Commander John Alliston, who has died aged 94, was one of the Second World War’s most highly decorated destroyer captains, who afterwards brought up his family on a remote island in Bass Strait.
On January 6 1945 John Alliston was commanding the Australian destroyer HMAS Warramunga, part of Task Force 77, one of the largest ever Allied fleets, comprising 11 RAN and nearly 300 other warships, supporting Allied landings in the Lingayan Gulf. The Japanese navy, which opposed Task Force 77 still consisted of four battleships and seven carriers, numerous cruisers and destroyers and over 50 submarines, and occupied several airfields from which, in the space of 2½ hours the previous afternoon, some sixty kamikaze attacks had been mounted.
Alliston was tasked with protecting two American fleet minesweepers. Warramunga, manoeuvring violently, had already fought off three aircraft, when Alliston, who had been recalled to the safety of the screen but insisted on staying with his charges, came under attack by two determined kamikazes who appeared over the hills at great speed and low level. One aircraft survived Warramunga’s barrage of fire, and seemed certain to crash on her, but at about 1,000 yards it veered off and hit the USS Brooks, starting fires. Brooks had lost all power and her sides glowed with heat as Alliston took Warramunga alongside to play hoses on the magazines and to rescue the wounded. Despite further kamikaze attacks, Alliston brought the fire under control and took Brooks under tow. More attacks followed until sunset when Alliston recorded in the ship’s log ‘Sunset. Thank God for that.’ Warramunga had been at action stations for more than ten hours.
Next morning Alliston handed over the tow to an American ship and set off at high speed to find help for Brooks’ wounded. As Alliston approached USS Pennsylvania, the battleship fired a broadside at the shore, rolling her on top of Warramunga, punching a hole in her bow. Undeterred by the risk of further damage, Alliston continued the transfer of the wounded to Pennsylvania’s sickbay by motorboat, completing his mission before sunset on January 7.
Alliston’s time in command was characterised by his concern for his people: one problem was dhobi itch caused by a lack of laundry facilities, which Alliston solved by buying (for six bottles of whisky) a washing machine from an American supply ship.
Warramunga he described as ‘the beautiful, superbly built at Cockatoo Dockyard, Sydney . . . of a design that produced the most successful of wartime destroyers, the balance between hull and superstructure and the proportions of her two funnels were perfect. Add to this the strong clipper bow, with a graceful sheer, running back to the break of the fo’c’sle, and you have . . . the best looking destroyers ever built’. It did not stop him ‘borrowing’ 40 mm Bofors guns from a beached USN landing craft to increase his anti-aircraft armament, and cutting off the after control position to give the four-barrelled pom-poms an all-round arc of fire. Afterwards he wrote to the Navy Board in Sydney to tell them what he had done.
John Melvill Alliston was born on March 3 1910, the elder of twin sons of a Manchester trader, whose European export business collapsed in 1914. Alliston entered the Royal Naval College Dartmouth aged 13.
His first ship was the battlecruiser HMS Repulse where he found that a squash court had been built amidships for the use of the Prince of Wales during his world cruise. In the destroyer HMS Verity 1931-32 he hunted pirates on the China coast, and helped protect the international community, threatened by fleeing Chinese and bellicose Japanese, at Nanking 400 miles up the Yellow River.
In 1932 when the Admiralty considered reintroducing sail training, Alliston’s request to use his foreign service leave by sailing home in one of Eriksson’s square rigged ships from Australia was approved. By the time Alliston had reached Adelaide, travelling via Sydney in a Japanese freighter, the Admiralty had changed its mind, but there he met his wife to be and his love of Australia began.
To get out of an unhappy commission in the fleet destroyer HMS Basilisk in the Mediterranean, Alliston again volunteered, this time for the Fleet Air Arm, but he failed a medical check using a centrifugal chair. Appointed to the cruiser HMS Emerald in the Indian Ocean, Alliston persuaded his Australia-born captain, John Crace, to allow him to sail a cutter up the Rufugi river to view the wreck of the German cruiser Konigsberg, and, when granted leave in Mombassa, while other officers went shooting or golfing, he organised a one-man five-day expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. When Emerald hosted the German cruiser Emden, commanded by Karl Dönitz, in Trincomali, German-speaking Alliston was liaison officer and lived onboard, and in 1937 he visited in Kiel the friends he had made onboard and lunched with Dönitz and his two sons (who were wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth Movement).
As war loomed Alliston stood by the destroyer HMS Kandahar, as first lieutenant, building at Denny’s yard in Dumbarton. Injured in a storm, Alliston recovered in time to take part in the Norway campaign in April 1940, and was in company with Mountbatten’s destroyer HMS Kelly when she was torpedoed and in collision with a German E-boat. Kandahar embarked Kelly’s wounded and escorted her to the Tyne.
Later in 1940 Kandahar was in the Red Sea, when the trawler HMS Moonstone captured the Italian submarine Galileo Galilei: the submarine could not dive because the control tower had been damaged by Moonstone’s gunfire and circling sharks prevented the Italians from abandoning ship. When Kandahar arrived, Alliston organised the transfer of prisoners and the tow of the enemy submarine. Italian codebooks and charts were also seized, leading to the sinking by Kandahar a few days later of the submarine Torricelli, and one of the first advances in breaking Axis codes.
Alliston’s first command was the destroyer HMS Decoy, based in Haifa to support the army’s advance along the coast against the Vichy French. On one occasion he engaged a column of armour attacking the Australian 6th Division near Tyre, and on another occasion while giving gunfire support was himself attacked by and drove off two large French destroyers. Next Alliston took part in a number of runs to relieve the siege of Tobruk, and in several Malta convoys. During a boiler-clean, Alliston visited the RAF at their desert airstrips, to try to improve inter-service cooperation. When he and the Tasmanian Wing Commander Al Goodman discovered an intact German Ju-87 (Stuka) divebomber in the desert, Goodman insisted on flying this back to Sidi Barrani and Alliston volunteered to accompany him, though they were lucky to survive ground fire from British and South African troops.
Sent to Malta to refit, Decoy’s log had recorded 497 air raids when the destroyer HMS Maori, who was alongside Decoy, was bombed and blew up in French Creek. Alliston was so close to the epicentre of the explosion that most of the larger pieces of Maori flew over his head, but red hot rivets swept the bridge of Decoy like shotgun blast and he was blown off his feet and thrown twenty feet. His sensation was of being in a dark room and then the lights were suddenly switched on: despite a mist of oil which set his clothes on fire, and severe injuries to his chest and foot, Alliston backed Decoy out of the creek and anchored her in Bigi Bay, before allowing himself to be taken to hospital.
When recovered, Alliston commanded the destroyers HM Ships Foxhound, Janus and Javelin Mediterranean, and was then sent with the cruiser HMS Shropshire to the Pacific. Post war he commanded the destroyer HMS Urania in Japanese waters, where he was surprised how friendly the defeated enemy could be, and returning to Sydney he had the unusual experience of discovering a newly emerged volcanic island which he named Urania-shima.
Commanding the tank-landing ship HMS Ben Lomond after the war he took part in Operation Harness, a germ warfare experiment off the Caribbean island of Antigua, but increasingly Alliston wanted to ‘create things rather than destroy, and to be a true husband and parent instead of a sometimes one’.
In his autobiography, Alliston revealed his Hornblower-like character but does not mention that he was awarded the DSO, the DSC and bar, and the US Legion of Honour.
After the war Alliston sold everything to buy the five-square mile Three Hummock Island in the Bass Strait, thirty miles north of Tasmania, and tried for thirty three years to run this as a profitable farm. His Swiss Family Robinson existence ended only when the Tasmanian Government made the island a reserve and made Alliston and his wife its sole occupants and wardens.
Alliston, who died on May 31, 2004, married the beautiful and vivacious Eleanor Young in 1937: they were separated by war for three years and seven months. She died in 2003. They are survived by their two sons and two daughters, whose childhood on Three Hummock Island was recounted by Eleanor in two best-selling books, Escape to an Island (1966) and Island Affair (1984).
Bibliography: Destroyer Man by John Alliston (1985) Greenhouse Publications.