Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
Letter to the Rats of Tobruk Magazine
Chief Gunner's Mate Arthur Cooper RAN
No 7A Trinidad Street
Dear Fellow Rat,
In the February issue of the magazine there was an article on the sinking of H.M.S. LADYBIRD. An excellent article, very worthy of note.
I have just finished reading a book called "Tobruk - The story of a Siege", by Anthony Heckstall-Smith. An excellent book, laying bare the gallantry and ingenuity of the defenders. I was a Navy Rat and a crew member of the so-called "Heap of Scrap Iron", H.M.A.S. VOYAGER. I think that we ran 23 trips into Tobruk during the siege. We were there for two years from Xmas Day 1939 until we limped out and back home at the start of El Alamein. My story however is not about VOYAGER, but about one of the gallant crew members of the old river gunboat, H.M.S. LADYBIRD.
As mentioned in the book "Tobruk" how Chief Petty Officer Darby Thornton-Allen fired his gun right to the last even as she settled on the bottom. And even then kept on firing until he was up to his neck in water. From information which I received later on, it appears that Darby was in his birthday suit, having a small ship's bath when the attack developed and rushed out as he was and manned one of the captured 80mm guns and just kept on firing as long as it was humanly possible. The story was that he accounted for two of the dive bombing Stukas. Nobody could help the LADYBIRD and the defenders on shore suffered the agony of watching helplessly as she was pounded into the sea and sunk. Quite a lot of her crew were killed.
Darby was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his part on the LADYBIRD.
The story goes further - that was the second time that my friend was a survivor from enemy action on a warship. From very sketchy details I gathered that Darb was a crew member on one of the gallant five destroyers that were sent in to Narvik when the Germans invaded Norway. Although the enemy were well dug in the Fjord these ships were to create as much havoc as possible. They did, sinking ships, blowing up harbour installations, etc. But not without casualties. The destroyer in which Darby was the Chief Gunners Mate was mortally hit by one of the Jerry shore batteries and sunk. Darb was luckily not wounded and was picked up by a sister destroyer. I am a little hazy about the epic episode but there are books written about the attack.
Darb was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his part in this, the Narvik Saga. The Navy do not throw medals away very easily.
I first met Darb at Gibraltar. It was just before Italy came into the war, only just. We were sent to Gib. for fuel and then out into the Straits of Gib. to escort a new addition to our eastern Med. fleet, a beautiful aircraft carrier, H.M.S. ILLUSTRIOUS. As was the usual practice in the Navy, anyone taking passage from A to B were transported on the first vessel going that way. Thus at Gib. Darby joined us on VOYAGER for passage to Malta. Being the same gunnery rating as myself we cobbered up and Darb caught on to the friendly spirit of the Aussies. At Malta he left VOYAGER and reported to the authorities ashore but quickly hurried back on board, having been assigned to H.M.S. LADYBIRD which was at that time in Alexandria, and as Musso was now getting very cocky, Alex was our future base.
At Alexandria Darby disembarked and went about his ways. Then Musso came into the War and the work of the Navy increased in intensity but, luckily, we were in harbour together, VOYAGER and LADYBIRD, one day. A message was passed that there was a 'DO' on at Ras El Tin, King Farouk's ex palace on the waterfront, for Fleet Chiefs and POs. A few of us formed a party, Darb included, and over a few noggins, some yarns and experiences were told. Darb told, in joking terms, how they tried to shell an Italian fort on top of a hill on an island in the Dodeconnese. The 6" shell missed and went over the top and into Turkey (a neutral country) so they left that area as quick as they could!
Back to the 'DO'. There were about 500 men there and suddenly there was a call: "We want Darby, we want Darby!" Much to our surprise, but laughingly, Darb got up and went on the stage, (it was an impromptu concert) and in very funny vein Darb said: "Well, I can't sing or dance or show you the muscles on my back, so I will tell you a couple of yarns." Which he did, and they were funny ones too.
Many and varied were the happenings at that period, some good and some disastrous, what with Greece and Crete. Evacuating nurses and troops, and running the gauntlet to Tobruk and beyond, losing some valuable ships to the Stukas, etc. We, on VOYAGER, broke down, the engines worn out, in Tobruk harbour on our last run during the Siege. It was about 1100 before temporary repairs could be effected to enable us to limp out. We proceeded at slow speed and miraculously got back to our base at Alex. That was the last active part that we participated in the Middle East.
We limped back to Australia (just before Alamein) via Port Said, Aden, Singapore, Java for repairs, Darwin, Townsville, Brisbane and Sydney. We were all given four weeks leave after which I was drafted to Flinder's Naval Base in Victoria. The Japs entered the war. In a night action one night at Bouganville they sank four cruisers, one of them was our 10,000 tonne cruiser, H.M.A.S. CANBERRA. This was a terrible loss to us in Australia. Upon hearing of our great loss the Royal Navy gave us the next similar warship which was due for a refit. It was H.M.S. SHROPSHIRE to be re-named H.M.A.S.
I was sent to England, to Chatham dockyard, as advance party to take over HMS SHROPSHIRE into service with the Royal Australian Navy. The survivors from the Canberra who were fit enough were to be part of the SHROPSHIRE crew. We travelled from Sydney on a large American transport ship, a short stay at Wellington, N.Z., then to San Francisco. From there we were six days in a Pullman train across America, and finally to Brooklyn Navy Yard. A dirty old worn out British transport called Materoa got us safely across the Atlantic to Avonmouth in England, then it was by British Rail across to Chatham Naval barracks. At Chatham I soon found out to my greatest pleasure and delight that the Chief Gunners Mate in charge of the Gunnery School was none other than my old mate - Darby Thornton-Allan. Great was the greeting of us two!!!!!!!!!!!!!
For ten months we remained in dockyard hands where we were fitted with every latest modern weapon and invention to fight the war. As well our crew were trained to the hilt in all phases of their calling. This more than paid off when we were part of the America 7th Fleet from New Guinea through the Philippines, Leyte and Lingayen Gulfs to Tokyo - codename 'PORTHOLE'.
I was invited to Xmas dinner with Darb and the family which we celebrated in austere style, to me that is, as the main meal was rabbit but we enjoyed it and anyway meat was a rarity and hard to get in UK.
The day came, ten months later, and we were ready to leave and despite Lord Haw Haw's boast that we wouldn't get up the English Channel, we did.
So till the end of the War. I stayed in the Navy for a while at Fremantle, H.M.A.S. LEEUWIN. About six months had passed since the war had ended and I came home one day and my mother said by way of a greeting: "There is a mate of yours in the lounge waiting to meet you." I hurried quickly inside and who should it be but my old mate, Darby Thornton-Allan. You can't imagine the greeting of us two.
Darb had been promoted to Warrant Officer rank and he had more than earned that. He had transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and had decided to migrate to Australia. Our greeting was not long lived as he was only passing through on a passenger ship with a limited time in Fremantle.
That was the last time that I saw this great man as somehow, through time and events, we lost each other's addresses.
* * * * *
(Please excuse typing and spelling. My excuse is that arthritis in my hands makes my writing bad and my one finger typing is my only means of passing on information. The fact that I am 83 has got nothing to do with it! I though that the story may be of interest to the wonderful R.O.TA. Magazine and I leave that to your judgement.)
I remain yours very sincerely,
P.S. Pat Higgins was on Voyager with me. A.C.