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- September 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Telegraphist L.M.D., HMAS Townsville. (Obviously he has moved on to quieter times since this article was written).
Editor’s note: I’m sure many of you will recall the series of publications produced by the Australian War Memorial during and immediately after WWII. Soldiering On dealt with the Australian Army, These Eagles the Royal Australian Air Force, and the HMAS series the Royal Australian Navy. Primarily, they consisted of a compilation of anecdotes and cartoons written by men and women in the front line about their activities, and therefore had a wonderful immediacy and honesty about them. For security reasons at the time, the authors remained anonymous. The following article is drawn from the first HMAS.
It is a hot sunny day, with a heaving sea, just after the noon hour. We are in company with the Battle Fleet, pushing along at about half speed. To port and starboard over an expanse of sun-kissed blueness lies the destroyer screen, lifting lazily to a low-running swell. We are one of the cruiser squadron stationed a mile or so across the briny from the large, clumsy battle wagons and the ponderous aircraft carrier.
For the past two days, we have been steaming along quite peacefully upon ‘Mussolini’s lake’, carrying on a routine sweep, and praying that the Hightide Fleet is somewhere at sea so that we may dispute its claim upon Mare Nostrum. Things have been very quiet lately – unusually so in fact – so we are on the lookout for trouble at any tick of the clock.
A few of us off-watch are lying on the upper deck carrying on a desultory conversation about the recent drawing of the Melbourne Cup sweepstake. Raising his elongated frame upon one bony elbow, Lofty whines, ‘Well, Snow, at least you did draw a nag for your deener.’ Rolling over to sun my back, I reply, ‘Lot of good he seems to be too, according to the well-informed gentry of the messdeck.’
Air raid alarm
Suddenly the air resounds with the shrill, insistent clamour of the air-raid alarm. We scramble to our feet, the only subject in mind being to get under cover with the minimum delay, as we are old hands at such experiences. A string of flags flutters from the mast of the flagship. The ship shakes with the sudden increase of speed as the screws churn the water to snowy foam astern, and the bow forces a cascade feet into the air.
‘Aircraft bearing Red 30, angle of sight 60,’ snaps a voice.
‘Fifteen bombers, low winged, three engines,’ yells a lookout. Glasses swivel, steady, then focus.
I crouch under cover, the stark horror of past atrocities vivid in my memory. That refugee ship – aflame from stem to stern, with women, children and the aged, calling piteously for help. Bloody murderers!
Now the gun-deck is a hive of scurrying activity. Shell lockers snap open, ammo passes swiftly from hand to hand, guns swing skyward.
‘Height 15,000 feet,’ the height-finder barks.
‘Rapid salvoes!’ from the H.A. Director.
Shells are fused with the speed of long practice, breeches slam shut.
Whoosh! Forty pounds of high explosive rush through the air like an express train. Eight recoiling muzzles are barking defiance. The atmosphere is cut by the sharp whip-like cracks of quick firing guns hurling their deadly missile heavenward. White mushroom-shaped bursts ring the aircraft. A correction is quickly calculated and applied. Pandemonium seems to have broken loose. Every ship in the Fleet is firing.
Suddenly there comes an unearthly whistling sound, rising quickly to a blood-curdling scream. ‘Down!’ yells Lofty. We flatten ourselves on the deck. The ship heels in a high speed turn.
The concussion of the explosions drowns even the roar of the guns. Our vessel quivers, leaps sideways through the water. Shrapnel makes a hellish tattoo on the ship’s side. The whole world seems to have gone berserk. This mad din continues for nearly a minute. Once more our AA defence can be plainly heard. Men work like automatons, sweat runs in rivulets down their naked bodies, they breathe in whistling gasps.
‘Got him!’ screams a voice. A plane disintegrates into nothingness. ‘You corker,’ I yelp hoarsely. Revenge is sweet. The planes circle – again those ominous shapes roar overhead. That heart-chilling crescendo resounds through space. Everyone ‘goes to earth’ again. A series of resounding blasts break the tension.