- Becher, O.H., CBE, DSO, DSC, Rear Admiral
- Biographies and personal histories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This thumbnail sketch of Captain Steve Arliss, Captain (D), 7th Destroyer Flotilla was prepared by the late Rear-Admiral Becher as a helpful guidance for the Society’s history of the N Class destroyers.
CAPTAIN ARLISS came to Napier after serving as Naval Attaché in Chile. Because of that appointment, he had missed the early part of the war and he was breathing fire when he joined.
He was one of the old type destroyer officers – a hard-doer, physically tough and a fine ship handler when he concentrated. He did not know the word fear. It took the Australian sailors a while to accept him as he was a driver rather than a leader. They did not appreciate having to clean into No. 2’s for leaving and entering Scapa Flow in the middle of winter, but it took Steve a while to appreciate that things had changed from peace-time and some of the old routines had to be altered.
Napier’s first real experience of enemy action was when she was in Fairfield’s yard on the Clyde, being prepared for service in the Mediterranean in, if I remember rightly, March 1941.
The Germans launched a heavy night bombing raid on Glasgow and our 4 inch gun joined very enthusiastically if not effectively in barrage fire. Captain Arliss took personal charge and thoroughly enjoyed himself. An interesting feature of this raid was that the shipyards were practically untouched, but the long rows of tenement houses built about 200 yards back from the river were gutted by fire. These were the homes of the shipyard workers and the work force was seriously disrupted for some time. A very large bond store, full of whiskey awaiting shipment to the United Stated received a direct hit, so the whiskey ran down the streets. Never was there such a waste of what, at that time, was a very scarce commodity.
The highlight of Napier’s early activities was probably the evacuation of Crete. The ship arrived in the Mediterranean, via the Cape, too late to take part in the Greece campaign, but in time to buy the whole Crete affair.
We were employed screening the Fleet during the early part when the Navy was throwing everything in to stop the Germans invading by sea. The slaughter of sea-borne Germans was so effective that the Germans gave it away, but the price the Allied ships paid for this effort was such that it became impossible to operate north of the island in daylight hours. The Germans possessed complete control of the air. Eventually, the inevitable evacuation was ordered.
Our first trip to embark from Sfakia on the south coast was comparatively uneventful and we, in company with other destroyers, brought off all the troops available for embarkation – some 250 per ship only.
Four destroyers, Napier, Nizam and two K-Class, Kelvin and Kandahar were despatched on a second trip. Because of the hazards from aircraft, the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Cunningham, ordered us not to load more than 250 soldiers each.
In the morning before embarkation, Kandahar had to return to Alexandria because of engine trouble. She could not hold the speed and speed was essential. Later that afternoon, a single German aircraft attacked and made a near miss on the Kelvin, slowing her up, so she had to return to harbour. The two Australian ships proceeded and made Sfakia at about midnight and commenced loading, which was helped by landing craft which had been left behind the previous night by one of the Glen ships. Lieutenant Hinchliffe was awarded a DSC for his outstanding courage and ability as officer in charge of embarkation.
We were ordered by the Commander-in- Chief to leave by 0400, so as to be as far to seaward as possible when daylight broke and the German bombers were about. It was nearer 0500 when we got away, with all standing room occupied. Both ships had embarked some 750 men each, ours were mostly New Zealanders.
The fun started shortly after daylight when the Junkers 88s started their attack. Both ships were attacked about a dozen times and they were splendid sights as they twisted and turned at full speed to make Jerry’s job more difficult. We in Napier saw Nizam disappear in clouds of spray as bombs straddled but did not hit, but she always emerged with her guns blazing, unharmed.
In the very last attack, a lone Ju.88 came in at Napier from right ahead at a steep angle. We had a blind spot there as our 4.7 inch guns could not elevate sufficiently.
It was an extremely accurate drop, but Captain Arliss ordered the wheel hard over and instead of hitting, the bomb landed about ten feet on the starboard side abreast the engine room. Amongst other damage the turbine feet were broken – they were made of cast iron – and the ship came to a rather nasty halt with Nizam circling us to see if she could help.
A few minutes later the Engineer Officer, Commandeer ‘Bug’ Oliver, appeared on the bridge – quite unperturbed as usual. ‘Give me half an hour and we will be going again’, he said to the Captain and sure enough, in that time, we were on our way at 16 knots. We had no more nastiness from the Huns and entered Alexandria Harbour at about 7 p.m. to receive a rousing reception from the Fleet.
We could not go astern, so we were put alongside by tugs. The green barge, with the Commander-in-Chief on board, was soon alongside and as we disembarked the soldiers in the waiting transport on the jetty, Sir Andrew Cunningham, slipped over the guard rails to give the Captain a big pat on the back. ‘Bug’ Oliver received a Mentioned in Despatches for his leadership in the engine room and outstanding ability in getting us going again so quickly. This was, I believe one of the most worthy of the war and I believe should have been at least a DSC.
Postscript. During the Clyde blitz Lieutenant Hinchliffe was acting First Lieutenant with most of the other officers being on leave, and he acted as Gunnery Control Officer with Captain Arliss in command and enjoying himself immensely. One interested observer of the night’s activities at Fairfield’s shipyard was quite unaware that Napier had opened fire. But the Editor at Fairfields was greatly impressed by the multi-coloured tracers.
Onboard Napier on the full power trials the Editor was rather shaken by some of Captain Arliss’s remarks, but the first impression was that the Captain was utterly fearless. It became evident that he had a most belligerent manner and was certainly a driver. When he joined Napier he was highly critical of the RAN, but in due course he accepted that his judgement had been somewhat faulty.
After the war when he was in command of the cruiser HMAS Berwick, Arliss visited Sydney and when lunching with Lieutenant- Commander Hinchhffe, then in command of HMAS Macquarie, he expressed a wish to see as many of the old 7th Flotilla as possible. This wish was fulfilled and he said how much he had enjoyed serving in Napier as Captain (D).