This is part 2 of an hitherto unpublished personal account was given to the Editor shortly before the death of the author, together with several other brief accounts of his wartime experiences.
Patrol routine took up a pattern of about ten days at sea, followed by three or four days in Kingston to refuel, store, provision, do self-maintenance and give daily leave. We grew very fond of the city, its colourful, friendly people and beautiful environs. One remembers the stall vendors, lining up under the flares near the dockyard gates, enticing the returning sailor, lucky enough to have some money left, to buy from a vast assortment of trivia as he moved reluctantly back on board before all leave expired at 11.30 p.m. And the banana loading on the opposite side of the wharf; the women in their bright headgear, carrying great hands of green bananas as they swayed past the tallyman, who sliced off, with razor sharp knives and uncanny accuracy, the overhanging stems on each side of the hands (of bananas). The sailors would watch entranced, then try to distract him, to cause him to miss a cut, but he would look over his shoulder, laugh at us and then, turning back, catch up with several lightning passes. We cheered, and everyone was happy.
Smuggling liquor on board when returning from leave was a worry for the Commander, till one alert Officer of the Watch, in the gloom of the prevailing ‘dim-out’ which was observed in Kingston, noticed that the Coca Cola carried by one sailor looked very pale. How easy it had been to take off the crown seal, empty the lollywater and fill the bottle with rum.
On one occasion history repeated itself at the local nightclub, the Glass Bucket, when a young officer, by sheer bad luck, overstayed his leave and was observed by his Captain. As a midshipman in 1935, this same officer had been observed by Commander Farncomb in the same night club breaking the same rule. As befitted his maturity, on this occasion, he underwent a more sophisticated punishment.
I seem to remember that one evening the wardroom was entertaining the Colonel and officers of the local British regiment to dinner on board. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Eve of Waterloo, with officers in mess undress, securing their ‘parts of ship’ beforehand.
This was quite an experience. I remember we remained at Cruising Stations and I was in the 6″ Control Tower during the middle watch. Had we met the enemy in those conditions, it certainly would have been a non-event.
Halifax was fun. Nova Scotia in the fall was beautiful and, after the tropics, cold. The indefatigable PTI Patching arranged a rugger match against a University team and whilst we Australians amused the Canadian students with our beards and English-cut rugger shorts, they made our day memorable with their brass band, drumettes and cheer leaders.
This was the first time through the Panama for many of the ship’s company. Old hands from HMAS Australia had been initiated. Perth was to traverse the Canal three times in due course so we all became a little blasé with this most interesting operation. I seem to remember ‘Hands to Bathe’ over the side in the Gatun Lake – not having at that time any local knowledge about crocodiles – ‘freshies’ I hope. Some of us went ashore in Panama for an hour or two but voted it couldn’t compare with our beloved Kingston.
Refuelling at Sea
This was interesting – and historic – as the operation of fuelling a destroyer at sea whilst underway was then relatively new. I had seen it once in the Med. in 1936. Modern sailors with years of experience in this technique will smile condescendingly at the rate of transferring fuel – 242 tons in 3½ hours. This probably did not take into account the time spent in the approach, connecting hoses and disconnecting. The destroyer moved up parallel to the cruiser and edged in very cautiously. A line was shot across from the bigger ship and the destroyer hauled in a spring (usually a 5″ or 6″ manila) which was led from the bow of the cruiser. The smaller ship then ‘sat back’ on the spring while the oil hose was passed across and oiling commenced. In early experiments a ‘breast’ was passed between ships, but this proved not only useless but dangerous, and was dispensed with. By the end of the war, the operation of approaching and of securing the hose was done in minutes and without springs or other lines, and 200 tons per hour was not uncommon.
We took the towing hawser (a 5½ wire, I think) to the Houston City in our pinnace – with a large portion of it coiled up in the boat and ‘stopped’ with cordage at strategic points. I was sent in the boat (we had no midshipmen) with a giant of a man as Coxswain. I was very proud of the job we did and bitterly disappointed (as we all were) when the wire parted as Perth went slowly ahead.
Christmas at Sea
Christmas Day was a very happy occasion in spite of the disappointment of the many sailors who had expected to be back in Australia. I have an autographed copy of the Special Menu for that day. Old Perth sailors swear that the man in cells was let out for the day on the condition that he promised to be back for Commander’s Rounds at 9 p.m. (He was!)
The passage across the Pacific was calm, unhurried and uneventful. Tahiti will always be remembered as it was then an unspoiled, friendly place, full of laughing happy people who made the war we had been participating in seem very far away. A midnight picnic, a full moon, tropical palms, a coral beach, charming hosts and hostesses passing guitars from one to another and everyone singing happily – what a life!
Arrival in Sydney
In Sydney we were a little embarrassed by being treated as ‘returned’ men when, in fact, although we had been doing our job, it had been such a pleasant and non- arduous one. We marched through Sydney past the tram shed on Benelong Point, just to the west of Man-O-War Steps. I have nothing of interest to add from here on – I was only in the ship until a day or so after Captain Bowyer-Smith joined, to take over.
Captain Farncomb was always tremendously loyal towards, and fond of, his old midshipmen. On leaving Yarra to go to the UK for Perth he had asked me (his sub-lieutenant then) what I wished to do next – I answered, of course, “Go to Perth with you, Sir.” Then, when he left Perth he asked me what I wanted. The only war worth being in was in the Med, so I asked to go to the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, which I did in June/July 1940 (in HMAS Voyager).
HMAS Voyager – 1940 – Mediterranean Fleet
I joined Voyager in Alexandria on August 25th 1940 and relieved Lieutenant Commander A.G. (Yank) Lewis as First Lieutenant. Although I had served in a small ship (HMAS Yarra) this was my first destroyer. Convoy to Malta was the first job. Two twin Lewis guns, two 2pdr pom- poms and four 4″ low angle guns were no match for the high flying Italian planes which one could hardly see. Often in those pre-radar (and pre RDF) days the first intimation of an air raid was the splash of bombs.
My first taste of bombing in harbour was whilst in Malta doing a refit. We took out the after set of torpedo tubes (triples) and put in a 3″ HA gun, and best of all, the Chief made a bath out of some steel sheet and fitted it up in the wardroom store (illegally of course). Officers had round ‘bird baths’ which secured to the deckhead of their cabins. Cabin hands brought hot water in cans to the cabin. We had great respect for the Maltese – particularly the dockyard mateys who worked very well under constant threat of bombing.
Back to Alexandria for the first Libyan (Desert) campaign. Landing Commando raids behind Italian lines, supplying the Army, supporting the troops with bombardments (mostly we escorted the large monitor HMS Terror and the old gunboats HM Ships Aphis, Cricket and Gnat). Plenty of submarine alerts, lots of bombing, excitement in capturing a small schooner one night as it tried to run our blockade. We were bombed on Christmas Day in Sollum when No. 3 Squadron RAAF in Gladiators attacked some Savoia 79s. Went ashore at Bardia and Derna soon after the Army had taken those places (have some photos somewhere, one of a near miss just off the foc’sle, with the Cox’n in the foreground also taking a photograph). We made occasional runs as escort on the screen of the Battle Fleet. Then came convoying to Athens; all night leave in that city. Followed by the evacuation. We took out 106 nurses from the 5th and 6th Australian General Hospitals (Lieutenant Commander McDonald OC, later Sir Charles McDonald, Chancellor of the University of Sydney) from Nauplia, on the night of 24/25 April, Anzac Day 1941. We were bombed all the way to Crete where we left them (the girls). After Crete, it was back to the desert to find Tobruk in siege. Voyager and Vendetta did the first ‘Spud Run’ of the Tobruk Ferry. We very nearly didn’t do any more, as we couldn’t find the way out through the boom at Tobruk and had to wait for daylight. We were sighted by a German plane soon after, but escaped back to Alexandria under cover of a khamsin (sand storm). Spud Runs became routine – load in Alex, up to Tobruk and unload, take on wounded, back to Mersa Matruh, load up – then Tobruk and so on back to Alex. Two day’s spell (in port) and repeat the dose. We lost HMAS Waterhen and HMS Defender from our Flotilla and on our last trip we limped back on one engine at 17 knots – the ship had had it!
So back to Australia we steamed, via Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Sourabaya (Java), Darwin, Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane. Refit in Sydney, I left the ship on a ‘pierhead jump’ in January 1942 and went by the Cunard liner SS Aquitania to Singapore arriving there on 29th January, staying 48 hours only (thankfully) on my way to find HMAS Nizam.
(Singapore surrendered about a fortnight later. Ed)