Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
The Overall Suit
25/26 October 1944.
HMAS SHROPSHIRE took part in one of the greatest naval gunnery battles of all time -
Able Seaman "Tubby" Wellard was large and always smiling. Nothing ever seemed to upset him. His daily job in the 8" cruiser, H.M.A.S. Shropshire, was Gunner's Yeoman. You nearly always found him in the gunners' store surrounded with spares for all kinds of armament. Like a floating section of a Woolworth's store he kept everything from rifle spares, Very pistols, machine guns to the breech blocks of 8" guns. The Gunner kept a sharp eye on him but Tubby knew where every item of the stores were stowed because he usually mustered them in a rough ledger.
One day we were in the midst of embarking a full outfit of ammunition. All decks covered with dumps of lethal explosives. A sweating, stripped to the waist, Tubby was heard to say to a newly joined hostilities only ordinary seaman:
"Stone the crows mate! Don't ask the Gunnery Officer or Gunner about that - they haven't a clue. Anything appertainin' to gunnery in this ship ask me - see!!!!"
You know Tubby was almost dead right. He worked eight hours a day. Ate like a horse and at night slept at his action station - the left gun of X turret. A huge 8" gun that could hurl a shell 14 miles. Tubby had drilled and fought in that turret for over two years.
The Turret Gunner's mate had great difficulty in ever getting Tubby to keep his overall top on. As soon as Tubby got hot, he stripped to the waist - he was beautifully sunburnt. But for a real battle Tubby wore his overall - flash helmet and gloves looking like a large likeable bear. Everybody in the cruiser ship's company of 820 officers and men knew Tubby and loved him.
This historic day, the landings in the Philippines at Letye, October 1944, Tubby was tired, I was tired, the Captain and whole crew were tired. We had started our second bombardment day at 0500. Had a near shave with a Japanese suicide bomber and seen it crash onboard the cruiser, HMAS Australia. It's not nice seeing your friends burning with high octane petrol. Then again off the landing beaches we hurled 8" and 4" shell at the enemy positions from 0600 till noon. Six hours gun fire can make you very edgy and tired. Being a battle hardened ship's company we fed hot meals, stew, bread, tea and tinned fruit to the crew inside their turrets, at the guns - also to the engine rooms. To do this we had special action plates and tin mugs. Each action station was a little mess on its own. We could carry on like this for about 24 or 48 hours. We used to allow the right guns to fall out for a bath, shave or change of clothes. They would then return and relieve the left guns. We could keep going for about two days like this. Any housewife would be quite proud of the way it worked for 820 men. But they would be prouder still to see how the men took it in that heat and humidity.
During that long afternoon we lay broadside on to the Letye landing beaches answering calls for supporting fire from the American assault battalions in our sector. The landing was going well. Wave after wave of troops, tanks and guns were ashore.
The main landing beach heads were all well established and the enemy being forced back from the beaches to the hills. Flying high overhead the U.S. Navy fighters. Low over the leading assault platoons were cab ranks of navy bombers on call to dive on any given targets. Also with the assault battalions were trained gunner observers. In 30 seconds they could indicate a shore target and call for fire. Then in 60 seconds our shells could be on the way. They would then spot the bursts ashore and correct them onto the target. This phase of any assault landing was always critical. The large concentration of troops and shipping was extremely vulnerable to any enemy counter attacks. All of us knew this. Particularly the Navy, whose job was to put the army ashore. Then protect them overhead - their flanks and rear to seaward.
The sixteen U.S. carriers, operating 50 miles off the coast, guarded the sky. The destroyers and frigates patrolled the Gulf and beaches. Four battleships, eight cruisers and up to thirty destroyers provided the supporting bombardment. As the transports completed unloading, they sailed away escorted by more destroyer escorts and air cover. Hundreds of landing ships and craft lay like whales on the beaches - disgorging their men and stores. When completed they would retire and the next wave would beach and unload. The first three days build up of fighting troops and supplies was vital. The armour plated bulldozers were feverishly levelling fighter airstrips for the American Air Force fighters and bombers. But, until then, the Navy had to do all the work in the air. Out to sea - up and down the Letye Gulf - spread fan-wise - were destroyer radar picket ships positioned to give warning of air or surface attack. Our ship had one of the best warning radar sets of the fleet. It was all British make and its operators highly skilled. Only three days before "Shropshire" had carried out a practice firing with her friendly Cruiser, USS Nashville and both ships were spot on.
Came the dusk, all ships stood by to repel air attacks - nothing happened. The dark blanket of tropical night fell and the last aircraft returned to the carriers. The purple sky line of the mountains changed to a black back drop. In our foreground was the flash of army artillery mingled with bursts of mortar fire. The landing craft continued to unload. The Fleet waited at its night defence stations around the beach heads.
A signal light called the fleet. Then a message followed:
Our Captain's boat was lowered and away he went. One hour later he returned and called a conference of officers in the chart house. What he said was:-
"The Admiral has received a dusk enemy report from one of our patrolling aircraft. A large force of Japanese battle ships, cruisers and destroyers observed entering southern approaches to Letye Gulf. They can be in the Gulf by 0100 to attack the beaches. The Admiral's attack plan is simple. We are divided into left and right flank forces. Shropshire with our Task Force 74 are right flank. Our present side of the Gulf. The P.T. boats attack first in the narrows. The destroyers next, followed by the cruisers. The four battleships form the rear and fire over our heads. We will move South down the Gulf about 2300 and patrol a line off shore. The Navigator has the details on the chart".
One minute later our Captain's quiet voice was heard over the ship's broadcast system. He said:
"This is the Captain speaking. It looks as if we are in for quite a party tonight".
He then told the plan to every man and ended by saying: "Good night - we will keep you all in the picture".
The ship's companies reactions were electric. A cheer went through the ship. Everybody threw off their weariness. Conversation buzzed. I checked on the ammunition in the turrets. Also I had a word with our key man, the Radar Officer. The radar team in a night action makes success or failure. Ours were wonderful.
Off we steamed down the Gulf. It was a very dark night. By midnight we were in position patrolling our line - searching the southern entrance with our radar. The field was placed. Our relative position from our own battleships was about silly-mid-on.
The field boundaries were a 30 mile wide gulf. Play opened that night on a wet wicket. The waters of Letye. Nobody called "Play".
The game started like this :-
The American torpedo boats patrolling the narrows, 20 miles to the South, reported the enemy approaching. Then they attacked and withdrew to the sides of the Gulf. Their spirited action was very brief. No hits were scored. The Japanese came on at high speed, then at 30,000 yards (15 miles) our radar picked them up. It was a large force steaming North at about 20 knots. The second over in this "game" was bowled by the destroyers. Left and right flank forces attacking form both sides of the gulf. The Australian Tribal destroyer "Arunta" led in an American sub-division of right flank destroyers. Her Australian Commander led them in so close to the enemy battleship that his picture in the radar merged with the enemy.
At this moment a very senior southern American voice said on the tactical manoeuvring radio:
"Arunta, clear the line of fire, you're merging with the enemy in ma tube - out!!!!!!!".
"Arunta", doing 30 knots, fired torpedoes, turned a full circle and I, am very proud to say, engaged in a highly spirited gun action with a battleship whilst on a retiring course. His sub-division comrades followed suit - I fancy they were sweating.
Then both right and left flank cruiser task groups opened fire at a range of about 16,000 yards (8 miles). The American 8" and 6" shells were bright tracer - ours were not. 60 or more high capacity shells all streaked towards a ship echo in a radar tube. A short pause - the terrific crash of our second broadside of eight 8" shells. Then the 3rd broadside. My telephone on the bridge was linked with my spotting officer and radar operator. I remember distinctly the reports:
The reported hit was exactly in time with a torpedo hit on the second enemy ship in the line. It caused a quick red glow. My heart beat very fast for silhouetted in this glow was the large pagoda-like bridge of the leading Japanese battleship. In that exact instant my third broadside hit the pagoda shaped bridge. In my binoculars I saw the hits. Then in the din I remember passing the order:
"Tell the turrets we've hit them now, increase rate of fire."
The turrets crews worked like madmen. Sixteen broadsides were reported as hits out of the 32 broadsides we fired.
All this time noone else on the bridge spoke except the Captain and Navigator. It was very awe inspiring. I heard four or five broadsides of Japanese 15" shells scream overhead - making a noise just like an express train. I heard the Navigator altering course. Then the battleships behind opened fire 32 x 15" shells from all four of them. The enemy then reduced speed and the radar operator said his target was disappearing - sinking. This was passed to the turrets. The noise of the gunfire was terrific, flashes and blue tracer. In the background of my gunnery control telephone I heard a report: "Jammed cordite hoist left gun X turret". That was Tubby Wellard's gun. I had not time to check on this. The enemy targets disappeared. Cease firing was ordered. The dawn came and the only enemy ship afloat was one destroyer. She was sunk. Some of the rear ships had turned back to be later attacked by aircraft. Wreckage and survivors were everywhere. Not a ship of our fleet damaged. I then checked about X turret. Tubby's gun had a jammed cordite hoist. For a time he could ram shell only. So for each broadside a cordite charge had been passed to him by hand. Between the split second of the large hydraulic rammer withdrawing from the gun and the vast breech closing, Tubby had tossed in the cordite charge by hand. Time after time he risked losing his right arm. For broadside after broadside he fed that long, heavy, yellow, cordite bag into the vicious, hot, combustion chamber of that reeking 8" gun - until the jammed hoist below was cleared.
When the battle was over he helped to sponge out the dirty brown 8" barrel - revelling in the clean dawn air.
Tubby has now retired from the Navy. He no longer wears the Gunners Yeoman's overall suit. He wears the uniform of the Naval Dockyard police. But on his left breast ahead of a whole row of campaign medals Tubby wore the blue and white striped ribbon of His Britannic Majesty's Naval Distinguished Service Medal, the D.S.M. And that does not grow on trees.
In February 1964, on a visit to Australia, I met Tubby again in Melbourne and, as his old Gunnery Officer, shook him by the hand, and I did this thanks to George Cheadle's kind hospitality. But in doing this it won't only be my admiration that he receives, but the respect of the Captain, Officers and crew of a fine, fighting lady, H.M.A.S. Shropshire.