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The Scrap Iron Flotilla was an Australian destroyer group that operated in the Mediterranean during WW2.

Its story is synonymous with the Rats of Tobruk. It was the means of supply to the beleaguered town under siege between 10th April, 1941 and 7th December, 1941.

Its name was conferred on it by Dr.Goebbels, the German propaganda minister intending to demean and undermine morale of the five Australian ships that made up the flotilla. As happened with the conferring of the name “Rats of Tobruk” on the garrison troops by Lord Haw Haw, instead of depressing morale it spurred them to greater acts of defiance. Neither understood the make-up of the Australian character.


The Scrap Iron Flotilla was officially known as The Australian 10th Destroyer Flotilla but more commonly known as The Tobruk Ferry Service. It later included other Royal Navy ships as well that were involved with the supply of men and materials to Tobruk but the Scrap Iron Flotilla itself consisted of only five ships. These were HMAS’ Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen. All of them were WW1 vintage ships initially commissioned into the Royal Navy

Stuart was commissioned into the RN in 1918, sold to the RAN in 1933, sold for scrap in 1947 


Vampire was commissioned into the RN in 1918, loaned to the RAN in 1933. She was part of the escort of Prince of Wales and Repulse when they were sunk by the Japanese off the coast of Malaya in 1941 and herself was sunk by the Japanese in 1942 while escorting the British aircraft carrier Hermes.

Vampire I 13

Some of the 180 wounded that were evacuated from Tobruk by HMAS Vampire in May 1941.


Voyager was commissioned into the RN in 1918, transferred to the RAN in 1933. In September 1942 she ran aground delivering troops to Timor, was badly damaged by Japanese bombing and scuttled by her crew.


Vendetta was commissioned into the RN in 1917, and transferred to the RAN in 1933. In 1941 she escaped the Japanese invasion of Singapore when she was towed to Fremantle, then Melbourne when she underwent a refit, re-entered service and was finally scuttled off Sydney Heads in 1948.    


HMAS Vendetta                                           

Waterhen, fondly known as “the Chook” by the soldiers, is probably the most famous of the five.


HMAS WATERHEN, possibly at the time of her commissioning on the Tyne, July 17, 1918. Photo RAN Historical.

She was commissioned into the RN in 1918 and transferred to the RAN in 1933. She was inactive until war broke out in 1939 when she was assigned directly to The Tobruk Ferry Service. Prior to taking station in The Tobruk Ferry Service she had a busy career. While en route to the Mediterranean she was deployed as part of a force looking for the German battleship Graf Spee.

On arriving in the Mediterranean she was engaged in the bombardment of Bardia, the supply and evacuation of troops in Greece and Crete then being docked for repairs after accidentally ramming a British anti-submarine trawler. She then joined the Scrap Iron Flotilla.

In June, 1941 in company with HMS Defender, she was escorting a convoy to Tobruk when they were attacked by a squadron of Stuka dive bombers. No damage was inflicted on Defender but one bomb hit Waterhen in the stern inflicting substantial damage to her boiler and engine room.

Waterhen 2

HMAS Waterhen under tow by HMS Defender.

She was taken in tow by Defender but before reaching Alexandria she rolled over and sank to become the first RAN vessel to be lost in WW2. Miraculously no lives were lost and no serious injuries were sustained.


Waterhen sinking beneath the wave.

One month later Defender was again attacked while on a run to Tobruk, was badly damaged by a German bomber and scuttled by one of her fellow escorts.

 These five little ships played a crucial role in the defence of Tobruk.


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They brought in men and materials and returned with injured soldiers. Without them, and their accompanying ships from other formations the siege of Tobruk could not have been sustained.

In a typical run a destroyer would leave Alexandria early in the morning aiming to arrive at Tobruk around midnight so that loading and unloading could be carried out under cover of darkness. She would then return to Mersa Matruh where the wounded were unloaded and more supplies loaded in exchange. She would then return to Tobruk for a second night time unloading then return to Alexandria. The ships normally sailed in pairs so if one were damaged or lost in an attack the other could be on hand to assist or scuttle the disabled one.


Germans: "We greatly insult you by calling you the Scrap Iron Flotilla!" Australians: "What a great bloody name! Thanks for the suggestion, mate!"

Initially the Scrap Iron Flotilla operated independently but later other ships from other formations were engaged as well. Waterhen was the only member of the Scrap Iron Flotilla to be lost on the Tobruk Ferry Run. Five other ships, four British and one Australian, HMAS Parramatta, were lost during the course of the siege.

These ancient little ships were all transferred from the RN to the RAN in one transaction in 1933 as part of a decision to beef up the Empire naval forces in the Far East. They were not really old in 1933 but the British navy had a pipeline of new warship construction which made these ships surplus to its needs.

When these five ships were transferred from the RN to the RAN they retained their original names. It was more common practice that when the RAN acquired ships from the RN they were renamed with Australian names. This was the case, for example, with the first three Sydneys.

By 1941 they were old and well behind in the latest naval technology whereas the German navy was relatively new. Its fleet had been surrendered to the British and taken to Scapa Flow in 1919. Serious warship construction in Germany was not undertaken until after Hitler assumed control in 1932 so the German navy consisted entirely of new ships hence the intended insult by Goebbels of The Scrap Iron Flotilla. Had it not been for the outbreak of WW2 by 1941 they all would, more than likely, indeed have been scrapped.

Between the “scrap iron flotilla” and “the rats of Tobruk,” turning insults into a point of pride was perhaps a running theme for the allies.

Like many other ancillary formations of our armed services in WW1 and WW2, the Scrap Iron Flotilla has not received the same acclaim as the Rats of Tobruk. That does not undermine in any way the exploits of the Rats but it is a pity that these vital supporting formations seem to be easily forgotten as prominent objects of our remembrance celebrations.

10th Australian Destroyer Flotilla Scrap Iron 61825 109489

The sudden demand for fighting ships at the outset of WW2 left the Royal Navy very short of fast, agile ships capable of acting as convoy escorts. The far flung British Empire demanded these ships while the German Navy had less use for them. They had no far flung empire and her satellite nations were all land based. Consequently, the Royal Navy had no choice other than to put into service as many of these older vessels that could be made serviceable. 1941 and 1942 were truly desperate days for the British Empire.

Scrap Iron Flotilla was, in fact, an apt name for these ships.


What Dr. Goebbels did not understand was how good Australians are at dealing with insults; dishing them out and copping them.

I doubt if he ever realised what a boost to morale his untended insults were.


William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw Haw, should have known better because he was not German. He was British but being an aristocrat he, perhaps, could be excused for his ignorance.

Many such British aristocrats, even today, still don’t get it.

Lest We Forget




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