The Loss of HMS Auckland

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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of June 1974

‘At 6.28 p.m. she rolled over and sank.’ L J. Brien was serving in HMAS Vendetta at the time of the loss of this fine ship. The Vs and Ws and the sloops were a closeknit team supplying Tobruk in 1941. The loss of Auckland was a personal loss to all on the ‘Tobruk Ferry.’

OUR EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN FLEET in 1940-41 had suffered appalling casualties – 70 ships from carrier and battleship down to sloops. These losses were all sustained in 12 months and amounted to the worst casualties ever suffered by the steel clad Royal Navy in one area and within that space of time.

Against this fearsome set of conditions, then, as soon as the plan to send this small convoy on the Tobruk blockade run was known, it became the constant topic of speculative opinion.

The tanker involved, Pass Of Balmaha, was well known to the fleet and already had had an amazing run of luck against air attack. She was quite small, incredibly grubby and a readily expendable item (perhaps because of her predecessor’s association with Felix von Luckner).

The two escorts were soon to prove the excellence of their crews. Auckland had, I clearly recall, the most audacious camouflage in the fleet (actually shared the title with HMS Grimsby – also soon to die), and the job of renewing the myriad slivers of green, brown, grey and black geometrical designs must have plagued her seamen no end. Parramatta had an elaborate, fragmented camouflage too – but of a more sombre hue.

These two ships, the latest sloops, had at least up to date twin gun mounts – A, B, X – three sets of two barrels of 4- HAAA with improved fuse setting gear plus semi auto loading.

Within a few hours after dawn on the convoy’s first day out, they were located by a hostile recce aircraft and at once the escorts took up radio contact with Alexandria and the two standby ships – HMA Ships Vendetta and Waterhen. Soon, we heard the air attack imminent warnings and shortly after calls for help from the convoy. By 1100 we were off Ras-el-tin just clear of the swept channel and scattering the caique fishing fleet as the two destroyers cut slap through them building up to flat out revolutions (29-30 knots), with Waterhen taking up a mutual umbrella barrage position about 1,500 yards off our port beam. The exposed gun crews scratched about bracing themselves against our racing pace through a slightly choppy sea. We cleared guns and our .5 ‘Chicago Pianos’ cut through a smoke burst placed handily astern by our X-gun mount for both ships to use. Not much talk now as we settled into the race to catch the hard pressed convoy. Our ETA would be around 1800. Since we still had no radar on the Vs and Ws, lookouts were at maximum alert and our excitement grew with each new message received.

The convoy was meanwhile being overwhelmed by continuous dive bomber attacks – JU87s (Stukas) – sometimes a score at the one time – scrambling to get into position to dive out of the sun. Later we learned that this day became without doubt, Parramatta’s day. During the long, exhausting fight she shot down four aircraft plus three probables. At that time, this was for our fleet a one day record for an AA shoot.

Time and again during the action Lieutenant Commander J. H. Walker placed Parramatta close to the defenceless Pass of Balmaha to increase his defensive role and, just as often, miraculously, his ship came rolling and shaking out of the fray; her decks streaming water from bomb bursts. The news that the undamaged tanker’s crew had abandoned her and taken to the lifeboat for dear life was no surprise to us. We had all witnessed good gun crews dive for cover because of the demoralising fury of a Stuka attack. Merchant seamen had, virtually, no defence and were often the sole target for hostile bombing runs. We were now about two hours steaming astern of the trio when news came of Auckland’s impending end. She had received several mortal hits – the time was 1800 on 24th June 1941.

Vendetta was now straining slightly ahead of Waterhen away to port when we burst upon the scene. Auckland had disappeared forever beneath the waves leaving only oil patches, ammo boxes and other pitiful remains floating amongst splintered woodwork and, at last, a whaler boatload of her survivors now in the act of being taken aboard Parramatta. The Stuka Parade had been called off as we approached and whilst we were still out of range. Over to starboard lay Parramatta and we closed on her. Waterhen continued straight on and closed with the tanker. A ‘prize crew’ from Waterhen got the Pass of Balmaha under way, and then collected the tanker’s crew.

Coming closer to Parramatta we could hear them cheering and calling to us, their enthusiastic shouting carrying across long before we called back. Understanding dawned on us just how much our arrival had raised their morale. Auckland’s survivors were in a shocking state. Many were badly smashed and others were choking to death with fuel oil in their lungs. One hundred and sixty four survivors of Auckland’s complement of 190 were picked up.

On Parramatta’s poop deck I singled out three of my old classmates from Flinders Naval Depot – Harold Erby, Jack McMillan and Sid Glossop and we shouted across to each other. They, and Parramatta herself, were soon to be entombed beneath the sea. A few months later she was ‘tin fished’ off Tobruk Harbour and only 21 of her crew lived to tell the tale – her gallant skipper went down with the ship.

It seemed only moments before darkness began to envelop all and in the later deep gloom Parramatta slipped away bound for Mersa Matruh nursing her sorely pressed RN comrades. We wished them a trouble-free run home.

Waterhen had decided to tow the damaged tanker. The destroyer reached Tobruk later that night in the middle of the usual tremendous German and counter British artillery barrages. The whole desert skyline aflame for miles – not unlike the distant, leaping, fiery glow from a bad bush fire. Great waves of cannonade rolled out to us and soon subdued all talk as we stood off the cluttered maw of Tobruk Harbour, ushering Pass of Balmaha safely into the then world’s most unsafe berth. Less than a week later Waterhen herself went to the bottom of ‘Mare Nostrum’ off Sollum.

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