Account of Petty Officer Electrician Tom Richards of HMS Aurora - December 18th to 25th 1941Account of Petty Officer Electrician Tom Richards of HMS Aurora - December 18th to 25th 1941
The next day was one which it will be impossible for me to ever forget. Neither will my shipmates, I fancy. It will stay also in the memory of those many relatives who lost sons, husbands and fathers in the adventure and the tragedy which I am about to relate. Death and destruction descended upon the little ships of Force K this day, not due to direct enemy action but due to what I have always regarded as a mean and despicable weapon of war – the sea mine. All warring nations use it and as long as there is war they will continue to do so no matter in what shape or form as long as there are such vessels as ships to destroy. My reason in calling these deadly weapons “despicable” is because no matter how good or efficient is the ship or the Captain or the Navigator, or even the instruments which are used against mines, the ugly thing just waits and waits for the vessel to commit “suicide” by rubbing itself against the deadly horns or by approaching to within a certain distance. It has something in common with the Deadly Nightshade or the Toadstool, waiting to be picked up by some small ignorant child who will eat and die. Maybe I feel this way about it because of this sad, yet thrilling, experience. Had the mission which the Force set out to do been a success then I may have thought differently, but it wasn’t.
The Countess did not realise, of course, what was to happen when she skilfully passed on information of a valuable nature to our authorities. The result of such information was that Force K was ordered to raise steam to proceed to sea. Early on the same day a small cruiser had put into Grand Harbour. She was also on the way to Alexandria. It was H.M.S. Neptune, a Portsmouth manned ship. When the order to raise steam was given, it was also given to Neptune.
The news came through when I was standing on the upper deck dressed in football rig, waiting to go ashore to play in the Torpedomen’s team versus the Stokers, a match which was part of an inter-divisional league amongst the ship’s company. As I stood there against the bulkhead by the Regulating Office the Chief Yeoman of Signals went past at speed. He was on his way to the Old Man's cabin..
“Any panic, Bunts?” I yelled after him. He turned hurriedly and nodded. I then waited for him to return and he allowed me to read the signal received but a short time before. It was addressed to Aurora, Penelope and Neptune and two destroyers.
“Raise steam and be ready to sail with all despatch by 1700”.
As I read this I knew the afternoon’s football was out of the question but the thrill of perhaps a coming fight with the enemy was some compensation for this.
I hurried down to change my rig and, as I was doing so, Don came down the ladder.
“What’s the buzz, Tom?”
“Another trip. Listen.” I said as I heard the ship’s loudspeakers switched on.
The Quartermaster’s voice had a sound of excitement in it too.
“Hands will fall in, in fifteen minutes time to secure the ship for sea”.
“Christ, I’ll bet you would have walloped those bloody Stokers too”, moaned the good Don for he was mad about football even although he could not play himself owing to a cartilage.
“Oh, we can play the match any time, old chap, but a trip is a trip, especially if it’s the Countess again”, I answered, feeling a little excited.
“Right enough”, he replied.
All hands were piped to fall in and then the usual routine of securing the ship for sea was undertaken and everything was done to make the ship fit for any emergency or operation which we may be going out to do. While this was being completed the usual buzzes were going the rounds of the ship and I heard about six in as many minutes, all different. The fact that the Neptune was to join up with us made me inclined to think that the job may be a more difficult one than any we had been given to date, such as bombarding. I was quite wrong in my guess.
During tea we all tried to guess about it and Soapy, not having learned a lesson from the last time, proclaimed that this time his buzz could not be doubted: we were going to Gibraltar on the first stage of the journey home. We patiently pointed out that the Admiralty would not send the whole of Force K home and also a ship was already on its way out to the Eastern Med. This had absolutely no effect on the stubborn Soapy. Nothing ever did; he said he would stick to his story.
It so happened that the Captain of the Neptune was slightly senior to our own Captain and we learned that he was to be the Senior Officer of the Force for this trip. We were not inclined to greet this information with much enthusiasm for we were quite happy to have our own “old man” as the Senior Officer. But “orders is orders”.
Sharp at 1700 Neptune left her berth and steamed slowly out of the harbour, followed closely by Aurora and Penelope. The two accompanying destroyers were already out there waiting for us. A small group of people waved to us from the shore. They know we were out after the enemy again. When clear of the harbour all ships increased speed to twenty-five knots. The cruisers were in single line ahead, Neptune leading, then Aurora followed by Penelope.
We then went to action stations to test through and see that all was in readiness for fighting the ship. Don and I got busy on the electrics. Just as I was finishing this the Captain came to the broadcaster to speak to the ship’s company. The phlegmatic cough came first.
“Do you hear there? This is the Captain speaking. I am afraid I haven’t much information to give you this time, except that we are out after a large enemy convoy which is already on the way to Tripoli and, as you have noticed, we must use high speed to make contact with them before they arrive at that port. As far as I can ascertain, we should come up with them at about 0200 if they carry on as they are going. However, the agent from whom the information was obtained has no way of knowing what a convoy is to do after it is once at sea. The ship will be piped to action stations at 0100 unless something develops before that time. Good luck to you all”.
The lads in the cabush then went into a huddle and discussed the strategy which they would apply to the situation and the coming meeting with the Italians. Ted Sharp became over enthusiastic now about the Countess. There was nothing too good to say of her according to her past record with Aurora. She was “tops” with Ted. She was with all of us.
“What are we on for supper?” yelled Don as he worked at the vice, filing a piece of silver to make his wife an identity disc.
“Irish stew, fresh out of the tin”, I replied.
“Right, let’s go and get it”, he suggested, putting down his tools and wiping his hands on the seat of his trousers. So we both proceeded to the mess where we found poor Soapy taking the “can” back worse than ever over his latest, but stupid, buzz.
The Irish stew was quite good and was camouflaged with lashings of curry. We always seemed to eat much better when at sea and this evening the crockery was steady on the table as the sea was quite calm. After the meal some of us played a little cribbage and then “nattered” generally amongst ourselves. I often wondered what civilians might think if they could be secretly nearby, listening to the “sailors’ natter”. Theirs is the only conversation like it in the world, I should imagine, and can be very instructive in the use of strange words and phrases. It is unique, to say the least.
Smutty stories and jokes came into their own from the ever eager lips of the O.A. who held the “floor” for half an hour. His expressions were a speciality and he must have possessed an extraordinary imagination.
Of course, Adolph and Benito received their usual quota of matelots’ scorn etc. and Lord Haw Haw’s ancestry was put to the vote but the said Lord did not emerge with any credit, much less a father.
All this passed a jolly hour or so and caused a laugh or two. Don and I then left the mess when Ted poked his head inside the door and shouted, "Hey Tom, Oxos up."
We went down to the cabush and had the beverage, talking again of the things that mattered to the average sailor. We always had Oxo at night at sea: why, I do not know, but it was a habit that stuck all the time I was in the ship. It was a change from the usual “tea boat” which is wet so many times a day on board any British warship. Tea is the next best bet for the average sailor if beer is not available. I rather liked old Ted’s saying about sailors in general:- “A matelot is a queer ‘animile' ‘cos he flits from ship to ship and pub to pub”.
At 2230 I suggested that we should endeavour to get a little shuteye before the party began and Don, agreeing with me, took his tool bag and went along to the Electrical Workshop which was his Night Action Station. I provided myself with lifebelt, torch and “tot” bottle. In the latter article I always had a tot of rum which I could quickly drink if I ever had to abandon ship by swimming for it in cold water. I then rolled up my oilskin for a pillow and got my head down. Before I went off to sleep I had my usual “five minutes think of home”. The rhythm of the ship’s speed and the steady noise of the Low Power Generators which were installed in the cabush, accompanied by the low pitched squeaking of the spring steel in the bulkheads, made it very easy for one to sleep and I dropped off quickly.
I was awakened much latter when a heavy thud shook the ship and all sorts of loose materials rattled in the places where they were stowed. Ted, who had been asleep opposite me, was instantly on his feet and I was not long in following his example. We both stood still, looking at each other. Ted’s mouth was open. Whatever explosion it had been we knew our ship was not involved. Another explosion then shook the ship considerably, for it was much nearer this time. I felt our own ship decrease speed immediately.
“What the bloody hell’s goin’ on, Tom”, asked Ted of me.
Before I could reply, the loudest nerve racking explosion of all time threw me across one of the generators, bruising me badly. The lights went out and the lamps smashed in a thousand fragments about us. Heavy articles on the deck were thumping and crashing about and the sound of dozens of plates and cups breaking, came down the hatchway to us. The ship, I swear, rose and dropped again by a matter of feet at least and then seemed to be trying to shake her bows off for several seconds. It all happened in the course of seconds, long seconds, long enough for an overwhelming panic to surge through my breast as I struggled to my feet again, groping in the intense darkness. I yelled to Ted. What I said I do not remember. He yelled back to me, “For Christ’s sake, put the lights on”. He had forgotten that they were now useless.
The ship started to heel over to Port slowly. Horror and panic afresh seized me. We were sinking. It did not seem possible – our ship sinking? I felt very afraid when I instantly thought how far down in the ship’s “bowels” we were, and no lights.
“My shoes. I must find my shoes”. I must have said this aloud for Ted shouted angrily, “Damn your shoes. You’ll go to heaven looking for them”.
I made for the direction of the ladder.
“Get up the bloody thing”, yelled Ted, as he shot past me and struggled up the ladder against the heel of the ship. It was hard going but I made it eventually. I now had two flats and one more ladder to traverse.
I knew my way in the dark by touching things on the Torpedomen’s Mess deck and was creeping along successfully when two more explosions shook the ship so much that a mess stool knocked one of my legs from under me and I fell heavily. I was on my feet again in no time but suddenly realised with horror that I did not recognise any of the objects I was trying to touch. Large kit lockers should be here but they weren’t any longer. I stumbled blindly on.
“Ted, Ted, Ted, for Christ’s sake” I yelled in panic and distress. I remember I sobbed a little, in self pity, I suppose.
I’ll never make it, I was sure of that, for she was going over more now and I was alone on that huge mess deck.
Plain fear took its hold on me. I scrambled forward and stumbled violently over some gear. I got up and in doing so hit my shoulder but did not mind the pain. It felt like a Shot Hoist motor. Shot Hoist? Thank God, I now knew where I was. The ladder must be here. It was, and rapidly I clawed at it, hoisting myself up with my chin almost scraping the steps of it. The fear began to subside a little now for I was on the level of the upper deck although I still had to feel my way through this dark flat. I had to find my way, just had to.
Joy entered into my mind like a flood of daylight as I suddenly noticed a faint light at the other end of the flat; faint, it’s true, but it was enough. In a few moments that seemed far too long I was there at the light which came from a secondary lighting lamp. There were five of my shipmates there at the watertight door which led out to the upper deck and they were banging on the door and trying to unfasten the clips which held it. New panic seized my mind for the door was closed to us securely.
I banged with them, uttering profanity to the chaps the other side of the door as they put on the clips again as we removed them. They were doing right, I dimly realised that, but it didn’t make sense now that it was me this side of it. We gave it up as we suddenly realised that the ship had stopped heeling over and must have been stopped some time but we had not noticed it.
They banged on the other side of the door and then the clips began to fall off. The door swung open and light from the very small flat beyond shone on to our faces. I hesitate to think of what I looked like then.
The Commander, sweating with his exertions of the previous fifteen minutes, was the first to enter our compartment, the Sick Bay flat. He continued walking for’d as well as he could on the deck which now had a slope of thirty-two degrees.
“We had better get the lights going again in these for’d spaces as soon as possible, Petty Officer Richards”, he said loudly to me.
“V-very g-good, sir”, I replied, still sweating and panting for my second wind.
I shuffled beside him, a small army of shipwrights and a damage repair party behind me.
“What’s happened, sir?” I asked him. Curiosity, very strong in me, prompted the question.
“The ship has hit a mine for’d here. We must ascertain the damage”.
I left him with the shipwrights following him then.
Mined. Of all the things to happen to us; to Aurora. It did not seem true that the ship was still afloat, especially with a list like this.
I hunted round without a torch for the emergency lighting cable and lamps and, on finding them in their proper stowages, I began to rig them up. The panic was gone completely now but I was still shaking a bit, yet here I was, still the same Tom Richards, doing a job of ordinary work whereas a few moments ago it seemed fairly certain that I was to face my Maker. How good I felt now, how very brave once more. It tickled me pink and I think I laughed. Such is the human mind when one has been reprieved from violence. But looking back now on this experience, I am sure that the mere fact of being trapped in the “guts” of the ship made me think and feel the flood of panic and fear that assailed me.
I had the first flat illuminated now and quickly started on the second one. After having completed this I made the switch and the space was lit up, but to my dismay I saw that all the portholes in there had been blown off by the explosion which had occurred directly beneath and at the bottom of the ship. I put out the lights again and told some repair party what had happened. They quickly blocked the holes up with hammocks that were lying about and then I was able to switch the lights on again. Plenty of ratings were now coming for’d and one of the first was Ted. I was glad to see him. We greeted each other with broad grins, standing amongst the junk heap which not long ago had been an orderly mess deck.
“Blimey, Tom, we’ve caught it up all right, ain’t we?” he asked in a fairly hushed voice and taking out his tobacco pouch.
“What’s happened then?” I asked by way of an answer.
“Well, we got a mine for’d here”.
“I know that, but what were all the other explosions?”
“Christ, don’t you know?”
“Look, Ted, I’ve been for’d here since you last saw me. How in hell would I know?”
“Well, the old Neptune has been sunk and the Kandahar has hit a couple of mines. ‘Pepperpot’ had a near miss on her paravane”.
My brain would not cope with this terrible news all at once and I made Ted repeat it. I thought that he must have it all wrong, but he was correct.
We both carried on to the next flat, getting the lighting going again and talking all the time we were working. The repair parties were examining the flooded spaces down below, shoring up bulkheads and testing other damage such as broken and leaking pipes etc. There had been quite a few injured in the explosion and now these were being brought past us and along to the Sick Bay.
Some of them were able to walk and others were being carried along the sloping deck with difficulty. Young Coombes was the first one to come past, carried on a stretcher, a nasty gash in his forehead, protesting that he could manage well enough under his own power. Then Lofty, a very tall, ginger-headed Royal Marine, walking with an arm limp by his side and grimacing with pain as it swayed. There was a stoker on a stretcher, still unconscious, with a grimy rag soaked in blood wrapped around a broken head. Altogether there were seventeen such cases but none of which were extremely serious.
The Engineers were trying very hard to get the ship back to an even keel and she was gradually coming to it. This was being done by flooding compartments on the opposite side of the ship to the spaces that were already flooded by the explosion. The extent of the damage could not be determined correctly but it was known that several compartments on the Port side, for’d and below the bridge, were flooded but the watertight doors were holding perfectly. The work of clearing up was going on at a fast rate now and mess decks and other compartments were looking more like they should.
After collecting my electrical party together and getting all circuits working again, I found time to take a breath of well-earned fresh air so I walked to the upper deck. It was then that I realised how badly I had bruised myself. Certain spots of my body felt very tender. But then I didn’t mind for it could have been a hundred per cent worse. Whilst I was on the upper deck I was able to gather together the following information in regard to what had happened. The ship was now on an even keel.
The first intimation that anything was to happen to the Force came when the Neptune, without any warning whatever, struck a mine and a great plume of water rose beside her, being seen from the Aurora’s bridge in the faint moonlight that was available. Our formation had not been changed since leaving Malta so that we were at four cables astern of Neptune. This mine must have been the first explosion which woke Ted and me.
Our Captain then reduced speed immediately. Neptune then hit another mine as she was turning to Port. According to our onlookers, this one exploded immediately beneath her and seemed to lift her bodily out of the water and, as she dropped back again, the ship churned the water to foam with her weight. The Captain of Neptune then flashed a signal to Aurora.
“Am sinking. Have struck mines. Keep away”.
Immediately after this signal was received our ship struck her mine but very fortunately only the one. The gigantic mountain of water enveloped the ship from for’d to aft, drenching everyone above the upper deck and flooding one or two spaces on that level. Even as this was happening to us, two more explosions occurred in the direction of the poor, wrecked and defenceless Neptune and she had almost been blown to pieces by two more of the fiendish things. She sank instantly or, rather, what remained of her did. One man only out of her crew of six hundred was saved, the remainder must almost certainly have been killed during the last two detonations. I believe this one survivor was captured by the enemy and made a prisoner in North Africa.
Penelope exploded one of the objects with her paravane and, apart from shaking the ship up severely, she got away without any damage. She had stopped immediately the first mine had gone off, otherwise there may have been a collision between her and our ship. The destroyers had not entered the mine field as they were so far astern on Penelope’s Quarters. Our Captain, having taken over Senior Officer now that Neptune had sunk, ordered the destroyers to lie off at a safe distance away from the mine field. The destroyer first in receipt of this message flashed over a reply.
“In regard to shallow draft, request permission to pick up Neptune’s survivors”.
This must have caused the “old man” plenty of worry, whether to let him do so or to refuse. No one knew that there were no survivors at this time. After some hesitation, he sent the necessary permission and also some words of caution to the brave young Captain. The destroyer was H.M.S. Kandahar.
The little ship slowly moved in the direction of the Neptune’s sinking until she had almost arrived there. She then hit the mine which had been waiting for her. This killed some of the crew and rendered her incapable of using her engines and she drifted after that. It wasn’t many minutes after the last explosion had died away that another rent the night. Kandahar had again been struck. She lay then on the water, helpless and almost in two pieces. It was remarkable that the little vessel could survive two mines still afloat. This indeed is a feather in the cap of the shipbuilders who built her. She was still afloat the next day too.
I would like to pay a tribute here to the men of this small destroyer who so willingly went to the rescue of men who were swimming in the water, as Kandahar thought they were, in the middle of as dangerous a spot as a mine field. Yes, Kandahar and her crew upheld the traditions of the Royal Navy that night in no uncertain manner.
The other destroyer now put the same request to our Captain but permission was naturaly refused.
Having thus found out the information of all that had occurred I again went below to the cabush and enjoyed a smoke while I made up.my diary with first hand information Movement of the ship’s screws told me once more the ship was slowly getting up some speed. I wondered what was to happen: we were still in the middle of the mine field.
Don and Ted were there with me and had they not been I should have gone up to the upper deck right away for I had had enough of the cabush when hitting mines for one day. Now we looked at each other, then Ted said, “Keep your fingers crossed, boys”.
Ted and I did not answer. Don’s face was as strained and as tense as Ted’s, and my own could not have been better than theirs.
By way of easing the situation, the Commander spoke over the broadcaster as the ship slowly nosed around to Port. He spoke in a semi-jovial voice, “Commander speaking. I took the liberty, ahem, a short while ago, to tell the chef in the galley to brew some tea and to make enough corned beef sandwiches for everyone. I have just been informed that these are now ready in the galley. So let us have everyone eating and drinking. I strongly advise one and all to take advantage of this as we may not get another chance for a meal after daylight. The ship is now on her way back to Malta but at a reduced speed of nine knots. As far as we can tell, the damage we have suffered will allow us to get home, as long as the weather holds. That’s all”.
We sent for the tea and corned beef and tucked into them heartily. Ted broke the silence as we feasted, by exclaiming, “Seeing that we are having corned beef tonight, I suppose we’ll be on Irish Stew for our bloody Christmas dinner?”.
“You’re alive, aren’t you?” asked Don, rather aggressively. Ted then grinned. I guess we all felt a little peeved about the outcome of the evening but we also had a lot to be thankful for. But we were not out of danger yet. I’d be very glad when we were clear of the mine field. The ship was still going very slowly yet: in fact she hardly seemed to be moving.
The Captain had ordered Penelope and the remaining destroyer to proceed to Malta at best speed as soon as Penelope was clear of danger. So away they went, but not before Penelope had requested to remain behind with us as a guard ship and escort. Permission was refused with thanks.
There was not a man on board us who did not feel sad at having to leave the Kandahar as she was. They had rafts and a boat, it’s true, but we were not to know that these were not smashed in the explosions. It was a truly bad state of affairs but there was nothing the Aurora could do about it or it would have done, and immediately. Suddenly the awaited pips came over the loudspeakers, “The ship is now clear of the mine field”.
We all relaxed and I felt very relieved.
The scene of this disaster was only twenty-one miles from Tripoli itself, near enough to have just missed our quarry. The mine field was later found to have been a freshly laid one of which we knew nothing. Of the Kandahar, eight of her officers and one hundred and seventy of her crew were rescued by the destroyer H.M.S. Jaguar which left Malta with all despatch the next morning. A remarkable fact was that the Kandahar had to be sunk by Jaguar when all the survivors had been rescued.
Conversation in the L.P. room was again interrupted by the pips, “The hands will go to action stations at first light”.
It appeared that the Captain was not going to be caught napping by hostile aircraft in the morning with a damaged ship on his hands. As it was, we did not have long to wait for the first light of the dawn as the episode had taken up a fair time. I prayed that the weather would hold so that we might keep to the speed we were doing. Besides which, bad weather could be as dangerous to a damaged ship as the enemy, sometimes worse. At the present speed we could not hope to reach Grand Harbour before the next night.
Ted and I talked in regard to what had happened to each other when we had scrambled up out of the cabush after the explosion. He told me that he had groped his way to the Starboard side, instead of the Port side of the same deck. There had not been so much stuff to fall over on his side as on mine and he therefore made his escape quicker. As we talked I noticed that in the spot where I had been lying, prior to the explosion, was my lifebelt, torch and tot bottle. The torch would have saved me a lot of worry if I had remembered it. The lifebelt may have saved my life had I been forced to leave the ship. Since that day I have never once been at sea without having these two precious articles tied to my person and even when having a bath they were very close beside me. A lesson well learned.
We three then tried to sleep, but after a minute or so I got up for my mind was too full to think of sleeping and I spent half an hour reading. This was medicine enough and I lay down again, and after my ‘five minutes’, dropped off to sleep. It did not seem that I had slept long when the pipe that “The hands will go to action stations in five minutes time” awoke me. I was fully awake instantly and the night’s events came flooding back into my mind.
I went on deck right away and found that the sea was very calm, just as if we had ordered it to be so. It put me in a better frame of mind immediately. Another pleasing thing I found out was that the ship had been doing a speed of fourteen knots since I had gone to sleep. This was good news for it meant that we should arrive at Malta that much earlier. I proceeded to the gun deck as “Action” was being piped, and set to work on testing.
The gun crews got everything on top line to receive the onslaught which we were all expecting from the enemy dawn patrols. We lounged about the gunshields waiting, chatting of the night before. The dawn came quickly and not long after it the sun began to rise and shine.
We remained at action stations until eleven in the forenoon, then, as nothing had been sighted, the cruising watch was closed up and the remainder dismissed. We felt better now that the menace had not developed, for it was no joke to await air attack whilst sitting in a damaged ship with a limit to the speed and manoeuvring which she could carry out.
The Captain had asked for air support from Malta but the reply stated that none was available owing to other commitments. We did not mind this too much for we knew that the R.A.F. boys had plenty to do as it was.
The day went well until, at three in the afternoon, the alarm was sounded through the ship. Arriving on the gun deck, I found that this was only due to ‘Georgie’ being sighted. He was lying high up and well astern. I should add that this name was given to all enemy reconnaissance aircraft that appeared near the ship. Several rounds of four inch were fired as near to him as possible to keep him off because one could never say for sure that he was spotting only. After a few minutes the plane disappeared and we had a good idea that we would see his chums very soon.
We received a wireless message to the effect that Penelope and the destroyer Lance had arrived in Malta safely some hours before, so that was something. The hands were kept at action stations awaiting the enemy and every one was ready for them. No one felt surprise when the alarm was given at 1615 and hostile aircraft were sighted at Red 145 degrees. The sky was clear except for small patches of cloud and visibility was good.
I first caught a glimpse of them when the order came through to “Follow Director”. There were ten of them, a goodly number to attack one ship. Our Port guns opened fire with long barrage fuse set on the projectiles. As they began to burst near to the planes, the latter split up into small groups. I kept my eye on the nearest of them. They were the usual J.U.88’s. The guns went into rapid fire as the enemy started their dives. They came in from all directions and, it seemed, all at once. They dropped plenty of bombs and I can only wonder why the Aurora was not hit. It was incredible that any ship should take so many near misses without the bullseye being scored at least once. The Captain handled the ship most efficiently throughout the whole attack. I think it was due to his having done so that we were not hit. Many times I had good reason to duck low as the bursting of a bomb close by shot a huge column of water into the air, some of it landing on board, for’d. Shrapnel cut its path through the ship’s steel plates in many places. No serious damage resulted however, except an instrument broken here and there, and a cable supplying telephones being hit. Hundreds of rounds of close range shells and bullets were fired at the Huns, as well as a lot of four and six inch. The boys at the guns did a wonderful job during this raid and a new record for a fast rate of fire was established on the gun deck. The lads were very proud of this.
After the dive bombers had finished their attack and were tootling off out of sight, the six inch armament was called upon to deal with several Savoia torpedo bombers which appeared. The big brutes seemed to hesitate on the horizon for some time before the Captain got tired of waiting and opened fire them, showing them we had some ammunition left. Then they came in to the attack. Two of the enemy came in from the direction of the Port bow and three more from astern. I watched those astern, which the after turret was now engaging.
The pilots were determined and came on in spite of the opposition, weaving the heavy planes as best they could. They all three steadied up together and dropped their torpedoes almost simultaneously. I yelled to Robby above the crashing of the guns, “Here they come, Robby. Hold your hat on when they hit”.
Surprisingly enough Robby put his hands up to his hat as he intently watched the sea where the torpedoes had hit the water. I rushed to the Port side to see what the other two aircraft were doing. They were banking away, having already sent their torpedoes on their way. I waited for the Captain to turn the ship. God, why doesn’t he?
Slowly she came round after what seemed ages to me, and presented her bow to the menace on the Port side. They were the ones that mattered, more so than the ones astern. Ship and torpedoes were now rushing towards each other. Those moments were tense and I found myself biting my fingernails, a habit which I cannot remember having tried before. Nothing happened and I did not even see a track of one of the tinfish. I breathed freely again. The ship was brought back to her original course again. The guns had stopped firing and the Savoia's were almost out of sight. All was quiet.
Out came cigarettes and matches for the inevitable smoke. The grins of satisfaction were evident on all faces: another attack had just been withstood with no loss to our side. Malta could not be very far away now. We stayed at action stations for half an hour, after which we were dismissed once again after being warned to close up at the rush if the alarm sounded.
As I made my way below I found that the ship had suffered one casualty only. He was an A.B. by the name of Lee, an Oerlikon gunner, whose gun was situated on the top of Y turret. A large piece of shrapnel had torn off his left hand. He was now in the Sick Bay under the care of the Doc.
Nothing more developed from the enemy and at dusk Malta was sighted right ahead. I felt very thankful, and so did every one else, that we had made it alright and that the Huns had not chosen to attack again. But even then we did not have much respect for the Luftwaffe because, in view of the number of attacks they had made upon us since we first arrived in the Med, they still had not done us serious harm. Their attacks were alright but they could not drop bombs with any great degree of accuracy, otherwise Aurora would have been at the bottom of the sea by now.
Few people saw us enter the harbour that evening for it was dark by then, and a few very dim lights on Parlatorio Wharf was the only sign that Malta was ready to receive the ship.
As we berthed alongside from this disappointing and tragic trip to sea I do not think any of the ship’s company were disheartened; we knew well that now we had succeeded in bringing the ship to harbour, she would again be out to mix it with the foe as soon as she could be repaired. Then that would be our turn again. It wouldn’t be long.
As we turned into our hammocks that night, Don and I spoke of the way things had turned out and we admitted that we certainly were lucky to be laying in Malta again. I slept well in spite of the night bombing by the enemy, for I thought that if they could not hit us by dive bombing during daylight, they certainly couldn’t at night.
The next day proved to be a very busy one for the ship’s company as all preparations had to be made for the docking of the ship. She had to be de-ammunitioned, which once more had to be done during the day’s air raids. One of these raids was the fiercest that we had experienced in Malta, and the dockyard was plastered with bombs, a lot of which were delayed action. The ship suffered no damage beyond a severe shaking-up from two near misses. The ammunition was got out of the ship just the same, except the four and six inch stuff and that needed for the close range weapons. All this was needed for firing the guns whilst we were in dock for Malta needed every gun available. It had not been permitted by the Admiralty for a warship to fire heavy guns while in dry dock but here it was a vital necessity.
The extent of the ship’s damage could not be ascertained until she was put into dock but many compartments had flooded since we had left the scene of the disaster. The largest of these was an oil fuel tank, three store rooms, the torpedomen’s small gear store and a lower mess deck. Water had also found its way into lots of other places due to sprung rivets.
The number of raids during the day increased to seven altogether and proved the fact that the Germans were stepping them up, not only in severity but in numbers as well. The guns of Aurora and Penelope were in constant action all the day long and did well to keep away many attackers from the dockyard area. In spite of a thick and concentrated barrage however, a lot of the enemy managed to get through and drop their bombs.
Some consternation was caused when a bomb exploded on the Pumping Station which pumped the dock dry into which the ship was to be docked. Examination showed that the damage could be repaired in about two days, working at 'high pressure'. The work was therefore started immediately.
The number of casualties on the island for the day was not many taking into consideration the amount of high explosive dropped. A lavatory in the Dockyard received a direct hit, killing five workmen and one Naval Rating from a small ship close by. A bus carrying several women and two men, going from Valetta to Sliema, was blown almost to pieces. At Conspicus a café was demolished, burying nine people who were dead when rescued.
From this day on the Huns kept it up all the time, stepping up their night raids as well. The enemy did not get away with it entirely for many of their bombers crashed in flames and were shot down by fighters, the score being published in the Malta Times each day. It was very thrilling to watch the dog fights taking place in the very clear Malta sky and sometimes they took place only a few thousand feet up. We used to cheer the R.A.F. boys on then for numbers were heavily against them. They were doing a grand job and no-one knew it better than the Maltese people. The British flyers also had their losses too and we were sad whenever a Hurricane came crashing down. We could not afford to lose the boys and the planes were worth their weight in gold to the island fortress.
After two days the Pumping Station had been repaired and the Aurora left Parlatorio Wharf and entered the dock. Water was pumped out of the dock until the ship was resting on the wooden chocks at the bottom and the shores were set up in position. After tea that day, being as curious as everyone else, I went down to the bottom of the dock and examined the damaged hull.
I was very surprised to find that there was no great gaping hole as I had imagined there would be. But the damager was quite bad enough as it was; in fact a large hole would have been easier to mend, so an Engineer told me. True, there were holes but none of them were more than two feet in diameter, but there were many. For a length of almost a hundred feet from the bow to abaft the bridge, the hull of the ship, at the waterline and to the keel, on both sides, was crushed in concertina-like fashion. The “hollows” ran for the length of the damage, and in each one of them several men could lay out full length. The bulges were broken in scores of places where ribs and longitudinals of the ship’s structure poked through the steel plates. This damage was extensive enough to keep the ship in dry dock for several weeks, a situation which was not very pleasing to the ships company. All the ships were needed in the Med more than ever at this time for the Navy had an enormous job to do out there and not many ships to do it with. Not only would the loss of the Neptune and the Kandahar be felt but that of the Aurora, at least for many weeks to come. Neither was it going to be very pleasant to be in dock while bombs were exploding around and about. But there it was and it had to be accepted by us all.
It had only taken two days to make good the minor defects of Penelope due to the shaking she had received and she was now completed, fit once more for operational services. She alone would be carrying on for Force K and it would be a hard task, but then war is.
The dockyard immediately took Aurora in hand and the work began by the removal of the plates. Stores smothered in oil fuel from the flooded fuel tank were removed from the ship and the flooded compartments were drained off. Then all gear was taken out of them ready for the work to be taken in hand. Great difficulty was experienced now that the raids were so frequent because all the dockyard workmen, working in the bottom of the dock, had to climb all the way out of it as soon as the siren sounded. After each raid, no sooner had they returned to the work than they had to come up out of it again. There was no question of them staying down there for had a bomb hit the ship, their deaths would have resulted without doubt. In this way the time lost was considerable.
There was also a great danger to the ship itself capsizing in the dock. She was not completely flat-bottomed, of course, and was kept in an upright position, mainly by the shores, and every time we had to fire the guns, the shores would loosen up due to the enormous vibration and shaking of the ship. There was a chance too that a bomb may blast away the shores on one side, the result being a catastrophe for the ship, This actually happened some weeks later but on that occasion we were lucky, as the reader may judge.
All these grave risks had to be taken for there was no solution to the, but I must admit that I for one did not feel too happy every time we fired our guns and the ship vibrated violently. The vibration was not so excessive with the ship afloat for the shock was taken up by the surrounding water.
After each raid during which our heavy guns were used a crowd of dockyard workers would be seen going around the shores and tightening them up by hammering the wedges in a little more. Thus more time was often lost.
An average of five hundred tons of bombs was being dropped on the island daily now and for the size of it and the few targets which it presented to the enemy, this was plenty, and a bit more besides. It called for a great effort on the part of all the Maltese people and the work of clearing debris and filling in craters on bomb blasted aerodromes took up the twenty four hours in every day that passed. The people responded without being urged and helped the Military authorities as well as they were able.
At last Christmas Day dawned with sunshine on the island fortress and the bells of the many churches chimed out in joyous peals. On board the ship we celebrated as much as we could and when rum was issued at dinner time the boys could be seen offering each other a sip of their tot, even the chaps who were not the best of pals received these “sippers” from each other just the same. Many of us had saved a few tots during the past month and we held quite a party in the cabush. The most surprising thing of the day was that no hostile aircraft appeared over the island and it was peaceful as a Christmas Day should be. Whether this was due to any “kindness” on the part of the Huns I do not know but doubt it very much indeed. My own theory is that they were so busy enjoying themselves that they had no time to come raiding on that day. Our own aircraft were in the skies over the Sicilian aerodromes, however, strafing and bombing them. This was the second raidless day that Malta had enjoyed in as many months and it proved to be the last for many weeks.
At noon I went ashore and spent the remainder of the day with some English friends and we had a good time as far as the situation permitted. The two little children had their one or two toys and, in spite of their bomb-shaken minds, they were very happy, forgetting the war for the day.
On board, the boys had their corned beef for dinner and were well satisfied, even to Ted Sharp!
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