War History

Essays and stories relating to the First and Second World Wars

HMAS Perth and the Battle of Crete

For the HMAS Perth and other Allied naval vessels serving in the Mediterranean in the Second World War, 1941 was a rough year. The ships that sailed under the azure skies of Crete and the surrounding Mediterranean Sea – referred to as Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea” by Benito Mussolini – were still menaced by Axis air power.

HMAS Perth brings her guns to bear during a battle in the Mediterranean, 1941

The Perth, at this time, despite only five months in the region, was already a veteran of Mediterranean Sea warfare. She had accompanied HMAS Orion and Ajax during the battle of Matapan; stood by the Illustrious during her dash to Malta; and withstood the German first fierce attack on that island. Other brushes with the seemingly indomitable Luftwaffe had followed over most of the eastern Mediterranean, with some of the heaviest fighting in the Aegean Sea occurring during the Allied evacuation from Greece in April 1941, in which Perth took part.

She had been patrolling the waters of the Aegean Sea and supporting Allied convoys to Malta since January of 1941 and was stationed at Crete when Germany launched its invasion of the Greek island on the morning of the 20th May.

No better example of the struggle the Allied fleets faced in the Mediterranean during the Battle of Crete could be taken than that of HMAS Perth. So much had air control passed to the hands of the enemy that some aerial bombing was expected. Yet no ship could ever have expected to find such a concentrated attack as Perth and her companion ships experienced north of Crete during the time of Hitler’s attack in the latter days of May.

In company with the Dido Class cruiser HMAS Naiad, and the converted six-inch cruisers Calcutta and Carlisle, Perth found herself at 8am on the 21st May standing off Candia. The entire night before had been spent sweeping through the Aegean islands with the hope of meeting the expected German sea-borne convoy. With the clear light of a Mediterranean morning came the first German warplanes.

It has been said that while the greater size of a ship helps in rough seas, the opposite is true when a ship is the biggest in a squadron under attack, and Perth’s few extra tons – judging by the number of bombs rained at her – must have made her appear far bigger than the others.

German paratroopers looking from a hill to the coastal plain during the invasion of Crete, May 1941 (Getty Images)

In this first attack, one of the first bombs fell so close that the complement of crew on the bridge were thoroughly soaked. One of the most popular men aboard was the master-at-arms Chief Petty Officer Jan Creber, and when recalling the bomb a young sailor said, “It was as big as the jaunty (Chief Creber) – and he is eighteen stone. Why, it took ten minutes for the hole in the sea to fill up!”

Being very close to their bases on Scarpanto and Rhodes, the Germans were able to keep machines constantly overhead, with devastating effect. The first raid lasted half an hour, followed by a five-minute respite, and then back came even more Axis planes – endless squadrons of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Stuka dive-bombers – and the anxious cat-and-mouse game of weaving and turning began again.

The chase wore on throughout the day, through the Kaso Strait, known as Bomb Alley, and at 3pm yet another attack on the Allied naval squadron was launched, and the HMS Juno was hit. It is estimated that 116 crew lost their lives after 3 high-powered explosions split Juno in two, sinking her in around 97 seconds. After survivors had been rescued, the ships moved once more towards Alexandria until dusk, when the squadron turned towards Crete and again found itself north of Candia as the sun rose next day. With the sun came Goering’s envoys. Many planes that day bore the yellow noses of the “Goering’s Boys” elite Focke-Wulf Fw190 squadrons, the fabled Jagdgeschwader 26 Schlageter or JG 26.

 

HMAS Perth in her distinctive dazzle livery

Unlike the previous day, however, the course this time was northward to meet the convoy which had been-reported by air as moving amongst the Greek islands. Every turn of the screws taking Perth northwards seemed to bring more planes, and when an Italian destroyer was engaged at 1030 enemy bombers seemed to reach plague proportions, and the destroyer got away.

The constancy of the attack on top of the previous day’s ordeal took heavy toll of the ship’s store of four-inch projectiles, and by noon the situation had become desperate. As a consequence,
Perth’s station at the rear of the squadron had to be surrendered to the HMS Naiad, and the course was set for Kythera Channel. So close had the near-misses been that no instrument, such as gyroscopic compasses and the like, still worked; and to add to the difficulties, the Naiad had been damaged so that the speed of advance was only fourteen knots. When their anti-aircraft shells were finally expended, fifty men a side were served with rifles to try to drive off the persistent aerial enemy.

HMS Warspite

The most welcome sight, at 1300, was the Battle Fleet led by HMS Warspite and Valiant, with cruisers Gloucester and Fiji. By this time the German invasion of Crete was well under way, and countless huge transport planes with gliders in tow could be plainly seen making for the island. The arrival of the Battle Fleet ships made the conditions much more favorable for Perth, as the bigger ships now drew the majority of the fire. Indeed, in the very first few moments Valiant and Warspite were both hit, fortunately without being seriously damaged. HMS Carlisle also survived a bomb on her boat deck, and staggered astern for some time before continuing on in her position.

The destroyer Greyhound went to try to shoot down some of the low flying transport planes, but was pounced on and mortally hit. To protect the destroyers Kandahar and Kimberley whilst picking up survivors, Fiji and Gloucester stood by while the remainder of the force plodded slowly out of the Kythera Channel. HMAS Perth’s last sight of these two ships was belching guns; eventually both disappeared behind a wall of bomb splashes. After two hours a message from the Fiji said that Gloucester had been badly hit, and that she herself was out of shells. HMS Fiji herself made it roughly 65 kilometres (40 miles) from that spot before being sunk.

When the final attack came that day the Perth had been bombed almost incessantly for thirteen hours, and, by a miracle, survived. She would fight valiantly for another year before being sunk in action, during the Battle of Sunda Strait (between the islands of Java and Sumatra in current-day Indonesia), on the 1st March, 1942.

Memory

In Sunda Straits she fought her fight.

‘Gainst hopeless odds that fatal night.

Brave men gave all, so great their worth

and glorified the “Fighting Perth

– Bandsman G.D Vanselow, RAN

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The Golden Eagles – RAAF Pathfinders

On May 30, 1942, the people of the German city of Cologne heard the wail of the air-raid sirens.  Cologne had been raided before, many times, and its people were as accustomed as anyone to the terrors of air raids – but this night was different. Above the din of the flak batteries came an awe-inspiring, terrifying engine roar. For the first time in history a thousand bombers were airborne with a single purpose: the obliteration of Cologne.

Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force B.II Srs IA from No 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943

RAF Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force aircraft of No. 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943 [image via aviation-news.co.uk]

An extraordinary, unprecedented fireworks display was the first introduction the people of Cologne had to a new era in a form of war the Luftwaffe itself had developed – saturation or ‘blitz’ bombing. Brilliant white flares cascaded down, red floating in the clouds above, yellow penetrating glares from where they settled on the ground. RAF and RAAF Pathfinders were at work in strength for the first time, marking the target for the stream of heavy bombers which followed close behind.

The Pathfinding technique was one of the great Allied triumphs of the war, and many Australians took an important part in its development. During the war the Pathfinder squadrons were designated No. 8 Group RAF and their work was so secret that no member of a Pathfinder crew could be named as such. Below their aircrew badges the men wore the covetedf Golden Eagle, the sign of the Pathfinder, however it was never worn on operations. The intrepid pilot chosen to command the first Pathfinders was an Australian, Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

This pre-war airliner pilot, who hailed from Toowoomba, Queensland, was also famous Australian aviation pioneer. In July 1938 he piloted the Mercury part of the Short Mayo Composite flying-boat across the Atlantic and was later co-founder of the Atlantic Ferry Organization, an important wartime delivery service.

In December 1941 Bennett was made wing commander of No. 77 Squadron based at Leeming in the United Kingdom, flying Armstrong Whitleys (the first allied military aircraft to fly over Berlin) as part of the No. 4 Group RAF Bomber Command, in December 1941. Then in April 1942, No. 77 Squadron was transferred to Coastal Command where Bennett was given command of No. 10 Squadron (Handley Page Halifax) and shortly afterwards led a raid on the German battleship Tirpitz. Shot down during that raid, he evaded capture and escaped to Sweden, from where he was able to return to Britain. Bennett and his copilot were awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 16 June 1942.

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO [© IWM CH13645]

Regarded as a superb navigator  – he authored two books on air navigation – it was Bennett who first suggested that a team of expert navigators should be formed into a force that could go to Germany in any weather, pinpoint a particular target, even through unbroken cloud or fog, and mark it for the bombers with special coloured flares and markers.

A top-secret report issued by German Air Force Intelligence Operations (Luftwaffenführungsstab Ic.) in March 1944 refers to the Cologne raid and the importance of the Pathfinders. “The success of a large-scale night raid by the RAF is in increasing measure dependent on the conscientious flying of the Pathfinder crews,” the report states. It also goes on to mention Bennett by name. “This 35 year old Australian – known as one of the most resourceful officers of the RAF – had distinguished himself as long ago as 1938 by a record long-range flight to South Africa in a four-engined seaplane launched in the air from a Sunderland flying boat.”

The Pathfinder Force (PFF) used fast-flying Mosquitoes and specially equipped Lancasters and Halifaxes; Australians flew in all types. As Commander Bennett never suggested more than he would do himself, he was, therefore, the first Pathfinder to fly. The Pathfinder technique enabled the greatest possible tonnage of bombs to be dropped in the shortest possible time. With the target clearly and exactly marked in advance the swarm of heavy bombers could now fly directly to the aiming point and cascade their loads.

Pathfinders were specially chosen from the most experienced bomber crews. They were chosen chiefly for their skill in navigation, the most important requirement in successful Pathfinding, and for tenacity and determination. They would be first at the target and at exactly the time decided before takeoff. Saturation raids, in which  hundreds of heavy bombers dropped their loads in a few minutes, hinged on accurate timing and no timing must be more accurate than that of Pathfinders.

The nature of night bombing raid would be changed, as well. The Pathfinders would find a target and mark it in conditions which helped the bombers evade not only night fighters but also searchlights and anti-aircraft guns by using cloud cover. On normal nights the markers were dropped on the ground with a few flares in the sky, but when cloud obscured the target entirely the markers were hung in the cloud blanket and the target area marked just as accurately as ground flares. In this way the Pathfinders made possible the first successful attack on the vital Krupp steel works in Essen. Before this it had been impossible to make an accurate and concentrated attack on the Ruhr because of the industrial haze in the valley, but when the Pathfinders went to work no smoke could hide the targets.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England. [AWM P08504.001]

The use of flares as markers was by no means new, but the way the Pathfinders used them was unique. Pyrotechnic experts provided a remarkable variety of markers and, by continually changing the colours and the patterns of the flares which mark the targets, they were able to confuse enemy defences. British scientists also provided markers which could be dropped accurately, had exceptional ballistic qualities and exact fusings.

Soon after D-day, June 6th, 1944, when night bombers were turned into day bombers, Pathfinders were ready with a method for marking targets by day just as successfully as by night. Weather made no difference to the accuracy of the technique and when targets began to burn, obscuring the aiming points with heavy smoke, the Pathfinders sent down more indicators and kept the target accurately marked throughout the attack.

Strong criticism from British Air Force heirarchy and from amongst their own units was at first levelled against the Pathfinder Force operations, but they were able to prevail because of the successes achieved during the years 1943 and 1944. The efforts of the PFF crews increasingly helped to sharpen the edge of Allied air supremacy in the skies above Europe as the tide of the war turned.

Lost to the Night: The Lancaster Crew

Lancaster Crew by Stella Bowen

Lancaster Crew by Stella Bowen

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

At the Binbrook RAF flying base in Lincolnshire, Britain during April 1944, the crew of a Lancaster bomber were posing – in their spare time – for Australian War artist Stella Bowen.

One of the first women artists to be appointed, Esther Gwendolyn “Stella” Bowen (b. 1893) was an Australian artist and writer. In 1944, she had been appointed an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial. Bowen’s brief as a war artist was to depict the activities of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) stationed in England. She also painted portraits of military commanders and Australian prisoners of war who had recently been repatriated from Europe.

Lancaster bomber maintenance at RAF Binbrook Bomber Command

Lancaster bomber maintenance at RAF Binbrook Bomber Command

For the Lancaster painting, and as opportunity offered, the six Australians and one Englishman would don their flying kits and look “business-like” for an hour or so while the artist worked on a painting intended to portray the typical crew of the giant bombers which were so successfully pounding targets in Europe, paving the way for an Allied invasion.

It  was a slow job though, with not much more than an outline completed by 27th April.

Shortly after nine o’clock on the night of the 27th the bomb-laden planes of 460 Squadron waddled down the dimly lit runway and roared away  into the darkness. The target was Friedrichshafen – a vital industrial centre on the shores of Lake Constance. There was nothing to make the operation any more exciting or spectacular for the crews: it was just another night raid.

But, by morning, the subjects in the unfinished painting had been reported missing.  Nothing more was known. Hope of the aircraft limping home gradually waned… then disappeared.

Bowen continued work on her picture and eventually completed it, with the aid of a few photographs of the airmen and an artist’s faculty for remembering detail.

Later, in September of that same year, came the  first news of the fate of the crew. The parents of Flight-Officer T. J. Lynch of  Queensland – the tail gunner – received a small postcard from Dulag Luft camp in Germany.

It was in the unmistakable handwriting of  their son – he was alive and a prisoner of war.  He was subsequently repatriated in the fifth exchange of prisoners arranged between the Allies and Germany, and arrived in England at Liverpool on 5 February 1945.

Their aircraft, he said, was shot down in  the vicinity of Lahr near the Swiss border that night in April. Lynch was unable to remember whether or not he had jumped from the plane. In fact, he remained unconscious until the 4th of May, when he awoke as a patient in a German Luftwaffe (air force) hospital at Baden-Baden.

Stalag IX-C

Stalag IX-C, German POW camp

A German doctor answered his anxious  inquiries concerning the fate of his comrades  and told him that all had been killed.

Lynch himself was badly injured and spent  many weary weeks in various hospitals. Following the amputation of his right leg, he was then sent to another large hospital at Nemmingen near Frankfurt, after which he was posted to Stalag IXC to await repatriation.

Information regarding the other crew members was vague and sketchy; but even before the war had ended it was evident that  Flying-Officer Lynch was the sole survivor. The crew, in addition to Lynch, was:

Squadron-Leader E. D. Jarman, DFC
Flight-Officer M. W. Carroll, D.F.C.
Flight-Officer R. L. Neal
Flight-Officer H. R.  Harrison
Flight-Officer F. G. Jackson, D.F.C.
Sergeant D. G. Champkin (RAF  MHS)

Lest we forget.

Diving Into Danger: Australian Navy Undersea Clearance in WW2

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

Of all the stories of the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, few have explored what went on beneath the sea; not well-known drama of submarine warfare, but the first-hand fight with sunken wrecks, enemy mines and unexploded torpedoes. This was a war waged by the Navy’s own fearless clearance divers from beginning to end. It was a dangerous game, played with full knowledge of the frightful consequences of the slightest false move.

RAN divers in Darwin in 1942

Royal Australian Navy divers in Darwin in 1942. (Image via RANCDA)

In 1941, during the Battle of Crete, a German torpedo bomber swept in low over a harbour mouth in Malta where the light cruiser HMAS Perth was moored and launched its deadly load. The torpedo struck at such a sharp angle that it plunged straight through the water and ploughed into the muddy bottom without exploding. The ‘fish’ – as naval servicemen called them – was still live, its nose propellers having had time to revolve and screw the detonator hard up against the 500 lb (220kg) of explosive primed within its warhead. The smallest shock, even the concussion from another exploding bomb, would have set it off with the same devastating effect as a naval mine.  It had to be removed, and the Navy called for volunteers.

Light cruiser HMAS Perth.

Light cruiser HMAS Perth. (Image via RANCDA)

A petty officer from the Perth took the job. He clambered stiffly over the side of the diving boat and dropped expertly from the rope ladder into harbour waters stirred to murkiness by the raid just over. Being an experienced clearance diver, he’d seen what the savage concussion of depth charges had done to a submarine’s steel hull, their enormous force transmitted through and augmented by the water.

He found the torpedo easily enough, its nose embedded in thick glutinous mud, and set to work attaching the lowered grappling hook. Working against time, every moment tense with the possibility of being blown to pieces, the diver secured his hook and ordered the surface crew, “Hoist carefully!” As they took the weight up top, the long shape eased slowly from its sheath of slime. He backed away as the blades of its propellers swung towards him: the least touch would mean oblivion. Just as the torpedo swayed up through the water, the dread words came over his phone: “Air-raid, red! Air-raid, red!” Yet another air raid was imminent. They hauled him in over the side as the first bombs fell and headed for the shore, the diver sprawled in the bottom of the boat still helmeted and shod.

Bandar Shapur, Iran. c.1941-09. A tug helps to position the German ship Hohenfels to anchor next to HMS Kanimbla. This was part of an operation by Force B, in which HMS Kanimbla took part, manned by RAN personnel. (Donor W. L. G. Adams)

Bandar Shapur, Iran. c. September 1941. A tug helps to position the German ship Hohenfels to anchor next to HMS Kanimbla. This was part of an operation by Force B, in which HMS Kanimbla took part, manned by RAN personnel. (Donor W. L. G. Adams)

Aboard the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMAS Kanimbla in the Persian Gulf, Petty Officer and clearance diver JT ‘Jack’ Humphries would be awarded the George Medal for his work in salvaging the submerged hull of the scuttled German merchantman SS Hohenfels. Humphries ventured alone into the bowels of the ship to close all openings and valves which the vacating sailors had left open. Here existed circumstances which called for the highest degree of cold courage to overcome them. The fearless diver, because of the innumerable obstacles to his life-line in the engine room, had to secure it to a stanchion and thus work entirely alone. He now had no means of signalling if he were in trouble. Stumbling over greasy engines and boilers into every corner where there was likely to be a valve – necessitated by the Germans deliberately falsifying their ship’s plans – Humphries groped his way as the tide threatened to run out. Streaming through bulkheads and passages at seven knots in this narrow neck of the Gulf, it threatened to roll him to his death. To prevent being washed away, he gripped stanchions and cylinder pistons with both arms; then, when the tide slackened again, he resumed work. Due almost entirely to the efforts of Petty Officer Humphries, that valuable ship was floated and reclaimed.

Aboard the HMAS Hobart in Alexandria, the crew watched a huge black shape, swinging slowly beneath its parachute, drop from an unseen bomber above the clouds and plop into the harbour. It was a parachute mine; there were seven different ways it could be exploded, and as they watched they knew its delayed action fuse timer was ticking nearer to zero. The Navy diving boat darted quickly but carefully over the spot and killed its engine, as even the pulsing beat of its propeller transmitted through the water could have exploded the menacing payload of high explosive. The diver had no means of knowing if the mine was rigged to detonate on an attempt to lift it. He found the mine lying in two feet of sediment and, up to his knees in mud, worked carefully towards it. The mine had to be hoisted or exploded under water. He found it was too precarious and would have to be the latter. So, in imminent danger of going up with the mine, he scooped a shallow trench beneath its belly. He then placed in the trench a tube of gelignite and signaled to be hoisted up himself.  They drew back, paying out the battery wire as they went, and pressed the plunger. The mine exploded with a roar and tore itself apart in a spreading cascade of water.

There were not only the hazards of warfare to contend with. Always present, always in the forefront of the diver’s consciousness, was the natural danger from the pressure of tons of water around him and the strange tricks that not a lifetime of experience could completely nullify.

db880050

RAN clearance diver testing an American dive suit. HMAS Madang, 1945

Once while testing a new dive suit, an Australian diver was working on the bottom of the hull of a British submarine. Working busily a hacksaw, he failed to notice a small hole that started in his suit under the left arm. Gradually, with the pressure of air from within, the slit widened and the air streamed out in increasing volume. In less than a minute the diver found the greater mass of air in his lower body swiftly lifting his legs above his head. Soon, completely helpless, he was hanging upside down in thirty feet of green water. Then the sea began to trickle slowly through the exposed hole, past his chin and eyes, inexorably filling the top of his helmet. Seawater dangerously short-circuited his telephone line, leaving him without communication, and in his strange upside-down orientation he found it impossible to find his signal line. He felt the cold of the water creeping up around his head, up to his ears. In a minute it would fill his nose and mouth. Then the attendant up top, having lost communication, decided to haul him up. The diver, half-conscious, managed to grasp his shot-line as the strain came on his rope, and hoist his head above the level of his feet as the water fell over his shoulders to the bottom of his suit.

The Clearance Diving Branch of the Royal Australian Navy was officially formed after the war in 1951. During the Branch’s formative years, the divers developed their ‘can do easy’ attitude performing a diverse range of diving, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and salvage related tasks. With obsolete equipment and limited support from the Naval command structure, they had to develop and hone their skills in house. This necessitated an extreme level of improvisation which led to developing skills and breeding an independence in the Clearance Diving Branch which makes the Australian Clearance Diver of today quite unique in the world of Military Diving.

Indeed, as a result of this demanding selection and training, modern Clearance Divers have served in the counter-terrorist Squadrons of the Australian SAS Regiment and continue to serve in that role with the Commando Regiment, 4RAR (TAG East). Small numbers of divers currently serve as EOD specialists in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe. Clearance divers are also used in high risk ship boardings, such as suspected pirate vessels in Somalia and those used by human traffickers in Australian waters.

These are the men who voluntarily add the perils of underwater work to the scales already weighted against them.

Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

“Stand by, I’m coming round!” – The HMAS Nepal

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

'HMAS Nepal in Colombo' by Roy Hodgkinson

‘HMAS Nepal in Colombo’ by Roy Hodgkinson

This thrilling first-hand account of a high-seas rescue takes place aboard the HMAS Nepal (G25), an N-class destroyer of the Royal Australian Navy.

Originally built as the Norseman at the John I. Thorneycroft shipyard at Woolston near Southampton in the UK, the 1,760 ton destroyer was one of two initially destined for the Royal Netherlands Navy, but when almost complete was she was virtually blown in half on the slipway by a direct bomb hit during a German air raid in December 1940. As a result, the ship was finally commissioned as HMAS NEPAL by Commander R.B. Morris RAN on May 1, 1942 – the last of the RAN ‘N’ Class to come into service.

In this account, we meet the Nepal in the Indian Ocean sometime in mid 1943, conducting operations with the Eastern Fleet out of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

The seaman telling the story is known only to us as ‘Maintop.’

nepal-01

HMAS Nepal (G25)

“The Navy always has, and still does, rate seamanship well above gunnery. Our captain’s steward can thank his stars for that. Destroyer Nepal in the Indian Ocean during the war was running before a sea that looked like an immense waterfall: one enormous roaring mass of foam. Occasionally, from out of this cataract, a Himalayan sea would gain on her and dash itself against her sides in a smother of green and flung white.

Down aft the captain’s steward was trying to get for’ard. He waited for a lull, found it, stepped from shelter and ran into a liquid wall that crushed him through the port rails and over the side. The lifebuoy sentry saw him go.

In such a sea the Old Man was, of course, on the bridge. Through speakers he ordered the first lieutenant to prepare lines and a buoy; the engine-room to be ready with full power. Then, conversationally, he said: “Stand by, I’m coming round.”

Five degrees at a time the destroyer edged round to meet the frenzied seas. She rolled and shuddered as her propellers raced. Then over again, until the torn seas raced level with her rails. A final hammer blow against her bows and she was round, slicing confidently into the troughs. Such was the skipper’s judgment that no line was needed; the steward reached out and grabbed the lowered scrambling net.

Half an hour later the Surgeon Lieutenant, one hand braced against the swaying bulkhead, was operating on a compound fracture of the rescued man’s right leg.”

HMAS Ballarat

HMAS Ballarat (J184)

Naval records indicate the ‘Old Man’ in question was Commander Franklyn Bryce Morris, RAN from Wycherproof in Victoria, Australia. He commanded the Nepal from May 11, 1942 to March 30, 1944. Little is known of Commander Morris apart from his next commission which was the HMAS Ballarat (J 184), which was his charge from December 1, 1944 to June 18, 1945.

At the end of February 1945, Nepal was assigned to the British Pacific Fleet until after the end of World War II. She earned four battle honours for her wartime service:

Indian Ocean 1942–44  / Burma 1944–45 / Pacific 1945 / Okinawa 1945

100th Anniversary of Jutland – The Australians who served

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

May 31st, 2016 marks 100 years since the Battle of Jutland, a naval battle fought between Britain and Germany during the First World War. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war.

Over 200 ships, ranging from destroyers to battleships, and 60,000 men took part in the battle in the North Sea just off the Danish coast at the Jutland Peninsula. By the end of the day over 9,500 British and German sailors were dead and 25 ships (14 British, 11 German) were sunk with many others badly damaged.

Whilst this was the largest engagement at sea during the war it has been considered by many historians and naval officers to have been strategically inconclusive. Germany claimed a tactical victory due to the simple arithmetic of ships sunk and lives lost while Britain claimed a strategic victory, as the German High Seas Fleet never sought to challenge them again and stayed in port for the remainder of the war.

For the British, the day was marked in particular by the losses of the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible, all of which were destroyed in spectacular style after German shells caused catastrophic damage to the vessels’ magazines, which subsequently exploded and sank the ships.

A little-known fact is the stories of a handful of Australian naval men who were involved that day – many of whom became casualties of the battle.

Australians at Jutland – The Sinking of the HMS Defence

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

While no RAN ship took part in the action this does not mean that the RAN, and Australia, was not represented at the battle. At least four members of the RAN were at the battle and another Australian serving in the Royal Navy was also present (and there may have been more). In the grim irony of war, of the five Australian’s known to have served at the Battle of Jutland; three were to lose their lives and all from the same ship.

Chaplain Patrick Gibbons was a Roman Catholic Chaplain serving in HMAS Australia and following the collision he was loaned to the old battle cruiser HMS Indomitable which was part of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron attached to the main Battleship Squadrons. Indomitable survived the battle with no damage or casualties but Gibbons later ministered to the dying and wounded Catholic sailors from the fleet.  Gibbons had joined Australia in 1913 and, apart from his brief sojourn in Indomitable, served in the Australian battle cruiser until 1920 when he resigned from the RAN.

Another Australian officer on loan to the Royal Navy was Gunner (Warrant Officer) John Henry Gill who served in the Battleship HMS Benbow which was the flagship of the 4th Battleship Squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee (who had destroyed the German East Asia Squadron at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914).  Benbow fired about 100 rounds during the battle with little or no effect and escaped without damage or casualties.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

The three Australians who lost their lives at the Battle of Jutland were all serving in the armoured cruiser HMS Defence which was part of the 1st Cruiser Squadron. At 1800 the Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, spotted a group of German cruisers and turned to engage them, but a few minutes later German battle cruisers appeared through the haze and opened fire on the leading British ships (Defence and Warrior). Warrior was badly damaged, set on fire and had over 100 men killed or wounded but managed to limp away.

Defence was less fortunate. One eyewitness later wrote:

The Defence was heavily engaged, salvos dropping all around her. At 1815 a salvo hit her abaft the after turret and a big red flame flashed up. The ship heeled, then quickly righted herself and steamed on. But almost immediately another salvo struck between the forecastle turret and the foremost funnel, and she was lost to sight in an enormous black cloud which, when it cleared, showed no signs of a ship at all.  Defence was sunk with the loss of her entire crew of 903 men. Among those killed were Sub Lieutenant George Paterson, RAN (a 20 year old who had been born in England but had joined the RAN in March 1914) and 19 year old Midshipman Joseph Mack, RAN who hailed from Berry Bank, (near Lismore), Victoria. Both men had joined the RAN but were loaned to the RN for further training. Also killed in the sinking of HMS Defence was Stoker 2nd Class Mortimer Hugh Froude.

Froude, from Balmain, had joined the RAN on 1 June 1912 as a 14 year old Boy 2nd Class and received his initial training in HMAS Tingira before being posted to HMAS Australia. He was an Ordinary Seaman when he deserted from the RAN in June 1915, when Australia was in British waters. He tried to join the British Army but was rejected due to his height. Froude then joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker and was posted to the cruiser Defence. On 31 May 1916, when the smoke cleared Paterson, Mack and Froude had simply ceased to exist.

The Australian Admiral at Jutland: Sir Ernest F. A. Gaunt (1865-1940)

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Ernest Gaunt was born on 25 March 1865 at Beechworth. In 1877 he went to England to join HMS Britannia as a naval cadet, serving on the Australia Station from 1880 to 1884; as sub-lieutenant on HMS Nelson, he hoisted the British flag when the British Protectorate over New Guinea was proclaimed. In 1896 he was promoted first lieutenant of the armoured cruiser HMS Narcissus, and in China in 1898-99 served in administrative posts; he was thanked by the Austrian and German Commanders-in-Chief for his services during the Boxer Rebellion. In early December 1903 he was severely wounded when he commanded a landing party to avenge the death of an Italian naval officer in Somaliland; in December that year he was promoted captain and subsequently commanded the battleships HMS Majestic, HMS Queen and HMS Superb.

In 1913, he became Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham, England, and in 1913 and 1914, he was aide-de-camp to King George V. Then, in 1916 during World War I, he served as second-in-command of the 1st Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland as Rear Admiral – his ship was the HMS Colossus. When the war began in August 1914, Colossus became the flagship of the 1st Battle Squadron. While commanded by Captain Dudley Pound she fought with distinction at Jutland, taking a number of German shell hits which caused minor damage and six casualties.

He was promoted vice admiral in February 1919 and admiral in June 1924 before retiring in March the next year. He was appointed KCB in 1919 and KBE in 1922. He retired to London, where he died on 20 April 1940 at Westminster Hospital, survived by a son and two daughters.