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Athens and Piraeus were suddenly bombed and strafed

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Warwick Bracegirdle, Captain Bowyer Smythe
Location of story: 
Piraeus harbour, Athens
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
23 October 2005

HMAS Perth and other ships had been despatched to Piraeus after Matapan to try to rescue AIF troops before the Nazis arrived. Perth and Ajax, another Australian cruiser, refuelled in Piraeus and also topped up their ammunition.

Shore leave had been granted to many of the crew, their first since the battle. Nobody had reckoned on the swiftness of the Nazi advance. As night fell Athens and Piraeus were suddenly bombed and strafed and the two cruisers had rapidly to dodge out to sea. To retrieve the crews was a mammoth task. Many sailors were in Athens, eleven miles from the harbour. Trucks were commandeered and with the aid of loud hailers the stragglers were gradually rounded up. Fast launches were tearing back and forth to sea to get the sailors back to their ships. Warwick Bracegirdle, (my husband, known to all as Braces) and his friend Terry, the torpedo officer, were bundling them aboard and checking that the launches were not overloaded. While they were doing this, there was a sinister roar and a huge bang and the Clan Fraser, a merchant ship alongside, received a direct hit. Within seconds it burst into flames and in this eerie light Braces saw that the ammunition lighter was alongside, only a few metres from the burning ship. He and Terry both realised that if the Clan Fraser blew up it would ignite the lighter and Piraeus would be blown to smithereens. Without a minute to lose they jumped into a rowing boat and snatched another pair of oars from another one,
to the indignation of the owners. Somehow, by sign language they managed to indicate what they wanted to do and one of the Greek dockworkers rushed off and produced a coil of rope and a sharp knife. They rowed like maniacs across the harbour and when they reached the lighter they were able to cut the warps attaching it to the quay and then they had to attach the rope to the lighter and lash it round one of the rowing boats seats. At first this huge craft wouldn't budge but, because it was flat bottomed it gradually got way on, then it was gliding fairly freely when the Clan Fraser blew up. This caused an enormous wave which broke over the skiff and the load of ammunition. They were both sucked down to the bottom of the harbour and the sky was full of burning debris. By a miracle when they came to the surface, coughing and retching, they were not hit but they were totally covered in thick oil including their faces so those on shore were not able to see them. Feebly they flapped to some harbour steps, still expecting the ammunition to explode and blow them to kingdom come. Thanks to the wave it had sunk to the bottom. A Greek hospital car, looking for the wounded, found them stumbling around trying to find the Perth's launches. An orderly in the car insisted that they should go to the nearest hospital to clear their eyes and throats of oil. He spoke English and rapidly understood the situation.

Meanwhile Captain Bowyer Smythe was pacing the deck in great anxiety. The harbour had received several direct hits. Both his 'torps' and 'guns' might be dead but he could not sail without them. A rescue party was sent ashore and one of Braces gunner's mates insisted on going with it. They somehow found an interpreter who took them to the nearest hospital on the slim chance they might be there. Entering the crowded noisy accident ward the gunner's mate used his powerful voice above the hubbub. "Wanted aboard, at the double, Lieutenant Bracegirdle, sir, Lieutenant Powers, sir!" and up they popped and, 'at the double' they were carried on their stretchers to the launch which was panting impatiently at the end of the quay.
The German planes were still strafing the harbour so they jumped off their stretchers and with help struggled down the steps to the launch and they whizzed away. The rescue party immediately gave them two strong tots of rum and, of course, nobody knew what they'd been up to. This they had to tell the Captain alone. When they were all aboard someone scrubbed their faces with a towel and took them to the bridge. They stood stiffly to attention to receive their reprimand. "What the blazes were you — doing you ————idiots?" "We just thought we ought to tow the ammunition lighter away from the burning ship, sir. Unfortunately it blew up and we found ourselves in the drink." they explained rather uneasily. The Perth was now underway, churning through the water at full speed. They were finding it rather difficult to stand up as they were suffering from after shock. "You're still reprimanded but -" the Captain added with a smile, "Jolly good show chaps! Now, for God's sake go and get yourselves cleaned up and checked by the Doc."

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Sue Craig from MyBrightonandHove on behalf of Eve Bracegirdle and has been added to the site with her permission. Eve fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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