(By E. Dwyer Gray, Sydney.)

It is, of course, fairly well known that the war tank was really a Western Australian invention. Those who would like to know the details of the occurrences in connection with Corporal Lancelot E. de Mole’s travelling caterpillar fort, will find them set out in the current issue of the “Australian Motor Owner,” which gives the whole story. The magazine does not, however, print the text of a certain striking letter from Perth, addressed to the British Minister for War on September 19, 1914. This not only informed the British Minister for War that the archives of its own department contained the plans for a perfect war tank, but foretold what tanks could do, exactly two years before the inferior Somme tanks appeared so belatedly on the battlefields. This letter is now made available for publication for the first time, and reads as follows:

“The question of armaments being of paramount importance to armies engaged in this great war, may I suggest your placing the plans, specifications, and model, submitted by Mr. Lancelot de Mole in 1912, before a committee of experts, with a view to the adoption of travelling forts against the German forces In my humble opinion no deadlier or more efficient war engine could be used than de Mole’s caterpillar fort, which can travel over broken ground, climb embankments., span canals, streams and trenches with the greatest of ease, and which, if armoured and manned with small quick-firing guns and maxims, will quickly turn the most stubborn of armies, even if they be most strongly entrenched.

A line of moving fortresses – no dreamer’s fancy, but an idea which can be actually materialised – adequately support- ed by artillery, will carry everything before it, and save the infantry. I sincerely trust that you will appreciate the value of my suggestion. Should you require the services of Mr. L. de Mole kindly request the Western Australian Government to communicate with Mr. H. J. Anketell, resident engineer, Department of Public Works, Perth – Yours, etc., G. W. D. Breadon.”

Mr. Breadon was a civil engineer by profession. He was a man of repute and capacity, and shortly after writing this remarkable letter he became a Commissioner for Munitions in India. The letter had no effect whatever. Apparently it went into the same sort of pigeonhole as de Mole’s plans in 1912. Today it accuses the British Minister for War in 1914, or his agents, and the accusation, though it has a particular application to 1914, goes back to 1912.

Some Tragic Questions.

Here observe that on November 17. 1919, a British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, presided over by   Mr. Justice Sargant, declared:- “De Mole made, and reduced to practical shape, as far back as the year 1912, a very brilliant lank invention, which anticipated, and in some respects surpassed, that actually put into use late in 1916. Counsel for the Minister for Munitions specifically admitted: ”De Mole’s suggestions would, in the opinion of present advisers, have made a better article than those that went into action.” The Chairman said to him: ”Your suggestion is sent to the Government in 1912 and 1915. Then it gets pigeonholed. That is your misfortune, but not your fault.” But what about his country’s misfortune and the calamitous consequences to mankind? How much would the war have been shortened if Britain had possessed tanks from the beginning? Would there have been any retreat from Mons? Would the war ever have become static? Millions of men may have perished on account of this ineptitude, which in fact prolonged the war for years. Even if the British   Minister for War, or his agents, had acted promptly and with sense when Breadon’s striking letter reached London in October, 1914, the whole history of the war would have been altered, and huge savings would have been effected in human lives. Dead men tell no tales, but live ones can – and this is one of them. It is time to abolish pigeonholes and to substitute searchlights.

Churchill’s Historic Letter.

On January 5, 1915, Mr. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote his historic letter to Mr. Asquith (of “Wait and see” fame) on the subject of mechanical warfare. In this he remarked:- “The question to be now solved is not the long attack over a carefully prepared glacis of former times, but the actual getting across of   100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements. All this was apparent more than two months ago, but no steps have been taken and no preparation made. Yet it would be quite easy to fit up tractors with armoured shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet proof. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machines would destroy all wire entanglements. These engines could . . . advance into enemy trenches, smash   all obstructions, and sweep the trenches with their machine gun fire.”

Mr. Winston Churchill began his practical tank activities after a Dukes’ dinner on February 15, 1915, when Major Hetherington and others suggested rolling cars, with wheels the size of the Great Wheel at Earl’s Court, but the above letter shows that he had received inspiration before that date. At the moment he wrote his historic letter his colleague, the Minister for War, or his agents, had Breadon’s letter locked away and ignored, whilst somewhere else in the War Office reposed plans for a perfect war tank travelling on the cater- pillar system on a chain track of steel plates. It was only after spending mil- lions on the secret evolution of an inferior type of tank that “Mother” and its adaptation appeared 0n the battlefields in September, 1916.

The Birth of the Tank.

The standard work on these subjects is “Tanks, 1914-18,” by Sir Albert Stern, long Director of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, and an original member of Mr. Winston Churchill’s celebrated Landship Committee of 1915, so detested by the War Office that it refused to give it the accommodation of an un-tenanted room. Britain owed even, the Somme tanks, not to the War Office and the military authorities, who consistently ridiculed and opposed all ideas of landships or tanks, but to the grit, the commonsense, the courage, and the driving force of Sir Albert Stern, and the Naval Department. In his book Sir Albert Stern writes:- “Mr. d’Eyncourt turned down a proposed truck of Balata belting, and once more our hopes sank. Then on September 22 (1915) I received the following telegram from Lincoln: ‘To Stern, Room 59, 83 Pall Mall. Balata died on the test bench yesterday morning. New arrival by Tritton out of pressed plate. Light in weight, but very strong. All doing well, thank you. – Proud Parents.’ That was the birth of the tank.”

That statement is what Mr. Winston Churchill once described as a terminological inexactitude, only in the sense that it is historically untrue. The curious telegram of September 22, 1915, signed “Proud Parents,” was not the birth of the tank. It was only the birth of “Mother” and its adaptations. The birth of the tank took place in Western Australia in 1912. But Sir Albert Stern is not to blame. He did not know de Mole’s story when he wrote his book. That the Director of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department should never have heard of de Mole’s tank is, however, just one of those mysteries which should have been probed and never was. De Mole’s plans were not merely received and then pigeonholed. They were, on the contrary, examined, and deliberately rejected at least three times – once before the war and twice during the war, or, to be exact, in 1913, 1916, and 1918. There was also Breadon’s letter of September, 1914, and a working model one-eighth of the natural size, which did no more in London than the plans and was eventually found in what the London Press of 1919 described as “the neglected cellar of a Government department.” In 1916 de Mole’s tank was rejected by the Advisory Committee of Scientific Experts. They must have displayed some expert science to keep Sir Albert Stern ignorant of the fact that there was anything of the kind on the planet. But that he was ignorant of the existence of de Mole’s tank can be accepted as sure.

The Royal Commission of 1919 paid a high tribute to the driving force of Mr. Winston Churchill, and probably he deserved it. But no tribute was paid to the driving force of Sir Albert Stern, who deserved it more, and was his teacher about tanks. It is regrettable to have to add that on October 16, 1917. Mr. Winston Churchill weakly dismissed Sir Albert Stern from the Directorship of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, at the bidding of British Generals, whoso stupidity in connection with tanks he had dared to oppose and expose: appointed Admiral Moore in his place, who up to the date of his appointment had never even seen a tank, and actually referred Sir Albert Stern to America for a proper development of tanks on a large scale. But it is now a matter of history that Sir Albert Stern won through in the end.

De Mole’s Ideal Tank.        

De Mole’s tank was intended to be 37 ft. long, with a wheel base of 25ft, travelling on a caterpillar track of steel plates. It had a double climbing face, and consequently could have reversed over the roughest battlefields, which the Somme tanks could not. It would have crossed a 16ft trench with ease, either forwards or backwards. It had a high underbody clearance to prevent bogging.

The chain track was fully protected, travelling inside the armour instead of over the top. The Somme tanks were very imperfectly steered by moving the chain track faster on one side than the other, which imposed a strict limitation in length, or they could not be steered at all. ln de Mole’s tank perfect steering was secured, for the chain track could be moved laterally, thus causing it to conform lo curves. This meant that there was no limitation to length, except that imposed by weight, and the   horse-power of the motor engine used. At least three times de Mole offered his brilliant invention to his country for nothing, and it was refused. It is terrible to think what might have occurred If de Mole had been a man of the same type as Grindell Mathews. When in June, 1913, the Director-General of Artillery, wrote to him finally from the War Office, London, definitely declining the invention, and stating “it is not proposed to proceed with the matter,” some of de Mole’s friends suggested to him that he should take copies of his plans to the German Consul in Perth. All was peace, but de Mole said he would have no truck with any foreign Government.

What even the Somme tanks and their developments actually did in the war need not be stressed here. They were one of the chief factors in the final victory of the Allies. Lord Kitchener had no time for them. As Sir Albert Stern says. He was too busy even to look at the first efforts at construction. The chairman of the alleged Australian Inventions Board, sitting in Adelaide during the war was also too busy even to look at de Mole’s plans. Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig supported Stern. When the tanks appeared at Delville Wood and other Somme battlefields in September 1916, he wrote: “We take our objectives where the tanks advance. Where they do not advance we do not take our objectives.” In May, 1917, he wrote: “The tanks are wonderful life-savers.” A British private wrote: “Before the tanks came the dead used to be strewn in front of the German gun emplacements like birds before a butt with a good shot inside. Now these tank things just walkthrough.”

The 1919 Tank Awards.

The British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors accorded the Australian credit and commiseration, to which a grateful Empire added later the sustaining letters, “C. B. E.” To the contrivers of an inferior tank they allotted £15,000 in cash. But the Commissioners had no choice. They were tied by the terms of their appointment, and could make awards only for “tanks actually used by a Government department” – that is, for “Mother” and its adaptations, or to those who could show, “A casual connection” between their conceptions and those Contrivances. The Somme tank awardees were Sir E. H. W. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, Sir W. Tritton, Major Wilson, Lieut. McFie, and Mr. S. Newfield. A certified verbatim report of the Commission proceedings at Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster, on November 3, 1919, shows that two of these Somme awardees had, whilst controlling official positions, offered criticisms of de Mole’s tank, which “he felt he could not properly put forward to the Commission as being a reasoned and proper report on the position as it then was”, since “the criticisms contained in that report are criticism, which I am advised are not justified.”

De Mole’s Other Activities.

De Mole conceived his great tank idea or travelling caterpillar fort, while engaged in the organisation of heavy transport work in the South-Western part of Western Australia in 1911, and he first sent his plans to the British War Office in 1912. Caterpillar traction was already known, the celebrated American   Holt tractor being then on the scene. But the steering was awkward, and this was part of de Mole’s triumph. He made perfect steering quite easy. The Holt story is another instance of the ineptitude of the British authorities on some important occasions. They gave to America for nothing plans for which they had paid a prize, and which they were exceedingly glad to use on generous re- turn. In 1902 de Mole invented au automatic telephone similar in operation to that now in use, but the postal authorities would not even give it a trial. The model of his rejected war tank can be seen at the Melbourne War Museum. The British Museum wanted to buy it, but characteristically the Australian soldier refused to sell it, and presented it to the Australian War Museum as a gift. Just now de Mole is a resident of Cremorne, Sydney, and is working out two big ideas in connection with heavy traffic. In six months’ time every city in Australia is likely to know all about them, and the country, too. He is a civil engineer by profession, like his father, who is a citizen of Adelaide. His great-great-grand-father was the eminent engineer, Henry Maudesly, who invented the marine engine, etc.

A generous-minded man. Lancelot de Mole makes no grievance of his wrongs. But the mourning millions will never know what his wrongs cost the world in human lives, or how many of the dead, including 60,000 splendid Australians, would have been saved if the British War Office had been wise in time. The man actually responsible for the pigeon- holing of the Australian corporal’s tank plans in 1912 and the definite rejection of June, 1913, was the man who prolonged the war for years. Who was he?




Australian Submarine – HMAS AE2

The loss of HMAS AE2 in Turkish waters was the final blow for the Australian submarine fleet after its sister sub AE1 had been lost while patrolling off New Guinea in 1914. The wreck of the AE2 was found by divers in 1998. AWM

Undeterred by the failure of British submarines to penetrate the Dardanelles, Lieutenant Harry Stoker, front row centre, bravely steered his little HMAS AE2 submarine through to the Sea of Marmara, aiming to torpedo enemy ships transporting Turkish reinforcements to Gallipoli. AWM

It was 25 April 1915 when this battle got under way-the same day Anzac troops landed on the western beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula. The troops planned to attack Constantinople (Istanbul) overland fighting their way up this peninsula, but there was also a sea route to Constantinople along the Dardanelles Strait between the peninsula and the mainland which passes through the Narrows and into the wider Sea of Marmara.

HMAS AE2 was bravely trying to help with that bloody battle by sneaking around the eastern side of the same peninsula, attacking the Turks from the rear by destroying transports before they could ferry more troops across the Sea of Marmara and also distracting any warships shelling Allied troops landing on those beaches.

The hazardous mission was directed by top British naval officers anxious to stab Turkey in the back. Admiral John de Robeck told Stoker that if AE2 got through, then `there is nothing we will not do for you’. Stoker was ordered to sink any mine-laying ships he saw in the Narrows and, as the landings were due at dawn the next day, to `generally run amok’ around Cannakale to cause maximum disruption to the Turks.

It was a tall order and a dangerous one for a tiny submarine and inexperienced crew in the narrow confines of enemy-infested waters.

Leaving her base near the mouth of the Dardanelles, AE2 started early so she could reach the entrance to the mighty waterway at 2.30 a. m. under cover of darkness. At first AE2 was able to sail along on the surface under cover of darkness, sailing between the land either side where lights could be seen from fortifications, streets and the homes of Turkish families. Stoker noted that the moon had just set and searchlights played across the dark waters, but: `As the order to run amok in the Narrows precluded all possibility of making the passage unseen, I decided to hold on the surface as far as possible’.

Then, at 4.30 a. m., about the same time as the first of the Anzacs landed on the beaches under fire from the Turks, the enemy guarding the Dardanelles spotted the sub. Stoker said `a gun opened fire at about one and a half miles [2-kilometre] range . . . I immediately dived and . . . proceeded through the minefield’.

So far so good. AE2 dodged that first enemy fire and sailed submerged, covering an impressive 10 kilometres of the 60-kilometre channel. It got lighter until by 6 a. m. AE2 reached Chanak, the narrowest part of the strait, and Stoker saw the first target he could `run amok’ with-the Turkish gunboat Peyk I Sevket. There might have been enemy ships all around him, but Stoker coolly lined up the Turkish boat, fired off a torpedo and hit the bull’s-eye before escaping.

The Turks, alerted to the immediate presence of a deadly submarine in their midst, now hunted AE2 in earnest. Forts on either side sprang into action. Heavy fire opened up from Fort Chemenlik at Cannakale and from Kilitbahir on the other side of the Narrows, while gunboats and destroyers criss-crossed the surface.

Luckily the shore batteries were too far away for accurate shooting, but in the excitement Stoker ran his submarine aground directly under a Turkish fort, which luckily was unable to lower its guns to range on AE2. After four anxious minutes exposed on the surface, the submarine worked itself off the shore while shells fell all around it, and slid back into deeper water.

Stoker immediately submerged and continued bravely weaving his way through a web of lines tethering the mines that filled the waters of the Dardanelles, trying not to hit the bottom but nevertheless grounding from time to time, and bouncing towards the surface now and then, yet making steady progress towards the Sea of Marmara.

Soon after another grounding and a return towards the surface, Stoker realised he had passed through the Narrows successfully-but he was surrounded by enemy ships.

When his periscope was sighted by a Turkish battleship firing over the peninsula at British positions, there was only one thing he could do: dive to the bottom.

By this stage many Turkish ships were on the lookout for AE2. They could not find the submarine’s position when it was submerged and it could attack only when it surfaced. On the other hand, submarines passing through the Dardanelles needed to surface frequently to take accurate bearings from landmarks, otherwise they risked running aground. Feeling he had sufficient data for his course, Stoker now headed the AE2 down the straits past Nara Burnu at some depth before he risked further observations at periscope depth.

Coming back up once more, Stoker saw they were well past the Narrows, but the Turks saw him too and the chase resumed. Diving deep again, the next time AE2 surfaced Stoker saw straight ahead two Turkish tugboats with a cable stretched between them to catch the submarine’s conning tower.

Stoker took AE2 to the bottom and settled the vessel there with engines off. They did not have enough power left in the batteries to get through to the Sea of Marmara, and recharging them would require running on the surface under diesel power.

It was 8.30 a. m. on 25 April 1915. As the Anzacs tried to advance up the cliffs of Gallipoli, these sailors of the Royal Australian Navy were almost through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara where they could really have a go at Johnny Turk.

Stoker spent the rest of that first Anzac Day sitting on the bottom, hoping the ships searching for him would give up. It was Sunday so, at about the time most Christians would have been going to church back home, Stoker held prayers then gave the crew a chance to sleep.

Overhead they could hear the Turks looking for them and later something being towed from the surface hit the side of the vessel. Leaks were bringing significant amounts of water into the bilges and this water, if pumped out, could reveal their position because it contained large amounts of oil. All day the crew worked carrying water to other parts of the submarine.

At 9 p. m. Stoker finally brought AE2 back to the surface, where he saw his strategy of laying low and hiding had paid off-no enemy ships were in sight. They had spent more than sixteen hours under water. The air become so stale in the submarine that a match would not burn for more than a fraction of a second.

The crew were hurried up top for gulps of fresh air and Stoker restarted the diesel engines, moving ahead to charge the batteries.

Travelling through the night and against all odds, Stoker and his crew made it through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara by the early hours of Monday 26 April-a major breakthrough. The AE2’s wireless operator repeatedly beamed a message back to the invasion fleet to say they had made it through the Narrows and were into the Sea of Marmara, but no answer was received and AE2 ran on into the night.

Unknown to Stoker, AE2’s message had been heard and news of the submarine’s success conveyed to the top commanders. After the war Stoker was told by Admiral Roger Keys of the morale-boosting effect of the news, as General Sir Ian Hamilton (Commander-in- Chief, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) had been pondering whether to evacuate the Anzacs. Charles Bean noted in his diary that news of AE2’s breakthrough arrived at headquarters on Gallipoli at about 2.30 a. m. on 26 April 1915. An Australian soldier ashore on that night also said later that the following message was posted at Gallipoli: `Australian sub AE2 just through the Dardanelles. Advance Australia’. It was indeed a great morale booster.

Now the excited Stoker planned to claim a few scalps. From the morning of 26 April and for the next few days, AE2 hunted for Turkish ships in the southern Sea of Marmara. She may not have run amok, but she certainly made her presence felt and deeply rattled the Turks.

AE2 boldly sailed along on the surface, with Turkish fishing boats all around, as Stoker set out to deter Turkish shipping from sailing out south through the Dardanelles with reinforcements for Gallipoli. At one point the cunning Stoker even took AE2 back below the top reaches of the Dardanelles then travelled up through them again with his periscope up, trying to convince the Turks that yet another submarine had broken through the Narrows.

It is a pity Australia’s original fleet of two subs was not still together. AE1 had been lost off New Guinea the previous year.

Just after he tried to create the impression there was another sub with him and just when things were getting too hot, a second Allied boat did arrive. Inspired by Stoker, the British submarine E14, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Edward Boyle, had also got through the gauntlet of the Dardanelles and now joined AE2 to help attack enemy shipping.

Stoker and his men were greatly relieved to see friendly faces:

Five days, about, had passed since we had entered the Dardanelles, vouched for by our experiences, the only true recorders of time’s every varying flight. As one by one the five days had slipped by, the habit of thinking we were alone became so ingrained that realisation of the reverse brought very pleasant surprise. 

The two sub captains agreed to run amok together the next day. With double the strength they could really hope to claim some scalps, but next day, 30 April, the torpedo-boat Sultan Hissar, with a gunboat in support, spotted AE2 and forced Stoker to dive as quickly and as deeply as possible.

Then something went wrong and AE2 began to rise uncontrollably, surfacing with its bow sticking out of the water less than 2 kilometres from the torpedo-boat. The submarine had hit swirling patches of denser water that caused it to lose its capacity to stay in balance.

An alarmed Stoker tried to dive again, but AE2 was still out of control and headed well below its maximum permitted depth. There was now the danger it would be crushed by the weight of water, so Stoker ordered full speed astern and blew air into his main ballast tanks. AE2 responded, and this time her stern broke the surface in full view of the Turkish torpedo-boat.

The Sultan Hissar immediately launched a torpedo, which hit and blasted a hole in AE2’s engine room.

Stoker had hoped to use his sub to ram the enemy, but that was now out of the question and he decided to surrender. He ordered his crew on deck immediately, telling them to scramble on board the Sultan Hissar alongside, then scuttled AE2 before the Turks could stop him.

`Within seconds the engine room was hit and holed in three places’, Stoker noted.

Owing to inclination by the bow, it was impossible to see the torpedo boat through the periscope and I considered an attempt to ram would be useless. I therefore blew the main ballast and ordered all hands on deck. Assisted by Lieutenant [Geoffrey] Haggard, I then went round opening all tanks to flood the sub. [Lieutenant John] Cary, on the bridge, watched the rising water to give warning in time for our escape. But then came a shout from him-`Hurry, sir, she’s going down’. As I reached the bridge the water was about two feet from the top of the conning tower. 

Stoker got out in the nick of time and, as he boarded the Sultan Hissar, he had the satisfaction of watching his sub sink to the bottom in 55 fathoms. He had done his duty as every captain wished to do on surrendering, cheating the enemy out of taking his vessel as a prize.

The AE2 went down at 10.45 a. m. on 30 April 1915, sliding to the bottom of the Sea of Marmara about 6 kilometres north of Kara Burnu.

Although the Turks herded him and his crew off to a prisoner-of-war camp for the rest of the war-at least none of them had died in this battle.

An Anzac Dunkirk I

Anzacs and Greek soldiers sharing a drink before the onslaught of the German military machine.

Overwhelmed by Hitler’s blitzkrieg on mainland Greece and evacuated by ship to Crete, British and Anzac forces joined Cretan soldiers to defend the island.

With the Germans astride the line of retreat at Corinth, the retiring defenders comprised widely separated forces, the main part of which was Allen Force, along with large concentrations of base troops, south of Argos. The last remaining rearguards were in the pass above the town of Kriekouri, where Puttick’s 4 NZ Brigade stood sentinel, supported by the irrepressible 2/3rd Field Regiment, and at Patras, where the remnants of 1st Armoured Brigade still held the left flank route to Athens. On news of events at Corinth, Freyberg ordered Puttick to pull out so as to be ready to embark from the Athens beaches the following night, 27 April. This movement was not affected without pressure from the Germans — New Zealand and Australian artillery engaged a German column advancing on the 4 NZ Brigade from 11.00 a.m. — and an artillery duel followed from 1.00 p.m. Once again, the Anzac artillery provided the shield behind which the infantry got away. Puttick’s men embussed at 9.00 p.m. and drove south, blowing bridges behind them as they went. The 1st Armoured Brigade did the same, assembling at Patras and moving back from 2.00 p.m. on 26 April. Wilson chose this dreadful moment in the campaign to leave Greece, blithely informing Freyberg that he would be flying out that night, which he duly did aboard a flying boat departing from Miloi. Thus, by the evening of 26 April, Freyberg was the only general officer still in Greece, despite the urgent need to snatch upwards of 20,000 remaining troops from the clutches of the Germans.

While Wilson got away safely, the embarkation effort reached a critical phase. On the night of 26 April, evacuations were mounted from three sites: the beaches of Athens, where a big artillery group waited at Porto Rafti, and the 1st Armoured Brigade reached Rafina; the Argos beaches; and Kalamata, where Allen Group was ready to get away. West of Athens, things did not go completely to plan — loading at Porto Rafti was delayed while a vital landing craft recovered men deposited on an outlying island, forcing the British 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 2 Royal Horse Artillery to move onto Rafina. The proud hope of the British gunners that they could lift off their guns and heavy equipment proved far too ambitious, and all their gear had to be abandoned. Focusing strictly on recovering personnel, the troopships Glengyle and Salween were loaded and away by 2.00 a.m., and the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and destroyers Kingston and Kandahar embarked another 2720 troops. Even so, Brigadier Charrington (the CO of 1st Armoured Brigade) and his headquarters, elements of the 1/Rangers, and parts of the 102 Anti-Tank Regiment were left behind at Rafina.

Further south, untold disaster befell the men who embarked from Navplion. Plans there were first compromised by the loss of the amphibious ship Glenearn, which was bombed on approach. Badly damaged, she had to be towed back to Suda Bay and then to Alexandria. The destroyers hoping to enter the port to load troops could not then get past the gutted Ulster Prince, still stuck fast in the channel. Small boats therefore had to be used to shift the troops out to the ships waiting in the open sea, but a choppy swell was running so strongly that it washed men overboard, several of whom drowned. With loading delayed on this account, the ships did not leave until 4.30 a.m. — perilously late to evade the inevitable air attacks — carrying 2600 troops, but leaving another 1700 ashore.

Included among those left behind were the men of the Australian Reinforcement Battalion, who were advised to move down the coast to Tolos to await a further embarkation effort, which they did. Those carried away were mostly base troops, but they included the greater part of the remaining personnel of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment. These men had bravely crewed the medium tanks that had fought at Ptolemain and Domokos, and they deserved a better fate. The troopship Slamat, having defied orders to sail at the hour needed to escape the Luftwaffe, was caught and sunk at 7.30 a.m. In company with Slamat was another troopship, the Khedive Ismail, which was defended by an anti-aircraft detachment provided by men due to join the 2/8th Battalion as reinforcements from the base camp at Julius, Palestine. Manning machine-guns on the deck of the Khedive Ismail, the Australians had a horrifyingly close view of the attack on the Slamat. After five Stukas were beaten off, they recorded that

[a] sixth machine delivered a surprise attack from the sun scoring a hit with a very heavy bomb in superstructure beneath bridge of the ship just above the rail. All forward superstructure wrecked including bridge and A. A. fire ceased immediately.

The stricken Slamat hove to, and the destroyers Wryneck and Diamond took off survivors before the blazing troopship was sent to the bottom by torpedo. They, in turn, were attacked by strafing fighters that silenced the gun crews, before Junkers 88s pounded them with heavy bombs. Diamond was hit once, and then for a second time:

[The bomb] went down into the after end of the engine-room, and the explosion brought the after mast and funnel crashing to the deck and hurled a score of soldiers overboard. Steam gushed in all direction and geysers of scalding water poured down on the wounded men and the sailors fighting to launch [the life rafts.]

Wryneck was also hit, ‘her port side forward blown in by a bomb which reduced the stoker’s mess, filled with soldiers and ratings, to a shambles of dead and mutilated men’. Both destroyers sank within minutes. From them and the Slamat, just one naval officer, 41 ratings, and eight soldiers were rescued.

Earlier in the night at nearby Tolos, the Australian destroyer Stuart, under the command of Waller, did mighty work on her own to bring succour to the troops. Waller had already distinguished himself in the command of British destroyers along the Libyan coast during O’Connor’s successful offensive from December to January, and then at the Battle of Matapan. His reputation as one of the best Australian naval commanders in the war was confirmed that dark night off the Greek coast. Pridham Wippell, in his flagship Orion, had sailed to Navplion in company with Perth, to be what help he could there, while he sent Stuart on to Tolos. There, Waller found more than 3000 troops ashore, and the prospect of removing them was complicated by a sandbar in the channel to the tiny port, on which the only available landing craft became repeatedly stuck. Undeterred, Waller patiently loaded Stuart to the gunwales, and then sailed in search of Orion to transfer troops and free his decks up for more — signalling to Pridham-Wippell, as he did so, that further help was required. In response, Perth was sent to Waller’s aid and, thanks to his calm but resolute leadership, 2000 troops were embarked from Tolos by the time the warships departed at 4.00 a.m. Even so, 1300 were left ashore, with more to come from those moving south from Navplion.

At Kalamata, the southern-most embarkation point, between 18,000 and 20,000 troops had assembled by the evening of 26 April. One third of these comprised Allen Group, and the Australian brigadier in command insisted that his fighting men take priority in the evacuation over base troops. This hard military calculation was implemented by dividing the conglomeration of men into four groups: Allen Force itself; all troops north-east of the town under the command of the British regular soldier, Colonel M. D. B. Lister; those who’d arrived by train, under Major Pemberton; and a fourth group of all other ranks, led by the camp commandant on the staff of Brigadier L. Parrington, the British officer in charge of the port. Within these groups, men were organised into batches of 50, and a serial number was then allocated to each of these multiples.

In retrospect, these arrangements read as a model of organisation, but on the ground the experience was less orderly. Don Stephenson and his platoon of the 2/6th Battalion got to Kalamata by a process of circumnavigation:

We had to take up a new position, and a captain marched us up and down these hills. We were footsore already, so when we came to a little village with a crystal-clear mountain stream, the officers wanting us to move on, we refused until we washed our feet. Anyway we get to this new position, and it’s right next to where we started.

Finally reaching Kalamata and resting in the olive trees, the Australians were given little rest by the ubiquitous Messerschmitts. One twin-engined Bf 110 heavy fighter strafed Stephenson’s position and, as it passed over, the rear gunner threw out an object — down fluttered a toilet roll to help the Australians deal with their nerves. ‘At least he had a sense of humour,’ recalled Stephenson.

By this stage, laughter was rare, because the ultimate tragedy of the campaign was now hitting home to soldiers and Greek civilians alike. As Stephenson and his tired comrades tramped through Kalamata, an old lady came out and offered him a piece of chicken. Immediately struck by the nobility of her offer, he recalled his embarrassment later: ‘All you’re worried about is getting out, and she’s trying to give you this bit of chicken.’

Also on his way to Kalamata was Bill Jenkins and the 2/3rd Battalion. He remembered going past a farm house where another elderly woman stood by with a tray of cake, and little glasses of ouzo and wine, as tokens of appreciation for the Australians. ‘She was crying her eyes out,’ recalled Jenkins who, with his comrades, accepted the offering and assured her, ‘Don’t worry, Ma, we’ll be back.’ That night, when Bill Jenkins finally managed to get aboard a troopship, it dawned on him that their bravado was hollow. As he and his comrades gained the deck in the darkness, carrying what weapons they could, and grabbing hold of comforting cups of strong, sweet tea from the ship’s crew, someone remarked, ‘We won’t be coming back.’ Jenkins realised then the bitter truth of it, and what the Greek civilians who had welcomed them so warmly might now be facing.

As the Kalamata evacuation approached its critical phase, the Australian and British officers were gravely concerned that a collapse in discipline might result in disaster. Parrington issued an order of the day demanding that ‘the highest standard of discipline be observed in accordance with Imperial traditions’. Allen went further — he bluntly ordered his provosts to shoot any man who fired a shot, lit a fire, or panicked.

By these drastic measures, 8000 men were loaded onto ships off Kalamata on the night of 26 April — the largest single effort of the entire evacuation. Inevitably, within this overall success, misfortunes still befell some men. Confusion over the destruction of the Australian motor transport led Allen to leave behind some staff officers to supervise the work and the later embarkation of those still ashore performing it. Parts of the 2/1st Field Regiment also remained ashore when the ships pulled out, including its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harlock. Years later, Bill Jenkins attended a public meeting, to find an artillery officer talking about Greece. As all good artillerymen would, the gunner lamented having spiked his guns, and went on to recount how he had waited for hours on the quay at Kalamata for the number of his group to be called. Brigadier Allen, however, had given priority to his infantry; so, when a ragged group of infantry came along, they were given preference to the artillery officer and his unit. No sooner were the infantry aboard than the gangplank was pulled up and the gunners were left behind, to face four long years as prisoners of war. On hearing this recollection, Jenkins, the last aboard, knew immediately that it had been him leading that final section of infantrymen. Such was the narrow and arbitrary difference between rescue and captivity.

For those who did get away, evacuation still meant facing the gauntlet thrown down by the Luftwaffe. In order to concentrate his firepower, Pridham-Wippell ordered all the ships from the night’s embarkations to concentrate north of Crete. With Suda Bay, hitherto used as a staging post but now dangerously overcrowded, the British Admiral hoped that this large convoy, codenamed GA.14, would then proceed directly to Alexandria. In this, he was only partly successful, thanks to the efforts of the German bombers. Apart from its strong contingent of warships, GA.14 comprised the troopships Glengyle, Salween, Khedive Ismail, Dilwarra, City of London, and Costa Rica.

The Dilwarra carried among others the 2/3rd Battalion, including the battalion transport officer Frank Reid and the young Bill Jenkins. Reid spent Anzac Day at Kalamata destroying gear and transport. He recalled, ‘[We were] dog tired, we hadn’t had a sleep for a week.’ Once aboard, going out to the Dilwarra via the destroyer Hero, Reid got orders from Battalion CO Jimmy Lamb to organise a makeshift anti-aircraft defence. By this stage of the campaign, relations between Lamb and Reid, were tense indeed, soured by the long and unnecessary march back from Veria. When the young officer received the order to mount his Bren guns for anti-aircraft work, he told Lamb he would get to it eventually, and received the frosty reply, ‘Immediately.’ Too tired to argue, Reid repaired to a spare cabin, and bribed an Indian ship’s steward with one half of a pound note, and the promise of the other half if the steward woke him up at first light. The Indian dutifully obliged, but could only rouse Reid from his deep slumber by determined means — ‘When I awoke, I was seated on the edge of the bunk. He had me by the ears and was vigorously shaking my head from side to side.’ The Australian subaltern, after weeks in the field, found the accompanying breakfast of poached eggs, hot buttered toast, and fresh tea easily justified the second half of the pound note.

Sustained by his cooked breakfast, Reid collected his ‘ack ack’ platoon and climbed up to the boat deck, which he found ‘nice and clear’ of obstructions and thus well-suited to his purpose. With their four Brens lashed in place, Reid and his platoon sergeant scoured the boat for other weapons; but, when the first Stukas arrived, few gunners had answered the call. As the screaming Junkers fell upon the convoy, suddenly ‘Bren guns came on deck from everywhere’, and the Australians set up to fight it out. Before long, Reid had 27 Bren guns under command, and he directed these by ordering that they all take their firing cue from the forward port gun — ‘When it fired, all would fire, but neither sooner nor later.’ The young lieutenant found the Dilwarra quickly singled out by six dive-bombers ‘circling like Indians in the movies’, and directed his gunners to aim ‘a hand’s distance in front’ to estimate the deflection needed to hit their plunging targets. Through bitter experience, Reid now had a perfect understanding of Stuka tactics, and used these to concentrate the fire of his impromptu battery at the decisive moment:

Attacking Stukas always circled over their target at about 2000 feet; they then peeled off one by one, and dived. At between 1200 and 1000 feet the pilot took aim at the target — after this, it was virtually impossible for him to make any further correction. At about 800 feet he had to release his bomb irrespective of whether his aim was good or bad; otherwise, he could not pull out. This [meant that] the ideal time to fire a volley at a Stuka [was] during the few seconds [it was] between 1200 and 1000 feet).

Bill Jenkins was with Reid that harrowing day as wave after wave of German bombers sought to turn the evacuation convoy into a maritime morgue. Jenkins installed himself on the deck, re-loading the magazines of the machine-guns — these held 20 rounds, which could be fired off in a couple of short bursts. As each gunner threw a magazine to the deck and replaced it with a fresh one, Jenkins and others caught them and restocked them with cartridges. Jenkins was by now a hardened infantryman, but by the end of the day even his gnarled hands were blistered and raw from the intensity of the action.

Forever after, Jenkins testified to the ferocity of the impromptu defence organised by Reid. ‘He should have been decorated,’ Jenkins insisted, because the machine-gun rounds that Reid coordinated meant that the Germans ‘could have landed on the amount of lead going up’. Yet the German dive-bombers came through this wall of fire, hoping that their screaming sirens would psychologically break the gunners and thereby allow the bomb-runs to be pressed home from low and decisive heights. Undaunted, the Australians kept to their guns, and their work was effective enough to keep the Germans at a distance. The most damage inflicted on the Dilwarra came from high-level bombers that damaged her stern and wrecked all the lifeboats.

As the long and trying hours of daylight dragged on, it seemed that Convoy GA.14 might survive with only this very limited damage to Dilwarra. Unfortunately, at 3.00 p.m. a flight of three Junkers 88 bombers slipped unnoticed out of the sun. Before effective fire could be directed at them, a stick of bombs landed close by the Costa Rica, crammed with 2500 troops from a variety of units. The ship escaped a direct hit that would have inflicted horrific casualties, but one near-miss split the steel sides of the ship just abreast of the engine room. Don Stephenson and his platoon of the 2/6th Battalion were right next to the towering splash caused by the bomb blast. ‘We were drowned,’ Stephenson recalled, by this mountain of water that engulfed his battalion. Jack Burke with the 2/1st Field Ambulance Company was down below, preparing a meal of sausages from a tin long he’d coveted during the evacuation. He vowed and declared, ‘I’m going to get those bloody sausages,’ and maintained his defiance until the ship’s lights went out and all the internal spaces were plunged into utter darkness. He finally relented. ‘Bugger the sausages — I got out,’ he recalled.

As water poured in through the fractured hull of the Costa Rica, her captain concluded she would founder within the hour. According to Stephenson, the ship’s crew made their own initial assessment of the damage: ‘The first thing we know, the crew are in the boats — they expected the thing to blow, with the cold water rushing in on the boilers.’

Fortunately, the boilers held, and destroyers were brought alongside to take off the longsuffering Anzacs. As the British destroyers Defender, Hereward, and Hero nosed up to the stricken troopship, those being rescued faced a challenging and dangerous feat of acrobatics to regain safety. A large swell was running, and to jump from sinking deck to rolling destroyer required good timing — and gumption. Stephenson recalled how military discipline prevailed with guards on the decks, which ensured an orderly evacuation, and with the ‘blokes from below off first’. Some of the men from the 2/6th broke bones on landing, and one poor unfortunate landed in the water between the ships. As one of the Royal Navy’s finest fished the soldier out with a boat hook, he provided a running commentary to keep up surrounding spirits, saying things like, ‘Good fishing today, mates!’ This kind of black humour served as an antidote to the gravity of the moment, as when one soldier received little sympathy for the predicament he found himself in:

[O]ne bloke decides he’s going down a rope, but he gets down there and the destroyer’s above. ‘What am I going to do?’ he says, and our bloke says ‘pull your finger out and scuttle yourself!’ You can’t beat our blokes in situations like that.

Even those who made the jump safely found the landing below a tense affair. Jack Burke judged his departure from the Costa Rica perfectly, but found his hobnail boots gave an excellent impersonation of ice skates when he hit the deck of the Hereward below. Careering across the destroyer, Burke’s further passage was arrested by the rope rail guarding the far side of the ship; the tin hat he wore met no such impediment, though, and over the side it went. Many years later, Burke mused about his contribution to maritime archaeology: ‘There’s a rusty old tin hat in the Mediterranean somewhere.’

An Anzac Dunkirk II

An Anzac Dunkirk: the evacuation beaches, and major force movements, April 1941

In different circumstances, Bob Slocombe, one of the survivors from 2/8th Battalion’s engagement with the SS at Vevi, managed to keep his tin hat, although the reasons for wanting to would later escape him. Slocombe was one of the Australians who ended up in the sea when Costa Rica finally foundered. He’d had the good sense to take off his boots in preparation for the swim but, inexplicably, he left his helmet on. A passing carley float (life raft) provided temporary respite, before he was picked up by another destroyer; still crowned with his helmet, Slocombe dried out on the engine-room gratings on the passage to Crete. Jim Mooney, one of Slocombe’s comrades in the 2/8th Battalion, recalled the miscalculations of other men, such as those who took off their boots and patiently tied a knot in the laces so they could hang them around their necks. Inevitably, when the boots filled with water and weighed them down, these men found their fastidious preparations no aid to their breast-stroke.

The sinking of the Costa Rica inflicted an unwanted diversion on the survivors. Instead of going back to Egypt, the survivors who had crammed aboard the three destroyers were offloaded at Suda Bay, Crete. In this chance way, these men were set on another path of tragedy and suffering.

While the Costa Rica drama played out, the Greeks awaited their fate on the mainland. Early on 27 April, the Germans finally entered Athens. On a ‘mellow spring morning, with an early nightingale singing in the pines and the hills glowing with wild roses’, mechanised columns entered the ancient birthplace of democracy.49 To complete the Nazi triumph, two German officers immediately hoisted the swastika on the Acropolis and just as quickly sent a telegram to their Führer, laying claim to the feat. This act of self-congratulation set off yet another spat in the ranks of the Wehrmacht, this time over who was entitled to claim the title of conqueror of Athens — the flag bearers or their commander. One Greek soldier, lying wounded in hospital, marked the occasion with a very different act of symbolism: he asked his nurse ‘to help him tie something up in his handkerchief’, which proved to be a handful of earth, since ‘he wished to save a little of Greek soil while it was still free’.

Some Anzacs were there to greet the Germans. Left behind at their hospital at Kephissia was Major Brooke Moore, a 42-year-old general practitioner from Bathurst, New South Wales, now commanding the six other officers and 150 non-commissioned ranks of the 2/5th AGH. With 112 patients too ill to move, the medical staff remained behind to care for them. Vince Egan was one of the hospital orderlies who, having spent the night on duty, awoke to be informed that he was now a prisoner of war. The Germans arrived at Kephissia on the morning of 27 April and placed a guard on the hospital, but otherwise allowed the staff to continue their work.

While the citizens of Athens contemplated occupation, the last military evacuations were still underway. By 27 April, Freyberg described conditions at the remaining embarkation beaches as ‘chaotic’. His 4 Brigade spent the morning moving into a defensive position near the village of Markopoulon, in order to block the road from Athens to Porto Rafti. This movement was detected by the ever-present Luftwaffe, which mounted a sharp raid before noon by 23 aircraft. These managed to start a fire in an ammunition wagon of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, with disastrous results: ammunition set off by the fire set in train a series of explosions, and ‘soon shells were bursting everywhere, vehicles burning, and the ripe crops in the fields and the trees in the pine woods blazing fiercely’. When the Australian gunners and the nearby New Zealand infantry of the 20 Battalion emerged from the mayhem, they left behind six artillerymen who had been killed, and 30 more Kiwis who had been killed or wounded. The loss in equipment was also severe — nine guns from the 2/3rd Field and an attached anti-tank battery were smashed and burnt. Warrant Officer C. V. Shirley, a 24-year-old clerk from Invercargill, was among the New Zealanders:

I was only about one hundred yards down the road when a number of aeroplanes swooped very low over the ridge. The men were still in their trucks, awaiting dispersal orders but immediately the attack began they scattered and took what cover they could on both sides of the road. The attack continued for some considerable time, the planes swooping very low up and down the road and strafing the road itself, the trucks and men. All the vehicles except the OC’s 8-cwt truck were ‘brewed up’ by incendiary bullets, which also set fire to [the] crop in which some of the men were sheltering.

Observing this devastation were the villagers of Markopoulon. With the Germans on their doorstep, and the sky black with smoke as their crops burnt, the Greeks stood outside their houses to cheer on the Kiwi infantry, and give what support they could — ‘Women and girls ran forward with cups of water and old men gave the thumbs-up sign.’ For good reason, many of the Anzacs interviewed for this book still had tears in their eyes 60 years later when they were asked to comment on the support they got from the Greek people.

Despite the air attacks, the 4 NZ Brigade got into position, and they watched mid-afternoon as a German column moved into Markopoulon. The Anzacs declined to fire into the village, and instead opened a barrage from field guns and mortars only when the German vehicles appeared from it. A determined attack did not eventuate, and this allowed Puttick to get his brigade and its attached artillery back that evening to Porto Rafti, where the cruiser Ajax, and the destroyers Kingston and Kimberley, carried away 3840 troops. At Rafina, the destroyer Havock took on another 800 men — the final elements of the 1st Armoured Brigade, with Charrington still in command.

One of the New Zealand infantrymen who embarked that night at Porto Rafti was Eric Davies with the 19 Battalion. He got out to the Kingston, and climbed the netting strung down the side to bring the troops aboard, initially in fine military order. Davies had both a rifle and a tommy gun, with ample ammunition for both, but made no allowances for the man above him, who panicked as they went up the side. When his comrade lashed out in fright, Davies was kicked off the netting. Weighed down by the hardware, Davies recalled, ‘I reckon I went down 25 feet, but by the grace of God, the net went that far, and I grabbed onto it. I got back up, ammunition and all.’

At Kalamata on 27 April, the only organised force was the NZ Reinforcement Battalion and the elements of the 2/1st Field Regiment and transport personnel under Lieutenant Colonel Haylock, marooned after the big embarkation the night before. The rest of the men at Kalamata were disorganised base troops under Brigadier Parrington. They spent the day beneath the olive trees, under regular air attack — the worst of them at dusk, when 25 bombers crisscrossed the town at only 500 feet, unloading sticks of bombs as they went. There would be no respite that night for the men at Kalamata. No naval force was sent there on 27 April, and so they had to wait another day to see if rescue was still a prospect the following night.

One of those waiting under the trees at Kalamata was John Crooks. He had set off from Athens with seven or eight of his own signallers, and along the way inherited about 120 other men. He recalled: ‘As the gathering collection of miscellaneous soldiers appeared to have no leader and I was the only officer in sight, I felt that I would have to show some sort of leadership and take the whole party with men.’

On 28 April, all was set for one final effort to shift the men from Kalamata. The only organised fighting force still ashore — Barrowclough’s 6 NZ Brigade — had reached Monemvasia after its rearguard work, and was also standing by to embark. Doug Morrison, at the head of his company in the 24 Battalion, spent his last days in Greece at Tripolis in the central Peloponnese, holding the road junction there which led to Monemvasia. Moving back to the port itself, Morrison’s men occupied a hill overlooking the bay, holding the very last perimeter of the campaign. By then his men were exhausted, and he recalled that ‘chaps were sleeping on their feet’.

For some, the Greek campaign ended on 28 April, and with it, their fighting careers. The Australian Reinforcement Battalion managed to move down the coast to Tolos from Navplion after it was left behind on the 26 April, but even this exertion proved to be in vain. While waiting at Tolos for embarkation, this isolated group was overrun by the Germans, and the greater part of it was forced to surrender. Some scattered parties took to the hills, and some others took their chances in small boats; but, for most, long years of captivity began that day.

Better luck attended Barrowclough and his men. On the evening of 28 April, with its discipline intact, the 4 NZ Brigade formed up on the causeway between Monemvasia and the mainland. Heading their way was first the destroyer Isis, followed shortly thereafter by the hardworking cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Hotspur and Havock. On the voyage north, Havock swooped in the darkness on what she thought was a submarine — but the small object in the sea proved to be a rubber dinghy carrying the crew of a spotter plane that had been catapulted off Perth earlier in the day. This machine was a ‘Walrus’ biplane amphibian, a wonderful contraption of pusher engine, high-mounted wings, and bracing wires, which ironically emanated from the same stable as the sleek Spitfire of Battle of Britain fame. The Walrus, unfortunately, had come across a prowling Junkers 88, which had quickly dispatched the Australian spotter plane. Closing in to depth-charge what she thought to be a submarine, Havock recognised her error at the last minute, and the hapless aviators became the first rescued souls for the evening.

At Monemvasia, the New Zealand troops formed up in good order at five points along the causeway, and were carried to the warships on board landing craft left behind by Glenearn. Baillie-Groham, waiting for embarkation along with General Freyberg, thought their organisation and discipline ‘magnificent’. Peter Preston’s platoon of the 26 Battalion was even ordered to shave and clean up before embarkation, to ensure that the brigade went away with the correct bearing. Setting this standard was Freyberg himself. Preston remembers the general striding the quay, demanding in his ‘funny, high-pitched voice, “Who’s in charge of that boat?”’, when something went even slightly awry. Freyberg’s equanimity was largely a show for the troops, as the general was actually a bundle of nerves:

I feel sure those last hours of waiting on the beach were the most anxious that we had had. The ships did not arrive to time. At 11.30 there were no ships in sight and we were in a state of desperation for, given the most favourable circumstances, I considered that anything up to 1500 troops would be left behind. Another difficult situation faced us. Suppose they did not turn up at all? Spread out all over the area were over 100 vehicles, we had our stretcher cases out on the pier and there were also walking wounded … the anxiety of those last hours was indescribable.

‘When, lo, out of the darkness, there was light

There in the sea were England and her ships.’

Without major mishap, the troops were embarked; so, by 3.00 a.m., after a last sweep of the beach by Freyberg and Baillie-Groham to see that no stragglers had been left behind, the New Zealand general and the British admiral were at last aboard the Ajax.

Further south at Kithera, a smaller evacuation mounted by Auckland, Salvia, and Hyacinth was also a success that night. Unfortunately, the good luck ended at Kalamata. There, 7000 troops remained, together with 1500 Yugoslav refugees, whose likely fate in German hands was too hideous to contemplate. Coming to their aid was a powerful convoy of warships, led by Lieutenant Commander Bowyer-Smyth aboard Perth, together with another cruiser, Phoebe, and the destroyers Decoy and Hasty. Sailing north, these ships were joined by four more destroyers, Nubian, Hero, Hereward, and Defender, the whole group aiming to arrive at Kalamata at 10.00 p.m. To undertake a reconnaissance, Bowyer-Smyth sent ahead Hero, commanded by Captain Biggs, at 7.30 p.m. Good practice though this reconnaissance might have been, it unfortunately did more harm than good. Nearing the port at 8.45 p.m., Biggs saw evidence of fighting in the town as tracer fire lit the night, and someone on the breakwater then signalled the destroyer, ‘Bosch in town’.

Indeed they were. An assault party of two companies of the 5th Panzer Division, with two field guns, had attempted a daring coup by storming the town. One of the units awaiting embarkation was the New Zealand reinforcement camp: it held men from 31 different units of the 2nd NZEF, awaiting orders to go forward as replacements. With the help of a number of officers, Major MacDuff organised the men into a battalion headquarters and three rifle companies, and these preparations were warranted. At around 5.00 p.m., the German column suddenly entered the town and got as far as the quay, where they captured the naval sea-transport officer in charge of the embarkation, Captain Clark-Hall.

Small groups of New Zealand and Australian infantry quickly counterattacked, many not even needing orders before pitching in. Sergeant Jack Hinton of the 20 NZ Battalion was one of the men from the reinforcement camp who took matters into his own hands. Fighting his way through the town, Hinton was finally faced at a distance of 200 metres by a post of two machine-guns and a mortar, placed to cover one of the German field pieces. One of his 20 Battalion comrades, Private Jones, recalled:

Hinton started off again and in a very short time cleaned out the two LMGs and the mortar with grenades. Simultaneously a 3-tonner driven by an Aussie and carrying a load of Kiwis rushed the heavy gun from the south. I cannot say whether Hinton or the chaps on the truck cleaned up the big gun. A few minutes after this episode, which was really the turning point of the whole show, Jack was severely wounded in the stomach.

For his bravery in this action, Hinton was awarded the Victoria Cross. Pockets of Germans armed with machine pistols fought it out from the balconies of houses along the quayside, before being persuaded to surrender. The defenders had killed 41 Germans, wounded more than 60, and taken between 80 and 90 prisoner.

Still waiting in the olive groves, John Crooks was a witness to this battle. With his sergeant, he made to enter the town looking for instructions:

[W]e set off on our own to walk along the road in the direction of the town and the pier. I estimated it was about two kilometres ahead of us. At this time sounds of a fierce battle developing could be heard. Almost immediately a shell burst some 15 yards to our left and a little ahead of us. This shell killed one of two British soldiers who were also attempting to find out what they ought best be doing. I … judged it would not be prudent to proceed further. What with the gathering darkness and with no troop dispositions or password known, the possibilities were ripe for either side to have a shot at us, so we walked back to our olive grove hiding place.

While the battle raged along the harbour front, out at sea on board Hero, Captain Biggs acted to clarify the position ashore, landing his first lieutenant in search of Parrington. Biggs’ signal to Bowyer-Smyth to indicate the presence of the Germans reached Perth at 9.10 p.m. Without waiting for a further assessment, or even asking for one, Bowyer-Smyth turned the rest of his force around at 9.29 p.m., abandoning the Kalamata troops to their fate. Bowyer-Smyth subsequently justified his decision on the grounds that his warships were too valuable to risk, and that fire from fighting ashore would silhouette his force and leave it vulnerable to attack by enemy surface vessels. There were no signs of such enemy intervention and, in an any event, Pridham-Wippell had already accepted the risk of loss when Bowyer-Smyth’s force was sent north. By the time Biggs established that evacuation was still possible, Bowyer-Smyth was long gone. Joined by three other destroyers — Kandahar, Kingston, and Kimberley — Biggs took on board Hero as many troops as he could, but this amounted to only 332 men. One of the lucky few was Kevin Price of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, who had been in the first action of the campaign at Vevi and was now one of the last off. Carrying a heavy Boys rifle, Price walked out into neck-deep water to scramble aboard a boat taking troops out to the Kingston. Safely on the destroyer, Price took a mug of hot cocoa. He remembered thinking, ‘[This is] the best drink I’ve ever had.’ Then he lay down on the deck and did not move until the Kingston reached Crete the next day.

Admiral Cunningham wrote later that Bowyer-Smyth had come to an ‘unfortunate decision’, but his reaction at the time suggested an even stronger sense of disapproval. Under his direct orders, the destroyers Isis, Hero, and Kimberley were sent back to the Kalamata area the following night, 29 April, to see what could be done. By then, as predicted by Parrington, the Germans had arrived at Kalamata in force and had compelled most of the remaining troops to surrender. John Crooks was one of them. According to him, at about 8.00 a.m. on 29 April, ‘a solitary German soldier, not much more than five feet tall, nonchalantly walked along the road with rifle slung casually over his shoulder and shepherded [the remaining troops] in a slow march into and through the town of Kalamata’.

The following night, Isis did pick up a boatload of New Zealanders who had managed to get 16 kilometres out to sea; with them, a sweep of the shore netted a total of 202 troops When some of these claimed to be Australians, their identity in the darkness was established by the destroyer crews asking the question, ‘What was Matilda doing?’ Cunningham sent ships north for the last time on 30 April. With another handful of stragglers rescued that night, the naval effort had managed to get away from Greece the grand total of 50,662 men, not counting the various parties making their way through the Aegean islands.

In this way, the Anzac campaign on mainland Greece ended. Whatever its motives, whether it was the mirage of a Balkan Front, a desire to impress American public opinion, the need to uphold British honour by helping the valiant Greeks, or some combination of all these, the cost of the campaign was high. Of the Australian contingent, 320 lay dead in Greek graves, another 494 were wounded, and 2030 began four long years as prisoners of the Germans. The Kiwis fared little better: 291 New Zealanders were dead, 599 wounded, and 1614 made prisoner. Militarily, the cost would be measured not only in casualty lists, but in foregone strategic opportunities, and the fragmentation and dispersal of first-class units like the 6th Division AIF and the New Zealand Division.

The Greek campaign was not just a failure in its own right, but it meant that the chance to finish the war in North Africa in 1941 was lost, forcing Britain and her empire to spend time, money, and lives that might have been better expended securing Malaya, Singapore, and Australia against the Japanese threat. Churchill, however, was well pleased, telling Wavell on 28 April that the whole campaign was a ‘glorious episode in the history of Britain’ which had greatly impressed the Americans.

An Overview of Japanese Submarine Operations off Australia during 1943 Part I

IJN Submarine I-21

Starr King sinking after being attacked by I-21 near Port Macquarie on 10 February 1943.

The Japanese never again mounted the kind of coordinated submarine attacks on Australia witnessed during mid-1942, when the Eastern Advance Detachment launched the midget attacks on Sydney Harbour and also bombarded the Sydney suburbs and the city of Newcastle. However, the Japanese did not entirely disappear from the waters around the continent, and several submarines were dispatched to harass coastal shipping and convoys throughout 1943. The submarines operated individually, and although they sank or damaged several Allied ships, their collective impact on the Australian war machine was slight, really constituted no more than a series of nuisance attacks designed to demonstrate a continued Japanese ability to strike at the Australian home front. Australian anti-submarine defences continued to develop, based on the fast corvettes, and Japanese submarine skippers became increasingly wary of the types of bold attacks they had made earlier in the war. The change in Australian naval tactics with the introduction of convoys in 1941 also had an effect on the effectiveness of Japanese submarines. Only six ships were sunk and two damaged by Japanese submarine attacks on convoys, while roving Japanese boats between 1941 and 1944 successfully destroyed eighteen ships that were travelling unescorted, proving the value of the convoy system.

The experienced I-21, famous for bombarding Newcastle in 1942, was to achieve a string of successes along the Australian coast during January and February 1943. Commander Matsumura took his boat out from the Japanese base at Rabaul on her fourth war patrol on 7 January, bound for the busy waters off Australia’s east coast. By the 15th the I-21 had arrived off Sydney and continued her patrol into the Tasman Sea off New South Wales where she achieved her first kill of the patrol on the 18th. Many vessels were still to be found sailing unescorted along the Australian coast, particularly smaller vessels plying the coastal trade routes, and these had always been a submariner’s targets of choice. Submarine skippers viewed these unprotected ships as easy prey, as they would not have to avoid a sudden corvette or destroyer counter-attack, and, as long as the submarine attacked swiftly and devastatingly, it was unlikely that help would arrive before the stricken merchantman was finished off.

The small 2,051-ton Australian freighter Kalingo had departed from Sydney and was setting out across the Pacific for Plymouth in New Zealand when Matsumura came upon her on 18 January. Attacking while submerged, two torpedoes were fired at the Kalingo, which was critically damaged. Matsumura then surfaced and in a humanitarian gesture not usually demonstrated by officers of the Imperial Navy, he gave the crew of the freighter sufficient time to take to the ship’s lifeboats before moving in to finish the vessel off. Once the merchantman’s crew were safely out of harm’s way, the I-21 launched a third torpedo which hastened the end of the Kalingo, and Matsumura departed from the scene triumphant.

Matsumura’s days work was not done, however, and later that evening a far more substantial target presented itself. This was the huge American tanker Mobilube, which had a small escort ship assigned to protect her. At 9.50 p.m. two torpedoes were unleashed towards the 10,222-ton ship, but the huge detonation of at least one strike failed to sink the tanker. Ignoring the escort vessel for the time being, Matsumura ordered his boat to the surface, and the deck-gunners began banging away at the huge tanker, until her escort returned their fire which forced the I-21 back beneath the waves in a crash-dive. As Matsumura guided his boat out of danger, the escort dumped a pattern of six depth charges over the spot where the Japanese submarine had disappeared, but although the Japanese sailors were jolted about by the sonic detonations, their vessel escaped any damage and Matsumura made off confident that the Mobilube had been fatally wounded. Indeed, his assumption of another victory was correct, for although the great tanker was towed into port she was declared a total loss and later cut up for scrap.

The hunting off New South Wales, along the shipping lanes fanning out from Sydney, was to continue to provide Matsumura and the I-21 with plenty of interdiction opportunities. The I-21 crippled an American Liberty ship, the Peter H. Burnett, on 22 January, firing two torpedoes while at periscope depth. One struck home, severely damaging the vessel. As the I-21 departed from the scene the American escort USS Zane and an Australian, HMAS Mildura, towed the vessel into Sydney where the ship’s cargo of wool and mail were salvaged. The Peter H. Burnett was declared a total loss and met the same fate as the Mobilube in a breaker’s yard reduced to scrap.

As well as attacking Allied ships along the coast of New South Wales, the I-21 was also detailed to conduct a reconnaissance of the coastline. Once again, the usefulness of the Yokosuka E14Y1 floatplane proved its worth, and Warrant Officer (Flying) Susumu Ito carried out a successful flight over Sydney Harbour on the night of 25 January. Ito reported the presence of at least one heavy cruiser and ten smaller warships inside the harbour. On 30 January Matsumura launched a single torpedo at a small British merchantman, the 1,036-ton Giang Ann, and would almost certainly have sunk her but for a torpedo malfunction. The torpedo began its run smoothly, but then detonated prematurely, allowing the British ship time to escape any further attention from the Japanese submarine. Matsumura was nothing if not bold, and on 8 February he located a convoy of ten ships off Montague Island. Convoy OC68 was making its way from Whyalla to Newcastle, and Matsumura scored an immediate hit on the lead ship, the 4,812-ton Iron Knight, a British ship carrying a cargo of iron ore. The torpedo strike under the bridge on the starboard side was so devastating that the Iron Knight went down like a stone in under two minutes, giving the crew virtually no time to abandon her. The Free French destroyer Le Triomphant, one of the convoy escorts, pulled fourteen survivors from off a floating life raft. Two days later off Port Macquarie Matsumura launched a spread of four torpedoes at the 7,176-ton American Liberty ship Starr King. This was an important prize to sink for the Starr King was loaded down with 7,000 tons of supplies destined for the US Army fighting the Japanese in New Caledonia. She was struck by two of the Japanese torpedoes, but did not sink immediately. The Australian escort vessel HMAS Warramunga rushed alongside the stricken freighter and took off the surviving members of her crew, and then attempted to take the Starr King in tow to hopefully prevent her loss. However, the freighter started to founder, and the commanding officer of the Warramunga ordered the tow lines severed, and the crew watched helplessly as the Starr King and all of her valuable supplies were swallowed up by the ocean.

Ito took to the skies once again over the Australian coast on 19 February, the sortie proving a success despite his aircraft being detected by Australian radar. Whether the photographs his observer took were of any military value is questionable, but the fact that Ito’s aircraft was not challenged in so sensitive an area for the second occasion during the submarine’s patrol, and in an area that had already witnessed extensive Japanese submarine and aerial activity, indicated that the Australians still had some way to go to secure this particular stretch of coastline from enemy infiltration. Thereafter, Matsumura headed for Japan as his boat was in need of an overhaul after extensive operations so far from base, and the I-21 concluded her war patrol at the giant Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo on 3 March.

As Matsumura headed in to Japan to celebrate his most successful war patrol to Australia, another large I-boat was headed in the opposite direction. This was the I-26, under Commander Yokota. His mission was the same as that of his colleague Matsumura, with the exception of not launching any photographic reconnaissance sorties. The I-26 was not nearly as successful as Matsumura’s recent run along the New South Wales coast. On 11 April the I-26 was nineteen miles off Cape Howe, Victoria, when her lookouts spotted Convoy QC86, which was making its way from Whyalla to Newcastle. Yokota struck and sank with torpedoes a Yugoslavian ship, the 4,732-ton Recina. She was carrying a cargo of iron ore, and was under Australian government charter. There followed for the I-26 a period of inaction, as no targets presented themselves until 24 April. Then, when thirty-five miles east of Bowen the I-26 found a lone ship and attacked her. The Australian Kowarra (2,125-tons) was heading from Bowen to Brisbane loaded down with sugar, and she sank quickly after a single Japanese torpedo strike. This was Yokota’s second and final kill of the patrol, and he headed back to base at Truk undoubtedly frustrated that more targets and opportunities had eluded his search.

The Type KD7 submarine I-177 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Hajime Nakagawa left Truk on its first war patrol on 10 April 1943 in company with sister submarines I-178 and I-180. All were bound for the east coast of Australia, favoured hunting ground of the Imperial Navy’s submarines. On 26 April the I-177 was twenty miles south-east of Cape Byron, close to the city of Brisbane, when she encountered an escorted convoy. Moving quickly into an attack position, Nakagawa managed to sink the 8,724-ton British freighter Limerick, and also to avoid two depth charges dropped by the convoy escorts. On the same day Lieutenant-Commander Toshio Kusaka aboard the I-180 also launched an attack on an unidentified merchantman, but the freighter escaped and Kusaka end up wasting three of his torpedoes. The following day the I-178, under Commander Hidejiro Utsuki, was 100 miles off Port Stephens. Utsuki attacked and sank an American Liberty ship, the 7,176-ton Lydia M. Childs, which was loaded with tanks. However, on this occasion the RAAF attempted to take some measure of revenge against the Japanese submarine, a Catalina flying boat launching three bombing runs over the I-178 an hour after she had sunk the Liberty. The I-178 escaped without suffering any damage and made it unscathed back to Truk on 18 May.

During May 1943 the Australian army was heavily engaged against the Japanese on the island of Papua New Guinea. Fierce battles had raged at Buna, Gona and Sanananda, necessitating the evacuation of wounded soldiers to Australia for more extensive medical treatment. The Centaur, a large motor passenger ship, had undergone conversion into a hospital ship earlier in 1943, which had involved a radical alteration of not just her internal compartments, but also in her outward appearance. When the vessel left Sydney harbour on 12 May bound for Port Moresby in New Guinea, she was painted a brilliant white, with thick green stripes running the length of her hull broken by huge red crosses. On her bows was painted the number ‘47’, providing information that any enemy submarine skipper could investigate to determine the ship’s identity and purpose. The number was the Centaur’s registration lodged with the International Red Cross in Switzerland, the IRC having informed the Japanese government of the ship’s new role as a non-combatant vessel protected by International Law from any kind of attack. Although Japan had not signed the 1929 Geneva Conventions, she had nonetheless agreed prior to the outbreak of war to abide by the provisions concerning non-combatant status, and the rules regarding hospital ships that had been established as long ago as 1907.

The Centaur’s first task was to sail from Sydney to Cairns through Australian coastal waters regularly patrolled by Japanese submarines, and thence on to Port Moresby to collect wounded. Aboard her for the journey to New Guinea were sixty-four medical staff, including twelve Australian Army Medical Service nurses, who would stay on the ship to treat the wounded, and the 149 men, plus an additional forty-four attached personnel, of the 2/12th Field Ambulance who would be landed at Port Moresby to provide casualty clearing stations and aid posts for the front-line fighting troops. The Centaur had a crew of seventy-five men of the Merchant Navy, giving a total aboard of 332 souls all headed north into the war zone.

The captain of the Centaur was sailing directly into seas where Japanese submarines had been recently operating and sinking Allied ships, trusting in his ship’s clearly marked non-combatant status for protection. He was aware that the Japanese had been informed of his ship’s status as a hospital vessel on 5 February, and he knew that their superiors would have apprised any roving submarine skippers of this fact. With hindsight, it is possible to see that the disaster that followed occurred as a result of a Japanese unwillingness to follow any rules concerning conduct in war, other than their own military code. The track record of the Japanese army and navy in conducting war since 1937 in China and throughout the Pacific and south-east Asia after 1941 was a litany of atrocities and flagrant breaches of internationally agreed codes of military and naval conduct, even those rules to which Japan was bound or had agreed to honour. Put simply, the Japanese left much of the observance of these rules to individual commanders, who reacted depending upon the situation they faced, or the degree to which any such rules meant anything to them. The Japanese officer corps was renowned for being obsessively loyal to the Emperor to the ignorance of everything else, and slavishly obedient to the Bushido code of feudal Japan that took no account of prisoners or non-combatants within its ethos. Many officers were simply brutal and very often what we might subsequently define as sadistic in dealing with the enemies of Japan, and the Centaur was about to run foul of one the navy’s most brutal submarine skippers. Lieutenant-Commander Hajime Nakagawa was on his first war patrol to Australian waters as commanding officer of the submarine I-177, a KD7 type completed in December 1942. Nakagawa, along with submarines I-178 and I-180, formed Submarine Division 22, 3rd Submarine Squadron based at Truk. Nakagawa’s career had been marred by an incident before the war that meant that his promotion chances were very few and far between. On 2 February 1939, when Nakagawa was commanding the I-60, he had been conducting training exercises in the Bungo Straits in Japan, simulating attacks, when he had accidentally rammed the submarine I-63 in the early morning gloom. The pressure hull breached, the I-63 had immediately sunk, taking eighty-two of her crew with her, and Nakagawa had been placed before a court martial. He was found guilty of negligence and suspended from the navy. In 1940 he was reassigned to the command of the I-58, and then the I-177, which he took to Australian waters.

On the 26 April 1943 Nakagawa had intercepted and sunk the 8,724-ton British merchant ship Limerick, a member of an escorted convoy, off Cape Byron near Brisbane and escaped the resulting attack by the convoy escorts on his boat. The Limerick was one of five merchant ships sunk between 18 January and 29 April off the New South Wales and Queensland coasts by Japanese submarines resulting in a great loss of life among the merchant crews. Nakagawa was a man driven by a need to restore his reputation after having lost face during his court martial in 1939. Perhaps the way in which to restore his professional reputation was through achieving as many kills as possible against his country’s enemies.

As the brightly lit Centaur crossed his path in the early hours of 14 May 1943 he did not hesitate in ordering a torpedo attack launched against her. The Centaur was strung with electric light bulbs that illuminated her red crosses and IRC number on the bows for all to see, but Nakagawa turned his head from the periscope eye-piece and began to issue orders for the attack plot to be drawn, and one or more torpedo tubes made ready to fire. He knew absolutely that his next actions were illegal under the rules of war, the Geneva Conventions and International Law, yet he ruthlessly ignored these facts and prepared to launch an attack. There are several ways to rationalize Nakagawa’s sinking of the Centaur, and one is the fact that a hospital ship was tasked with collecting wounded soldiers and taking them home for treatment so that some might be returned fighting fit to once again oppose the Japanese advance. If Nakagawa sank a hospital ship he might reason that he was serving the Emperor by removing one of the links by which Australia supported her forces defending New Guinea. Perhaps what followed was revenge for Allied attacks on Japanese hospital ships? In the Allies defence, even they pointed out that the Japanese were of a habit of not properly or clearly marking their hospital ships, which led to some cases of mistaken identity. The war in the Pacific was subsequently famous for the brutality displayed by both Japanese and Allied forces towards each other, and Nakagawa may also have been aware of recent American attacks on Japanese troop transports. In January the Americans had sunk a troop transport, and thousands of the 9,500 Japanese soldiers aboard the vessel were machine gunned in the water after abandoning the sinking ship. Christopher Milligan and John Foley in Australian Hospital Ship Centaur: The Myth of Immunity point out that in early March 1943 American aircraft had sunk an entire Japanese convoy of twenty-two ships. The majority of these vessels were troop transports, which was of course a legitimate target. However, for seven days following the initial sinking of this convoy American ships and aircraft systematically set about eliminating the survivors, machine gunning and bombing more than 3,000 of them. This action was against the established rules of war and the Geneva Conventions, which the United States had most certainly signed. The ferocity of both combatants in the war in Asia and the Pacific was legendary, and the rule of law was very often put aside in a multitude of cases.

An Overview of Japanese Submarine Operations off Australia during 1943 Part II

AHS Centaur following her conversion to a hospital ship. The Red Cross designation “47” can be seen on the bow. Of the 332 medical personnel and civilian crew aboard, 268 died, including 63 of the 65 army personnel.

At 4.10 a.m. on 14 May the Centaur was off Moretan Island, Queensland when a Japanese torpedo struck home with deadly effect. Most of the medical staff was asleep at the moment of impact, as an enormous explosion shook the ship violently, and she caught fire and started to sink by the stern. Seaman Matthew Morris of the Centaur’s crew recalled those terrifying few moments as the ship foundered:

I finished the twelve to four watch and I called the four to eight watch to go down, including me mate. And I was just havin’ a cup of tea – and this big explosion, and the ship gave a shudder, and the skylight fell in on us.

In the ensuing panic Morris was able to get clear of the rapidly sinking Centaur:

I don’t really know how I got out of the mess room…and I’d say there was a dozen steps up to the deck. And I really can’t remember going up them. But then I was washed off the back of the ship and then I realised I was in the water.

Sister Ellen Savage, one of twelve members of the Australian Army Nursing Corps onboard the Centaur, was woken up by the torpedo slamming into the ship:

Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed…I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion.

Lurching through the stricken ship onto the boat deck, the young nurses were unsure of what to do next:

…we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and ‘Mae West’ life-jacket, who kindly said ‘That’s right girlies, jump for it now.’ The first words I spoke was to say ‘Will I have time to go back for my greatcoat?’ as we were only in our pyjamas. He said ‘No’ and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed.

Savage recorded that the Centaur sank in only about three minutes, providing little time for the crew and passengers to abandon ship, and no time to launch any of the ship’s lifeboats. Hundreds of terrified soldiers and sailors leaped into the roiling sea, and the Centaur disappeared taking scores of lives with her, many already dead from the torpedo impact or trapped below with no way out. The suction created by the ship plunging to the depths dragged hapless swimmers deep underwater, including Savage. She eventually surfaced in a patch of oil, suffering from an assortment of painful injuries after having been tossed and battered in the underwater whirlpool created by the Centaur. As Savage gasped air at the surface pain wracked her body from broken ribs, perforated eardrums and severe bruising all over. Her nose was also broken, along with her palate, but she had survived. Now came the awful realization, shared with the hundreds treading water around her, that they were far out to sea, many were injured, and there was no immediate hope of rescue.

The I-177 was seen to surface close to the point where the Centaur had gone down, and many of the survivors wondered what the next Japanese move would be. The Japanese, however, made no move towards the survivors, and shortly afterwards the submarine was seen to submerge and depart from the scene, leaving the survivors to their fate.

Seaman Morris, after being washed off the stern of the Centaur as she sank, also found himself alone. Fortunately, Morris came upon a small, damaged life raft and clambered aboard. Later, Morris saved his friend, Seaman Teenie, by pulling him onto the raft. For many of the men and women who had managed to throw themselves clear of the Centaur their fates were terrible. Many could not swim and drowned after failing to find life jackets or rafts. The noises emitted by the sinking Centaur, as well as the thrashing of survivors in the sea and the smell of blood everywhere around the area attracted dozens of large sharks. The sharks probably scavenged floating bodies, but soon moved on to hapless swimmers and people clinging to bits of wreckage. High pitched screaming continued for hours after the sinking as people were killed by sharks and devoured. Morris and Teenie drifted on their small raft amid the horror, comforting one another, until the dawn light revealed a much more substantial raft drifting close by. It was on this raft that Savage had managed to pull herself, along with many others, to get clear of the sharks and rest. Morris and his companion paddled over and joined the others aboard what came to be christened ‘Survival Island’.

Second Officer Rippon of the Centaur was the senior officer to have survived the sinking and he took charge of the raft. Rippon knew that the Japanese attack had been so sudden that no distress call had been sent before the ship sank. The survivors were in dire straights unless help arrived quickly as they possessed only a little food and fresh water, and no medical supplies with which to treat the many injured lying around them. Most of the survivors were dressed in nightclothes and would suffer from exposure and hypothermia over the coming hours. Sharks constantly bumped against the raft with their snouts, or patrolled the waters all around, attacking an occasional person still in the water, or a corpse floating at the surface. Rescue was to be thirty-six hours later, and in the meantime still more of the survivors who had managed to get off the ship and onto a raft died. Morris lay next to a badly burned soldier who had ceased moving. Morris caught Savage’s attention, knowing that she was a nurse, and said, ‘I think this young chap’s dead.’ Savage leaned over and closely examined the man, confirming Morris’s suspicions. Morris: ‘…took his identification disc off him and his name was John Wälder…I gave his…disc to Sister Savage and she said: “Will you answer the Rosary?” I said: “Yes, I’ll do my best.”’ Private Walder was one of many buried at sea, though most likely this was more of a gesture than a possibility as bodies put over the side of the raft would have been attacked by the patrolling sharks.

Eventually Morris, Savage and the other survivors were plucked to safety by the American destroyer USS Mugford on 15 May, and Australia began to count the cost in lives occasioned by the loss of the Centaur. Of the 332 men and women on board when the ship departed from Sydney on 12 May, only sixty-seven men and one woman had been rescued by the Mugford four days later. It has been estimated that over 200 survived the torpedo strike and made it into the sea, but just over a quarter of those would live. Sharks, injury, drowning and despair took care of the rest, including eleven of the twelve nurses who were aboard the Centaur. The sinking of the Centaur stands as Australia’s worst disaster from a submarine attack.

As for Sister Ellen Savage, the sole surviving nurse, she had spent thirty-six hours on ‘Survival Island’ working tirelessly to ease the suffering and pain of her companions, even though she was badly injured herself. For her courage she was awarded the George Medal. Australian Prime Minister Curtin lodged an official complaint through the neutral powers with the Japanese government over the ‘barbaric’ attack on an Australian hospital ship. Initially, Curtin called upon the Japanese to punish those officers responsible for the attack, but was later forced to tone down his outrage as he and other politicians feared that the Japanese might have exacted revenge on the thousands of Australian prisoners-of-war in their hands.

The man responsible for all the suffering of the people aboard the Centaur, Hajime Nakagawa, had actually behaved in a restrained manner considering what he was later to inflict on innocent civilians who fell into his grasp. In December 1943 Nakagawa had assumed command of submarine I-37 (though he had still not been promoted to commander), and by February 1944 was on patrol in the Indian Ocean. On 22 February he torpedoed and sank the grain tanker British Chivalry. After taking the captain prisoner he ordered machine-gun fire opened up on the helpless crewmen, who were in a pair of lifeboats and lying on four rafts. Bullets rippled backwards and forwards over the defenceless survivors, the hapless captain forced to watch the massacre. Twenty sailors were killed in cold blood, and for no reason. Nakagawa struck again on 26 February, sinking the British freighter Sutlej, and he once again ordered his crew to machine-gun the survivors. On 29 February the I-37 sank the British merchant ship Ascot, and the crew had taken to lifeboats, life rafts or were swimming in the sea. The Japanese skipper first ordered his submarine to deliberately ram the Ascot’s lifeboats, killing some of the survivors and tipping the rest into the ocean. Machine guns were turned once more upon the fifty-two men struggling in the sea, other Japanese took pot-shots at their bobbing heads with pistols, some were even dragged aboard the deck and carved up with swords and a few finished off by being pounded to death with sledge hammers before their bodies were dumped back into the sea. Forty-four men were killed in this manner before the Japanese slunk away.

Judged in the light of these appalling later crimes, it is intriguing as to why Nakagawa did not let loose his evident bloodlust upon the survivors of the Centaur eight months before. Combined Fleet Headquarters had issued an order to submarine skippers on 20 March 1943 which stated: ‘Do not stop with the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes; at the same time that you carry out the complete destruction of the crews of enemy ships, if possible, seize part of the crew and endeavour to secure information about the enemy.’ The application of this chilling order appears to have been left to the discretion of individual commanders. Nakagawa, when placed on trial in 1949 for the various outrages he had ordered committed, used the ‘I was only following orders’ plea to attempt to deflect his guilt. Sadly, much of the evidence entered in the trial was disallowed, and this meant that Nakagawa was classed as a Category B war criminal and only received eight years hard labour. In 1954, after only six years, the mass murderer submariner was released, and continued to deny that he had ever sunk the Centaur up until his death. Indeed, the Japanese government only officially acknowledged that the I-177 had sunk the Centaur in 1979.

After sinking the Centaur Nakagawa took the I-177 back to Truk and made a second war patrol to the Australian east coast in June, but went to Rabaul in July after making no further attacks on Allied ships.

On 29 April the I-180 found the small Norwegian freighter Fingal that was on her way from Sydney to Port Darwin under Australian government contract, transporting ammunition to Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. The Fingal was not such an inviting opportunity as she was under escort by the powerful American destroyer escort USS Patterson. Kusaka pressed home his attack regardless of the risk and managed to place a torpedo portside aft, with another smashing into the engine room tearing the guts out of the 2,137-ton ship. The Norwegian sank in less than one minute, taking several of her crew with her. The Patterson eventually rescued nineteen out of the crew of thirty-one.

The I-180 continued to lurk around Coffs Harbour into May, and Kusaka’s patience was rewarded with another good target that presented itself on the 12th. Convoy PG50, consisting of fifteen ships, was sailing from Cairns to Sydney. Kusaka fired a spread of torpedoes, and would have been more successful if not for torpedo malfunction. One torpedo detonated inside the 5,832-ton American freighter Ormiston, loaded with bagged sugar, blowing a hole in her portside. A second torpedo struck the Australian ship Caradale, but the contact exploder fitted to the warhead failed to detonate and the torpedo did nothing more than leave a dent in the freighter’s hull before sinking to the seabed. Two Australian and an American warship took the Ormiston in tow, and after temporary repairs were effected in Coffs Harbour the freighter continued on her way to Sydney. By the end of May Kusaka and the I-180 were back in Truk after a disappointing patrol.

Meanwhile, the I-178 returned to Australia for a second war patrol, and on 17 June while the submarine was sixty-five miles south-east of Coffs Harbour, a Beaufort of 32 Squadron, RAAF, pounced on her. A second Beaufort joined in the attack on the surfaced submarine, inflicting some damage. The aircraft left the scene after reporting that the submarine was trailing a large oil slick in her wake, and the I-178 was never heard from again. It was a notable kill for the Australians, eighty-nine Japanese losing their lives.

Formerly the I-74, the re-numbered I-174 under the command of Lieutenant Nobukiyo Nambu departed Truk on 16 May 1943 with orders to patrol off the east coast of Australia. In her earlier incarnation as the I-74 she had participated in the Pearl Harbor operation, as well as assisting with the flying boat raid on Pearl Harbor in May 1942, all under her then skipper, Lieutenant-Commander Kusaka. Nambu assumed command of the boat on 12 November 1942, as Kusaka had left to assist with the working-up of the I-180 and was later to command the giant I-400. On 27 May 1943 Nambu and the I-174 appeared off the Australian coast at Sandy Cape and began patrolling for targets along the coast. The next day the submarine was spotted on radar by a Bristol Beaufort of 32 Squadron, RAAF, which was on antisubmarine patrol from Bundaberg. Sharp-eyed lookouts on the Japanese boat spied the Beaufort as it attempted to creep up on the submarine and Nambu was able to crash-dive and escape.

On 1 June the I-174 was seventy miles east of Brisbane, hoping for an encounter with an enemy ship. Sailing towards the Japanese hunter was a lone merchant ship, and Nambu immediately began manoeuvring his submarine into an attack position. The vessel was a 3,303-ton American freighter, Point San Pedro, sailing towards Brisbane from the Panama Canal. When the merchant captain sighted the submarine he immediately began zigzagging in a desperate attempt to throw off the Japanese officers’ aim, but four torpedoes were nonetheless launched at the ship. By sheer good luck, and perhaps because of the ship’s erratic movements, all four torpedoes completely missed, and the radio operator was instructed to inform the Australian authorities of a Japanese submarine lurking close to Brisbane. The Australians reacted with the dispatch of an Avro Anson maritime bomber of 71 Squadron, RAAF, with orders to seek out and destroy the boat. A further six Anson’s left the airfields at Lowood and Coffs Harbour to join in the search but found no trace of the I-174.

Nambu was a submarine skipper of some temerity and, some might say, suicidal impulses. On the afternoon of 3 June he sighted a small convoy of six freighters being escorted by three destroyers off Brisbane, and he decided to attempt an attack. Coming to the surface at 6 p.m., he ordered his diesel engines full ahead, and grinding hastily through the waves Nambu began to pursue the convoy. Not surprisingly his submarine was soon spotted by lookouts on the various ships, and the destroyers swung around and began to close the distance between the convoy and the I-174. The Japanese submarine crash-dived and fled from the scene before the convoy escorts could plaster the boat with depth charges and Hedgehog mortar bombs.

The next day Nambu attempted to intercept another lone ship, this time a US Army transport named the Edward Chambers, another ship on her way from the Panama Canal to Brisbane loaded with supplies. Nambu spotted the 4,113-ton merchantman at 8.45 a.m. off Cape Moreton while his submarine was submerged, and he made belaboured efforts to close the distance between the two vessels in order to launch his torpedoes. Deciding instead to blow the Edward Chambers out of the water with his deck-gun Nambu ordered the I-174 to the surface. At 9.48 a.m. the gunners unmasked their fire, nine shells sailing past the merchant ship without achieving a single hit. In fact, the army gunners aboard the Edward Chambers returned fire using a 3-inch gun mounted on the stern, and twelve American shells splashed into the sea close to the submarine, which caused Nambu to break off his attack and submerge. By now large numbers of Australian aircraft had been sent aloft to search out the errant submarine, and the I-174 remained submerged for the rest of the day fearing aerial attack.

At 10.25 a.m. on 5 June the I-174 was still submerged sixty miles north-east of Coffs Harbour, the hydrophone operator listening for enemy activity. What was clearly discerned were the propeller sounds of several ships that were apparently moving in a convoy several miles from the submarine. Nambu moved the I-174 behind convoy PG53, and surfaced in poor weather. The weather was bad enough to have concealed the approach of Nambu’s boat, but he decided to take no chances so when a shadowing patrol aircraft came close he submerged and waited for it to move off before he resumed closing in on the convoy’s tail. The pursuit took Nambu all day, and by the time the sun was beginning to fade on the horizon he had managed to bring his vessel to within 6,000 yards of the convoy without being spotted. Creeping ever closer Nambu prepared to fire but an escorting destroyer spotted the shadowing Japanese submarine and turned hard about and charged. His approach ruined, Nambu had no choice but to crash-dive once more. No depth charges followed the submarine’s descent, and at 9.45 p.m. Nambu brought the I-174 back to the surface for another try at the convoy. Another charge by a destroyer forced him back beneath the waves, but Nambu had already noted the convoy’s course and speed and he decided that instead of constantly popping up behind the ships, and attracting the unwanted attentions of the escorts, he would instead pile on the speed and attempt to place his submarine in a position by first light ahead of the convoy. Running his diesels at the surface Nambu brought the I-174 to the position where he estimated the convoy would eventually appear and then settled down at periscope depth to wait.

On the morning of 6 June the I-174 ascended to the surface, but Nambu’s careful planning had placed him at too great a range to intercept the convoy passing in front of him in the distance without risking being caught by patrolling Australian aircraft as he tried to close the gap. Undoubtedly disappointed he abandoned stalking convoy PG53 and instead motored off towards the south, heading for the waters around Newcastle and Sydney that he hoped would be teeming with ships.

The next day the I-174 was 100 miles east of Sydney. Lookouts spotted a single ship at 4.50 a.m., and Nambu began once more to plan his approach and attack. The ship was the John Bartram, a 7,176-ton American Liberty approaching Sydney after crossing the Pacific from San Francisco. As the submarine charged down the distance between the two vessels the American captain began zigzagging to stall the inevitable torpedo attack that was to follow. Nambu managed to get the I-174 ahead of his target and launched a spread of four torpedoes at 6.06 a.m. In a confused attack two of the torpedoes definitely missed the ship, and another exploded prematurely, rocking the I-174. Perhaps wanting to finally record a kill, Nambu erroneously believed that he had struck the John Bartram. The I-174 departed the scene in some haste, its commander satisfied that he had sunk his target. The John Bartram sailed on undamaged.

Nambu next spent several days hanging around the approaches to Sydney without sighting a single ship, which was unusual considering the density of merchant and warship traffic travelling in and out of the port. At 2 p.m. on 13 June Nambu finally sighted a small convoy of approximately six transport ships, escorted by a pair of destroyers, about thirty miles east of the Wollongong Lighthouse. Once again, the I-174 surfaced too far from the ships to allow an interception to be attempted and Nambu was forced to submerge again and wait. The next night, another Beaufort on anti-submarine duty pounced on the I-174, and the submarine narrowly avoided a hail of bombs. After staying submerged for over half an hour Nambu resurfaced only to discover that the Australian aircraft was still circling the area and he was attacked again and forced once more beneath the waves.

On 16 June, when the I-174 was south-east of Coffs Harbour, Nambu finally discovered a convoy that he was in a position to attack. Five corvettes screened the convoy, including HMAS Deloraine, but the I-174 slipped past the warships and, at 5.20 p.m., fired two torpedoes at a pair of transports. The first torpedo Struck the 5,000-ton Landing Ship Tank, LST 469 in the starboard side, towards the stern. The detonation completely destroyed the vessel’s steering gear and also killed twenty-six men, but LST-469 remained afloat. A few moments later the second torpedo struck the starboard side of the 5,551-ton US Army transport ship Portmar. The detonation of the Japanese torpedo set a massive fire in the Portmar’s holds, which in turn set off ammunition stored aboard the ship. The crew soon abandoned the stricken ship, and after only seven minutes the Portmar sank. Two of the escorting corvettes ineffectually depth-charged the I-174. Lieutenant Nambu goes down in history as the last Japanese submarine skipper to successfully sink a ship off the east coast of Australia, and on 20 June the I-174 was ordered back to Truk. Nambu was later reassigned as commander of the submarine aircraft carrier I-401, and American aircraft east of Truk destroyed his former command, the I-174, on 12 April 1944.

Australians in Bomber Command

The Bomber Command operating fields were divided into Groups. By March 1943 the groups from the north were: 6 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Group in the Tyne valley and north Yorkshire, 4 Group in north and east Yorkshire, 1 Group south of the Humber in north Lincolnshire, 5 Group from Scampton in central Lincolnshire to Woodall Spa in the south, 2 (later 100) Group in north Norfolk, 3 Group in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, and 8 (Path Finder Force) Group further west in Cambridgeshire centred on its headquarters in Huntingdon. Of the main Australian squadrons, 460 was in 1 Group (Lancasters), 462 was in 4 Group and then 100 Group (Halifaxes), and 466 was in 4 Group (Halifaxes), 463 and 467 in 5 Group (Lancasters). Other Australian squadrons that operated in Bomber Command were 455 (1941-42 then transferred to Coastal Command), 458 (1941 then transferred to the Middle East) and 464 (1942-43 then transferred to Second Tactical Air Force).

Airmen feared being a squadron spare, the bomb-aimer called up to fly with the crew whose bomb-aimer was injured, sick or for other reasons relieved of flying duties. That meant flying with strangers, no reassuring voices in the earphones, no confidence in mutual competence, a high chance of filling-in again and again with inexperienced crews, and no friends to share the easing of postflight tension and the generous breakfast prepared for returning crews. R. J. Cantillon, a wireless operator, was told at the last moment to replace a sick crewman in a Halifax. He found himself flying as mid-upper gunner with two Englishmen, a Scot, an Irishman, a Canadian and an American on their first operation deep into Germany. They were without teamwork and they survived long enough to bale out over Holland on the return flight.

Men who came as a replacement to an experienced crew could not hope to complete a tour in one crew. When the original crew finished its 30 operations the replacement had to shift to another crew and that might mean joining a sprog crew and again going through the hazards of those first four or five raids. Even where a crew began operations together, and all demonstrated the capacity to do their job when reality replaced practice, they were unlikely to do all their flying together. Men became ill, were wounded or involved in minor accidents. Cliff O’Riordan went to `Quite a bright party’ that started in the mess, tapered off in the early hours of the morning, then resumed at ten the next morning. It was some time later that O’Riordan tried to ride a horse, fell off and broke a bone in his arm. He missed operations.

Experienced men could be asked to fly with new crews, and some volunteered. Bob Murphy went with several crews on their first trip over enemy territory `to point out the difference between light flak and heavy flak and what the different searchlights were and so on’. And to boost their confidence. After his first tour Arthur Doubleday sometimes flew with a scratch crew. Given that it was both his duty and his inclination to ensure that the bombs fell in the right place, this would have been both exhilarating and terrifying. Doubleday also learnt the danger of flying with unknown men. Over the target he heard the unfamiliar voice of the bomb-aimer say in a matter-of-fact voice, `Flak on the port, skipper’. Normally, says Doubleday, a flat statement like that implied the flak was some distance away. But he had no idea that his scratch crew bomb-aimer was not given to excitement or exaggeration. This bomb-aimer meant exactly what he said. The flak was in fact on the port wing, and within a few feet of the bomb-aimer’s nose.

Bob Kellow, who flew as wireless operator in Les Knight’s dambuster crew, said that their crew was together through 27 successful raids: `We had the utmost confidence in each other and were like a little band of brothers’. That crew of two Australians (Knight and Kellow), three Englishmen and two Canadians was unusually stable. But even in that group which was bound together by extraordinary training, operations and publicity, the flight engineer Ray Grayson, an Englishman, had joined late and was going to have to complete his tour with another crew, having done seven less operations than the rest of the crew. In fact they did not return from their 28th operation. Knight was killed, Kellow evaded capture and Grayson was one of those taken prisoner. Most crews, having selected themselves, were welded together by experience and tried to stay together. Often four or five stuck together, but very few crews flew a tour unchanged.

By the time most dominion men were being fed into Bomber Command, the slow, low-flying, under-powered and under-armed early bombers were being replaced by Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Stirlings and Wellingtons were then phased out of major operations in October and November 1943, and from 1944 the superior Mark III Halifax replaced less efficient models. From early 1942 the two most efficient and admired aircraft in Bomber Command, the Mosquito and Lancaster, were being delivered to operating squadrons. The sleek two-engine Mosquitoes, relying on their superior speed to keep out of trouble, marauded widely. Carrying a light bomb load, the Mosquitoes guided the main bomber stream by dropping marker flares at turning points and over the target; flew independent raids (sometimes on distant and specific targets); confused German defences about the direction of the main force raid; gathered weather information; checked the damage done to targets; and fought the German night fighters. The Mosquito was much less likely than any of the main aircraft in Bomber Command to be destroyed by the enemy, and equalled the Lancaster in its low accident rate. But the Lancaster transformed the destructive capacity of the bomber.

In some of the major final raids of the war, there might be about 500 Lancasters, 250 Halifaxes and six Mosquitoes, and sometimes the Lancaster was the only heavy bomber. But the Halifax had its supporters. David Leicester, who flew 30 missions in a Halifax and more in a Lancaster, thought the later Halifaxes were easy to fly and could be manoeuvred quickly at height and when fully loaded, and that was essential to keep out of trouble. Ivan Pellas said `We loved our Halibags’. The Halifax Mark III was, he claims, mild in manner, stable in flight, and while they could be flown with one finger, they could also be thrown around the sky. One Halifax of 158 Squadron, known as Friday the 13th, flew 128 missions. Grateful and astonished crews gave it an unofficial VC. It was also more difficult to bale out of a Lancaster. Aircrew in terminally damaged bombers had more chance of getting to and through the escape hatches on a Halifax than they did on a Lancaster. By the end of the war, however, the Lancaster was dominant. Although not used on a raid until 3 March 1942, Lancasters went to war nearly twice as often as any other heavy bomber: 156,192 times compared with the Halifaxes’ 82,773.

When the crews of 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds heard late in 1942 that they were changing from Halifaxes to Lancasters `Pandemonium broke out … The dark days were over’. In September 1942, 460 Squadron was running out of operational aircraft; its Wellingtons were not being replaced because the squadron was about to convert to Halifaxes. When it had just five aircraft left, the squadron was taken off operations to learn to fly the four-engine Halifaxes, but on 20 October the squadron was suddenly switched to Lancasters, a `very popular’ decision. Lancaster crews cheered when they learnt that other bombers, such as Stirlings, were on the same raid. The Stirlings, lower and slower, were likely to draw the German night fighters.

Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Harris had no doubt that the Lancaster was the `finest bomber of the war’:

Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, and not only were there fewer accidents with this than with other types; throughout the war the casualty rate of Lancasters was also consistently below that of other types. It is true that in 1944 the wastage of Lancasters from casualties became equal to, and at times even greater than, the wastage of Halifaxes, but this was the exception that proved the rule; at that time I invariably used Lancasters alone for those attacks which involved the deepest penetration into Germany and were consequently the most dangerous.

Harris so admired the Lancaster that he wanted to lose a year’s production of Halifaxes while the factories were converted to Lancaster production. His superiors thought the cost too high and did not agree. Because Harris pressed as many Lancasters as possible into front-line service, few were available for training, and the crews began their heavy bomber flying on Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Often these aircraft were worn, battered, early models, and some of the enthusiasm for crews for the Lancaster was simply a result of encountering for the first time an aircraft that was new, the most advanced available, and carefully maintained.

Harris was right in his claim about the performance and reliability of the Lancaster. The number of Lancasters on operations that crashed in England was significantly less than that of Halifaxes, half that of Stirlings and one-quarter that of Wellingtons. In its capacity to avoid flak and fighters, the Lancaster’s superiority was not so marked, but the Lancaster’s loss rate was still marginally less than that of the Halifax, clearly less than that of the Wellington and markedly better than that of the Stirling. The enthusiasm of squadrons when they learnt they were converting to Lancasters might have been tempered had they known that their commander was now going to ask more of them and their machines, but on the figures – then yet to be recorded – their celebration was justified.

The Lancaster gave pilots hope, and they returned admiration, even affection. George Hawes encountered the Lancaster soon after it was used in operations. He told his family in April 1942, `They certainly are wizard kites’. After his first solo flight in a Lancaster Geoff Maddern wrote in his diary: `They are the most beautiful kites imaginable to fly – they climb like a bat out of hell, very light and responsive to the controls. The main trouble is trying to keep the speed down … Quite easy to land – you feel them down like a Tiger Moth’. A few days later he tested it further by `shooting up’ Scunthorpe and then: `Coming back feathered an engine and flew hands and feet off on three. Cut another engine and flew on two. It maintains height easily … They’re wizard’. At the other end of the aircraft Tom Simpson, a rear gunner, liked the stability of the Lancaster: `To me every time that you climbed into the Lanc it seemed to say “Pleased to have you aboard. I’ll try to make the flight comfortable” ‘. The Lancaster could climb on three engines; bent and battered it would get the crew home. Fifty years after he flew K for Kitty, Dan Conway wrote: `Just to sit in the cockpit and admire its layout was a great pleasure’.