- A.N. Other
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Inverell, HMAS Gunbar, HMAS Swan II, HMAS Tarakan II, HMAS Wilcannia
- March 2016 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Leyland Wilkinson
There are many rivers in the world with clear access from the open sea for ocean going vessels, and over the years units of the Royal Australian Navy have ventured inland, away from their usual surrounds.
As recently as July 2015 the sail training ship Young Endeavour was a long way from home, when she sailed from the North Sea into the River Thames, passing through Tower Bridge and coming up to St. Katherine Docks in the heart of London, and at 44 m (144 ft) becoming the largest vessel to berth at this marina.
Probably the most memorable however, was the 193 miles (310 km) passage up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea in December 1914 during WWI by HMA Ships Parramatta,Warrego and Nusa, while HMAS Yarra guarded the river entrance. They were directed inland to search for any German military presence, passing along unknown waters that were home to crocodiles, disease carrying insects, and indigenous natives with cannibalistic tendencies, apart from any possible enemy action. Again at the end of WW II, after the Japanese surrender in October 1945, the patrol boat ML1347under the command of LEUT Marsden Hordern, RANVR transited more than 130 miles (210 km) up the Sepik to Kanduonum in search of Japanese forces and Australian POWs.
Possibly the longest river transit was undertaken by the LCH HMAS Tarakan, commissioned in June 1973 under the command of LEUT Chris Ritchie, RAN, a future Chief of Navy. In September of that year she visited PNG and undertook a 490 mile (790 km) passage up the Fly River to the river port of Kiunga where PNG Defence Force vehicles were embarked and transported them to Port Moresby.
The Mighty Clarence – the Big River
Australia has an extensive river system that has been used since the first barges and paddle steamers were built to bring produce, wool, wheat etc. from the inland to the coastal cities. A few of these rivers are accessible from the sea, one of which is the Clarence in Northern New South Wales, 294 nautical miles (544 km) north of Sydney.
This river was first sighted by Lt. Matthew Flinders, RN. In 1799 he landed at the river mouth from the colonial sloop Norfolk but mistaking the river for a turbulent estuary, he sailed on. Where he landed is now the port of Yamba, Australia’s most eastern seaport. In 1838 the first recorded ocean transport entered the river, and sailed upstream in search of the prized Australian red cedar timber. The shipping trade then flourished over the years, and dedicated wharves were built in Sydney’s Darling Harbour and the town of Grafton, upstream from Yamba, to cater for the regular cargo and passenger traffic.
Prior to the second world war, Mr. Earl Page, a local parliamentary member in the City of Grafton (later Sir Earl Page, Prime Minister of Australia), made representations to the Commonwealth authorities with a view to one or more vessels of the Australian Navy visiting the Clarence River area. This was a time of great political and social unrest, with war clouds gathering over Europe and Asia, and it may have been that the request was made to create public awareness in our military forces, and the possibility of Australia again being involved in military conflict. He was later advised that one ship would be made available as requested, ‘to show the flag’.
The Clarence River is home to many beautiful black swans, but in September 1937 a grey swan was seen cruising majestically towards the city, in the form of HMAS Swan, the ship which had been directed to pay an official visit to Grafton. The recently commissioned Swan was a Grimsby class sloop of 1,060 tons, under the command of Commander Roy Dowling (later Vice Admiral Sir Roy Dowling KCVO, KBE, CB, DSO) proceeded 45 miles (72 km) up river, passing through the railway bridge and securing safely alongside the North Coast Company Wharf, adjacent to the river end of the city’s main street.
The navigation officer, Lieutenant Mesley (later Rear Admiral J.S. Mesley CBE, MVO, DSC), recorded in an article (NHR Sept 1987) that he had earlier expressed concerns to his Captain about the river passage, but after a safe run up river, and passing through the bridge with a clearance of approximately 8ft (2.4 m) on either side, and even less between the fore yard and the fully raised span of the bridge, ‘the Captain and I heaved many sighs of relief’.
Intense interest in the ship was shown by the people of Grafton, some 11,800 visiting when open to the public, for a total of only 8 hours over the three day period. The flow of sightseers up the gangway at one point was recorded at nearly 1,500 per hour. Considering the total population of the area in 1937, was only about 9,500, Swan was a very welcome visitor. The local newspaper reported that: Sailor blue has pervaded Grafton day and night at many venues, and for the first time since the Great War, naval ratings and military forces of the 41st Battalion, met at the local drill hall for a very successful dance evening. Also a cricket match was held at the sports ground, and although the visitors could only muster 9 men they dismissed the home side for 86 and replied with 108!
Lt. Mesley recorded that the hospitality extended to the ship’s company was almost embarrassing, and it was a very weary crew when the ship slipped and proceeded downstream on Monday 20 September to anchor for the night off Iluka, in order to cross the river bar at high water and in daylight, before proceeding to Newcastle.
At the close of hostilities in 1945 HMAS Inverell, just prior to paying off in Brisbane, also made a visit to the river city of Grafton, her Commanding Officer Lieutenant A.I. Chapman, RANR taking his ship and crew as close as possible to the Northern New South Wales town she had been named after.
Local newspaper photograph of HMAS Inverell passing under the Grafton railway bridge
Inverellwas a Bathurst Class Corvette of 790 tons and had been launched into Sydney Harbour from Morts’ Dock, Balmain on 2 May 1942 by Mrs T.S. Punch, the Lady Mayoress of Inverell in company with Rear Admiral Muirhead–Gould, and commissioned on 17 September 1942 under the command of Lt. John Sufferen.
Inverell arrived at the Clarence River entrance (Yamba) at 0515 on 16 December 1945, where the pilot boarded for passage up river to Grafton, arriving in the town reach at 0925, and anchored in the stream. A newspaper article described the event as follows:
Displaying a long ‘paying-off’ pennant, and flying the white ensign, the corvette made an unusual picture coming through the opened Clarence River Bridge. On dropping anchor, the blue ensign was run up. The signals which added such a gay touch of colour represented the ships number J233. Yesterday the corvette shifted to an anchorage directly opposite the Memorial Park, the dredge anchored alongside the park formed a convenient wharf for the large number of visitors ferried across. A favourite occupation in the heat of the afternoon was swimming across to the corvette and plunging deep into the river from her deck. The day’s temperature of 91 degrees F (33 C) and extreme humidity was considered the most uncomfortable summer’s day yet experienced this season. But by far the coolest in appearance were the visitors from HMAS Inverell.
Inverell’s eight day recreational visit to Grafton had been of great benefit to her crew, but it also helped the people of the regional area to mark the end of a terrible war, and at a Civic reception held in the Town Hall, the Mayors of both Grafton and Inverell welcomed the officers and men, and paid tribute to their service, achievements, courage and devotion.
During this war (1939–45) many of the northern rivers ocean going steamers were requisitioned, quickly converted for wartime duties, and given the prefix HMAS. One of these North Coasters, HMAS Gunbar, built in 1911 at Ardrossan Scotland, saw extensive service, and at 09.57 on 19 February 1942, under the command of Lt. N.M. Muzzel, RANR, gained the unwanted honour of being the first ship to be attacked by the Japanese in their air raid on Darwin Harbour.
During the 1950’s improved road rail and air services, overtook the river/coastal trade, the major cargo being shipped during this period included sawn timber, molasses, raw sugar, zircon and butter. In 1954 Wyralla (ex HMAS Wilcannia) became the last vessel providing a service from the Northern Rivers to Sydney. Also the four engine Sunderland and Sandringham flying boats, which had for many years provided a regular service between Grafton and Sydney were discontinued in 1954 in favour of land based aircraft.
The Grafton road/rail bridge, which was completed in 1932, and build conjointly by the Sydney Harbour Bridge builders, was permanently closed to river traffic in 1969, with water pipelines and power supplies fixed under the decking.
The Clarence River once a major trade corridor, is now providing a perfect leisure environment, and with sections of the river over 1,200 yards (1.4 km) wide giving access for sailing club events, pleasure craft, Olympic standard rowing course etc. The base facilities of TS Shropshire in Grafton, provides local Naval Cadets with a perfect waterfront venue for their training and water activities.
Clear passage of the river upstream is well maintained and clearly marked. At the river mouth the Port of Yamba is home to the NSW north coast’s fishing fleet and extensive marinas, along with wharf facilities to cater for ocean going shipping.
This port is unique, as it is the only remaining example of a NSW regional river port, still fulfilling its original role. Also of historic significance is the Ashby Dry Dock, which was built between 1898 and 1900, to service dredgers associated with harbour and river works. This dock was hand hewn into sandstone, lined with concrete and fitted with a keel block, the dock gates being operated by a counter balance. The dock has been extended and modernised over the years, but is still in use today for vessel maintenance of the rivers and vehicular ferries. It is considered to have national engineering heritage significance, as a working example of a late 19th century non-military dry dock, excavated from bedrock.
The mighty Clarence River, known to the early settlers as the ‘Big River’, continues to serve as an important part of the region’s colourful history.