[By Stephen Loosley]
Mike Carlton has emerged as a gifted historian of Australia’s outstanding naval contributions in two world wars. He polishes this reputation in his new book, The Scrap Flotilla: Five Brave Destroyers and the Australian War in the Mediterranean. Carlton has always been convincing in print. his previous books, cruiser on the war record of HMAS perthand First win 1914detailed HMAS Sydney‘s Destruction of the German Raider emdenindicated both the enthusiasm and appreciation for Australian naval history that the author has in abundance.
flagshipabout the role of HMAS Australia in the Pacific War against the Japanese, impresses not only by telling the story of a large warship, but also by dealing with the complexity of the early alliance relationship with the Americans.
The Scrap Flotilla shows Carlton at his best. He now brings something of the character of Patrick O’Brien’s novels to his descriptions of action in the Mediterranean during the early years of World War II, 1940-1942.
It’s not just a story about warships. It’s about the bravery of Australian sailors, the nature of confrontations with the Axis and the pressure on aging destroyers.
The five destroyers of the flotilla – His Majesty’s Australian ships Stewart, Waterhen, Vendetta, Voyager and vampire– might best be described as old but resilient when war broke out.
Vampire, Revenge, Voyager and waterhen were sister ships to the Admiralty’s V- and W-class destroyers of about the same vintage as Stuart but something different. From 1916 English and Scottish shipyards produced dozens of V and W boats as fast as they could. A total of 67 of them were built, another 40 were canceled after the end of the war. As StuartThey were advanced for their time, a design so successful, so robust and so seaworthy that it would set a benchmark for subsequent classes built for the next twenty years.
The five destroyers proved their worth time and time again, including in convoy service with the besieged Allied garrison at Tobruk in 1941. Her bravery was never in question, nor was her reliability and seamanship as part of the British Mediterranean Fleet. But Carlton notes in a cheeky paragraph that creature comforts were few:
The Admiralty’s naval architects, aware of the rare and reluctant bathing habits of the British under-class, had not bothered to provide baths or showers for seamen in the destroyers. There were two open areas below deck at the forecastle break, port and starboard, each about 10 by 7 feet, with a tiled floor and drain and a set of four scratched ceramic sinks… That was all, for 100 men and up . There was no privacy, and there were no faucets either.
The Mediterranean was a critical theater in the early years of the war, controlling access to Suez and on to India and Australia, and was recognized for its strategic value by both the Italians and the Germans. The Middle East and North Africa may have been secondary to the war in Russia, but there was no doubt about the consequences if the Axis had defeated the Allies and occupied the region.
Carlton faithfully narrates the flotilla’s contributions to the battle in the waters of the Mediterranean, but by far the most intriguing chapter of That scrap flotilla is found in the description of activities on the Danube in Romania, when Australian seafarers were called upon to perform extraordinary tasks. Enter Ian Fleming.
The late author of James Bond spy novels has a supporting role in Carlton’s book, helping to recruit an aristocratic character of dubious qualities to become part of a sabotage mission in Romania’s oil fields. Romania’s oil fueled the Nazi war machine for years, and British intelligence was determined to destroy that lifeline.
Unfortunately, official British policy was to keep Romania in a neutral corner. And Bucharest will not be part of the Axis see. Basically, the two goals would inevitably collide. The Australian seafarers were recruited to volunteer on this dangerous, perhaps foolhardy, mission. The chapter is among the best in Carlton’s book.
The pages of The Scrap Flotilla may not be encrusted with salt, but you can definitely feel the Mediterranean breeze. This is a very fine testament to the courage of the Royal Australian Navy at a most difficult time in the Second World War. Future generations of Australians will be indebted to Mike Carlton.
Stephen Loosley is a Senior Fellow at ASPI. This article is published with the kind permission of ASPI’s The Strategist and can be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.