Meet the Only Australian Destroyer To Survive World War II

Meet the Only Australian Destroyer To Survive World War II

The Australian destroyer HMAS Vendetta fought against Italy, Germany, and Japan during World War II.

On October 20, 1941, the Australian destroyer Vendetta weighed anchor in the port of Alexandria, Egypt. After spending nearly two years supporting the Royal Navy in the fight for control of the Mediterranean Sea, the aging engines of the busy warship could no longer give her the speed needed to escort convoys, screen the fleet, or dodge dive- bombers. It was time for a major overhaul.

Launched in Govan, Scotland, on November 25, 1916, Vendetta was a Royal Navy V-class destroyer, 300 feet long with a beam of 26 feet, nine inches, and a top speed of 34 knots. Her original armament consisted of four-inch main batteries, 40mm antiaircraft guns, and four torpedo tubes. Later refits increased the vessel’s antiaircraft capabilities and reduced the number of torpedo tubes.

An Experienced Vessel

Vendetta was no stranger to combat. She was originally commissioned in Great Britain’s Royal Navy in October 1917, in time to take part in World War I. She saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, performed fleet escort duties in the North Sea, and was on hand to witness the surrender of the German High Seas fleet. After the Great War, she was stationed in the Baltic where her crew rescued 430 survivors from the light cruiser HMS Cassandra when that ship sank after striking a mine left over from the war.

Vendetta then gave support to White Russian forces against the growing menace of the Communists. She engaged two Bolshevik destroyers in battle. One, the Spartak, was run aground, while the other, the Lennuk, was captured and later turned over to the new Estonian Navy.

From 1924 until 1933, HMS Vendetta cruised in the Mediterranean and Red Seas where she carried out patrol and escort duties, foreshadowing her future role. In 1933, Vendetta and four other Great War era V- and W-class destroyers were turned over to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). As part of the RAN, the newly transferred HMAS Vendetta performed ceremonial and patrol duties until 1939.

Losing Mediterranean Ports

On the eve of World War II, it looked as if Great Britain would need all the help it could get to stave off the growing Nazi menace. Vendetta and four of her sister destroyers, Stuart, Vampire, Voyager, and Waterhen, were sent to the aid of the mother country in her hour of need. Vendetta and the RAN destroyer squadron arrived in the Mediterranean late in 1939.

German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called the aging boats “scrap iron” and nothing more than a “consignment of junk,” because they all dated from World War I. They were immediately and affectionately dubbed “the scrap iron flotilla.”

It was not just their age but also their size that drew derision. Laid down at just over 1,300 tons, the V and W classes were dwarfed by newer British designs that ranged upward of 1,600 tons. American, German, Italian, and Japanese designs called for destroyers of up to 2,000 tons. Still, Vendetta and her sisters could pack a punch.

At first there was little to do in the Mediterranean as the combined British and French fleets were supreme. Vendetta conducted routine patrols and escort duty from one end of the sea to the other. Everything changed when Germany invaded France. Excited by the prospect of a Nazi victory and not wanting to be left out, Mussolini’s Italy entered the war in June 1940. France surrendered in the same month.

The strategic situation changed overnight. The Royal Navy had once been welcome at any port in the Mediterranean. Within a month, it was barred everywhere save Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, Malta, and Gibraltar.

A Sidelined Warship in the Mediterranean

The scrap iron flotilla was well used in the war’s early days in every role that a destroyer was designed for and every task that the Admiralty could think of. It was a difficult time for the little Australian destroyer. She was undergoing a much needed retrofit at Malta when Italian and German bombers began their offensive against the helpless little island. She was under repair from June 11 until July 8, 1940, and during that time her log recorded 80 bombing raids against the island. Fortunately, the Italians did not press their advantage.

Vendetta was not damaged, but her enforced stay at Malta caused her to miss the Battle of Calabria in which a combined British and Australian fleet engaged an Italian squadron with mixed results. Following her repairs, Vendetta continued her ceaseless round of escort duties.

Engine trouble in October caused her to miss another battle. Back in action in November, the renewed ship supported British actions in Greece and Libya. These were soon complicated by the introduction of Luftwaffe dive- bombers and torpedo planes to the Mediterranean conflict. Several ships of the Royal Navy were sunk or damaged.

By March 1941, German forces were pushing through the Balkans. Already stretched to the limit, Great Britain determined to bolster Greece’s defenses. Vendetta began new duties escorting troops and supplies to mainland Greece. On March 28, Vendetta was steaming with a British battle fleet south of Crete when enemy ships were sighted. The Allied ships put on all speed to close with the Italian fleet in what became know as the Battle of Cape Matapan. Poor Vendetta’s engines were overtaxed, and she could not keep pace with the fighting fleet. She was ordered to return to Alexandria, missing any participation in the resounding Allied victory to come.

Once again, Vendetta underwent repairs to her aging and cranky engines. By the time she was back on duty in April the situation in Greece had gone from bad to worse. The 56,000 Allied soldiers who had been landed there now had to be removed to prevent them from being overrun. Vendetta was called upon to aid in their evacuation. On April 25, she took aboard 350 British troops and safely evacuated them to Suda Bay on Crete.

The next month found Vendetta ferrying reinforcements to Tobruk and bringing out wounded. She was then involved in the efforts to ferry soldiers to Crete and to resupply them. The fortunes of war were still against the Allies, and again Vendetta was required to help with the extraction of those same soldiers once the Germans threatened to overwhelm them.

The Germans soon took the offensive in Africa and increased the pressure on the British at the port of Tobruk. Axis troops surrounded the town and lay siege to it for 242 days. London was adamant about holding on to Tobruk, but the sandy enclave on the Libyan coast could only be supplied by sea. Merchant ships were too slow and vulnerable. Fast destroyers were needed.

Vendetta and other ships were pressed into service ferrying men and supplies to the besieged port city. The supply runs had to be made at night to avoid the deadly accuracy of German guns and the prowling Luftwaffe. These urgent trips were known to the men as “spud runs” because of the supplies they carried. Vendetta made 19 “spud runs” to Tobruk. In all, she ferried in 4,263 troops and 616 tons of supplies while carrying out 220 prisoners. The nocturnal runs required her to steam at high speed to accomplish her tasks and be away before dawn.

The resulting wear on her engines was acutely felt. Vendetta had been at war constantly for two years since leaving Australia and the wear on her ancient engines and primitive steam system could no longer be ignored. It was time for her to undergo serious repairs that could only be accomplished at a major naval yard. In this case, she would have to steam to Singapore.

Joining the Pacific War

Leaving Egypt forever, Vendetta steamed slowly through the Red Sea and on to Singapore, gingerly favoring her engines. She arrived on November 12, 1941. Most of her war-weary crew were sent home to Australia for a much deserved and long overdue rest. Just 21 volunteer crew members stayed behind to supervise the overhaul of the ship’s engines and steam plant.

The boilers and propulsion system were completely dismantled, and the machinery was spread out on the adjoining dock. Her guns were also dismounted for rework. This was the state of things when the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse steamed into the port on December 2, 1941. The two mighty warships had been sent from Europe to augment the forces that Great Britain could spare in the Far East to guard against Japanese expansion.

No sooner had the two capital ships arrived in Singapore than the Japanese began their assault in the Pacific Ocean from Pearl Harbor to Malaya. Within a week of their arrival at Singapore, both of the great ships were sunk.

When the war in the Pacific began, Vendetta was a dead ship. Immobile at her dockside and disassembled into a thousand pieces, she was helpless. Some of her engine parts were in a naval workshop 20 miles away. Her propeller shafts had been removed, leaving two gaping holes in her stern below the water line. These were temporarily plugged but vulnerable. Putting her pieces back together seemed hopeless as the Japanese moved ever closer to the city.