- Editorial Staff
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Arunta I, HMAS Voyager I
- December 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Whichever way you looked at a Tribal class destroyer, she was not just handsome, she was beautiful. The balance between hull and superstructure and the proportions of her two funnels were perfect. Add to this the strong clipper bow with a graceful sheer, running back to the break of the fo’c’sle and you have a word picture that does not do justice to the actuality of the best looking destroyers ever built1.
We were recently approached by Jim Walker, whose father Major Edward (Mac) Walker was commanding officer of the 2/4th Independent Company (Lancer Force) fighting against the Japanese invaders of the then neutral Portuguese colony of Timor. Jim suggested that we might care to publish an article relating to the evacuation of Lancer Force by HMAS Arunta from Timor on 9/10 January 1943. While his late father never talked of these events he apparently spent the night in the captain’s cabin recovering from the effects of being waterlogged. Jim Walker has conducted his own research and believes that the men of Arunta who carried out the rescue mission have not been properly recognized, especially those who manned the small craft in treacherous conditions.
Operation HAMBURGER was the name given to the delivery of men and supplies in support of Sparrow Force in Timor which began on 27 May 1942. Sparrow Force changed its name to Lancer Force in November 1942 and the operation ended with the evacuation of Lancer Force on 10 January 1943.
Over these months our commandos in large and small groups harassed the enemy, which outnumbered them 100 to one. Some slipped into Dili, the capital, and shot-up Japanese headquarters, then melted back into the bush. There was plenty of cover, for steamy, rugged Timor rises from reef strewn beaches to forested parallel mountains chains with peaks reaching up to 10,000 feet.
Much has been written about the RAN’s involvement in the Timor campaign which tends to be overshadowed by the tragic losses of HMA Ships Armidale and Voyager.The brief but successful operation by Arunta in this conflict now barely rates a mention in her otherwise distinguished wartime career. However it is difficult to reflect upon Arunta’s role in Timor without acknowledging some previous operations. On 12 September 1942 HMAS Kalgoorlie sailed from Darwin with an advance party of the 2/4th Independent Company comprising the Commanding Officer Major Edward Walker and 12 other mainly officers and NCOs. They were taken ashore by boat at Betano Bay on 15 September and on landing were met by members of the 2/2nd Commando Company and escorted to various operational centres located within a 30 mile radius. A week later on 22 September a number of officers reassembled on the same beach awaiting the arrival of Voyager with the major component comprising 250 officers and men of the 2/4th Independent Company.
Voyager sailed from Darwin on 22 September and at last light the following evening began disembarking her troops and cargo at Betano Bay. While all troops were landed safely the ship grounded and could not be refloated. The next morning Voyager was sighted by two Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, one of which was shot down. As the ship could not be saved she was abandoned before the inevitable bombing raids which began in the afternoon. During the evening her crew had the unenviable task of laying demolition charges and the ship was destroyed. On 25 September the Bathurst-class minesweepers HMA Ships Kalgoorlie and Warrnambool safely evacuated the entire Voyager ship’s company and brought them back to Darwin without any casualties.
The ship and her mission
Arunta was the first of three Tribal class destroyers built in Australia. In all there were 27 ships in this class, 16 for the Royal Navy, eight for the Royal Canadian Navy and seven were intended for the Royal Australian Navy. But we had to be content with Arunta, Warramunga and Bataan, as with the end of the war in sight, the remainder were no longer required.
One thing for certain is that Arunta was a happy ship with much credit due to her first captain James (Ginger) Morrow, DSO, DSC, RAN who was highly regarded by both officers and men. He had gained wartime experience as First Lieutenant of Voyager, serving in the Mediterranean in the thick of convoys and campaigns in Greece, Malta and Tobruk. He was highly efficient and a skilful ship handler, and as a leader, he inspired confidence. During the extraction of Lancer Force CMDR Morrow must have been extremely conscious that in similar conditions, only four months previously, his old ship Voyager had carried reinforcements for Lancer Force to Timor and during that operation had grounded and perished on an exposed Timorese beach.
From the official war history and her Report of Proceedings (RoP) and extracts from her Bridge Log Book we are able to gain a reasonable understanding of the situation but one important document, a separate paper which is mentioned in her January 1943 RoP relating specifically to the Evacuation of Timor2, remains elusive, hidden in some dusty archive. We are however able to access some first-hand accounts of these events from those who served in the ship but these may have been written some time later.
Summary from the Official War History of the RAN
On 2nd January 1943, N.O.I.C. Darwin told the Naval Board and COMSOUWESPAC that the total withdrawal of Lancer Force might be necessary within the near future, and requested the allocation of a destroyer. Arunta was allocated and she reached Darwin from Cairns on 7th January, embarked eight Army assault craft, and sailed from Darwin at 7 a.m. on the 9th. She crossed the Timor Sea in overcast weather with heavy rain and wind squalls which provided excellent cover from enemy reconnaissance planes and at 1.30 a.m. on the 10th anchored in 27 fathoms about three-quarters of a mile from the beach at Quieras. Boats were quickly lowered and the first motor launch towing four assault craft departed from the ship at 01.40 a.m. with the second motor launch and another four assault boats leaving at 2.00 a.m.
The beach conditions were bad, with heavy surf running and capsizing and swamping several of the assault boats, and it was found impossible to load them with their correct complement of 15 men and crew of five. The first boat to return with wounded troops arrived alongside Arunta at 4.10 a.m. Also on board was the Adjutant, Lieutenant Rex Lipman; he had been given orders by Major Walker to convince Commander Morrow to delay the ship’s departure until all the troops were safely on board. After this Morrow told the beach party that no more equipment or stores would be taken and that the men must swim through the surf and board the assault craft outside it, otherwise there would be no chance of getting them off before daylight. At 5 a.m. there were still about 100 men on shore, but Morrow decided to wait and get them off if possible before daylight, hoping to run into bad cyclonic weather when about 30 miles clear of the coast. The last boats returned to the ship at 6.20 a.m., and ten minutes later Morrow proceeded at best speed. At 07.10 a.m. it was daylight and much too clear, but they steered towards rain squalls and from 08.15 a.m. onwards the visibility was never more than two miles until approaching Darwin.
Arunta secured alongside at Darwin at 7 p.m. on 10th January, bringing with her 24 officers and 258 other ranks of Lancer Force, eleven women and children, and twenty Portuguese who had been working with the army. Morrow, in his report, stated that Mr Ley, Commissioned Gunner (T), was in charge of the boats inshore, ‘and I consider that it was only due to his fine seamanship and drive that all the troops were brought off. He was most ably assisted by Leading Seaman Power and Able Seaman Asser, who were outstanding in handling their boats and generally taking charge.’
Events as seen from the Lower Deck
Jim Hodge was an Able Seaman serving in Arunta when she rescued troops from Timor. In later life as a parliamentary journalist he wrote of his experiences which appeared in the Canberra Times on 18 October 1975. A summary is quoted below.
Late one January afternoon in 1943 a salt-stained destroyer steamed into bomb-battered Darwin harbour, grey decks lined with several hundred silent, gaunt, heavily beared troops clad in tattered remnants of army uniforms and bits and pieces of sailors’ gear.
From the tiny tender which opened the steel anti-submarine net to let the incoming destroyer go through came the hail: ‘Any of you blokes lend us a razor-blade?’
The whiskered company was Lancer Force, back from, enemy infested Timor in the Tribal class destroyer Arunta. When she berthed its members followed bare-footed officers down the gang-plank, and fell-in on the wharf. After months of isolated jungle fighting, ambushes, sickness, wounds and constant movement over rough country, they paraded as if they had just completed a ceremonial refresher course in a training camp.
We are able to trace other similar stories from those preserved by the ‘Arunta Association’. Much of the following is attributed to radar operator Tom Clark who was in the relief boat crews.
After anchoring at Darwin some rather flimsy looking flat-bottomed boats were brought onboard for our inspection and crews were told off to man them. Then to help with our training we had to row them around the harbour using paddles, with the coxswain steering with a splay oar.
When we arrived off the Timorese coast the boats’ crews were mustered and issued with tin hats and ‘Mae West’ life preservers. In darkness the ship anchored and the boats were then lowered and we manned these unfamiliar and clumsy craft. Two ship’s motor boats then each towed a trot of four assault boats inshore. The passage was calm when moving towards the dark coastline where fires marking the landing points were burning. As we neared the coast we were cast adrift from our tow and a thumping roar could be heard, which was the noise of big rollers breaking on the beach. Our craft were picked up and we fell out as they were dumped into the roaring surf. In pitch blackness with water over our heads we somehow scrambled up the beach and located our boats.
With a load of soldiers, some injured and wearing bandages, all sitting down in the boats, the crew using paddles sought to propel the craft through the breakers and back to the waiting motor boats. Not all went according to plan and many a boat was capsized with all occupants ending up in the sea. With the aid of the soldiers we lifted the boats over the breakers and then scrambled back onboard. After several such trips the crews were exhausted and had to be replaced.
Each of the assault boats was designed for a crew of five to take 15 passengers but given the conditions it was impossible to load this many so more ferry trips were necessary. Each assault boat is thought to have made about four round trips bringing off a total of309 from Lancer Force, 20 Portuguese civilians and 11 women and children – this equates to between 10 and 11 passengers per trip. Where they could make it without assistance the troops and civilians were brought on board from the boats using scrambling nets. With the last trip completed there was no time to recover the assault boats, which were stove in with axes and allowed to sink.
After arrival onboard the cooks came to the fore with the first good meal our guests had seen in a long time. Everyone had a mug of hot soup and a meal of sausages and vegetables. Many had lived off the land and not eaten so well for a long time. They wolfed it down, until the heaving and rolling, pitching and driving of the destroyer got the better of them, and its decks became a slippery mess for crewmen to clean up for days after.
Ken Piesse, a non-commissioned officer of the 2/4th prepared notes relating to the ship’s arrival which are included in the book covering the Unit’s history3. These include the following comments:
The destroyer was now proceeding dead slow as she threaded her way past the many wrecks in the harbour. As the ship made fast we quietly thanked our sailor friends and filed across the deck of the hospital ship (possibly the motor passenger ship Centaurwhich had been requisitioned for use as a hospital ship on 9 January 1943) which we had berthed alongside.
A sizeable crowd had gathered on the wharf and once we had disembarked our officers quietly formed us into platoons where our parade was brought to attention. Following a brief word from the CO three cheers rang across the harbour for the crew of Aruntawho had done such a magnificent job in bringing us safely home without any loss of life.
Following the evacuation of the majority of Lancer Force in Arunta a small rearguard party remained behind. These were taken off by the submarine USS Gudgeon on the night of 10 February 1943 and taken to Fremantle. This closed Operation HAMBURGER and the Australian operation in Timor which ended only a few days less than a year from which they began.
Quarantine and Recuperation at Larrimah
Prior to Arunta’s arrival at Darwin orders were issued that all military personnel would be quarantined for an indefinite period. On disembarkation and after all formalities had been completed the troops were entrained the following day for Larrimah, a staging camp located approximately 500 km south of Darwin. Doctors specialising in the treatment of tropical diseases including malaria, dysentery, tropical ulcers and other kindred troubles were on hand. Within four weeks the overall health of the unit improved considerably and on 23 February they left the camp and finally arrived home in Adelaide on 2 March. Extended leave was granted and the 2/4th regrouped at the Jungle Warfare Centre, Canungra, Queensland in April 1943.
Following further specialized training in the Atherton Tablelands the unit, now attached to the 9th Australian Division, sailed for New Guinea on 10 August 1943. As part of the 26th Brigade the unit was involved with the amphibious landing at Lae in early September 1943. The 2/4th came ashore in the second wave where they suffered heavy casualties when their landing craft was torpedoed, killing 34 members. After this action they saw further service in New Guinea before returning to Australia in March 1944.
After regrouping and further training the unit left Australia in April 1945 for Morotai and were engaged in the Tarakan campaign. On returning to Australia the unit was disbanded on 8 January 1946.
Arunta does not go quietly
Arunta had a significant war history with contributions to many of the campaigns in the Pacific extending all the way to the capitulation of Japan. On 21 December 1956 she paid off and was placed into operational reserve at Sydney’s Athol Bight Dolphins. Here she remained until November 1967 when she was sold for demolition to the China Steel Corporation of Taipei in Taiwan.
She departed on her final voyage for the breakers yard on 12 February 1968 under tow by the Japanese tug Toko Maru. The old warhorse was reluctant to leave her homeland and the following day, in good weather when off Broken Bay, she inexplicably began to list to starboard; as the list increased the tug master turned around and attempted to take his charge back to Sydney. But the list increased and as Arunta lay over on her side the tow was slipped and in deep water she disappeared below the waves.
There was much ill feeling about her demise; after spending most of her life fighting against the Japanese it was thought an ignoble end to be towed by a Japanese tug. The mystery of her sinking has never been fully explained and the press of those times published theories of sabotage. The loss of Arunta was investigated by maritime authorities but the results were inconclusive.
1 A view from a proud onetime captain of HMAS Warramunga, CMDR John Alliston, DSO, DSC & Bar, RN.
2 HMAS Arunta Report of Proceedings No 1/43 dated 12 January 1943 ‘Evacuation of Timor’.
3 Commando from Tidal River to Tarakan, compiled by G. E. Lambert and published by the 2/4th Commando Association, 1994.