- Thomson, Max
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Deloraine, HMAS Shepparton I
- September 1985 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
New Meaning put into the word Camouflage
WARSHIP CAMOUFLAGE came in some weird and wonderful forms during WW II. But for one of the smaller ships of the RAN it was a case of using the genuinely ‘real thing’ – applied amid exciting and dramatic circumstances.
The vessel was ML 817, the first of the Fairmiles to go to New Guinea when, in 1943, the war was raging along the New Guinea coastline and these small sub-chasers were to prove invaluable for anti-submarine patrols, convoy escort work, coastal surveillance, harassment of Japanese barge traffic and many other exciting assignments.
Australia went on to build 35 Fairmiles which really were the forerunner of today’s Navy patrol boats. Built by Lars Halvorsen & Sons Pty. Ltd. at Green Point Naval Shipyard in Sydney to an English design, ML 817 commissioned under the command of Lt. Athol Townley who, earlier, had played a key role in sinking one of the Japanese midget submarines that had raided Sydney harbour.
After working-up trials, ML 817 went to New Guinea. With Port Moresby being raided frequently by bombers of the Japanese Air Force, ML 817 spent considerable time by day and by night on anti-submarine patrol along the sealanes approaching Port Moresby harbour.
ML 817 made frequent trips on the convoy run from Moresby to Milne Bay helping escort supply ships. They were trips on which ML 817’s crew members were ever-conscious of the big Japanese air and navy base so close, at Rabaul.
The vessel then became based at Milne Bay and its CO, promoted to Lt. Cdr. Townley, found his ship assigned to the Milne Bay — Oro Bay convoy run through the treacherous reefs on that section of the poorly-charted New Guinea coastline.
Townley and his ship’s company saw several air raids on Oro Bay.
With specially-built mufflers fitted over the Fairmile’s exhaust outlets in the funnel, ML 817 became engaged on a series of raids along the Japanese-occupied New Guinea coast, observing Japanese barge traffic, harassing the supply barges and doing a great deal of surveillance work.
In search for Japanese activities, ML 817 even found herself on one occasion virtually ‘up the river’ – with not enough room on either side to turn the vessel, necessitating the ship having to extricate itself stern first, as crewmen held their breath expecting ‘all hell’ would break loose from the jungle on either side at any moment.
On September 1, 1943, ML 817 was assigned to the United States 7th Fleet Amphibious Force (Task Force 76) for the AIF assault on the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua.
It was ML 817’s task to ensure that the many vessels detailed for the landing of the 9th Div. AIF at Bula Plantation, were shepherded safely from their several dispersal areas along the coast, to the assault rendezvous.
Commander G. Branson of the Royal Navy, who was NOIC New Guinea, travelled aboard ML 817 with Lt. Cdr. Townley – and also aboard was Lt. A.A. Joel, later to become Sir Asher Joel.
Townley took ML 817 out of Buna at dawn on September 3, steaming for Morobe, further up the coast. In Morobe harbour, he placed ML 817 alongside the RAN corvette HMAS Shepparton. No sooner were the lines between the two vessels secured, than 36 enemy aircraft (nine Mitsubishi bombers and 26 Zero fighters) swept in from the south- west and pattern-bombed both vessels.
Starting from 200 yards on the port quarter, the bombs fell in a direct line to a point 300 yards off the starboard bow of ML 817 and HMAS Shepparton.
Although the bomb blasts had thrown him onto his face on the quarterdeck, Lt. Cdr. Townley raced to the bridge and his crew engaged the planes with anti-aircraft fire.
Cdr. Branson later wrote: ‘So quickly did Townley and his crew react to the situation that by the time I had re-boarded across to ML 817 from HMAS Shepparton, the lines holding the two vessels had been let go. ML 817’s Midshipman, with blood streaming down his face from a shrapnel wound, was at his action station directing gunnery fire as ML 817 cleared from HMAS Shepparton.’
Crew members later told of sickening thuds as bomb-metal crashed through ML 817’s side and embedded itself into a cupboard, followed by salt water and seabed sand as the churned-up ocean cascaded through the hole in the ship’s hull.
ML 817 and HMAS Shepparton had been all but swamped by 36 100-kilogram bombs. Both vessels were well straddled. ML 817 had 42 punctures and significant holes in her hull.
Lt. Cdr. Townley put a new meaning into the word camouflage that day. With his vessel’s port engine propeller inoperative and with the starboard engine able to make a speed of only three knots, he maneuvered ML 817 close to a small island. The vessel’s hull had been twisted and the propulsion and other machinery thrown out of alignment.
Crew members went ashore and hacked down jungle until the vessel was camouflaged. Then, under cover of darkness, Townley took ML 817 laboriously down the coast to Buna for a temporary patch-up, then on to Milne Bay. With no slipway facilities available at Milne Bay, it was decided ML 817 should be towed back to Sydney for repairs.
Typical of the man, Lt. Cdr. Townley decided to stay on in New Guinea. He assigned ML 817 to a young skipper just arrived with one of the new Fairmiles, which he himself took over.
ML 817 was towed across the Coral Sea to Townsville by the tanker Trinity in a convoy of ships, then towed down the east coast to Sydney by the corvette HMAS Deloraine.
ML 817 was repaired and she did return to New Guinea and operated on escort and patrol work right up into Dutch New Guinea areas until late 1944.
Townley, meanwhile, went on to more exciting ‘excursions’ with his sub-chaser and later commanded a whole flotilla of RAN Fairmiles.
After the war he became member for Denison in Federal Parliament and held several key portfolios, including that of Minister for Defence at the time of his sudden death in 1963.