Bomb Alley, 1942
- March 2010
- Max Darling, RANVR
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- HMAS Quiberon
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
IN 1942 THE BOMB ALLEY of this story extended 400 miles along the central Mediterranean with every mile within 30 minutes of enemy airfields. At the eastern end the strategically vital naval base at Malta was said to have become the most intensively bombed target in World War II. At the western end the heretofore quiet little port of Bone was fast becoming the second most intensively bombed target. Why? In November the Allied invasion of North Africa had penetrated all the way to Bone, to only 150 miles from Rommel’s shortest supply line via Sardinia to Tunisia. The Navy detailed a special force of six ships to help hold the port as an Army gateway to the Tunisian front and as a forward base for attacking the enemy at sea. Hence the bombing.
This new force, Force Q, comprised three light cruisers – Aurora, Argonaut and Sirius, and three destroyers – Ithuriel, Quentin and HMAS Quiberon. All gained berths within the damaged harbour where the risks of confinement were more than offset by safety from submarines and by better organisation of anti-aircraft fire. Aerials on the cruisers showed they were equipped with the latest radar for early warning, surface search and gunnery. The six ships mounted a total of 46 main armament turret guns and 98 close range quick firing Bofors, multiple-barrelled pompoms and 20-mm Oerlikons. Happily, each destroyer had six Oerlikons, happily because, well handled, these two-man last-minute defence guns were proving very effective in discouraging daylight attackers from venturing below a thousand feet.
The Bone and Bomb Alley theatre at this time was an all-British affair. The accounts to follow are from the writer’s records and point of view as a Volunteer Reserve lieutenant in Quiberon during a memorable week in November-December 1942.
When Force Q arrived in Bone the Army spearhead had been holding out against enemy air attack for several days. On an undamaged recess of wharf near our berth a single long barrelled 40-mm Bofors pointed out of a nest of wheat bags. The three remaining gun-crew were unshaven and exhausted looking. For all they were tough little Tommies of the Cockney type it was touching to see how glad they were to see us. Between alarms they visibly revived as welcome guests in the sailors’ mess and after every raid they exulted that the bombers had stayed up higher and higher, night and day. Indeed, at night in the searchlights our targets had come to look like tiny silver moths. At such heights they were fairly safe, and so were we, their bombs spreading over an ever wider area.
In Quiberon we fired only when the planes were in or entering our allotted sectors so there was usually time to see what was going on in the other sectors. At night when the barrage was at a peak the harbour was fitfully bright with flashing gunfire. Oddly, or perhaps because of the medley of flashes and ear-smashing racket, we seldom heard or saw where the bombs landed, only if we happened to be looking where suddenly there was a white geyser standing high out of the harbour, or a black column where a bomb had hit the coal dump, or even a yellow one where the wheat silos had got it again.
How quiet it was when the firing stopped. Later there might come a gentle pit, pat and plomp of fragments arriving back from high up where the shells exploded. They were effective reminders to gunners who had removed their tin hats to put them on again and smartly.
Lulls often went on for hours but ever again came the klaxons and gongs of a new alarm. It might be only a single plane high up to waste our ammunition and tire the gunners, but we had to keep on our toes in case he came down in a steep dive and suddenly arrived low and fast from behind a hill or the silos. On the other hand, from midnight rising 29 November they kept coming all the time, in waves of three, hour after hour. That was the roughest yet, hardly a spell to clear away the ejected cylinders and the wheat that came like rain from the silos. Of course, at that rate and cooped up in a harbour it was just a matter of time. Ithuriel was the first to run out of luck. No one remembered hearing or seeing the bomb that broke her back, and only three berths along from us.
With just Quentin and Quiberon left to share the daytime anti-submarine patrols, we were able to score a bit that day. Quentin on first patrol held a contact to seven miles north-east and ran short of depth charges, so we were ordered out and completed the kill with our first pattern. That gave us quite a lift for a while. Tensions, thinking about Ithuriel, and especially the lack of sleep were beginning to tell.
The straight stripers seemed to be taking it all in their stride, but some of us newcomers were noticeably sagging, moody, slow to react. Hence the revival when we slipped quietly out to sea during a lull at dusk of 1 December. The buzz was that we were going back to Algiers or even Gibraltar to replenish fuel and ammunition and get a much needed sleep. What then, when suddenly at dark we were turning 180 degrees and gaining speed past 20 knots behind Quentin and the cruisers, line ahead, east?
The clear English voice of our Captain soon put us in the picture, ‘An enemy convoy has just been sighted leaving Sardinia, southerly, meaning the 120 mile shortest crossing to Tunisia. Force Q will endeavour to intercept about halfway at midnight. Quiberon will go to second degree of readiness at 2300. That’s all chaps’.
So, the real thing, one hundred and fifty miles into the Bomb Alley we’d heard so much about. A night action. Getting out afterwards in daylight when the planes came would be something else again. I was watch below from eight o’clock. The reliefs took over without unnecessary remarks. How quiet it all seemed. A calm night, and dark. Yet there were sounds enough when you listened, the potent whine and hum of our turbines that now told of 30 knots and the whir and rush of air and water. After writing up the log at the faintly lit chart table the night seemed blacker than ever. All that could be seen of the ocean was the wonderful pale blue phosphorescence splitting high and wide from the bows and racing along each side to peak and fan away in our powerful wake. Above the stern in that strange sea light our white ensign followed at full strength.
My station for the indicated surface action was at B Gun below the bridge, my job to take charge in local control should the director be knocked out, that and to consider what to do in the event of endless possibilities like half the gun crew or even all the bridge officers being killed. While all went according to the book I was free to take the view from a vantage point as good as any in the ship.
At eleven o’clock shadowy figures in duffle coats were closing up all about the decks. My station captain reported his gun, phones and seven men checked and correct. I reported this to the bridge. The transmitting station ran a check on all gunnery communications and advised that we expected to engage at 0030. Just like that. I could only assume that Rear Admiral Harcourt in the Flag cruiser up ahead had decided exactly where to expect the convoy and what he was going to do about it.
How innocent the night looked until right on midnight, far ahead, a white flare slowly rose, fell and faded. Was it a shadowing submarine homing us to the target? Or a decoy? What escorts would be there – destroyers, E boats with torpedoes? A glance at the chart had shown the water too deep for mining; it was restful not to have to think again about that. What were those professional straight stripers thinking about up there, cool Commander Browning on the bridge and young Lieutenant Synnot higher up in the director? What information and directions would they be getting from the Flag? What snap decisions would they have to make? By comparison my job was so easy, mostly just to be there, observant and confident seeming, listening and looking into the dark and thinking of the possibilities. Such thoughts were cut short by a dazzling white flash up ahead, but no sound, not for four seconds, then BANG!
That had to be the leading or second cruiser. No doubt she had located and ranged a target by radar. How clear the cluster of blue tracers sailing flat away to starboard. A full salvo of 75-pound shells at 2,000 feet per second, zero trajectory, meaning a target of less than three miles, at point-blank range. A HIT, if only a feeble scatter of sparks. Probably the shells were fuse delayed to explode within the target, where the intense heat would vaporise fabric, paintwork and whatever to create a second and bigger explosion. And that is just what appeared to happen, in about seven seconds. WOOSH! A billowing orange burst like an oil tank exploding.
It was the convoy all right. Came flash after flash after flash with hardly a minute without a streaking cluster of blue lights starting more sparks and more explosions. Shells that missed the targets went sailing away for ever with occasional ricochets bouncing five and more times to surely right over the horizon. Desperate retaliation came from somewhere. We heard shells whirring by. A stab from Quiberon’s searchlight revealed a destroyer coming fast only a mile away. Almost instantly she disappeared in a forest of white geysers from the cruisers.
Then the whole scene became lit by star shell and in the apparent absence of any new targets those already hit were getting it again. What an annihilation! Then quite suddenly it seemed, there was no more firing and only yellow flames of doomed ships falling astern where there was now a hint of moonrise.
Our mission completed we were heading west, for home, and in a hurry, but yet to hear surely the most unlikely sound from a dark sea ever, like thousands of men cheering mightily at a football match. They were thousands of men all right, Rommel’s men, desperately shouting from the water where evidently the first transports had been hit. Knowing what was likely to happen to us at daybreak there was no question of stopping. We all knew that. And as one of the gun crew put it, looking into the dark, ‘All right, you bastards. It’s your turn now. See how you like it.’
The score by my count was four transports and two destroyers; some said more. With the director always in control there had been little call on me beyond noting the copybook work of the gun crew. And now I was on bridge watch until four o’clock with perhaps a chance to stretch out for an hour before dawn action stations at six.
The planes did not wait for daylight. With the first paling of sky low in the night astern, there came a rumbling from the cruisers ahead. We could see tracers streaking away from where gunfire was blurred by trailing funnel heat and gun smoke. Evidently the extraordinary phosphorescence or the white water of our 25 knots had been sufficient for the enemy pilots to locate and sight their target.
Minutes passed before Quiberon came under attack. Audibly at first then louder and barely visible two planes raced overhead, seconds apart, from different directions, both of them in the safety of the funnel blinded sector of our pom-pom and out of certain Oerlikon range. Neither dropped bombs. The maneouvre was a ruse to draw out attention and fire while the real attack came low from starboard, for suddenly a third plane roared up out of the dark from only 200 yards away. It whammed over us like a great bat and was gone again in an instant. If a torpedo or skip bomb was dropped we did not see it. Nothing hit us. Whew!
Quentin was not so lucky. Racing past we saw her all slewed round and stopped under a cloud of steam and smoke. By the time we worked back to her and eased alongside there was light enough to see she was all bulged up and broken in the middle where the forward torpedo tubes had been. We had made ready to tow but as Quentin’s Captain said, ‘Thanks, Hugh, but I’m afraid it’s no good,’ and our Captain, the senior, seeing the damage, replied ‘Not a chance from out here, Percy. Sorry, old boy. Abandon ship!’
No doubt the procedures about demolition charges and confidential books were smartly carried out while keen and responsible eyes watched everywhere for planes, some of which could now be heard and seen passing this way and that in the distance. There was quick purpose and hardly a fumble as Quentin’s people came over the rails with some in stretchers and others being assisted and finally a young fellow catching up with an armful of cat even as a lookout called ‘Aircraft approaching. . .’ and the Captain leaning out from the Quentin side of our bridge, called ‘Full astern both!’
My opposite number from Quentin appeared eagerly to assist at B Gun. I handed over to him and went up to my anti-submarine station on the bridge. The First Lieutenant nodded approval. Quiberon was now foaming astern at, surely, 20 knots. Apart from listening to the Asdic transmissions I had no immediate thing to do but certainly felt for those who had. Who would be a captain with port and starboard lookouts calling so many bearings and elevations of aircraft swinging around and feinting and coming in from different directions, and what now you gunners with your 4.7s, your four-barrelled pom-poms and wonderful Oerlikons! Especially you Oerlikons, keep your lead well ahead and hold a few against certain hitting range!
‘Stop both! Full ahead both!’ Just that, clearly and calmly as though in the safety of a classroom exercise, yet here the Captain was playing 40,000 horse power and 16 dazzling fires in boilers at 700 pounds per square inch against falling bombs and the merest seconds. Such was the shudder and the tumult of white water from our great cloverleaf propellers that I thought we had been hit. Quiberon had stopped or even started moving ahead when the nearest bombs exploded just about where she would have been had we kept going astern. We passed broken Quentin with rapidly increasing speed and lively awareness that now included the sight of eight men still on board. They were standing near the gangway, two officers wearing caps and duffel coats and six ratings with suitcases and kit bags in hand or at their feet. A ready estimate of the situation came audibly from a troublesome young lookout behind me in the flag deck, ‘Ah. Thought you ‘ad time to pack. Ruddy tourists. Well, that’ll learn yer.’ I turned and glimpsed the little devil ironically waving.
Our attackers had gone out to a distance, no doubt to reform. They or others would be back at any moment. In the meantime what else but to chase hopefully after the cruisers now a just visible blur on the horizon 10 miles ahead. With their radar warnings and rate of concentrated fire they were no doubt able to look after themselves, or perhaps they had received assistance from the Force H carriers or the nearest protected airfield at Algiers 290 miles away. To ease the tension I asked a signalman how he was feeling. After inspecting around the sky and in the direction of the cruisers, he replied, ‘Lonely like never before.’ For long minutes those were the only words I heard about the bridge until a lookout’s ‘Aircraft approaching . . .,’ and the attacks were on again.
Those bombers knew or soon learned we had Oerlikons all right, the way they kept above 1,000 feet. At that height we could see the bombs leaving horizontally and curving down for the first two or three hundred feet. It seemed to me we had a dodging time of a mere thirteen seconds – the bomb falling time of about eight seconds plus the Captain’s anticipating the release by about five seconds. ‘Starboard thirty!’ he would say, or ‘Port,’ always towards the attack, and round we would go at our maximum thirty-four knots, leaning over, all guns firing, and the bombs missing us, port or starboard, time and again.
Sheer luck? No. It happened too often. And all the time this hunting-shooting-fishing type Englishman never turned a hair, just sat in his high chair, privileged pipe in mouth, listening to the lookouts and with ever an eye keening on the nearest plane coming in. At one state when the lookouts were reporting in particularly alarming chorus, the Captain expressed concern only to the extent of remarking to the First Lieutenant, ‘Not much future in this sort of thing, old boy, is there!’
Respite. Suddenly all the planes had gone. Quiberon was easing back to twenty knots. Were more planes on the way? A welcome sun came peeping out of the sea astern. The cruisers were clear on the horizon now, all of them, the yeoman said. Yellow land showed faintly far to port. On the bridge a bosun’s mate was moving around with cups of hot cocoa. It all seemed very normal. And lasting, for the moment. On the engine room phoning a worried report about the fuel situation, a further reduction of our sixteen boiler fires to two still gave us sixteen knots, and the advantage of better conditions for Asdic detection of any lurking submarines. An hour later and not yet eight o’clock we berthed at Bone. The cruisers were already there, none with evident damage. Aided by well-equipped new Army people, we landed the Quentin survivors including one notably wide-eyed cat and went straight out again on anti-submarine patrol. As Browning remarked, ‘Getting a bit constant, old boy, isn’t it!’
The expected heavy retaliation did not come, not that day, but there could be no question now about having to go back for fuel and ammunition; also there was engineer talk about damage from being shaken by the bombing and need to boiler clean, meaning all the way to Gibraltar. Sure enough the cruisers came out at dusk. We watched them growing larger, line ahead in the swept channel, and serenely coming round for the westerly course. Two new destroyers appeared from somewhere and scurried to anti-submarine stations port and starboard while Quiberon drew up ahead to lead the formation. A little thing, perhaps, but it was a proud moment.
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