- Lind, L.J. and Payne, Alan
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
HMAS STUART WENT BY MANY NAMES in her long career. In her youth in the Mediterranean Fleet she was ‘The White Lady’, later she became the ‘Grey Old Lady’ and in less complimentary vein the ‘leader of the sardine cans’. To the fleet in 1940 she was the ‘Leader of the Crocks’ and to this latter name she served most faithfully.
The old ship had suffered a series of breakdowns in the past few months and early in September Admiral Cunningham decided she should proceed to Malta with the next convoy for a complete refit. No one could agree more with the Admiral than Commander (E) Rands and his long suffering engine room crew. The engines and their ancillary equipment resembled a patchwork quilt with temporary repairs. Steam lines burst with infuriating regularity, valves blew out and the bearings were a source of constant worry. The ‘ball of string’ was not enough to keep the ship operating.
Captain Waller and the Flotilla Staff transferred to Vampire on 26th September and Lieutenant Commander Robison assumed command of Stuart. The flotilla at this time was dispersed with Voyager in dock in Malta, Waterhen and Vampire engaged in local escorts out of Alexandria, Vendetta was escorting cruisers in the bombardment of enemy lines between Barrani and Sollum and Defender was undergoing repairs in Alexandria. Dainty and Diamond had been detached for escort duties in the Red Sea.
The Malta Convoy sailed from Alexandria on the night of 28th-29th September 1940. On the morning of the 28th Lieutenant Commander Robison was discharged to hospital and command of Stuart was passed to Lieutenant N.J.M. Teacher, RN, the navigator. The young Irish officer had long won the crew’s respect. Tall, with a true Viking beard, Teacher had something of the buccaneer spirit which appealed to the Australians.
The convoy was important. It included 2,000 troops for Malta’s garrison in addition to the invaluable supplies without which the island could not exist. Accordingly, Cunningham gave it a powerful escort which included Warspite, Valiant, the carrier Illustrious, cruisers York, Liverpool, Gloucester, Sydney and Orion and destroyers Hyperion, Hero, Hereward, Imperial, Ilex, Jervis, Juno, Janus, Mohawk, Nubian and Stuart. The troops were embarked in Liverpool and Gloucester.
Stuart plodded along almost as the uninvited guest. On the morning of the 29th the convoy came under heavy air attack which was fought off by the Fulmars from Illustrious. The enemy fliers pressed their attack with determination, and despite the interception of the formation by the Fulmars bombs rained down to send brown geysers of water erupting around the ship. Two bombers were shot down by the fighters and a third fell victim to the anti aircraft guns.
One of the Fulmars was shot down in the engagement and from Stuart’s bridge it was seen plunging into the sea about five miles astern. Lieutenant Teacher turned Stuart at high speed and steamed hard to reach the crew before the aircraft sank. The two airmen were picked up and the destroyer increased to full ahead to overtake the fleet.
Trouble struck soon afterwards. Mr. Edwards was making an adjustment in the engine room when an auxiliary steam pipe burst and Stuart’s speed reduced drastically. When he received the damage report Teacher signalled the flagship. Admiral Cunningham made a general signal to the Fleet in reply. ‘Stuart is dying on us. I am sending him back to Alex.’
Somewhat crestfallen the destroyer reversed course and at ten knots plodded towards base, which it was intended to reach after daylight. To keep the ship on its toes Lieutenant Teacher ordered an antisubmarine search and course was altered accordingly.