The Tobruk Run

WWII operations
RAN Ships
December 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

WHILE I WAS IN COMMAND of HMAS Vendetta in 1940-41, she ran a record number of trips to Tobruk. If my memory serves me right we went into that port no less than thirty-nine times during the period of its investment.

The main purpose of these trips was to take in badly needed stores such as ammunition, spare gun-barrels, medical supplies and mail, and bring out the wounded.

For a long period the ships of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla of which we were a unit did the run “solo”. The pattern was to leave Alexandria early in the morning after loading the night before and steam the 350 miles at high speed so as to arrive at Tobruk about midnight, unload stores and embark the wounded and depart a couple of hours later.

We then sped back at full speed to Mersa Matruh halfway along the coast towards Alexandria, put the wounded ashore there and sailed again in the afternoon with fresh stores for Tobruk, where we unloaded, embarked wounded and then sailed for Alexandria about 0200.

It was no picnic as you could imagine, as we were the target for bombers and submarines, to say nothing of mines and we had many a narrow escape.

After a number of these “solo” runs, it appeared to me that it was time we did the run in pairs, so as to be able to give one another support when attacked and in the event of one ship being hit, her consort could pick up survivors.

I pondered this idea for a while and one morning I went to see the Chief Staff Officer to the Rear-Admiral (Alexandria), who ran the port and gave us our sailing orders for work on the coast. I explained the situation to him and then heard a voice from over a partition say, “When you have finished tearing up my Chief of Staff, come in and see me.” “Who is that?” I said sotto voce. “The Admiral,” the Chief of Staff replied.

Well, in I went and he asked me who I was. I told him and repeated my plea to work the run in pairs. He said, “Are you frightened?” and I said, “My bloody oath I am at times, sir.” He laughed heartily, shook hands and said, “I will go and see the Commander-in-Chief.” This he did forthwith and from that day on we worked in pairs. That C-in-C was no fool.

Almost at once the scheme paid off. HMS Defender, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Gilbert Farnfield, RN and one of four RN destroyers in our 10th Flotilla sailed from Tobruk about 1 a.m. on the 11th July 1941. At about 0500 on the way back to Alexandria, somewhere off the coast north-east of Bardia, we were bombed. Defender’s back was broken and she lay helpless with her engine-room completely flooded.

I closed her, picking up one of her ship’s company, who had been blown overboard. He was very grateful. When I ranged up close alongside Defender and asked her Captain by megaphone how things were, he replied cheerfully, “Mustn’t grumble. Can you take me in tow?

I got on with the job, but hardly had I got her moving slowly towards Alexandria when we were attacked again. I had to slip the tow and engage the bomber. This went on all the forenoon. Tows parted and were replaced until we were down to towing her with just Defender’s cable directly on to our towing clench. This feat was achieved by backing the ship down stern first till Defender’s razor like bows were only a foot away, when my First Lieutenant, Lieutenant John Smallwood, RN (an Australian officer who had joined the RN and was on loan to the RAN), personally put the towing shackle on to our clinch. A remarkable feat of strength.

On we went dead slow and at last got her moving through the water at five knots. The Defender started to break up amidships. When I stopped I was dragged back by the heavy cable and had to go full speed ahead and part the cable otherwise I would have damaged my propellers on her sunken midships section, now well under water. It was the only cable I was to see part in my long naval career and it made a noise like a gun.

All that remained was to take off her passengers and crew, some of whom I had already embarked. We got the lot including the ship’s cat, so there we were with 650 men on board (many wounded), very little fuel and two halves of a ship to sink.

One torpedo and a few well placed rounds and down she went. We turned away and steamed for Alexandria.

Shortly after we got going I was intrigued to hear a sing-song had started up down aft, so I rang the Quarter deck and asked the First Lieutenant what all the merriment was about. He rang back and said the Defender had brought over four barrels of rum and had broached one. I told him to impound the lot and tell everyone we were far from out of the wood. I am glad to say my own ship’s company did not get involved. We kept it under lock and key till we had a short self-refit in Haifa when I had it issued to our chaps. Phew. It was strong stuff. My own tot, broken into three with ginger ale, put me to sleep for the afternoon.

With all of Defender’s ship’s company on board, we were very top-heavy and I had to put all hands below decks. We arrived in Alexandria with only ten tons of fuel left.

The Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham (later Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope) sent me the following signal, “Congratulations, well tried. Bad luck.” This incident confirmed the wisdom of working in pairs and many lives would have been lost if it had not been adopted.

In the official history of the Royal Australian Navy reference is made to the Vendetta and the Tobruk Run:

In all, the Australian destroyers made a total of 139 runs in and out of Tobruk during the period of the regular ‘Ferry’. Vendetta held the record with 39 individual passages into Tobruk, 11 from Alexandria and 9 from Mersa Matruh; and from Tobruk 8 to Alexandria and 11 to Mersa Matruh. From the end of May until the first week in August she was without intermission on the Tobruk shuttle service, and carried 1,532 troops to Tobruk; brought 2,951 away, including wounded and prisoners of war; and transported 616 tons of supplies into the port.”

Join the Society today

If you enjoyed this article, then why not take out your own subscription. The Review is published quarterly to all members of the Society. By joining the Society you will always have the latest copy on hand and well before it comes onto the web site.