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- Colchester Library
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- Royal Navy
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- 22 July 2004
I arrived in the Island several weeks after this battle ended but the islanders were still describing it as one of the worst and most prolonged air raids of the war. A number of buildings around the dockyard were destroyed or so badly damaged and the islanders had to be evacuated to the villages in the north of the island. Some of the braver islanders stood in the entrances to the caves underneath Valletta and watched the epic battle taking place on the other side of Grand harbour. When I sat in the caves I had many graphic eyewitness accounts from the islanders. One told me that the noise of the guns and the exploding bombs was so intense that he thought his head would burst. Another islander said he thought that the end of the world had come. A rather fanciful description was that Illustrious was a large wild cat crouching under the cliff, badly wounded but still snarling and spitting defiance at her attackers.
It was now high summer in the island and it would have been idyllic but for the constant air raids. Greece had fallen and the enemy were now launching a fierce attack on Crete. The Luftwaffe had transferred their dive-bombers and Junkers 88s to airfields in Greece to take part in the battle for Crete. The Royal Navy were heavily committed and suffering grievous losses in ships sunk and badly damaged in the narrow waters round Crete, their ships were easy targets for the dive-bombers. Not only was the navy heavily involved in the battle for Crete but when the battle was lost a large number of British troops were trapped in the island and had to be rescued by the navy again causing heavy losses in ships and men. The Settler had now been trapped in Malta for 12 long weeks and it was decided that she could no longer remain idle in the island. Because of their heavy losses round Crete the Royal Navy was quite unable to provide us with an escort for the dangerous voyage to Gibraltar. We would have to run the gauntlet single ship without any firepower against enemy aircraft. Desperate situations require desperate measures and the extraordinary decision was made to the effect that we would sail under enemy colours. The hatch covers were painted in the Italian colours and we flew the Italian flag instead of our red ensyme in an effort to deceive the enemy into thinking that the Settler was an Italian freighter. I am not aware of any other occasion during the war when a British ship sailed under enemy colours. We sailed at dusk and every mile we covered under friendly darkness was a bonus. After I completed my watch in the radio room I went on the bridge and we were passing the small island of Pantalaria there were some small fishing boats out from the island. Captain Henschel was in no mood to alter course to avoid them we turned several of the boats over and some Italian fishermen had an unwelcome swim! Dawn came all too soon and the tension was growing on board as we waited to see if our Italian disguise would succeed or fail. Some hours passed and a reconnaissance plane arrived on the scene and made several circuits round the ship. This plane flew off and shortly afterwards another plane arrived, flew round us several times and then flew off. Earlier in the morning I had been on the bridge when Captain Henshel outlined his battle plan. He sent for the chief engineer and said to him, "Chief, I want you to stand by in the engine room, maintain her speed at a steady 10 knots until I ring for full speed ahead. Then jack in the steam turbine and give me 13 knots as quickly as possible!" Captain Henchel then turned to the helmsman and said "when I yell at you I want you to spin the wheel hard a' starboard as quickly as you can!"
We did not have long to wait and the tension was becoming unbearable. A bomber appeared and we all knew the game was up. Our attempt at disguise had failed. The bomber did one dummy run over us assessing our speed at our normal 10 knots, circled round and then came in on his bombing run. Captain Henschel had been watching the plane very closely through his binoculars and as soon as he saw the bomb bay doors open and the bombs were about to fall he went into action. He rang the engine room telegraph for full speed ahead, at the same time he yelled at the helmsman, the helm turned sharply to starboard and her speed built up quickly to 13 knots. The stick of bombs just missed so close to the stern that when they exploded in the sea great plumes of water came up and drenched the gunners on the 4" gun platform. Captain Henchel's plan had worked perfectly. He had deceived the pilot of the bomber with the sudden increase in speed and the quick turn to starboard.
For some reason there were no more attacks on the first day and soon blessed darkness came to our aid. We were indeed fortunate that we were being attacked by the Italian airforce and not the Luftwaffe. I am quite sure that if the dive-bombers had still been stationed in Sicily we would not have survived the first day out without being sunk.
The atmosphere on board was very tense as we all wondered what day 2 held in store for us. I did my usual midnight to 6am watch in the radio room. I found that sleep was impossible afterwards. Later in the morning I made my way aft and stood in the well deck to watch for the next attack. When the plane arrived it gave us a nasty shock, it was not a bomber but it was carrying a large ariel torpedo underneath. An ariel torpedo can cause much more damage to any ship than a bomb. Even the mighty Bismarck had been crippled by an ariel torpedo attack before she was sunk by the guns of the Royal Navy. The plane made 2 circuits round the ship before going on the starboard side to begin it's run towards us. The Italian pilot must have had a quite a shock when our 4" gun was fired and the shell screamed past him! I saw the torpedo drop into the sea and begin its run. I have often relived this incident and my abiding memory is of watching the wake of the torpedo streaking towards our ship. In the pellucid water of the Mediterranean the wake was clearly visible and there were moments of sheer terror as I watched the torpedo heading straight amid ships. The ariel torpedo is the most deadly weapon against any ship and time seemed to stand still as the wake reached us, I waited for the explosion but miraculously it never came. The Italian pilot had completely misjudged our draft we were completely light ship with no cargo in the holds and the torpedo had passed right underneath the ship. I was standing in the well deck with my fingers gripping the top rail and fear had tightened my grip so much that it was very difficult to release my fingers from the rail. There are a number of descriptions of intense fear such as "frozen with fear" or "petrified with fear" and I am not ashamed to admit that I suffered all of them. It was a miraculous escape and it took us all some time to come terms with it. Later in the afternoon there was another attack by a bomber but again Captain Henchel was in full control of the situation. He handled our 16000 ton ship like a yacht, the stick of bombs exploded in the sea after another near miss. It was getting dark and once again we welcomed blessed darkness.
The next morning a wonderful sight lay ahead, the Rock of Gibraltar. We had run the gauntlet successfully and reached safety against all the odds.
As we waited in Gibraltar for further orders I had time to reflect on the number of narrow escapes from disaster we had endured during our voyage. I am sure that the hand of God was our salvation in many cases. The perfect example was when God made the Sirocco wind blow 3 weeks earlier that usual, the low cloud produced by the wind concealed the ships in our convoy all the way from Alexandria to Malta and we were not attacked by dive-bombers.
When our orders came through we were all bitterly disappointed. Instead of sailing back home to the UK, we were bound for Cape Town, Colombo and Calcutta. A long haul indeed, which would add weeks and months to the whole voyage. We sailed in convoy to Cape Town and at long last we joined a convoy bound for the UK.
We arrived in the Bay of Biscay in early December, the storms in the bay in November and December are notorious and as we came into the bay we met a veritable tempest; Waves of 40 to 50 feet and a gale force wind. The power and majesty of the sea was awesome and very frightening. I was on the port wing of the bridge and as the wing of the bridge went down about 40 feet into the trough of the wave it seemed as if it would never come up again as she rolled and it felt like coming up in a lift! I could not believe that even a 16,000-ton ship could survive in such a sea. I thought that the elements were going to achieve what the enemy had failed to do – sink the S.S Settler.
No words of mine can do justice to a description of such a storm and I am indebted to Psalm 107, I quote:
“Others went out on the sea in ships, they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest and lifted high the waves, they mounted up to the heavens and went down into the depths. In their peril their courage melted away, they reeled and staggered like drunken men, they were at their wits end then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper, the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm and he guided them to their desired haven.”
By an amazing coincidence we were guided to our desired haven in the port of Milford Haven. Thus ended the incredible voyage of the S.S settler after 13 long months at sea.
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