- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Graeme Andrews
Hospital Ships of World War One
The provision of dedicated hospital ships to support soldiers injured in combat seems to have evolved at about the time the steam engine became available for ship propulsion. Various chartered commercial ships were used by the British army to provide rudimentary medical support during the Crimean War but a serious attempt at fitting out a ship primarily for hospital purposes seems to have been first made by the Royal Navy with the steamer Maine in 1887. Maine was intended for use in the Boer War but was instead sent to China to support international soldiers at the Boxer Rebellion. The name was used for a succession of hospital ships until after WWII. Australia was quickly into the provision of a hospital ship with the charter of the coastal passenger liner Grantala for support of the Australian expeditionary forces involved against various German Pacific colonies. Grantala was found to be too small for regular use in this role and was soon returned to her owners.
She was quickly replaced as Australian authorities realized that the range and extent of anticipated injuries for Australia’s soldiers, both at Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe itself, would need larger ships. Australia was well supplied with modern passenger ships from which to choose hospital
ships. The five liners mentioned here were all used at various times as troop ships and as hospital ships, with two being lost to submarine attack.
Built in 1902, Kanowna was of 6,993 grt, owned by the Australian United Steam Navigation Company (AUSN) and used on the Sydney to Fremantle passenger service. In September 1914 she was requisitioned to take about 1,000 soldiers to German New Guinea as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. Grantala was also part of this force, in the role of hospital ship.
Kanowna’s involvement included mutiny, lack of drinking water and various other problems, all of which probably resulted from the speed with which the whole operation was assembled by the embryonic navy’s administrators. On 1 June 1915 Kanowna was used as Troopship A61, to Egypt. After completion of this run she continued to Britain where she was modified as a hospital ship. In her new livery she worked around the Mediterranean and made regular voyages back to Australia carrying up to 452 seriously wounded with a medical staff of 88. This was her role for most of the next four years. In October 1918 Kanowna was used to collect some 900 British and Commonwealth POWs released by Turkey. She was returned to her owners on 29 July 1920. Her civilian use was soon ended when she was wrecked in Bass Strait in1929.
Built in 1909, Karoola was 7,391 grt. Her owners McIlwraith and McEacharn Ltd used her mainly on the Fremantle run until she was requisitioned by the British Government in May 1915.She was converted to a troopship in Sydney and was given the number A63. After carrying troops to Egypt, she continued on to Britain where she was converted to a hospital ship with funds provided by the Australian public. In her new role she made four voyages from Britain to Australia carrying severely wounded Australians and another four voyages from Egypt before the war ended. She was handed back to her owners on 27 June 1919.
Built in 1903, Kyarra was a sister ship of Kanowna but was rated at 6,953 grt. Kyarra was requisitioned by the British government in October 1914 and converted for use as a hospital ship at Brisbane. As HMAT A55 she was used to carry Australian medical units to Egypt. Surprisingly she was not in hospital ship use for long as in March 1915 she was converted to a troopship. In May 1918 she was released from Commonwealth control and sailed for Britain where she again reverted to the role of a hospital ship. On 26 May1918 she was torpedoed and sank. Five engineers were killed.
Built in 1912, Wandilla (7,785 grt) and her sister ship Warilda (7,713grt) were the newest and largest ships used as hospital ships by Australia during WWI. Wandilla was taken over by the Australian military for use as a troopship on 18 May 1915.As such she made two round trips from Australia to Egypt during which time she was also used to carry wounded troops to Britain, then she was sent to Liverpool for conversion to a hospital ship. She made voyages around the Mediterranean and to both sides of Africa before being converted back to austerity accommodation to return Australian troops to Australia, after which she was refitted for passenger service.
Built in 1912, Warilda was soon carrying troops to war as HMAT A69. After three round trips in this role she was sent to the UK to be converted to a hospital ship, when she seems to have been confined to the Mediterranean and to the English Channel. Later in WW I Germany no longer allowed hospital ships immunity from attack, and accordingly Britain decided to abandon the practice of having them painted white and lit at night. Instead a number of vessels including Warilda were re-classified as ambulance transports. They were painted in camouflage and armed. On 2 August 1918 Warilda sailed from Le Havre escorted by two destroyers. She was carrying 660 wounded soldiers as well as 60 medical staff, including nursing sisters, and 115 crew. Early the following morning she was torpedoed in the engine room and sank. Of those on board 123 lost their lives including 102 of the wounded soldiers. Warilda had completed 180 trips between France and Britain, successfully carrying over 80,000 casualties.
Australia’s Hospital Ships of WW II
Australia’s armed forces used six hospital ships during WWII. These ships were used in most theatres of war from the Mediterranean through the Pacific area and became involved in naval and other actions with some loss and damage. There was a considerable variation in size and capabilities of the ships – unlike WW I where most requisitioned ships used by British Commonwealth forces were generally of similar capabilities.
Ownership of these ships was divided between Australia (2), Britain (1) and the Netherlands (3), including the almost new and very large and fast Oranje. The three Dutch liners were handed to Australia for operation after the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies. The offer by the Dutch government included paying the costs of conversion of Oranje and Maetsuycker to hospital ships, and manning them. The Javanese crews did not want to be involved in warlike situations so Australian merchant seaman replaced them.
During WWII Australian-based hospital ships were operated by the Australian Shipping Control Board (ASCB) as HMAHS (His Majesty’s Australian Hospital Ship) although some sources incorrectly describe them as HMAS.
Centaur was a motorship of British registry built in 1924 of 3,222 grt. As a passenger/cargo ship under control of Alfred Holt (Blue Funnel) Line she rescued survivors from the Kormoran–Sydney action in November 1941. She was requisitioned and converted to a hospital ship in 1943. Centaur departed from Sydney on 12 May 1943on her second voyage as a hospital ship, with no patients but with crew, medical staff and stores for the2/12th Field Ambulance, having a total of 332 persons aboard. About 0400 on 14 May she was torpedoed north east of Brisbane by the Japanese submarine I-177. Centaur was painted in hospital ship colours and was fully illuminated at the time. There were just 64 survivors. The wreck was discovered by David Mearns on 20 December 2009 at a depth of 2,000 metres, and the site is now gazetted as a war grave.
Manunda was a motorship of Australian registry of 9,155 grt. built in1929. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship in July 1940. Between November 1940 and September 1941 Manunda completed four round trips to the Middle East. On 7 January 1942 she left Sydney’s Darling Harbour for Darwin and arrived on 14 January where she lay at anchor for five weeks awaiting orders, as the situation in the Dutch East Indies and the Malayan Peninsula unfolded. On 23 February Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin, sinking many ships and causing great damage to the port. The clearly marked hospital ship was heavily bombed with 11 killed and 18 seriously injured. Manunda’s company provided medical assistance on the day and after and was ordered to take seriously injured people to Fremantle. She did this without compasses and with only one of her main engines operational.
After repairs Manunda was sent to Milne Bay in eastern New Guinea and was there on 25 August 1942 when Japanese forces invaded the position. She was fully lit and was not damaged but remained in the vicinity until the Japanese were forced to retreat on 7 September 1942. During her period as one of HMAH Ships Manunda carried more than 30,000 casualties safely home. In 1946 she was used to repatriate Australian ex-Prisoners of War from Changi camp to Australia. On 2 April 1948 Manunda returned to commercial passenger work for her owners Adelaide Steamship Co. She was scrapped in Japan in 1957.
Wanganella was another Australian motorship, of 9,576 grt. Her conversion to a hospital ship was completed on 19 May 1941 and her first voyage as HMAHS was to Singapore in July 1941 carrying the 2/13th Australian General Hospital. The next voyage was to Suez to collect wounded for return to Sydney and Brisbane. Wanganella was at Port Tewfik during the bomb attack which seriously damaged and burnt out the British liner Georgic. After two more voyages to the Middle East the ship was ordered to Port Moresby in May 1942 to collect injured for return to Australia, and to transport US casualties from Townsville to the US 4th General Hospital which was temporarily housed in the newly constructed replacement for the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Voyage No 13 saw Wanganella leave Sydney in March 1944 for Bombay. She was in that port when the British ammunition ship Fort Stikine exploded on 14 April 1944. The explosion caused vast damage to local infrastructure and to the local population as well as shipping in the area. For one week Wanganella’s medical team and crew worked around the clock helping all comers. The ship was undamaged but total area deaths were reported as being about 3,000.
After Italy surrendered Wanganella was sent to Taranto to collect New Zealand Forces patients, then made voyages to Darwin, Torokina, the Solomon Islands, Bouganville and Morotai where she collected ex POWs and civilian internees. Three more round trips to the New Guinea area followed before Wanganella was returned to commercial use in December 1946. During her period as HMAHS she travelled 251,611 nautical miles and carried 13,389 patients. She was scrapped in 1970.
Nowhere to go
With the Japanese attack on the Malay barrier in full thrust Dutch citizens had nowhere but Australia to seek safety. Holland itself was under German control and the Dutch East Indies was rapidly becoming untenable. A great number of Dutch citizens and members of their armed forces arrived in Australia. The story of this exodus and of the actions of the three fighting services of the Netherlands can be found in the book The Fourth Ally by Doug Hurst. Here we come to the story of three Dutch liners requisitioned as Australian hospital ships.
MV Oranje was a handsome passenger liner of 20,017 grt. built in Holland in 1939; she is credited with a trial speed of 26.5 knots. After her second passenger voyage to the Dutch East Indies Germany had invaded Holland and Oranje was laid up in Batavia from December 1939 until February 1941 when she was ordered to Sydney. Her master was instructed to hand the ship over the ASCB for conversion to a hospital ship at Dutch Government expense, which was completed at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island Dockyard on 30 July 1941.
Oranje began service with her original crew of Dutch officers and Javanese sailors but a lack of enthusiasm for warfare by the Javanese meant that most of them were eventually replaced, first by Australian merchant seaman, and then by those from New Zealand.
Throughout her service she continued to fly the Dutch flag. As HS1, Oranje worked as far afield as Port Tewfik in the Middle East and in the Indian Ocean and Pacific theatres. During more than four years as a hospital ship she made 41 voyages with war wounded, carrying a total of some 32,460 patients and steaming 382,000 nautical miles. She was returned to her owners on 19 July 1946 and was soon in use on Dutch repatriation duties between Holland and the Dutch East Indies. She was later to become the Italian passenger liner Angela Lauro and for a number of years brought migrants to Australia. This grand old lady sank while on her way to ship breakers on 30 November 1994.
After evacuating from the Dutch East Indies to Australia, the KLM inter-island passenger ship Maetsuycker of 4,137 grt. was used with MV Tasman during 1942 and 1943, transferring US forces which had crossed the Pacific aboard the troopship RMS Queen Elizabeth to New Guinea. During this period the officers of the two small Dutch ships were under instructions to maintain stores and fuel levels against the possibility of needing to evacuate Dutch nationals from an Australia under full Japanese invasion.
During 1944 Maetsuycker was fitted out as a close-support hospital ship for use in the South Pacific area. Her role was to evacuate casualties from the battle area to hospitals in secure areas. The ship could carry 250 patients and up to 500 mobile injured. Medical staff came from the US Army 196th Station Hospital with Dutch ship’s officers and Javanese sailors. Some replacements from the Australian merchant marine were later involved. The ship was under the administrative control of the Australian Shipping Control Board.
Through 1944 the two small ships worked from places as diverse as Oro Bay, Milne Bay, Finchhafen, Lae, Aitape and Hollandia. On 23 June 1944 Maetsuycker sailed from Hollandia for Biak and Oui then to Aitape to collect injured. On 3 July she headed south to Australia. She was back in New Guinea before leaving for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, arriving on 24 December 1944. Heading south once more she collected injured from Tacloban on 25-28 December and then sailed for Hollandia and thence to Australia. Maetsuycker was refitted in Australia during 1946 and was returned to Dutch control in 1947 as a unit of Royal Interocean Lines. She was scrapped in 1974.
Tasman was a steamship of 5,172 grt. owned and operated by the Dutch line KPM. Being built in 1922 she was quite elderly by the time the Pacific war developed. She was in Shanghai in 1937 on a line voyage when the Japanese bombed that port, but was undamaged. She escaped damage once again in Singapore in 1941 when that port was bombed.
Tasman sailed to Sydney where she was requisitioned for troop transport and was used in 1942 to carry American and Australian troops to New Guinea. On one such voyage she was in Milne Bay on the eastern end of New Guinea with the destroyer HMAS Arunta when word was received of an approaching Japanese invasion force. Both ships cleared port and reached Port Moresby safely. In 1943 Tasman was converted into a hospital ship at the cost of the US Government and was transferred to the control of the ASCB. She was fitted to carry 250 stretcher cases and was crewed by Dutch officers and Javanese sailors under the Dutch flag.
The medical staff was composed mainly of US Army nurses. Tasman worked throughout the South West Pacific in the forward casualty evacuation role and was then used to evacuate ex-POWs from Japanese camps at Santo Tomas in the Philippines. Tasman returned to passenger service for KPM after July 1947 and worked on until she was scrapped in Hong Kong in 1957.
In addition to personal files and notes the author has drawn upon Volumes 1 and 2 of Peter Plowman’s Passenger Ships of Australia and New Zealand (1981). Other sources are The Fourth Ally by Doug Hurst (2001), Wikipedia – List of Australian Hospital Ships and the archives of the Australian Naval Historical Society