- Bowden, D.M., PO (Telegraphist), RAN
- Biographies and personal histories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I, HMAS Stuart I
- December 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
SHORTLY AFTER HER ARRIVAL in Alexandria, HMAS Perth was ordered to Suda Bay in Crete, to detach the A/C for land-based operations. She arrived in that port on 1st January 1941 and landed her Walrus.
The maintenance crew comprised Sergeant Mitchell (fitter) Corporal McLachlan (rigger) Cox (armourer) Burns (photographer), all RAAF, and Stevens. Able Seaman RAN Sawtell (rigger) joined several weeks later. Both personnel and aircraft stores were landed by boat – Flight Lt. Beaumont RAAF, Sub-Lt. Brian, RN Observer (we always called Brian ‘Aye’ because he wore the RN fleet air arm insignia, ‘A’ within the curl of Sub Lt., Reserve rank on his sleeve), and myself, D.M. Bowden PO Tel. (airgunner) RAN, took off and landed at Maleme Aerodrome which we found in the course of construction. Greek workmen using picks and shovels and primitive gear were everywhere. We found some RN Fleet Air Arm Swordfish already arrived but we were detached to operate independently.
I well remember we had to operate from a buoy laid out in the bay and refuel from 40 gallon drums we ferried out in a barge from shore. The RN had set up a District Naval Office in a house close to the quay waterfront. The Pilot and Observer were accommodated with other officers from DNO in a house in the village, while the rest of us set up camp in tents pitched in an olive grove on the slopes at the back of the village.
To our surprise we found a Walrus crew in a Greek house waiting to be relieved by us. They welcomed us and then showed us the organisation being set up in the area, the stores and victualling office, etc. There was snow on the hills so we were issued with an Army uniform and great coat. We were on our own from then on and when the Walrus crew moved out we took over their house as a cookhouse and mess room.
The house – virtually one room with a roofed over verandah area at the back – was whitewashed inside and out and the floor was plain hard earth. One of the crew before us, an artist in private life, had made a charcoal drawing on one of the walls of an over life size luscious female form – a real work of art. She was still beautiful when we left and I often wonder if she survived the action later.
In our camp we had to victual and cook for ourselves. Dry stores, meat and butter we purchased from the victualling office, but vegetables and sometimes meat we purchased from the Greeks. It was interesting to see the Greeks blow (by mouth) the skin from a sheep so the skin could be used as a water bag.
We soon settled into full operational flying, dawn and dusk anti-submarine patrols every day. During the day we did courier service up and down the Island with senior Officers, etc. For me, no dull periods, for when I wasn’t flying, I did maintenance, likewise when we were flying, the maintenance crew had to chase victuals and do camp chores etc. and also be on hand to fuel when we returned.
At that period all was routine and though the Italians frequently came over to bomb the ships in the harbour, it was all high level stuff and did not worry us unduly. We still kept the aircraft at the buoy even though we took off quick smart ashore in our rowboat when we saw the Greeks on shore starting to run for cover. Somehow they always ran before the red alert was hoisted. When we were in camp we watched the ack-ack bursts in the sky, for with our camp in the olive grove we felt quite safe.
It was a different story when the Germans started to come over to bomb the harbour – Suda Bay soon became known as ‘Bomb Alley’ (I know the Perth was never happy inside the harbour). The Jerries came in at low level and rarely failed to strafe our camp. We soon dug slit trenches and used them.
One morning as we were going down to the aircraft for the usual dawn patrol there was a huge explosion in the harbour. We saw a flash in the darkness and stopped in our tracks. We eventually got to the aircraft at the buoy and took off for the dawn patrol. On our return we saw the cruiser HMS York had settled on the bottom on an even keel with her lower compartments flooded. I believe later Perth lost one of her shipwright divers when he was working under the water on the ship during a bomb attack.
After returning from patrol we reported to the DNO and there we saw three Italians, frogmen who had been captured, floating on individual rafts in the harbour after the attack. They had entered in low-draught high-speed small motor boats, paddled across the boom-nets and when close to York started their engines and steered directly at the cruiser with locked rudders. When close in they dropped off on to small rafts to avoid the explosion and calmly awaited capture. One of the boats was defective and at daylight was found floating in the harbour. At this time it was thought the ship had been the victim of limpet mine attack. It was not until after the Italian boat had been examined that the true story emerged.
The boat was later sent to Alexandria for further appraisal. Shortly after the York episode, the German raids started in earnest, with the Italian high level attacks we had reasonable warning, but with the German low level attacks there was no warning. To avoid being caught with the aircraft on the water, tied up at the buoy, we cleared an area and made a rough runway out of rocks, so we could taxi the aircraft ashore, where there was some protection from the steep hillside close to the water. We also built a sandbag enclosure for ourselves, and then thumbed our noses when the Jerries came over.