The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 6 — The Cruise of the Leander
The Cruise of the Leander
ON 8 September 1939 the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, in a telegram to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom, said that by placing the Achilles and two escort vessels, Leith and Wellington, under the orders of Admiralty, the New Zealand Government had ‘made the maximum possible strategic contribution at sea under present circumstances, since HMS Leander requires to be retained on the New Zealand Station to guard against the threat of attack on shipping by armed raiders.’ The message added that the previous suggestion that New Zealand should maintain a third cruiser could not be considered an immediate requirement.
After her tropical cruise to Fanning Island, whence she had returned on 13 September 1939, the Leander prepared for a visit to sub-Antarctic latitudes. She sailed from Auckland on 25 September for the uninhabited Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, which were regarded as likely bases for enemy commerce raiders and their supply ships. The cruiser arrived off Campbell Island in the morning of 28 September and made a careful examination of all bays and inlets, but no indications of recent human activity were found. Next morning the Leander anchored in Port Ross, or Sarah's Bosom-harbour, on the north-east coast of the Auckland Islands. After inspecting this locality she steamed along the east side of the main island and lay-to two miles to seaward of the entrance to Carnley harbour in a gale, with visibility of about six miles between the rain squalls. Nothing suspicious was seen in the eastern end of Carnley harbour or in the inlets further up the coast. The Leander returned to Wellington on 1 October and sailed three days later for Auckland, co-operating with reconnaissance aircraft which made sweeps over the Cook Strait, Cuvier Island, and Hauraki Gulf areas. The Leander made a second cruise to the Auckland Islands in November. On this occasion Carnley harbour was entered and examined, several inlets being visited by the cruiser's boats. The anchorage at Port Ross was also inspected and other bays and inlets were reconnoitred by the ship's aircraft. Nothing suspicious was seen in any of the places examined.
There is little doubt, however, that the German steamer Erlangen, 6100 tons, was lying in a remote anchorage in Carnley harbour at the time the Leander made her first visit to the Auckland Islands. page 76 This vessel, after loading at New Zealand ports for Europe, sailed from Dunedin on 28 August 1939, ostensibly for Port Kembla, New South Wales, where she was to have coaled for her homeward passage. It was reported that the Erlangen was sighted two days later ‘hove-to off Stewart Island in weather that did not necessitate that precaution.’ She was ordered by radio from Germany not to go to Australia, but she had insufficient coal to steam to the distant neutral waters of South America.
According to published German accounts, the Erlangen went to the Auckland Islands and lay concealed at the head of North Arm, the innermost inlet in Carnley harbour, for five weeks while her crew toiled at cutting rata wood, of which some 400 tons was loaded to eke out her meagre coal supply. A suit of sails was fashioned from hatch covers and spare canvas. The Erlangen put to sea again on 7 October 1939, and after a long passage of five weeks arrived at Puerto Montt, Southern Chile, on 11 November.1 In April 1941, when a coastwatching station was being established on the Auckland Islands, it was found that five or six acres of bush had been felled at the head of North Arm.
At about this time the Admiralty thought that the Leander could be more usefully employed elsewhere than in New Zealand waters and, subject to the concurrence of the New Zealand Government, proposed to replace her on the New Zealand Station by a ‘C’ class cruiser.2 This proposal was mentioned by the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in a letter dated 29 October 1939 to the acting Prime Minister, in which it was pointed out that the change would greatly facilitate the naval dispositions contemplated by the Admiralty.
1 The Erlangen ultimately made her way into the Atlantic. She sailed from Mar del Plata, Argentine, on 24 July 1941 and was intercepted by HMS Newcastle. She was set on fire by her own crew. An unsuccessful effort was made to tow her into Uruguayan waters, but she sank.
2 Fourteen ‘C’ class cruisers were built in 1916–18 — Capetown, Cardiff, etc., — 4180 to 4290 tons displacement; 29 knots; five 6-inch guns. Most of them were converted to anti-aircraft ships after 1939.
A telegram was sent to the acting Prime Minister, who was then in London, stating that the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom had been informed that it was fully realised that the Admiralty was best able to estimate the probable scales of attack in various oceans. The Government readily acceded to the request for the transfer of the Leander and her replacement by another unit, but in view of the limited steaming radius and offensive capability of one ‘C’ class cruiser, it was suggested for Admiralty consideration that the Leander should be replaced by three destroyers, preferably modern, and fitted for anti-submarine operations. It was thought that three units would be of more value than one for patrolling the three focal areas of New Zealand trade and searching for raiders.
In a memorandum to the Minister of Defence, dated 2 November 1939, the Naval Secretary said it was assumed that, but for the outbreak of war, the Government would have considered whether to follow the recommendations of the Pacific Defence Conference and undertake responsibility for a third cruiser and two escort vessels. It would now appear, particularly in view of the war, that this policy should be implemented in principle. If New Zealand undertook responsibility for an armed merchant cruiser and three destroyers, in addition to the Leander and Achilles, the cost would be about £450,000 a year, or about £75,000 more than a third cruiser and two escort vessels.
When the matter was referred to the Minister of Finance, the Secretary of the Treasury said that ‘in view of the heavy expenditure necessary on account of increased Air Force and Army activities, it is considered that no further commitment in respect of naval services, over and above the present for the maintenance of the Leander and Achilles and the armed merchant cruiser be entered into at the present time, especially as no request in this connection has been received from the Imperial Government.’
This short-term view of the Treasury appeared to derive support from a telegram received by the Governor-General on 21 November from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, stating that ‘the Admiralty had had under consideration certain revised plans for the disposition of cruisers and it was not thought it would be necessary for HMS Leander to be moved from the New Zealand Station, at any rate for the present. The Admiralty were most appreciative of the readiness of New Zealand to fall in with their wishes.’ But the course of the war was yet to involve New Zealand in many further heavy commitments in respect to naval services.page 78
At that time the Admiral Graf Spee was on her commerce raiding cruise. She had recently entered the Indian Ocean, where she had scant success, and by 21 November had returned to the South Atlantic. This was not known for some time and the possibility of her entering the Pacific had to be considered. On 29 November 1939 the Chief of the Naval Staff, in a message to Admiralty and the Australian Naval Board, said that in the event of the arrival of an enemy armoured ship in New Zealand waters the Commodore intended that the Leander would try to locate and shadow the ship. He would avoid action in conditions of high visibility and seek action if a favourable opportunity occurred at night or in low visibility with the intention to cripple the enemy. In deciding whether to attack, consideration would be given to the proximity of reinforcement. In the event, as we have seen, the fortune of war favoured the other New Zealand cruiser in South American waters.
During the month of December 1939 the Leander remained at Auckland at twelve hours' notice for steam and gave Christmas leave to her ship's company. By this time arrangements were well advanced for the embarkation and despatch overseas of the First Echelon of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. It had been decided that the troopship convoy would be escorted from Wellington by HMS Ramillies, a battleship from the Mediterranean Fleet, HMAS Canberra (flagship of Rear-Admiral Commanding Australian Squadron), and the Leander (broad pendant of Commodore Commanding New Zealand Squadron). The first transport, the Empress of Canada, 21,517 tons, arrived at Wellington from Hong Kong on 23 December. She was followed by the Rangitata, 16,737 tons, Dunera, 11,162 tons, Orion, 23,371 tons, Strathaird, 22,281 tons, and the Polish motor-vessel Sobieski, 11,030 tons. The Dunera and Sobieski proceeded to Lyttelton to embark the South Island troops. When she arrived at Wellington on 31 December the Ramillies displayed between her masts a huge banner bearing the words: ‘Well done, the Achilles’ – the tribute of her ship's company to the part played by that ship in the River Plate action.
On 1 January 1940, before the Leander left Auckland, the broad pendant of Commodore J. W. Rivett-Carnac was transferred to HMS Philomel on his relief by Commodore H. E. Horan as Commodore Commanding New Zealand Squadron and Commanding Officer HMS Leander.
On 4 January the Leander left Wellington for Lyttelton to act as escort for the ships carrying the South Island troops. The Dunera went south in company with the cruiser, which anchored in Lyttelton harbour early the following morning. The Dunera embarked some 1350 troops and the Sobieski 1150, and both sailed in the afternoon with the Leander. During the forenoon of 6 January they made page 79 contact in Cook Strait with the four transports carrying the North Island troops, numbering some 4000, which had sailed from Wellington that morning. The convoy, which now consisted of the Orion, Strathaird, Empress of Canada, Rangitata, Dunera, and Sobieski, then proceeded, escorted by the Canberra, Leander, and Ramillies. The six transports, totalling 106,095 tons gross register, were carrying over 6500 troops. It is of interest to recall that the ten ships, totalling 82,300 tons gross register, which transported the Main Body of the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Egypt in 1914, carried 8499 troops and 3946 horses.
After an uneventful passage across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand ships met the Australian transports Empress of Japan, Orcades, Otranto, Orford, and Strathnaver, escorted by HMAS Australia, off Sydney Heads on 10 January 1940. The combined convoy then sailed southward and the Leander went into Sydney.
After her return to New Zealand the Leander went up to the Bay of Islands and anchored off Russell to represent the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy at the celebration on 6 February of the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
HMS Hector,1 armed merchant cruiser, commanded by Captain R. Lloyd, RN (retd), allocated by the Admiralty to the New Zealand Station, arrived at Auckland from Bombay on 10 February 1940. The Naval Board informed the Commodore Commanding New Zealand Squadron that the Hector was to be regarded as a vessel of the squadron. She sailed from Auckland on 27 February with a relief for the garrison troops on Fanning Island, and called at Apia, Samoa, and Suva on her return passage to Auckland.
Arrangements were now in hand for the transport of the Second Echelon, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and the second draft of Australian troops, and questions were raised by the New Zealand Government regarding the adequacy of the escorts proposed by the Admiralty. In order to effect urgent economy in shipping tonnage, the Admiralty stated, it was under consideration to include the Queen Mary, Aquitania, Mauretania, and Empress of Britain in Convoy US 2. As the speed of some of the transports was below that at which these fast liners could be handled it was necessary to divide the convoy into a fast group and a slow group whose seagoing speeds would be 20 knots and 13 knots respectively. Two escorting forces would therefore be required.
1 Hector, twin-screw passenger steamer of 11,198 tons gross register, owned by A. Holt and Company (Blue Funnel Line) of Liverpool. As an armed merchant cruiser, she was fitted with eight 6-inch guns. She was set on fire and sunk at Colombo in February 1942.
The Australian Commonwealth Naval Board on 17 March proposed that, as the New Zealand transports would not be included in the slow group, the Ramillies should remain at Sydney until required for the onward escort of that group of Convoy US 2. In concurring with this proposal the Admiralty said it was regretted that the moral effect of the previously intended visit of the Ramillies to New Zealand would now be lost, but it would be realised that the change in plans was inevitable as the battleship had neither the speed nor the endurance to accompany the fast group. It was presumed that the Australian and New Zealand Naval Boards would arrange to escort the New Zealand transports across the Tasman Sea. In a message dated 19 March the Admiralty said the Eagle, owing to an accident, would not be able to join the slow group at Fremantle, but it was considered that the Ramillies and the Sydney would afford adequate protection.
On 18 March the Australian Naval Board proposed to the New Zealand Naval Board that the Canberra and Leander should escort the New Zealand troopships across the Tasman Sea to 160 degrees East (about two-thirds of the passage) and that the Australia should then relieve the Leander. While agreeing to this proposal, the New Zealand Naval Board informed the Admiralty and the Australian Naval Board that the Government was very uneasy as to whether this and the subsequent escorts were sufficiently strong and would be glad to have information of the Admiralty's intention regarding escorting forces for the whole voyage. The matter was clouded further when Admiralty messages announced that reports had been received that a pocket battleship accompanied by a tanker of the Altmark class had left Germany during the first week of March on a commerce-raiding cruise.1
1 The German raider No. 16 (Atlantis) sailed from Kiel on 11 March 1940 on a cruise which included the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. Raider No. 36 (Orion) sailed in April 1940 and arrived on the New Zealand coast in June. No pocket battleship was at sea on raiding operations during March 1940.
The views of the Government were set out in a telegram dated 1 April 1940 from the Governor-General to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. The Government appreciated that the Admiralty was responsible for the adequacy of ocean escorts and did not, of course, dispute its judgment in such matters. But it felt bound to point out that it was also its responsibility to ensure that more than 7000 New Zealand troops did not depart from the Dominion unless and until the Government was fully satisfied that the voyage would be made in conditions providing a reasonable maximum of safety. In view of the Admiralty reports, which indicated at least a strong suspicion that a pocket battleship was at large, the Government could not disguise its uneasiness at the prospect of the convoy being protected by only two warships, both practically unarmoured. The Chief of Naval Staff had explained the technical and strategic factors involved, including the safety which the speed of the convoy afforded. Nevertheless, the Government felt that there was an element of risk because an action might well take place in circumstances highly unfavourable to the safety of the convoy. It could not dismiss from its mind the attraction this convoy, so valuable in men and ships, could have for the enemy. It might well be, the Government argued, that a pocket battleship had been sent out for this very purpose.
Having regard to these considerations, the Government proposed that the Leander should proceed the whole way with the convoy, thereafter being at the disposal of the Admiralty as already arranged. The Admiralty was aware that the Government did not consider it desirable that the Leander should leave New Zealand until the Achilles had completed her refit; but the Naval Board had reported that the latter ship could be at forty-eight hours' notice by the middle of May and the Hector would also be available.
Expressing appreciation of the Government's point of view, the Admiralty agreed that the Leander would be employed more usefully on escort duty than in the defence of New Zealand interests from attack by an armed merchant raider, against which, it was considered, the presence of the Hector and Achilles would afford adequate security. It welcomed the additional security to the convoy which the presence of the Leander would afford. On conclusion of escort duty, it was intended that the Leander should join the East Indies Station.1
1 This discussion recalls the events of September–October 1914 when a difference of opinion between the Admiralty and the Governments concerned regarding the adequacy of escorts for troopship convoys resulted in considerable delay in the sailing of the first Australian and New Zealand troops for Egypt.
HMS Hector sailed from Auckland on 13 April and arrived on the 17th at the entrance to the Brisbane River, where she found the loaded Norwegian tankers Thorshov, 9955 tons, and Solor, 8262 tons, at anchor, each under a naval armed guard.1 They sailed for Wellington on 19 April, escorted by the Hector. Four days later the Hector collided with the Thorshov. Considerable damage was done to both ships. The Hector spent three weeks in the floating dock undergoing repairs, after which she made a cruise to South Island ports.
The Leander arrived on 24 April at Wellington, where the ships assigned to transport the Second Echelon had assembled. The first to arrive was the new Royal Mail Line Andes, 25,689 tons; she went on to Lyttelton to embark the South Island troops. The Empress of Japan, 26,032 tons, arrived on 1 April, the Empress of Britain, 42,348 tons, on the 14th, and the Aquitania, 44,786 tons, on the 20th. The Canberra (flagship) and Australia arrived from Sydney as escorts, the former proceeding to Lyttelton on 29 April.
As from 1 May 1940 Captain Horan relinquished the rank of Commodore 2nd class but remained in command of the Leander. Captain Parry assumed the rank of Commodore 2nd class, and took over from Captain Horan the duties of First Naval Member of the New Zealand Naval Board, Chief of the Naval Staff, and Commodore Commanding New Zealand Squadron, continuing in command of the Achilles.
In addition to the troops numbering some 6800 officers and men, a naval draft of 28 officers and 356 ratings under the command of Commander Newman, RNZNVR,2 embarked at Wellington in the Aquitania and Empress of Japan. The draft included 3 officers and 74 ratings from the Achilles who were reverting to the Royal Navy, 58 tradesmen ratings recruited in New Zealand, and 25 officers and 219 ratings of the New Zealand Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who had been selected for service in the Royal Navy.
The Aquitania and the two Empresses, in company with the Leander and Australia, sailed from Wellington in the forenoon of 2 May 1940 and were joined in Cook Strait by the Canberra and the Andes, which had come up from Lyttelton. An interchange of farewell signals included one from the Achilles to the Leander expressing the wish that she might have ‘as good luck as we had’, to which the latter replied: ‘We will do our best.’
2 Captain R. Newman, CBE, DSO and bar, VRD, RNZNVR, m.i.d.; born England, 28 Jul 1898; master mariner; company director.
Track Chart of German Raider Orion
The New Zealand cruiser arrived at Fremantle ahead of the convoy in the forenoon of 10 May – the day on which Germany invaded the Low Countries. The disastrous change in the military situation in Europe had already foreshadowed an alteration in the movements of the convoy. On 28 April, in accordance with Admiralty instructions, the Australian Naval Board had directed that ‘with the exception of mail steamers, all British merchant ships bound through the Mediterranean and not working Mediterranean ports for cargo, were to be routed via the Cape of Good Hope.’ Two days later the Flag Officer Commanding Australian Squadron was informed that ‘in view of the Italian situation, Commonwealth Government has decided to postpone temporarily embarkation of Australian troops in U.S. 3 until further advice is received from U.K. Government. It has been proposed to New Zealand Government that they should take similar action regarding New Zealand troops.’ Early on 2 May, however, the Australian Naval Board informed the New Zealand Naval Board and the Flag Officer Commanding Australian Squadron that the Commonwealth Government had agreed to the embarkation of Australian troops and that Convoy US 3 should proceed as far as Fremantle pending a decision regarding their final destination. On 30 April the Admiralty made a signal to the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic Station at Freetown requesting him ‘on account of the probable diversion of Australian and New Zealand troop convoys to the Cape route’, to sail an 8-inch cruiser for the Cape of Good Hope with all convenient despatch. Early on 1 May HMS Shropshire was instructed to sail from Freetown by the shortest route in order to arrive at Simonstown on 7 May.
A further signal from the Admiralty to the Australian and New Zealand Naval Boards and others concerned detailed the intended escorts for Convoys US 2 and US 3 in the event of its being found necessary to divert them to the United Kingdom via the Cape of Good Hope. It appeared that the fuel endurance of the Leander would not allow her to make the passage from Fremantle to the Cape in company with US 3 at 20 knots. It was proposed, therefore, that her future employment should be reviewed. The Admiralty was satisfied that the measures outlined would afford full security to the convoys.page 84
At midday on 12 May 1940 Convoy US 3 sailed from Gage Roads, Fremantle, the Leander leading the majestic procession through the swept channel. For the next three days the convoy proceeded on its course for Colombo. At 0.42 a.m. on 16 May instructions were received by FOCAS from the Admiralty for US 3 to ‘steer towards the Cape of Good Hope’. The Leander was ordered to proceed independently to Colombo and US 3 carried on for the Cape escorted by the Canberra and Australia, the former being relieved a few days later by the Shropshire.
The Leander called at Colombo on 19 May and arrived on the 26th at Alexandria, where she stayed for the rest of the month. It had been arranged that the Gloucester, Orion, Neptune, Leander, and Sydney were to form the Twentieth Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean Fleet, but this was altered and on 1 June the Leander left Alexandria for the Red Sea to join the Fourth Cruiser Squadron, East Indies Station. She passed through the Suez Canal next day and arrived at Port Sudan on 4 June.
From about the end of March 1940, owing to the attitude of page 85 Italy, the Admiralty had been moving naval forces from the China and East Indies Stations to the eastern Mediterranean. On 4 April the Admiralty announced its intention to form a Red Sea Force, and on the 19th Rear-Admiral A. J. L. Murray, DSO, OBE, commanding Fourth Cruiser Squadron, transferred his flag to HMS Liverpool as Senior Officer, Red Sea. On 20 May the Admiralty ordered the aircraft-carrier Eagle and the Liverpool, Gloucester, and Sydney to be transferred to the Mediterranean. Two days earlier information had been received of the general mobilisation of the Italian Navy and Army in East Africa, and on 24 May the Red Sea was closed to all Allied shipping. All northbound tankers west of Aden were allowed to proceed to Suez, but all other shipping was ordered to await the starting of convoys. Reinforcements for the Red Sea Force arrived in the shape of the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle, three sloops, and one division of destroyers from the Mediterranean. At that time the Red Sea was part of the East Indies Station.
Such was the situation when, on 4 June 1940, nine hours after the arrival of the Leander at Port Sudan, the Liverpool entered the harbour. No time was lost, and at sunset Rear-Admiral Murray's flag was struck in the Liverpool and hoisted in the New Zealand cruiser. The sudden advent of the Admiral and his six staff officers caused some difficulty regarding accommodation. The problem was arbitrarily solved by the transfer of three officers and several ratings from the Leander to the Liverpool, which left four hours later for the Mediterranean. The Leander sailed from Port Sudan on patrol in the evening of 7 June, and next morning made contact with HMS Grimsby1 which was shadowing the Italian liner Umbria.2
On 10 June Mussolini announced Italy's declaration of war against Great Britain and France. In the early hours of the 11th the Leander received a signal from Admiralty ordering her to commence hostilities against Italy. During the afternoon the Umbria, which had been brought in from sea in charge of an armed guard from the Grimsby, scuttled herself in the anchorage outside Port Sudan harbour. Boats from the Leander were sent out and the Italian crew and the guard taken off the ship.
Late that night the Leander sailed from Port Sudan to commence the protection of Allied shipping in the Red Sea. She arrived at Aden in the afternoon of 13 June after her aircraft had made an unsuccessful search for a vessel reported as suspicious in the vicinity of Ras-al-Ara, a sandy cape on the Arabian coast. Aden had been attacked by Italian aircraft which made five raids during the twenty-four hours before the arrival of the Leander. Little damage was done and one aircraft was shot down.
1 HMS Grimsby, escort vessel, 990 tons; two 4·7-inch guns, one 3-inch high-angle gun.
2 Umbria, twin-screw passenger steamer, 10,076 tons; owned by Lloyd Triestino, one of the principal Italian shipping lines.
Three days later the Norwegian tanker James Stove, 8215 tons, was torpedoed and sunk by an Italian submarine about 12 miles south of Aden. The Leander's aircraft carried out an unsuccessful search for the U-boat, a report by one of HM ships that a conning tower had been sighted failing to reach the Walrus. Anti-submarine patrols were made by the aircraft during the next two days but did not sight anything suspicious. His Majesty's trawler Moonstone1 was more fortunate. While on patrol she sighted the periscope of a submerged U-boat and promptly attacked with two depth-charges which forced it to surface. After a brief engagement the U-boat surrendered and was towed into Aden. It proved to be the Italian submarine Galileo Galilei.2 Its casualties were twelve killed, including the commanding officer, and four wounded. There were no British casualties.
Early in the morning of 27 June the Leander met the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston and proceeded into the Red Sea, acting on a report that the destroyers and the escort ship Shoreham had made a probably successful attack on an Italian submarine close to the southern coast of Eritrea. After sweeping along the ten-fathom line for two hours, the destroyers sighted the submarine aground and were ordered to attack it with gunfire. An enemy aircraft was then sighted, but it disappeared when fire was opened on it. While the destroyers were firing, four bombs exploded nearby but wide of all ships.
The Leander's aircraft was then catapulted off and made an attack on the submarine. Two bombs fell ‘over’ and one abreast the conning tower, but the fourth bomb failed to leave its carrier. The aircraft was then ordered to keep clear and the Leander opened fire with 6-inch broadsides, obtaining four straddles. When the ship had ceased fire, the aircraft reported that the submarine was well holed and that an extensive oil patch extended for some distance. Two men were seen swimming and two others, one of whom appeared to be dead, were seen on the beach near a raft which had left the U-boat early in the operation. It was learned subsequently that the submarine was the Evangelista Torricelli, of the same class as the captured Galileo Galilei. She was the fifth Italian submarine accounted for in eight days. By the end of the month Italy had lost ten submarines.
1 HMS Moonstone, anti-submarine and minesweeping trawler; 650 tons; speed 11 knots; one 4-inch gun and one Lewis machine gun.
2 Galileo Galilei, submarine of Archimede class; displacement 880-1230 tons; surface speed 17 knots; eight 21-inch torpedo-tubes; two 3·9-inch guns and two light AA guns.
Control of the Mediterranean was a decisive factor in the Second World War, and Great Britain maintained that control by the effective use of sea power. For more than three years the main effort of British arms was exercised in the Mediterranean area, where sea, land, and air operations were sustained by the constant flow of ships carrying men and supplies through the narrow defile of the Red Sea which, from the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb connecting it with the Gulf of Aden, extends for a length of some 1200 miles to the isthmus of Suez. At its southern end, the Red Sea was flanked for more than 400 miles on its western side by the hostile coastline of Italian Eritrea, about midway along which was the defended port and naval base of Massawa.
The protection of shipping along this ancient seaway was the monotonous but important duty assigned to the New Zealand cruiser, which for nearly six months was senior ship of the Red Sea Force. Owing to the presence of Italian aircraft, destroyers, submarines, and other potential commerce raiders at Massawa, the Red Sea had been closed to merchant shipping since 24 May; but, after Italy's declaration of war, no time was lost in organising a convoy service which began operations during the last days of June 1940.
The Leander, which was generally accompanied by two destroyers and two or more escort vessels and from time to time by an antiaircraft cruiser, met the northbound convoys from Bombay well to the eastward of Aden and escorted them through the Gulf of Aden and up the Red Sea to an area about two days' steaming north of Port Sudan. The convoy from Suez was then picked up and taken south. Ships to or from Aden and Port Sudan joined or left the convoys in the vicinity of those ports. Three Australian ships, the cruiser Hobart and the escort vessels Yarra and Parramatta, took part in these operations.
It was monotonous and trying work. The Red Sea and its littoral are one of the hottest regions on earth. Day after day the temperatures recorded in the Leander's log varied little – from 85 to 90 page 88 degrees. Now and then the discomfort of the heat was added to by sandstorms of gale force from the land. Brief periods of shore leave were spent in the heat of Aden.
For the most part the passages of the Red Sea convoys were uneventful, but the monotony was broken from time to time by the cautious attacks of Italian aircraft. The enemy's submarines, doubtless because of their earlier losses, showed little enterprise, though one of them on 6 September torpedoed and sank the Greek tanker Atlas, 4000 tons, when it was straggling well astern of the northbound convoy, BN 4.
Shortly after daybreak that morning HMS Auckland reported an aircraft overhead, probably shadowing the convoy which was then due east of Massawa. At midday six bombs fell close to a small steamer straggling astern of the convoy. About three hours later four or five aircraft dropped from twelve to fifteen bombs which straddled the centre of the convoy, but no ship was damaged. A third attack was made an hour afterwards. Five aircraft were sighted by the Leander, which opened fire, the other ships of the escort joining in immediately. Fifteen bombs fell about the Leander, none nearer than 100 yards. The enemy formation was broken up by the ships' fire, the Leander expending 65 rounds from her 4-inch guns. One aircraft appeared to be out of control as it disappeared to the westward.
When he learned of these attacks the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean sailed the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry from Alexandria and she joined the escort of the southbound convoy, BS 4, on 7 September. Just before sunset on 13 September, the convoy being then about 200 miles east of Aden, HMAS Parramatta reported an asdic contact indicating the possible presence of a submarine and dropped depth-charges. The convoy was dispersed shortly afterwards and the Leander shaped course for Aden. The Parramatta stayed in the vicinity of her contact for four hours, but no trace of a submarine was found.
A northbound convoy, BN 5, of twenty-five ships was attacked north of Perim on 20 September by two aircraft which dropped their bombs in the centre of the ships. A near miss damaged the motor-vessel Bhima, 5280 tons, which dropped astern out of control. The Leander stood by the damaged ship until she was taken in tow for Aden, where she was beached. One man was killed in the Bhima, two of whose after holds were flooded. A second attack took place in the afternoon when five aircraft at a great height dropped fifteen bombs which fell well ahead of the convoy. The enemy formation was broken up by the gunfire of the Leander and Auckland and one aircraft appeared to have been damaged. In the forenoon of 24 September two aircraft attacked the southbound convoy BS 5 and were fired on by the Leander and Parramatta. Six bombs fell between page 89 four ships but no damage was done. In his report Captain Horan said he was ‘agreeably surprised that the enemy, having located the convoy, failed to follow with further attacks next day when it was only some 130 miles from Massawa.’ The largest convoy escorted by the Leander was BN 6 of forty-four ships. It was twice bombed by aircraft after passing Massawa, but no damage was done.
The first attempt by Italian ships based on Massawa to interfere with a convoy was made during the passage of the northbound BN 7. This convoy of thirty ships, escorted by the Leander, a destroyer, two sloops and two minesweepers, was nearing Perim in the afternoon of 19 October when a single aircraft dropped four bombs close astern of a steamer. The Leander and Auckland opened fire on the enemy as he made off to the westward. As Captain Horan remarked in his report of proceedings, ‘it was unpleasant to realise that the enemy had spotted the convoy so early in its approach.’ Shortly before dark a landing wheel of an Italian aircraft was picked up 15 miles south of Perim. Another attack was made next morning when four bombs fell ahead of the convoy and two astern of the French liner Felix Roussel, which was carrying New Zealand troops, but no damage was reported. At dusk the Leander took station on the port beam of the convoy, so as to be between it and the enemy's base at Massawa which flanked the line of advance. The convoy steamed a zigzag course during the night.
The convoy was about 35 miles north-north-west of Jabal-at-Tair Island at 2.19 a.m. on 21 October when the Leander sighted two patches of smoke bearing north. Three minutes later gunfire was seen and heard and the Leander increased to maximum speed. When she received an enemy report of two destroyers from the Auckland, the Leander altered course to intercept the enemy on the expectation that he would run home by way of the South Massawa Channel. The Auckland had sighted the destroyers at a distance of four miles. When they failed to answer her challenge she opened fire, whereupon they separated and turned away at full speed, firing their after guns. The destroyers were broad on the port bow of HMAS Yarra when her challenge was answered by the flash of discharge of the torpedo-tubes of the leading destroyer. Two torpedoes were fired, which the Yarra avoided by turning towards them and ‘combing’ their tracks.
When the gunfire of this engagement ceased, the Leander altered course to north-west, deciding that the enemy was making for the Harmil Island passage, and at 2.45 a.m. she opened fire with 6-inch and star shell on a ship that was firing red and green tracer. The range was opening and the ship itself was lost to sight after the first salvoes. The New Zealand cruiser then altered course to about west to bring all her guns to bear, thinking that the enemy was now page 90 making for the South Massawa Channel. Her searchlights then picked up the second destroyer, on which she opened fire at an estimated range of 4600 yards. At 2.51 a.m. she lost the enemy in the haze and ceased fire. During the action the Leander had expended a total of 129 rounds of 6-inch shell.
At three o'clock the Leander sighted and challenged a destroyer which proved to be the Kimberley, also in pursuit of the enemy. Five minutes later the cruiser altered course to east to rejoin the convoy, appreciating that the enemy was drawing away from her at the rate of seven knots and that the convoy might be attacked.
The Kimberley carried on at top speed and at 3.50 a.m. sighted smoke ahead, believed to be from two ships which retired at full speed. At 5.50 a.m. she sighted one destroyer seven miles off, steaming hard towards Harmil Island. She opened fire on the enemy, who replied, and a quarter of an hour later a shore battery of three 4-inch guns joined in. Nevertheless, the Kimberley closed the range to 5000 yards and at 6.25 a.m. the enemy destroyer was stopped, on fire and listing. The Italians abandoned their ship, which was sunk by two torpedoes. The destroyer was identified as the Francesco Nullo.1 The Kimberley then engaged the shore battery at 10,000 yards until she received a hit in the engine-room. Two guns of the battery were silenced. The Kimberley's casualties were three men wounded.
When the Kimberley reported having been hit and that her speed was reduced to 12 knots, the New Zealand cruiser immediately left the convoy to go to her assistance. At 6.54 a.m. the Leander increased speed to 26 knots. A minute later the Kimberley reported that she was stopped for repairs under fire from the shore battery and that the enemy destroyer had been blown up. By 7.34 a.m. the Leander's engines were making revolutions for 28·7 knots – a good performance considering that the ship was seven months out of dock. Shortly afterwards, the Kimberley informed the Leander that she was steaming to the eastward at 15 knots on one engine.
1 Francesco Nullo, built 1925; 1058 tons displacement; four 4·7-inch guns; six 21-inch torpedo-tubes; speed 35 knots.
The expected air attack came soon afterwards. The Leander opened fire on three bombers at 13,000 feet. They dropped fifteen bombs which burst in a line about 200 yards ahead of the Leander and two others which did not explode. No damage was done. The Leander and Kimberley joined the convoy shortly after midday. As they passed the Felix Roussel they were loudly cheered by some 600 New Zealand soldiers of the Third Echelon who were taking passage in that ship from Bombay to Egypt. In the afternoon the Leander transferred the tow to the Kingston, both destroyers leaving the convoy next morning for Port Sudan. The southbound convoy BS 7 of twenty ships was met in the afternoon of the 23rd. Two stragglers were ordered by the Leander to turn back to Suez and four ships from Port Sudan joined next morning. After an uneventful passage the convoy was dispersed east of Aden on 28 October.
During November two northbound and two southbound convoys were escorted safely through the Red Sea by the Leander and her consorts. After taking BS 9 to the vicinity of Aden the New Zealand cruiser was relieved on 26 November by HMAS Hobart. On the following day Captain Bevan, RN,1 assumed command of the Leander at Aden in succession to Captain Horan.
In less than five months the Leander had steamed 30,874 miles and escorted eighteen slow convoys totalling 396 ships of some 2,500,000 tons, mostly British, but including many foreign vessels. The convoys accounted for about one-third of the troops and supplies carried through the Red Sea during the period. Only one ship, a small Greek tanker torpedoed after she had straggled far astern, was lost from the convoys. The feeble and ineffectual efforts of the Italian naval and air forces based at Massawa against the flow of shipping just over the horizon were the most remarkable feature of the British convoy operations in the Red Sea.
1 Captain R. H. Bevan, RN (retd); born England, 26 May 1892; served World War I, 1914–18; captain HMNZS Leander, 1940–42; retired (ill-health) 1942; commanded HMS Collingwood (training establishment) 1943–45.
The Leander sailed from Aden on 28 November. When she was 22 miles from Banda Alula at 10.30 next morning, the Walrus aircraft was catapulted off and made two single-bomb dive attacks on the direction-finding huts. One bomb fell 100 yards over and the other missed a hut by ten-yards. Rifle fire was opened against the aircraft during its second dive. The Leander approached the village at high speed and fired two warning bursts of high-explosive shell. A wireless message to evacuate the factory was made to the shore station. When the aircraft reported no sign of life in the compound, the Leander opened fire on the factory at a mean range of 4000 yards. The Walrus dropped a stick of incendiary bombs while observing the cruiser's fire. On three runs the cruiser fired 98 rounds of 6-inch high-explosive shell and, having recovered her aircraft, retired at high speed. About two hours later the Walrus was catapulted off to make a second attack on the direction-finding station. Two 250-pound bombs made close misses between the huts. Aerial photographs showed considerable damage in the factory buildings and fierce fires. As no fewer than fifty shells exploded in the compound, internal damage was probably serious and no doubt was felt that the factory had been put out of operation.
Having recovered her aircraft, the Leander shaped course for Bombay, where she arrived on 2 December. Brief visits to Aden had been the only breaks in the five months of convoy operations, and a stay of twenty-five days at Bombay was the first real diversion for the ship's company since she left New Zealand at the beginning of May. While the cruiser was in dry-dock her company were mostly accommodated on shore, a welcome relief from routine on crowded mess decks. ‘An elaborate organisation of public and private hospitality was at our service,’ wrote one officer. ‘We were treated magnificently. There was also a good deal of hockey, and we played Rugby football against a team of the Welsh Regiment.’
The Leander sailed from Bombay on 27 December on escort duty with convoy BN 12 of twenty-nine ships. The passage to Aden and up the Red Sea was uneventful. Convoy BS 12 was taken over on 6 January 1941 and dispersed beyond Aden five days later. That ended the Leander's service with Red Sea convoys. She sailed from Aden on 14 January and arrived at Colombo on the 21st.