- Max Darling, RANVR
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
HMAS QUIBERON, brand new but already bomb scarred while under construction at Cowes, Isle of Wight, was commissioned on 6 July 1942.
Of the crew, the Royal Navy contributed the Commander, Gunner (T) and Coxswain. All other crew were Australians comprising four RAN regular officers, four Volunteer Reserve officers including me, and 186 ratings from various ships and qualified by at least a year at sea.
We wavy-striped newcomers had soon realised the trained personnel shortages and urgencies and that we had much to learn. I was surprised, though, to be appointed to a destroyer as the Anti-Submarine Control Officer after only tactical courses.
The Captain, Commander H.W.S. Browning, ex-submarines, greeted me pleasantly as though I had merely come to tea. After a seemingly casual interest in my yachting experience he confirmed that I was to be ‘Ping’ and also ‘second dicky Nav’, A and B guns, and anything else the First Lieutenant might require of me.
First Lieutenant Lindsay McLiver was more explicit. ‘Awarenesswise and tacticswise you were the best the appointments people could offer us. You’ll be complemented by your senior rating, Higher Submarine Detector Kendall, a proven electrical man. In port your three Asdic operators will crew the motor boat at call; outside that they are yours to exercise, exercise, exercise. That’s to be your priority thing.’ His meaning was clear, ‘Get on with it.’
I was lucky in Kendall. He knew it all down there near the keel and no matter what ‘flew off the board’ from heavy seas or gunfire he got our oscillator training and pinging again in no time. Moreover he could hold a contact and analyse an echo when the watch operators could hear nothing at all unusual. They would have to do better. And soon did.
During our three weeks acceptance trials, then the four weeks working up to operational pitch at Scapa Flow and the next 10 weeks on Freetown convoys, we exercised at sea and in harbour at every opportunity. In harbour, with the bridge much to ourselves and with visual control and all kinds of shipping around, all five of us became as sensitive in the Asdic operating hut as we were ever likely to be. We each could hold difficult echoes through intervening disturbances of wakes and currents, determine if a ship was moving right, left, closer or away, and the rate, and read hydrophone effect as coming from single or multiple propellers running fast or slow and driven by turbine, steam piston or diesel engines. The Captain joined us on occasion and the First Lieutenant cast an approving eye. If ever we lacked for motivation there was always the appalling thought of Allied merchant ships being torpedoed at the rate of one every seven hours.
Fortunately for our harassed shipping and for the Quiberon story there came a Confidential Admiralty Fleet Order alerting Anti-Submarine officers to the possibility of enemy submarines escaping at seemingly impossible depths down to 500 feet. Our ships had repeatedly lost contacts at 600 and 700 yards. Why? An elevation drawing of the asdic transmission beam showed that the bottom of the horizontal cone would pass over a submarine 500 feet deep at 700 yards. The maximum setting on our depth-charge pistols was 350 feet. So by bolting a heavy weight to one end of a 300 pound depthcharge canister to speed the rate of descent, the Admiralty innovators had contrived a way for our 350 feet pistols to fire at 500 feet.
Quiberon received a number of these weights and I at least had been alerted to think about the problem, however unlikely might seem the chances of a submarine enduring 237 pounds pressure on every square inch at 500 feet.
At that same time there came more immediate demands on our minds. The Second Front. North Africa. Suddenly we were one of 17 destroyers screening the Force H heavy ships covering the Oran and Algiers landings. In two watches, dawn and night action stations, planes screaming out of the sun, our streaking Oerlikon tracers, the sky being peppered by the fleet’s pompom and secondary armament burst, snatching a chance to pick crashed airmen out of the sea, station keeping at night when often all you could see of the next ship was a blacker black in the blackness or the ghostly phosphorescence of an 18-knot wake or bow wave, checking the Asdic operators for signs of sleepiness, heeding variations in incessant pings from the bridge loudspeaker, thinking about submarines at periscope depth. As for AFO’s about subs at 500 feet? Some other time, mate.
With the invasion going well Quiberon, Quentin and three anti-aircraft cruisers joined as Force Q in support of the Eastern penetration at Bone.
Bone was only 130 miles from enemy strength at Sardinia and Tunis. It was an open roadstead with a small breakwater harbour. Came our three-day turn to get in there and concentrate an A/A defence for the unhappy freighters already berthed and outside at anchor.
Our targets so far had all been in the air, but never more continuously than from midnight on 28 November. First had come the flares and a hundred guns trying to shoot them out, then the attacks, the exploding bombs, stabbing searchlights, the crash of guns numbing our ears, pauses in our firing sector long enough to realise the dazzling splendour of it all, attack after attack. Yet the morning showed only Ithuriel badly damaged and one freighter sunk while four more had arrived at anchor and in the harbour.
Time for rest? Not with odd nuisance planes coming high over to keep the gun crews closed up and the happy sight of a few Spitfires beginning to appear.
We were fascinated by these flyer chaps. On the RAF frequency we could hear their eager young voices passing timely alerts and other information. From them we learned of a submarine on the surface heading in and later that Quentin was carrying out depthcharge attacks seven miles north-east.
Quentin, as First Emergency destroyer, having been sent on her errand, left us on Second Emergency standby. After lunch all had seemed well for some of us to catch a little sleep. I was called to find we had cleared the breakwater, passed the trawler on harbour patrol and were closing up at submarine action stations. With surely the speed that only a destroyer knows we left the land hazily astern, crossed the 100-fathom line into deep water and were easing down to 15 knots to better assess the Asdic conditions for whatever action to come.
Conditions were near perfect and with Quentin evidently idling or stopped on the calm sea ahead we could well have been getting echoes after 4,000 yards. At 2,000 yards the duty operator could report only ‘woolly non-subs everywhere on the forward sweep’, and ‘occasional weak pings from Quentin.’ Kendall took over in the hut and confirmed what the bridge loud speaker was making amply clear to my ears, such that the situation report came hardly as a surprise.
Quentin had expended all her 70 depthcharges without the slightest evidence of damage, no debris, not a wisp of oil.
She was sure her submarine was somewhere in the indicated attack area. This we proceeded to find was a square mile all blown and torn to bits by Quentin’s depthcharges and twisty 12-knot wakes. There was nothing in our phones to indicate any movement, no Doppler, no whistle effect from paravane or rudder adjustments, no propeller noises other than from our own slowly-turning screws. If there was a submarine in there it had to be lying doggo, hiding in the appalling mix of disturbed water, all of which was sending back a variety of useless echoes to blur our phones and the recorder. By blowing air or going ahead and astern for 30 seconds a submarine in such a place could further disturb the water to make a woolly concealment other own. What now?
The Captain’s look meant ‘Up to you, old boy,’ as surely as the First Lieutenant’s meant, ‘Get on with it.’