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15 October 2014
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My Life My War - Chapter 9b

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Bernard Hallas
Location of story: 
Matapan, Alexandria, Tripoli, Crete
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 May 2005


Bernard Hallas

Chapter 9b - The Taranto Victory (Cont.)

I decided that once more I would put my story in verse.

The Battle of Matapan.

Alexander was way astern
Our bow was pointed west,
The enemy Fleet had put to sea
And soon would face the test.

Two cruisers teased them Southwards
Such a tempting bait,
Ere dawn had broken in the East
One side would know their fate.

In the dark we lay and waited
All our guns trained on the beam,
Shells and cordite fully loaded
Breeches closed, A gunner’s dream.

Three ships they came a’sailing
The Pola, Zara, Fiume,
In line ahead with guns secured
They were sailing to their doom.

Ahead of them in the darkness
Having laid the bait,
The Warspite, Valiant and Barham
Patiently lay in wait.

The escort ships on either beam
With search lights, torpedo and gun,
Awaited the Flag ship’s signal
In case they decided to run.

For this was a game of cat and mouse
And the mouse was approaching his hole,
But lying in wait was the craftiest cat
That ever played the role.

The radar bleeped its signal
The enemy is on the screen,
Still we lay and waited
Unheard as yet unseen

Then, at the given signal
Blazing “Starshells” dropped astern,
Three enemy ships in silhouette
Sitting ducks just ready to turn

The Searchlights hit them fair and square
The guns crews took their time,
The crossed wires on their gun sights
Lined up on the Plimsoll line.

The intercepting contacts made
The “Ting-Ting” of the bell,
The director layer had made his play
And opened the gates of hell

The turrets spewed their lethal load
The sky erupted in light,
The flames and heat from exploding shells
Was not a pretty sight

Like roman candles, their magazines blazed
It was carnage from stem to stern,
As we turned and made our way to base
Leaving them there to burn.

The smaller ships looked for survivors
And plucked them from the sea,
For sailors are sailors, all over the world
Saying, “Thou shalt not die by me.”

There was no joy in victory
As there is no joy in death,
And safely in our naval base
We prayed beneath our breath.

The battle had been quick and fierce
Now beneath the waves they lie,
And said in the hearts of every man
“But for the Grace of God, go I”.

Today is a day of victory
Or so the headlines ran,
But to them and to us, it was just a word
And that word was “Matapan.”

On board ship in any action, there are not many people who can actually see what is happening. Obviously the best viewpoint is commanded by those fortunate to be on the bridge, excluding the fact that it is also one of the most dangerous, subject to shrapnel and even direct hits.

The four-inch AA crews on the upper deck and the pom-poms are some of the ship’s company who have a first class seat at the action. At the guns themselves who are doing the bombardment, only the gun layers peering through their telescopes can see the targets.

The remainder of the crews can only rely on the remarks of the layers as to what is happening. Suffice it to say that the news that night at Matapan was all good, the next morning, taking stock of the results of the night’s activities, it was a most distressing sight.

There was wreckage everywhere floating in oil-covered water, bodies floating alongside others who were signalling with any object they could find to try and attract attention to their sorry plight. One could feel sorry for the struggling seamen using the dead bodies of their shipmates to help keep them afloat. Our Destroyers were hard put to making some attempt to pick up survivors, but as the radar operators were picking up large groups of aircraft on their screens, this act of mercy had to be abandoned.

It was true to Cunninghams’s nature both as a human being and as a seaman, that a paragraph from the prayer of Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar came to mind: “And may humanity after victory be the predominant feature of the British Fleet.” He signalled the Italian High Command and informed them of the situation and requested that they send assistance to give aid to the struggling men and only then, fearing attacks by submarines and aircraft, did he order the fleet to resume formation and proceed back to base.

As expected Stuka dive-bombers attacked us all the way home, but the planes from the carrier HMS Formidable dealt with the attackers successfully. The next day, ships’ companies cleared lower deck and held short thanksgiving services for the victory. Matapan was a defeat that the Italians could very well have done without, but I suppose that in their opinion, they had to make some sort of showing to save face, it was only a few weeks previous that we had assembled off their main entrance to North Africa.

The port of Tripoli was a well-defended port. Their main defences facing seawards consisted of fourteen gun batteries mounting five inch, six inch, seven point five inch and ten inch guns. There were numerous a/a batteries stationed around the dock area and the harbour itself was protected by a minefield, and within easy reach, there were two main airfields. The whole operation was over in less than two hours and was a complete flop.

Over five hundred tons of high explosive shells only disrupted the port for one day. Three merchant ships were damaged and a very small naval vessel was also damaged. Sad to say, the civilian population came off worst, four hundred either killed or wounded and one hundred of their houses destroyed. Only two or three Stukas, which were beaten off, subjected the fleet to odd attacks and the admiral returned his force to Alexandria, expressing his views to all who would listen, that he was utterly disappointed.

That evening I went ashore fully intending to change into my civilian outfit and take the delightful Toni out for a drink. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the wardrobe in the hotel was completely empty, not only my suit but also the suit of my friend the Stoker had also vanished.

I had some hard words with the hotel manager, but he was adamant that he had nothing to do with their disappearance. He could only say that that afternoon, my partner in crime had gone up to the room with a suitcase and stayed for only two or three minutes. I later found out that he had been drafted off the ship to a shore establishment some hundreds of miles away, and had decided that it would be a good idea to take my suit with him. He knew full well that I was not in a position to complain and in future I would have to go ashore in uniform.

By now we were getting used to the sudden departures of the fleet destroyers, but the next few days they seemed more active than usual, it was apparent that something unusual was happening. We were soon to find out the unpleasant news. The island of Crete, which we had defended for more than six months, was to be evacuated; it was going to be another Dunkirk.

All leave to the fleet had been stopped. Once again the shipwrights were going round securing loose fitments and we awaited the call to prepare for sea. It came only too soon and the same old routine was once again carried out, and in no time at all, we were assembling outside the harbour and taking our positions as a battle fleet, ready for whatever may come.

The surprising news came from the young bugler on the bridge: “The Old Man” has gone ashore with his staff and we are flying the Flag of a Rear Admiral.” Now that was surprising, but when we heard the full facts of the matter, perhaps not. We were not going out to face the demoralised Italian Fleet. Germany had decided that the capture of Crete was to be a major operation.


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