Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
THE AEGEAN SEA
Ajax and Perth were patrolling North of Suda Bay in April 1941. Sometimes, the bright bomber's moon and the strain of battle were too much to bear ....
It was a bright moonlit Aegean night in April 1941. The 6" cruisers, H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.A.S. Perth, the "Hair Trigger twins" as the pair of cruisers were nicknamed, were patrolling just North of Suda Bay, Western Crete. The German armies had come rushing down from the North and taken half of Greece. The evacuation of the Allied and Greek forces had not yet started. Fierce fighting continued in the Greek passes but the overwhelming power of the German airforce - the dive bomber and fighter were supreme. Later we were also to see the gliders.
Perth had landed her Walrus flying boat in Suda Bay to assist with the reconnaissance patrols from Crete. The Walrus could fly on bright moonlight nights and see the water for take off and landing. The pilot could also see the white wakes made by ships churning the water. Sometimes we could see the familiar blue exhaust flames of our old "Walrus" as she wallowed along at 80-90 knots. She carried an R.A.A.F. pilot, an observer, and a naval telegraphist air gunner.
They did not much like being based on Crete. I don't blame them. It was very bare indeed. There were only about seven fighters protecting the whole island and the Walrus needed all seven of them. Her main protection was low flying and evasion. She was useful for reconnaissance and bombardment spotting only.
Our Australian Air Force pilot had come on board for a bath and a drink the day before. He described a recent "little brush" as he called it with a German reconnaissance plane whilst offshore from Crete:
"You know, Guns, it was most unfair. The first I heard of him was the air gunner shouting 'Starboard beam, Sir!' There was a great big Dornier coming at us in a long glide. I put my nose down and hugged the wave tops. Just before the Dornier opened fire I kicked my rudder hard and skidded 900 to starboard. The old "Walrus" turned like a sheep dog. Their burst of tracer missed. Our observer fired two red verey lights at him - our secret weapon - and the gunner gave him a burst of our twin Lewis gun tracer. That made him hesitate. Then I was off - up a narrow Crete valley - wing tips almost touching the sides. The 'basket' was too large to follow us. Most unfair. Why not pick a joker his own size. Must write to Goering about it. On return to base you ought to see my rear gunner. He'd forgotten to fill in those Navy next of kin forms. He's filled in about a dozen now. Stone the crows! Like flying a London taxi."
Those moonlight nights were dangerous. Our white wakes could be seen by enemy aircraft. Not many flew at night - but at full moon they could be very active. Onboard Perth we had a small radar set which sometimes gave us a little advance warning. This was no use in detecting low flying aircraft. We also zig-zagged as a precaution against submarines. I had left the bridge and snatched a quick supper in the mess - leaving the Torpedo Officer ("Torps") in charge of the armament. On return to the Bridge I paused by the after funnel to talk to our pom-pom guns crew. The Chief Petty Officer in charge was a wonderful man, very popular with the whole crew. Recently he had been showing very marked signs of strain. I was worried about his condition. So was my Chief Gunner's Mate. He had been getting very jumpy during air attacks. Who wouldn't? He seemed to be losing his self-control. A few quiet words of encouragement seemed necessary.
I had just said good night to him when I heard the noise of aircraft approaching from astern. I looked into the sky and sure enough familiar blue exhaust flames could be seen. It looked like our old Walrus. We trained our gun on the bearing and I made the telephone operator report the bearing to the bridge. Also to tell "Torps" in charge that I was at the pom-pom. The plane approached on a parallel, not attacking course, but of course was followed by every gun in the ship.
Then a series of coloured very lights fell from the plane and she identified herself as friendly. It was our own Walrus flying boat. She sheered off and disappeared on patrol. Something made me stay at the gun. Then I again heard an engine noise. It was also reported to the bridge and all guns trained in the direction. Again it was from astern. Then I saw exhaust flames and reported their bearing. Was this our Walrus being funny or an enemy? On it came, closer - closer until almost overhead. If they had not seen us it was better to hold fire. The ship swung to port, our Captain had put the wheel hard over at the last moment. A trick we knew well to spoil the bomber's aim. It was just as well. The Captain had that sixth sense of warning. From the side of the plane dropped two recognition lights, followed by a stick of German 1,000 pound bombs. They burst 100 yards on our starboard beam. I had seen them fall part of the way and so had the guns crew. The foxy enemy had tricked us - followed in the wake of our Walrus and tried to copy him. Hoping to delay us.
Every gun from both ships opened fire and red tracer arced the sky. The Hair Trigger Twins showed their teeth but we had been fooled. Ajax altered course rapidly. Perth followed her round. The plane made another pass at us from astern. Both ships fired. Bombs screamed and appeared closer. They hit the water and I dived for cover behind a life raft. The water from the bomb burst fell on our decks. As I got to my feet to run to the bridge the Chief Petty Officer in charge of the pom-pom put a hand on my shoulder:
"Please Sir, relieve me from this gun soon, I can't stand this much longer."
I had no time then to tell him that the incident had also shaken me very much.
I arrived on the bridge and relieved the Torpedo Officer. I thought it unfair to do so in the midst of the encounter. Ajax had ordered a reduction in speed and the white wakes of both ships were scarcely visible. The aircraft had disappeared. All was calm again.
I described the attack from my position aft to my Captain, Navigator and "Torps". I congratulated the Captain on his swift action. Then the telephone from the gunnery computer room below rang. It was my senior fire control gunner in charge. He wished to speak to me. He said:
"Sir, after that second attack, our Chief Electrical Artificer stationed down here with me, rushed up the ladder, threw open the armoured hatched and yelled 'I can't stand it'. He's disappeared. I would like him to report to me."
I ordered the bosun's mate to pipe "Chief E.A. report to the computer room." This was made over the ship's loud speaker system. Nothing happened. We then searched the ship. still no trace. That wonderful skilled Chief Electrical Artificer with full knowledge of all our gunnery computers had run on deck and dived over the side. The claustrophobia that he had endured, shut, trapped in the bowels of the ship, had been too much for him.
I sent for the Chief Gunner's Mate, my right hand man for stationing the crew at their gunnery quarters.
"Chief Gunners Mate, please relieve the Chief from the pom-pom and give him a spell below decks in charge of the ammunition supply. Will you tell him this tonight/"
"Aye, aye, Sir".
The Chief Gunner's Mate vanished below and minutes later the tall figure of the other Chief came up the ladder clad in an overall suit.
"May I have a word with you, Sir?"
"I would like to thank you for what you have done, Sir. I have been near to breaking point this last week and tonight was the last straw. A change will do me good. I will train up my relief tomorrow at dawn."
"Thank you Chief. Good night."
I had a private talk with the Captain, Commander and "Torps" that night and we made some changes amongst our key men. Why hadn't I seen the warning signs earlier and taken action. I may have saved a life. One overall suit lay at the bottom of the Aegean Sea. Many more lay below decks. I did not sleep that night. I cursed myself and the bombers' moon.