At the commencement of World War II, Australia supported Great Britain and was at war with Germany and Italy (later with Japan). The initial support provided by Australia to Great Britain was provided by the Royal Australian Navy. On receipt of the signal by telegram, “Total Germany repeat total Germany”, the Australian Navy knew that it is was at war in support of Britain against Germany. The signal was received on Sunday, 3 September 1939 and 9:50 p.m. This started the mobilisation of the Australian Navy reservists and the conversion of civilian vessels to wartime use. Within a month of the signal being received, three armed merchant cruisers were in commission and Australia’s only destroyers had left Australian waters heading for the Mediterranean Sea.
In particular, five old World War I vintage destroyers were sent to the Mediterranean. The destroyers were HMAS Stuart (a Scott Class destroyer leader) and four V&W class destroyers, HMASs Vendetta, Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen. This flotilla had been described by the German propaganda minister, Goebbels, as the “scrap iron flotilla” because of the age of the vessels. It is true, they were old ships, built at the end of the First World War, but they proved to be tough in action and have a very distinguished battle history. Later, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham commented: “Nobody will appreciate the ‘scrap’ better than the officers and men of the Australian destroyers.” [For non English as a first language speakers, ‘scrap’ is also slang, especially in the 1940’s, for a fight or brawl].
The destroyers rendezvoused at Singapore and carried out some training exercises. These were principally in the area of anti-submarine warfare as Australian waters had not seen submarines since Oxley and Otway had left the station many years before. On 13 November 1939, the five vessels sailed from Singapore heading to Colombo. It was whilst in Colombo that news reached the area of the sinking of the British freighter Africa Shell in the Indian Ocean. Some had postulated that the Deutschland was responsible, others that it was the Graf Spee. It did not really matter in either case as the flotilla members worked out the best strategy to handle either vessel if they were encountered. The fact that three cruisers only just managed to take the Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate in the end cannot have been lost on the crews of the flotilla.
The flotilla then sailed to the harbour of Diego Suarez. From there, they sailed through the Red Sea and in line astern, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea. The flotilla then sailed to and entered Malta just before Christmas 1939. The destroyers then worked at convoy escort over the following months, sailing with and providing protection for convoys to and from France (Marseilles in particular) as well convoys between Egypt and Malta and Malta and Gibraltar.
By mid 1940, the five destroyers of the Scrap Iron Flotilla were incorporated as part of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain Waller. Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940. At this time, four of the Australian destroyers were on patrol (Stuart, Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen – Vendetta being in dock in Malta at that time under refit). Of the threats that Italy posed in the Mediterranean at this time, probably the largest came from the Italian submarine fleet, which at this time was larger than that of Germany. In fact, the Italian fleet at this time consisted of a large number of surface vessels as well, many new.
Vendetta was therefore in dock when the first Italian air raids fell on Malta. When the air defence of Malta was left to three aging Gloster Gladiator bi-planes. The crew from Vendetta were detailed to assist the Army defenders during the raids. The three bi-planes were nicknamed “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity”. There were more pilots than aircraft at this time. Vendetta remained in refit for some weeks. Her captain at this time was Lieutenant-Commander R. Rhoades, who was later awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.
Actually, Vendetta has quite a history of being in dock and under air attack. Malta was not the last time that this happened and there is the famous tale of Vendetta being in dock in Singapore when the Japanese attacked. There is a separate article about that elsewhere in Thomo’s Hole – search the Hole with the term ‘Vendetta‘ for details.
Stuart was the first ship of this Scrap Iron Flotilla to go to action stations genuinely. Previously all calls to action stations had been drills so in the morning of 11 June when a lockout spotted ships in the horizon “bearing green three-oh”, the call to action stations also included the expression “Dinkum, dinkum, dinkum” so that the sailors knew the call was real and not another drill. There were four ships apparently sighted and the Stuart heaved to for action. As the distance closed, there were some quick estimates made, the ship expecting to be facing a cruiser and three destroyers. As the distance closed even further it was discovered that the small enemy fleet the Stuart was preparing to engage was, in fact, the tug Respond and three barges being towed from Malta.
On 12 June, Stuart encountered and crossed a number of minefields. On 13 June 1940, Voyager, under Lieutenant-Commander Morrow was chasing the submarine laying mines. The submarine was detected that night and three passes with depth charges were made. The submarine was forced to the surface by this attack where the 4″ guns of the Voyager quickly engaged the submarine. The submarine submerged again and whilst at the time it was felt that the crew had sunk it, it was not until several days later that Voyager had her first confirmed kill. At this point, Italy had been in the war for three days and it looked like Italy had lost it’s first submarine destroyed of the Second World War.
Stuart however had noticed the gunfire and the depth charge explosions and was heading to assist. Again she had to thread her way through a minefield – one laid by that submarine – for two hours. At 3:14 a.m. on 14 June 1940, Voyager detected another submarine. Unfortunately, Voyager was out of depth charges so flashed the position of the submarine to Stuart. Stuart made a series of depth-charge attacks. This did not force the submarine to the surface but the discovery of a two and a half mile long oil patch in the position of the attack the following morning by Vampire indicated that the submarine had shattered under the surface and sunk.
This then was the six months of the Scrap Iron Flotilla’s service in the Mediterranean. The ships of the flotilla engaged at various times in anti-submarine work, shore bombardment, fleet actions (Stuart and Vendetta being present at the Battle of Matapan) and convoy protection. The Scrap Iron Flotilla were in the Mediterranean for two years (until September 1941). All in all, the losses suffered by the Scrap Iron Flotilla were the loss of the Waterhen to aerial bombardment (although no crew were lost). In total, there were less than 20 casualties overall from all five vessels. On the other side the Scrap Iron Flotilla had sunk nearly a score of Italian submarines (there may have been more), two cruisers torpedoed, the shelling of a destroyer and the capture and sinking of other vessels. as well as shore bombardment along the North African coast from Sollum to Tripoli.
The Scrap Iron Flotilla certainly created a fine reputation for itself. Details of the vessels are placed elsewhere in Thomo’s Hole.
Note that you can read the full text of John F Moyes’ Scrap-Iron Flotilla first published in 1943 in Sydney by the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Pty Ltd on the Gun Plot Website. I guess this book is out of copyright now. There are a number of other useful articles on that site concerning Australian warships.
Also, there is another article in Thomo’s Hole concerning the towing of HMAS Vendetta from Singapore to Australia in January 1942 that may interest you.