THE CHRISTMAS MESSAGE
A tale of two cruisers
by Colin Baxter
(This Message was first published in NOCN 83, 1 December 2010.)
The recent discovery of the sunken wreck of the WW II cruiser HMAS Sydney brought to a close one of the greatest maritime mysteries of our time. The ship’s loss left a nation grieving its disappearance, with all its 645 officers and men presumed dead.
I recall as a young teenager the tumultuous welcome the City of Sydney gave the cruiser’s heroic crew on 11 February 1941, on their return from deployment in the Mediterranean with the British fleet. The ship was feted as the pride of the navy and the toast of the nation in recognition of her impressive fight against superior speed and fire power. This had led to the sinking of the pride of the Italian Navy, the cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni, seven months earlier, on 19 July 1940 off Cape Spada, Crete.
Severely crippled from Sydney’s attack, Bartolomeo Colleoni was finished off with torpedoes and rolled over and sank. The 555 members of the crew who were rescued included her Commanding Officer, Captain Umberto Narvi, who was badly wounded. He later died in Alexandria on board a British hospital ship. He was afforded full naval honours by the officers and crew of all allied ships in harbour who attended his funeral. He was buried in the British military cemetery in Alexandria.
In recognition of his role in the action, Sydney’s Commanding Officer, Captain J.A.Collins RAN, was made a Commander of the Order of the Bath by His Majesty the King. It is against this background that I move on to tell the next part of the tale of the two cruisers.
It happened about 30 years later in the early 1970s while I was relieving Chaplain at HMAS Moreton, Brisbane. An Italian — call him Vittorio — had presumably emigrated to Australia with his wife and family after the war, and they had settled in Queensland. Vittorio had sought me out to officiate at the marriage of his Australian-born son — call him Bruno — who was at the time a sailor in the RAN, to his Italian cousin — call her Maria. Maria had only recently arrived from Italy, and couldn’t speak English.
It was one of those culturally-arranged marriages I hadn’t encountered before. In this country the Laws of Consanguinity permit the marriage of cousins, but do not encourage it.
I performed the marriage ceremony in a church on the Gold Coast, with the father of the groom, Vittorio, acting as both best man and interpreter for Maria. Surprisingly the young, very attractive, but shy and extremely nervous bride seemed to be very happy, despite the fact that she had met her husband-to-be for the first time only several weeks before.
At a small gathering for refreshments that followed the marriage, Vittorio told me that he had been a sailor on the Bartolomeo Colleoni in 1940 and was trapped in a gun turret by battle damage from Sydney’s deadly onslaught that immobilised his ship. With his typical Italian effervescent broken English, laced by a few expletives, Vittorio expressed his utter dismay and incredulity that an, in his opinion, inferior Australian warship had left him imprisoned in a damaged gun turret frantically saying the Rosary believing he was going to drown. (The Guissano class cruiser I believe did boast superior armoury and speed — a real greyhound of the sea, capable of over 40 knots.)
Fortunately, an officer from the stricken ship heard Vittorio’s cries for help and managed to free him from the damaged turret. They both dived overboard and were picked up by a British destroyer. Vittorio eventually found himself in a POW camp in Australia.
Later in 1941, he was fortunate enough to be transferred to a detention centre near Griffith in NSW. There he spent the rest of the war working as a farmhand with other prisoners who enjoyed a significant amount of freedom based on trust; this won him over to the Australian way.
It’s my conjecture that at war’s end, repatriated home to Italy, Vittorio found it difficult to settle back into a country so dislocated by years of war. This perhaps led him to leave his homeland and find refuge and a new life in far-away ‘Oz’.
Looking back through that story, what a refreshing thing it was that in the wake of such destruction and violence, men at war still retained and afforded to a former fallen enemy, the captain of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, such values as decency, compassion and chivalrous respect; and buried him as they would have one of their own, with full naval honours.
There is a certain kind of irony here that is expressed in Beth Neilson’s pop song that I heard on radio recently called ‘World of Hurt’:
In a world of hurt nothing seems to work.
We’re just a lonely little planet made of dust and dirt.
But who would think in a world like this
A thing so beautiful as LOVE exists.
The world into which the child Jesus was born was violent. If anything it was much more violent than ours. Born in a cave at the back of an inn, and forced by the threat of infant genocide by a crazed King Herod, His parents fled with Him to Egypt and lived there as refugees for four years until the King’s death. At the age of 33, His enemies had Him condemned to death on a trumped-up charge and hung Him on a Roman gallows overlooking a city’s garbage dump. But despite what the world did to Him, it is written of Him:
… He was a light that shone in the darkness, and that light still shines, and the darkness will never put it out.
Shalom, and Season’s Greetings to all.
(Historical Note by Ed: Without wishing to detract from this fine spiritual message inspired by and drawn from a famous RAN action, Bartolomeo Colleoni achieved ‘over 40 knots’ on trials running ‘light ship’— without ammunition, with much of her armament removed, and with minimal fuel. She would not have achieved that speed in fighting trim. The Guissano–class cruisers were very lightly armoured, with a maximum plate thickness of 24mm—creating another area of critical vulnerability.)