- Cox, Leonard J.
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Nepal
- September 1990 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
I walked out on to the upper deck of the Fleet Destroyer on the beautiful afternoon on August 3rd, 1942.
Two ‘N’ Class Destroyers, the Australian Nepal and the Dutchman Tjerk Hidden were the anti-submarine escort to a troop convoy of several large liners. Troop convoys with big ships are fast convoys and this one was no exception. In the distance on the port side, the Dutchman’s huge bow wave was plainly visible.
The ships were bound for the Middle East around the Cape of Good Hope, where the safe arrival of the Armoured Division they carried would greatly influence the outcome of the Battle of El Alamein. Steaming in the centre of the convoy could be seen the cruiser Orion. She too was on her way back to the ‘Med’ after a major refit. The three bombs that badly damaged her during the Crete evacuation penetrated her decks killing several hundred soldiers sheltering below. A gentle breeze blew across an almost calm sea with the nearest of two great liners the Windsor Castle and the Arundel Castle presenting a magnificent view.
Conditions were excellent for the ‘off duty’ watch to sunbathe, so I walked down aft and climbed the steel ladder that led to ‘X twin 4.7’ Gun mounting where the gun’s crew were closed up in second degree readiness. Seeing several dolphins playing in the ship’s wake was the last thing I remember before I dozed off into a restful sleep. Sometime later in the dim distance I heard one of the gunners make a remark about a string of flags flying from the foremast. In a suspended animated state, my brain told me, ‘that’s the 12 minute alter course signal for the zig-zag manoeuvre’! Then came another remark, ‘there is a large black flag being hauled aloft now’! ‘What’s a large black flag!’, I am saying to myself. As a radio operator, flags were not my scene, but I did tangle with them during my basic training in Depot.
It comes to mind ‘Am in contact with an underwater object’! – a submarine! Leaping to my feet I sprinted forward and headed for the Wireless Office just as the alarm bells rang and the starboard look-out yelled ‘torpedoes on the starboard bow!’ The tracks crossed our bows heading for the Windsor Castle. But the great ship was already altering course to port so the torpedoes sped by her to harmlessly comb the convoy. Picking the wrong moment to attack, the submarine Commander must have cursed his bad luck. Guided by an asdic bearing and a track to follow, we sped along it at high speed to drop a pattern of depth charges.
The ship turned and stopped. It was a cat and mouse game! Another contact, so the destroyer moved forward towards the submarine until the transmitted asdic pulse and the echo were almost as one. Out went the port and starboard depth charge throwers and three 300 lb charges dropped from the stern. Fifteen hundred pounds of high explosives erupted below, tossing columns of water high into the air.
Again we turned and stopped! Minutes went by then the destroyer moved forward once more firing another pattern of charges. This time huge air bubbles came to the surface followed by an oil patch that spread over a large area of the sea. There was a sudden quietness as we all gazed at the scene, knowing full well some 90 men were either dead or in real trouble deep below us. After a while, the asdics reported the now faint sub echo had faded away. It was then Commander Morris gave the order to rejoin the troop convoy which at high speed had already disappeared over the horizon.
The quarter-master could be heard piping through the mess decks ‘all hands to tea’! But my mind was still on the submariners below. No way could I sit down to tea. Rostered for the first dog watch from 4-6 p.m. I walked into the Wireless Office to take over the watch 15 minutes before time.
Even the thought of ‘it’s them or us’ can’t justify erasing these incidents from one’s memory banks. Perhaps it is made a little easier when the scales are weighed against the hundreds of soldiers that might have drowned if the torpedoes had found the target.