- Jarrett, Hugh
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Eventually the war ended and the young officer informed his benefactor it was his duty to return to his navy; the old fellow was very upset and offered to alter his will and leave the property to him if he would stay. But it was regretfully declined and so he was driven into the town to a police station, where he was amused to see his photograph displayed as an escapee.
The following night he found himself back in ‘Boney-bloody-gilla’ locked up in solitary confinement with sentries waking him up every half hour at night flashing a torch in his face.
There is no doubt he would have made a very good Australian.
During my stay in the Mediterranean Fleet I was detailed to act as liaison officer with the Italian destroyers which came to Malta to join exercises. Strangely, the Royal Navy did not seem to have any Italian linguists, although it had been operating in the area for hundreds of years. After carrying out exercises, it was usual to have a ‘wash-up session’ to underline the lessons learned, and the only Italian linguists available to translate the visitors’ language for the benefit of the senior British officers were seamen who were married to Italian women! All the Italian officers seemed to be able to speak or understand English!
For my part as a senior liaison officer at sea on exercises in the destroyer flotilla leader, I fell into the linguistically inchoate category, but was aided somewhat by the memory from my school days of some Latin, and the officers to whom I wished to converse spoke English quite well, having learned it as prisoners of war.
I spent a fortnight going out on exercises in the Grecale with the destroyer leader Captain Gasparini in command – a jolly chap who rejoiced in the nickname ‘Big Chief Little Wolf.’ (He certainly looked like a professional wrestler.) His First Lieutenant (Commandante in Secondo) was Francisco Lapania, a fair haired man from Northern Italy, who was serving in Bartolomeo Colleoni when she was sunk by HMAS Sydney.
When I first met him, I asked how he came to speak English so well, he replied that he was a POW and had been in Colleoni. He went on to say – ‘I know you are an Australian – it was a magnificent salvo, hit us right in the boiler-room!’
To which I commented – ‘I suppose you were pleased when the Kormoran sank the Sydney?’ and he replied – ‘ Oh no – she was our hero enemy ship.’ and went on to tell me how, after sinking the destroyer Espiro, Captain Collins lowered a cutter containing food and medical stores into the water and set it adrift among the survivors.
A number of Italian sailors owed their lives to this, and Lapania said the Italian Press made quite a feature of it.
Many years later, I attended a Gunnery Officers’ Dinner at Canberra at which Vice-Admiral Sir John Collins was the Guest of Honour, and I asked the dining president, Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Peek, if I could say a few words. He was quite reluctant to allow this, but at a lull in proceedings he announced that – ‘Commander Jarrett insists on saying a few words.’ Which I did, to the delight of the Guest of Honour, who responded with – ‘ I often wondered what happened to that boat!’ He recorded it in his memoirs.
After Sydney sank the Bartolomeo Colleoni the Italian prisoners were taken to Alexandria, where the Army had set up separate POW camps for enemy officers and men. Francisco Lapania told me that when the Colleoni officers arrived there they were surprised to find some Italian Navy officers already there. These were from the destroyer Espiro and the initial greetings were along the lines of -’ How come you are here?’ – ‘HMAS Sydney!’
‘What about you?’ – with the same reply. It was quite interesting being aboard an Italian warship and observing their customs and procedures. For example, the Captain’s Steward was a very august person who did not seem to possess any headgear; he wore a white jacket with his dark trousers, and had a wing collar and black tie. At about 1030 each morning he appeared on the bridge with two young sailors armed with basketwork trays, one with glasses and the other with ham rolls, which were proffered to the officers while the Captain’s Steward poured a glass of wine for each!