The Scrap Iron Flotilla
By Mike Carlton
Published by William Heinemann/Penguin Random House
RRP $34.99 in paperback
Mike Carlton is well known as a naval historian of some renown. In this new book, he tells the story of five ships, HMAS Vendetta, Vampire, Voyager, Stuart and Waterhen, that then Prime Minister Robert Menzies reluctantly agreed to lend to the British at the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939.
Some ships were already bound for decommissioning until war intervened. Initially despatched to Singapore, the ships were then sent to beef up the Royal Navy presence in the Mediterranean from where ships had been redeployed to the North Atlantic.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels sneered that they were a load of scrap iron. Yet by the middle of 1940, these destroyers were valiantly escorting troop and supply convoys, successfully hunting for submarines and indefatigably bombarding enemy coasts. Sometimes the weather could be their worst enemy – from filthy sandstorms blowing off Africa to icy gales from Europe that whipped up mountainous seas and froze the guns.
Conditions on board were terrible – no showers or proper washing facilities; cramped and stinking sleeping quarters; unpleasant meals of spam and tinned sausages, often served cold in a howling squall. And always the bombing, the bombing. And the fear of submarines.
When Nazi Germany invaded Greece, the Allied armies – including Australian Divisions – reeled in retreat. The Australian ships were among those who had to rescue thousands of soldiers.
Then came the Siege of Tobruk – Australian troops holding out in that small Libyan port city. The Australian destroyers ran ‘the Tobruk Ferry’ – bringing supplies of food, medicine and ammunition into the shattered port by night, and taking off wounded soldiers. HMAS Waterhen became the first RAN ship to be lost to enemy action in the war. She sunk on 30 June 1941. The other four ships of the scrap iron flotilla eventually made it home.
But the four destroyers now left were struggling, suffering from constant engine breakdowns, with crews beleaguered by two years of bombings, wild seas and the endless fear of being sunk.
In late 1941 the ships were finally sent home, staggering back to Australia, proudly calling themselves the Scrap Iron Flotilla in defiance of Goebbels’ sneer.
That flotilla is now an immortal part of Australian naval legend, and this is its story.