- Betty, John G, Lieutenant, RANVR Ret’d
- Naval technology, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
During the early days of the Pacific War the only available facilities for the dry-docking of vessels beyond the established bases at Pearl Harbour and Sydney were the old graving dock at Kangaroo Point in the Brisbane River (built in 1881) and a 1,000 ton capacity floating dry-dock in Darwin Harbour. For the most part, RAN ships working with the US Seventh Fleet could and did use the facilities for minor servicing but for major work the ships returned to Brisbane or Sydney. Australian ships attached to the RN Far East Fleet were able to make use of the RN docking facilities at Trincomalee. But for servicing the smaller ships of the RAN working along the north Australian coastline and in the Timor and Arafura Seas, the floating dry-dock at Darwin was a godsend.
Darwin’s Elusive Floating Dry Dock
The air raid on Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942 has become one of the defining points in Australian history, as it was the first time that the mainland had been attacked by a foreign aggressor. The news of the raid and its devastating consequences was withheld from the Australian public initially on security grounds and, with the later occurrence of more dramatic events, it faded into the background. It is only in recent years that details of the raid and of subsequent raids (64 in all) have gradually emerged. Contemporary photographs of Darwin Harbour show, amongst the burning and sinking ships, an apparently unscathed floating dry-dock. In this dock was the corvette (AMS) HMAS Katoomba firing steadily at the attacking Japanese planes with her single 4 inch gun and two 20mm Oerlikons, the incident being graphically portrayed in an impressionist painting by Keith Swain. ((Japanese Air Attack on Darwin Harbour, 19 February 1942. Oil painting by Keith Swain. AWM 28075))
In all the accounts of the raid which give a list of the ships in the harbour, there are several references to Katoomba and its reaction to the raid but there is no mention of the floating dry-dock itself. It was as if she did not exist. In making enquiries about this dock one came up against a blank wall. Who owned the dock? Why was it there? Where did it come from? Where did it go after the War? These were questions no one could readily answer. Tracing its history has been a lengthy and, at times frustrating, task but eventually a fascinating tale emerged about a ‘much travelled’ lady and her ‘stay-at-home’ sister and their important role in World War II.
The Raid on Darwin
In the early hours of the morning of 19 February 1942, Katoomba was involved in a collision with the US tanker Pecos just outside Darwin Harbour. Holed on the port side and making water, she was in danger of sinking. Secured alongside her sister ship HMAS Lithgow, she was towed into Darwin and immediately taken into the floating dry-dock. The docking procedures had just been completed when the Japanese struck.
The Japanese attack came in two waves. The dock and the Katoomba were ‘sitting ducks’ and extremely vulnerable. Nearly all the ships anchored near the floating dry-dock were either damaged or sunk but for some unknown reason, apart from a single strafing run begun by a low-flying Zero but quickly broken off, the dock was not attacked. Was it because of Katoomba’s spirited defence or was it because the Japanese hoped to make use of the dock when they eventually captured Darwin?
The Royal Australian Navy’s Floating Dry-Docks
During World War II, the Royal Australian Navy had two floating dry-docks built to service its growing fleet. The first, AD 1001, was built by Morts Dock and Engineering Co. Ltd. in Balmain, Sydney, in 1944. The first dock was apparently ordered when the threat from the North became apparent; the second was most probably built to join the Fleet Train being assembled for the British Pacific Fleet. The docks were built to a British design and had a maximum lift of 1,000 tons on a draught of 7’4” (2.23m) and the maximum depth of water above the keel blocks was 16ft (4.88m). A diesel powered generator was installed in the port wall of the dock and a two-ton SWL (Safe Working Load) travelling crane was mounted on the starboard wall, making the docks largely independent of shore-based services. The time required to lower the empty dock and to raise the dock with the maximum load of 1,000 tons was 90 minutes in both cases. The docks were capable of being towed to any area. ((Report of the Superintending Naval Architect, Garden Island. H. Bruce Owen, Naval Architect. Design dated 9 March 1966))
The first dock (AD 1001) was built on the old Moar’s Slip adjacent to Evans Deakin’s shipyard in Cairns Street, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane ((EDCO House Journal Vol. XVII. Evans Deakin & Co. Brisbane 1957)). Under construction at the same time on the slipway were the corvettes (AMSs) Townsville, Launceston and Ipswich. The floating dock was the third vessel to be laid down at the new shipyard on 4 November 1940 – Rocklea, a 1,200 dwt oil fuel lighter being laid down on 27 July 1940 and the corvette Townsville also on 4 November 1940. At the time there was no plate shop at Kangaroo Point and the steelwork for the lighter, the dock and the corvettes was fabricated at Evans Deakin’s works at Rocklea and transported by road to the slipways.
The dock was launched on 24 April 1941. Following an acceptance test on 3 September 1941 involving the trial docking of the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Tambar (456 tons, a coastal steamer commissioned by the Navy in November 1939) the dock was handed over to the RAN on 3 October 1941.
The Dock in Darwin
Immediately after acceptance the dock left Brisbane (6 October 1941) under tow from the tugs Carlock and Beaver for Darwin via Cairns and Thursday Island, a tow of about 2,000 nautical miles, arriving in Darwin on 2 November 1941. Two other ships, HMA Ships Coongoola and Moruya, remained in company for the duration of the voyage. It appears that HMAS Westralia escorted the vessels to Cairns and again on the final leg from Thursday Island to Darwin. HMAS Maryborough acted as escort from Cairns to Thursday Island. On arrival in Darwin, the dock was moored in East Arm about 800m SSW from Jetty Light ((Information from the Naval Historical Section, Canberra, relayed to author by Ian Affleck, Australian War Memorial, 12 June 1996.)).
At the end of hostilities, her services being no longer required in Darwin, in December 1945 AD 1001 was towed back to Brisbane. The important part played by this largely overlooked unit of the RAN in the defence of Northern Australia is shown by the 251 dockings carried out during the period November 1941 to September 1945 ((HMAS Melville War Diary (Extract). Australian War Memorial Archives, Canberra. AWM 78)).
Details of the return tow have not been found but on arrival AD 1001 lay for a period alongside the fitting-out dock at Evans Deakin’s Shipyard where she was built. In February 1947 she was handed over to the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing for care and maintenance. Over the next five and a half years she was not used and was moored in various locations in the Brisbane River.
Transfer to Port Phillip
In 1952 the dock was leased to the Melbourne Harbour Trust for the construction of the concrete caissons for the breakwater extension at the Breakwater Pier. On 3 December 1952, after some delay due to unsuitable weather off the coast, AD 1001 left Brisbane under town from the RAN seagoing tug HMAS Reserve, escorted by the frigate HMAS Macquarie, bound for HMA Dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, a passage of 980 nautical miles ((Courier Mail, Brisbane. 3 December 1952)).8 It was an uneventful voyage until the tow entered Bass Strait, some 70 miles east of Wilson’s Promontory, when heavy seas and high winds were encountered forcing the ships to heave to ((The Argus, Melbourne. 12 December 1952)).
The dock arrived in Williamstown on 15 December 1952, two days later than scheduled10 and was berthed at the Gellibrand Pier where she lay until January 1958. On completion of the assignment for the breakwater extension, the Department of Supply, on behalf of the Navy, advertised the dock for lease or sale. No offers were received and in March 1958 the Melbourne Harbour Trust purchased the dock and negotiated a 30 year lease with the Hobson’s Bay Dock and Engineering Co. Pty. Ltd. (HBE). Renamed ‘MHT Floating Dock No. 112’ it had to be dry- docked itself every three years under the terms of the lease. It replaced the existing 64 year old floating dry-dock which had been converted from the timber hull of the barque Habitant by HBE and which had been damaged by fire.