- Cooper, C.G.M., CPO, RAN
- WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Waterhen, HMAS Voyager I
- June 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Tobruk Spud Run 1941
The three Services, Navy, Army and Air Force were as dissimilar as chalk and cheese, yet we were all bent on one purpose, to beat the enemy. Without the Navy and its physical communications Tobruk would have had a torrid time. The Air Force ran out of planes. Without the Army there would not have been a Tobruk Siege, and who could have forecast where Rommel would have finished up, but in all seriousness, there were funny sides.
HMAS VOYAGER WAS ALONGSIDE the wharf for supplies in Alexandria Harbour. On board poured in all sorts of cargo. A destroyer is a warship and the only stowage area is around the upper deck. So came crates of landmines, gun barrels, ammunition in boxes, medical supplies, crates of spuds, cases of tinned food etc. etc., and last of all, troops with all their equipment. The weather was fine as we sailed in early afternoon, a gentle swell gave us slight movement. We cleared our own defensive minefields as we left Alex and headed in a westerly direction. The troops made themselves at home as well as circumstances allowed, cups of tea were very welcome to those who were not seasick.
I went for a stroll up to the ship’s bridge when we got settled down, to listen in to any new news. The Captain was on the bridge and a fellow in Army officer’s uniform gave a polite nod. The Captain asked me: ‘Do you know who this is, Chief?’
I said, ‘No, Sir’. So he told me, ‘This is Major-General Morshead’ ((Maj. Gen. Sir Leslie Morshead (1899 – 1959) DSO, Legion d’Honneur, Polish Order of Virtuti, Hero of the Siege of Tobruk 1941)).
We increased speed as the light faded. By dark we had the old girl’s side pulsing, and the turbines screaming. We were now in enemy territory and hoped that we had not been spotted. We sped on, passing Bardia and on to Tobruk, expecting to arrive about midnight.
We were off the approaches to Tobruk safely and proceeding slowly along the mineswept narrow entrance, towards the harbour, when a voice came out of the sea very close by – ‘Help!!’
The ship was stopped and a quick torch flash showed a man swimming quickly from a piece of flotsam debris to our ship. He was picked up smartly by a rope over the side and we proceeded on our cautious way. The man was the only survivor of a South African Navy minesweeper, which had struck a mine earlier in the day.
We entered harbour safely after gliding sideways about six inches off a sunken ship, halfway to the jetty. Once alongside a team of workers soon had all the stores cleared off the upper deck. We also opened our very small canteen and it was quickly denuded of all stock. In the faint light permissible we could see khaki-clad and bandaged figures making their way onboard, then came the stretchers. The mess tables were lowered and all possible space made available. The upper deck was also filled with figures in khaki.
We slipped berthing lines quickly and felt our way out of harbour in the welcome darkness. Once in the open sea we proceeded east at speed to clear enemy territory before daylight. On the return journey our hospitality did not consist of much – we had very little – but the good old Navy stopgap in a cup of ‘Kye’ (or drinking chocolate) warmed the cockles of many a thankful heart.
Back alongside the wharf in the safety of Alex Harbour we discharged our wounded and war-weary guests, then alongside the tanker to fill up with fuel and a few provisions, then out to a buoy, alongside one of our sister ships, HMAS Vampire.
News spread fast – even as we were securing alongside.
‘Heard about the Waterhen?’
‘No, what happened?’
‘She got sunk this morning going up to Tobruk’. (30 June 1941)
‘What!? Anybody hurt?’
‘They all got rescued, but the Gunner’s Mate, Sid Prowd, is in hospital – the old ‘Hen’ copped a near miss by the engine room and it blew a hole in her.’
Well, Waterhen was one of our five Australian destroyers – the Scrap Iron Flotilla, as Lord Haw Haw called us, and Sid Prowd was my cobber and opposite number.
As soon as leave was granted I shot off ashore, found which hospital he was in and paid him a visit. There he was, nice white sheets in a hospital bed, lying back like Lord Muck, with one side of his face all swollen up and bandaged, and looking very sheepish.
After confirming that the face was the only damage, I said, ‘ Well, what happened to the face, Sid?’
He said, ’I’ll go down on record for this, but when the bomb went off close by to me on the upper deck, it nearly lifted the ship out of the water, the deck cargo for Tobruk went up in the air, and I got hit in the face by a tin of canned fruit!’
‘Wounded by a tin of peaches!!’ (The only casualty. Ed)
(Previously published in the Rats of Tobruk Association magazine – contributed by John Hordern from NHS archives).
Scrap Iron Destroyers by L. A. Lind and A. Payne – NHSA 1976
The Destroyers – Their Battles and their Badges by Vic Cassells – Kangaroo Press 2000