- Bradford, John
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Yarra II
- March 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The February 1979 edition of the magazine, `Parade’, featured an article `Life and death of the YARRA’ describing the epic wartime service of the sloop, HMAS YARRA, from the time she was sent to the Middle East and Mediterranean theatres until sunk by an overwhelming Japanese force of three cruisers and two destroyers, south of Java, on 4th March, 1942. Of YARRA’s final action, the article concluded, `One mystery remains – why was not one officer or man … ever decorated for his part in what most Australians regard as a feat of extraordinary heroism?’
In an article `Heroes too long forgotten’ (NHR, September 1994), I expressed my concern and surprise that there was no recognition for anyone serving in YARRA when she was lost. Since that time, through visits to a number of archival establishments, both in Australia and the UK, and correspondence with Navy Office, Canberra, I have attempted to construct a `paperwork mosaic’ from which to gain a better idea of precisely what efforts were made – both during the war and in the immediate postwar period – to gain members of her crew some tangible and lasting recognition.
Because of inherent limitations in the archival records eventually accruing from my searches, there seemed just two credible approaches to writing this article for the NHR:
First; the archival records located could be used to promote various arguments on why the issue of recognition for YARRA crewmembers (principally her CO, LCDR Robert W. Rankin, RAN, and L/S Ron Taylor who remained on board firing single-handedly at the Japanese), was allowed to lapse by the Naval Board. With such arguments, personal biases were bound to creep in; not only that, to establish the credibility of these arguments, I would need to thoroughly examine, and then rebut all the various interpretations that could arise from these records.
Second; a personal narrative could spell out how the archival material was obtained and what it meant in terms of its historical context and significance.
A series of rhetorical questions could then be postulated encapsulating the various speculative interpretations of the information. Given that I was dealing here with what might be loosely referred to as ‘mere assertions without full knowledge of the facts’, such questions would at least absolve me from any need to establish arguments based on what, I would be the first to admit, was incomplete historical evidence. Pressure of space considerations inevitably determined what could be included – and just as importantly – excluded, and clearly a full discussion of all the issues raised was outside the scope of this article. Based on all the foregoing, I opted for the second approach.
In October 1995, a first visit was made to the Australian Archives in Melbourne (AA(M)). Apart from housing a major collection of files relating to all aspects of the RAN’s involvement in WWII, the AA(M) also holds a substantial collection of ledger books covering a number of subject headings. Each ledger book contains entries referring to incoming or subsequent actions/correspondence relating to that subject; the ledger book code and entry number, when combined, defining the `Item Number’. The ledger books tell researchers three things:
- Which Item Numbers have been retained for the archives and where they can be located in a particular Australian Archives Series Number;
- Which Item Numbers have been forwarded to the Navy Historical Section, (NHS), Navy Office, (some I saw were forwarded in March 1957), and
- Which Item Numbers – a large number regrettably – have presumably not been retained.
For example, Series No. MT 1214/1, Item No. 448/201/1403 refers to the 448/201 ledger books and 1403 is the entry for `Recommendations for Recognition of Service’ for RAN personnel in the Darwin air raid; within the second category are a number of Reports of Proceedings (ROPs) for HMAS HOBART for 1942-3, the latter, I understand, now housed at the AWM under the AWM78 series; the third category presumably includes most, if not all, AA(M) material covering any discussion on the question of possible awards for HMAS YARRA personnel.
The 448/201 ledger books provide a particularly rich vein of material for research into RAN gallantry in WWII, and from the odd entry here-and-there it is possible to gain a glimpse of what might have been going on with respect to YARRA, both during the war and in the immediate postwar period; for example, the (presumed lost) 1553 entry is headed:
Naval Operations South China and Java Seas early in 1942; drawing attention to Naval Board’s lack of awards to personnel serving in the Java Seas. (This correspondence, dated 25th November, 1943, was sent to the Naval Board by the CO HMAS PENGUIN, Capt. Harry L. Howden, RAN). My underlining of the final ‘s’ in `Seas’, suggests that Howden’s enquiries were directed just as much to ships serving in the Java Sea area in the early months of 1942. In passing, I have found Howden to be a most fascinating personality. Based on what I uncovered in July 1997 in a PRO ADM/1 file, I formed the impression that whilst he was CO HMAS HOBART, he was particularly keen to see men under his command rewarded for their services; his request to the Naval Board reinforces this impression.