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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Protection of Red Sea Convoys

page 6

Protection of Red Sea Convoys

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 the senior ship of the Red Sea force. In the eastern approach to the Gulf of Aden on 2 July 1940, the Leander, in company with two sloops, met the first convoy from Bombay, BN 1, of nine merchant ships, including six tankers. Northbound for Suez, this convoy was escorted through the Red Sea to a position beyond Port Sudan where the first southbound convoy, BS 1, was met and the respective escorts changed over. This convoy was dispersed 200 miles east of Aden on 15 July. Varied only by brief visits to Aden for fuel, stores, and running repairs, this was the routine of the Leander for a period of nearly five months, during which she steamed more than 30,000 miles in company with slow convoys and averaged only five days a month in harbour

The southern part of the Red Sea and its shores are one of the hottest areas in the world. For weeks on end the shade temperatures recorded in the Leander's deck log ranged from 85 to 92 degrees. The continuous discomfort due to heat and humidity was aggravated from time to time by fierce sandstorms at sea as well as in harbour.

The feeble activities of the Italian submarines were checked by the destruction of five and the capture of a sixth during the latter part of June. Thereafter they gave little trouble, and their only success against the ships escorted by the Leander was the sinking, on 6 September, of a thirty- year-old Greek tanker which had straggled far behind Convoy BN 4. Italian aircraft were equally unenterprising. They made infrequent hit-and-run raids on Aden and a number of convoys. No ship was hit, but one vessel in Convoy BN 5 was damaged by a near miss on 20 September and towed to Aden.

A welcome break in the monotony came in the early hours of 21 October when Convoy BN 7 was passing east of the approaches to Massawa. HMS Auckland sighted and engaged two Italian destroyers, HMAS Yarra joining in shortly before the enemy turned away and firing ceased. Two torpedoes failed to hit the Australian ship. The Leander, rapidly working up to full power, steamed to intercept the enemy and opened fire, first on one and then on the other, before they disappeared into the early morning haze. She then returned to the convoy. An hour later the destroyer Kimberley reported that she was proceeding to intercept the enemy off Harmil Island at daybreak. At 5.50 a.m. the Kimberley sighted one destroyer in that locality. She opened fire on the enemy, who replied, and a few minutes later a shore battery joined in the action. Nevertheless, the Kimberley closed to 5000 yards, and at 6.25 a.m. the enemy destroyer, identified by her number as the Francesco Nullo,* was stopped, on fire and listing heavily. The Italians abandoned their ship, which was sunk by two torpedoes. The Kimberley then engaged the shore battery until she received a hit in the engine-room. Two enemy guns were silenced. The Leander left the convoy and steamed at high speed to the assistance of the Kimberley, whom she took in tow outside the reefs at ten o'clock. A few minutes later enemy aircraft attacked, dropping fifteen bombs which burst in a line about 200 yards ahead of the Leander, and two others which failed to explode. page 7 The cruiser and her tow took station astern of the convoy at 12.45 p.m. As they passed the French motor-vessel Felix Roussel, the Leander and Kimberley were cheered loudly by some 600 New Zealand troops of the Third Echelon who were on passage in that ship from Bombay to Egypt.

The Leander was relieved by HMAS Hobart on 26 November 1940. In less than five months she had steamed 30,874 miles and escorted eighteen convoys totalling 396 ships of some 2,500,000 tons, mostly British, but including Norwegian, Dutch, Swedish, Greek, Yugoslav, Egyptian, and Panamanian vessels. The convoys comprised numerous troop transports and supply ships, as well as many oil tankers, and accounted for about one-third of the troops and supplies carried through the Red Sea during the period. Captain R. H. Bevan, RN,3 relieved Captain H. E. Horan in command of the Leander at Aden on 27 November 1940.

By this time the British blockade was largely effective in preventing supplies reaching the enemy in Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. When it was learned that a factory at Banda Alula had completed the manufacture of 1000 cases of canned fish for consumption in Italian Somaliland, the Leander was ordered to carry out what was designated operation ‘Canned’. The object was to demolish the factory and the wireless station at Banda Alula, which lies about thirty-two miles west of Cape Guardafui, at the tip of the Horn of Africa. When the Leander arrived off the place on the morning of 28 November, her aircraft bombed the wireless station, and after warning to evacuate the canning factory had been given, the cruiser shelled it at a mean range of 4000 yards, ninety-eight rounds from her 6-inch guns causing considerable damage and setting fire to the buildings. Having recovered her aircraft after it had made a second attack on the wireless station, the Leander proceeded to Bombay, where she arrived on 2 December.

An enjoyable spell of twenty-five days in that port while the ship was refitting was the first real diversion for her crew since she left New Zealand seven months before. The Leander sailed from Bombay on 27 December, escorting a convoy which numbered twenty-nine ships when it entered the Red Sea. She returned with a southbound convoy to Aden and arrived at Colombo on 21 January 1941.

* Francesco Nullo, 1058 tons displacement (standard), 35 knots, four 4.7-inch guns, four 21-inch torpedo-tubes.