On May 12, 1943, I was Captain of an anti-submarine Naval Auxiliary Patrol vessel, commissioned HMAS 539 (Topsy A), a heavy, converted fishing trawler driven by three engines. We were en route eventually, we hoped, for New Guinea, refuelling via Australian east coast ports.
In Coffs Harbour I received a message, telephoned I believe from Naval Base HQ, Sydney, to the Harbour Master, Captain Brady, that an Australian convoy of ships was under submarine attack in adjacent waters. An order was transmitted to me through Captain Brady to assist our ships, however possible.
I proceeded to sea in a sweep, at one stage 16 miles off the coast, until I found the passenger-freighter S.S. Ormiston moving towards the coast very slowly (1-2 kts) under her own power. She had a large hole in her port bow and, I learned, a considerable portion of her forekeel was blown away where a torpedo had struck her.
I ordered two depth charges to be readied for setting and dropping to attack any submarine we might detect. I told my crew that if a submarine surfaced we must be prepared to ram it. Since our vessel’s stem, foredeck and shoulders were reinforced with a metal framework I felt we had good impact power, although I had no knowledge of the strength of a submarine’s hull. We also loaded our machine guns, ready for action. We were very naive.
Although I have been told that one other naval vessel was probably in the vicinity it was at no time evident to me or to any of my crew. No one in Ormiston seemed to be aware of it at that time.
I went alongside Ormiston and was asked to come aboard by her master, Capt. Raven. I boarded Ormiston from a companionway hanging over her port side.
Some of Ormiston’s crew were slightly injured. Some told me they were fearful the submarine that had attacked them would finish them off at any moment and maybe would surface nearby when night fell. Captain Raven also believed the submarine would attack again. “We are a sitting duck,” he told me. “Keep those depth charges on your stern ready,” he said.
Ormiston’s master’s cabin was badly damaged by the explosion of the torpedo. Pieces of his shattered cast iron bathtub were scattered about as were pieces of a large glass-fronted cabinet.
On deck the jib of the crane on the foremast had sprung its housing and lay over the foredeck; a 400mm wooden splinter from the jib had hit a man 10m away on the forehead and badly bruised his eye; the fore hatches had been blown off; the sea was washing through No. 1 hold; the steel bulkhead of No. 2 hold was flexing.
A chain of crewmen was carrying bags of tallow and sugar and other material from other holds and passing it down into No. 2 hold into which a gang of men had clambered down ladders. These men were piling the bags against the No. 2 bulkhead to support it. They continued this work until No. 2 hold was filled to within 3m of the hatchways.
Capt. Raven told me he had enough power and manoeuvrability to steam close to the coast. To make it difficult for the submarine to get a clear shot at him he had decided to get as close as possible under the shelter of South Solitary Island and anchor there, which he did. He also asked me to patrol on the southern side of the island, possibly to discourage the submarine. We were still the only naval vessel on the scene of which I was aware.
We remained on patrol throughout the night and stood by while four small fishing launches, sent from Coffs Harbour by Captain Brady, came alongside Ormiston and took off her passengers, about seven, including women and, I believe, some crewmen.
The ship’s lifeboats remained swung out on their davits ready for launching. I was told the lifeboats had earlier been launched and almost all Ormiston’s personnel had left the ship when it was feared she was about to founder. The lifeboats, I was told, were then recalled under Captain Raven’s orders and the attempt began to save the vessel.