By Walter Burroughs
One of the privileges of writing naval history is occasionally being invited to visit ships and establishments and meeting some of the fine men and women who serve in them. One such event involved a visit to the Anzac Class frigate HMAS Perth during the 2013 International Fleet Review, giving rise to this article. Research material was provided by the timely release of Mike Carlton’s epic Cruiser and, contacting some very senior veterans who survived the sinking of HMAS Perth (I). Reference is also to be found in Shipmates, self published in 1998 by Vic Cassells, with illustrated tales of mascots carried in RAN ships.
Where it began
At the start of WW II the Australian Fleet comprised just fourteen warships. Pride of the fleet was the cruiser force headed by the two County Class heavy cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Canberra with their 8-inch main armament, followed by three Leander Class light cruisers – HMA Ships Hobart, Perth and Sydney with 6-inch main armament – and lastly the older Town Class light cruiser HMAS Adelaide, again with 6-inch armament. They were all well found and capable ships and, other than the obsolete Adelaide, were more than a match for any potential enemy.
During battle with Vichy French, German, Italian and Japanese forces they were sorely tested. Half of their number, Canberra, Perth and Sydney, were lost in action with Hobart also being severely damaged. This is a small part of the story of one of these fine fighting ships, HMAS Perth.
HMAS Perth (I)
Perth was one of three modified Leander Class light cruisers originally intended for the Royal Navy. She entered service in 1936 as HMS Amphion, but was transferred to the RAN in England’s historic Portsmouth Dockyard on 29 June 1939 and placed under the command of Captain Harold Farncomb, RAN. While Farncomb and some of his officers and senior NCOs were experienced, the majority of her crew were young men, with many raw recruits straight out of Flinders Naval Depot.
After work-up with the Royal Navy it was intended that Perth would proceed home via Panama, but this was interrupted by the declaration of war against Germany when she was placed at the disposal of the RN. She had a quiet introduction to war, being based in the Caribbean where she conducted patrols and convoy protection. Perth eventually arrived in Sydney on 31 March 1940. Many of her crew had been absent for nearly a year and now considered themselves seasoned old salts, but they had not fired a shot in anger. After maintenance and some well earned leave she was assigned to mundane escort duties in home waters.
In November 1940 Perth was on her way to relieve her sister HMAS Sydney, which had carried out sterling work in the Mediterranean under the overall command of the formidable Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who liked the forthright character of Australians. While Captain Farncomb was not universally admired he was one of ours and, all on board must have been surprised at the choice of his successor, the aristocratic Sir Philip Bowyer-Smyth, RN. They need not have worried as the new captain proved himself worthy of any man’s trust, being both fair and fearless. Another officer who features in the annuals of Perth’s history is LCDR Charles Reid, RAN, who was her First Lieutenant on commissioning and remained with the ship until the commencement of her last fateful voyage. Being a sticker for protocol, Reid could upset the lower deck. However he was efficient and at times served in an acting capacity as both Executive Officer and Commanding Officer.
On Christmas Eve 1940 Perth reached Alexandria in Egypt, the then headquarters of the Eastern Mediterranean Battle Fleet where she was assigned to the 7th Cruiser Squadron. It was a hectic and dangerous period of activity, contending with the perils of mines, ships and submarines and incessant air attacks, nearly all without covering air support. At times it seemed all was lost, but training and dedication and working until both men and machines were exhausted paid dividends and the ship and her crew performed miracles. After surviving 257 air attacks she escaped virtually unscathed for months until one bomb too many struck home. On 30 May 1941 she was hit by a bomb that exploded in ‘A’ boiler room. The ship still limped into port with nearly 1,500 troops she had rescued from Crete, but four of her crew and nine troops died. Her war was not yet over, with further action against the Vichy French in Syria. On 17 July 1940 Perth was relieved on station by her other sister HMAS Hobart and shortly after she returned home battle worn, to some much needed leave and an urgent refit.
While refitting at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Captain Sir Philip Bowyer-Smyth quietly left his command, without due acknowledgment of his exceptional contribution and skills. He was relieved by Acting Commander Charles Reid. Nearing the end of her refit an accidental fire occurred resulting in a further month’s delay. While there was an enquiry it was impossible to lay blame, with Charles Reid, possibly unfairly, bearing the brunt of the Naval Board’s criticism which ruined his career. In October 1941 a new commanding officer Hector (Hec) Waller was appointed, not long from his own successes in the Mediterranean as CO of HMAS Stuart. Hec had earned his reputation as an excellent captain who knew how to get the best out of man and ship and was widely respected for his no-nonsense approach to service life.
Red Lead arrives
As the last liberty boat was leaving before Perth departed from Sydney on 30 November 1941, two young Able Seamen, Bob Collins and Ray Firminger, were making their farewells. Ray’s wife and his young daughter Pat, who was cuddling a tiny grey and white tabby kitten, were saying goodbye. Bob was chatting to the little girl when she reached out to him and told him he should take the kitten. Bob was taken aback but as the liberty boat was about to leave he accepted the gift and hurriedly stuffed the kitten into his jacket.
King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions forbade pets aboard HM Ships, but in the interest of morale a blind eye was often turned to this restriction. To the larrikin Collins this was a challenge and as he knew pets were forbidden, this could incur the wrath of his disciplinarian Executive Officer, Acting Commander Reid. Where to keep the cat until it found its sea legs was a problem solved by use of the paint locker. In those days when ships were primarily made of steel, there was a need for continuous maintenance of surfaces against the effects of corrosion. Teams were constantly chipping, scraping and wire brushing metal surfaces and then painting them with a primary coat of red lead. Ships had many gallons of this ubiquitous paint which is now known to be injurious to health. What could be more likely to happen in a crowded paint locker than the cat knock over a pot of red lead, leaving incriminating paw marks. Hence the name Red Lead was acquired.
Bob Collins still had the tricky task of gaining acceptance for his feline friend and a cunning plan was devised. Hec Waller was thought to be favourable to pets as in Stuart they had a monkey ‘Chico’ as mascot. During this period Perth was on the ‘ferry service’ escorting ships between Sydney and Fremantle, sometimes this could be exciting when doing high speed runs with Queen Mary and Aquitania, but usually it was with ships of lesser importance and with reduced speed. After leaving Fremantle in good weather, when he knew the Captain was on the Bridge and thought to be in a favourable mood, Collins introduced Red Lead to the command by letting her wander around until seen by the Captain. Thankfully he seemed quite amused to see the kitten and rolled up some signal paper for it to play with. After this Red Lead was allowed to roam free and Collins was assigned her guardian. One up for the larrikin!
On 10 February 1942 Perth called at Melbourne where a change-over of Executive Officer took place, with Charles Reid being relieved by Commander William Martin, RAN. Undoubtedly the former was replaced as a result of the fire and his subsequent Naval Board censure but this may also have saved his life.
The Battles of Java Sea and Sunda Strait
Perth was now on her way up top to shore up defences to our north but on 15 February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese. This disaster, where 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops had surrendered, completely changed Australia’s perception of the war. New ways had to be found of stopping the ever advancing Rising Sun. Perth was ordered to join the largely dysfunctional ABDA (American–British–Dutch-Australian command. On 24 February she first called at the Batavian port of Tanjong Priok for fuel. While here they were over-flown and bombed by Japanese aircraft, causing the Dutch Army ashore to open up with anti-aircraft fire, joined by Perth’s armament. There was little damage other than to a Dutch tanker.
The next day in company with the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and her attendant destroyers, Perth proceeded to Surabaya to join the ABDA fleet under the command of the Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, flying his flag in the light cruiser HNLMS De Ruyter. In addition to the Dutch ships they were greeted by the USN heavy cruiser USS Houston and her four older four stack destroyers. Shortly after the combined fleet sailed to intercept a Japanese invasion force which was located on 27 February. After a bloody and violent encounter few Allied ships survived the Battle of the Java Sea. Hec Waller as the senior remaining commanding officer ordered both Perth and Houston to make for Tanjong Priok.
Supplies at the bombed-out port were limited, with minimal fuel and only 4-inch ammunition available. Possibly showing a cat’s famous ‘Sixth Sense’ of Extrasensory Perception, which provides them with their keen intuition when all is not well, Red Lead took fright and went AWOL. Able Seaman Collins was sent to find her, which he did. Jan Creber, the Master at Arms, then solved the problem in restricting shore leave by placing the escapee in her own cell made from a kerosene tin with plentiful air holes cut into it.
As soon as they could after darkness had fallen the ships sailed in company, attempting to make the comparative safety of the southern port of Tjilatap. This involved transiting the narrows of the Sunda Strait, then believed clear of the enemy. Late at night on 28 February they came into contact with screening destroyers of a strong Japanese naval force. Perth and Houston fought gallantly, but with limited ammunition and the enemy’s overwhelming superiority the end was inevitable.
Just after midnight when the order for abandon ship was given, Bob Collins took the plunge hanging on to his beloved Red Lead. Bob was to survive but Red Lead was last seen clawing on to a piece of wooden wreckage. Amongst those killed was Bob’s friend Ray Firminger, and father of Pat, the little girl who had given them her kitten. What became of Red Lead no one knows we can only hope that she found her way ashore, but this seems doubtful. Of the 681 men aboard, 353 were killed in this final battle and all but four of the 328 survivors were captured as prisoners of war. Of these, 106 died in captivity, only 218 returning home to their families. Astute mathematicians will have noted a discrepancy of four in the above numbers.
Paymaster SBLT Gavin Campbell was thrown overboard by an explosion before Perth sank and was struggling in the water when he was hauled aboard a life raft. As Gavin’s leg was broken strips were torn from his overalls which were used to secure splints made from floating debris – the temporary medic who carried out this potentially life-saving work was none other than Bob Collins. It was weeks later before Gavin was seen by Dutch doctors who decided, as the wound had healed, there was nothing more they could do. To this day Gavin walks with a limp with one leg slightly shorter than the other, but fondly remembers the care provided by the cat man.
The trials of Perth’s men as POWs were many, being sent throughout lands controlled by their new masters, most on the Thai-Burma Railway. After completion of this infamous project on which about one third of prisoner workers perished, most survivors were shipped to slave labour camps in Japan. Now running perilously short of merchant ships, convoys were assembled using any rust buckets that floated, taking essential materials and men to fuel the war machine. One such convoy included Rakuyo Maru with several hundred Australian prisoners, including 45 men from Perth. The convoy was intercepted by USN submarines, unaware of the human cargo, and was torpedoed with devastating loss of life. The few survivors were mostly rescued the following day, ironically by USN submarines, and taken to their base on Saipan. On 18 October 1944 the minelayer USS Monadnock arrived in Brisbane with 36 Australian survivors of this ordeal. There were only four from the RAN which included the cat-loving Able Seaman Bob Collins. There to greet him was his old adversary and Executive Officer, Charles Reid. The two men warmly greeted one another with all thoughts of past differences long forgotten. It was to be nearly another year, mostly in October 1945, before the remainder of Perth’s men who had been ‘Guests of the Mikado’ for three and a half years were released from various prison camps and at last reunited with their families.
Red Lead lives on
There was of course another ship of this name. HMAS Perth (II) was the lead ship of three American-built guided missile destroyers which provided admirable support to the RAN for more than three decades, especially during the Vietnam War. Within this ship there was however no mention of our feline friend.
HMAS Perth (III) is the last of eight Anzac Class frigates and it is in her that the tradition of Red Lead survives. On her bridge there is a picture of Red Lead and on the companion way leading to the bridge are to be found her tell-tale paw marks. To complete the picture the wardroom door has a cat flap, although no cat has been known to pass through it and new pets are not encouraged. There is one surprising anomaly as Red Lead shown in the picture is a (lucky) black cat while in ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Shipmates’ she is mentioned as a grey and white tabby. ‘Shipmates’ notes a further reference to the memoirs of another Perth veteran, Signalman Bill Bee. Bill wrote ‘All Men Back – All One Big Mistake’ which mentions Red Lead but does not allude to her colour. Unfortunately Bob Collins is no longer with us, but two other survivors (SBLT Gavin Campbell and Able Seaman Frank McGovern) maintain she was ginger. An Australian National War Memorial tribute also speaks of Perth’s black cat. Whatever her colour, and black she was not, she was a remarkable feline who helps us remember the proud deeds of those who have gone before.
One further disturbing piece of news is that the remains of the original Perth are not safe even after 70 years. While the site was known to local fishermen the wreck was not discovered by divers until 1967. A few relics were retrieved including the ship’s bell which is now displayed at the National War Memorial in Canberra. The wreck is not a protected war grave and in late 2013 it has been reported that material from it was being salvaged for scrap. This matter has been raised with the Chief of Navy and through his office with relevant Ministers who are working through the issues with Indonesian authorities in the hope of a satisfactory resolution.