ON THE 7TH OF FEBRUARY 1942 Mrs. Frank Forde, wife of the then Minister for the Army, smashed the traditional bottle of wine across the sharp stem of the ship sitting on her cradle at Cockatoo Island. Slowly the sleek gray hull moved down the ways into Sydney Harbour, HMAS Warramunga was born. Second of an order of three Tribal class boats, Warramunga was to have an active life of seventeen years and become one of the best loved ships ever to serve in the ‘Wallaby Navy’.
Her life was a very full one and many members of the RAN were to be borne on her books. She became a legend in her own time. All ships seem to pick up a nickname, and as far as the Lower Deck was concerned, the second Tribal was always referred to as ‘The ‘Munga’.
On 23rd November 1942 the ship was commissioned by Commander E.V. Dechaineux, DSC, RAN, always referred to as ‘Father’. Father Dechaineux was just the right skipper for Warramunga, being one of those old time salthorses who liked to throw a ship around at speed. To use a description given by one of the commissioning crew, ‘He was a real rip, tear or bust skipper. He would use any excuse to put her flat out, and we all loved it.’
Laid down at Cockatoo on 10th February 1940, Warramunga was practically identical with the Royal Navy’s Tribal class, which had been designed to act as convoy escorts to relieve the strain on the light cruisers. They were given a hefty gun armament, but had the torpedo armament reduced by 50. The British boats mounted eight 4.7 inch QF Mark XII guns in four twin open shield mountings, carried in A, B, X, and Y positions. In the Australian boats X twin 4.7 inch was replaced by a twin 4 inch MKXVI on a MKXIX mounting.
It had been found that the British Tribals were badly off for anti-aircraft protection and the addition of the twin 4 inch HA/LA mounting was a wise one.
Warramunga was rated at 1,970 tons standard displacement, which came up to 2,700 tons at full load. 377 feet long over all with a beam of 36½ feet and a loaded draught of 12 feet, the ship was designed for a sea speed of 32 knots. Warramunga could usually turn out 35 knots with ease. Power was supplied to her twin screws by steam from three Admiralty three-drum boilers, the steam being passed into turbine machinery developing 44,000 shaft horse power.
Apart from the main armament she carried a four barrelled 2 pounder pom-pom and six 20 mm Oerliken guns. Four 21 inch torpedoes were carried in one revolving deck mounting and the usual depth-charge throwers gave her a fair anti-submarine potential.
After her commissioning trials were completed Warramunga set about getting into the war. Her early life was not without incident, as on the 8th February 1943 she carried out an anti-submarine sweep near Sydney Heads. The sweep was unsuccessful, but on the 10th she rescued survivors of the torpedoed merchantman Starr King. Her next job was to escort the damaged US cruiser Chicago part of the way to Noumea. After detaching from Chicago, Warramunga took over convoy and escort duties in the Queensland-New Guinea area.
To give her full history would take a book in itself, so we can only briefly touch on her exploits. One incident worth recording began on the 11th August 1943 when Warramunga and her sister ship Arunta left Milne Bay with a group of LSTs bound for Noumea. Both ships left Noumea on the 20th and at 27 knots headed for Espirito Santu, where the torpedoed cruiser Hobart was undergoing emergency repairs. The two Tribals escorted Hobart back to Sydney, which port was reached on the 26th August. Warramunga was given three days to clean her boilers and top up with oil fuel and stores.
The strength of the Australian Squadron now stood at one eight inch cruiser, Australia and two Tribal class destroyers. Leaving Sydney on the 29th August, Warramunga headed north again and was quite busy in her old trade of convoy escorting. A quick refit in Sydney began at the end of September, but 2nd October saw her leaving Sydney with the newly arrived eight inch cruiser Shropshire heading for Milne Bay.
The Australian Squadron was part of Task Force 74 and at this time the destroyers in the screen were organized into Desron 4 (4th Destroyer Squadron) which comprised Arunta and Warramunga with the US destroyers Ralph Talbot and Helm. Operating with this group she fired her first angry shots when Desron 4 bombarded Gasmata in New Britain.
The squadron was based on Milne Bay at this time, but sortied out on many occasions, including the landing of US troops on Cape Gloucester on Boxing Day 1943 and the landing on Saidor on the Huon Peninsula on 1st January 1944. After this operation Warramunga was detached to Sydney, arriving on January 11th and departing on 4th February.
On arriving in Milne Bay she picked up the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Guy Royle, and a party of senior officials. The party was taken on an island tour, and finally landed at Lae where they moved to the forward area by land. This allowed Warramunga to lend a hand in the takeover of the Admiralty Islands, where her guns were used to very good effect.
On the 5th March 1944 Warramunga lost her first skipper. Dechaineux had been promoted to Captain and left by air for Sydney, where he was to take over command of Australia. Command of Warramunga went to Commander N.A. MacKinnon, RAN.
April and May were busy months. Operations against Aitape and Humbolt Bay and other skirmishes kept the ship’s company at peak efficiency. By the end of May Warramunga had been in commission for eighteen months, and had covered over 100,000 miles. The task force had been increased in numbers and was now referred to as the Combined Task Force, and it was whilst with the Combined Task Force that on the 9th June Warramunga took part in a high speed chase after five Japanese destroyers near Biak.
It was a night chase and only the leading US destroyers were actually engaged. It was recorded by Rear Admiral Crutchley, VC, commanding the force that USS Fletcher scored at least one hit with her forward guns on the tail end ship of the enemy line, which was good shooting when we remember that the ships were steaming at 35 knots and firing at 18,000 yards. Being at the rear of the screen Warramunga did not get any rounds away, and her crew were very disappointed when the action was broken off.