- Stanton, Richard
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Vampire I, HMAS Stuart I, HMAS Voyager I
- September 1988 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In March we left Egypt with a convoy for Greece. While at sea we were advised that the Italian fleet had left harbour and were steaming to cut us off. We were ordered to reverse course for 24 hours and then resume original course. Meanwhile our battle fleet left harbour and assumed the position where our convoy should have been. This was the opening of the Battle of Matapan. Stuart was right in the middle of it. The Italian fleet was severely mauled – three battleships, two heavy cruisers and two supply ships were destroyed. We sailed on unmolested except from the air.
Very memorable were our arrivals at Malta with supply convoys. It was hard to get through with the slow merchant ships when aircraft from Italy could paste us every inch of the way. When we made it the Maltese ‘cleared lower deck’ to cheer us on. School children lined the shores of the harbour to sing to us. It brought tears to the eyes of many a war-hardened sailor.
We were bombed at sea and bombed in harbour. A sad night was when the Decoy, tied up at the next buoy to us in Alexandria harbour was hit. We rushed a lifeboat over to the sickening sight of mangled bodies. We attended the funeral of 11 of those sailors.
I recall a very strange and mysterious trip we made, though to this day I am not sure where. In the middle of the night and in complete silence a small yacht came alongside. We took on a passenger and headed out again fast. It was some time before we found that we had picked up the Premier of Yugoslavia.
It was on a trip to Greece that we got another definite U-boat kill. In the Gulf of Athens we attacked her twice before the shattered hull came to the surface and disappeared again.
By now we were being attacked by dive-bombers. There was little or no time to dodge the bombs. It was either shoot them down or be sunk. They called those Junkers 88s glide bombers. They glided like a dropped stone. There seemed little between them and the Stuka. Torpedo bombers harassed our every convoy and though we shot some down, some got through, leaving us to pick up survivors from the oil and wreckage.
Then came the evacuation of Greece. We carried as many men as could be fitted aboard while escorting other ships and fighting off aircraft and submarines. On arriving back in Egypt with one of these convoys, we once hoisted the Australian flag to the foremast and steamed back along the line of ships. When the troops realized that it was an Aussie ship which brought them back, they went wild.
Those cheering ODs of FND were now tired old men wondering how much longer our luck could hold out.
Now on to Libya. We escorted that grand old gunboat Terror to Bardia where she casually shelled everything that moved. However, she wanted to find the coastal batteries, so sent Vampire in closer as bait. They were to fire at the gunflashes when the batteries opened up. It was an eerie feeling going in alone to draw enemy fire. When we were less than three miles from the cliffs shells suddenly began to scream all round us. How could so many guns miss us? Terror, true to their promise, now began firing. It was deadly accurate fire as they blew away gun after gun until the cliff top was silent. Such accuracy with 15 inch guns was difficult to believe. We continued our charmed life even though now attacked by bombers and torpedo bombers trying to sink this damaging gunboat. One torpedo passed below Vampire.
Next Vampire and Stuart were sent to Tobruk. Our job was to stop the Italian heavy cruiser San Georgio from leaving harbour. Two gnats sent to attack a fly swatter. She had both 10 inch and 3.9 inch guns. During the night we saw a black shape sneaking out from the harbour. In we went to attack. It was NOT the San Georgio, but an Italian schooner. We took the 36 men aboard prisoner and sank their vessel expecting return fire from Tobruk harbour. The following night the RAF pounded Tobruk and then our Fleet arrived and finished the job. The army moved in and captured Tobruk and we were able to enter harbour – the first Australian ship to do so. The sight was staggering. There lay what was left of the San Georgio and there a wrecked submarine – everywhere parts of sunken ships showing above water. The town was just as badly battered – a mess. The harbour entrance had been mined of course. Leaving the harbour later and picking our way through the mines, we heard a ship astern blow up. We had just passed that spot moments before. We had met the delayed magnetic or acoustic mine designed to blow up ships in the middle of the line after the escort or sweepers had passed by.
In this period Vampire suffered her second casualty. A young stoker watching an air raid from the break in the forecastle was machined gunned by an attacking aircraft and died in hospital. Now the reverses in Libya began. When the troops fell back Tobruk and the famous Siege of Tobruk began, Vampire was one of the destroyers engaged in running the blockade to keep them supplied and reinforced. We called it the ‘spud run’. The system was to load food, ammunition, mail and Army personnel overnight and leave early in the morning. We arrived in Tobruk at night before moonrise and frantically unloaded the lot, then took as many badly wounded soldiers as could be fitted on the decks.
It was necessary to clear the harbour before the moon rose or we would be seen and shelled by the German gunners. They sometimes did shell the place while we were there just on suspicion. On the return journey we all spent our time off watch tending the wounded. We seldom had much for ourselves. What we had not given to the men in Tobruk we gave to these wounded. It was natural. Waterhen was sunk while carrying out these same duties. One night I went to the hospital to visit some of the soldiers. When the nurses found I was from Vampire I was taken to their canteen, told that my money was no good there and was given food, drink, cigarettes etc. Then they took me out on the town for the evening. The soldiers had told them their story.
Vampire was the first of the remaining destroyers to leave the Mediterranean. In dire need of a refit, we sailed for Singapore. In what seemed to be a fitting farewell, we were stripped of all AA guns and ammunition and left with twelve rounds of 4 inch SAP shells. Then we were warned to watch out for a German raider known to be in the Indian Ocean.
Arriving Singapore, we turned Vampire over to the dockyard and more of us came home in a Dutch passenger vessel. After such an outstanding war record, it was sad to hear that Vampire had been sunk by the Japanese in the Bay of Bengal and never did make it home.