The Parramatta had sailed from Alexandria at 1100 hours on 25th November 1941 in company with the Escort destroyer HMS Avondale and the small merchant ship “Hanne”, which was fully loaded with ammunition desperately needed by the besieged Army Units in Tobruk who were surrounded by General Rommel’s Afrika Corps. The convoy expected to reach Tobruk at 0430 hours on 27th November under cover of darkness.
The crew had two main concerns: air attacks from enemy bombers and submarine attacks. The convoy speed on this trip was about seven knots -very slow-and made the ships sitting ducks for submarines if the anti-submarine sonar failed to pick them up early enough!
At 1200 hours on 26th November the convoy was proceeding slowly in fine weather and were on target for their Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) in Tobruk on the 27th . Darkness came and the weather deteriorated: a cold wind and patchy rain showers, although the moon shone down between the clouds.
Archie Miller was Signalman of the Watch on the bridge for the First Watch (2000 hours until midnight) and during this time the convoy was edging closed to Tobruk
Here’s how Archie described the situation leading up to the torpedoing of the Parramatta:
At about 2300 hours the moon was setting; it was raining, windy and getting colder. Our convoy was proceeding steadily and we were some forty miles from Tobruk and twenty-five to thirty miles from the coast. We could see the gun flashes of a battle going on in the desert and when the moon had finally gone down it suddenly became quite black.
I remarked to the captain, “We should make it okay now, sir. The moon has gone and this should improve our chances.” He replied, ‘Don’t be too sure, sonny; we’ve got to dodge those submarines yet!” I could only assume that he had some definite information that submarines had been sighted in the area.
My Watch was up at midnight and I left the bridge…and went below to the mess deck, which was on the starboard side forward towards the bow of the ship.
I didn’t like sleeping in a hammock, so I usually chose the mess table, the mess stools, the floor or the seat lockers, whichever was available. Tonight I chose the mess table. On a trip such as this most of us slept in our clothes. I took off only my shoes. That left me with trousers, shirt and jumper. I also had my rubber lifebelt tied around my waist, but not inflated.
Strangely, I had no trouble falling asleep. It didn’t seem very long after dropping off that I was awakened by a shuddering crash and I realized immediately that the enemy had got his aim right!
The power went off and it was pitch black. I had to think fast as to where I was sleeping, and then I slid off that table and dived to where I thought the bulkhead door was. The very first thing I touched was the door handle. Immediately through that door was a ladder leading to the upper deck just behind the forward gun mounting and I was on deck in a matter of seconds.
The ship was already listing to starboard and a couple of the crew jumped into the sea on the port side. I thought this might not be a good idea if the ship didn’t sink, so I didn’t follow them.
I wasn’t happy with the lifebelt and I knew there were some cork jackets in the lifeboat, so I headed in that direction. As I passed under the bridge the captain was yelling out, “Someone try to lower the whaler!” I yelled back, “Aye Aye Sir!”, but I never made it. At that moment the ship rolled completely on its side. I then had no choice but to hop the guardrail and walk down into the water. I knew I had to get away quickly to avoid being caught in the riggings or being drawn down. I swam away strongly until I was well clear.
When I stopped swimming I looked back in the darkness. I couldn’t see a ship any more, just a dark shape which I couldn’t make out, but hoped it was HMS Avondale. I blew up my lifejacket and headed towards it. It was the stern of the Parramatta sticking upright out of the water for about twenty feet. By the time I reached it there were two or three others gathered around the propeller shafts and a couple already sitting up there on the propellers. Another sailor was trying to climb, but he must have been badly injured because he just couldn’t make it!
After ripping my hands on the sharp barnacles, I finally found myself up there with five shipmates, one of whom was naked. I gave him my pullover and someone gave him a pair of shorts. From our vantage point we could see the bow of the ship sticking out of the water on a slant and drifting away. The torpedo must have hit the engine room and the officers’ Wardroom and cut our lovely ship completely in half. We dared not think too much about the mayhem and horror that must have prevailed for those caught near the impact area, or who were trapped inside!
After a while I wasn’t happy sitting on that stern. It seemed unstable and I thought it might sink. Every now and then I could see what I thought to be HMS Avondale searching the dark sea for survivors. I told the others that I was going to swim and try to reach her. Able Seaman George Smith exclaimed, “Christ Archie! I can’t swim!” I said, “George, you’re going to have to learn in one hell of a hurry; this bloody thing is going to sink!”
Just then the decision to swim for it was taken out of my hands. The stern rolled completely over and, as it did, I ran down the ship’s bottom into the water and struck out for where I thought I had last seen Avondale. I didn’t look back!
Footnote: In Part Four I had planned to tell the story of how Archie, in the company of two other survivors, made it to the Libyan coast; evaded capture by the Germans with the help of a friendly tribe of Arabs; and eventually returned to active service in the war against Japan.
However, I later decided to use this part of the “Tribute to Archie” to chronicle events leading to the sinking of the Parramatta and its immediate aftermath from Archie’s point of view. I hope that , as a result, the reader will be drawn into the atmospherics of the drama which Archie lived through over sixty years ago.
TO BE CONTINUED....in Part 5
© Patrick Talty 2003