Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
Two Wet Lieutenants - Clan Frazer Incident
(Clan Frazer Incident)
6/7 April 1941
Warwick and Terence Power went ashore for an evening's relaxation in the Plaka, Athens. This is what happened to them that evening.
These forces could ill be spared from the desert war against Rommel's invading German and Italian armies. But thousands of our troops and many tonnes of supplies were sent for our Greek allies. Many troops were given a fast passage by cruiser. 'Ajax' and 'Perth' were particularly pally ships' companies. The Captains were friends and a wonderful spirit prevailed between all hands. We called ourselves "The Hair Trigger Twins" because, being veterans, we took no chances and usually fired immediately at all aircraft approaching us in a hostile manner.
As feelings ran high this resulted sometimes in a few fights when ashore in Alexandria's bars and clubs. But the 'Ajax' (Pommies) and 'Perth' (Diggers) usually sorted each other out and convoyed their pals back on board. Both ships had that high morale that goes with well led veterans.
So we patrolled and oiled from a fleet tanker on the North side of Crete rather envious of those in Alexandria. The 'Ajax' Captain was senior so she led the force. One fine morning, about 5 April 1941, he sailed proudly into Piraeus harbour with our bands playing. The Greek people enjoyed this. The Australians usually played "Waltzing Matilda" followed by a current Greek war tune that had special rude words directed at Mussolini. This made the Greek people on the dockside scream with laughter. They knew the words - we did not - but we had a darned good idea!!!
Both ships secured, bows outwards, in the narrow harbour with sterns secured to the dock wall. A convoy was unloading stores and ammunition. The convoy escort of an anti-aircraft cruiser and corvettes were also in the crowded harbour. Also some Greek destroyers. The unloading of explosives from a 10,000 tonne cargo ship, 'Clan Frazer', was carried out at the wharf opposite. Some explosives were loaded into barges and towed away. It was said that this full cargo of explosives was some 4,000 tonnes. Some were for demolition of certain key passes through the mountains to the North.
The radio news that day was bad. German troops were massing on the frontiers to the North. It seemed almost certain that the Germans were going to invade Greece. Piraeus was a busy, uneasy, port before a storm.
It was a sixth sense that made our Captain request permission to shift berth to the anchorage out in Phaleron Bay.
We moved that afternoon and when anchored gave leave to one watch only, keeping the remainder to man the guns. I went ashore that afternoon with a great friend. I had been best man at Terry's wedding, and we had known each other for 16 years. We took a taxi to Athens, toured the Acropolis and, in the town, even collected a salute from the German sentry at the German Embassy. We were at war with Germany but until that night, Greece was not. Protocol prevailed.
After a few drinks at the King George Hotel, Constitution Square, we decided to have a really Greek meal in a taverna near the Plaka - a district below the wonderful, dominating Acropolis.
The taverna was merry and the people charming. A band played Greek music. We ordered our meal, some Greek white Retsina wine and relaxed. The change in atmosphere after recent weeks at sea was enchanting. We bought drinks for the band and much enjoyed our Greek dinner. Just two Naval lieutenants, in our best monkey jackets and gold braid, having a quiet evening ashore after days of strain at sea.
All of a sudden the manager rushed on to the floor and shouted "Alarm, Alarm" to give warning of an air raid. The band played harder to overcome the tension. Nobody moved to leave. After our coffee we decided to return to Piraeus and our ship. Paid our bill and said farewells to the brave, happy crowd. Outside in the blackout we found a taxi to take us to the docks. The driver said bombs had fallen on the docks and in the harbour. How right he was, since we could see the glare. On arrival at the dock gate an Australian sentry gave me a message from my ship that as mines had been dropped in the harbour, NO attempt would be made to bring the crew off till morning. Then the mine sweepers would sweep a safe lane for traffic. I was to billet the officers and sailors on board the ships in harbour as best I could. This we proceeded to do and put most of our Australians on board our chummy 'Ajax'. Then a short discussion, between friends took place. We decided that as I was the Gunnery Officer and my friend the 6" gun control officer it was wiser to get back to our ship - the 'Perth'. But how? We walked round the docks looking for a skiff. Right behind the ammunition ship we found a small boat. A wooden rowing boat, over a magnetic mine field is quite safe. So - with a sentry's permission we set off, having folded up our monkey jackets for ease of rowing.
Rounding the end of the dock we saw a warehouse blazing. It was the shed alongside our ammunition ship. Also - in the glare of the fire - we could see two barges. Their hatch covers were off. Worse still the wind and sparks were blowing across the wharf. The barges were not 400 yards from our own ships in port and all those sailors. We pulled alongside the ammunition ship and in no time had the two barges in tow astern of our skiff. You can move quite a heavy load pulling hard in a boat as you know. My pal Terry cast off the last barge from the ammunition ship and called "She's red hot!" We did not know how bad that fire was. The ammunition ship was actually burning below decks. The barges were not.
We pulled hard towards the harbour mouth and towards our ship in the Bay. It would have been so pleasing to call "Quartermaster - do take a line". Then out of the darkness emerge two lieutenants towing two barge loads of explosives - snatched from the fire. This pleasure was denied to us. We had rowed about 100 to 200 yards when the ammunition ship (all 10,000 tonnes) blew up. For some reason we both dived over the side for protection in the water.
A tidal wave caused by the explosion sucked, dragged and swirled us down, down into the dirty, oily water. On surfacing, my lungs made a noise like blowing up a balloon. I was deaf, blinded by oil fuel, my back was numb but I was alive. Then there were huge splashes all around in the water by the docks. These were pieces of ship wreckage falling after flying hundreds of feet in the air. Davits - fittings - wood - masts.
I tried to duck dive to protect my head. Something fell across my back causing more pain. I was on the surface and conscious. The wreckage stopped falling. I heard Terry's voice croaking my name in the darkness. I replied. He said he had found our boat. Finding it difficult to swim I put some floating wood under my shirt and paddled towards him. The explosion had separated us by a good 100 yards. He had found the boat and was sitting in it calling my name. The barges had sunk. The ammunition ship had disappeared down to the water line. All around the harbour were fires caused by the explosion. Terry dragged me into the boat - we lay gasping. The boat was leaking. We tried to paddle slowly away from the burning wreck. A second huge explosion rocked Piraeus Port and the ship's boilers went up in the sky like red balloons. By then we were too shocked and hurt to care, so we crouched and shielded our heads. As we drew away from the wreckage, fires ashore were seen everywhere. Finally our boat began to sink near a Greek trawler. We called for help. They threw Terry a line. I was found clinging to their anchor chain and hauled aboard. They ferried us ashore to a bus. It was full of wounded. Some dead.
On arrival at the Greek naval hospital we were cleaned of oil fuel. Terry looked like Bosambo. As they cleaned the oil off certain parts of my anatomy using methylated spirit it stung me and I swore. The Greek doctor with a smile said: "Ah, Aussies - Aussies".
We were put to bed in the officers' ward. Some pillows and sheets were powdered with window glass shattered by the explosion some two miles away. My gold cuff links had been taken from my torn shirt and placed in a match box by my bed side. Both of us were dressed in long white night shirts. A Greek medical orderly attended us with a bottle of Greek Metaxa brandy. At every groan we were given a tot. I groaned for about half a bottle and slept. After daylight I wrote a message for the British Embassy to report our whereabouts. This coincided with a visit from 'Ajax' Captain who was being briefed on the international situation. German troops were attacking across the border. The situation very grave. 'Ajax's' Captain called for us in an old taxi and took us round to Phaleron Bay. We were dressed in blue combination jacket and trousers over white night shirts. Two lieutenants.
They hoisted us inboard in stretchers by the crane. As I was lowered to the deck I heard my Captain call: "Commander -who are those lascars? We can't take just anybody". I was too sore to grin, with bruisers the size of plates all over my body.
We were home. Two monkey jackets had been lost and two night shirts gained for the temporary loan of two ammunition barges. Since then I have been allergic to ammunition ships. So has Terry (Commander Terence Power DSC, RAN).