- Shinkfield, Des
- Naval Aviation, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Arunta I, HMAS Warramunga I, HMAS Shropshire, HMAS Australia II
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Ship’s company was closed up at action stations the night of the 20th. My action station was in the TS, or Transmission Station, the heart of the 8 inch gunnery system, but as we couldn’t use the 8 inch because of the closeness of other ships, I suggested to the Warrant Officer in charge of the TS, Jess Menzies, that I go up to the Aircraft Plot close to the bridge to give Lieutenant Boylan a bit of relief.
The middle watch proved uneventful, but early on October 21 (Trafalgar Day) during the morning watch, just after dawn, three enemy aircraft were detected on our radar and picked up flying low over the fleet. The bridge was alerted, AA positions readied.
Two of these aircraft were shot down, but the third, a Sonia, continued to fly down the row of ships very low, passing down our starboard side between us and HMAS Shropshire, which was astern of us on our starboard quarter. AA fire failed to stop it. Shropshire claims to have hit it, but the pilot regained control of the aircraft, did a U turn and came in dead astern, and up our port side, firing as it came. My brother, Officer of the Quarters on the Quarter Deck, was hit by an expended bullet, just near his jugular, but it fell into his shirt! No problem! The pom-poms found it difficult to train on the aircraft because of the angle of approach, and neither could the Bofors.
Captain Dechaineux killed
The aircraft hit the tripod mast, the 273 radar hut, the fore director, and exploded, killing Captain Dechaineux on the compass platform, seven other officers and twenty three ratings. Fifty six were wounded. What was left of the aircraft cartwheeled over ‘B turret and over the side. It was a nasty hit. The electrical circuits were put out of action, and the ship had to be conned from the after-steering position. I was about to leave the Aircraft Plot when the explosion occurred. Had I gone out when intended, I doubt I would have been giving this talk today. Outside it was a mess. What I did notice was a lot of yellow stuff, picric acid, a chemical compound used in the manufacture of explosives. Ironically it was also used in the treatment of bums, but this was not known at the time. Most of our casualties died from the effect of bums and shock. The ship was forced to withdraw and go to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides for repairs, so we missed the greatest naval battle of all time, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in which Shropshire took part, also HMA Ships Warramunga and Arunta.
‘Not to stick my head out . . .’
At Espiritu Santo, the Sea Bees, as they were called, a special construction team, worked frantically to repair the ship, and within three weeks, the ship was ready to go into action again. At this time the Gunnery Officer, Lieut. Commander Peek, approached me and said he wanted me to take Lieutenant Bayley’s place in the fore-director. Bayley had been incinerated in the hit at Leyte. How did I feel about it? I said I didn’t. If I get through, I get through, if I don’t, I don’t.
‘H’mm’, he said, ‘I suppose that’s the only way to look at it.’
‘Sir, I have one request?’
‘Not to stick my head out if the Japs come in strafing’. Above the Rate Officer’s seat was a hatch which he was to use to get a better view of the enemy. I could see no future in that.
‘Permission granted.’ Peek said, ‘The next invasion point is the Island of Luzon in the north of the Philippines.’
The Australian squadron was part of Berkey’s bombardment group heading for Lingayen Gulf.
On January 4th off the island of Panay a Japanese aircraft dived on the fleet carrier, USS Ommaney Bay, off our starboard quarter. The aircraft went through the hangar deck and exploded. The ship had to be abandoned. At 1500 Shropshire also had a near miss, a kamikaze aircraft crashed into the water about 50 yards from the ship’s port quarter.