The Scrap Iron Flotilla – Five Valiant Destroyers and the Australian War in the Mediterranean. By Mike Carlton. William Heinemann Australia, 2022
Reviewed by Desmond Woods
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Some chroniclers are ideal authors for their subject and some neglected, half-forgotten, or never known, accounts of valour at sea need to be written before they are lost to memory. So it is with Mike Carlton and his history of the RAN’s five valiant destroyers chronicled in his latest naval history book: The Scrap Iron Flotilla. The fusion of the journalist’s eye for telling detail and the first class research from primary sources make this book a compelling tale of the war in the Mediterranean 1939 – 41 written from a uniquely Australian perspective.
The book includes all the actions that the RAN fought in while part of the Mediterranean Fleet during that intense two year period, the victories they contributed to and the losses they incurred under attack from Axis ships, aircraft and submarines.
HMAS Sydney’s timely salvation of three RN destroyers from imminent destruction by two fast Italian cruisers at the battle of Cape Spada is vividly told. Her tactically brilliant CO Captain John Collins gauged to perfection where he needed to be to protect the RN’s destroyers and sink an enemy cruiser. His ‘humanity after victory’ in rescuing Italian sailors remains impressive. The account of HMAS Stuart the ‘leader of the crocks’, the World War I vintage destroyer in the thick of the night battle at Cape Matapan against the Italian Navy is drawn from the vivid written recollections of those who were there and the research by naval historians into this key engagement. Cape Matapan was where a British psychological victory as much as a material one was achieved – and the RAN was a part of it. Each ship of the Flotilla was asked to do the impossible repeatedly and largely succeeded due to guts and determination and the skill of engineers in keeping them running.
The destroyer HMAS Waterhen was sunk by bombs without loss of life. But here too is recounted the tragedy of the loss of the RAN sloop-of-war HMAS Parramatta. After months of escorting supplies into besieged Tobruk, while skilfully avoiding bombs and shooting down enemy attackers, she was torpedoed at night by a surfaced U Boat outside Tobruk. The deaths of 141 of her ship’s company including her captain are remembered as are the extraordinary tales of her survivors picked up from the Western Desert first by Arabs, with whom they lived, before being returned to duty.
Throughout the book there are excellent short biographies of the main characters well woven into the narrative. The Flotilla’s senior officer and leader was the great Australian fighting captain Hector Waller. His leadership was both robust and wise. But there are many other great Australian sailors and officers in this story of all ranks at war. Their characters and their hopes and fears are clear from well-chosen quotes from the diaries they confided in and from letters home to families and wives.
The words of Commander Jefferson Walker of Parramatta to his wife reveal that he knew that the intensity of the daily bombing of his ship was very likely to sink it. Ships were bombed relentlessly while at sea and while in port in Malta and Alexandria. Walker’s fears he told his wife were not particularly for himself but for the lives of his ship’s company he held in trust. Rarely has the weight that goes with command responsibility in war for a ship’s company been more movingly told than in these tender and realistic letters home from a loving husband and father.
Mike Carlton’s skill is that he can move the reader seamlessly from the personal and the particular to the enormous scope of the war in the Mediterranean. He lays bare the strategic folly of Churchill’s belief that Greece could be saved from the Axis powers by putting troops ashore in the face of the certainty of a German invasion from the North. It was an indefensible choice, as was the decision to try to hold Crete with Commonwealth troops lacking anything but personal weapons and without air cover over them. These fateful decisions had dire consequences for the Australian, New Zealand and British families whose sons lie in the cemeteries of Greece and Crete. It also cost the Royal Navy ships and men it could not afford to lose. It was a near run thing but the RAN lost no ships or sailors while evacuating troops from these embattled ports and beaches.
Mike Carlton not only deals with the danger from the enemy to these five elderly and over taxed destroyers but also with the sheer endurance and the courage of the men who manned their obsolescent steam machinery and guns. The strain on their 1917 engineering was analogous to the strain on the sailors, senior sailors and officers who took the ‘crocks’ into harm’ s way for months on end with little or no respite. The RN Commander-in Chief in the Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, noted this optimism and hardihood and called these RAN ship’s companies “the liveliest and most undefeated sailors I ever met”, and so they were.
But, as the book also makes clear, most of them expected their inadequately armed destroyers to be sunk under them unless they could embark captured Italian high angle anti-aircraft guns to use against the Stuka dive bombers expertly attacking them. These were men with a mission. Some refused to work until these deficiencies were put right. They were eager for a scrap with the enemy but they wanted to avoid going down fighting. They did not want to die pointlessly. They wanted guns that could destroy their attackers. They wanted and got the weapons they needed to fight and win at sea. Then they went to work to make them deadly to incoming aircraft.
Scrap Iron Flotilla is timely because it reminds us that we are not the first generation of Australians who needed to think long and hard about getting our naval capability ‘up to speed’ during peacetime to ensure that never again can an enemy claim that the ships of our fleet are only fit for scrap iron.
The very last of the Scrap Iron Flotilla men, whose story this is, died while it was being written in 2021. For seven decades these Flotilla sailors met often and marched proudly behind their banner which read: ‘Hec Waller – he led we followed.’ This book is a very fitting obituary for them all. They would have loved reading it.
But it is not just for the descendants of those who fought in the Scrap Iron Flotilla. It is for all those who care that the RAN’s history is well known and its significance in the national history of Australians at War is finally appreciated.
Mike Carlton has in less than a decade written four highly readable, thoroughly researched and masterly accounts of Australia’s War at Sea. They appeal to naval history enthusiasts and the general readership alike. First Victory dealt with the story of the Kaiser’s Navy in the Pacific and HMAS Sydney’s destruction of SMS Emden off Cocos-Keeling Island in 1914. Cruiser tells the history of HMAS Perth’s war, before her last fight in Sunda Strait and what became of her stalwart undefeated survivors as prisoners of war. Flagship is the story of the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia and her sister ship HMAS Shropshire and their actions in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Both just survived their ordeals but many who served in the flagship did not. Now we have Scrap Iron Flotilla to complete this important quartet.
None of these four books is better than the last because each details the great sweep of the global war in which RAN ships fought in the world wars and also tell colourful and moving stories of the people who fought and survived and those who died as Australian sailors. That generation of Australians fought at sea against Fascism in defence of freedom and to protect their families at home and their shipmates. The four books taken together cannot be matched as essential reading for anyone who is keen to understand the scale of the triumphs and the tragedies of Australia’s contribution to the allied war at sea in the 20th century.
Scrap Iron Flotilla is a valuable addition to any naval history collection and, I suggest essential reading for serving RAN members who wish to understand the spirit that animated their professional ancestors in battle eight decades ago.