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FROM ALEX WITH LOVE

by Vic Chanter

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Archive List > Siege of Tobruk 1941

Contributed by 
Vic Chanter
Article ID: 
A2372546
Contributed on: 
02 March 2004

FROM ALEX WITH LOVE
On 7th February 1942 I was drafted to HMS Eridge, a Hunt class destroyer, to relieve the senior visual signal rating aboard. In two days time I would be 21!
The days, and my birthday, passed by, and on the 12th we put to sea from Alexandria with the cruiser HMS Carlisle, 2 other Hunt class destroyers, Heythrop and Avondale and the destroyer Lance, to escort two merchant vessels westwards.

TO TOBRUK
The next day, the 13th, we met up with the main convoy and were soon spotted and attacked by enemy aircraft. There was a certain familiarity creeping into all of this; the supply ships were obviously the main targets for destruction, whilst the escorts were there to protect with their lives. On the other hand, if the enemy could eliminate the escorts…
The supply ship Clan Campbell was hit but was able to maintain a reduced speed, so along with HMS Avondale we escorted her into Tobruk.
On the 14th the destroyers rejoined the convoy and Force ‘K’.
With such pickings for the enemy, we attracted a sky-full of high-level bombers all day. It soon became difficult to spot the aircraft amongst the ever-increasing black puffs of exploding anti-aircraft shell bursts. It also became increasingly hazardous scanning through the smoke and gun flashes for signals by lamp or flags — which could be vital. During my vigil I did witness the distressing sight of the supply ship Clan Chattern being hit and quickly sinking. At 1900, we were the target for a full stick of bombs which straddled us, covering us on the bridge with grey gunge, but it was the nearest in a crop of near misses throughout the day.
On our way back eastwards on the 15th we had a good day. Although the ubiquitous JU88s and torpedo bombers, which joined them coming in at low level attacked us, this time we experienced some back up, and our fighters destroyed three of our attackers, whilst we suffered no casualties.
We arrived in Alexandria on the 16th at 0700 for re-fuelling and supplies.
On the 19th we put to sea for EMD ‘F’ Patrol. This was prior to the convoy next day.
We sailed on the 20th as escort for what we knew to be a slow convoy to Tobruk. We had become familiar with a small merchant vessel called Popi (we all called Popeye); she limped along at a bare 5 knots maximum. The apocryphal story was that she had been planted by the Germans/Italians to slow us down with orders that on no account was she to be put in danger of attack.
As we approached Tobruk on the 21st February we received our usual waves of attacks and soon our first M/V, Bintang D/H was hit and sunk within 10 minutes. Not long after Hanne D/H was hit and within 2 minutes she too had sunk.
On the 22nd we arrived off Tobruk with one remaining supply ship — Popi!
She was soon off-loaded and left the next day with another vessel, Mansang, for return, under our escort, to Alexandria — speed 4 to 5 knots, so we didn’t arrive until the 26th.
For the next four days we worked ship in Alexandria, and on the 3rd March we sailed for manoeuvres and the necessary EMD ‘J’ Patrol of the eastern Mediterranean.
On the 4th I had a briefing with the Captain, but we didn’t put to sea until the 6th with two vessels, Antwerp and Princess Marquerite. On the 12th we arrived at Famagusta and there I went ashore to see my friend, Frank.
The following day we sailed for Haifa; arrived and left the same night to return to Famagusta, and then we left Famagusta again for Haifa at 1200. This procedure may well have been carried out to confuse…
It succeeded.
On the 16th we were relieved from our Duty Patrol by HMS Malines, and returned to Alex.
After our arrival at Alexandria, I managed to go ashore on the 17th and ordered a suit.
One of my staff, left ship on the 18th and was relieved by a young rating called Smith who was now about to acquire the experience of destroyer action as I had done during the last month.

TO MALTA
On the 19th, we slipped and, along with four more Hunt class destroyers: Southwold, Dulverton, Heythrop and Hurworth, we put to sea for a ‘Biggie’. This was to be no convoy up the coast into the ports of Benghazi and Tobruk with supplies for the troops fighting in North Africa; this time we were about to meet up with a far larger force.
At 1135 on the 20th HMS Heythrop was struck by a torpedo from a U-boat, the effect of which broke her back. As we approached to take off some of her crew and prepare a tow, it was obvious that she was beyond saving. I took a couple of photographs (which were subsequently confiscated) with my ever-ready camera. Heythrop was finally abandoned; tow lines were slipped and eventually HMS Dulverton delivered the coup de grace. It is an awe-inspiring, chilling feeling to see a proud ship go to her grave, and I don’t have the words to describe that feeling.
We had a great deal of action with contact from torpedo bombers before we eventually arrived safely at Tobruk.
During this period, the second battle of Sirte was raging north of Bardia.
We left Tobruk on the 21st March to join the main convoy, taking up our designated position in the escort screen..
At 0900 on the 22nd we entered the area most vulnerable to air attack, affectionately called ‘Bomb Alley’, at full alert Action Stations. Oddly enough we had to wait one hour before all hell broke loose. Being such a large convoy invited everything that the Axis powers could throw at us: high-level JU88s, dive bombers JU87s (Stukas) and torpedo bombers from the sky, and the Italian Fleet for good measure.
From the air, the attack was in excess of what we had so far experienced. Enemy aircraft filled the air like swarms of locusts buzzing about, whilst the anti-aircraft shell bursts pockmarked the sky above the convoy. As torpedo bombers came in low to discharge their lethal loads, the decision to open fire on them at such low altitudes, across the convoy, was a very calculated risk. An escort vessel under maximum speed and helm — to evade missiles — gave little help to the guns’ crews manning the pom-poms and oerlikons trying to keep the enemy aircraft in their sights.
We, HMS Eridge, swept the area to the north of the convoy. Lookouts were constantly reporting sightings of aircraft attacking out of the sun. With news that the Italian Navy had put to sea and was on its way, our Cruiser escort broke off and to the north laid a smoke screen
Keeping an occasional eye on the Admiral’s ship in the distant smoke, I noticed plumes of water between the cruisers and us, which could not have been made by bombs. Our skipper confirmed that they were shell bursts from some large warship — we learned that the Italian Fleet of one Battleship and three Cruisers had come out to greet us. It was at this point that out of the smokescreen came the flash of a signal lamp; upon answering, I received the order to turn the convoy south. I informed our captain and acknowledged the signal at the same time. We set about the task, with the remaining escort, of shepherding our flock away from the action.
During the air battles we had personally claimed a JU88, which came too close and a torpedo bomber (879). Unfortunately, a shell from the Italian Battleship hit the destroyer, HMS Kingston. The Italian battleship in turn we believed to have been hit by a torpedo.
At dusk, the convoy split up and we, HMS Eridge, were given the well being of the supply ship Glen Campbell, which had previously survived bomb damage, to escort her the rest of the way to Malta.
There is nowhere so lonely as a single ship being dive-bombed and, even though there were two of us, we felt very exposed as we sailed away with our ward. Our worst fears were realised as at 0830 on the 23rd enemy aircraft sighted us. With no air support, things looked black, and at 1030 the main attack started. Despite valiant work by our guns’ crews there was little that could be done to prevent the onslaught that was hailed upon us. Because of our speed and manoeuvrability, we managed to escape damage whilst our guns tried their utmost to prevent damage to the Glen Campbell. Unfortunately, the almost inevitable happened and the ship, which was put in our trust, received her final blow from which she would not recover.
I had seen worse destruction; tankers hit and exploding in a ball of flame, leaving no trace. Glen Campbell certainly disintegrated but there were survivors and debris. Oil quickly spread over the area and, here and there, the sea was ablaze. Not wanting to tempt fate and suffer any more casualties, the marauders flew away, leaving us to lick our wounds and pick up the pieces. Thus we were able to concern ourselves with searching the area for survivors, which we found clinging to spars and pieces of wood and debris. All of them were affected in some way with the oil fuel; some completely covered, and all the more difficult to haul inboard.
What was very distressing, although we tended the survivors with medical aid and cleansing, several of them succumbed to their wounds and the ingestion of the oil fuel.
We continued our journey empty-handed with heavy hearts and vented our anger on the renewed waves of aircraft that attacked us as they passed us on route to Malta. We suffered only scarring and deluges of seawater from near misses before arriving at Malta at 1700.
The 24th arrived with a typical day at Malta. People stopped counting the number of air raids.
Our sister ship, HMS Southwold, was put out of commission. Our ship’s company consisted of a skeleton crew to reduce the possibility of casualties.
On the 25th at 0600 we slipped along with HMS Beaufort to proceed to the assistance of supply ship Breconshire stranded outside the harbour. During air attacks, we attempted to tow her into the bay and ground her without fouling our own screws. Breconshire eventually settled grounded outside the harbour, but available for the disembarkation of precious cargo. Unfortunately, she was also very vulnerable.
HMS Legion arrived damaged and we escorted her into harbour. It was by no means an isolated attack, but at 1500 Breconshire was violently attacked by JU87s (dive-bombers), and Grand Harbour received waves of JU88s (high-level bombers). At 2030 along with destroyers Hurworth and Dulverton and the cruiser Carlisle we left Malta.

TO ALEXANDRIA
We had been part of escort in convoy CHITTY, but on the 27th we proceeded with HMS Dulverton to Tobruk to round up three ‘empties’, Cerion, Katie Müller and Destro, supply ships for return to Alexandria. Cerion had been previously burning in Tobruk for 3 weeks, so we knew it would be another slow convoy. We were joined the next day by Delphinium, Snapdragon, Protea and Klo and received an alarming number of U-boat reports. The tankers proceeded to vent out their tanks with great canvas ‘tubes’. With little wind and under very little way it would be a long process and, with holds full of fumes from oil or aviation spirit, they were floating bombs. When we arrived at Alexandria intact on the 29th we considered that it had been the quietest trip ever.
On the 30th March, the guy I had relieved returned to ship from his course ashore and my term of relief ended. I left HMS Eridge at 1700 for shore base Canopus II and immediately put in a request to see the Base Accounts Officer regarding back pay.
On 31st I still had no pay — and no tot!

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