- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ted Power
- Location of story:
- Indian Ocean
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 May 2004
Ted Power has written a book — waiting to be published at the moment — about his experiences during the war as an ARP driver, his time aboard the HMS Balta and HMS Rosevean. Here are some of the moving first hand tales he offered to Steve Murphy to be reproduced for this project.
Aboard HMS Balta, breakfast was in preparation for the watch below as we steamed slowly just a few miles off Ceylon. It was astonishingly quiet and peaceful on a flat calm sea. The escorts attempted to bring order to the chaos of such a large group and variety of ships. The calm lasted until our alarm bells suddenly and penetratingly rang out to ‘repel aircraft.’
At precisely 0700 by our Mess deck clock all hell was suddenly let loose. They must have been chortling up there, assuming Japanese torpedo bomber and fighter bomber aircraft pilots do chortle, for there we were, lots of lovely ships without strong escort, duck-waddling along at about twice the human walking pace, ripe and inviting for the plucking.
This far from their nearest land base in Singapore meant they must be Carrier based aircraft. Equally obvious was the fact that they were not here by chance. Clearly, they must have been tipped off by enemies ashore or afloat.
As the alarm bells clanged, all hands galloped to action stations to repel aircraft. I took off as well but instead of making for the Asdic Flat, I altered course for the gun deck and my action station as loader number 3 on the twelve pounder.
Our first casualty was a Yorkshireman stoker running just ahead of me, he for the engine room I for the gun. Fast moving hot air and the sound of angry hornets flashed very close past my head from enemy machine-gun fire, which stitched a row of wood splinters from the width of oak deck planks between us. Yorkie was bowled over as he took a bullet in his back and fell in an uncoordinated heap on the deck not more than two paces ahead of me where, untouched, I was scrambling to my feet. Like the rest of us he was dressed only in shorts and home made sandals and I could see the bulge under his skin just below the left shoulder blade where the projectile had failed to exit. My ARP training almost made me stop and render first aid but the more recent and more compelling RN training took over. I left him to the rescue bods and ran to the gun platform, making it just inches ahead of the gunnery officer, Lt. Tom Long.
The Japanese aircraft came on using the very effective attack strategy they always employ. Select escort vessels as their primary targets. The speed and accuracy of their attacks was breathtaking, or would have been had I been given time to reflect on it, and our convoy escorts dwindled in number accordingly notwithstanding the blanket of anti-aircraft fire which, of course, diminished as the escorts got picked off.
Other aircraft backed them up and set about creating havoc among the merchant ships. Lt Long selected the target and type of projectile, the proximity fused shell was dropped onto my brass tray and I thrust the shell home into the breech, it slammed shut, Guns laid the gun for high angle shooting and shouted FIRE! The explosive ammo zoomed off, joining the general defensive fire. This was repeated time and time and time again. It was incredibly hot work.
Some time later, with one projectile already shoved into the breech and our attackers allowing us a short breather, there was time for a brief look around the convoy before Gun’s next yell of ‘FIRE’. I was actually facing directly toward the HMS Hollyhock when she was hit. It must have been a torpedo strike for even in the few seconds as I watched she suddenly disappeared in an upward blast of smoke, flame and airborne solid objects. I didn’t actually see the end of her as it was back to the business in hand. There was no time then to mourn the loss of Hollyhock. When I had time for another glimpse she was gone.
Nearer to us a tanker erupted in explosion and flame, gushing fuel oil which quickly spread to a vast pool as she split open from the waterline just forward of midships.
There was a distinct lessening now in the rate of defensive fire as escorts were put out of action. Not necessarily sunk or mortally damaged but from casualties among the gun crews. Aboard ships of our class the guns are all bereft of cover, the crews operating right out there in the open. Even at the main gun within the circular area of the gun deck there was no cover for the gun crew positions excepting layer and trainer in charge of gun barrel direction of fire, and even that open to attack from either side. But there is no shelter at all for the gunnery officer and rest of the gun’s crew hacking it out there in the open, away from the body of the weapon, grabbing shells from the ready ammunition lockers or off loading it straight from the Magazine hoist.
All of us are dressed in shorts and sandals only sweating profusely in the fierce heat and violent action, bareheaded or wearing only soft white hats (our normal working headgear aboard ship). None of it protective against exploding or armour piercing missiles, there was little time nor even thought given to grabbing steel helmets when the alarm signalled its urgent message. Even Lt. Long, standing there right out in the open indicating target and directing fire had only his soft second or third best uniform cap to protect his head. Catching a glimpse of his face between shot, smoke, empty shell cases ejected with a jump and clang as they hit the gun platform, I do believe he was enjoying his work!
After another breathing space to clear shell casings we glimpsed a bunch of Hurricanes and Fulmers speeding over Balta and out to sea.
Some twenty or thirty aircraft came now in scattered formation at some height about two miles away to our starboard beam, backed by the early morning sun as they sped down toward us. Behind them at some distance another wave would be following. Our Captain conned the ship to bring her head on to the attackers, thus presenting them with a smaller target.
Once again hell is let loose as the bombs fall and the convoy escorts open fire with machine guns, cannon and high explosive shells. Torpedoes fall as the attackers steady on approach to have a straight run in to Balta. Crash! crash! crash!. Smack! Smack! Smack! Bang! Bang! Bang! came the sound of bullets and/or cannon shell strikes against the sloping gun shield and the bridge behind us, plus the explosive Crack of cannon shell slamming great holes in our funnel and superstructure before and abaft the bridge. Our ship turned to meet the torpedoes head on and they both missed. Now the whole area above the convoy is spotted with numerous puffs of tiny clouds from the escorts’ exploding ack-ack shells as the attacking aircraft come in again, lower and faster, well within our range but too low over the convoy for Balta and others to continue firing without danger to our own ships. Then we caught one right on the button as it came diving in at us for the kill; our shell burst under its nose and it simply disintegrated in a cloud of debris. Bits of it scattered lethally on and across our gun deck. Still none of us was hit.
Momentarily we have a less hazardous aspect and can catch glimpses of happenings among other ships of the convoy. Escorts and merchant vessels. had been hard hit. Two were drifting out of control close to the fuel oil now spreading in a vast obscene creeping circle around the sinking tanker. Huge geysers of water climb into the shimmering hot sunlit air as near miss bombs explode alongside the target ship. Then we see Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmers speeding toward the land probably to refuel and rearm then off again for the distant Japanese. There is another lull, longer this time, then more action as the follow up wave arrive to make what we now believe (and hope!) will be their final attack. They are indeed fewer and their duration shorter over the target. They clearly don’t relish the attentions of the RAF. This time the duration is already shorter than any previous. Then quite suddenly they are all gone and the quiet is deafening
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