Following the end of World War II there was a requirement to sweep the thousands of mines laid in defensive minefields throughout Australian waters. During the war the RAN’s minelayer, HMAS Bungaree, had laid several defensive minefields off the Australian coast to prevent enemy ships using certain sea lanes or approaching harbours and ports.
The Great Barrier Reef area had been one of those areas extensively mined and during 1947, a number of RAN corvettes operated in these northern waters sweeping mines.
On 13 September 1947, HMAS Warrnambool (a Bathurst class corvette commissioned in September 1941) under the command of Acting Commander Alan Jeger Travis, ((Acting Commander Alan Jeger Travis was born at Beechworth, Victoria in 1905 and joined the RAN College in 1919. During WW II he commanded HMA Ships Kookaburra, Swan, Barcoo and Pirie. He was awarded a Mention in Dispatches in 1945 for courage, endurance and skill while conducting minesweeping and escort duties over a three year period in Australian and Philippine waters. Travis retired from the Navy in March 1955 with the substantive rank of Commander.)) RAN was sweeping mines in the vicinity of Cockburn Reef which is some 300 miles north of Cairns. Warrnambool was part of the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla and was in company with the sloop HMAS Swan and several other corvettes.
At approximately 1600 Swan, who was leading the sweep, had her port Oropesa Float snag on an underwater obstruction. The minesweeping cable dipped under the clear water and then parted. Warrnambool was astern of Swan; Travis saw this occur and swung the corvette hard to starboard to come in astern of Swan into the swept area behind her. For a few moments all was well and then Warrnambool hit a mine.
The effect of the single mine strike was catastrophic. The engine room took the brunt of the explosion and a locker was torn from its mountings and crushed 24 year-old Stoker Ronald Garrett. He was not immediately killed, but he suffered fatal internal injuries and died shortly after. Some men who were in the heads were thrown up against the deckhead and then fell back to strike the deck, or porcelain toilet bowls, which shattered upon impact. Up on the bridge the Officer of the Watch was blown through the bridge window and shards of glass struck Commander Travis, and he was knocked unconscious. Lieutenant Hugh Jarrett,((Lieutenant Hugh Pryce Jarrett was born at Randwick, NSW in 1920 and joined the RAN VR in August 1941 (after 18 months prior service in the Australian Military Forces). He transferred to the RAN in 1946 and joined Warrnambool on 27 December 1946. Jarrett retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander in July 1965.)) RAN, the ship’s First Lieutenant, temporarily took command while Travis was incapacitated.
Warrnambool’s bow lifted into the air and the ship’s mast collapsed over the side. Nineteen year old Signalman Norman Lott was thrown over the side of the ship into the sea and disappeared (although many years later one Warrnambool crew member said Lott had jumped over the side and was seen to be carried away by the strong current prevalent near the reef). Either way Lott was never seen again and was subsequently listed as missing.
A third member of the crew, 18 year old Ordinary Seaman John Hyland, also died as a result of a fractured skull, and 30 men were injured (from a ship’s company of approximately 70 men). One of the injured was 19 year old Able Seaman Donald Sigg((In Vic Cassell’s book – For Those in Peril (Kangaroo Press 1995) Donald Bain Sigg is recorded as having the surname Figg. Cassell also provides in his book the names of the five men who were listed as Critically Injured, eight men listed as Dangerously Injured, 12 men listed as Seriously Injured and four men listed as Injured making a total of 29 injured.)) who later succumbed to his injuries in Cairns Hospital on 17 September 1947. Lieutenant Jarrett organised for the injured to be taken to other ships including Swan and the corvette HMAS Mildura, and he then began the process of damage control to try and save the ship.
By 1800 it was obvious that the ship could not be saved and Travis, who had resumed command, gave the order to abandon ship. At approximately 1845 the stricken corvette rolled over and sank in 25 metres of water (at position 143 degrees 14 minutes East – 11 degrees 45 minutes South). Swan then proceeded with all dispatch to Cairns to offload the survivors and the injured were then transferred to hospitals in Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney.
The three men who were killed or died later from their injuries (Garrett, Hyland and Sigg) were subsequently buried at Cairns Cemetery (Plot B, Row A, Graves 2, 4 and 6) while the name of the missing Signalman Norman Lott((The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) recognises the deaths of Garrett, Hyland, Lott and Sigg as war deaths as they occurred before 31 August 1947 (the cut off date set by the CWGC). The Australian War Memorial (AWM) cut off date for inclusion on the Roll of Honour is set at 30 June 1947 and hence the names are not recorded by the AWM as war deaths.)) was added to the Plymouth Naval Memorial in the United Kingdom. Norman Lott was born in South Yarra, Victoria on 15 March 1928 and had joined the RAN on 11 December 1945. The other three men killed had also been born in Victoria. Ordinary Seaman John Hyland was born on 12 March 1929 at Latrobe, and had joined the RAN on 5 December 1945 and Able Seaman Donald Sigg was born at Swan Hill on 27 May 1928 and had joined the RAN on 3 June 1946.
The story of Stoker Garrett
Stoker Ronald Garrett was born at Shepparton on 25 January 1923 and had enlisted in the RAN Reserve on 1 April 1941 at Williamstown (he was given service number W 2075). Following training at HMAS Cerberus he was posted to his first ship, the destroyer HMAS Vampire, on 29 September 1941. Vampire was operating in South East Asian waters when war with Japan was declared on 8 December 1941 and subsequently the ship was involved in the action on 10 December 1941 in which the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk (Vampire rescued several hundred survivors from these ships).