- Oliver, Cdr (E) H.G.D. , RAN
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Napier, HMAS Nepal
- March 1983 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
ON A SMALL BAY on the south coast of Crete is a village or township called Spakhia. Landward approaches are steep-to and the harbour has – or had – no facilities worth mentioning. So it appeared to be an unimpressive place to embark retreating troops, but in May 1941 our choices were very limited.
‘Old Sweats’ will remember we used to call this the ‘bow and arrow’ stage of the war, when the Hun had everything that opened and shut, and we had bows and arrows – or so it seemed.
One day HMA Ships Napier and Nizam and two other destroyers proceeded to Spakhia, arrived after dark, and embarked our assigned quotas of troops as best we could. On this occasion we had to use our own boats. Each destroyer had a 27′ whaler and a 25′ motor cutter. The soldiery were in fairly poor condition, a lot being ‘walking wounded’ and many of that category only just able to walk.
About half way through this operation an aircraft droned overhead and a parachute flare burst above us, lighting up our activity with exasperating efficiency.
So we expected ructions – but none occurred! We finished our loading and had an uneventful run back to Alexandria. And this was good practice for our next effort.
On this occasion I was able to go aft to my cabin on the way back, and so observed a tough little piece of ‘field’ surgery. Slung to the deckhead was a yardarm group, lighting up a circle of deck space and foiling the deckhouse door blackout switches. In the circle of light a soldier lay on his stomach. Alongside him, our little Rocky doctor, Spud Murphy, was on his knees tending a nasty wound in the man’s back. The wound was full of maggots and Spud assured us that had they not been there the last day or so, the man would have been much sicker. Our MO treated the wound, gave the patient a liberal dose of Medical Comforts brandy, and all was well.
A few days later Napier, Nizam and two of Louis Mountbatten’s orphans set out for Spakhia again. But the two orphans (ex 5th Flotilla) had to be sent back at different times due to ‘delay action’ machinery defects caused by near miss bombing a day or two previously. We (in Napier) thought this a bit strange, but had a sharp lesson in such things within 24 hours.
We made Spakhia without further incident. Again it was a fine clear dark night – good weather for clandestine work. And this time the Army had available a few LCIs – flat bottomed ramp bowed powered craft – which greatly facilitated our loading.
And the troops were in generally better fettle. They were also of surprising variety – practically all sections of the British, Australian and NZ forces, including quite a few Maoris. But not all our guests were soldiers. We embarked also a Czechoslovak family of father, mother, teenage boy and girl and red setter dog! As well we received seven Chinese seamen and five (5) assorted chaplains!!
Having only two destroyers instead of four obliged us to lift about 500 men each ship. With a ship’s company of about 230, that made us a bit crowded, and apt to get in each other’s way – which we did, later on.
Having embarked our double quotas in the allowed time, we weighed anchor and set course and speed (about 25 knots) for Alexandria, the while settling down as best we could. And the galley staff bent heart and mind and hand to the production of a hot meal for all hands before arrival. In this they succeeded, despite interruptions, and the Chief Cook was among those decorated some months later.
Among our ‘walking wounded’ this time was a young officer of the Royal Tank Corps with a nasty twisted sliver of steel from his tank forced up through the arch of his foot. Someone had lashed a short bent length of gum tree wood from heel to ball so he could walk! As soon as he could get round to it, Spud Murphy had this chap laid out on my bunk, pressed the Captain’s Secretary into service as anaesthetist, and extracted the offending metal. He then dressed the wound, administered a suitable amount of MC brandy, and left the brave Tanker feeling at peace with the world and quite marvellous.
And then the JU88s came!
My cabin was just under ‘X’ guns – twin 4.7 inch. These weapons normally fired on non-destructive elevations and bearings from bow round to quarter, but when trying to repel hostile aircraft they were apt to loose off in all directions. This happened now, and my cabin water bottle rack fell off the bulkhead and just missed the patient’s newly repaired foot. Then the book rack sprang off and nearly fell on his head. Loose gear in the cabin went in all directions, flakes of corkdust fell from the deckhead, and the chap’s sense of peace and well-being was quite savagely disturbed.
I had been up on the Bridge, talking to D7, and was going aft along the main deck towards the engine-room hatchways when the bombs came whistling down and Napier began standing on her beam ends dodging them. There is quite a knack in evading aircraft bombs, and fortunately our two captains had it, so neither of us was hit, but -.
The soldiers on deck lay down, to increase protection from underwater bomb splinters (ship’s side and ship’s deck). And I just could not avoid treading on some of them as I had to get below. But they didn’t seem to mind!
By the time I made the engine-room, we were minus the steam of one boiler (out of two). It was this way:
A destroyer at speed suffering near-miss bombs is a bit like a frightened horse at a rodeo. The rapid helm movements and nearby explosions make her whip and shudder – it’s a weird feeling underfoot. And it’s bad for cast iron, of which HM ships in those days had plenty. The foot of the working oil fuel pump in the after boiler room broke away from the barrel, and oil fuel was sprayed all over the furnace front of the boiler.
We missed an explosion and general fire in that boiler room by the skin of our teeth – and the promptness of the SPO in charge (actually a leading stoker doing higher duties due to shortage of complement). He shut down and abandoned the boiler room in correct order (juniors first).
Both main engines were still running, and our speed on one boiler was about 24 knots, but there was a nasty crack diagonally across the forward foot of the port main engine. That machine, ever since commissioning, had a trying habit of vibrating at certain speeds ahead and astern. So I got the Damage Control Party to ‘shore’ the damaged casting down from the strength beams overhead, using 4×4 timber shores and wedges kept at certain locations, primarily for use on WT bulkheads. It looked a bit daft, but I was happier when they finished.
One of our main turbo-generators was ‘tripped’ off the board and a few minutes elapsed before it could be ‘kicked’ on again. Meanwhile the forward boiler room watchkeepers ‘slammed on’ the two small diesel generators. Of more importance and alarm was a few minutes failure of some sections of the Oldham-Hewer automatic emergency lantern system. This comprised torch-like lanterns slung overhead in working spaces, which switched themselves on when main power supply failed. Quite a help when they worked – which they usually did.
Abaft the engine-room was the gear room, containing the main turbine reduction gears and lubricating oil drain tanks – or ‘sump tanks’ if you like. Oil level was indicated port and starboard by floatoperated pointers in a pair of stand pipes, central and close together, within reach of a pair of valves for controlling the oil levels. All too easy given light, but in pitch darkness in a ship behaving abominably – ! Well, the stoker watchkeeper ‘kept his cool’, braced himself against the ship’s antics, ‘felt’ the oil levels at the stand-pipes and worked the valves as necessary, until the CERA arrived with a torch closely followed by main lighting restoration. That was a good effort – we did not require main engine oil failure just then.
A mildly humorous angle of the short blackout occurred at the After Magazine. Here, the sailors grabbed the first bodies they saw for Ammunition Supply Party. Thus for a while we were firing up star shell at our attackers – STAR SHELL! in the forenoon of a bright Mediterranean Spring day. They must have thought we were barmy.
The attack ended as suddenly as it began, and we soldiered along on our remaining boiler, sorting ourselves out.
About 9.30, having decided ‘everything was bearing an even strain’, I went aft and joined the umpteenth shift of eaters in the wardroom for breakfast.
But the propeller throb suddenly died away and as I rushed back to the engineroom, the boiler ‘blew off’, i.e. lifted its safety valve.
Arrived in the engine-room (without having to tread on prone Maoris this time), I found the port main circulating pump had stopped – without warning and for no apparent reason. The watchkeepers, seeing the port condenser temperature rising, had shut down both engines.
The function of the main circulators was to draw sea water in through the ship’s bottom and discharge it through the main condenser tube nests, where it condensed exhaust steam back to boiler feed water and maintained precious vacuum, and overboard.
And this ‘gremlin’ type stoppage of a main circulator after near misses was exactly what happened in Jackal the day before, obliging us to send her back.
Fortunately I remembered a quiff used by our ship-builders during acceptance trials in the Firth of Clyde the previous December.
The cooling water inlet and discharge pipes – about 2 feet diam. in a destroyer – are built into the ship’s bottom at a very acute angle. So, when the ship gets a bit of headway on, water is ‘sluiced’ in through the condensers, reducing the effort needed by the circulators. Our contractors used to shut the circulators nearly right off when steadied on a speed run, thus saving a skerrick of fuel and improving their consumption figures. Canny Scots!
Sea temperature in the Mediterranean in May is somewhat higher than that in the Firth of Clyde in December but needs must when the devil drives. So, while my merry (?) men attacked the recalcitrant circulator with spanners, hammers, grease and bad language, I gently opened the starboard ahead throttle and ran that engine up to the revs. for about 15 knots, to see if the ‘sluicing’ effect would occur.
And glory be, it did! The port condenser temperature came down and its vacuum rose, so we gave the port engine a few pounds of steam – and she took it. We then urged the starboard engine to further effort and followed with the port to the extent that she could ‘take it’. A few more steps like this had the starboard engine steaming at about 22 knots and ‘carrying’ the port engine circulator-wise, at about 16 knots.
I phoned these figures up to Steve Arliss, then went up on the Bridge to see him.
He had hoisted speed flags for 19 knots and ordered Nizam to take station ahead of us, on a zigzag course and using her Asdic set.
I apologised for the boiler blow-off, told him briefly of the fun and games in the engine-room and assured him we would get to Alex. even if we had to sail there, using the Forecastle and Waist awnings as sails!
Glad was he to have his engines running at any speed, for we were still in unhealthy waters.
No further shennanikins occurred and we made Alexandria that afternoon. (I can’t remember exactly when – all this was 40 years ago). At a suitable distance Nizam was sent ahead to report by signal lamp, numbers, damage and requirements including two tugs for Napier with her dicey port engine.
These two vessels took us over at the breakwater, and as we proceeded up Alex. Harbour, every ship we passed cheered us like billy-oh! And that was good for our morale.
NOTES AND GLOSSARY
I was Engineer Officer of HMAS Napier, and Staff Engineer to D7. As such, I could go anywhere and do anything, more or less.
Deckhead: In a ship, what you stand on is a deck, and the underside of the next deck above you is the deckhead – one may not call this the ceiling, because a ship’s ceiling is down near the keel!
Yardarm Group – An electric light cluster to increase light for temporary or emergency work.
Rocky – RANR and RANVR officers we called ‘Rockies’. But RANR (S) – Merchant Service types called up – we called ‘Chain Gang’ because of their double wavy stripes. But nowadays all Reservists wear the same ‘straight stripes’ as the Permanents with an ‘R’ in the curl.
My cabin guest of the Royal Tank Corps I never saw, these details were given to me by Captain’s Secretary, a Canadian-born RN fellow called Gillespie. But he (the Tanker) left me a souvenir pair of Zeiss binoculars – now in the possession of my grandson.
D7 – The Captain (D), 7th Destroyer Flotilla – Captain Stephen H.T. Arliss, RN.
Although they were RAN ships, Napier, Nizam, Nestor, Norman and Nepal had sprinklings of RN personnel for convenience of drafting. In Napier the Captain, Navigator, Captain’s Secretary, Coxswain, Chief Yeoman of Signals, Flotilla Shipwright and one of the SPOs were RN. The ratings were sad at losing their rum ration, but soon got over it. Talking of which, the RN abandoned the rum ration a few years ago – ‘change and decay is all around I see.’
SPO – Stoker Petty Officer. Now called Petty Officer Engineering Mechanic – a descriptive but cumbersome tally.
CERA – Chief Engine-room Artificer.
ASDIC – The letters stand for Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee – a body set up during the First World War to find an answer to the submarine warfare which nearly won that war for Germany. A sort of underwater Radar, it is now called Sonar.
In those days (1941) the critical target speed at which submarine attack became difficult was 18 knots.
There is no danger in blowing off a boiler, as the exhaust pipes are led up at safe angles. But in a destroyer they are level with the Bridge and only a few feet abaft it. And the crashing roar of escaping steam just behind one’s ears is bad for the nerves of Bridge personnel – more so if recently bombed.
Sailing a destroyer? Somewhere, sometime a British light cruiser broken down was sailed several miles using her Forecastle and Quarterdeck awnings as sails. But in a destroyer, with only one decent mast and one good awning, it would be even more dicey.
Destroyer flotilla are now called Destroyer Squadrons.
Main turbine fleet are now made of cast steel instead of cast iron, and held down by ‘shock absorber’ type fastenings of quite remarkable efficiency.