Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
HMAS Perth wins her spurs
MALTA, JANUARY 1941
There was great tension off Malta that morning. The aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Illustrious, and with it the eastern Mediterranean fleet, had been covering an important Malta convoy bringing urgent supplies for battle scarred Malta. Food, ammunition and petrol for fighters.
The convoy had arrived in darkness but that morning at dawn the real "first eleven" of Goering's own Luftwaffe squadrons based on Sicily, the yellow nosed Stukas (Junkers 87s) with a high fighter cover of ME 109s, had jumped the "Illustrious". She had put up a superb fight but was badly hit, ship's side, aircraft lift damaged. She was licking her wounds and like a fighting lady was being given V.I.P. treatment as she entered harbour.
She went in ahead. First into Grand Harbour and then berthed in Dockyard Creek opposite side to us. The Maltese dockyard workers swarmed over her damaged bulkheads like bees. The 'Illustrious' prepared to bury her dead. We marvelled at the large ship's escape.
Our engine room staff cleaned one boiler and there was a calm over Dockyard Creek and Grand Harbour.
We kept our anti-aircraft guns manned in watches day and night in harbour. A refrigerator ship, SS Essex, with a cargo of ammunition and food was unloading 200 yards astern of us. In a dry dock 500 yards away was a submarine under short refit. The sky was cloudy and there was a slight haze. That was the reason for the lull before the storm.
The Port gunnery officer had made an early call to tell me of the local gun fire restrictions and air raid warnings. No 6" barrage to be fired because of danger to buildings. Only 4" high angle and all 40 and 20mm guns when attacked. The officers and guns' crews were warned of these restrictions to gunfire. The day passed quietly.
The dockyard moved a floating crane alongside the Illustrious. We had a dockyard crane and two tall chimneys blanking our arcs of fire to starboard as we lay alongside the wharf. The 'Essex' continued unloading and the submarine and 'Perth' refitted. The repairs to the carrier continued.
Constantly, the guns' crews of both ships and the Malta defences scanned the sky and waited and waited.
The uneasy calm continued. Darkness fell. I went ashore to buy a pipe. I bought a nice new Lovat. By 1000 the next morning I had bitten right through the stem. With sheer fright. This is how it happened:
The dockyard air raid sirens wailed and a red warning "Attack Imminent" was signalled. I pressed the action alarm signal and we went to full Action Stations. So did the carrier and the little submarine. I was smoking my new pipe. Breaking it in. The army and Maltese defences opened fire. The bursts were out to sea but just visible above the rooftops of the houses, behind the dockyard crane and chimney stacks. The barrage increased in ferocity. Hundreds of shell bursts were dotting the sky - tracer from the 40mm Bofors now criss-crossed the sky, the shells later exploding above 4,000 ft. That meant the enemy were coming in low.
The 'Illustrious' opposite suddenly opened fire with every gun she had - 4.5" and 40mm. Right through our wireless aerials. She with four higher decks had seen them. Our wireless aerials came down, shot away by the carrier.
Then we saw them. I counted four groups of five aircraft. 20 Stukas with a high fighter cover of M.E. 109s. They came weaving in over the rooftops kicking rudder bars right and left to put off our aim. Then we opened fire. The din was terrific. Illustrious' red tracer just clear of our masts.
I turned to see the little submarine in dock. Sluice gates open - water flooding around her for some protection. Submarine Captain and guns' crew all exposed waiting for the ship to be floating so they too could fire their one 4" gun. Their twin Lewis guns in action. The mad barrage increased, Illustrious fighting desperately to ward off these vicious dives. All ships were sitting duck targets.
Then the bombs rained down. The shorts in the dockyard. Overs in the water. Enormous crumps, crashes and vibrations. Water spouts in Dockyard Creek. Blast waves. Debris. More targets coming in. All the enemy painted with yellow noses - the "first eleven" Goering Squadron colours. God how they could fly. I saw one come down in flames and blow up on hitting the ground but they came on and on. Then the firing ceased and in the lull we took stock. The submarine dock was now afloat and ready to fire all guns.
From the 'Essex' astern smoke and dust filtered out of a hold. She had been hit. Our Captain sent our Navigator to investigate and report back. So far we were unhit. Our decks were covered with shrapnel and wireless aerials down. The 'Illustrious' had been near missed by at least three 1,000 pounder bombs. The floating crane alongside her was still afloat.
But a marvellous sight to see on the carrier's deck. A sailor in anti-flash hood and tin hat hosing down a pom-pom - it was nearly red hot - so received radical treatment not in any drill book.
Our Chief Yeoman was counting the bombs and drawing a sketch for the Captain. Particularly the unexploded ones. I went to talk to the guns' crews beneath the bridge. Everybody was very white. This was our first encounter with dive bombers. As sitting ducks this was not funny.
The "All Clear" siren did not go. Our Navigator ("Pilot") sent a message that help was urgently needed to assist unload 'Essex', to get first the potatoes and then the ammunition ashore and deal with her fire.
The Commander sent all the 6" turret crews and we rigged 600 ft. of our own fire hoses across to her. A wonderful effort, since we beat the dockyard fire parties who were flat out dealing with twenty other fires.
While this was happening we watched the sky to seaward and the Captain ordered me to send spare men off the bridge. No sense in exposing those not actually firing or on lookout duties.
Then the island defences opened up afresh and the second attack started.
Wave after wave of them as before. All ships guns cracking. The submarine's 4" gun now joined the chorus. She looked so naked and brave. All alone in a dock. The bombers jinked in the bursting hell around them and the bombs came screaming down. Completely mesmerised I watched one bomb released and with my mouth open saw it fall all the way. It hit the wharf abreast of our after magazine and there was a terrible explosion in the water.
We shook violently, a 6,000 tonne cruiser, as if in an earth tremor. The slack seemed to come off our wire shrouds and mast rigging and the mast vibrated. The ship took half a minute of this crazy shaking and again a lull. The Navigator very white reported back to the Captain. He had been caught on the upper deck of the 'Essex' for the second attack and hurled himself face downwards to find himself huddling a dead body.
The 'Essex' fire was under control and our men were returning. I asked the Commander for the 6" turrets crews to return to their guns. To hell with the port regulations for heavy gunfire. We might get sunk in harbour. The turrets crews closed up and for the third wave we gave the enemy the lot. 6" barrage, 4" barrage, pom-pom and machine gun. But only half our 6" guns would train around. The enormous explosion by our after magazine had jammed the after turrets for training. The rollers had jammed. They could not fire. Bombs again screamed down. More near misses on the aircraft carrier and then all quiet. Our heads ached, we were all deaf and shaken. Decks littered with shrapnel and debris. But we had not been hit.
The Chief Yeoman of Signals reported thirteen 1000 pound near miss bombs as his close-of-play score.
On to the bridge walking very slowly came an Able Seaman from one of the after 6" turrets. He was very shaken but very brave. He carried a 6" H.E. fused shell in both hands. The clockwork nose fuse was all bent and shell top exposed. The Able Seaman said:" With my turret officer's compliments; what shall we do with this? We have more like it in the turret. About ten. The shock knocked them all out of the racks - they're all damaged."
I looked at him. He had carried this like a heavy baby for 400 ft or more along the upper deck - up the ladders to the bridge.
I said: "Laddie, well done. Come with me."
Together we descended to the upper deck and very gently I took it from him and dropped it over the side.
I then said: "Please tell your Turret Officer to do the same with the others."
He look hard for a second and said: "I could try defusing them, Sir - it does seem a waste."
I tried to keep my emotions under control. What an inspiration to an officer from a young A.B.
"No, thanks, just dump them quietly over the side - it would be dangerous to defuse them here in that state."
He knew that very well. "Aye, aye Sir", he said and went about his job.
Then came the second messenger from the same turret. Would I come down and see the shell room and magazine. They had a little trouble there. Down I went. There was 2ft of oil fuel in the shell room from a leaky fuel tank below. The magazine was a shambles. The cordite cases had been hurled to the floor. These men had been locked in these compartments. We got lots of helping hands and pumps to suck out the oil. But this was their little bit of trouble, and they dealt with it.
That night the Captain of 'Perth' drove his ship to sea at 20 knots - to Alexandria in a half moon and rising sea. The 6" turrets crews slept at their quarters in their overall suits. Looking ahead into the night with spray sheeting over the decks and bridges I had plenty of time to be very, very proud of our wearers of these overall suits. The Aussie ships company of H.M.A.S. Perth, the first Perth in the Royal Australian Navy, later to be sunk with U.S.S. Houston in the Sunda Straits in 1942 in a gallant night action against the Japanese navy and overwhelming odds.