HMAS Quiberon

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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of December 1976

WHEN MR. MENZIES WAS IN BRITAIN in early 1941 it was suggested to him that the RAN should man the remaining three ‘N’ Class destroyers to make up a full Australian flotilla of eight ships. But by the time the Naval Board had agreed to man the three destroyers the Admiralty had allocated them to the Dutch and Polish Navies.

The Admiralty now posed that the RAN should man three ‘Q’ Class destroyers – Quiberon, Quickmatch and Quality. This class had the advantage of an endurance of approximately 15 percent greater than the ‘Ns’, which would be of great benefit in the long ocean passages required in the Pacific. The Naval Board concurred with this proposal in January 1942, but in March informed the Admiralty they could only accept two destroyers due to serious manning difficulties.

Quiberon and Quickmatch were built at the shipyard of J.S. White of Cowes, Isle of Wight. The first of the two destroyers, the Quiberon being launched on 31st January 1942, but her completion was delayed a month due to a near miss in the shipyard. She was commissioned on 6th July under the command of Commander H.W.S. Browning, RN who proved to be a most outstanding commanding officer.

The ‘Q’ Class were of longitudinal construction and almost identical as regards dimensions and displacement with the ‘J’ and ‘N’ Class destroyer but there was one important difference between the two classes. While the ‘J’ and ‘N’ destroyers carried a main armament of six 4.7 inch guns in twin turrets, the ‘Qs’ and all subsequent wartime destroyers until 1945 carried only four 4.7 inch guns in single turrets. This was due mainly to the shortage of guns and mountings. To compensate for this deficiency they had the additional endurance which enabled them to be used as fleet destroyers in the Pacific.

Deep displacement was 2,500 tons and standard 1,705 tons, which gave a good indication of their oil fuel capacity. Maximum speed in the deep condition was only 31 knots, but Quiberon maintained 32.7 knots on trials on a shaft horse power of 40,000. Length over all was 358ft. 3 inches and the beam 35ft. 8 inches. In addition to the four 4.7 inch guns the destroyers carried two sets of 21 inch quadruple torpedo tubes.

Quiberon was engaged on the usual working up exercises around Scapa Flow until the end of August and was then detailed to North Atlantic convoy duties. One of her first tasks was to form part of the escort of a twenty one ship convoy bound for Cape Town, but was soon detached to search for a suspected U-Boat supply ship in the North Atlantic. After a fruitless search over a wide area Quiberon arrived at Freetown on 27th September and then returned to British home waters via Gibraltar having steamed 12,000 miles and spent only three out of forty two days in harbour.

In late October 1942, Quiberon formed part of the large British naval forces assigned to support Operation ‘Torch’ – the Allied Landings in North Africa. This period took the destroyer for the first time into the Mediterranean where she was frequently under air attack.

On the night of 7th November the assault convoys and their escorts split into two main streams for their respective targets – Oran and Algiers. The latter capitulated on the evening of the 8th and Oran surrendered two days later, and on the 11th French Morocco also capitulated.

Additional landings were made at Bougie, Djidjelli and Bone to the east of Algiers on the 11th and 12th November. Bone soon became the advanced supply base for the British First Army and the base of the 12th Cruiser Squadron (Force ‘Q’) under the command of Rear-Admiral Hardcourt, whose main task was to attack the enemy’s communication with Bizerta and Tunis. Force ‘Q’ comprised the cruisers Aurora, Argonaut, Sirius and the destroyers Quiberon and Quentin.

While operating off the Tunisian coast on 24th November with Quentin the latter picked up a submarine on Asdic but soon lost it. Quiberon later picked up the target north west of Bone, but it was evident that the submarine was very deep. Fortunately a recent Confidential Fleet Order referred to the great depths the U-Boats could operate at and recommended a plan of attack.

Quiberon slowed down to seven knots and when over the submarine fired her first pattern of depth charges, set to about 500 feet using special weights already provided to sink the depth charge in depth. The speed of attack was so slow that under normal conditions the explosions of the depth charges would have damaged the destroyer. In due course the Anti-Submarine Officer. Lieutenant Max Darling RANVR was surprised to hear distinct breaking up noises and later large air bubbles and oil were seen over a wide area. It had been a difficult attack, but the incredible had happened – Quiberon had sunk a very deep submarine with the first depth-charges she ever fired. The submarine later proved to be the Italian Dessie. For this successful action Commander Browning was later awarded the DSO.

Three days later Quiberon was operating with Force ‘Q’ when at midnight on 1st December an enemy convoy of four ships with Italian destroyer escort was intercepted about 40 miles north of Cape Bon. The action lasted about an hour. The enemy ships being engaged at point blank range in ‘a ghastly scene of ships exploding and bursting into flame amidst clouds of steam and smoke, of men throwing themselves overboard as their ships sank and motor vehicles carried on deck sliding and splashing to the sea as vessels capsized’ (Admiral Cunningham). The four supply ships were sunk and also one of the two destroyers. At 1.35 a.m. on the 2nd December Quiberon fired the last salvos of the engagement at a capsized Italian destroyer. Force ‘A’ then set course for Bone at 27 knots.

On the way back to Bone the force, was attacked by enemy aircraft and at 6.30 pm. Quentin, ahead of Quiberon was torpedoed by an Italian torpedo bomber. The British destroyer was badly damaged and in danger of sinking. Quiberon went alongside and removed her complement while both ships were under heavy air attack. ‘I was bombed and cannoned’, reported Commander Browning. ‘HMAS Quiberon got clear just as a stick of bombs fell where she had been, the explosions were under my forecastle. Ship went on to full speed and was attacked six more times by low-level bombing, dive-bombing, and one abortive attempt by torpedo bombing aircraft. Sticks of bombs all fell fairly close, but thanks to good gunnery and high speed I was able to alter course as necessary after seeing the bombs begin to fall’.

Next morning Quiberon steamed into Bone with the loud speakers blaring ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and with the Australian flag flying proudly at the foremast.

Commander Browning’s magnificent handling of the destroyer under heavy air attack undoubtedly saved the ship. At the end of December he was promoted to Captain and was relieved in early January 1943 by Commander G.S. Stewart, RAN, an experienced destroyer officer. For skill and bravery in the convoy action Lieutenant L. MacLiver, RAN, the First Lieutenant was awarded the DSC. McLiver died a few months later, the only war casualty that Quiberon suffered during hostilities.

For the rest of December Quiberon continued to operate on convoy and fleet escort duties. On the 21st she took off the survivors of the burning liner Strathallan which had been torpedoed off the Algerian coast by a U-Boat. At the end of January 1943 Quiberon left the Mediterranean as one of the escort of a convoy bound for South Africa. She left Durban on 27th February and finally arrived in Australia for the first time at Fremantle on 29th March. She had steamed 51,000 miles since commissioning in January 1942.

After a refit at Williamstown Dockyard Quiberon sailed for Kilindini (Kenya) in June 1943, to join the British Eastern Fleet, but on arrival was immediately detached for service on the South Atlantic Station because of the enemy’s intensive South African Submarine campaign. Three Australian destroyers – Quiberon, Quickmatch and Norman were operating in South African waters throughout June, July and August. During most of this period Commander Stewart was ashore at Durban as Commander (D) and the ship was commanded by Lieutenant G.J.A. Ashley-Brown, RAN, the First Lieutenant. Quiberon and Norman actually operated in the South Atlantic for a short period when escorting a convoy, this took them as far north as the entrance of the Congo River where they refuelled.

After an absence since April 1942, the Eastern Fleet returned to Colombo in September 1943, with the Australian destroyers Quiberon, Quickmatch and Norman, followed by Nizam in November. By September 1943 the heavy merchant ship losses in the Indian Ocean had been reduced to 39,471 tons. Quiberon spent the rest of the year escorting Indian Ocean convoys and was almost constantly at sea.

In March 1944, the Australian destroyers Napier, Norman, Nepal and Quiberon took part in Operation Diplomat’ – the reinforcement of the Eastern Fleet by units of the United States Navy. The Eastern Fleet consisted of Renown, Valiant, Queen Elizabeth and the aircraft carrier Illustrious, four cruisers and ten destroyers, including the four Australian destroyers. The Eastern Fleet left Trincomalee and Colombo on 21st March and after refuelling at sea rendezvoused with US Task Group 58.5 – the large aircraft carrier Saratoga and three destroyers from Fremantle. The combined force arrived at Trincomalee on the 31st.

Two weeks later the reinforced Eastern Fleet embarked on Operation ‘Cockpit’ – a diversionary attack carried out at the request of Admiral King, Chief of the US Naval Staff. The operation was designed to hold down as many Japanese naval and air forces in the Singapore area at the time of the American attack on Hollandia, New Guinea. The target chosen for the attack was the naval dockyard at Sabang, a small island and Naval Base off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Admiral Somerville led his four nation fleet to sea in the famous old battleship Queen Elizabeth, on the 16th April. Included in the great armada were the four Australian destroyers. The assault launched at dawn on 19th April achieved complete surprise as dive bombers, torpedo bombers and fighters attacked from the carriers Illustrious and Saratoga and the warships bombarded the port and oil installations. Only one aircraft was lost but its pilot was rescued under fire by a British submarine. The Fleet returned to Trincomalee on the 21st having set two destroyers on fire, destroyed 27 Japanese aircraft and heavily damaged the dockyard airfields, power stations etc.

On returning to base the Commander-in-Chief sent a typical Somerville signal to the Admiralty, ‘We caught the Japs with their kimonos up and their heads down and gave Sabang a damn good bang’. The attack had been a great success, which determined Admiral Somerville to use his reinforced fleet for one more attack before the Saratoga rejoined the American Fleet.

The target selected for the next attack proved to be an ambitious one – the Japanese naval base at Sourabaya, Java. The Eastern Fleet sailed from Trincomalee on 6th May for Exmouth Gulf on the West Australian Coast, which had been picked as the most convenient refuelling point. Admiral Somerville divided his fleet into three forces. Force 65 of one battle cruiser and three battleships, including the French Richelieu, two cruisers and eight destroyers including Napier, Nepal, Quiberon and Quickmatch; Force 66 of the two carriers, two cruisers and six destroyers; and Force 67 of six tankers escorted by two cruisers. The reinforced Eastern Fleet was the largest multi-national fleet ever commanded by a British Admiral east of Suez.

On 17th May the strike force arrived at the flying off position, 90 miles south of Java. Ninety-three aircraft were launched from the two carriers to hit targets at Sourabaya and an oil refinery. Again complete surprise was achieved and heavy damage inflicted. The Eastern Fleet returned to Trincomalee on 27th May after a round voyage of 8,000 miles, but Quiberon detached and sailed for Fremantle and a refit.

In July Commander Stewart was relieved in command by Commander W.H.H. Harrington, DSO, RAN. In due course Harrington was promoted to Vice Admiral and Chief of Naval Staff. Lieutenant A.M. Synnot, RAN, the First Lieutenant was also to become Chief of Naval Staff in November 1976. Synnot, who had commissioned Quiberon in July 1942 was a special entry officer.

Quiberon rejoined the Eastern Fleet on 1st August 1944 at Trincomalee and resumed escort duty. In October she took part in another diversionary attack at the request of Admiral King, USN. The object was to make the Japanese expect a landing in the Nicobars, which was given the code name of Operation Millet. The Eastern Fleet, which was given the title of Force 63 and was under the Command of the Vice-Admiral Eastern Fleet, Vice-Admiral Power, left Trincomalee on 1st October. The Force was divided into three groups (1) Renown (Flag) and the destroyers Quilliam, Queenborough and Quiberon; (2) Three cruisers and four destroyers, including Norman; (3) aircraft carriers Indomitable and Victorious, one cruiser and four destroyers.

The two carriers launched their aircraft a few miles south of Cor Nicobar on the 17th and again complete surprise was achieved and a ship sunk in the harbour. Bombardments were then carried out by Groups 1 and 2, the only Australian ships involved being Quiberon and Norman. Although the attack was a success the operation not surprisingly failed in its objective of diverting Japanese resources from the Pacific.

On 1st December 1944, Quiberon left Colombo as a unit of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla in company with Quilliam, Quality and Quadrant as the screen for the battleship Howe, Flagship of the new British Pacific Fleet on passage to Fremantle. Ten days later the force arrived at Fremantle and the 4th Flotilla was then detached for Williamstown, arriving on the 24th.

At dawn on Christmas Day the 4th Flotilla were ordered with all dispatch to hunt for a reported submarine 85 miles south of Jervis Bay. An emergency SOS had been received earlier that morning from an American ship reporting that she had been torpedoed and asking for immediate assistance. Destroyers and other craft were sent from Sydney but were too late to assist the ship which sank soon after the 4th Flotilla were ordered to the Jervis Bay area.

Commander Harrington was relieved in command by Lieutenant-Commander G.F.E. Knox, RAN, on 16th February 1945. On the 28th the British Pacific Fleet sailed from Sydney for Manus, the big American base in the Admiralty Islands. The fleet comprised the battleships King George V (Flag) and Howe, four fleet carriers, four cruisers and twelve destroyers and a light cruiser with Rear-Admiral (D) on board. Included among the destroyers were Quiberon and Quickmatch.

After several days exercising at sea the fleet sailed for Uliti where it arrived on 20th March. Three days later the British Pacific Fleet was assigned to the American Fifth Fleet as Task Force 57. The first assault was designated Operation Iceberg, the occupation of Okinawa described as ‘the most audacious and complex enterprise undertaken by the American amphibious forces’. Its task was to secure a forward base near Japan for the bombing of the mainland prior to the actual invasion of Japan later in the year.

At dawn on 26th March, Task Force 57 reached its flying off position and during the morning strikes were flown off to attack targets in the Sakishima Islands. Knox reported that ‘although the fleet was brought to five minutes notice for air attack on three occasions … no hostile aircraft were sighted’. Task Force 57 continued the air strikes on the 27th and after dark retired to refuel. After refuelling the air strikes on the Sakishima group were resumed.

On Easter Sunday 1st April, the first American invaders landed on Okinawa and on that day TF57 suffered its first air attack when a Kamikaze crashed on Indefatigable’s island. Due to her armoured flight deck the carrier was only very briefly out of action. Throughout April TF57 remained in the combat area with periods of refuelling at sea.

In the final phase of the operations against the Sakishima group TF57 was joined by three more Australian destroyers – Napier, Nepal and Norman in position Mosquito, the replenishment area south of the island group. The force retired to Leyte on the 23rd and remained there until the end of the month.

May was a very busy month for Quiberon operating with TF57 and during this month she steamed over 12,000 miles. In May and June the Australian destroyers were also used as ‘maids-of-all work’ providing mail and replenishments to the main fleet.

The first surface bombardment in which British and American ships took part in was on the Japanese mainland. On the 17th July, Knox reported ‘At 1500/17th detached in company with HMS Quality to screen HMS King George V for night bombardment. At 1800/17th contact was made with the US bombardment force of six battleships and destroyer screen. Course was shaped for the Japanese coast. At 2310/17th the battleships opened fire on the Hitachi area (of Honshu) at a range of about 26,000 yards. The bombardment continued for about 30 minutes, at the end of which the entire force withdrew to the east at high speed. At 0730/18th rejoined TF.37′.

The combined American-British fleet fired about 1,500 tons of shells at industrial targets along a 60 mile length of coast north of Tokyo. The British force included only one Australian ship – Quiberon. The combined forces continued to strike heavily with bombing raids for the rest of the month with periods for refuelling. For political reasons the British forces were not permitted to take part in the final operations against Japan since it was considered political to ‘forestall a possible postwar claim by the British that she had delivered even a part of the final blow that demolished the Japanese Fleet’. This was an ugly, miserable gesture reflecting no credit on those involved and ignored the great assistance the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy had on several occasions given to the United States Navy during the war.

During the final days of the war against Japan the American Third Fleet and the British Pacific Fleet continued air attacks on targets on Hokkaido and Honshu. But on 10th August the dramatic news of the Atomic Bomb and Russia’s entry into the war against Japan was received. Next day Admiral Rawlings in King George V hinted at the sudden end of the war. Rawlings ordered the major part of his force to return to Manus to await orders. Rawlings in his flagship with an aircraft carrier, two cruisers and ten destroyers would be held ready to enter a Japanese port. So Quiberon did not take part in the triumphant entry into Tokyo Bay, but Napier and Nizam had that honour. At noon on the 15th August 1945, King George V hoisted ‘Cease Hostilities against Japan’ as a Japanese aircraft was shot down in flames. The war after six long years was finally over.

But peace brought no immediate respite for Quiberon, she was present at the reoccupation of Shanghai and then served in the East Indies until February 1946, carrying troops and Allied prisoners of war and assisting in the reestablishment of Dutch control in the area.

In March, following a short refit at Sydney Quiberon sailed for Japan to start the first of three periods of occupation duty. She returned to Sydney after her third period in Japanese waters on 22nd July 1948, and was there immobilized after having steamed 80,000 miles in the post war period and a total of 316,772 miles since commissioning.

The task of converting the destroyer to an anti-submarine frigate was commenced at Cockatoo Island, Sydney in November 1950. Quiberon was later transferred to Garden Island Dockyard. After a conversion taking the extraordinary period of over seven years the ship was finally commissioned on 18th December 1957.

Quiberon spent another six and half years in the Royal Australian Navy. Several periods of duty were spent as a unit of the British Strategic Reserve based in Singapore. Her distinguished service career finally ended when she was paid off to Reserve on 26th June 1964.

On 15th February 1972, nearly 30 years since she was commissioned in England, Quiberon was sold for breaking up to the Pujita Salvage Company Limited of Osaka, Japan.

Quiberon left Sydney for the last time on 10th April 1972, under tow of the Japanese tug Sumi Maru No. 38. With her on tow was also the destroyer Tobruk.

No Australian destroyer had a more distinguished wartime career and only two other destroyers sank enemy submarines. Like her sister ship Quickmatch, she was a lucky ship and suffered no casualties in action.

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