- Bracegirdle, Warwick, DSC, Commander, RAN (Rtd)
- Biographies and personal histories, RAN operations, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I
- June 1990 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After the naval battle of Matapan most of the fleet returned to Alexandria to replenish supplies. Two cruisers of the 7th Cruiser Squadron HMS Ajax and HMAS Perth did not have a rest. They were sent to patrol the Aegean Sea, north of Crete. Their duties – to protect the western flank of any convoys going to or from Greece. The Greek army was gallantly and grimly holding their own against the invading Italians on their N.W. front. A British expeditionary force with Australians and New Zealanders had been sent to aid them.
These forces could ill be spared from the desert war against Rommel’s invading German and Italian armies. But thousands of our troops and many tons of supplies were sent for our Greek allies. Many troops were given a fast passage by cruiser. The Ajax and Perth were particularly pally ships’ companies. The Captains were friends and a wonderful spirit prevailed between all hands. We called ourselves ‘the hair trigger twins’ because, being veterans, we took no chances and usually fired immediately at all aircraft approaching us in a hostile manner.
As feelings ran high this resulted sometimes in a few fights when ashore in Alexandria’s bars and clubs. But the Ajax (Pommies) and Perth (Diggers) usually sorted each other out and convoyed their pals back on board. Both ships had that high morale that goes with well led veterans. We could do with lots of this today in industry.
So we patrolled and oiled from a fleet tanker on the north side of Crete rather envious of those in Alexandria. The Ajax Captain was senior so she led the force. One fine morning, about 5th April 1941, he led us proudly into Piraeus harbour with our bands playing. The Greek people enjoyed this. The Australians usually played “Waltzing Matilda” followed by a current Greek war tune that had special rude words directed at Mussolini. This made the Greek people on the dockside scream with laughter. They knew the words – we did not – but we had a darned good idea.
Both ships secured, bows outwards, in the narrow harbour with sterns secured to the dock wall. A convoy was unloading stores and ammunition. The convoy escort of an anti-aircraft cruiser and corvettes were also in the crowded harbour. Also some Greek destroyers. The unloading of explosives from a 10,000 ton cargo ship CLAN FRAZER was carried out at the wharf opposite. Some explosives were loaded into barges and towed away. It was said that this full cargo of explosives was some 4,000 tons. Some for demolition of certain key passes through the mountains to the north.
The radio news that day was bad. German troops were massing on the frontiers to the north. It seemed almost certain that the Germans were going to invade Greece. Piraeus was a busy, uneasy, port before a storm.
It was a sixth sense that made our Captain request permission to shift berth to the anchorage out in Phaleron Bay.
We moved that afternoon and when anchored gave leave to one watch only, keeping the remainder to man the guns. I went ashore that afternoon with a great friend. I had been best man at his wedding and we had known each other for 16 years. We took a taxi to Athens, toured the Acropolis and in the town even collected a salute from the German sentry at the German Embassy. We were at war with Germany but until that night Greece was not. Protocol prevailed.
The Greek people were very kind and friendly. They were shortly to suffer a terrible, long, cruel ordeal.
After a few drinks at the King George Hotel, Constitution Square, we decided to have a really Greek meal in a taverna near the Plaka – a district below the wonderful, dominating Acropolis.
The taverna was gay and the people charming. A band played Greek music. We ordered our meal, some Greek white retsina wine and relaxed. The change in atmosphere after recent weeks at sea was enchanting. We bought drinks for the band and much enjoyed our Greek dinner. Just two naval lieutenants, in our best monkey jackets and gold braid, have a quiet evening ashore after days of strain at sea.