again the morrow would see the sun rise astern as we headed for the Island of Malta. Each man had taken part in enough previous convoys to know that someone was not coming back, that unchallenged, the Axis Air Forces would dive to the attack for days on end with one intention - first, the destruction of the merchant ships and then, the Naval escort. We all knew that air cover from our own forces ashore would either be non-existent or inadequate and so, frayed nerves took the form of heated discussions and curses about the war, the Navy and everything in general. Yet, there was one strange factor. Each man would say without hesitation "Well, the place has got to have food, poor devils", and in a few hours all grievances would disappear, lads who disliked each other would soon be forgetting that for a few days and joining in a common fight against the dangers abroad. In every convoy I found that complete comradeship, cheerfulness to an extent that laughter came from the most unusual origin. Always, I shall remember those few I was closely associated with in those days, lads of seventeen to the bearded active service rating who gave his life performing his duties as a merchant ship he had been loaned to, heeled over and plunged beneath the waters that covered so many merchant vessels, so many precious destroyers, cruisers and minor war vessels. With these thoughts predominant in our minds the Euryalus gracefully slipped from her anchorage and slowly steamed astern of her two sister ships, Cleopatra and Dido, with destroyers racing on either side to take up positions necessary for adequate protection against submarines.
A shrill bugle call, a sudden order from the loudspeaker system and the decks were alive with running figures exercising 'General Quarters' (action stations). Tin hats were donned, guns tested, watertight doors closed, the wind freshening as we increased speed. Bow waves leaped high and the destroyers literally became 'greyhounds of the sea'. Twilight became inky blackness, the 'Secure' was sounded and the men took off their steel helmets, and with the exception of the duty watch, covered themselves with a coat or oilskin and laid down, heads on lifebelts or some ready made pillow to snatch a few hours sleep before their watch. In any odd corner, you would see them, anywhere where there was ready access to their action stations.
So the night passed. High up on the bridge the lookouts scanned the darkness for the hint of any danger that might be there. In clipped tones the Officer of the Watch automatically, and with monotonous regularity, altered course to conform with the zig-zag diagram being used. The signalmen stood beside him with thick coats and scarves keeping out the unbelievable cold of the Mediterranean night. In his sea cabin, just abaft of the compass platform, was the Captain, dressed and laying ready for any immediate situation that necessitated his presence.
The clear tones of a loud speaker from the aircraft direction apparatus "Unidentified aircraft - bearing 090, 15 miles, closing". Immediately, the Captain was beside the Officer of the Watch, tense and alert, the loud speakers hummed, ready to blare forth the call to action. "Aircraft friendly" came the report and once more the normal quiet resumed.
Way out astern the dark sky became tinged with colour and slowly one could define clearly the outline of our companion ships. Still in that graceful order, and as the light became stronger, even the men stationed at close range weapons could clearly be seen searching the skies for hostile aircraft and there, way on the horizon, was the convoy. True, only four ships, but how precious they were, how necessary their assorted cargo was to Malta. Gracefully protecting them was the old cruiser Carlisle and a few Hunt class destroyers who, as we raced to meet them, dashed to form into our own destroyer screen.
Signal lamps blinked furiously, gaily coloured flags seemingly leaped to the masthead as Rear Admiral Vian, on the Cleopatra, gave his orders. The convoy was on its way! We had not progressed very far that forenoon when the peace was shattered with the call to action. "Aircraft detected". With gun turrets gently swinging round as the bearings of the enemy altered, we saw them, four or five torpedo-bombers circulating the Fleet. Gradually, they eased towards us tormenting the guns, and then out they would go but circling all the time. An orange coloured flash from the Carlisle accompanied by smoke and followed by the sudden crack, and a shell from the eager gunners burst with a little puff near the aircraft - but still they circled. A rapid burst of fire from a destroyer, the heavier crack of a cruiser's gun and the air was full of smoke and flame as the ship shuddered with the firing of the first shells. There it was! A lone 'plane sweeping in low over the water, straight for the nearest merchant vessel. Boom-Boom-Boom went the heavier guns, she was still a distance away, the sky studded with white puffs, the air full of cordite. Tap-Tap-Tap went the close range weapons and the heavens were full of screaming shells. Tracer shells patterned the blue sky. The pilot couldn't hold out any longer and the torpedo splashed into the water. The aircraft, free of its uncomfortable weight, lifted into the sky and climbed to safety. The torpedo speeded towards the merchant ship, a signal fluttered from the mast of the Cleopatra and the whole convoy turned together as the torpedo passed harmlessly by, leaving a white track faintly visible in the blue sea.
Men fell flat to gain whatever protection was possible, the ship heeled to miss the screaming objects as, with a deafening explosion, they hit the sea just a few yards away. A column of water rose and fell over the ship that shook with the force of the upheaval. She righted herself, shuddered as water poured over her fo'c'sle and steamed clear, guns still spitting venom. All around the convoy there were spouting fountains of water and yet, still the Fleet maintained an unbroken order.
Friday passed into Saturday, with hours of waiting for the periodical attacks. High level, low level, dive and torpedo-bombers all took their turn speeding in from the direction of Crete.
Sunday 22nd March, opened very quietly with quite a calm sea and it was not until early afternoon that the first attack began. It continued with the usual regularity but there was an interesting feature not known to all, fortunately, perhaps. Away astern there hovered, like a bird of prey, what is known in the NAVY AS A 'Float Plane' (to a civilian a sea-plane). This may not strike a significant note to any uninformed person but to us it spelt one thing. Somewhere, those who knew of its existence, realised there was an enemy surface craft at sea. Naturally, Flag Officers, Captains, etc., were fully aware from air reconnaissance that the Italian Battlefleet were at sea.
It was approximately 1500 hours that, from out of the blue came the first salvo. On the flagdeck we had our eyes on the horizon nervously watching the unbroken line of sky and sea; we were nervous, full of apprehension and rather hoping deep in our hearts, that by some flight of fancy, the two converging forces would pass in ignorance of each other. Once before, all of our ship's company had spent an uncomfortable hour of shelling from fifteen-inch battleships at a range that was hopelessly beyond our small cruiser. We could still see each others faces on that December day as we lay and shivered on the deck as shells fell thick and fast around us in our first baptism of surface action. Yet, here we were, three months later, in exactly the same situation. "There they are" â€¦a signalman had spotted a bulge on the horizon. Reported to the compass platform, frantic blinking of lights to the Admiral. Reply - "are you quite sure?"- "Quite sure". But before the words had been uttered we saw the flash and waited, our stomachs turning over. Waiting, waiting, seconds of drawn agonising seconds that seemed hours, for the noise of a screeching shell that seemed ridiculously to fan our faces and then the sea all around us was full of fountains of water. Straddled with the first salvo, brilliant shooting (we didn't think that at the time!) and we waited for the next roar of an express train. All this seemed to take hours but in reality it was but a few minutes and we had not been idle. Admiral Vian gave the signal "MAKE SMOKE" and suddenly we were belching smoke, circling the merchant ships and the Carlisle, in a dense layer of choking black and white cloud. "ATTACK" came the signal over the air, wireless transmitters were now in full use, no silence restrictions would impede our fight against overwhelming odds. Back at the base they were already decoding the signal that seemed to them to breathe disaster to our Cruiser Squadron. As we afterwards learned, they thought the Fighting Fifteenth were doomed. There ahead, we could see the Cleopatra, emerging at intervals from the dense smoke; away astern were the Dido and Penelope and there, occasionally, one could see the high bow wave of a dashing destroyer. It all seemed a hopeless muddle and yet, it was in fact, so wonderfully planned. Where were what few ships we had in company? But they were there, weaving and turning as shell after shell crashed into the sea, guns blazing, whilst tracer bullets screamed into the sky at bombers as they flew over and added to our discomfort with their cargo.
The Italians didn't like an attack through smoke and they turned and increased speed. Superior in numbers and armament, why did they withdraw? They wanted us to follow and leave the convoy to the mercy of their 'planes that circled around like hungry vultures. We could tell from the incessant sound of AA fire that they were having a lively time so, as the enemy fleet dashed away, so did we, towards the convoy.
But, let us now turn to the cruiser Carlisle, left with two or three small destroyers to shepherd the merchant ships along. As the three other cruisers turned to attack, the enemy 'planes were already attacking and once more ships heeled over as salvo after salvo hurled skywards in an effort to create a barrage. Danger not only lurked in the sky, for with other ships, some twenty or thirty miles away in the wake of the retreating enemy cruisers and destroyers, from a northerly direction there appeared a battleship, several cruisers and hosts of destroyers. The main enemy fleet stalking its prey after, seemingly drawing our main force away. "Stand by to attack, alone" came the order from the Carlisle's Captain. Madness it would be, but there was no other course left open if some attempt to save the convoy was to be made. The order was never carried out for with every turret spitting venom, the cruisers were returning. Hopelessly outnumbered, there was never any thought but to attack. Altogether, we had to face one battleship, six cruisers all heavier armed than us, and numerous destroyers - like lambs to the slaughter we went, but not as docile.
You will notice that I have included the cruiser Penelope in the first episode of our action and it was, in fact, the first appearance she had made on the scene. It was a usual feature of these convoys that a hundred, or so, miles from Malta, a force based at the Island would take over and we return Eastwards. On repeated occasions we had met the Penelope for a few minutes only to wish her Godspeed and return. On this occasion, however, she arrive with a few destroyers just as the battle commenced and so joined with us in what was to become an unforgettable action.
As we attacked, the enemy once more withdrew content to fling salvo after salvo at us from extreme range. And, so it went on hour after hour one turmoil of smoke, spray and thundering guns. We could but hope for darkness to cloak us but even as the sun set it seemed that daylight would never end. Fleecy clouds had given way to dark skies, calmed seas had been gradually topped up with white foam and the gentle breeze transformed into a wind that whipped the flags on the foremast and left the gleaming white ensign, flying in the battle position, a tattered rag. At least the elements were beginning to favour us, although, we realised that a direct hit would see us floundering in seas running heavy, with no possible chance of being saved.
With a crash that seemed to turn the ship on its side, Euryalus shivered from stem to stern. HIT! Frantic awe-struck faces looked to port and starboard! Was this our end? In a few seconds agonising thoughts flashed through the minds of all. Youngsters looked with white faces to someone in authority who, in all probability, felt equally as bad. On the bridge, the Captain, with face set, carried on giving directions to the quartermaster, waiting for a report on the situation below decks. At last it came, but we had already realised by the way the ship righted herself and carried on, that all was well down in the bowels of the cruiser, affectionately known as "The Terror". "Shell exploded on Starboard quarter, sir. Fragment passed through seven bulkheads. No casualties!" Yes, a fragment of a 15" shell, weighing half-hundredweight, with smaller fragments; but ten yards more and we would have had the shell on the quarterdeck and the stern would have been no more. Fate was very kind indeed that day, for we were swinging here and lifting almost in mid air as broadside speeded away from our guns that must have been red hot. Waves crashed over the steel decks, spray and smoke blinded the eyes, but even that couldn't hide the fact that part of Cleopatra's bridge was a shambles. "Hit by a 6 inch shell!" came from the Admiral. Her aerials were almost useless, flags at the foremast caught in some obstruction, but her fighting capabilities unhampered. Communication was difficult but with our transmitters working like clockwork the Euryalus began to relay to the Fleet orders flashed from the Cleopatra.
Dusk was beginning to envelop the two forces but we could see that our efforts were not in vain - battleships and cruisers were likewise damaged. "Destroyers prepare for torpedo attack!" Vian's next words were "Attack" and the grey shapes wheeled and climbing the waves that crashed all around and disappeared into the smoke that hung on the surface of the sea.
We waited, not in the sense of the word, but firing at the grey blobs seven miles away. The first report came through from the flotilla leader "Torpedoes gone - estimate one hit!". Then,â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦"One destroyer hit amidships-stopped". A couple of miles from an enemy battleship and unable to steam. It seemed incredible she would survive another minute but she wasn't left quite alone for one of her sister ships lay patiently alongside, as engineers worked frantically in the damaged engine rooms. At last, with shells raking her, she steamed slowly away, limping like a terrier that had at least, kept a bulldog at bay.
They had done their work well and the Italians began to retreat Northwards. They realised that with darkness around they were in more danger from us than we from them. Battleship, six cruisers and destroyers turned for their base, made sadder and wiser by a weaker British Force that in a five-hour battle put the Italians into harbour never to come out again in force until final capitulation.
We turned for our long run back to base, merchant ships now in the care of the Malta Force, and realised that here we were to experience a few days unpleasant weather. But heavy seas were soothing after the last few hours and looking rather the worse for wear, the ships steamed into Alexandria harbour. Not the quiet harbour that had been left a week previous but one full of tiny boats with yelling natives, merchant vessels frantically flying welcome signals, sirens blaring forth and naval ships more ceremoniously passing respectful words of praise.
An unforgettable morning in our commission, possibly more so because it was so unexpected, but many a tough matelot felt a lump come in his throat even if he sheepishly grinned and said "FREE BEER, TONIGHT-------PERHAPS!!".
So, we leave the first six months of our commission behind, a period of continual action, Malta convoys, attempted interception of enemy forces and bombardments. The latter, although always a minor item in our existence, included the rather unusual attack on Rhodes Island which took us well beyond any fighter protection even if there were any fighters to appeal to, and although it was a bombardment of no exceptional significance, it was rather an exciting few hours. Gliding into the harbour at Rhodes with land either side but a stones throw away and adding our shells to the fires that had already been started by the air force. Watching the destroyers speed still further inshore to unload their guns on harbour installations seem now, on looking back, but an ordinary days work, for the next eighteen months held far greater operations. Operations that seemed nigh on an impossibility then, were at least in the blueprint stage.
And so, the months passed with attempted convoys, and still tighter the noose was drawn around the Island of Malta so that with the Allied armies stubbornly defending the inside of Egyptian frontiers, this island fortress was virtually besieged. Only occasional fast ships could safely reach harbour but with supplies dwindling efforts were made unceasingly to break through, culminating in the summer convoys from either end of the Mediterranean which, although minutely successful, resulted in such heavy Naval losses. To describe our own particular part in this convoy would merely be repetition, because as always, it consisted of increasing air attacks, U-boat attacks at night and, the inevitable lurking Italian Fleet, though not anxious to fight a full scale action even with the few ships that we had, but waiting and hoping to cause panic and then pick off the odd ship. So let us pass over this convoy and try to forget the vision of dive-bombers hurling themselves down at a destroyer, leaving behind the column of smoke from a mortally wounded ship. Forget the shrill whine of bullets and the roar of shells as the convoy weaves and turns slowly on the calm sea. Was it really a blazing hot summer's day? Who worried! Home was far away, land and even hope seemed still further away and yet, could it be wondered that at that period of the war and after a year of ceaseless struggle in the Med., that some even began to wonder what really was going to be the outcome of it all. Once again, we will forget this rather unfortunate convoy and forget the horrible feeling as we read the signals flashed to us in the darkness of the summer night. The crowning disaster to lose a sister ship struck by the most deadliest of all sea warfare - a submarine torpedo. Our hearts were very heavy but let us try to think that the loss of those gallant men was not in vain for, we had at least given Malta a little support and hope for the future.
The war front was serious and in the few weeks that followed we were subject I believe to nervous reaction more than actual fighting. Wherever we went, it seemed as if a periscope followed us, every cloud hid a bomber, and in actual fact, our spirits had reached their lowest depth. We did, perhaps, have our first real chance of seeing the lands we had been based at, so maybe it would be as well to put the war in the background for a paragraph or two and try to describe what really this so called wonderful Middle East is like.
Egypt, for instance, it seems so completely false - half western half eastern. Wander slowly down a rough cobbled road in the dockland area. Devoid of any sanitary and drainage arrangements, dirt and dust lay everywhere rising at every step in clouds that settled on barrows of fruit, dark spicy dates, nuts and pancake shaped bread. Food is being cooked in greasy vats that stand in a dark whitewashed shop and the odour of garlic and grease that is nothing less than a stench. So the street is traversed. Here a little cobblers shop with some very nice looking shoes, very nice that is, until they have been worn for a few weeks and the cardboard begins to wear. Next a junk shop full of souvenirs of Alexandria; someone had been well employed in Birmingham. Then perhaps the most flashy looking photograph studio with a Hollywood name and a window full of mostly service portraits. And then we have a shady cafe from whence issues the sound of a tinny piano and at whose doorway stands the inevitable of an Egyptian cafe, GIRLS! Some looking as if they ought to be at school, some as if they ought to be on pension, some with the skin of a Greek and others with the skin, lips and eyes of a Sudanese. Without exception, their faces slashed with heavy paint, their bodies clothed in revoltingly coloured clothes showing, in most cases, exceptional quantity (not quality) of fat ugly legs set on shoes several inches high. In fact, nauseating to even walk on the same side of the street let alone be enticed into a bar. Of course, the bars were not all as bad as that. They vary from day to day and if you are in the Top Hat one night and bottles and chairs begin to fly through the air one naturally moves on. So, we wander along the road at every step being asked - no, told - in fact, ordered by small filthy little Arabs with flashing teeth and cunning eyes that our shoes needed a shine. This they offer to do for varying prices - two piastre, one piastre (2 1/2d), half piastre or a cigarette. Usually the shine turns out to be a mud pack. Every yard, or, so, one is greeted by the inevitable 'Haircut George?', every sailor is 'George' to the Wogs, and they seem to imagine you need a haircut every few hours. It is a remarkable fact that in this country every hairdressing saloon is a real saloon with smart chromium fittings and clean bowls. One never sees a saloon half as bad as some of the English 'barber shops'. We turn a corner and pass a musty looking bar where horrible chanting, wailing music that is so typically Eastern, blared from a loudspeaker, and fat, greasy, perspiring sallow - skinned men sit drinking their black sticky coffee - always accompanied by a glass of water - and smoking through long tubes in a glass jar which is so common in this country.
Around the corner and all is changed. Here, is a wide expanse of road with smart shops and perhaps a little touch of garden on the sidewalk. It is so very much like the West with beautiful cars and as always, smartly dressed, cleverly if rather heavily and brightly, made up women lingering to look in the shops displaying everything obtainable in England, as well as unobtainable. But even here, the East is still evident. Flashily dressed men wear the traditional Fez while the humble Wog shuffles alongside dressed in Fez and a long one-piece shirt that sweeps the ground, hiding his red painted toenails. Yes, it still shows the East, for even the most Parisian dressed woman shows it in the brightness of her make-up or the brilliance of her white dress and red bolero, or any flashing colour. Go into a store and ask to see silk stockings or dress material and you will be waited upon by a smart girl speaking good English and probably able to speak several other foreign languages as well.
Yes that is Egypt - a colourful mixture of Europe and Asia where wartime trade is couponless and brisk; where prices are high but a Britisher is welcome as long as he has money to spend and he keeps the enemy out of the country. If Germany had been able to walk in the very next day, trade would have been the same and these people would have accepted it just as they accept our domination.
Let us now go South to Eritrea where we spent a couple of weeks in late August, truly described as a fever-stricken mud heap, the coast a blazing tropical heat and the interior as cool as a British summers day.
And now, finally, Palestine. So very different from Egypt except that the West is more prevalent. Buildings show the experience of these Jews driven from their German homes. Here is a country of plenty, with grassy slopes easing gradually to the barren rocky arable land that stretches between Haifa and Galilee. Farming goes on as it did in Biblical days, modern methods are still to come and the Arab lives his life quietly keeping away from Jews that control the modern towns. Nazareth, an ancient town, half-old, half-modern, yet spoilt by it being commercialised to suit the pre-war tourist. These barren hills and mountains seem to hold such sacred memories that one is faintly shocked to find in Tiberius, on the shores of Galilee, a modern bathing lido complete with dance-band, selling alcohol. Looking up into the cloudless sky and across the calm blue sea to the rugged mountains on the far side, you feel that the war is so very far away; it is so strangely peaceful.
October 1942 and we had passed a few weeks with exercises at sea, exercises in harbour, and to be more exact, weeks of waiting for the inevitable. Weeks, when our main occupation seemed to be swimming in the pleasant waters off Port Fuad, or wandering in the dusty streets of Port Said trying to amuse ourselves with beating the Egyptian pedlars down to the smallest sum for Turkish Delight, purses and any item that we had no desire to see or, in fact, buy. It is always a feature to sit in the cafe or at a table on the pavement drinking American canned beer and being pestered by natives to inspect their wares at prices four or five times greater than they ever expected to get. If one should sit there for two hours lazily watching the passing pageant of innumerable types of people, you would be safely assured that the same pedlars would visit you with monotonous regularity as they make their continuous rounds of the haunts where the 'stupid' British matelot is to be found. Hot summer days faded into warm still nights and as darkness descended on the town and the imperfect blackout began to twinkle, aboard would come the sailors in soiled white suits, clutching boxes of sweets or silk stockings purchased at the local Selfridges in one hand, endeavouring to straighten his hat with the other whilst trying to walk a steady and stately passage across the quarterdeck towards that hive of crowded humanity where the lower deck rating exists. Spare a little pity for them. In peace-time, one always pictures a 'Jack Tar' slightly tipsy - in fact, picture postcards revel in it - after all, that is tradition and where would the Navy be but for tradition, because, in the Navy you do things for no apparent reason except that Nelson did it! A landlubber is oft to forget that 'Jack' never sees a bottle of beer onboard and often is deprived of this sanctuary of forgetfulness by weeks at sea. In our own case we had had quite a run of hard times and we all realised that this spell of quiet would soon break and perhaps it would be months before we saw reasonable civilisation, if you can call Egypt, civilisation. How true this was to be in our case, for I shall not be premature if I mention now that six months were to pass before we ever saw decent food again, let alone other pleasures.
We come to the first glimmer of the approaching storm. Lighter craft had on several occasions hammered at the harbour of Mersa Matruh and it was no surprise to us when we steamed out one day, obviously for a bombardment in this area. No surprise indeed but it was hardly a pleasant thought realising that for two consecutive nights destroyers had kept the enemy busy there and in all probability they were ready for us. I will not bore the reader with the description of the bombardment, it was, as all others. Creeping inshore at a mere fifteen knots, waiting for the Senior Officer to order the show on. In, to two or three miles, listening to the gunnery fire control signals, a shudder as the first two salvoes sped shoreward, endeavouring to contact the spotting aircraft which seldom seemed to appear, a continual barrage for fifteen minutes and a sigh of relief as engines begin to rev up and twenty-six knots is signalled and we all think "Let's get to ---out of here!". That is all there is to it, just another operation, one small one like so many others that I have no space to describe in these rambling notes. Only a minor detail, but looking back I can still see the tense faces, wondering if we are going to get away with it this time, or whether we are going to finish up with a torpedo inside us.
And so, we went in again two nights later. Paving the way for our colleagues ashore the men who were to start the ball rolling.
It did begin to roll soon after that. We sailed at dusk with the familiar loaded merchant ships; there was no need to wonder where to, but the fun had already started. The Americans had landed in North Africa, our own boys had routed Rommel at El Alamein, and we were Malta bound. The army had pushed on rapidly into the desert and we were receiving reasonable air support but we still didn't feel over anxious to leave Benghazi behind and sail into an area where we could get no real support. But on we went, and to our amazement the only attack we had was two JU88's that flew in, dropped their 'eggs'. And nipped away. Twenty-four hours from Malta and we began to have high hopes, and then in the middle of the night, we led the first complete convoy for over a year into the harbour of Malta. Not a glorious entrance with cheering crowds; all there was to greet us was the blinking signal lantern that spelt out "Well Done." Ourselves, we had made history. A year before, we had escorted the last big convoy to arrive safely from the West, and here we were, in charge of the first complete one since then to sneak in, and incidentally, we had circled the African continent at long last, having taken part in every convoy during that period.
We only stayed long enough to see the terrible damage, at least, one could sense it without seeing it and as the day dawned all that you could see was ruins and rubble. I won't dwell on Malta now, that can come later, for very soon we were speeding back to another old port of ours - Alexandria. A thousand miles found us steaming into this big harbour but within a few hours we were on our way back to Malta loaded with stores and to form with our sister ships and a few destroyers, the force that was to stand by in case the Italian Fleet came out. The force that was to eventually cut Rommels life-line between Italy and Africa. These three cruisers and the handful of destroyers had held the Mediterranean alone for a whole year against terrific odds, perhaps the greatest piece of naval bluff of this war.
To be quite honest we did not relish our job, there was very little to look forward to in this area, just fighting. And so it proved to be, but now, instead of bringing the convoys all the way we would meet them halfway and have the pleasure (?) of protecting them for the final stages into port and then triumphantly lead them into harbour through cheering Maltese. Yes, this proved to be our main job for a few months until gradually the position improved and our armies crept up the coast of Africa.
I spent my second Christmas abroad in Malta but I am not going to dwell on that painful experience but mention it because, by this time, we occasionally would lay in harbour and watch other warships bring the convoy in. I would like to describe the feeling of pride as each time the number of merchant ships increased. For example, the instance of the convoy that sailed in a couple of days before Christmas 1942. We had been left behind on this occasion but we knew by the frantic signalling of the Signal Station that a convoy was nearing the harbour. Crowds lined the harbour approaches and gradually we saw the cruiser Aurora (?) steam slowly into harbour, hands lined fore and aft, and on the quarterdeck the Royal Marine Band playing Christmas Carols. Then, a destroyer and a heavily ladened Liberty ship, another destroyer followed by two or more ships, mostly flying the Stars and Stripes, a tanker with its very precious fuel, one of our old friends a well remembered merchant packet flying the Red Ensign. So it went on while we frantically worked signal lamps and waved our arms in that demented manner known as Semaphore; we worked with good heart that morning for it surely meant there would be some mail, at least. I shall never forget the eagerness with which we watched those convoys arrive, or, how we shepherded them into port, how we looked for the old ships of the days when a Malta convoy was a voyage of death and not, as it was gradually becoming, a quiet trip to sea. However, do not think that the Axis never fought back. They made their attacks sometimes with success but the initiative was with us. Fighters roared out from Malta now to give added support, but there again, we gradually noticed that more and more, bombers replaced fighters. 'The shape of things to come'.
1942 closed, and the New Year promised a lot, but it did not promise us home. The next step had to be taken, for gradually the Eighth Army neared the forces fighting Tunisia and at last we had something to put our teeth into. We were not being driven back and what seemed defeat six months earlier had now become a steady victory. What of the New Year?
Malta - the Island that had earned such a reputation in this war and, of course, the George Cross, was the essential hub from which an invasion of Italy had to spring. Loss of this Island would have meant more years of war, struggling to regain control of the central Mediterranean before the Allies could have considered invasion. Hence its importance. Thanks to British Forces, the Army valiantly manned the AA Batteries, the Air Force and the Navy supplying and protecting the sea routes, Malta was never lost. For myself, I am not in a very good position to talk about Malta for, over a period of a year, during which time I was in and out of this harbour, my excursions ashore amounted to no more than half-a-dozen times, so I will be brief and endeavour not to be biased.
As you approach Malta it appears to be a flat, barren Island with cliffs rising directly out of the sea and resembles what it actually is - a Fortress. Nearing land, it is obvious that it is not as barren as one first imagined and although trees are non-existent, cliff tops are indeed, green with vegetation. Sweeping into the narrow harbour entrance you are immediately struck by the white-grey bastions that arise sheer from the waters edge and tower all around the creeks and dockyards. Where once stood solid flat roofed eastern dwellings, there was now but heaps of rubble. Here the walls of the fort had crumbled and slipped away from the explosion of a heavy bomb, and over there, stood the skeleton of a building with a clock face monotonously recording the same time, day in and day out. In the cold dull light of winter, with the wind whipping across the water the whole atmosphere is cold and unfriendly. In the heat of a summers day, against the vivid blue sky, the dirty white stone throws back an unforgettable glare. Still, it is a Fortress, badly mauled but still looking as it looked many years before when it withheld the fury of attacking Turkish forces.
Now let us go ashore. We take a Dhow and it lands us at a little quay where you will see a crowd of oddly assorted people awaiting transport across the harbour. Wander up the hill and start to climb the narrow lanes, which are not roads but a series of steps. High stone buildings flank either side. Small windows with little verandas look down on the narrow street below and when, at every corner, you perceive a religious monument and very often a church, one realises how Italian it all strikes you and to what extent Roman Catholicism holds power. A priest of some Order passes you dressed in a black or brown smock and girdle, with the inevitable black shiny hat, completely round with a large brim, which looks somewhat like a flat bowler hat. You reach the crest of the hill and there are small shops full of relics of the siege, then more shops with clothes at a price far beyond the price asked for in Egypt. Cross the road, which I believe was called Kingsway, is a main road about twenty feet wide. On looking around you observe the appalling damage. Everywhere lay heaps of rubble with buildings split asunder. It couldn't burn, just fell like a pack of cards. Over the road and down the slope on the opposite side a kind of town square for ceremonial occasions and once again into the world of dingy bars and squalid shops. From here, I'm afraid my knowledge must end because, not once did I tour the bars and cafes of Malta, set mainly in a narrow lane, and affectionately known to pre-war Naval ratings as "The Gut" - why, I know not! Here, one finds the usual dens of wine, women and song but lacking these days, I fear, the first item. In peace time Malta is a sailors paradise, but in war time a place of gloom and despair. For a sailor to have been to Malta and not visit "The Gut" is beyond all bounds of the 'Nelson touch' - but, are we sailors? We do the job but I think the majority of us are civilians in the wrong clothes.
That is a rough outline of Malta, with many ghost streets of broken homes, closed shops and shattered windows, where, even in the daytime, one might never see a soul. An Island which, from all accounts, was in peacetime a place of plenty and cheapness, while war has made it an Island with very little. Nevertheless, spare a thought for the British Army that withstood the Blitz - and it was a Blitz, with planes flying just over the waters of the Island in their hundreds. They stood against the Blitz with empty stomachs and little ammunition, and no respite. To them, should go the real praise and glory.
Months passed, and the German Armies were fighting with backs to the sea and the final phase of the North African campaign was nearing its end. We had bombarded Suarez and the Eighth Army swept on to join up with the First Army. The enemy were frantically endeavouring to escape into the hills of Tunisia or across the well patrolled waters of the Mediterranean. Our force had consistently cut Rommels life-line, and in all fairness to the destroyers, it was mainly their show. We stood by continually for the possibilities of an Italian Fleet, whilst the destroyers worked unceasingly blasting ship after ship laden with supplies, out of the water; then, when the final battle began they picked up remnants of Rommels Army who endeavoured to escape in small craft, rafts and the like. I say 'pick up', but in many cases, they did not always enjoy this pleasure. And so, we come to the end of this victorious, stupendous campaign which six months before, had flowered from what had seemed a beaten army. A victory inspired, surely, by that first leader, Lord Wavell.
Spring had come and the weather had taken on that Mediterranean colourfulness geography books tell us about. Skies were clear and blue, the sun was hot and the blue waters calm and sparkling. Such thoughts were in our minds as we swept westwards one evening with our small force, towards the setting sun, and the coolness of the night. Tomorrow would see us in action again for, not blindly, had we watched the continual stream of bombers roar out from Malta, day and night, towards Pantellaria and Sicily. The writing had been on the wall for weeks and when, one Sunday, we had been urgently recalled from, what had promised to be a pleasant break in Algiers, we realised, not without plenty of grumbling, that there was still plenty to do before home could even be visualised. We sailed Monday night, and Tuesday forenoon found us steaming at a pleasant speed towards Pantellaria. Overhead, from dawn, and ceaselessly thereafter, roared hundreds of bombers of all types and sizes, intent on one purpose - the utter devastation of Pantellaria. Strangely, I have always remembered this day because of the beautiful weather. The sea no longer had that ominous look as it sparkled in the sunlight and rippled along the ships side in pleasant cascades. The horizon just wasn't there, instead, but a few miles away, a slight mist hid the meeting place of bright blue sky and calm waters. We took life very easy that forenoon, one cruiser just ahead of us even had their daily routine of physical training on the quarterdeck. We just prepared ourselves mentally and bodily for the obvious bombardment which was to be our first experience of shelling a harbour in broad daylight. At eleven o'clock, we altered course and perceived the summit of the Island of Pantellaria peeping through the heat mist that rose slowly from the sea. How we appreciated that mist, for surprise was always a factor to be reckoned with.
A few minutes before midday, we split forces and turned to dash to our appointed target whilst, from a different direction, we saw another cruiser squadron appearing from the west, to support us. The scene was photographed in my mind, a panorama of naval might. Cruisers steaming at high speed, bow waves gracefully sweeping along the grey hulls; destroyers dashing to appointed stations, the sea cascading over the fo'c'sle, and still the sun blazed down as the water glistened and twinkled. This all seemed like a day's spree - this couldn't be war!
The Island was in full sight now - or was it!? Cloud after cloud of dust and debris seemed to obscure the view as we realised that the Allied Air Forces had been doing their job well. Gliding in to within four miles of the beaches we could see the signal station flying a single flag. Frantically peering through telescopes and binoculars and turning leaves of signal books, we knew that secrecy had passed on - the danger signal was flying! With the full realisation of this we heard the distant roar of a gun, and another, and then a continuous barrage as ship after ship went into action with Battle Ensigns fluttering clearly on the foremast and contrasting immensely in their cleanliness to the smoke grimed White Ensign fluttering aft. Our main armament went into action against the roadway and gun emplacements on the hillside but only after we had swept still further inshore. Gun after gun roared forth and in reply, flashes began to appear on the grassy slopes as enemy shells screamed overhead and sent up columns of water all around. A distant roar, culminating in a crescendo of sound as above us, hundreds of Flying Fortresses sailed majestically into the fray. With clock-like precision, their first bombs fell along the beaches and repeated as their second load fell together on the hills so that the Island was completely hidden by dust and debris and a pall of heavy smoke, penetrated only by gun flashes, as the Germans continued to fire undaunted by the terrible barrage from the sea and air. We closed to engage the shore batteries again, our attendant destroyer adding to the din of exploding cordite.
The signal "Rejoin" from the Admiral and we turned and steamed away with our after turrets still engaging the enemy as shells fell in our wake. Our destroyer continually turned to engage a worrying shore battery, like a terrier snapping at a bulldog. Speeding away, we watched the Island gradually disappearing in the dense smoke that issued forth from the smoke floats we had dropped to cover our retreat. Still the aircraft flew overhead and explosion after explosion vibrated in the still air of that beautiful spring day. It did not really seem beautiful then, the whole business had been nauseating but, isn't total war, all war, for that mater, filthy and nauseating!? We turned away and eagerly cooled our parched throats with our midday beverage, the cup that cheers the day along - our tot of rum. With dinner in our hands - a piece of meat pie in one and a baked potato in the other - we turned to the future.
Pantellaria fell within a few days.
Our second bombardment on the "toe" of Italy was carried out on a small port named Scalia, and this town, nestling amongst the hills, received very heavy punishment from ourselves and the Penelope whilst destroyers took action against shore installations. Absolutely no resistance was met here, but strangely enough, this night's work was perhaps one of the most eerie of them all. We had swept the seas to within fifty miles south of Naples and were well within enemy waters. Our next objective was to close the shore and follow the Italian coastline down as far as Scalia in an endeavour to find any small coastal craft that might be trying to creep northwards under cover of darkness. Steaming at fifteen knots and only two miles from shore, we sailed south, and standing at our action stations alert and tense, every sound seemed magnified. The soft swish of the water against the bows became the hiss of steam from a pipe and it seemed certain that anybody on that lonely forbidding mountainous coast to or port would hear us even if visibility was bad. Not that we need have worried because visibility was extremely good and we could even see the road that ran twisting and turning, flanked by sheer mountains on one side and sea on the other. Steadying night glasses you could see the outline of a house or perhaps a small village sleeping peacefully at midnight unaware that death lurked but a few miles out to sea. Turrets swung menacingly as our apparatus detected an object on the calm sea. The stillness was broken by the clang of the firing bell, the air filled with the roar of a forward turret as star shells slowly descended illuminating in a striking black and white contrast, the little village on the sea shore. All was amazingly still after the explosions and once again the atmosphere became tense with waiting as we realised that we had detected a small boat high up on a beach as we slid stealthily south. Every moment, we expected pandemonium to break out or to hear an explosion as we hit a mine or receive an attack from E-Boats, but still the only sound was swish, swish, as the water rippled away from the steel grey shapes.
A sudden burst of light and the crack of an explosion turned all our heads to port as we perceived a parachute flare descending over the coast road, followed immediately by heavy bomb bursts. This continued for mile after mile as the Royal Air Force blasted the road (at least, that is what we imagined) but unfortunately, the glare of the flares made us an extremely good target. A swing to starboard and we neared our final target for the night - the little town of Scalia, but to us, looking intensely over the dark gloomy seas no longer shimmering in the light of flares, it seemed as if we were steaming straight into a solid wall of rock. Another sudden turn and we followed the coast and there, very faintly, was the town, indistinct, but showing the usual contours and shadows. I will not describe the usual nauseating business of pumping shells into town. Like Catania, it had to be done and there could be no pleasure in it, particularly in the still of the night and into a small place that seemed utterly defenceless; it was with relief that I saw it disappearing astern with several small red glows that denoted our shells had hit something, be it a railway station or church, houses or barracks we didn't know and I very much doubt if anybody ever knew, except the recipients of our gunfire. Just another small cog in the great war machine.
Little did we realise it, but the stage was all set for our final operation of the commission. September 1943, and we still seemed so far away from home after two years of continual action, and it was with more misgivings we welcomed Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, our old leader of convoy days, back on board in the capacity of R.A.'V'. Nobody knew what that meant except, with 'Vian of the Cossack', it was not going to be a job far away from action and, for the first time, he was apparently going to direct operations from our bridge. The preliminary exercises naturally gave us a good idea and the few weeks prior to the operation were full of speculation and hopes that, the sooner it was over and finished with, the better for us all. We left Malta one bright forenoon with an accompanying force of aircraft carriers - 'Woolworth Carriers' as they were known by, being converted merchant ships, the Scylla and the ill-fated Charybdis together with the necessary destroyers and with the Admiral's words ringing in our ears. We were, that night, going to be the first enemy force to pass through the Messina Straits and proceed to a position off the western Italian coast to enable the carriers to provide fighter cover for our troops as they landed in the neighbourhood. This movement, it was hoped, would cut Italy in half and at the very least assist the Eighth Army, who, had already began to advance up the "toe" of Italy. However, this landing was to prove rather difficult because it was too far from our landing fields to get adequate air cover - hence the Fleet Air Arm.
All that day we steamed north and as darkness fell, neared the north-eastern tip of Sicily, and from there, onwards; we hoped for the best and a quiet journey through the Straits. Just before nine o'clock, however, we intercepted a plain language message over the radio announcing the capitulation of the Italian Army which, although could in no way alter our plans, gave little satisfaction to think that our job might be easier. There was full evidence of this as we slowly steamed through the narrow stretch of water that separates Italy from Sicily. From the hills and mountains rising on either side, we could see bonfires and fireworks and, in fact, hear the merriment of both civilians and soldiers. The moon lighted our ghostly passage through these waters that concealed treacherous currents and it was with satisfaction that we entered into broader waters and headed northwards.
Dawn found us just south of Naples, between ten and twenty miles from the Salerno beaches where our forces had already made landings. At the first blue of the sky our carriers turned to fly off fighters that circled the fleet and then swept shoreward to commence their gallant fight that in reality saved our men, just as the naval bombardments were, at a later date, to prevent another Dunkirk. So began a week of monotonous duty patrolling up and down, seeing more and more of our 'planes go out and watching others make their difficult landing on small decks. The Seafires would skim in and we would hold our breath as they found the deck and come to rest with a jerk or, in many cases find the deck, only to overrun and land with a crash and 'another plane out of commission'. At other times the aircraft would find the deck but overrun and, with a crash, fall into the water, sinking like a leaden weight. This happened on one occasion and the pilot jumped clear the instant the plane hit the water, being swiftly swept astern supported by his Mae West and waving to us as a Motor Torpedo Boat went to his assistance.
From this you will understand that our supply of planes became extremely low and as each day passed and the situation on the beaches became more critical with still no landing grounds or the land 'planes, the whole position became rather involved. To see the calm, vivid bleu waters, the clear sky and the hot sun, war seemed far away, yet, but a few miles to the east our troops were fighting a grim battle with their backs to the sea. Already, we were becoming low on oil fuel and our aircraft strength reduced from well over a hundred, to a mere thirty, and so it was with relief we learnt one afternoon, as we sailed by the Isle of Capri for the hundredth time, that the Royal Air Force were, at last, operating and our job was done. At least, the first stage was! We returned by easy stages, obtaining fuel and staying one night at Palermo, proceeding the next day to Bizerta. Here we bade farewell to the carriers and within a few hours was moving at high speed in the direction of Tripoli, many hundreds of miles away. When we learned that we three cruisers had to embark troops and get them to Salerno immediately, we really began to feel that the situation there was extremely precarious. Still, the hundreds of Highlanders we embarked seemed quite cheerful as well as extremely dirty. We steered them into our messdecks, gave them the run of the food and departed ourselves to find a corner to rest - nigh on an impossibility with such a large number of passengers. Arriving at Salerno at noon we approached the beaches and anchored a mile from the sandy shore watching with apprehension, the heavy gunfire a few miles up in the hills. Our friends then transferred to landing craft and we didn't stay long, but sailed away, leaving behind the roar of the battleships as they pounded the hill slopes, and the crack of the anti-aircraft defences as they fought off an air attack that had developed as we left.
We were again to see this scene of conflict, but only for a short time, and leaving that day, we little knew that we were turning our backs on the fighting for many months to come. The he next few weeks found us in every port between Algiers and Malta until we began to wonder if we were now to be used exclusively as a passenger ship. First, with the Union Jack fluttering at our foremast, we approached the Italian base of Taranto, our distinguished passenger - Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Andrew Cunningham. Another morning we were returning from this patrol and were, in actual fact, destined once again for Malta. It was a beautiful summer's morning with the promise of a very hot day. The sea was as smooth as a sheet of glass and to all intents and purposes, war could hardly exist as we steamed at twenty-five knots, closely followed by our sister ship, Cleopatra, with two destroyers in company. I was standing beside the Officer of the Watch on the compass platform and, with the exception of the watch on deck, the ship's company was at breakfast when the tragedy occurred. Hoisting a signal, I turned to see if those astern had received same as the answering pennant went fluttering to the masthead, a sheet of flame seemed to leap from the waters edge and engulf the funnel of the ship astern. She heeled over and we waited breathlessly for her to plunge beneath the surface but bereft of all speed, she lay there helplessly, heeling further and further while destroyers, obeying our orders, closed to afford greater protection while we steamed at full speed in a continuous zig-zag, round and round, waiting to receive a report and to provide protection. I had automatically looked at the time and in my mind was the thought "how long before she goes down". Most of us thought that, I am quite certain, and we all felt a little sick to see an old friend (we had worked together for eighteen months) in such difficulties. There was no sign of the submarine that had attacked, in fact it was a complete mystery, but all we were really concerned with was the damaged ship and her crew. Suddenly, she heeled again and we all thought she was going, but instead, she amazingly righted herself and lay there well down in the water with steam screaming from her funnel.
Can steam at seven knots!" came her report, and we were naturally surprised that she could even move, and so, there commenced a tedious day of shepherding her back to port. Turning hither and hither, we fussed over her all forenoon and as the hours passed, we saw she could be saved and felt happier, particularly as casualties were extremely light. Tugs and additional escort were now arriving and the procession neared Malta to the accompaniment of many remarks from each Captain in turn. As the swept channel leading into the harbour came into view we bade farewell to our old friend of countless operations, now safely in sight of a haven and swept, at increased speed, to anchor in our usual berth and await further orders.
The Sicily campaign neared its close and we were engaged in numerous operations, but the work of the Navy was, more or less, at a close. We escorted that old warrior, the Warspite, in her bombardment, at 1700 hours one Saturday, on the town of Catania but this was as all other bombardments, except we were but onlookers watching fifteen inch shells flash from the battleship to speed on their five mile journey to the already scarred town. Apart from occasional retaliation from the shore batteries and two fighters that attacked the small units for a few minutes, it was entirely uneventful and we returned at full speed leaving behind rising dust and smoke.
The next few weeks were spent in routine work livened twice by bombardments of the Italian coastline. The first was entirely by ourselves, with the exception of a destroyer, commanded by a very gallant Commander, already the recipient of four D.S.O's and without a doubt one of the most able of destroyer captains. We were, in fact, creating a diversion to assist a larger force bombarding further along the coast. It just consisted of a heavy bombardment of the town of Vivo Valentia, or to be more precise, what was considered to be the railway station. At this stage of the Sicilian campaign the chief job was to put the Italian roads and railways out of action and cause general confusion in the Axis supplies. As we fired at the town, the destroyer engaged shore defences. A mile or so from the beach she languidly patrolled, firing occasional bursts inshore while star shells from Euryalus drifted down over the thickly wooded hills, burning brilliantly in the tree tops. As we turned to move away a searchlight slowly swept across the still waters and wavered as it picked us up while an increasing number of shells sped seaward towards us. As we were illuminated by the searchlight, our destroyer escort turned and fired all f'w'rd guns in its direction. With a vivid flash, followed by a resounding crack, the searchlight died away as shell fire crashed home amid a small ammunition dump. From the firing we heard, as we moved away, the heavy deep roars several miles on our starboard beam where the other force was attacking, we obtained the impression that the Italians imagined we had started the invasion.
Spring developed into summer so quickly and with very little change in the climate, that one hardly realised that another year was rapidly passing and that we were within a few months of completing our two years on the Mediterranean station. Hopes ran high at every available moment that we were going home, but as quickly as they soared when we moved westward, they were dampened as we turned eastward towards the zone of the major operations.
Routed to Bone at the close of the Pantellaria operation, we steamed unescorted along the Tunisian coastline, our first venture in this direction for almost two years, and naturally, thoughts ran mainly in one channel - nearer home! Deep in our hearts we knew that home was still as far off as if we had been at Alexandria, but nevertheless, there was something very comforting in the thought. It was a hot afternoon as we left Cape Bon on our port beam and viewed the wide expanse of glimmering water to starboard and the mountainous, rugged coastline to port, broken occasionally by a small island here and there or perhaps a little green vegetation way up on the mountain tops. We were all, more or less, relaxing after the tension of the forenoon, the watch below stretching out in odd corners sleeping the minutes away, the watch on deck searching the sky and sea for danger. Perhaps it was the drugging effect of the hot afternoon, or just the natural temporary lapse of the human element that was nearly responsible for us plunging deep beneath the waves never to come to the surface again. I was standing with a colleague on the flagdeck when, without warning from the lookouts on the bridge, we were rooted to the spot by a terrifying scream and roar. With the instinct and training of months of warfare, we all fell in a heap onto the deck with bodies pressed close to the hot steel as a dark shadow roared over the deck, hiding the sun for a second, and climbed steeply into the heavens leaving the seas all around churning with exploding bombs and the ship heeling with the near miss. With frantic weaving and turning we were out of danger, but only because of the hand of providence. There is no explanation for this sudden attack or for us being caught napping. It was just one of those freaks that should, by all text books, never have happened, but did all the same. We were lucky and it had the desired effect of putting everyone on their toes and in the late evening was relieved to find ourselves rapidly approaching the harbour at Bone. This was to be our temporary base, or seeing as we were alone, Bone harbour was going to rely on our A.A. guns to help protect the valuable shipping that was being unloaded there, daily.
We viewed the scenery with mixed feelings because as detail became apparent, it seemed as if we were truly nearer home. Picture in your mind what the rolling hills of the south coast of England look like from the Channel, substitute a lighter shade of green and you will appreciate what the coastline of Bone was like. For the first time in many months we could see some real green grass and rich vegetation, not the dried sand swept landscape of Egypt, nor the dull barren earth of Malta but vegetation nearer our hearts than had been seen for many a moon. We appreciated this view as the blue sky of the evening took on that greyish hue of dusk. The air smelt fresh and even if we were to be disillusioned with this small French town, it was a change - a new country, a fresh language and once again, a change of currency. A procedure that we were becoming very used to. I will not dwell on our stay at Bone, it was a disappointment because it was a town with absolutely nothing to see, stripped bare by the war that had raged in the neighbourhood. Bathing was our only recreation during the hot days. The air raids at night brought into play all of the guns in the district as well as our own, and filled the dark nights with a barrage we could hardly believe.
Consequently, we were sorry to leave this area and move westwards. Once again our hopes were quickly dispelled a few days later. Anchored in the harbour at Algiers, we realised that the next operation was quickly taking shape and so, I am going to leave a pen-picture of Algiers, town of diplomatic intrigue, to a more appropriate moment.
It was on a misty morning that we were warned of approaching action, a morning that changed from a dull inactive forenoon, to one of bustle and seemingly panic. The reason for this was a host of grey shapes of all dimensions that began to take shape as they neared the anchorage. Small dots became numerous destroyers, while the large blobs became battleships and aircraft carriers. To see capital ships after all this time was most overwhelming and naturally, there was the usual ribald remarks about them that are always a target for the 'chokka' (fed up) matelot - "I bet they've never been sea sick!" etc.,etc. But, here they were at last, something to really hit back with if the Italian Fleet ever ventured forth. I had never seen such a fleet gathered together and I very much doubt if I ever shall again, unless I visit a Navy Week in the days of peace - a probability which is extremely remote!. For eighteen months, a handful of destroyers and two or three cruisers had, by sheer bluff, kept the Italian Fleet in harbour and we couldn't see them venturing forth against this powerful fleet. We smiled a knowing smile and with folded arms, thought "This is where we sit back and let somebody else do the work". This was a natural feeling, for as I have already mentioned, we were a little "chokka" after so long away from home and therefore, perhaps, may be forgiven this self satisfied outlook on the whole business.
Nevertheless, we were by no means finished with war in the Mediterranean. I shall not go into detail over subsequent operations, for as everyone knows, the invasion of Sicily was a fairly tame affair, but, in case I am accused of glossing over the facts, I will quote a few of our particular force's operations.
We sailed eastward and cruised mainly as a 'red herring' to the enemy for ten days, while another force comprising of battleships and aircraft carriers, cruised in a different zone. Then gradually, the convoys assembled at various bases and commenced to diverge on their objective.
On the night before the actual landings, we, in company with our sister ship, had raced away for refuelling, passing many landing craft of various types, packed with soldiers and equipment. But as darkness fell we joined the main fleet and moved to take up our positions off the eastern cost of Sicily and it was as the new day dawned we learned that the greatest amphibious operation of all time was taking place. We took no part in the actual beach operations but day after day swept the seas for hostile forces that never appeared. Our job was rather a monotonous one although, in our staff, we were kept quite busy by the ceaseless alteration of courses as carriers flew off fighter protection but, nevertheless, we were beginning to feel the strain of more than fourteen days continual sea-time. Unfortunately, this daily vigil was often not eased at night, for several evenings, just as we were all settling down for what little rest was available at sea, the Admiral would order two cruisers and two destroyers on what affectionately came to be known as "Q" Patrol.
In fact, this was, in our estimation, one of the most arduous and tense jobs we ever had to do in our whole commission. Even the Malta convoys with the continual action they entailed, never put nerves at a higher pitch as did these patrols, through inky darkness, right into the very jaws of the enemy. The patrol consisted of cruising fairly slowly within a few miles of Sicily, and just south of the "toe" of Italy for the whole of the night. In actual fact, we were completely in enemy waters with the Axis armies a few miles to the west and the Italian coastline to the north, whilst our objective was to prevent any enemy surface force from creeping south and attacking our landing armies in the rear. For the whole night it was necessary to be closed up at action stations, ready at the slightest hint of danger, to take the obvious course and attack.
Periodically, we were shadowed by an enemy 'plane, but generally a heavy burst of fire from our armament was suffice to drive the thing away. But, the most exiting morning was towards the end of the campaign. We were standing by at dawn General Quarters waiting for the first streaks of grey in the east and the lifting of the murky darkness that would herald another day, when, our apparatus detected a surface contact a few miles ahead of us. We were fairly close inshore, in the vicinity of Augusta and, on the order to illuminate, our f'w'rd guns recoiled as star shells were hurled ahead to burst and slowly drift down towards the horizon. The calm sea sparkled with the reflecting lights and there, deep in the shadows, but still silhouetted against the skyline, was a small submarine waiting motionless for us to pass and then attack with torpedoes. Before we could engage she crash-dived, but our two escorting destroyers streaked to the attack, hurling depth charge after depth charge in their wake, while we continued on our lonely patrol southward. The sequel to this was known some hours later when, smarting slightly on the Admiral's reproof for ordering the destroyer to stay in the vicinity of the submarine, we turned to try and contact them. Soon they came steaming towards us, and, to our enquiry "Any Luck?" laconically replied, "Sub sunk with our final depth charge - survivors on board!"
In the spacious harbour of Taranto we were visited by high officials of the Italian Government and Admirals resplendent in their glittering uniforms and although no official communication was given out, we presumed that an event of some importance had taken place down in the Admiral's cabin.
From Taranto, we returned to Bizerta to lay in the battered harbour and once again, ponder over the coming weeks. The Captain, who had commissioned the ship, Captain Eric Wheler Bush, D.S.O.,D.S.C., had left the previous Sunday, having been replaced by a Captain from England, which did not fit at all well with our hopes of going home soon. Captain Bush had left with such regret, but with promises of contacting the Admiralty with a view to our relief.
Tempers did not improve when, on sailing to Algiers one evening, we immediately returned to Bizerta carrying a no less distinguished passenger than Colonel Knox of he U.S.A. and having landed him, we were within a few hours, returning to Algiers. It will be seen that most of our time in the months of July, August and September had been spent at sea and actually, in any one month, we did not spend a complete day in harbour.
Thursday afternoon, we lay alongside at Algiers amidst a cluster of American craft and flanked on our port side by an American cruiser. The watch ashore had long departed into the town that has long become famous for its intrigue. We could see the gaily coloured motley throng of people strolling along the hot streets, white garbed sailors, khaki clad soldiers, dark skinned natives and, here and there, the flash of a brilliant dress as the crowds thinned. A town of large buildings and boulevards, yet oddly holding that peculiarity of the middle east with its native servants and dark shops. Modern roads winding away onto dark alleys where the crowds thinned out and native and Europeans alike shuffled through stone streets. Then, you would find yourself in a sunny street again passing flashily dressed men, and girls with the Parisian hallmark of coiffeur and dress. To us, after two years of more or less in the wilds, to see girls with fair as well as dark hair who obviously were well versed in the art of makeup and deportment, not forgetting what to wear well, we automatically registered in our minds that without a doubt, France lives up to its name of having the smartest and most beautiful girls in the world. Perhaps we were wrong, but then, we were to be excused a little exaggeration, but somehow I don't think it is a statement very wide of the mark.
Well, there lay Euryalus looking rather filthy with salt sprayed paintwork, the sun sinking over the casbah, and a few lights beginning to spring up ashore. Gaily, the American cruiser's dance band serenaded us as we sat smoking the final hours of the day away. There had been one or two significant happenings during the day but nobody really had a true inkling of the news that, at eight o'clock the next morning, the Captain broadcast to us. We were to proceed to the United Kingdom for refit and leave. Perhaps it was a shock, perhaps it was belief that something would prevent us, but apart from a few capers of merriment it was taken very calmly, although, the first thrill came as we quietly slipped in the afternoon. White clad figures lining upper decks and the band playing 'Rolling Home' and 'Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye' etc. as the last wire was loosened and we were bound for home. The 'Still' was sounded as we passed the American cruiser and the band burst forth with the Americans own 'Anchors Away', and our bows headed westward.
It would be too boring to describe the uneventful journey from Gibraltar, the hurried change into thick blues and the cold wind that now beat on our faces as the lights of Tangier gave way to the rolling Atlantic. Days of waiting till Wednesday morning, and in the dark hours of the morning watch the points of light on the Irish coast gave us our first touch of home. Dawn, with its inevitable mist, and gradually the small islands that herald the mouth of the Clyde slipped by and there before us, lay the emerald green fields of Scotland. We watched the familiar points slip by till on either side rose the mountains that breathed home with their complete freshness. Buses running alongside the river and all the old familiar advertisements greeted us.
White capped, blue clothed figures lining a very tired and dirty ship - the Euryalus quietly came to rest at home - a gallant commission well done.
I would like it to be recorded my grateful thanks to Eric Owen, former shipmate, for his assistance in the typing of this manuscript.
Charlie Pyne April, 1998