- 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)
All of a sudden the manager rushed on to the floor and shouted “Alarm, Alarm” to give warning of an air raid. The band played harder to overcome the tension. Nobody moved to leave. After our coffee we decided to return to the port and our ship. Paid our bill and said farewells to the brave, gay, crowd. Outside in the blackout we found a taxi to take us to the docks. The driver said bombs had fallen on the docks and in the harbour. How right he was. We could see the glare. On arrival at the dock gate an Australian sentry gave me a message from my ship that as mines had been dropped in the harbour, NO attempt would be made to bring the crew off till morning. Then the minesweepers would sweep a safe line for traffic. I was to billet the officers and sailors onboard the ships in harbour as best I could. This we proceeded to do and put most of our Australians on board our chummy Ajax. Then a short discussion between friends took place. We decided that as I was the gunnery officer and my friend the 6” gun control officer it was wiser to get back to our ship – the Perth. But how? We walked round the docks looking for a skiff. Right behind the ammunition ship we found a small boat. A wooden rowing boat over a magnetic mine field is quite safe. So – with a sentry’s permission we set off, having folded up our monkey jackets for ease of rowing.
Rounding the end of the dock we saw a warehouse blazing. It was the shed alongside our ammunition ship. Also – in the glare of the fire we could see two barges. Their hatch covers were off. Worse still the wind and sparks were blowing across the wharf. The barges were not 400 yd from our own ships in port and all those sailors. We pulled alongside the ammunition ship and in no time had the two barges in tow astern of our skiff. You can move quite a heavy load pulling hard in a boat as you know. My pal Terry cast off the last barge from the ammunition ship and called “She’s red hot!” We did not know how bad that fire was. The ammunition ship was actually burning below decks. The barges were not.
We pulled hard towards the harbour mouth and towards our ship in the Bay. It would have been so pleasing to call “Quartermaster – do take a line”. Then out of the darkness emerge two lieutenants towing two barge loads of explosives – snatched from the fire. This pleasure was denied to us. We had rowed about 100 to 200 yards when the ammunition ship (all 10,000 tons) blew up. For some reason we both dived over the side for protection in the water.
A tidal wave caused by the explosion sucked, dragged and swirled us down, down into the dirty, dark, oily water. On surfacing my lungs made a noise like blowing up a balloon. I was deaf, blinded by oil fuel, my back was numb but I was alive. Then huge splashes all around in the water by the docks. These were pieces of ship wreckage falling, after flying hundreds of feet in the air. Davits – fittings – wood – masts.
I tried to duck dive to protect my head. Something fell across my back causing more pain. I was on the surface and conscious. The wreckage stopped falling. I heard Terry’s voice croaking my name in the oily darkness. I replied. He said he had found our boat. Finding it difficult to swim I put some floating wood under my shirt and paddled towards him. The explosion had separated us by a good 100 yards. He had found the boat and was sitting in it calling my name. The barges had sunk. The ammunition ship had disappeared down to the water line. All around the harbour were fires caused by the explosion. Terry dragged me into the boat – we lay gasping. The boat was leaking. We tried to paddle slowly away from the burning wreck. A second huge explosion rocked Piraeus Port and the ships’ boilers went up in the sky like red balloons. By then we were too shocked and hurt to care, so we crouched and shielded our heads. As we drew away from the wreckage fires ashore were seen everywhere. Finally our boat began to sink near a Greek trawler. We called for help. They threw Terry a line. I was found clinging to their anchor chain and hauled aboard. They ferried us ashore to a bus. It was full of wounded. Some dead.