When it was dark we marched to the port and waited for the ships to berth to enable us to go aboard. My Battalion boarded the Destroyer H.M.S. Hereward which, when loaded, took us to a troop-ship waiting offshore. The troopship was the 12,000 tons Costa Rica. We hurried aboard, no easy task in the dark. As soon as it and other ships were loaded, the whole convoy set sail at full speed. They hoped to get as far as possible before daylight to avoid enemy bombers. However, we were out of luck, as soon as it was light an enemy bomber found us.
The first we below decks knew about it was when a stick of bombs landed just off our bows narrowly missing and dumping a few tons of water over the forecastle. At the same time an air-raid siren sounded the alarm inside the deck area. The bombs made a series of loud crashes as they exploded near the hull. That, together with the siren, was the last straw. The siren was a dreadful racket to sound amongst sleeping men in the confined space between decks. The nerves of one chap near me snapped and he screamed for what seemed ages. By the time he became quiet we all felt a bit like screaming too.
The Costa Rica was a typical troop ship which below the cabin decks consisted of long decks on which were tables and benches set in rows and fastened down for obvious reasons. Above these were hammocks slung from hooks in the ceiling. First thing on rising one had to fold one's blankets, roll the hammock and shorten the ropes so that there was head room above the tables for dining, etc. Unfortunately we did not get to "lash and stow" as the sailors called it.
Amid the confusion following the near misses I went up on deck and joined the anti-aircraft gunners and stayed there until we went "over the side". On the decks there were machine-guns everywhere. Some of the Brens and Vickers guns had tripods, the rest were propped up on winch booms and rails or any other place where they could be supported. When the first few enemy bombers appeared the firing was amazing. Upwards of fifty guns in that small space all firing at once. One chap had a machine gun that he had taken from a crashed German bomber. It had a belt of ammunition about twenty feet long. It, like our Airforce guns, fired at an incredible twelve hundred rounds per minute. When he fired a long burst at the first group of planes, the people near him ducked for cover, not knowing what was happening.
The combined noise of all those guns going at once made our ears ring. The ammunition we were using was from the Airforce and about one bullet in four was tracer. Also some of the bullets were explosive. We could see that wall of fire reaching up to and around the planes as they approached, the first attackers flying fairly low. As expected, the planes swerved away to avoid our fire thus spoiling their bombing run. Several planes flew off trailing smoke.
There were four troopships and seven escorting warships in our convoy but naturally the troopships received the most attention from the attackers. We didn't fire in the bursts of five shots as is normal with a Bren on the ground. The gunner would put a full magazine of 25 rounds on the gun then hold the trigger back until the magazine was empty. A quick change of magazine and if the plane was still in range another dose of the same. I'm afraid they did it a few times when the planes had passed out of range. I saw a couple of chaps having a go with Tommy guns. They would not do much harm to the aircraft that way but it certainly boosted their morale to be hitting back. After the first few attacks the bombers attacked from higher altitudes which made it safer for us and harder for them to score a hit. We continued to fire at them even though most of the time they were well above the range of our lighter weapons. Our firing encouraged them to stay high.
About mid afternoon there was an attack by five or six planes in what was to be their last try. We were by now getting too far from their airfields for them to keep chasing us. After dropping their lethal loads but again missing, the planes flew away to the north and out of sight. The "all clear" signal was displayed on the anti-aircraft Cruiser. This signal consisted of a large black ball that was hoisted to the top of the mast. The cruiser was specially adapted for anti-aircraft duty by being equipped with its main turret guns able to elevate to almost vertical. When it fired a salvo at approaching planes they usually changed course very rapidly. When the all clear signal was seen we all relaxed. Apart from proceeding to reload magazines and service the machineguns, we sat chatting about the raids.
Suddenly someone yelled "Listen". Then we could all hear the scream of a diving aircraft getting louder and shriller as it approached from the direction of the sun. The plane a twin engined bomber suddenly appeared out of the sun as it pulled out of its dive, only a couple of hundred feet above us, having already released its two bombs. We watched them fall and nearly hit our ship near the stern. They were very large bombs. A few of the gunners on our ship managed to get some shots away but too late. All we could do was watch the plane as it flew away to the north, trailing smoke as it went. It was probably normal for a plane to trail smoke after a long dive and may not have been damaged. I don't recall hearing the navy firing, so they too were probably caught unawares.
When the bombs burst beside the ship the force was sufficient to lift the stern bodily to one side. Soot and smoke poured from the funnel and the engines stopped immediately. The Costa Rica was dead in the water. A warship which I think was the cruiser H.M.S. Hero sailed past nearby and called by a loud hailer. For obvious reasons they did not wish to use their radio. In reply to the request for a report on damage sustained, an officer on our bridge replied that the steering was damaged, the propeller jammed, plates buckled and the ship was taking water.
Hereward picking up survivors from the Costa Rica - April 27 1941
The cruiser did a wide circle and as it passed for the second time, again called for a report. The answer this time was chilling. "Number one boiler moved on its base and fifteen feet of water in the engine room and rising fast with the ship beginning to list". Back came the order, "Prepare to abandon ship". Our ships commander then ordered "All troops fall in on deck". There was no doubt as to the situation. As I was already on the foredeck I stayed where I was. Although we were all a bit startled by the situation, nobody panicked and the only reaction was to pass a few wisecracks such as being lucky that land was only half a mile away. Straight down. About fifteen minutes had elapsed since the bombs burst. The ship only stayed afloat for another forty five minutes. I was one of the Anti-aircraft group and by the time that I left it was not such a big jump onto the deck of the destroyer. As the two vessels rose and fell in the swell the decks used to be briefly almost level.
I will quote in his own words the official report of Lt Colonel Theo Walker C.O. 2/7 Battalion. Lt Col Walker was also the Senior Army Officer on board.
This report was copied from records held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Once we were on the Hereward, we were hustled below decks and packed in like sardines, some sitting on the mess tables and some, like myself, actually under the tables. With over a thousand troops on a destroyer there was not much space left. It was only a short, fast trip as we went directly to Crete which we were told had not been our original destination.