History - WW2
By Richard H Pelvin and Jozef H Straczek
This paper was provided courtesy of the Sea Power Centre – Australia. It was first published in 2003 and is available on the Sea Power Centre website Feature Histories page. Both authors worked for the Defence Department in a range of roles over many years. Jozef Straczek was the Senior Naval Historical Officer in the Naval History Directorate, Department of Defence, Canberra. He has written or contributed to many books and articles on naval history. Among his works is the reference book, The Royal Australian Navy: ships, aircraft and shore establishments (Sydney: Navy Public Affairs, 1996). Richard Pelvin worked for ten years in the historical sections of the Army and Navy. He was also Curator of Official Records at the Australian War Memorial and has written and published widely on military, naval and aviation history.
In the morning of 8 December 1941 Japanese troops commenced landing in Northern Malaya. This assault was co-ordinated with the Japanese strike against the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (7 December, local time). As a consequence of these actions the Royal Australian Navy found itself facing a new enemy and fighting a new war. A war that was to last four years and see Australian ships and personnel operate across the vast expanse of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities six corvettes of the RAN had already been based at Singapore. Other vessels, including the cruiser HMAS Hobart, the destroyer HMAS Vampire and the sloop HMAS Yarra, were ordered back to Australian waters to help meet this new threat. Vampire formed part of the escort of HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse on their ill-fated sortie to attack Japanese landing forces at Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast. She rescued 225 survivors after both the capital ships had been sunk by Japanese naval aircraft.
After this disaster the Australian ships were heavily involved in escorting the troopships bringing reinforcements to Singapore, often in the face of severe Japanese air attacks. On one occasion Yarra lifted over 1300 survivors from the troopship Empress of Asia after it had been dive bombed and sunk. A few days prior to this, on 27 January, Vampirecarried out a spirited but unsuccessful attack on a superior Japanese landing force at Endau. An accompanying British destroyer, HMS Thanet, was sunk. Other ships carried out patrol and evacuation duties. After taking part in the evacuation of Singapore the Australian ships formed part of the force allocated for the naval defence of the Netherlands East Indies.
To remove a threat from their flank while attacking eastern Java the Japanese Navy launched a heavy air raid on Darwin, which was being used by the Allies as a staging point for reinforcements. The bombers hit the town, airfield and harbour facilities, sinking five merchant ships and the destroyer USS Peary. Many other vessels, including the hospital ship Manunda, were damaged. This was the first of many such raids.
In Javanese waters, on 27 February a combined Australian, British, American and Dutch striking force composed of five cruisers, including HMAS Perth, as well as a number of destroyers, engaged Japanese forces covering the approach of a landing force. In this action, the Battle of the Java Sea, the Allies lost two Dutch cruisers and three destroyers with damage to a British cruiser. Subsequently the Allied naval forces were ordered to withdraw from the Dutch East Indies. However, whilst attempting to reach Australia through Sunda Straits, Perth, accompanied by the cruiser USS Houston, RAN into a Japanese force landing troops in Bantam Bay. In the ensuing action both cruisers were sunk with heavy loss of life. Many of the survivors were to subsequently die as prisoners of war.
HMAS Perth displayed incredible fight while outnumbered by a superior force. The ship, superbly led by Captain Hector ‘Hec’ Waller was eventually sunk in the early hours of 1 March 1942.
The Australian built corvettes were able to withdraw successfully to Australia while the destroyer Vampire had reached Ceylon. Also fortunate was the destroyer HMAS Vendetta which had been immobilised and under repair in dry dock at Singapore at the time of the attack. She eventually reached Australia after an epic towing operation through enemy controlled waters. Less fortunate, the sloop Yarra which, whilst escorting a convoy south of Java, was surprised by a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron. Despite putting up a gallant fight she was overwhelmed and sunk on 4 March. The following month, on 9 April, Vampire was also sunk by Japanese carrier aircraft off Ceylon.
With the occupation of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies the strategic centre of gravity moved east. The Japanese, having occupied Rabaul and points on the northern New Guinea coast decided to occupy the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby. This would enable them to deny the Allies bases from which to attack Rabaul and also to threaten the RANs Pacific lines of communication. The Combined Operations Intelligence Centre, located in Melbourne, linking information from locally based signals intelligence units, Coastwatchers and aerial reconnaissance, issued an assessment on 25 April that a Japanese assault on Port Moresby was imminent.
On 1 May the cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Hobart and USS Chicago escorted by three American destroyers sailed from Hervey Bay to rendezvous with an American force built around the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Lexington. The Australian force, designated Task Force 44, reinforced with a fourth US destroyer and detached on 7 May to block the movement of any Japanese ships through the Jomard Passage. The force was bombed that day by Japanese aircraft incurring only superficial damage. Although no other enemy were sighted the presence of the Allied ships was influential in the Japanese decision to withdraw the Moresby Invasion force. Meanwhile US carrier aircraft had sunk the Japanese light carrier Shoho the same day.
In the action between the American and Japanese fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku on the 8th, the Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown badly damaged. Neither of the Japanese carriers were sunk though the Shokaku was badly damaged. Although the Japanese had inflicted greater losses in ships on the Allies they had not achieved their strategic objectives. Further, the Shokaku and Zuikaku had suffered such heavy losses in aircraft and personnel that they were not available for the Midway Operation in early June.
The combined effects of the battle of the Coral Sea, Midway and later the Solomons Campaign turned the tide of the Pacific War. Although no Australian vessels were present at the Battle of Midway, Australian naval signals intelligence played an important part in helping to monitor Japanese movements and intentions and passing this information onto the Americans at Pearl Harbor.
Just prior to the Midway Operation the Japanese again brought the war to Australia’ shores with an attack on Sydney Harbour by midget submarines. The accommodation ship HMAS Kuttabul was sunk alongside Garden Island but all three Japanese submarines were lost. This was not the first incursion by Japanese submarines into Australian waters. In January four minelaying boats had operated in northern Australian waters, laying mines off Darwin and in Torres Strait. One, the I-124, had been sunk by the corvette HMAS Deloraine, assisted by other RAN and US vessels. In February and March the submarine I-25 had launched its reconnaissance seaplane on flights over Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart before moving on to New Zealand and Fiji. Simultaneously, submarine operations off the west coast resulted in the sinking of two merchant vessels and attacks on three others.
The midget attack presaged a submarine campaign against shipping on Australia’s eastern coast which lasted from early June until August. Fourteen ships were attacked of which six were sunk. Convoys were introduced on the Australian east coast on 6 June. The Japanese submarines also shelled Sydney and Newcastle with little resultant damage. Further operations carried out in the first half of 1943 resulted in the loss of another eleven ships including the hospital ship Centaur.
While the first submarine campaign was being waged, plans were in hand to eject the Japanese from the Solomon Islands. On 7 August an Allied force landed on Guadalcanal. Naval support was provided by an Australian/American force of cruisers and destroyers, including HMAS Australia, Canberra and Hobart. Shortly after midnight on 9 August a Japanese cruiser squadron attacked the allied force sinking Canberra and three American cruisers. Although operations in the Solomons were to continue, further RAN involvement was limited, although valuable support was provided by Coastwatchers.
Later in August the Japanese landed at Milne Bay. Units of the RAN had convoyed troopships to the area and latter supported the defence of the area from the sea. On 29 August the new destroyer HMAS Arunta sank the Japanese submarine RO33 off Port Moresby, thereby removing a major threat to the logistic support for Australian troops. With the successful conclusion of the Milne Bay battle the RAN provided naval support for forces operating in northern New Guinea and commenced development of the string of bases that would be opened up along that coast to support the Allied advance. Operations included conducting hydrographic surveys, shore bombardments, t RAN sporting troops and providing logistic support.
December 1942 saw the commencement of Operation Lilliput, which over a six-month period saw the transportation of 60,000 tons of supplies and 3,802 troops from Milne Bay to Oro Bay, escorted by Australian corvettes. In March 1943 the Japanese suffered a major defeat when a reinforcement convoy heading for Lae was destroyed by Allied air attack in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Intelligence on this convoy was provided by the joint RAN /USN codebreaking organisation in Melbourne.
This same period saw a lesser but significant level of RAN activity in the area north and west of Darwin. While supporting commando operations in Timor the destroyer HMAS Voyager was lost in September 1942 as was the corvette HMAS Armidale in December. With the withdrawal of the commandos the RAN continued to support covert operations in the area by the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) which were maintained until the end of the War. In September 1943 SRD operatives in small boats carried out Operation Jaywick, successfully attacking Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour. They had been t RAN sported there in a small captured fishing vessel, the Krait. In late 1944 another covert attack on Singapore Harbour was mounted by the SRD but was to end in disaster. Throughout the war the RAN units based on Darwin were also to provide support for settlements, missions, airfields and other military installations in the area. On 22 January 1943, while undertaking one of these voyages, the stores carrier HMAS Patricia Cam was bombed and sunk.
As 1943 and 1944 progressed Australian ships were involved in the campaigns to oust the Japanese from West New Guinea and adjacent islands. In the succession of landings carried out the cruisers and destroyers carried out bombardments and provided seaward cover. The corvettes escorted merchant ships through the area. The armed merchant cruisers HMAS Manoora, Kanimbla and Westralia were converted to Landing ships Infantry (LSI). As such they were to take part in many of the amphibious operations such as those at Hollandia, Biak, Aitape and Morotai which brought the Allies closer to the Philippines.
In July 1943 the cruisers were detached from the 7th Fleet for operations in the Solomons area. Enroute to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Hobart was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and put out of action for nearly two years. In the previous month the heavy cruiser Shropshire had been transferred from the Royal Navy as a replacement for Canberra.
Captain John A Collins CB RAN assumed command of HMAS Shropshire on 7 April 1943 and she commissioned as HMAS Shropshire at Chatham on 20 April 1943.
Morotai was taken in September 1944 and from there the landings in Leyte were mounted. The LSIs landed American troops at Panaon while the covering forces included Australia, Shropshire, Arunta and her sister ship HMAS Warramunga. Survey work was carried out by the frigate HMAS Gascoyne. On 20 October a Japanese aircraft crashed into Australia causing heavy damage and casualties and forcing her withdrawal with Warramunga as escort.
In the Battle of Surigao Strait on 25 October Shropshire and Arunta formed part of the large American force formed around six battleships which overwhelmed a much smaller Japanese battle squadron attempting to attack the amphibious forces. Shropshire engaged the battleship Yamashiro with gunfire while Arunta carried out a torpedo attack. Surigao Strait was the last action fought using the traditional battle line. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which it was part, remains the largest naval battle in history and saw the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy as a fighting force.
In January 1945 the Allies commenced the invasion of Lingayen. Australia, now repaired, Shropshire, Arunta and Warramunga carried out bombardment duties while Manoora, Kanimbla and Westralia landed troops. The sloop HMAS Warrego and the frigate HMAS Gascoyne performed escort duties and carried out survey tasks in Lingayen Gulf. The Allied ships came under frequent air attack, especially from kamikaze aircraft. Gascoyne and Westralia were near missed and Arunta damaged. Australia, however, was grievously damaged when, between 5 and 9 January, she was hit five times. She continued to carry out her bombardment duties until ordered to retire with Arunta on 9 January. The other vessels continued operations in the area until March, by which time the repaired cruiser Hobart had rejoined.
At this time the British Pacific Fleet commenced operations in the Pacific. The RAN was initially represented by the destroyers HMA Ships Quickmatch and Quiberon as well as a number of corvettes. Later the destroyers HMA Ships Napier, Norman, Nizam and Nepal joined. All of these vessels had previously served in the Indian Ocean with the British Eastern Fleet. The destroyers had taken part in attacks on Japanese oil installations in Sumatra and the N Class vessels had supported the Army in Burma. The corvette HMAS Launceston had sunk the submarine RO 110 off Vizagapatam. The destroyers saw service in support of the Okinawa operations in April while the corvettes formed two minesweeping flotillas.
The RAN ‘s last operations in the Pacific were those in support of Australian troops in the landings at Tarakan, Brunei and Balikpapan in May, June and July respectively. As before the cruisers and destroyers provided gunfire support, troops were landed from the three LSIs and the sloops, frigates and corvettes carried out patrol, escort and surveying duties. RAN vessels, especially the smaller motor launches, were also active in the final operations in New Guinea waters.
Upon the conclusion of the war the RAN played a significant part in the arrangements for the surrender of various Japanese forces in South East Asia and the South West Pacific. Minesweeping continued for a number of years after the surrender and Australian service personnel and prisoners of war from around the region were repatriated.
The Pacific War saw an expansion of the infrastructure necessary to support wide ranging naval operations. Defensive minefields were laid in Australian, New Zealand and New Guinea waters. Harbour defence systems were established around Australia and forward operating bases provided logistic support to ships close to the combat areas. The manufacture of mines, torpedoes, guns and ammunition was undertaken as was the development and construction of sophisticated electrical equipment.
Shipbuilding, repair and maintenance facilities were greatly expanded, including the construction of the Captain Cook Graving Dock at Garden Island. Three destroyers, twelve frigates and sixty corvettes as well as numerous smaller vessels were built. A large number of merchant ships were converted for naval purposes and many others were defensively armed and given mine countermeasures. Most of this work was carried out by the men and women of the unarmed forces who worked in the factories and dockyard around Australia.
Women were enlisted into the Navy for the first time and helped provide many of the support functions so desperately needed by a navy at war. Some of these women played an invaluable, and largely unrecognised, role in supporting the large intelligence organisation that had been established. One, Ruby Boye, also served as a Coastwatcher at Vanikoro from February 1942 to October 1944. Before the end of the war the peak strength of the RAN had reached 39,650 with approximately 337 vessels ranging from cruisers to motor launches in service.
In proportion to its size the RAN made a significant contribution to the Allied effort in the war against Japan. This was more noticeable in the earlier days of the war when operations were taking place in Australia’s proximity and before the United States was able to fully deploy its manpower and industrial strength. The amphibious operations, survey, minesweeping, convoy and patrol tasks from late 1942 to 1945 tend to be overlooked yet they were all essential components in the exercise of sea power and ultimately the war in the Pacific was a maritime campaign.
By David Stratton, Hugh Farmer and Dennis Weatherall
At the end of the War in the Pacific in August 1945 the strength of the Royal Australian Navy was 36,976 men and women and 337 vessels ranging in size from cruisers to motor launches. During the course of the War it had grown from less than 5,000 personnel in December 1938 and 16 major ships. Of the 337 in service in August 1945, 57 ships were deployed in the archipelagos of the Western Pacific Ocean north of Australia.
As hostilities concluded these ships were assigned a variety of tasks which included; ferrying participants to or conducting surrender ceremonies, internee and POW repatriation, transporting troops and stores, landing occupation forces and mine sweeping operations. The following table records the location of individual ships and their employment during the weeks immediately before and after the formal Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.
|Disposition and Employment of Royal Australian Navy Ships: September 1945
|Tokyo, Japan||2/9/1945||Task Group 70-9
|The Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed on board the battleship USS Missouri. There was a total of 258 warships of all types from all the Allied nations which had been at war with Japan.
RAN ships entered Tokyo Bay on 29 August as Task Group 70.9 within the Third Fleet.
Commodore John Collins was one of the Australian representatives at the ceremony on USS Missouri.
Following the ceremony RAN ships assisted with the repatriation of Allied prisoners or war. Hobart and Warramunga then sailed for Sydney while Shropshireand Bataan remained in Japanese waters until November. It was during this period that the Commanding Officer of HMAS Bataan learned of the existence of HMAS Perth survivors taken from Tokushima Camp.
|Rabaul, Papua New Guinea||6/9/1945||Vendetta
|The Instrument of Surrender for the Japanese South East Area Forces was signed on board the aircraft Carrier HMS Glory.
AWM Video: Surrender ceremony on board HMS Glory
HMAS Vendetta embarked Brigadier Sheehan and his staff, and the Naval Officer-in-Charge, New Guinea, and his staff on 2 September before proceeding Rabaul to meet envoys from General Imamura to arrange details of the formal surrender. Vendetta remained in New Britain waters until 11 September when she proceeded for New Guinea. On return to Sydney 3 October was decommissioned on 5 October.
HMAS Dubbo was employed in preliminary minesweeping operations returned in the Solomons area prior to the surrender and later in New Britain waters. She returned to Australia in October to begin a long refit at Brisbane.
HMAS Lithgow had earlier supported land operations in the Solomons before conducting minesweeping operations until the end of September. Her active war career ended on return to Sydney 1 November 1945.
HMAS Townsville was among RAN ships which supported the Japanese surrender aboard HMS Glory. She later joined the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla clearing minefields laid in Australian coastal waters and the New Guinea /Solomons region.
|HMAS Burdekin was the venue for the surrender of all Japanese forces in Dutch Borneo to Major General Milford, G.O.C., 7th Australia Division. She arriving at Balikpapan on the 8th to embarked General Milford and his staff, and a number of Army, RAAF and US Navy officers. A surrender table had been arranged on the starboard side of Burdekin’s quarterdeck.
HMAS Gascoyneserved in New Guinea waters from June 1945 until her eventual return to Sydney on 5 January 1946. During this time Gascoyne was engaged in escort duties and the seizure by Australian forces of the Balikpapan area in Borneo, including bombardment support for the troops ashore. In September she took part in the surrender of Japanese forces in Borneo. She was used to transport the Commanding General of the Japanese 2nd Armyfrom the Celebes to Balikpapan on the first stage of his journey to Morotai to surrender to General Blamey. The remainder of 1945 was spent transporting troops and stores, a service which took the frigate into the Moluccas, Halmaheras, Borneo and Timor.
|HMAS Bundaberg, following the cessation of hostilities, from 16 August was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to contact the Japanese at Ambon with the object of obtaining the release of Allied war prisoners. These men were liberated some three weeks later.
On 9 September Bundaberg, was at Labuan, North Borneo, with a force of RAN vessels including HMAS Kapunda for the surrender of Japanese forces in the North Borneo area.
The Japanese surrender of the was signed on board Kapunda at Kuching on 11 September 1945. After the Surrender Bundaberg participated in the landing of occupation forces at Kuching, and in the evacuation of prisoners of war from that port to Labuan. On return to Australia Bundaberg was paid off.
HMAS Kapunda assisted with the evacuation of Allied prisoners of war from Kuching following the end of the hostilities. As the headquarters ship at Kuching she provided the venue for the official surrender ceremony of the Japanese forces in the area with Major General Yamamura signing the instrument of surrender for Japanese forces in East Borneo. The surrender instrument was signed in the presence of Brigadier Eastlick, AIF.
Kapunda returning to Sydney on 17 November 1945 and was paid off into Reserve on 14 January 1946.
Ocean Island, Kiribati
|HMAS Diamantina, after completion in April 1945 commissioning and workup operated in New Guinea and adjacent waters. After the conclusion of hostilities, it was involved in transporting Japanese senior officers to from South Bougainville to Torokina where the surrender ceremony for Bougainville was conducted on 8 September 1945.
Diamantina then proceeded to Nauru where she hosted the surrender of Nauru onboard and a that of Ocean Island on 1 October 1945. Australian, British and New Zealand officials were embarked for both ceremonies. She returned to Sydney in December.
|HMAS Moresby departed Darwin on 7 September 1945 in support of Operation TOFO, the surrender for all Japanese Forces in Timor. Embarked in Moresby were the Senior Naval Officer of the operation Commander GL Cant, RAN, and Brigadier LGH Dyke, CBE, DSO, who had been appointed to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in Timor or controlled from Timor. Sailing in company with Moresby were HMA Ships Horsham, Benalla, Echuca, Parkes, Katoomba, Kangaroo, Bombo and the Harbour Defence Motor Launches (HDML) 1322, 1324 and 1329. In the convoy also were the Dutch minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen and the transport Van den Bosch.
Enroute to Timor the convoy was joined by the corvettes HMAS Warrnambool and Gladstone increasing the RAN presence. On 11 September the convoy arrived at the appointed rendezvous off Koepang and two Japanese officers boarded Moresby for interrogation regarding the location of minefields and underwater obstructions. On completion of the interrogation the convoy entered harbour in column with Abraham Crijnssen sweeping ahead of the line of ships all of which were closed up at action stations. After all ships anchored off Koepang the Japanese army and navy commanders boarded Moresby and were escorted to the quarterdeck for the surrender ceremony.
HMAS Moresby was again present on 3 October 1945 for another surrender ceremony which took place ashore at Koepang. On this occasion Lt. General Yamada surrendered a force of about 36,000 men who made up the Japanese forces in the entire Lesser Sunda Islands.
|Hong Kong||16/9/1945||Task Force 111.2
21st Minesweeping Flotilla
22nd Minesweeping Flotilla
|In mid-August 1945 eight RAN Corvettes assigned to British Task Force 111.2 under the command of Rear Admiral Harcourt worked up as minesweeping flotilla between 21 and 26 August at Subic Bay.
Unfortunately for HMAS Stawell which had recently sunk a Japanese barge was denied the Hong Kong operation and remained in Subic Bay as the British Naval Liaison Officer for the port. The task group sailed for Hong Kong on 27 August and commenced sweeping operations on 29 August.
The British Naval Squadron entered Hong Kong on 30th August 1945.
During succeeding days more RAN corvettes arrived in Hong Kong to carry out minesweeping, anti-piracy, anti-piracy and other duties.
These were the, the 21st and 22nd Minesweeping Flotillas.
The Japanese surrender in Hong Kong took place at Government House, Hong Kong on 16 September 1945. Senior Japanese officers surrendered the territory to British officers led by Rear Admiral Jepson and witnessed by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. The Japanese representatives were Major General Unekichi Okada and Vice Admiral Uitaaro Fujita.
|New Ireland, Papua New Guinea||18/9/1945||Swan||HMAS Swan was undergoing its third refit of the war when Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945. In September 1945 Swan proceeded to New Ireland and there on 18 September 1945 embarked General Eather, General Officer Commanding the Australian 11th Division, and his staff. On board on the same day at Namatani, General Eather accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in New Ireland from General Ito, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief.
From 16 October 1945 the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla was reformed with Swan as Flotilla Leader for mine clearance operations in Australian, New Guinea and Solomon Islands waters. This vital post war work kept Swan almost constantly at sea until 16 August 1948.
|After the capitulation of Japan these ships were involved in the recovery of internees and prisoners of war and the landing of an occupation force on Ambon on 22 September 1945.|
|HMAS Hawkesbury, after supporting landings in Borneo, escort duties in the Netherlands East Indies and the bombardment of Japanese occupied islands she undertook a short refit in Sydney. She then escorted the repatriation transport MV Duntroon to Singapore and was present for the surrender of Singapore on 3 October 1945. She remained in Singapore until 20 September awaiting the embarkation of Australian prisoners of war.
- Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945, Collins in Association with the AWM, 1968
John Bastock, Australia’s Ships of War, Anngus and Robertson, 1975
Sea Power Centre Australia, Ship Histories, available at https://www.navy.gov.au/fleet/ships-boats-craft/available-ship-histories, accessed 22 July 2020
Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships, Australian War memorial, available at https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/AWM78/, accessed 28 July 2020Occasiona
The Society was recently gifted a package of assorted papers and photographs collected by the late Petty officer Arthur James Collins.
Collins was called up in January 1938 and served in the following HMA Ships; Australia, Albatross, Hobart and Voyager and various shore establishments.
He was discharged physically unfit for naval service in July 1944. Interestingly, whilst serving in Voyager he was one of the volunteers who participated in Operation Hush Hush, the aborted attempt to block German oil supplies through the Danube River and devised by LCDR Ian Fleming RNVR and subsequently the author of the James Bond books.
Voyager was one of the Scrap Iron Flotilla which, considering that it comprised destroyers of WWI vintage, had a very busy and productive time in the Mediterranean Sea in the early part of WW2.
Amongst the papers of Petty Officer Collins’ collection was a set of three copied pages of signals which we presume were given to all crew members when the Flotilla left the Mediterranean to return to Sydney. They have been reproduced below and show the high regard in which the Flotilla was held.
22nd August 1941
The Commander-in-Chief, having come alongside unexpectedly with the ‘Affirmative’ showing, came onboard and asked that lower deck be cleared. This was done and the Admiral said:-
“Well, you’re off home. And I didn’t think I could allow your ship to leave without coming onboard to say a few words of goodbye to you.
You have been here nearly two years. You came in the piping day of peace.
“STUART” and the 4 other Australian destroyers formed the most substantial part of the Mediterranean Fleet, and I kept you fairly busy.
I think I said to your Captain at the time “You needn’t worry, no great war every took place without spreading to the Mediterranean” and sure enough it did.
You have done splendidly. If I were to
enumerate all the operations you have taken part in and all you have done, you would never leave Alexandria, it would take so long. One or two, however, I would like to mention.
I seem to remember, that time off the coast of Italy, when I ordered the “STUART” and the remaining Australian destroyers to go and look after the “EAGLE”. The next thing I saw was “STUART” leading the van of the destroyers after the Italian Fleet. I said “that damn fellow ought to be court martialed”. But you see, he wasn’t.
If ever there was a submarine reported, I always said “send out the “STUART”.
Later on, I remember, you had a wild night at Matapan, I always wondered, when the other destroyers were sent off and “STUART” was left behind to look after the battle wagon. – I always wondered what you were saying! However, you had a night to make up for it.
I am very grateful to you for what you have done and for the example you have undoubtedly set.
A special word for the Black Squad – the Engine Room Department. They have done magnificently to keep these ships going and I am grateful to them too. Every destroyer was most valuable and had to be keep running.
We shall miss you here. The whole Fleet will part with you with great regret. We are very proud to have had you with us, and I hope you are proud to have been in the Mediterranean Fleet.
I hope you will have a very happy home coming, and that the folk down under will give you the welcome you deserve. “Good bye to you all”
As the Barge passed the stern of STUART on its way back to Admiralty House, the Commander-in-Chief stood up in the boat and waved his cap to STUART and the assembled ship’s company.
Rear-Admiral (D) said;
“I know the Commander-in-Chief has been over and said a few words to you all, so there’s not much for me to say, but as Rear-Admiral (D) I cannot let you go without coming over to see you and say goodbye.
I am sincerely grateful for the splendid service you have all done. The particular service you have been employed on since I have been here has been no easy one, but it has been cheerfully tackled by your Flotilla. You can leave with the feeling that your duty has been well and truly done.
I wish you a pleasant voyage home and a happy leave when you get there. I would be glad to see every single one of you back with me again. I hear I may see your Captain here again very soon.
Give my love to Australia and I hope you have a good time when you get there.”
Copy of Message sent by Commander -in-Chief, Mediterranean to
The Australian Commonwealth Naval Board
“It is with great regret that we part with HMAS STUART form the Mediterranean Station. Under the distinguished command of Captain Waller she has an unsurpassed record of gallant achievement. She has taken a leading part in all the principal operations of the Mediterranean Fleet and has never been called up in vain for any difficult job. The work of her engine room department in keeping this old ship efficient and in good running order has been beyond all praise.
The Mediterranean Fleet is poorer by the departure of this fine little ship and her gallant ship’s company.”
Time of origin 1102/23 Aug.1941
From Vice-Admiral, 1st Battle Squadron
“Goodbye, and good luck, I trust you will have the good time you deserve after all you have done here”.
From Read-Admiral (D)
“Wish you a good trip and a happy leave”.
“Goodbye and I hope a good leave”.
From HMS Queen Elizabeth
“Au revoir. May you all have the good time you so richly deserve after your exceptionally good work with the Mediterranean Fleet. Everyone misses you and I doubt if Tobruk will be able to carry on without you”.
From HMS Valiant
“The best of luck to you all”.
From HMS Medway and 1st Submarine Flotilla
From Captain (D) 7.
“Goodbye. I hope we meet again before many years”.
From HMS Neptune
“Good bye and good luck. You have a long way to hop”.
HMAS Stuart survived the war.
HMAS Vampire was sunk in the Indian Ocean in 1942
HMAS Vendetta survived the war.
HMAS Voyager was wrecked when she beached on Timor in 1942
HMAS Waterhen was sunk in the Mediterranean in 1941
SCRAP IRON DESTROYERS by L J Lind and A Payne, published by The Naval Historical Society of Australia Inc. Garden Island, Sydney, NSW. ISBN 0 909153 04 3 1976
 Between January 1940 and August 1941, the Australian Destroyer Flotilla served in the Mediterranean Sea as the 19th Destroyer Division with the Mediterranean Fleet. Ships of the Flotilla included Stuart (I) and the four aging V and W Class destroyers Vampire (I), Vendetta (I), Voyager (I) and Waterhen (I). The Flotilla was under the command of Commander HML Waller RAN (Commander (D)), in HMAS Stuart. Derisively nicknamed the ‘Scrap-Iron Flotilla’ by German propaganda, the Australian ships rapidly made their mark and gained the respect of both the Commander-In-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet and other Commanders.
 The Commander in Chief Mediterranean was Admiral Sir Andrew Browne (Viscount) Cunningham. His biography is available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrew-Browne-Cunningham
 The biography of HMAS Stuart’s Commanding Officer, Captain Hector ‘Hec’ MacDonald Laws Waller is available at, https://www.navy.gov.au/biography/captain-hector-%E2%80%98hec%E2%80%99-macdonald-laws-waller
 This book will be republished by the Naval Historical Society of Australia in electronic format in late 2020/early 2021.
By Dennis J Weatherall JP TM AFAITT(L) LSM – Volunteer Researcher
HMAS Assault, also known as the Amphibious Training Centre to American personnel, was a combined operations establishment for training Allied personnel in all aspects of amphibious warfare. It also provided operational and logistics support to amphibious units of the Royal Australian Navy. During its short three-year commission (September 1942 to August 1945) more than 22,000 personnel undertook training which was essential for the successful repulsion of Japanese forces from the Pacific Islands. This paper provides insight into its establishment, roles, challenges confronted and personnel who played a significant role in contributing to victory in the Pacific.
In 1942 Australian Forces were heavily committed to the War against Germany and its Allies in Europe then in its third year. As in WWI, RAN units were under the command of the Admiralty and employed against Italy in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. The Japanese had entered the war in Australia’s own area of interest with the invasion of South East Asian countries and the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Following the rapid Japanese conquest by the Japanese of Malaya and the “Fall of Fortress Singapore” on 15th February, Australia found itself threatened for the first time since British settlement. The subsequent Japanese advance through the Dutch East Indies and islands in the South-West Pacific basin brought WWII to the Australian mainland on 19 February 1942 with the bombing of Darwin.
However, by early 1942, the Allies were already planning for the invasion of Europe and had successfully established a “Combined Operations Command”. Australian planners then urged the Australian Government to seek British assistance with information and expertise to establish a similar Australian Directorate. This was essential if Japanese forces were to be repelled from the Pacific Islands. Fortuitously service by many Australians in all three British Services meant there was a pool of experienced Australian available to return home with a small number of British Officers for the task of establishing an indigenous amphibious capability.
The officers seconded to establish an Australian “Combined Operations Base” were; Commander T. W. Cook RAN (ex CO HMS Tormentor British Combined Operations School) , Lieutenant Colonel M. Hope – Royal Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel T. K. Walker – Royal Marines, Wing Commander A.M. Murdoch – RAAF, Lieutenant Commander H. George – RANVR, and Lieutenant D. Richardson – RANVR. All had “Combined Operations” experience and understood the importance of an amphibious capability to push the Japanese out of New Guinea, Borneo, Bougainville and occupied islands between Australia and Japan.
In June 1942, the Defence planners made a strong recommendation for the formation of the Australian “Combined Operations Directorate” to be set up in Melbourne. On 5 June, 1942 the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, Captain Frank Getting RAN, Commander Cook and Lieutenant Colonel Hope met with General Macarthur’s Brigadier Chamberlain in General Macarthur’s Headquarters, then located in Melbourne. They were informed that any such “Combined Operations” in Australia would come under the command of Macarthur. There was agreement on an immediate start to train three Divisions – one Australian and two American – in amphibious warfare. The RAN was also to produce one third of the total number of crews required and also provide all naval means (craft and crews) for soldiers undergoing training.
An immediate task for CMDR Cook and LT COL Hope was to find a suitable location to establish the training base. They took to the air and eventually decided that Fly Point in Port Stephens, NSW as an ideal location. A ground inspection confirmed the decision. Then followed the construction from scratch of a shore base in the scrub country away from prying eyes. Training for all facets of amphibious operations (sea, land the air) could be conducted in the immediate vicinity. From a security perspective, Port Stephens being a small fishing village with little other activity in the area, the location was ideal.
No time was lost awaiting the building of the base. The Auxiliary Merchant Cruiser HMAS Westralia was loaned as an accommodation vessel from 21 August, 1942 and on 1 September, 1942 HMAS Assault was actually commissioned in Westralia with 24 Officers and 280 Seamen Trainees. HMAS Westralia was then designated as a Landing Ship Infantry when she arrived in Port Stephens on 3 September 1942.
It was hoped at the time that Westralia’s sister ships HMA Ships Manora and Kanimbla would also be made available as LSI’s and fitted out with landing craft. Provision was made in planning for these ships to be made available and Flinders Naval Depot made aware of the requirement for trained ratings as they finished their basic training. The Naval Board was supportive and the training pipeline to HMAS Assault commenced.
At the same time, the requirement for landing craft was presented to the Naval Board. It was recommended that these be built locally as they could not be delivered off-the-shelf. Until purpose-built craft were available, training was undertaken in nine motor boats requisitioned from civilian sources. These were referred to by the sailors as the “Hollywood Fleet”. Folding- boats were provided by the Army.
The base was designed from ground up with layout the was first consideration. Accommodation for all personnel, moorings, piers, slipways, maintenance facilities all had to be built in a virgin bushland setting 125 miles north of Sydney.
On 1 October 1943, one year after commissioning ashore it was reported that 100 Officers, 100 Coxswains, 453 Boat Crews, 250 Stokers, 40 Landing Craft Signalmen and 120 Naval Beach Party Commandos had been trained. As it took until 10 December 1942 to complete all buildings the majority many trainees and staff were accommodated in HMAS Westralia for the first three months. Some 90 officers and men were transferred to a Queensland Army Camp at Toorbul following their training. They were then used to train soldiers in certain phases of amphibious warfare. This camp was later taken over by the American Forces and the Australians reposted to Assault.
The roles of HMAS Assault were to train;
- Officers and ratings for boat crews,
- Naval Commandos for beach parties,
- combined operations signal teams, both Naval and Army with spares posted to the LSI vessels,
- act as a base for LSI’s arranging transport, victualling, spares and repairs,
- designated Commanding Naval Officers to also be Naval Officer in Command of a post.
By 1 October 1943 all three LSIs had been supplied with Assault trained Officers and Boat Crews, along with Beach Commandos, with a factor of 25% spare trained personnel.
On 1 October 1943 HMAS Assault commenced a new phase in its evolution. With its training role mature and sufficient personnel trained to commence amphibious landings to re-take Japanese occupied territory the new role was logistics support. This involved;
- operating as a stores depot supplying spare parts for the landing craft carried on the LSI’s,
- operating as a pool depot for a reserve of trained combined operations personnel, and
- assisting with the base’s trained boat crews in training US soldiers passing through the Amphibious Training Centre (ATC).
The ATC was the American organisation responsible for training assault troops and to which HMAS Assault was responsible. Some 22,000 men from various services received amphibious training including 2,000 Australians. The remainder were all US Servicemen.
As expected, trainees who had completed their training at Assault had to wait for postings to the LSI’s and in some cases, subject to their wait time, had to be brought back for various refresher courses. This occurred when such trained personnel had returned to their previous establishments to awaiting a billet on an LSI. As the Assault expanded and more accommodation became available trained personnel were kept onboard Assault and kept in training until posted to sea.
In the early stages of developing HMAS Assault, there was a shortage of actual landing craft until the locally-built Australian craft were delivered. This shortage made training in craft handling difficult. Until December 1942, only two LCA’s (Landing Craft Assault) were actually operational at the base and the requisition civilian craft (nothing like a LCA) were used in conjunction with the two LCA’s. Although not ideal, training continued with what was available. Whilst allowing crews to experience handling twin screw boats, these civilian craft couldn’t replicate running ashore and beaching craft in all conditions of weather and sea states.
On 14 December 1942 sufficient American landing craft arrived for the USN Advanced Landing Craft Base, the name of the American base at Port Stephens. Following delivery of these craft training in all conditions could be undertaken. The Port was an excellent location as within the immediate area and along the coast were steep and shallow, sandy beaches, with or without surf, rock, mud and mangrove areas, all in close proximity to the base.
On 10 January 1943 the Australian-built LCA’s started to arrive. This allowed Assault to return five requisitioned craft to Sydney for deployment to other urgent tasks. On 20 March 1943 19 American landing craft were handed over to Assault control by the American Landing Force Equipment Depot (LFED). Finally there was sufficient craft of various types to provide instruction and gain experience.
In addition to the LSIs, Westralia and Manora, HMAS Assault had on its warrant list several other vessels. These were;
- HMAS Ping Wo, a tender for the transportation of water and stores for the LSIs. She was also used as a training ship. Ping Wo and was an ex Chinese River Steamer of 2,000 tons.
- HMAS Gumleaf, an ex Seine Trawler, 55 ft OA used for escort, patrol and salvage duties.
- HMA Ships Flying Cloud and Kweena, both Auxiliary Patrol Vessels’,
- A variety of landing craft:
- LST – Landing ship tank x 1 (US)
- LCI – Landing craft infantry x 12 (US)
- LCT – Landing craft tank x 4 (US)
- LCM – Landing craft mechanised x 7 (US), 4 loaned to “Assault”
- APC – Auxiliary patrol craft x 2 (US)
- LCV – Landing craft vehicle x 67 (US), 14 loaned to “Assault”
- LCP – Landing craft personnel x 15 (US), 1 loaned to “Assault”
- LCS – Landing craft support x 7 (US)
- LCA – Landing craft assault x 9 (AU)
- Motor boats x 4 (AU), of which 38 were under “Assault’s” control
- Three boat ramps for slipping, scraping and painting
The buildings ashore in HMAS Assault consisted of 67 structures. These were classified as “C” series-type unlined, galvanised iron huts. They were located 800 yards from the landing craft moorings and general pier area. They were described as hot in summer and freezing in winter, but this was nothing new in time of war!
The base was originally designed for 500 officers and men, but as many as 870 were housed, of which 70 were officers and 800 other ranks. As in the British counterpart establishments, roads were named after successful operations and buildings named after military personnel who had achieved success in Combined Operations to date in WWII.
A jetty to suit naval requirements was constructed using as its basis, an existing jetty on requisitioned land. It was altered and extended considerably to reach out 510 feet with a width of 12 feet, and at the end an L-shaped return of 162 feet which formed a boat compound. The outer perimeter of the jetty was enclosed with planking set 3” apart to act as a breakwater. The pier had a depth of 7 feet alongside at low water and could handle 5 ton loads with fuelling points located along its length.
Unfortunately, by late 1943 slipping facilities for the repair and painting of boats were found lacking. This was overcome by the employment of naval divers and by the end of the year the initial work started by civilian contractors was completed. The result was a working slipway and boat shed. Prior to completion, boats had to be slipped at Tea Gardens, some 3 miles distance, and only when the facilities there were available.
The Assault boat shed was 112 feet long x 30 feet wide, set up with a winch to haul boats, along with machinery for general maintenance. The slipway had a capacity of 25 tons but the depth of water limited the size of the vessel that could be slipped. At high water, it was reported only 4 feet 6 inches at the water end, and only 2 feet 6 inches at the shore side. It meant that only boats with an average draft of 3 feet 6 inches could be slipped, and only at high water. The solution would be to extend the slipway another 40 feet at the water end. However, no record could be found of this ever being done.
The slipway came with three cradles which allowed three boats to be lifted out of the water at any one time for maintenance.
Located nearby was the Engineers’ Work Shop, a building of 114 feet in length and width of 42 feet. It was well equipped with; lathes, milling machines, drills, shaping machines, a 60-ton hydraulic press, valve grinder, bench drills, punch shears and an electric welding unit.
One of the biggest problems for the base was spare parts for the overhaul of the landing craft engines, as these were mainly of US origin. Lack of the smallest part could keep a craft alongside for weeks and impact practical craft ship handling exercises.
HMAS Assault was well-located with quite a pleasant temperate climate. However, summer heat could make it more sub-tropical. Unlike bases situated in far Northern Queensland, there was little in the way of environmentally induced illness. The base had a capable hospital which treated mainly casualties from vigorous activities. On 24 May 1943 casualties from a PBY-Consolidated Catalina which crashed into Port Stephens were treated on base. Post WWII the base hospital became the Port Stephens civilian hospital.
Men came and trained, then left. The base had ample sporting facilities available to keep the trainees amused; swimming, surfing, fishing, along with cricket in summer and football in the winter months. In 1943, the Assault rugby team won the First Grade Newcastle League.
Like all bases in war time, religious observances were conducted by Navy Chaplains and the YMCA and Australian Comforts Fund people ran the recreation, with regular parties and entertainment.
The entire concept of establishing HMAS Assault was to train Australian and American sailors and soldiers in the art of amphibious warfare, and to get the Army conditioned to working with the Navy, and vice-versa. When the American Training Group was established the two facilities were combined and designated the ATC – Amphibious Training Centre. This took place in February 1943 under the overall command of the Commander South West Pacific Force, Rear Admiral Daniel E Barbey USN, who answered directly to General Macarthur.
This brought all such training in Australia under American command. From this time until training concluded US Marines, RAN sailors and US Army personnel served together on base.
Training at HMAS Assault was, to say the least, intense. It covered every conceivable aspect of amphibious landing operations to face the enemy on inhospitable landing sites. RAN sailors took part in all the courses, from assaulting beaches to coxswaining landing craft and other vessels of opportunity, not only to meet the enemy face on, but to learn clandestine skills for infiltrating enemy lines. The specially selected naval beach commandos were instructed in all makes and models of weapons and explosives, as well as hand-to-hand unarmed combat.
Lieutenant Donald Davidson RANVR was the chief instructor in hand-to-hand combat. No-one knew from where he originated but at war’s end those he trained knew where he’d been. He was training officer for those selected to be “Special Service Beach Commandos” and sailed on MV Krait, the Japanese fishing boat captured before Singapore surrendered. It was known as the “fishing boat that went to war”! LEUT Davidson was 2IC to Major Ivan Lyons in Krait. Before this Davidson had established the “Special Reconnaissance Department” based on Fraser Island, Queensland. He was later a member of the ill-fated ‘Rimau’ raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore. LEUT Davison was severely wounded in this operation and holed up on Tapai Island. So he wasn’t taken prisoner and tortured for what he knew he took his ‘last resort’ cyanide tablet carried by operatives. Major Lyons died in a fire fight on Soren Island, it’s said whilst holding off over one hundred Japanese soldiers.
Many HMAS Assault trainees went to various postings in the three LSIs. There they operated their landing craft in operations to expel Japanese forces from conquered territory. Some were employed in the Special Operations with Lyons and Davidson, others were posted to US Military Small Ships and even wore US Army uniform. They served on these small vessels throughout the South West Pacific theatre as far as Japan until the end of hostilities.
In early March 1944, training at Assault ceased. It had served its purpose well. On 4 August 1944 the base was designated to “care and maintenance” and manning was reduced to just one officer and twenty-four other rates.
After the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Monday 6 August 1945 and three days later the second A-Bomb on Nagasaki the Japanese surrendered and so ended WWII when General Macarthur signed the surrender in Tokyo Bay onboard USS Missouri on Sunday 2 September 1945.
On 7 August 1945 HMAS Assault was decommissioned but not abandoned – it was transferred to the Royal Navy and used as the shore depot for the British Pacific Fleet, known also as the “Phantom Fleet”.
- RAN website HMAS Assault – history
- Sailor & Commando – A.E. Ted Jones, 1942-46, Hesperian Press ISBN 0 85905253 2
- Commanding Officers’ Monthly Reports to the Secretary, Naval Office Melbourne
- Australian War Memorial Canberra – website
- Photographs from various sites – public accessible
- National Archives – Canberra
- Huddart Parker Shipping Company History