- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide I
- September 2020 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Alan Bourne
This paper was prepared by Alan Bourne, son of Herbert (Bill) Thomas Bourne. Herbert was christened Hubert, which he disliked, and he enlisted in the RAN under the name of Herbert. He was born in Toowoomba on 28 January 1919 and after the outbreak of WWII first tried to enlist in the RAAF. At 6 feet 3 inches he was too tall to fit into most aircraft so joined the AIF, but he hated it, and obtained a quick discharge providing he joined the RAN, enlisting in Brisbane on 24 October 1941. He was sent to HMAS Cerberus for initial training and on 27 April 1942 was posted as a Stoker to the cruiser HMAS Adelaide.
The only German ship to enter the Australia Station during 1942 was the blockade runner and supply ship MV Ramses. At this time, she was disguised as a Norwegian merchant ship and had a German merchant navy crew with a few volunteers from the Baltic states plus some Norwegian POWs. Her minor armament was manned by German naval personnel.
The Ship Ramses
The 7,983-ton Motor Vessel Ramses was built in 1926. She was not a fast vessel, only able to maintain a service speed of about 11 knots. Ramses departed Hamburg on 1 July 1939 bound for Shanghai, where the ship arrived on 25 August. Cargo was offloaded in both Shanghai and Woosung (now Wusong), 14 miles down the Huangpu River from Shanghai. With the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 (and with Japan yet to enter the conflict) Ramses found herself stranded and did not leave Shanghai until 29 March 1941, when the ship sailed to Kobe, Japan arriving on 3 April 1941. On 8 May 1941 Ramses sailed from Kobe for Dairen, China where a cargo of 6,500 tons of soya beans and 3,000 tons of rubber was loaded. She left Dairen on 20 May 1941 for Valparaiso, Chile. On 27 June orders were received to make for Yokohama where she arrived on 30 July 1941 and unloaded all her cargo. Ramses remained in Yokohama until 5 October 1942. During this time the ship underwent repairs, and acted as a gaol for prisoners brought to Yokohama by German raiders. As a precautionary measure the ship was also fitted with three scuttling charges.
MV Ramses prior to blockade running days
After loading 1,200 tons of shale oil, 700 tons of lard, 80 tons of coconut oil, all in barrels, 20 tons of special fish oil in tins, and 300 tons of tea Ramses departed Yokohama on 10 October 1942 bound for Kobe where further cargo of 3,000 tons of whale oil in barrels, 700 tons of fish oil in packages and 1,000 tons of materials was loaded. Ramses departed Kobe on 24 October 1941 bound for Balikpapan, Borneo. About 1,000 tons were discharged at Balikpapan comprising building materials, machinery, coal tar, bleaching powder, lubricating oil and beer. After refueling in Balikpapan on 10 November 1942 the ship left for Batavia, (now Jakarta). Here about 3,500 tons of rubber and 1,500 cases of quinine were loaded. Ramses then departed Batavia on 22 November 1942 but was compelled to return to effect repairs and sailed again on 23 November.
A number of civilian passengers was carried from Japan for Europe, in addition to two Japanese shipping experts for Batavia. This is an interesting feature of blockade-running activities, as it appears that these vessels maintained some sort of a passenger service between the Far East and Europe.
After the sinking of Ramses, information resulting from interrogation of the First Wireless Officer at Brisbane revealed that three W/T operators were carried. Ramses had one long-wave and one short-wave set and official instructions were received from the German wireless station at Norddeich. The W/T was only in operation when the vessel was at sea and operation was not permitted during the period of stay in Japanese waters, while at sea no contact was maintained with Japanese shore stations or ships. No information was forthcoming as to wave-lengths. Inward messages were decoded by this officer who stated that there was one standard code book for use between all German ships. Sydney interrogations revealed that the W/T equipment carried was ordinary Telefunken apparatus with a short-wave attachment fitted at Kobe. The ship was also fitted with old-type D/F for navigational purposes only. A constant look-out was maintained comprising three ‘gunners’ and three seamen in each watch. These were disposed as one in the crow’s nest, one in each wing of the bridge, one forward, one aft, and one spare. All had powerful binoculars. There was telephone connection to the crow’s nest and to the look-out aft, and the helmsman wore head telephones throughout.
Unlike many other blockade-runners, Ramses apparently had no means of effecting a silhouette disguise. The Norwegians stated that the captain’s orders on meeting merchant shipping were to run and avoid sighting. On meeting an enemy warship she was to scuttle without consideration for life. It would appear that Ramses had little protection, both in speed and armament, and that evasion was her only safe course. The only escort provided was from Batavia when a small gunboat provided an escort to Sunda Strait and it parted company about midnight in Prince’s Channel. This apparently was an A/S escort, as Regensburg had been torpedoed in this area during the previous month.
In Japanese waters, from Yokohama to Kobe the orders were to keep close to the coast and in shallow water, as a precaution against American submarines. Ramses proceeded from Kobe to Balikpapan direct, passing close to the Gulf of Davao, and direct from Balikpapan to Batavia. From Batavia, after passing through Sunda Strait and Prince’s Channel, it appears from statements of members of the crew that a fixed course of 195° was to be maintained until further orders were received, The Norwegians stated that orders to Ramses were ‘proceed via raider to Bordeaux’. It is reported that the German crew were told that, in the Indian Ocean, they would go from raider to raider, and in the Atlantic, from U-boat to U‑boat. Approaching Europe, Focke-Wulfs would screen them. On arrival at Bordeaux they would all receive a new blockade-running medal in the form of a chain with a picture of Bremen breaking through and destroying the chain. Surprise at their interception in the Indian Ocean was general, as it was believed that the only danger lay in the Atlantic.
The following interesting intelligence was provided during interrogation.
Yokohama: Cargo working facilities were as in peace time, but the rate of working was 50% slower, owing to labour shortages and to the general inexperience of the labour available. There was a fair amount of shipping but less than in peace time.
Kobe: Facilities were as in peace time but while the rate of working was a little higher than at Yokohama, the port appeared dead, compared to peace time standards. Ramses loaded from lighters, and the inexperience of labour made the rate of loading slow.
Balikpapan: With a draught of 19 feet forward and 23 feet aft Ramses berthed at No. 3 or No. 4 Pier. A Japanese tanker drawing about 30 feet berthed at No. 2. Port facilities had been severely damaged and this made the rate of working cargo fairly slow. All along the waterfront general reconstruction work was continuing. Not many oil tanks had been left standing. Captain Falke thought that the refinery was at least partly in operation, but the Norwegians stated that it was badly damaged and not working, while damage was evident throughout the port and such repairs as had been effected were only makeshift. The wharf at which the vessel was berthed was new, very poor, too short and had practically no mooring posts. Fuelling at Balikpapan, where Ramses took approximately 1,400 tons of fuel oil, was by pipeline from the wharf, and it was confirmed that the pipe line was of new manufacture. A Japanese tanker was reported to have been unloading oil while Ramses was there. No minefields or boom defences were observed.
Batavia: It was reported that the Dutch had severely damaged the port, blocking the main harbour. All cargo was loaded from large K.P.H. lighters and severe delay was caused in changing of lighters. No minefields or boom defences were observed.
Tandiong Priok: The harbour had been completely blocked by the sinking of two or three ships across the entrance, but a channel had been blasted to allow small coasters, barges, tugs, etc., to go through. Several vessels had been sunk alongside the wharves but two or three small K.P.M. lighters had been salvaged.
Comment was made on the lack of evidence of any sort of examination service. Ramses made no form of identification to shore through Port War Signal Stations. There was no form of swept channel and no routine sweep of approaches to ports or open roadsteads was carried out, even at Balikpapan or Batavia where the nature of the ports rendered it most necessary.
Rendezvous with Raider
In the preliminary Adelaide interrogations, it was reported that Norwegian officers had reason to believe that Ramses, which was intercepted on 28 November, was to rendezvous with a German raider on either Sunday 29 or Monday 30 November.
Subsequent interrogations did not reveal the point as clearly as this. At Fremantle, a Finnish prisoner stated that the Germans were discussing the meeting of Ramses with a German raider, from which she would take prisoners. Space was being prepared in ‘tween decks of Ramses to receive them. The Germans had an idea that the raider was No. 28 (Raider ‘H’). During interrogations in Brisbane, the First Wireless Officer stated that he knew nothing of a planned rendezvous with a German raider in the Indian Ocean and that only the Captain would have known of such a rendezvous. This prisoner, however, was most reticent and it is very unlikely that he would have volunteered any information. On the other hand, the Chief Officer is reported to have remarked on several occasions ‘It will be extremely interesting when we meet the first raider’. The report, already referred to, in that the German crew were told that in the Indian Ocean they would go from raider to raider is significant. There is strong evidence, though it is controversial, that No. 6 ‘tween decks was prepared to carry one hundred prisoners, as there were mattresses, blankets, buckets and working utensils there. The Norwegian prisoners are certain that there was to be a meeting with a raider. While the position is therefore not beyond doubt it appears probable that a rendezvous was to take place between Ramses and this raider, probably ‘H’. Meetings between raiders and blockade-runners have not been infrequent and part of the German tactic is for blockade-runners to supply raiders with necessary provisions and serve them as prison ships.
HMAS Adelaide and NNLMS Jacob van Heemskerck
Working out of Fremantle on 23 November 1942 the cruiser HMAS Adelaide1 with the Dutch light cruiser HNLMS Jacob van Heemskerck2 set sail escorting a three-merchant ship convoy with vital oil refinery equipment bound for Abadan in the Persian Gulf. Two days later they were joined by the corvettes HMA Ships Cessnock and Toowoomba escorting an oil tanker. At 1416 on 28 November, Adelaide‘s masthead lookout reported smoke, 20 degrees on the starboard bow; soon after he reported two masts in view, then the top of a funnel. Two minutes later, bridge personnel could see the tops of two masts (as a rough guide, objects eight miles away can be picked up with the naked eye). Adelaide increased speed and altered course towards this unknown vessel which claimed to be the Norwegian merchantman Taiyang. At 1422, the ship turned away, and a few minutes later broadcast a distress message ‘RRR Taiyang followed by a suspicious vessel.’ No trace of a vessel with that name could be found in any shipping publication carried on board. At 1450, Adelaide went to Action Stations, all guns of her main armament were trained on this unknown ship. A further distress message was sent out on commercial wavelength at 1519, which read: ‘RRR Taiyang, still chased.’ By 1528 Adelaide was well placed on her beam to carry out a positive identification. The Captain was ably assisted by Lieutenant J.W. Penney, his Navigating Officer who had served in the Merchant Navy and was experienced in the construction details of many merchant ships. He quickly produced a photograph of the German ship Ramses from a pack of ‘German Armoured Merchant vessels and Merchant vessels.’ In all essential details this appeared to be the ship under observation, and it was time for decisive action. Adelaide was 12,000 yards from Ramses, who at this stage was flying a Norwegian ensign. Captain Esdaile was not going to be caught out approaching too close to this ship as had happened a year previously to HMAS Sydney when she encountered the raider Kormoran.
At 1536 Ramses was practically stopped with two boats lowered on her port side. About eight minutes later an explosion was seen at her stern; the wind quickly blew this smoke so that it covered the whole port side, leaving only the masts and the top of the funnel visible. Adelaide immediately opened fire, as did Heemskerck; by 1551 firing ceased and Ramses sank a few minutes later. The crew had abandoned ship, except for her Captain, the officer in charge of the gun crews, and the Wireless Officer, all of whom were completing extensive scuttling arrangements. However, hits from Adelaide‘s third salvo quickly hastened their departure. As Ramses slipped beneath the sea, her main 6-inch armament, the wooden gun, together with its wooden platform, gently floated off, indicating just why there was no return fire from this source!
Heemskerck was ordered to rejoin the convoy, and Adelaide picked up survivors, now prisoners of war except for tenNorwegian seamen, their ships sunk by a German armed merchant raider, (now free men once more) a pig, and a dog. How luck may quickly change with the vagaries of war!
During the rescue operations some of the seamen had suddenly stopped hauling in German survivors and rescued both the pig and the dog before them, indicating their priority in this rescue operation. The crew became most attached to this dog, but after arrival at Fremantle and both the Norwegians and the Germans were disembarked, Australian Quarantine Officers insisted on destroying the dog, to ensure that no disease was imported into the country.
After all the survivors were boarded in Adelaide, remarkably there being no fatalities, it was found that among the 89 survivors there were several nationalities, 65 German, 10 Finns, three Danish, 10 Norwegians and one Italian3. After initial interrogations it was realised that the Norwegians were POWs being taken back to Germany, their ships Aust and Kattegat having been sunk by German raiders in the South Atlantic. Aust was believed to have been sunk by the raider with an Allied code name of ‘E’ in April and Kattegat sunk by another raider code name ‘H’ in May. The survivors of Aust and Kattegat had been picked up by the raiders and discharged at Yokohama. Based on interrogation records it appears some or all of the Finns formed part of the ship’s crew. The situation regarding the three Danes and the one Italian is unknown. Most members of the crew, including the ship’s captain (Johannes Falke), were merchant seamen. There were some service personnel on board to man the basic armament of Ramses. These comprised 15 naval gunners, one officer and two petty officers. The service personnel had made passage to Yokohama in the ship Doggerbank4 before boarding Ramses.
Although initial interrogation of the survivors took place in Adelaide, further interrogation of members of the crew took place in Fremantle, Sydney and Brisbane. The interrogations in Brisbane, one of which was the Chief Wireless Officer, may have occurred at the Whitton Barracks in Indooropilly.
The armament of the Ramses was very basic, comprising 2 x 20-mm guns on either side of the bridge, two German machine guns on the charthouse and two British machine guns aft. In Japan a dummy wooden gun (6-inch) was installed on a platform on the poop deck.
The interception of Ramses in the Indian Ocean was unexpected; it was believed that if an interception was made it would occur in the Atlantic. The tactics for the voyage to Bordeaux were to avoid any merchant ships sighted and if contact was made with a warship, the scuttling charges would be detonated. Travelling through the Indian Ocean the tactics were, where possible meet with German raiders for protection, in the Atlantic use U-boats and close to France use air cover provided by long range Focke-Wulf aircraft, probably the FW 200 Condor. In meeting with raiders in the Indian Ocean, Ramses could resupply them and take off prisoners.
A sharp lookout was instrumental in the early location of Ramses and quick identification sealed her fate, the combination of scuttling charges and accurate Allied gun fire prevented a valuable cargo reaching Germany, ten Norwegians were freed to fight again, and for seventy-eight Germans and their associates the war had ended.
1 HMAS Adelaide was a Town-class cruiser laid down at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island Dockyard during WWI. With many delays she became known as ‘HMAS Long-Delayed’ and was not completed until 1922. During 1924-25 Adelaidetook part in a world cruise, joining the Royal Navy Special Service Squadron. In 1927 she became infamously involved in a punitive expedition to the Solomons known as the Malaita Rebellion. As part of reductions caused by the Great Depression Adelaide was paid off into Reserve in 1928.
In 1938 the ship was returned to Cockatoo Dockyard for extensive modernization. This involved conversion from coal to oil-burning with the removal of her fore funnel, and reconfiguration of her armament with a reduction in 6-inch guns in favour of increased AA and anti-submarine weapons.
Adelaide is perhaps best known for her important contribution in 1940 securing the colony of New Caledonia for the Free French who were sympathetic to the Allied cause. During the remainder of the war Adelaide was mainly involved in convoy duties on the Australia Station.
As a memorial to Adelaide, the ship’s main-mast was erected alongside the Sphinx Memorial in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Sydney. One of the cruiser’s 6-inch guns was found at a rubbish tip in Victoria, this was restored and is now on display at HMAS Cerberus. The ship’s bell ended up in the possession of the Amazon Hotel, a pub in Exeter, England.
2 HNLMS Jacob van Heemskerck was a Tromp-class light cruiser hastily commissioned in the Netherlands on 10 May 1940 to avoid it falling into enemy hands. She escaped to England where fitting out was completed as an air defence cruiser, being armed with 10 x 4-inch guns and a large number of AA weapons – these were the only weapons readily available.
The first assignment of Jacob van Heemskerck was to transport Princess Juliana (the only child of the Dutch Royal family and heir to the throne) and her two daughters to Canada. The ship was then involved in Atlantic convoy duties; here she proved her worth by having a great name for proficiency and, as a happy ship, was nicknamed Oude Jacob(Old Jacob). In January 1942 she was redeployed to reinforce defences in the Dutch East Indies.
On 26 July 1945 Jacob van Heemskerck arrived at Amsterdam, the first Dutch warship to do so after liberation.
3 The author has provided a full list of survivors from Ramses which can be provided on request to the Naval Historical Society.
4 MV Doggerbank was the ex-British merchantman Speybank which had been captured by the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis in the Indian Ocean in January 1941 and sailed back to occupied France as a prize. Here she was taken over by the German Navy and renamed Doggerbank, successfully laying minefields off the South African coast, which claimed six ships, before making for Japan. She then loaded supplies and took captured merchant sailors on a return voyage to France. So good was her disguise, combined with sailing ahead of schedule, that on 3 March 1943 she was taken for a British merchantman and torpedoed and sunk by U-43 in mid-Atlantic. Doggerbank exploded and sank within minutes, tragically with the loss of nearly all of the 394 men on board, which included many Allied POWs. Of 15 men who escaped by boat only one was alive when discovered some weeks later.
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