Worn fleet with an iron will
The Scrap Iron Flotilla : Five Valiant Destroyers and the Australian War in the Mediterranea
by Mike Carlton
William Heinemann Australia, 448pp, $34.99
They may have been the pride of Australia but the Nazi’s infamous propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels referred to them as a load of scrap iron.
Yet by the middle of 1940, all five Australian ships sent to bolster the British fleet were effectively escorting Allied supply convoys and troops, bombarding enemy coasts, and successfully hunting U-boats.
The story of HMAS Vendetta, Vampire, Voyager, Stuart and Waterhen is told in Mike Carlton’s new book The Scrap Iron Flotilla.
To my mind Carlton is one of Australia’s foremost naval historians. His 2010 book Cruiser:The Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and Her Crew is a classic. In Carlton’s latest excellent offering, he explains how, when war against Germany began in early September 1939, the British Admiralty asked the Australian government for assistance in the Mediterranean.
And we heeded the call as we always did, for better and often for worse. Prime minister, Robert Gordon Menzies, was initially sceptical, but he dispatched HMAS Vendetta, Vampire, Voyager, Stuart and Waterhen to beef up the Royal Navy.
And brave as this was, maybe Goebbels had a point. Even the crews of these worn-out WW1 English destroyers often joked that their vessels were held together by string and chewing gum. When he saw photographs of them, the Nazi’s (powerful) propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, contemptuously referred to them as a mere ‘load of scrap iron.’
But here’s the rub, by the middle of 1940, all five ships were doing great work at the expense of the Germans’ best efforts.
Although two previous monographs have dealt with these plucky old destroyers, The Scrap Iron Flotilla is the most detailed analysis, and by far the most insightful.
As Carlton documents, conditions on board all five ships were terrible – “no showers or proper washing facilities; cramped and stinking sleeping quarters; unpleasant meals of spam and tinned sausages, often served cold in a howling squall.” As well as constant bombing and submarine attacks from Axis forces, a bitter enemy was the weather, which ranged “from filthy sandstorms blowing off Africa to icy gales from Europe that whipped up mountainous seas and froze the guns.”
When Nazi Germany invaded Greece on April 4, 1941, the Allied armies – including Australian divisions – reeled in retreat. Vendetta, Vampire, Voyager, Stuart and Waterhen were among those ships who rescued thousands of Allied troops.
On April 10, the siege of the Libyan port city of Tobruk began. Between April and August 1941,a German–Italian army, commanded by the wily “Desert Fox”, General Erwin Rommel, held at bay 14,000 Australian soldiers .To give them much-needed aid and comfort, the five destroyers ran ‘the Tobruk Ferry’, bringing supplies of food, medicine, and ammunition by night and rescuing wounded soldiers.
After HMAS Waterhen was sunk in the Mediterranean, the surviving destroyers struggled from constant engine breakdowns, with their beleaguered sailors having endured two years of bombings, wild seas, and the endless fear of being sunk. In late 1941 the four ships staggered back to Australia, with the crews proudly calling themselves, in defiance of the Goebbels’ sneer, ‘The Scrap Iron Flotilla.’
Thanks to Mike Carlton’s immaculate research and crystal-clear writing, that flotilla is now an immortal, yet easily accessible, part of Australian naval history.
As it turned out, HMAS Vendetta was the only one of the remaining valiant destroyers that survived the end of World War Two. The story of courage and endurance behind these ships lives on though and it’s an inspiring one. And while Carlton gives us all the facts, he certainly doesn’t let those facts get in the way of a good story.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Professor Fitzgerald’s most recent books are Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Grafton Everest political satire, The Lowest Depths, published by Hybrid.
The Weekend Australian, July 30-31, 2022, Review, Books p 18.
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