HMAS Shropshire: 1928 – 1954

Published
March 1978
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Subjects:
Ship histories and stories
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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

In August 1942, a Japanese force surprised the Allies at Savo Island. Amongst the ships sunk was the Australian cruiser HMAS Canberra. A month after her loss, the British Government announced it was unconditionally handing over to the Royal Australian Navy, the eight inch gun cruiser HMS Shropshire.

HMS SHROPSHIRE was built at Dalmuir, Scotland by William Beardmore and Company, and launched on July 5th 1928. She commissioned on September 24th 1929, under the command of Captain R. W. Oldham, OBE, RN, and sailed in November 1929 for service with the First Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean.

In all, she served four commissions in the Mediterranean, and probably the highlight of her service was when she played a leading part in the evacuation of refugees from Barcelona in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

The outbreak of war in 1939 took HMS Shropshire to the South Atlantic, where she was engaged in long patrols that kept her at sea almost continuously.

After a refit in 1940, she went to the Indian Ocean for more patrol work, and took part in the British campaign against Italian Somaliland.

There followed another refit back in Britain which was completed in March 1942, which was followed by more patrol and escort work in the Atlantic.

The Admiralty’s decision to transfer Shropshire to the RAN brought her recall from service on the South Atlantic station. Captain J. T. Borrett, OBE, RN, relinquished command at Chatham on December 23rd 1942, and five days later Commander D. H. Harries, RAN, assumed command to supervise the refit. Early in 1943, the first draft of Shropshire’s new crew arrived aboard. Many of them were survivors of HMAS Canberra, and no doubt had little trouble finding their way round their new ship – Canberra and Shropshire were both County Class cruisers.

Captain J.A. Collins, CB, RAN, assumed command of Shropshire on April 7th 1943, and she commissioned into the RAN on April 20th 1943, although it wasn’t until June 25th that she was formally handed over to the RAN

On July 1, the cruiser sailed for Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, where she was visited by King George VI and Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet.

HMAS Shropshire sailed for Australia in August, and to those of a superstitious turn of mind, it gave some food for thought – the date was Friday the 13th. First landfall in her new continent home was Fremantle where Shropshire arrived on September 24th. The press came aboard and marvelled at the ship’s cafeteria-style messing, and her library and recreation room. And there was a cinema and shipboard radio station. Goodness gracious, said Australia, What’s the Navy coming to!

Her introductions to the Australian people over, HMAS Shropshire sailed for Brisbane where she joined Task Force 74 under the command of Rear-Admiral V.A.C. Crutchley, VC, flying his flag in HMAS Australia. TF 74 was a unit of the US Seventh Fleet, and its membership was rather fluid; sometimes comprising many ships, and sometimes just a few. On Shropshire’s arrival, other ships then belonging to the force included HMA Ships Warramunga and Arunta and the American destroyers Bagley, Helm and Ralph Talbot.

This was about the time that Japan’s southward movement had finally come to a halt, and the Allies were starting to hit back; so HMAS Shropshire found herself in at the beginning of the trek back to Japan.

From Brisbane, TF 74 sailed for Milne Bay in New Guinea where it was strengthened by the American cruisers Nashville and Phoenix, and the USN destroyers Mullaney, Bush, Ammen and Bache.

On Christmas Eve 1943, the force sailed for the invasion of New Britain, where Shropshire covered the landings at Arawa and Cape Gloucester. It was in this operation that Shropshire first made her name for her radar work, and the Americans admitted her performance was much better than theirs.

From the bombardment of New Britain, TF 74 sailed for Buna in New Guinea, and from there Shropshire went back south to Sydney where Rear-Admiral Crutchley raised his flag temporarily as HMAS Australia was refitting. But she wasn’t long in Sydney before sailing north again to the oppressive, sweltering heat and afternoon thunderstorms – so different to her old beat in the Atlantic, and the cold, blue, gale-swept skies of Scapa.

In March 1944, Shropshire took part in the operations leading to the seizure of the Admiralty Islands, and the following month was again in action at the Hollandia-Humboldt Bay operations.

It was a far cry from the classic concept of a cruiser’s role, this business of shelling bits of jungle, and sometimes getting the odd shot lobbed back at you. But to the men of Shropshire, no doubt, it was a thoroughly healthy war time existence, considering most of them were Hostilities Only, and they had already had one ship sink beneath them.

Fire support mission followed fire support mission in what was the precursor to the Vietnam conflict where battle giants like USS New Jersey, and other ships that included Australian destroyers, pumped salvo after salvo at targets in North Vietnam. And it would be nice to think that some of the RAN’s proficiency in Vietnam was due to those earlier efforts by Shropshire and Australia.

Continuing her support of the American northwards sweep, Shropshire was at the Wakde-Sarmi-Biak operations in May 1944, where she nearly became hors de combat at the hands of the Americans. An American bomber accidentally dropped a bomb between Shropshire and HMAS Warramunga; engine trouble developed four days later, and Shropshire had to return to Australia for repairs.

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